Sunday, 19 July 2015

My hostess's ultra-Orthodox neighbour

I went to a barbecue with some friends yesterday in Stamford Hill. My hostess had moved in a few weeks ago and had been round to greet the neighbours. The guy who opened the door was an ultra-Orthodox Jew. She went to shake his hand, and he drew back and explained that he couldn't touch women. Later, she found out by googling that this was because she might be menstruating and therefore impure. (AFAICS this is partly true; the other reason might be to prevent sexual desire.)

She was fairly scathing about this. As she put it, "why should I respect someone who doesn't respect me?"

This caused some umming and aahing.

I suppose one reservation is that people cannot entirely be blamed for following their ancestral traditions. They may just not know any better.

Another thought is that ultra-Orthodoxy has one thing going for it at least: survivability. Modern secular culture is always changing, advancing and developing. (Ultra-Orthodox life is not unchanging, but it is strongly oriented towards tradition, and makes deliberate efforts to be so.) Our lifestyle has changed drastically in the past fifty years. For that reason, we do not know what its long-run advantages and disadvantages might be. The correspondence between a cuture's rationality and its survivability may be weak. A possible example comes from (I think?) Bruno Bettelheim's observation of Jehovah's Witnesses in the concentration camps. Psychoanalytically trained, he had expected these rigid and rule-bound personalities to survive least well. The opposite happened.

We agreed that it was all very tricky, and proceeded to demolish the two excellent kinds of pudding.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Linkage - Dan Drezner galore edition

Dan Drezner on Eurodoom.

Dan Drezner again on the financial crisis and international political economy.

One of my guides in trying to understand the financial crisis has been Karl Polanyi, via John Ruggie. Another idea that seems useful, not just in the economy but in the current unstable world climate comes from William Riker. He once said something to the effect that in times of stability institutions seem to be all that matters, but in crisis, preferences become important. (Remember that Riker called institutions "congealed preferences".)

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Notes on reading academic historians

I've been reading a lot of academic history recently. For a quantitatively oriented social scientist, it's an interesting experience.
  • Historians tend to see a counterexample as a disproof. So, e.g., if Christopher Hill says that Puritanism was the ideology of the middling sort of people, that is disproved if there are Puritans among the upper classes.
    I would assume that social scientific hypotheses are about probabilities, not absolute laws – because life and society are complicated. But there is some merit in not just treating the "error term", so to speak, as a nuisance, instead looking for its structure and trying to accommodate that.
  • Sometimes they seem to think that the history is what people thought at the time. In fact, some books give the impression of literally not caring whether contemporaries' ideas were accurate or not.
    When Robert Boyle says that reading "accustom'd his thoughts to such a Habitude of Raving, that he has scarce ever been their quiet Master since", my first thought is "Wow, is that true? I wonder what effects persistent reading did have on the mind, when the printing press was new on the scene ?" and to reach for Marshall McLuhan, Jack Goody or Walter Ong. But Adrian Johns just says that such experiences "were widely credited". Dammit, tell me if they were real! Is this some kind of hangover of postmodernism?
  • We do hypotheses. They do narratives.
    That's not exactly true. It's more that a hypothesis plays a different role. It is a peg that a narrative hangs off, and it's not there to be tested so much as to structure the narrative and be qualified by it.
    This is probably in conformance with the nature of the historical process, which cannot really be understood by estimating conditional means. I'm still trying to understand the epistemological role narrative can play. Difficult stuff.
I'll leave this rather academic post there (and update my Whatsapp status to still trying to understand the epistemological role narrative can play). These thoughts are rather critical – my overall experience has been positive, I'm learning a lot, and am pretty sure that history reaches parts other social sciences don't. And NB that Elisabeth Eisenstein is awesome.

State funding for television is a very bad idea

The government is calling for a national debate on BBC funding.

The mother of someone I know lives alone and has very few friends. She watches six hours of television every day.

I instinctively find that horrifying. Surely, spending half your time sitting passively in front of a screen is not a human way to live.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual case. In the UK, almost 6 hours a day of television is the average for pensioners:

The evidence agrees with this instinctive view. Watching television makes children fat. In adults it is associated with lower mental health, heart disease and early death, unhappiness,  loneliness and dementia, spending less time with friends and communicating less within the family. One paper shows, by comparing Germans in the former DDR who did and did not have access to West German TV, that watching television increases material aspirations, that is, it makes people greedier. Also, people watch television even though they report lower satisfaction from doing it, which supports the common sense view that TV is addictive.

As the authors of one paper put it:
... television viewing has a negative impact on life satisfaction by harming, and to some extent replacing, relationships with other people. 
television provides... a virtual network of relationships and interactions that, despite being completely artificial and illusory, tend to become a substitute for actual social relationships.
What should government do about the TV market, then? Obviously, television should be treated like tobacco: it is a dangerous, addictive substance that harms the individual and society. It should be discouraged by whatever means we can find, including regulation, taxation and persuasion.

Instead, the state provides a large subsidy, in the form of a hypothecated tax, to a national body which is tasked with broadcasting lots of television.
Just as people now look back at the acceptance of smoking in the 50s and ask "what were we doing?", we will one day do the same with regard to television policy. TV is one of the great harmful inventions of the twentieth century. Subsidising it is a terrible idea. Let's stop.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Rhodes must fall

There is a campaign at Oxford University to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Here are some other statues we could also get rid of.

  • Refused to stand up for disabled rights, even concealing his disability for strategic advantage.
  • Only spoke openly about his sexuality at the end of his life.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Great Elector as heresthetician

When you have the councillors vote, then see to it that you start from the bottom, and not from the top, since the great authority of the senior councillors may prevent the junior ones from expressing their ideas or speaking freely, because they are often put through the wringer or interrupted by the more senior ones.

From the Great Elector of Prussia's political testament, 1672. Confer the literature on cascades and sequential voting.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


The management theory of The Office. The genius of this can be summed up in its picture:
The US justice system seems to have some problems, judging by the story of the Gorcycas.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

In economics it is not better to have loved and lost

Branko Milanovic has a thoughtful post asking why Greece, whose GDP rose then fell, should be bailed out by Portugal whose GDP has been constantly low:

Surely welfare in Greece is worse, but he wonders how to reconcile that with standard economics, and asks whether we need to make individuals' utility respond to changes in income.

I am sure that some suffering in Greece is caused simply by the psychology of having money and then losing it. But behavioural economics is not really necessary here. It is simpler just to think about the disruption caused by sudden crashes.

Even at individual level, and without invoking e.g. loss aversion, it is possible to suffer much more from a rise then a fall in income than from constant low income. For example, imagine that while riding high, you take out a mortgage which you can't sustain, so in the downturn you become homeless.

At social level the disruptions are much more severe. Hospitals can no longer afford the drugs they have been ordering. Businesses have cash flow crises and go bust.

Much of this would enter any reasonable model of welfare, but is not captured by raw GDP statistics. Other simple statistics can help. Here's the unemployment rate for the two countries: Greece is suffering a lot more than Portugal.