Politics without romance

June 29, 2009

Recently the Telegraph had a photo of a sign outside a newsagent’s. It said: “Only two MPs at a time.” This picture perfectly encapsulates public distrust and contempt of politicians. Why do politicians behave in the way they do? One way of understanding politicians’ behaviour is more than fifty years old and is known as Public Choice, which applies the theories and methods of economics to politics. This model, which was heavily influenced by game theory, imports the rational actor model of economic theory to political analysis – politicians are driven by the goal of utility maximization, and as such are no different from people in business. Public choice provides two provocative insights into the political process:


  1. The individual is what you have to investigate. It rejects such terms such as “the people,” “the community,” or “society.”  
  2. The choices made by public and private choice processes differ because of the different incentives and constraints they face when pursuing their self-interest.


 You may or may not have heard of public choice but its critique of benevolent civil servants faithfully interpreting the public will infused the series Yes Minister. One of its writers Anthony Jay made this very clear:

“The fallacy that public choice economics took on was the fallacy that government is working entirely for the benefit of the citizen; and this was reflected by showing that in any episode in the programme, in Yes Minister, we showed that almost everything that the government has to decide is a conflict between two lots of private interest – that of the politicians and that of the civil servants trying to advance their own careers and improve their own lives. And that’s why public choice economics, which explains why all this was going on, was at the root of almost every episode of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.”


One of the key concepts we need to understand is rent-seeking, taking an extra slice of the cake without actually making it bigger. The name is extremely confusing but offers interesting intuitions into the political process. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena.

They typically do so by getting:

a subsidy for a good they produce

a tariff on imports.

a special regulation that hampers their competitors.


There are many more examples: a cartel of firms agreeing to raise prices, steel producers seeking restrictions on imports of steel; and lawyers lobbying to keep regulations in place that restrict competition from unlicensed practitioners. Of course they will not admit anything as vulgar as grubby self-interest. It will be dressed up as the public good and sometimes these claims will be justified. But the majority of these activities do not create any value, and can impose large costs on an economy. A key factor here is that often the benefits are concentrated in a small minority, while the costs are dispersed. This gives people few incentives to oppose these policies. We spend much more time deciding which computer to buy than in which party to vote for. Political analyst Bryan Caplan is more pessimistic; he believes that the public actually  thinks  that these policies are good.


 Where does all this leave us? One key conclusion of public choice is that simply changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not produce major changes in policy outcomes. A good idea is to impose limits on democratic sovereignty and have check and balances in the political system. Electing better people will not, by itself, lead to much better government. I am a little pessimistic in this sense. The one thing that does console me is that the other options are far worse. It may not seem a ringing endorsement but it’s the most you’ll get from me.

My media week 29/06/09

June 29, 2009

I have done a couple of posts about thought experiments and in this week’s Analysis Janet Radcliffe Richards looks at a fascinating range of new experiments shedding light on how humans make moral choices.


Edge has a piece entitled: How does our language shape the way we think? I am a bit sceptical aboutthis. Maybe I’ll do an article about it in my blog next year.


Andrew Calcutt argues that in staying childish and obsessing over his identity, Michael Jackson was actually normal by today’s standards: Jacko was a product of our Wacko culture.


Novelist Mark Helprin talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about copyright and the ideas in his book, Digital Barbarism. Helprin argues for an extension rather than a reduction in the length of time that authors have control over their work. He also argues that technology is often not attuned to human needs and physical constraints, claiming that tranquility is elusive in modern times. He sees the movement against copyright and intellectual property generally as part of an educational and social trend toward collective rather than individual work.

Markets and the yuck factor

June 21, 2009

              For me a well-functioning market with its way of aggregating dispersed information is a thing of beauty. But there are times when the role of markets becomes extremely contentious. There are some transactions that are just seen as beyond the pale. These prohibitions are not carved in stone. For centuries charging interest was seen as immoral. In The Divine Comedy Dante reserved a special place for usurers in hell. Buying and selling slaves was, on the other hand perfectly acceptable. Why do we let people seek employment as coal miners or chemical factory workers– but recoil if they want to work as prostitutes or human cannonballs? You can kill a horse to make pet food in California, but not for human consumption. Land is bought and sold every day but for many traditional cultures the idea of selling sacred land was taboo. You can’t go to a bookmaker and place a bet on your own death but life insurance is now considered okay. In particular, money and the human body are always uneasy bedfellows. Paying young women for eggs to be fertilized and men for sperm is now perfectly acceptable – they are still regularly referred to as “donors” even though these are economic transactions. The sale of tissue, cells and eggs for stem-cell research or organs for transplant are not considered acceptable.  If you donate a kidney to prevent a death, you will be hailed as a hero, but if you take any money for it, you could well end up in jail.


               What is coming into play here is what is known as the yuck factor, also known as the wisdom of repugnance. It argues that when something such as incest, cannibalism, or coprophagia (the consumption of feces), produces a knee-jerk reaction of disgust, it is because these acts are in themselves harmful and indeed evil. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine summed it up like this:

When it comes to thinking about how to regulate the science, the best test may be the “yuck factor.” This is, as you might imagine, a pretty squishy concept, something along the lines of using gut reaction as a proxy for a long and unproductive philosophical debate. Perhaps if people are grossed out by, say, vat-grown artificial organs, they may not be ready to use them wisely. Indeed, their gag reflex may be telling us something about the essence of human nature and what might threaten it.


              There are many universal taboos, which may have evolved as a useful evolutionary defence mechanism. This notion of the wisdom of repugnance is however inherently problematic. It seems to be an appeal to emotion which implicitly rejects rationality. Here do we draw the line? It has also been applied to as same-sex marriage, abortion and cloning. In all cases, it expresses the view that one’s “gut reaction” trumps making a persuasive rational case against that practice.


            Money is a relatively new invention in evolutionary terms and could be considered as somehow unnatural. As humans we operate in two mutually exclusive spheres. Hayek referred to it in his book The Fatal Conceit

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. To psychologist Paul Bloom the problem is not that economists are unreasonable, they are in fact evil, assuming that everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise. Economists dare to think the unthinkable.


            If there is one subject where the introduction of market pricing is guaranteed to create a scandal then it is the selling of organs. Kidney transplants were first carried out in the 1950s. In the US in 2006 there were 74.000 people waiting for a kidney, 4,400 of whom died because of the shortage. Our old friend Gary Becker, in collaboration with Julio Jorge Elías, even calculated the price it would take to get rid of the backlog completely – about $15,000 for kidneys and about $35,000 for livers. According to Becker this wound also undermine the black market, particularly organ tourism, where people in need look for donors in countries which are not too scrupulous about enforcing these rules.


            Becker may be right but I do not foresee this coming into law anytime soon – this “commodification” of the human body is just not going to be acceptable for the majority of the population. There are genuine fears that this could lead to the exploitation of the poor. We will have to look for other solutions. Spain has a successful policy of organ donation, using an opt-out system. You have to expressly make it known that you do not want your organs to be harvested. We could also allow payments to the families of these donors.  Perhaps science will produce other solutions – xenotransplantation (using organs from other species) or the regeneration of organs. These however may prove equally controversial.

Some philosophical thought experiments #2

June 21, 2009

Here are some more thought experiments I found on the Internet::

Sustainable development

The Green family realised that their success was exacting a high price. Their country farmhouse included their home and their business premises. But while their enterprise was creating a healthy profit, the vibrations caused by the heavy machinery used on site was destroying the fabric of the building. If they carried on as they were, in five years the building would be unsafe and they would be forced out. Nor were their profits sufficient to fund new premises or undertake the repairs and structural improvements required. Mr and Mrs Green were determined to preserve their home for their children. And so they decided to slow production and thus the spread of the damage. Ten years later, the Greens passed away and the children inherited the family estate. The farmhouse was falling to pieces. The builders said it would cost £1m to put right. The youngest of the Greens, who had been the accountant for the business for many years, grimaced and buried his head in his hands. “If we had carried on at full production and not worried about the building, we would have had enough money to put this right five years ago. Now, after 10 years of underperformance, we’re broke.” His parents had tried to protect his inheritance. In fact, they had destroyed it.

The famous violinist

This one involves a famous violinist falling into a coma. The society of music lovers determines from medical records that you and you alone can save the violinist’s life by being hooked up to him for nine months. The music lovers break into your home while you are asleep and hook the unconscious (and unknowing, hence innocent) violinist to you. You may want to unhook him, but you are then faced with this argument put forward by the music lovers: The violinist is an innocent person with a right to life. Unhooking him will result in his death. Therefore, unhooking him is morally wrong. However, the argument does not seem convincing in this case. You would be very generous to remain attached and in bed for nine months, but you are not morally obliged to do so. The parallel with the abortion case is evident. The thought experiment is effective in distinguishing two concepts that had previously been run together: “right to life” and “right to what is needed to sustain life.” The foetus and the violinist may each have the former, but it is not evident that either has the latter. The upshot is that even if the foetus has a right to life (which Thompson does not believe but allows for the sake of the argument), it may still be morally permissible to abort. [

Nature the artist

Daphne Stone could not decide what to do with her favourite exhibit. As curator of the art gallery, she had always adored an untitled piece by Henry Moore, only posthumously discovered. She admired the combination of its sensuous contours and geometric balance, which together captured the mathematical and spiritual aspects of nature. At least, that’s what she thought up until last week, when it was revealed that it wasn’t a Moore at all. Worse, it wasn’t shaped by human hand but wind and rain. Moore had bought the stone to work on, only to conclude that he couldn’t improve on nature. But when it was found, everyone assumed that Moore must have carved it. Stone was stunned and her immediate reaction was to remove the “work” from display. But then she realised that this revelation had not changed the stone itself, which still had all the qualities she had admired. Why should her new knowledge of how the stone came to be change her opinion of what it is now, in itself?

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room argument, devised by John Searle, is an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence. The argument centres on a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters, such that to those outside the room it appears as if someone in the room understands Chinese. The argument is intended to show that while suitably programmed computers may appear to converse in natural language, they are not capable of understanding language, even in principle. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. Searle’s argument is a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence, and the argument also has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.

The poppadom paradox

As life-transforming events go, the arrival of poppadoms at the table hardly counts as the most dramatic. But it gave Saskia the kind of mental jolt that would profoundly alter the way she thought. The problem was that the waiter who delivered the poppadoms was not of Indian descent, but a white Anglo-Saxon. This bothered Saskia, because for her, one of the pleasures of going out for a curry was the feeling that you were tasting a foreign culture. But the more she thought about it, the less it made sense. Saskia thought of herself as a multiculturalist: she positively enjoyed the variety of cultures an ethnically diverse society sustains. But her enjoyment depended upon other people remaining ethnically distinct. She could only enjoy a life flitting between many different cultures if others remained firmly rooted in one. For her to be a multiculturalist, others needed to be monoculturalists. Where did that leave her ideal of a multicultural society?

Here is a previous post: Some philosophical thought experiments #1

My media week 21/06/09

June 21, 2009

The Independent had a piece about the ten most ridiculous lawsuits of all time.


John Kay looks at regulatory capture, the situation in which regulators come to see their functions through the eyes of those they regulate: The slow drip of the ‘faster’ payments system.


In Spiked Duleep Allirajah looks at the dearth ofdecent films about football: Why aren’t there any decent football films?


In this week’s Forum on the BBC World Service, Australian writer and critic Clive James looks at what makes a film star iconic,   British mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy claims mathematics can flow from music, and music from mathsa and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues we’re all retreating into a new era that he calls ‘interpassivity’ in which we pass on our activity not just to others to do it for us but increasingly also to inanimate objects.


June 14, 2009

Personality is to a man what perfume is to a flower. Charles Schwab

I have to go. I’m conducting a seminar in multiple personality disorders, and it takes me forever to fill out the nametags. Niles Crane, from the TV series Frasier.

After puberty the personality develops impetuously and all extraneous intervention becomes odious. . . . Now it so happens that parents feel the responsibility towards their children precisely during this second period, when it is too late. Antonio Gramsci

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to but they do.

They fill up with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.   Philip Larkin

My Encarta World English Dictionary defines personality as “the totality of somebody’s attitudes, interests, behavioural patterns, emotional responses, social roles, and other individual traits that endure over long periods of time.” It comes from the Latin persona, which means mask. In the ancient theatre masks were not used to disguise the identity of a character but rather as a theatrical convention to representative of that character.

Theophrastus could be considered the world’s first personality psychologist. He wrote The Characters, which contains thirty outlines of moral types such as The Insincere Man (Eironeia), The Man of Petty Ambition (Mikrophilotimia), The Faultfinder (Mempsimoiria) and The Basely Covetous Man (Aischrokerdeia), which form a fascinating description of human nature in general.  Here is a section from one piece – the Garrulous Man (Adoleschia):

The Garrulous Man is one who will sit down beside a person whom he does not know, and first pronounce a panegyric on his own wife; then relate his dream of last night; then go through in detail what he has had for dinner. Then, warming to the work, he will remark that the men of the present day are greatly inferior to the ancients; and how cheap wheat has become in the market; and what a number of foreigners are in town; and that the sea is navigable after the Dionysia; and that, if Zeus would send more rain, the crops would be better; and that he will work his land next year; and how hard it is to live; and that Damippus set up a very large torch at the Mysteries; and ‘How many columns has the Odeum?’ and that yesterday he was unwell; and ‘What is the day of the month?’; and that the Mysteries are in Boëdromion, the Apaturia in Pyanepsion, the rural Dionysia in Poseideon. Nor, if he is tolerated, will he ever desist.

Four centuries later Galen claimed that an excess of one of four different fluids gave us our characters. These four humours were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Those with too much black bile were melancholic. Those with too much yellow bile were choleric. Those with too much phlegm were phlegmatic, and those with too much blood were sanguine. German physician Franz Joseph Gall’s phrenology seemed logical at the time – by reading the bumps and fissures in the skull it was possible to   determine the character of a given individual. In nineteenth century Italy Cesare Lombroso popularised the notion of the born criminal through biological determinism, claiming that criminals have particular physiologies. According to Lombroso large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned noses, handle-shaped ears and large, prominent chins were evidence of criminality.

In more recent times we have seen the Rorschach inkblot test. Its inventor, Herman Rorschach, devoted his entire life to the inkblot test- he believed that by looking at these inkblots and then seeing what somebody says you get great insights into the nature of their personality, into who they are. Of course it’s no more useful than poring over tealeaves. Gordon Allport and his hapless assistant went through Webster’s Dictionary and took all of the traits that he believed to be related to personality, coming up with some 18,000.  He then reduced this a list of 4500 trait like words. He organized these into three levels of traits – cardinal, central and secondary. Probably the most respected test these days is the Big Five or OCEAN. It comes from:

Openness to Experience: the tendency to be imaginative, independent, and interested in variety vs. practical, conforming, and interested in routine.

Conscientiousness: the tendency to be organized, careful, and disciplined vs. disorganized, careless, and impulsive.

Extraversion: the tendency to be is being sociable, fun loving, and affectionate vs. retiring, sombre, and reserved.

Agreeableness: the tendency to be soft-hearted, trusting, and helpful vs. ruthless, suspicious, and uncooperative.

Neuroticism: the tendency to be calm, secure, and self-satisfied vs. anxious, insecure, and self-pitying

There are a lot of tests like this online. Time will tell if they have more reliable than those devised by Galen, Gall, Lombroso, and Rorschach.

Big Five personality traits

June 14, 2009

I got this stuff about the Big Five from Wikipedia:

Sample Openness items

I am full of ideas.

I am quick to understand things.

I have a rich vocabulary.

I have a vivid imagination.

I have excellent ideas.

I spend time reflecting on things.

I use difficult words.

I am not interested in abstractions. (reversed)

I do not have a good imagination. (reversed)

I have difficulty understanding abstract ideas. (reversed)

Sample Conscientiousness items

I am always prepared.

I am exacting in my work.

I follow a schedule.

I get chores done right away.

I like order.

I pay attention to details.

I leave my belongings around. (reversed)

I make a mess of things. (reversed)

I often forget to put things back in their proper place. (reversed)

I shirk my duties. (reversed)

Sample Extraversion items

I am the life of the party.

I don’t mind being the center of attention.

I feel comfortable around people.

I start conversations.

I talk to a lot of different people at parties.

I am quiet around strangers. (reversed)

I don’t like to draw attention to myself. (reversed)

I don’t talk a lot. (reversed)

I have little to say. (reversed)

Sample Agreeableness items

I am interested in people.

I feel others’ emotions.

I have a soft heart.

I make people feel at ease.

I sympathize with others’ feelings.

I take time out for others.

I am not interested in other people’s problems. (reversed)

I am not really interested in others. (reversed)

I feel little concern for others. (reversed)

I insult people. (reversed)

Sample Neuroticism items

I am easily disturbed.

I change my mood a lot.

I get irritated easily.

I get stressed out easily.

I get upset easily.

I have frequent mood swings.

I often feel blue.

I worry about things.

I am relaxed most of the time. (reversed)

I seldom feel blue. (reversed)