The Dim-Post

July 28, 2015

Economics and propaganda

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 8:00 am

Last week I tweeted a couple of observations about the role of economics in modern propaganda and marketing; namely that it’s a frequently used tool in both of those disciplines that relies on its ability to advocate for political parties or ideologies or corporate – or other interests – while masquerading as an impartial science. Some people agreed with this and others took objection, and twitter isn’t the best medium for fleshing these things out, so here’s a more extended take.

There’s a famous science fiction short story called The Cold Equations. It was written by a guy called Tom Godwin and published in 1954 in Astounding Magazine.  In it an emergency ship is heading to a remote planet with urgently needed medical supplies without which the explorers on the planet will die. The pilot finds a stowaway on board the ship: a young girl. But, the pilot explains to her, the ship does not have enough fuel to account for her additional mass. If she stays on-board then she, the pilot, and all the people who need the medical supplies will die. She must be blasted out of the airlock into space. The laws of physics demand it, and there can be no humanistic appeals to morality against the cold, hard equations of the universe. In the end (spoiler) she willingly goes to her death.

There have been plenty of criticisms of this story, all making much the same point: Godwin’s science is fine but everything around it is ridiculous (engineers especially hate it on the grounds that no space mission would ever have such a tiny margin of error that a ~60kg weight discrepancy, preventing even the most minor course correction, would doom it to disaster). A whole lot of absurd premises are piled on top of each other to get to the point where the author can blast a young girl into space and justify it on the basis of science.

Most of the economic arguments I encounter look exactly like this to me. Selected, sometimes sound but often absurd premises carefully framed around a statistical finding or mathematical model so the economist can advocate for a client or ideology or agenda but say, ‘Look. Science! We gotta face the cold hard facts. There is no alternative!’ Here are two very recent examples:

1. Should we have a ban on foreign property buyers? BNZ Chief Economist Tony Alexander says we should. He provides six very compelling-sounding reasons why, but doesn’t mention what is certainly the most important from the BNZ’s point-of-view – that foreigners paying cash or overseas-raised debt for houses means fewer mortgages for New Zealanders, and thus less profit for the BNZ. And he ignores the fact that Australia has a foreign-buyers ban (with an exception for new homes) and absolutely none of the things Alexander predicts a foreign-buyers ban will accomplish have happened in Australia. The empirical evidence from the very similar country right next door seems like it should have some salience here.

Bank economists are, along with politicians, the most prominent economic spokespeople in our society. Most people hear economic arguments from these two groups every day, and sometimes what they say is sensible and sometimes it ain’t – but there is always an agenda, and the reason these groups use the language of economics to advance their own interests is because they know that it is the perfect propaganda tool, because it disguises itself as impartial and scientific.

2. But, twitter pointed out to me, what about academics? Politicians aren’t real economists and of course bank economists have an agenda, but academics are out there doing real science and getting peer reviewed, right?

Well here’s something that a bunch of right-wing economists, mostly academics, were all retweeting today. A blog post by Bryan Caplan, a very famous professor of economics at George Mason University in the US. Caplan is also a libertarian which means he adheres to an ideology which preaches that government is evil, and all of his research as a scientist harmoniously proves that his ideology is correct. (This doesn’t tend to happen in other sciences; science is mostly the experience of dreaming up beautiful ideas and theories and testing them to find out that they’re dead wrong, but somehow libertarian economist’s results always seem to endorse their beliefs about the state, and left-wing economists results’ always endorse theirs, even though the two ideologies are totally incompatible). Caplan talks about a documentary in which a homeless guy is given $100,000 and wastes it. He concludes:

Libertarians have occasionally offered their critics the following deal: We’ll support a one-time Equalization of Wealth, if you agree to abolish the welfare state. I’m not surprised that no one has taken the bait. Most poor people aren’t as dysfunctional as Ted. But deep down even bleeding hearts subscribe to my insensitive theory that – at least in the First World – ordinary prudence is enough to keep almost anyone out of poverty.

I could say a lot about that but I’ll restrict myself to the science. Firstly, most scientists try to have a cohort of more than one person before they make a sweeping statement about all of humanity. Secondly, you also try and have a control group. What happens if you give a non-alcoholic non-homeless person a huge sum of money? Like, say, lottery-winners? Well, if you google ‘lottery winners curse’ then you find out a lot of them do exactly what the homeless guy did – they fritter it all away. Some middle-class lottery winners end up becoming homeless. The academic literature on just how prevalent this is is contradictory, but my point is that this prominent academic economist and all of the economists retweeting and endorsing him sure don’t look like serious scientists. They look like bank economists or politicians, only they’re advocating for ideologies, not corporate or political interests.

The other point I’d make about economics and peer review is that yes, other sciences have peer review, but peer review is not really that robust. If you find something interesting in a new anti-cancer drug and you’ve tested it on mice, then you publish it in a peer-reviewed paper. If you want to give the drug to thousands of patients then you have to put it through clinical trials, a very robust process that takes years (and costs a fortune). You really, really, really need to be right. But economics doesn’t go through that kind of screening before it gets picked up by policy-makers and used to justify policy changes that affect the lives of millions, or tens of millions, or billions. Here’s an Economist article on the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle (too long to excerpt) explaining why that’s a problem.

But what really set me off on my twitter rant was thinking about Thomas Pikkety, and the response to his contention in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His thesis in that book is simple – that in a capitalist system the rate of return on capital is greater over time than economic growth, meaning capitalism leads to concentration of wealth and greater inequality. It’s an important and simple thing to know about the economic system that drives the world. If he’s right then it has huge implications for our society and the level of redistribution and government intervention. Caplan above believes that capitalism is moral. If you work hard it will reward you. Piketty claims the opposite. That it is an amoral system in which wealth simply aggregates to itself.

Unfortunately there’s no way for a layperson to tell whether Piketty is correct because the response from his economist peers are neatly divided along ideological lines. Left-wing economists say he’s right, right-wing economists insist Piketty has been ‘debunked’. He’s dead wrong.

Because my values are left-wing I’m inclined to think Pikkety is right. But I also trained as a scientist, and I know that a gut-feeling based on my prior values isn’t good enough when you’re making huge decisions about the political economy. Economics is supposed to be a science, and economists certainly view themselves as such, and tend to be far more confident in their findings than, say, climate scientists, or geologists, or psychologists, or any other field that deals in uncertainty. But as a non-economist I find that every time I encounter the discipline it looks nothing like science and is indistinguishable from either politics and political activism or marketing, but is made more insidious and more powerful from its presentation as a cold, objective set of facts against which there can be no argument

November 28, 2014

Round up the usual suspects

This post is just to keep track of all the people Cameron Slater has accused of being involved in the conspiracy to hack his computer and kill him. As Giovanni Tiso has pointed out, when Slater posts about Rawshark he tags the posts with his list of suspects. They are:




Also accused by Slater but not on this list is Keith Ng, a data journalist; and I’ve heard he’s claimed to have minutes of a Mana Party meeting implicating Hone Harawira in the plot. My impression is that if you sat most of the members of this conspiracy down in a room together they’d immediately start trying to kill each other. But maybe that’s what’s so brilliant about it all.

September 15, 2014

But what is truth – if you follow me?

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 9:30 pm

There were some major revelations in the Internet Party’s ‘Moment of Truth’ event tonight, mostly from Glen Greenwald and Edward Snowden. But what there wasn’t was any reference to Kim Dotcom’s bombshell ‘proving’ that the Prime Minister had lied about Dotcom’s case, which was, originally, the entire premise for the event.

What happened? Well, my guess is that Dotcom showed his email to people like Amsterdam and Greenwald and they asked a few follow-up questions – where did this come from? Are there more emails? Is this, like, a total fucking fake? – weren’t satisfied with the answers and refused to appear on stage where the email was discussed. That’s why it was leaked to the Herald earlier today, and why Dotcom, Harre et al refused to discuss the email on the grounds that it is sub judicae, claiming that they’ll submit it to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, even though Parliament isn’t in session.

So that’s a major fucking disaster. It takes away from the credibility of Snowden and Greenwald who have raised hugely important issues about our intelligence agencies and the Prime Minister’s integrity. I’ve had doubts about the Internet Party since day one and I’ll go a bit further tonight: don’t vote for these people. They’re fucking idiots.

F for fake?

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 5:14 pm

An old rule of forgery – which I just invented – is that a fake is a collection of cliches bundled together to produce a work and an original is a collection of idiosyncrasies bundled together to produce same. Take the Judith Collins/Cameron Slater conversations, which Collins and Slater insisted were forgeries. They seemed instantly convincing because instead of saying anything particularly scandalous the blogger and the Minister merely swapped stupid nicknames and rumours about Labour MPs. Authentic voices never say quite what we expect, or wish that they would.

The email Kim Dotcom has produced says exactly what he wants it to say, compressing his entire theory that the New Zealand government collaborated with US corporations to grant him residency here so he could be extradited and sent to prison in the US, into three brief paragraphs and corroborating it perfectly, throwing in ‘proof’ that John Key lied to the public and Parliament into the bargain. And at this point there’s no other content. No email chain. No other documents.

Maybe Dotcom will produce more stuff in time and cast this email into a new, more believable light. Or, maybe, he’s just really unlucky and this totally authentic email which completely clears him just happens to look like an utter fraud. That’d be sad for him, because this email seems unbelievable.

June 2, 2014

Inequality, MMP, Internet-Mana and the Conservatives

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:23 pm

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this weekend:

  • Inequality: the status of inequality in New Zealand isn’t controversial. We underwent a huge rise in inequality during the 1980s and 1990s. It dipped slightly under the Clark/Cullen government and its jumped around a bit under National. New Zealand (arguably) saw the largest increase in inequality of any OECD country since the 1970s.
  • MMP. We have the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. It’s mostly a good thing, but many of the other unequal OECD countries – and all of the anglo countries that we compare ourselves to – have FPP style electoral systems that are dominated by two large parties.
  •  If you’re a very high net-worth individual – the number of which will increase as your society gets more unequal – and you want to influence the political system in an FPP nation you’re pretty much stuck doing so through the two dominant political parties, and if your agenda or policy needs are outside the window of what’s palatable for those mainstream parties you’re out of luck.
  • But MMP happens to be a system where (a) small parties can make it into government, and (b) they can have a disproportionately large impact on a government’s policy agenda if they can position themselves into a kingmaker role.
  • So while Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig and their self-funded political parties seem like weird highly individual cases, I wonder if they’re symptoms of two converging trends: increased inequality and increased electoral proportionality.
  • Most businesses and many wealthy individuals who want to influence the political system can do so through lobbying and donating to Labour and National, but for an increasing number of the very odd/very rich, setting up your own party becomes a much more viable, rational way to influence policy.
  • I don’t believe many (or any?) of the other countries New Zealand likes to compare itself to have this interesting combination of high inequality and electoral proportionality, so this might be a problem that’s unique to us.

April 12, 2014

An accumulation of nameless energies

Filed under: books,general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:23 pm

This Herald piece by John Roughan about waiting to see the royals drive by:

We waited only 15 minutes past the scheduled time of arrival, 45 in total, a millisecond in royalist time.

Then, noise and fluttering flags down Jellicoe St said they were coming. First came police bikes, then a police car, another, followed by a real car. Could that be it? Hard to see through tinted windows. No.

The next Crown limo was the one. She was on our side of the car and not just waving, leaning forward, looking happy to see us all, really waving, genuinely smiling.

The cars had not stopped. She passed in a second. We would have seen far more on television but there is something about the briefest glimpse of real life that you never forget.

Reminded me of a famous passage from Delillo’s White Noise: 

We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.



January 18, 2014

To tediously bore

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:37 am

Via Andrea Vance at Fairfax:

Here’s a heads-up to staff in Chris Finlayson’s office – he is passionate that they should not sloppily split infinitives, or use Oxford commas.

Ten pages of guidelines have emerged, setting out the language the culture minister expects officials to use in correspondence and briefing papers.

It is accompanied by speech-writing instructions, with a list of more than 20 banned expressions.

Some people care about grammar and syntax because they love language and care about clarity of expression. Others are pedantic bores who derive some sad but creepy pleasure out of running around lecturing everyone on how they’re allowed to write and speak. Getting upset about split infinitives is a flashing warning sign that you’re in the second group. Here’s David Foster-Wallace on language and grammar nerds or, as he terms them, SNOOTS, and the split infinitive.

This is probably the place for your SNOOT reviewer openly to concede that a certain number of traditional prescriptive rules really are stupid and that people who insist on them (like the legendary assistant to PM. Margaret Thatcher who refused to read any memo with a split infinitive in it, or the jr.-high teacher I had who automatically graded you down if you started a sentence with Hopefully) are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong. The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language. Latin infinitives consist of one word and are impossible to as it were split, and the earliest English Prescriptivists — so enthralled with Latin that their English usage guides were actually written in Latin — decided that English infinitives shouldn’t be split either.

Also telling: Thatcher fan-boy Finlayson has added the word ‘community’ to his list of banned terms.

November 27, 2013

Various points that I’m too lazy to blog about separately

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 3:05 pm
  1. Colin Craig: I think National’s position here is that they have to give him a seat. It’s going to be a tight election, the Conservative Party won 2.65% of the vote in 2011, there’s no reason that won’t go down, and it will probably go up. At least some of those votes will come from National. If Craig doesn’t win an electorate but fails to reach the 5% threshold then somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 right-wing votes don’t get counted.
  2. Russel Norman is facing a leadership challenge from a Green Party list candidate! Many people who go into politics have leadership aspirations, but the trick is to convince other people that you’d make an astute leader. And challenging an incumbent the term after he’s co-lead the party to an historic electoral victory when you’re in a position of near-total obscurity is not a great way to demonstrate your political acumen.
  3. It was the 50th Anniversary of the JFK assassination. Not sure if I’ve linked to it before, but my favorite short film about the assassination is Umbrella Man by Errol Morris. Favorite books: Libra and American Tabloid. Favorite feature movie is, naturally, Stone’s JFK. Many people struggle with the historiography; you need to look past that and just enjoy it as a masterpiece of paranoia. Consider the writing, performances and editing in this scene. My personal conspiracy theory? Kennedy was murdered by a small group of nutcases who were contracted to the CIA as part of their ongoing clandestine war against Cuba. The agency engaged in a cover-up after the assassination, for obvious reasons.
  4. Should we drill for oil? Putting global-warming aside for a minute: if we were like Norway, and had a safe, well-regulated industry in which the profits went to the people of New Zealand then yeah, totally we should drill for oil. Sadly we’re not like Norway. We’re New Zealand! Regulation will be negligible, catastrophes are likely, profits will all go overseas. Combine that with the fact that extracting and burning that oil will contribute to the alteration of the atmosphere of the planet we live on and there’s not a lot in it for people who aren’t in the energy industry.
  5. A theory I’d like to throw out there to explain National’s eagerness for partial-privatization and weird obsession with ‘Mum and Dad investors’. One of the goals of right-wing political parties for the last thirty years has been the idea of an ‘ownership society’. The theory is that you extend the ownership of capital to the middle-class and the experience of earning dividends and capital gains through shares, bonds etc turns them all into fervent free-market right-wing voters. There were other reasons for the sales – they got to give huge sums of taxpayer money away to the finance sector! –  but I suspect National is bitterly disappointed that it hasn’t changed the political landscape by moving us towards an ‘ownership society’.

June 11, 2013

Get ready to pinch the hell out of the bridge of your nose

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 2:02 pm

Chris Trotter muses on Peter Dunne’s downfall.

These extraordinary events have the shape and feel of a very old and tragic tale. The bones of the story may be found in the mythology of every culture, but I first encountered it in the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table. There it is called the tale of Merlin and Vivien.

It gets so much worse.

May 31, 2013

Parental responsibilty

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 8:53 am

Every now and then I hear someone in my liberal, left-wing enclave (either real-life or online) wonder at National’s enduring popularity in the polls and question as to why anyone still supports them. Well, the Al Nisbet cartoons and the widespread public support for them are a pretty awesome explanation.


There’s a large – mostly white, predominantly male, generally older – section of the population for whom unemployment, child poverty, Maori and Pacific educational under-achievement and poverty related diseases simply don’t exist as problems. To them the real issue facing the country is welfare-bludging and the vast unproductive class of brown people living lives of lavish indolence, drinking and smoking and gambling in their taxpayer funded homes crowded with expensive consumer electronics. When you think like that, the idea of spending more money to feed the already spoiled children of welfare-bludgers is simply risible. Hence Nisbet’s cartoons and all the online comments and vox-pops agreeing that the state shouldn’t provide breakfasts for poor children because ‘parental responsibility’ and that Nisbet’s cartoons ‘represent a reality’.

Speaking of reality. According to the latest MSD benefit fact sheets (which tell us, incidentally, that the majority of welfare beneficiaries are Pakeha) there are about 2000 people recieving an Invalid’s benefit who are caring for dependent children aged under six years.

Let’s be conservative and assume that there are that many again caring for children between six and twelve and that they’re caring for 1.5 children each and you have 3000 primary school children right there who are growing up in poverty while being cared for by a person suffering from a physical and/or mental illness.

I think it’s safe to assume that these children are over-represented in the cohort of kids who are turning up to school without food. We keep hearing that the solution to this problem is ‘parental responsibility’, not state (or corporate) welfare. But it’s not the fault of these children they were born to parents with depression or schizophrenia or a painful skeletal-muscular disorder that requires that parent to remain heavily medicated. And those parents can’t just magically stop suffering from chronic diseases that compromise their ability to care for their children. Most parents love their kids – if they would they could.

There’s no actual proof that Nisbet’s bludgers exist. The children enumerated in the MSD Benefit fact sheets do exist – but this is where the idiocy of welfare-bludger rhetoric has bought us. People literally want children growing up in conditions of terrible poverty to go hungry because of their commitment to a race-based political fantasy.

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