More Polanyi: Mysticism & Fantasy

Part II of my review of this book.

I’m well into the second half of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and, while I’m getting a crash course in 18th & 19th English history through looking up all his references to events and people I’ve never heard of or that are just names to me, tedium is setting in. Late last night, while plowing through a few pages, I broke down and did something I almost never do and advise against doing until after you’ve read the book for yourself: looked at what other people say about this work. Read what the authors themselves say as much as possible, to avoid the inevitable biases and lacunas that predigested takes contain by their nature. In my frustration, curiosity about who, if anyone, takes Polanyi seriously got the better of me. Yes, I am weak.

Criticism fell into two distinct groups, with no one in the middle: Marxists critical theorists who love, love, love Great Transformation and consider it the seminal work on economics of the last 100 years, and non-Marxist economists – real economists, in other words – who would hurt themselves if they rolled their eyes any harder.

Image result for trobriand islands kula
Some kula in a museum. Subsistence farmers on remote islands make and trade these as part of a complex social ritual intended to reinforce social ties and thus avoid war. When all you got is yams, fish, palm fronds, and no realistic hope for anything more, the perennial human hobbies of sex and murder come to dominate your thoughts and rituals. Even more, I mean. 

The criticisms I laid down in my preliminary comments here and here were echoed and reinforced by his negative critics. For example, one critice makes a point Chesterton also made a couple of times in other contexts: primitive peoples alive today are not our ancestors. Rather, they are as much modern people as we are, except that for whatever reasons they have not made much technological or cultural progress. While our actual European ancestors were  inventing science and technology and cities and architecture and experimenting with complex social relationships, the Trobriand Islanders were cultivating yams and developing ritual trading designed to reinforce social relationships to keep the peace.

To point to tribal peoples living today as examples of man in nature is to ignore that our actual ancestors, who did develop what eventually became the modern world, were every bit as natural in the sense ‘natural’ is used here. Our actual ancestors, despite what Rousseau may think, were also natural men who did whatever they did by nature – they eventually developed the gold standard and international trade just as naturally as islanders grow yams and murder each other.  A ‘primitive’ Italian like Marco Polo, for example, clearly did engage in international truck and barter – around the time the Trobriand Islanders first arrived in their little paradise and started building grass huts. Polo is an ancestor to the West. The islanders are not.

Enough. Returning to my reading, here is a paragraph from the second half of the book I find quite revealing of how Polanyi thinks:

Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation,
restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.

Notice anything odd? How about the odd use of the word ‘personified’? Polanyi is here saying that two competing ‘organizing principles’ are – persons?

It would be easy to explain this away, a little goof in the midst of a long book, something a good editors maybe should have caught, but clearly I don’t think so. I think that this personification of abstract forces is exactly what this book is about. The individual is nothing, the masses everything, after all. And the masses is a seething, suffering – abstraction.

To Polanyi, great lumbering forces, abstractions that manifest themselves in Capital, or the Gold Standard, or the Labor Market are the persons of History, while people are just at best the raw material History acts upon. These persons, these gods-who-are-not-gods, correspond to Hegel’s Spirit, in that History is not made from a cumulation of millions of little decisions by millions of little people, but rather History acts upon the little people, with their decisions merely reflecting the gradual expression of Historical forces.

History, then, is always inevitable, even if we can’t see it until our illusory choices have slipped into the past. Marx’s claim to see the future is a claim that History is as deterministic as a wind-up clock. In 3 hours it will be 5:45; in the fullness of time it will be the Worker’s Paradise.

Hidden here is the perennial bait and switch, or perhaps motte and bailey: our sympathies are engaged by the very real suffering (usually) of the Little People, but the analysis and proposed solutions are always about presumed inevitable forces. The Polanyis of the world flip from one to the other with greater or lesser skill: questions about the framework are answered by implied or, increasingly, shrill accusations that you don’t care about the little people; focus on practical steps directed at the little people, get reminded that it’s the system, man.

I’ll try to get this finished off and post a final review soon.


Science & Humility

Stray thought:

In his classic Caltech 1974 commencement address often referred to here, Richard Feynman states the following:

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.  It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

This is beautiful. Such scientific honesty is also rare in the wild. I think it would be near extinct except for another feature of science, one Feynman does not here discuss but did in fact practice: everybody is entitled, and even honor-bound, to do their best to shoot down a theory. This probing and testing of theories to see if they can be overthrown is perhaps the only example of Nietzsche’s quip being true: that which fails to kill a theory makes it stronger.

This is not to say that proponents of theories like having others, often young punks, try to destroy their scientific babies. Far from it, which is how we get another famous quip, that science advances one funeral at a time. Often, only death is strong enough to loosen a partisan’s grip on a theory under attack. This observation may be generalized beyond science.

In one of the accounts he gives of the discoveries that lead to his Nobel Prize, Feynman mentions that he spotted an error in previous work, where a no doubt respected physicist had proved his point by extrapolating beyond what the data could actually support. Feynman had to disprove and discard the conclusion of this prior physicist in order to establish the model that got him the Nobel.

It would be nice to hear how this other physicist took the news. Was he a good sport about it? In physics, this is a t least possible, what with grad students and other young guns pouring over every theory and calculation that came before, just looking for that spot where they can make a name for themselves. I assume, perhaps naively, that this sort of thing happens with enough regularity that physicists might not get too bent out of shape over it.

The history of science if full of cases where the fathers of displaced theories didn’t take it very well. In general, scientists are people: Galileo was a out of control and petty egomaniac; Newton was an insufferable snob. Boys will be boys. It is part of the glory of science that it makes progress even with the participants acting like primadonnas and toddlers. It must be something special, if it can work under those constraints.

The point here is that at least in the hard sciences, the honesty of which Feynman speaks is enforced by the competitive nature of elite scientists. On the one hand, they want their theories tested and challenged, because that means they are important and validated. On the other, they know they’ll likely get caught if they fudge, since that same army of ambitious grad students and young guns can make their own name by finding flaws.

The point I think Feynman is making is that everything goes smoother if the scientists keep all this in mind as they do their research. Don’t publish your pet theory until you’ve thought through and responded to every challenge you can come up with, and included all the steps needed for anybody else to validate you methods. Cut to the chase. Keep it clean.

What Feynman does not mention here in this speech nor anywhere else I can recall is humility. I’ve never heard, and find it hard to imagine, Feynman being accused of being humble.

Humility is what it takes. The proud are also the blind. The beginnings of modern science can be found is the medieval Questions method, best known from St. Thomas’s writings. A proposition was tossed out for discussion, and refined to its purest possible expression. The seminar, as we might call it today, batted it around, argued for and against, probably spun off other questions to be addressed. When done, their work was summarized in the usual form: It would seem that X, for reasons A, B & C. Arguments A, B, & C must be stated in a form that their champions agree is accurate. Then: On the contrary, it would seem not-X, for reasons D, E, & F. And objections A, B, & C can be answered as follows. Therefore, not-X is conditionally true, subject to further information and argument.

You see the superstructure of science right there: you must clearly state your proposition, what it is you think supports your argument (which includes these days, observations made with the aid of gadgets and math). You must address all objections, which must be stated as strongly as possible and truly reflect the views of your opponents (or they will let you know about it). You must show your work. Everybody understands that tomorrow’s new observation might overturn the whole thing.

I propose that the problems in science, especially Science! as revealed in the so called ‘replication crisis’, is in fact a failure of humility. The pride present in all of us is exacerbated by the softness of the science. A science is soft to the extent that peer-skepticism and adversarial review are not accepted and encouraged. Such skepticism and review keep science honest. Lacking them frees pride from all restraint.

I don’t imagine the students and masters practicing the Questions Method in 1250 were any more intrinsically humble and honest than we are today. But at least they would have understood that humility is both a prerequisite and a subset of honesty: you must be humble enough to accept you could be wrong; if you’re being honest, you will be humble. In the same way replication and criticism keep modern science however honest it may be, recognizing their own pride and need for humility helped keep the scholastics honest.

This recognition of the need to be humble is unknown among the leading lights of the soft sciences. Freud can respond to challenges to his teachings by asserting his critics are repressed, both applying the theory in question as if it has been established as correct and avoiding any response to the substance of the criticisms. There will never be any recognition that these ad hominem attacks are petty diversions among practitioners of the soft sciences. Just review the name calling that often constituted the entire response of those challenged by the current ‘replication crisis’.

Hegel gave the illusion of a patina of intellectual validity to the notion that reason is nothing, only revelation (“enlightenment”; “wokeness”) matters, so that the only response to critics is to point out how unenlightened they are. This thinking became the thinking of academy. This is hardly surprising, as  the key point of Harvard, et al., the belief that drove their founding and continues intact to this day, is that the right people need to be in charge. Only the little people, as Hegel pointed out, get all tangled up in logic and reason. True philosophers can be identified, functionally, as those who agree with Hegel.

Real scientists are like those adopted kids who don’t know who their parents are, but know they are orphans of a sort. Insofar as you are a true scientists as described above by Feynman, you will not find colleges in general to be your family. But their true parents – the scholastics and Aristotle – have been painted with such a black brush they would be horrified to recognize them as mom and dad.

Damn Lies and Statistics Update: School Shootings Data

As noted in the previous post, I was surprised to find on NPR something even as mildly critical of accepted wisdom as an article pointing out that, no, there have not been 230+ school shooting in one year (2016, I think) but rather only around 11, and only 2 of those might be what non-hysterics think of as school shootings – somebody with a gun trying to kill a lot of kids and teachers on school grounds.

I stopped listening to NPR 20 years ago except for the occasional accidental flip through the station in the car. We used to be supporters, like $10 a month. So it’s not like I don’t know their shtick. Their shtick is to provide a thin yet thoughtful sounding veneer on progressive politics without ever saying: we are promoting progressive politics. After a while, their standard practice of dwelling on only explanations that comported with their biases and remaining mum on those that didn’t wore me out, even when they’d interview the occasional token person who might actually have  thought they didn’t agree with.

Yet somehow, the producers let a segment get through that ran the real risk of revealing to even those of very little brain that, at the very least, the Department of Education did a comically incompetent, amateur job of collecting shooting statistics. The USDA knew the numbers thus collected were nonsense  – yet published them anyway. See in the article the number of issues and questions around the survey question. Any reckoning critter would know that mechanically summing up and reporting on data collected amid such a miasma of confusion and misunderstanding is nonsensical.

In the good old days of 20 years ago, such a segment would garner very little reaction. NPR’s core audience would barely stir from their dogmatic slumbers; as the report washed over them in their dream state, they’d reflexively interpret it as only some vague call for better statistics or more money for the USDE, while approving of the truthy-ness of the reported numbers – there’s a school shooting crisis, after all! Only haters would quibble over arcane reporting problems!

The few that noted it at all at a conscious level, and did a little rational analysis, might tell their family and friends or even write a sure to be ignored letter to the editors. In short, criticisms of the USDE and of panic mongering in general engendered by this segment would die a quick and nearly silent death.

But not today. Ah, the wonders of the internet! Someone on Twitter linked to this segment; I read it and posted on it, and maybe as many as 100 people (I flatter myself) read my thoughts on it. A few even clicked through to the NPR website! Woohoo!

But I and the person who tweeted the link are not alone! My humble efforts were evidently matched by dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of other readers and critics, so much so that this NPR segment was getting all kinds of social media coverage. Perhaps even millions of people were being exposed to all sorts of wrong think, such as USDE statistics not being reliable, and the school shooting crisis being largely a hoax, and the possibility the USDE is not exactly apolitical, and…

So much so that Facebook censored mention of it.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.


Related image

Assorted Thursday Links & Comments

A. Cool maps: How land is used in the contiguous 48 states.

useage map
From Bloomberg

Comments: heard somewhere that the entire world could be fed from California’s Central Valley alone. Given the commentary accompanying these maps, that’s not hard to believe: only a relatively small fraction of US farmland is used to directly grow food for humans. Mostly, it’s ethanol, animal feed – and fallow land. The Central Valley is, like so many things here in California, upscale – they grow almonds, watermelons and sweet corn instead of wheat, rice and beans. Nothing wrong with comparative ‘luxury’ foods, and I’d imagine the ‘feed the whole world’ claim might ignore the need to lets fields rest occasionally, but it’s easy to imagine a world’s worth of rice and beans coming from the world’s single best agricultural region.

The enormous amount of land classified as ‘grazing’ also gave me pause. Included are vast swaths of Nevada, Utah and New Mexico where, having seen those area, I’d have to think if you were a herdsman, you’d be grazing not too many very tough animals, like longhorn or goats. Those areas look a lot more like deserts than pastures. Be that as it may, having driven through them occasionally, I have never seen very many cattle. Classifying land as grazing land doesn’t seem to mean anything much is grazing on it.

Finally, the Eastern quarter of the US seems to be largely forests. This comports with my experience. As soon as you get out of the larger cities, you more often than not end up among the trees. (Of course, I’m driving, so these areas = what you can see from the road in my experience.) My experience of California is that about 1/3 of it is covered in forests as well – but the classification system puts national and state parks in another category, so those forests are not forests. Still, driving around or flying over the northern third of the state would certainly give the impression you’re seeing pretty much contiguous forests. But, hey, it’s a government classification system versus my lying eyes – who you going to believe?

B. Stopped clock division: School Shootings. Or not. Suffice it to say that, like Mark Twain’s death, the number of school shootings has been greatly exaggerated. Just under 240 show up on the US Department of Education’s report. NPR (doing some actual reporting. For once.) managed to confirm – 11. 238 is a little different from 11. I have a minor in math, so you can trust me on this.

There’s this concerted effort – NPR, SciAm, NYT and 538 are in on it, at least – to shake collective heads (heads often positioned above lab coats, after all) and declare that Science is Hard when presented with examples of Science! being stupid, dishonest, and laughably incompetent in some combination.

In this case, the takeaway should be: if the US Department of Education were to tell you the sun rises in the east, you’d probably want to stick your head out the window some early morning and verify. I occasionally have pointed out egregiously self-serving numbers from this source. Graduation and drop-out rates? I’d expect no more accuracy in them than in the school shooting numbers from the link.

The USDE does have a difficult task: it needs present government controlled compulsory schools as both successful enough to warrant our continued support, yet dismal enough to warrent continued calls for more money, more time, more homework – in effect, more school. Round up those drop-outs! (and home schoolers!) More homework and before and after school programs! Free college all around! Because the solution to people failing and bailing school, to graduating without a measurable trace of education is: More school!

That these claims contradict each other is never to be mentioned.

C. Not a link – who needs it, at this point? We live in an age where character assassination is not only an acceptable response to allegations we don’t like, but is frankly the only acceptable response. Used to be the sign of an educated person that they could separate the argument or claim from the person making it, and deal with each separately. A scoundrel might speak the truth, after all, and a saint might be in error.

We’ve progressed beyond such simple, might I say even binary, thinking!

A few brief highlight along the road we took to get here:

Hegel: Classic logic, including especially the Law of Non-contradiction, is for the little people. Real philosophers, who can be identified by their agreement with Hegel, just know stuff. The enlightened are enlightened by their enlightenment, and no argument, especially a logical argument, can gainsay them!

Marx: Hegel was correct, except true enlightenment consists of agreeing with Marx. We’ll call such agreement being on the Right Side of History.  If you persist in disagreeing with Marx or are even simply unaware of Marx’s views, you are on the wrong side of History, tools of oppression, and have marked yourself for culling at the earliest opportunity.

Freud: You only disagree with Freud because you’re sexually repressed. Your outrageous demands for evidence, replication, acknowledgement of other theories, and so on just mean you’re really, really sexually repressed.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: There are work-a-day lawyers and judges out there for whom my fine theories are too elevated. But you enlightened lawyers and judges, who of course can be identified by your agreement with me, have figured or are ready to figure it all out.

And so on.

Lesser minds than these 4 gentlemen will see the weapon here without feeling in the least encumbered by the wall of words disguising it. Cutting to the chase: if you disagree with me, you are not just wrong, but evil! We have no duty to understand or even acknowledge your position or claims, there could be no point to that, because you are a bad actor acting badly!

In other words, argument has been reduced to simply asserting your opponent is a bad actor. Trying to reason about it is simply more evidence of evil. Kafka trap is now the norm, and has been for decades.

This right here is a key feature of the modernism all those 19th century popes were condemning.

Polanyi’s Great Transformation, pt 1

(Note: I’m reading this work in preparation for reading Patrick Deenen’s Why Liberalism Failed simply because, over dinner, a friend casually mentioned that it figures into Deenan’s argument somehow. Let’s see how this goes. Kinda busy writing these days, (huzzah!) so may be a while before I get to read and report on the rest.)

A third of the way through Karl Polanyi”s the Great Transformation (That’s a .pdf. If you want other formats, here.)

The unambiguously good part: Polanyi makes near constant references to events, developments, tribes, people and so on about which I know next to nothing: 19th century English history, enclosure, the Trobriand Islanders, kula, various politicians and thinkers and on and on. I’ve spent nearly as much time on the web reading up on these topics as I’ve spent reading the book itself. As usual, I’m left shaking my head at the holes in what I know more each time I learn something new. But it’s still a good thing, and I plan to continue this practice as I go on.

Polanyi sets out to show that free markets and the thinking behind them are myths and frauds. There is no such thing as a natural and near-universal practice of truck & barter among primitive and not so primitive peoples. Such trading as did occur was generally ritualized and often symbolic. Free markets as we now understand them were a creation of the late 18th and 19th centuries, complete with a counterfactual mythology about how markets arose naturally and dated back to the earliest times when tribes traded with tribes or among themselves.

The next step – and here, I’m mixing in what the authors of the prefaces say about Polanyi with what he says himself, on the assumption that he’ll get around to it later – is to show how any economy prior to our current free markets was embedded in and a function of society in general, and then show how central management of economic activity was and remains the true ‘natural’ development, one we’ve discarded at great cost and continued peril.

Before we get into details, two asides. Can’t find the source at the moment, but Polanyi is described as having a ‘complicated’ relationship to Marxism. In my experience, that generally means he is a Marxist who picks a few nits with Marx and would like to distance himself from the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin, et al. And, sure enough, his intellectual companions are, with few exceptions, Marxists. He was ‘attracted’ to Fabianism, whatever ‘attracted’ might mean. I’m thinking, based on what the Fabian Society says about itself and its goals, that he was a Communist and a liar. But I’m harsh that way, taking what people say their motives and practices are at face value.

Be that as it may, one thing clearly evident in this book so far is what I would call a Marxist approach to history: regardless of what has happened, there are only a few acceptable explanations available, each having as its chief characteristic the dismissal of individual human actions in favor of gigantic faceless Forces. He’s gone light on Oppression so far, but big on Progress and Capitalism. I assume he’ll catch up later.

Another characteristic of the Marxist approach is to torture facts to meet the needs of theory. We’ll get to that in a minute. Suffice it to say that reading Polanyi so far reminds me of my youth when I read a couple Erich von Däniken books claiming that space aliens were responsible for much of human progress. (Hey, I was a kid, they were lying around) He had a recurring and annoying habit of employing the rhetorical flourish of concluding arguments with variations of ‘what other explanation could there be?’ Even in my youth, I’d start in with ‘I dunno, how about X, Y, and Z?’ Polanyi’s accounts of ‘primitive’ peoples are more sophisticated, but amount to the same claim: that the facts only support his conclusions. I dunno, how about X, Y and Z?

Second, and this may be that I’m just ignorant, I do not recognize what exact argument in favor of global, self-regulating markets Polanyi is refuting. Unlike the Scholastics, he does not provide a description of his opponents views that they would accept as accurate, but simply assumes his audience knows what he’s talking about. Now, I’m only lightly read in economics – dismal science, indeed – but I’ve never heard an argument that states that free markets should be the be all and end all of all economic activity under all circumstances. In fact, what I like about the idea of free markets is that they exist among free people – and that freedom of the people is logically and practically prior to the freedom of the market. Therefore, if and when markets might act in such a way as to impinge upon the freedom of the people, for example, in creating monopolies or in the selling of uranium reserves to an at least potentially hostile party, political action could be taken to block such a sale for the common good. More fundamentally, in a free society, individual action could be taken. Don’t spend money on people who hate you, for example.

Polanyi argues instead that the logic of the free market demands that not only the market be free in some absolute sense, but that society be made to conform to the needs of the market. This is among several conclusions he leaps to so far that basically come out of left field. Then again, Marx, following Hegel, believes that truth doesn’t have to make sense. You either get it or you don’t. Law of non-contradiction be damned.

A ‘believer’ in free markets could hold many things, say God, family, country, to be more primary and important than free markets. Heck, they could even believe that free markets, in the sense of letting people keep what they work for and sell and buy what they want – subject, of course, to God, family and country, to stick with the example – falls out of the same basic understanding of human nature and reality that lead them to elevate God, family and country in the first place.

But Marxists believe that lived experience falls out from whatever huge forces History has unleashed on us at the moment. It’s the system, man. Instead of families forming communities that form governments that reflect more or less imperfectly the interests of the people in those families, History dictates Oppression of one sort or another in the form of Capitalism or Feudalism or whatever. But salvation is at hand! A Mighty Fortress is Our Socialism! For reasons neither Marx nor his sycophants have ever explained,  this time History will inflict happiness on us all by means of Socialism, if only we are sincere enough and keep watch in the pumpkin patch or something. Having learned from Hegel, they write fat books, coin lots of neologisms and throw down the big words and use other words in ways no one else ever does to cover up the fact that their ideas, when stated plainly in words everybody understands, are infantile.

By the end of the first third of the book, Polanyi makes his strongest and most important point, the one upon which he hangs the idea that free markets of necessity destroy people and nature: that the logic of free markets demands that all the components of economic activities be treated as commodities. Free markets demand that anything that can be bought and sold on the market is free to be bought and sold on the market, and that such a market be free from outside (governmental) interference. In modern free markets, this includes money, land and people. Free markets inescapably demand that labor is just another commodity, to be regulated by the dead hand, and so people having their livelihoods and lives destroyed is a logical and even desirable outcome if that’s what the markets determine should happen. Similarly, the planet will be raped, since whoever can get the most out of it with the least investment wins. He assumes that this means simple, direct and immediate destruction of the planet as a result of consuming resources.

Money, land and people do not exist to be traded on an open market. Yet they are treated as commodities. Polanyi calls them fictitious commodities.

A quibble, yet one that calls into question Polanyi’s fundamental grasp of economics: he’s wrong about money. He asserts that, just as land and people are fictitious commodities, since they were not created to be traded, money was not created to be traded. But that’s exactly what money is created for, even and especially in the sense of money markets. As discussed here, most money in free market systems is created not by government fiat, but by private lending. Because of the fractional reserve system, banks create money by lending far more of it out than they hold in reserves. Yet, the money lent is as real and valuable as money created by government fiat, and is the vast bulk of the money that’s traded on money markets.

Perhaps a distinction could be made between modern money creation via lending under a fractional reserve system and money such as wampum or gold coins or big carved rocks. Polanyi does not do this, for a very good reason from his point of view: the bulk of his examples so far would fall apart if one were allowed to question what, for example, Trobriand Islanders kula trade has to do with any analysis of modern markets (spoiler: nothing whatsoever), or how come Europeans as a whole are much better off  now even after the disaster and injustice of the Enclosure program, if the safeguards that fought and delayed enclosure were banished from the earth by free markets? In other words, making distinctions that logic and simple honesty require is not in the cards, so long as those distinctions do not support the desired conclusions. As I said, Marxist.

The first chapters concern themselves with Enclosure and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. Here Polanyi follows the well-worn track of every Marxist I’ve ever read: start by describing a tragedy caused by Capitalism or greed, in order to position yourself as the defender of the oppressed and all opponents as heartless reactionaries. Those of us who are not proponents of a flat moral universe might point out that, yes, people can be greedy, heartless and petty, and that such lamentable characteristic exist prior to any economic or political system. We might even point out that not only does Socialism in the real world fail to mitigate these behaviors, their grandest flowerings have taken place under socialist regimes.  Those who take other people’s stuff are thieves, after all – unless they are socialists, in which case they are merely the instruments of History’s inexorable march of Progress. The more equal need their dachas to keep their revolutionary edge, I suppose.

Next, we hear about the Trobriand Islanders and their kula trade. Here Polanyi insists that the ritualized exchange of ritual gifts used to reinforce social relationships among  8,000 isolated islanders with nothing else to trade must be accepted as an example of – what, exactly? Had fun reading up these folks, how pretty much the only resources they have are yams, fish and palm fronds. Anybody can clear a little jungle and grow yams with minimal effort. They developed a system by which the village chief causes a yam house to be built and the villagers hand over their yams to be handed out as the chief decides.  Also, if a man wants sex and/or marriage, he need to show the object of his desire some nice yams, to demonstrate that he’s the kind of guy who can really grow them yams! (The Margaret Mead flavored claim that the islanders don’t think sex and babies are necessarily connected is more easily and believably explained as people pulling gullible Europeans’ legs with a cabbage-patch story. But we’d reveal ourselves as rubes were we to laugh at the people in lab coats.)

In other words, these are subsistence farmers who do a little fishing. They have nothing to trade in the economic sense, and nothing to gain from putting in extra hours working. Instead, their biggest problem – hope you’re sitting down – is acting out the occasional urge to kill each other. War, in other words. The Europeans forbade war, leading to the development of a unique and highly ritualized from of cricket, where they islanders can act out their aggression without (usually) killing each other.

The kula trade is how the islanders confirm their kinship and peaceful relationships with the nearby villages. Ritual objects are given is such a way that, in a decade or so, each object makes its way around the loop of the islands back to the original village.

This, Polanyi assures us, is an example of trade, of a market. We are to learn from this example that markets aren’t free, but are embedded in the culture in which the trading takes place. This lesson will come in very handy next time I’m required to give a ritual object to my neighbors to reinforce our mutual agreement that we won’t kill each other.

The next section is about commodities fictitious or otherwise discussed above.

The writers of the introduction and preface try mightily to show how recent history has proven Polanyi prophetic. Despite a precipitous drop in poverty along with a more than tripling of the world’s population, we are to believe the capital markets are so evil that we need to go back to swapping trinkets and growing yams, to save the planet and ourselves. Seriously, Polanyi and his followers points and arguments dissolve like so much flushable kitty litter when exposed to the least bit of analysis. Once you’re convinced that you’re on the Right Side of History, the only explanations left in your toolbox are systemic oppression of some sort. Just as we’ll get those new soviet men, free from greed and violence, from whom the endless supply of virtuous bureaucrats needed to run all our lives will come, if we only will close and wish real hard, we’ll get the new reality we need, one that, instead of putting all our pet theories to the lie, confirm them!

Very busy these days. Will try to finish this up soon.


Science, Medicine & Me (or You)

One of the problems, or challenges, if you prefer, with medicine is that few people who become doctors do it because they love science. They become doctors typically because they want to help people, a very fine reason. But this means that when the situation calls for a more scientific examination of the evidence before them, or of the value or pertinence of this or that finding or practice, your doctor is likely operating at a disadvantage.

Ultimately, tradition, law, and their insurance companies all but force them to stick to conventional, approved approaches to everything. In general, this is not a bad thing – you certainly don’t want your doctor freestyling it when it is your health on the line. If doctors everywhere treat a given constellation of symptoms in a particular way, that would probably be the place to start. But it’s not in itself science.

I recall a couple decades ago that every time we took a kid to the pediatrician – and we loved our pediatrician – she would feel compelled to advise us not to let the little ones sleep with us, family bed style. I can just hear her teachers, or her professional bulletins or her insurance company telling her it was best practice, that kids die every year smothered in a bed with an adult, and just don’t do it. Now, of course, pediatricians in the US (it was never policy in the rest of the world) have come to realize that the benefits to both the child and the parents of having the child in the parent’s bed far outweigh the miniscule risks. Such risks effectively disappear if the child and parents are healthy and the parents sober, while the sense of comfort and attachment gained by the child and the extra sleep gained by the parents is a serious win-win.

Now a scientifically inclined person might ask about the data and methodology behind the claim that hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection had somehow gotten the whole baby sleeps with parents thing wrong.  Maybe it has – but the issue should have at least been addressed. But it wasn’t, in America, at least up until a few years ago. So every American pediatrician was expected to toe the official line, and our doctors did. For, what if you hadn’t advised parents against ‘co-sleeping’ and a baby died? You’d be asking for a lawsuit.

Another example I’ve mentioned before is salt intake. This one is a little different, in that for some people, there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, so at least being concerned about it isn’t crazy.

For most people, however, there is little or no correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, at least within realistic levels of consumption. In one of the earliest studies, rats were given the human equivalent of 500g of salt a day, and their blood pressure shot right up! But humans tend to consume around 8.5g of salt a day. Um, further study would be indicated?

The science would seem to support some degree of caution regarding salt intake for people with high blood pressure. Instead, what we get are blanket recommendations that everybody – everybody! – reduce salt intake. It will save lives! Medicine cries wolf. People learn to ignore medical advise. Further, Medical Science! fails to consider what it is asking for – a complete overhaul of people’s diets. Few real people are going to do this without serious motivation. Wasting ammo on a battle not worth winning.

Again, if doctors were essentially scientists attracted to medicine for all the opportunities for scientific discovery human health presents, such errors and poor judgement might be more limited. But doctors became doctors to help people, not to debate scientific findings with them. They want to DO something. Thus, conventional medical practice is full of stuff to do for every occasion. Whether or not there’s really any science behind it is not as important, it seems, as developing practices to address issues so that medicine itself can be practiced. Clearly, for the average doctor, having *something* to do is better than having nothing to do, even when that something isn’t all that well supported or even understood.

These thoughts are on my mind because of all the trouble I’m having with blood pressure medicines at the moment. Since there’s an obvious trade-off here – somewhat higher blood pressure with a higher quality of life versus acceptably lower blood pressure but with lower quality of life – I decided I needed to do a little basic research. Here’s where I’m at after a very preliminary web search:

What I’m looking for, and have so far failed to find, is a simple population level chart, showing the correlation between blood pressure and mortality/morbidity. Of course, any usefully meaningful data would be presented in a largish set of charts or tables, broken out by such variables as age, sex, and body mass index.  But I would settle at this point for any sort of data at all, showing how much risk is added by an additional 10 points or 10 percent, or however you want to measure it, above ‘normal’ blood pressure.

For example, I’m a 60 yr old man. Each year in America, some number of 60 year old men drop dead by high blood-pressure-related illnesses. OK, so, base data is at what rate do 60 year old men drop dead from high blood pressure related diseases? Let’s say it’s .1% (just making up numbers for now) or 1 out of every 1,000 60 year old men. That’s heart attack and stroke victims, with maybe a few kidney failures in there, severe enough to kill you, a 60 year old man.

Now we ask: what effect does blood pressure have on these results? Perhaps those 60 year old men running a 120/80 BP die at only a .05% rate – one out of every 2,000 drops dead from heart attacks, strokes or other stray high BP related diseases. Perhaps those with 130/90 (these results and possible ages would be banded in real life most likely, but bear with me) die at .09% rate, while those with 150/100 die at .2% rate, and those above 150/100 die at a horrifying 1% rate, or 10 times as much as the old dudes with healthy blood pressure. These numbers would all need to average out to the .1% across the population, but a high degree of variability within the population would not be unexpected.

Or maybe something else entirely.  But I have yet to find such charts. I’ve found interesting tidbits, like FDR’s BP in 1944 when his doctor examined a by that time very ill president “was 186/108. Very high and in the range where one could anticipate damage to “end-organs” such as the heart, the kidneys and the brain.” So I gather BP in that range is very bad for you, or indicates that something else very bad for you is going on (FDR had a lot of medical issues and smoked like a chimney).

Then there’s this abstract, suggesting in the conclusion that my quest is going to be frustrated:



Quantitative associations between prehypertension or its two separate blood pressure (BP) ranges and cardiovascular disease (CVD) or all-cause mortality have not been reliably documented. In this study, we performed a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis to assess these relationships from prospective cohort studies.


We conducted a comprehensive search of PubMed (1966-June 2012) and the Cochrane Library (1988-June 2012) without language restrictions. This was supplemented by review of the references in the included studies and relevant reviews identified in the search. Prospective studies were included if they reported multivariate-adjusted relative risks (RRs) and corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CIs) of CVD or all-cause mortality with respect to prehypertension or its two BP ranges (low range: 120–129/80–84 mmHg; high range: 130–139/85–89 mmHg) at baseline. Pooled RRs were estimated using a random-effects model or a fixed-effects model depending on the between-study heterogeneity.


Thirteen studies met our inclusion criteria, with 870,678 participants. Prehypertension was not associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality either in the whole prehypertension group (RR: 1.03; 95% CI: 0.91 to 1.15, P = 0.667) or in its two separate BP ranges (low-range: RR: 0.91; 95% CI: 0.81 to 1.02, P = 0.107; high range: RR: 1.00; 95% CI: 0.95 to 1.06, P = 0.951). Prehypertension was significantly associated with a greater risk of CVD mortality (RR: 1.32; 95% CI: 1.16 to 1.50, P<0.001). When analyzed separately by two BP ranges, only high range prehypertension was related to an increased risk of CVD mortality (low-range: RR: 1.10; 95% CI: 0.92 to 1.30, P = 0.287; high range: RR: 1.26; 95% CI: 1.13 to 1.41, P<0.001).


From the best available prospective data, prehypertension was not associated with all-cause mortality. More high quality cohort studies stratified by BP range are needed.

Ok, so here is some information. Let’s chart it out as best we can. Here is the diagnostic banding used by the medical profession here in the US. I note it is unadjusted for age or anything else, which is fine, got to start somewhere:

  • Normal blood pressure – below 120 / 80 mm Hg.
  • Prehypertension – 120-139 / 80-89 mm Hg.
  • Stage 1 hypertension – 140-159 / 90-99 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension – 160 / 100 mm Hg or higher.

The meta-study above further divides the prehypertension range into a high and low as follows:

  • Low Prehypertension – 120–129/80–84 mmHg
  • High Prehypertension – 130–139/85–89 mmHg

This particular study does nothing with Stage 1 and 2 hypertension – too bad. But it’s mostly those prehypertension numbers I’m worried about personally. Anyway, here’s what we’ve got so far.

BP graph 1

We will here ignore what looks like a bit of statistical hoodoo – we’re blending different studies, calculating p-values and confidence intervals to the combined results – um, maybe? Perhaps if Mr. Briggs or Mr. Flynn drops by, they can give a professional opinion. Me, I’m just – cautious. So, what’s this telling us?

If I’m reading it correctly – not a given by any stretch – we’ve determined the total relative risk or RR (a term of art, but sorta means what it seems to mean) at the base state and the three partially overlapping prehypertension states based on both systolic and diastolic BP ranges, both on a ‘All Causes’ and a cardiovascular diseases basis. What this appears to say is that a meta analysis of 13 studies of nearly a million people over several decades shows that your risk of illness from any cause increases .03 RR points, or 3% over the base value, if your BP runs a little high, but that your risk of cardiovascular  disease increases 32%. Which doesn’t exactly make sense if one assumes cardiovascular diseases are part of ‘All Causes’ – and why wouldn’t they be? – unless slightly high BP somehow reduces the sum of all other risks. Also, the analysis run over the two sub-ranges of low and high prehypertension do not look like they could possibly add up to the values over the entire prehypertension range – which could well be an artifact of the statistical analysis used. If that is the case, does not logic indicate that the results are quite a bit less certain than the p-values and confidence intervals would suggest? Again, I am very much an amatuer, so I could be a million miles off, but these are the questions that occur to me.

The critical piece missing for my purposes: what scale of risk does the RR here represent? A 32% increase in a .01% chance of Bad Things Happening is hardly worth thinking about; a 32% increase in a 20% risk of Bad Things is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish.

I’m about researched out for the moment, will continue to google around for more information when I get a moment.


Is it obvious enough that I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE? Just found this, at the Wiley Online Library: 

BP chart 2

Don’t know if this is annualized (per year) numbers, or a total across the entire age range, that ‘all significant’ part worries me a little, but: this seems to be saying that I, a 60 year old man, could expect a 1.8% chance of cardiovascular disease (however that’s defined) if my blood systolic blood pressure falls between 120 and 139, or, more important to my purposes, minisculely more risk than if my BP was the more desirable 120.

This is in line with what one would expect from the data in the previous chart.

Still a lot more work to do here.


Henry Kissinger (yes, he’s still alive – 95 yrs old. His dad made it to 95 and his mom to 98, I think, so he may be with us even longer.) has opined that we’ve got to do something about AI:

Henry Kissinger: Will artificial intelligence mean the end of the Enlightenment?

Two thoughts: Like Hank himself, it seems the Enlightenment is, surprisingly, still kicking. Also: End the Enlightenment? Where’s the parade and party being held? Oh wait – Hank thinks that would be a bad thing. Hmmm.

Onward: Dr. K opines:

“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”

Note: this moment of introspection was brought about by the development of a program that can play Go way better than people. Little background: Anybody can write a program to play tic-tac-toe, as the rules are clear, simple and very, very limiting: there are only 9 squares, so there will never be more than 9 options for any one move, and no more than 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 possible moves. A simple program can exhaust all possible moves, dictate the next move in all possible scenarios, and thus guarantee whatever outcome the game allows and the programmer wants – win or draw, in practice.

Chess, on the other hand, is much harder game, with an effectively inexhaustible number of possible moves and configurations. People have been writing chess playing programs for decades, and, a few decades ago, managed to come up with programs sophisticated enough to beat any human chess player. Grossly put, they work by a combination of heuristics used to whittle choices down to more plausible moves (any chess game contains the possibility of any number of seemingly nonsensical moves), simply brute-force playing out of possible good choices for some number of moves ahead, and refinement of algorithms based on outcomes to improve the heuristics. Since you can set two machines to play each other, or one machine to play itself, for as long or as many games as you like, the possibility arises – and seems to have taken place – that, by playing millions more games than any human could ever play, measuring the outcomes, and refining their rules for picking ‘good’ moves, computers can program themselves – can learn, as enthusiasts enthusiastically anthropomorphize – to become better chess players than any human being.

Go presents yet another level of difficulty, and it was theorized not too many years ago to not be susceptible to such brute-force solutions. A Go master can study a board mid-game, and tell you which side has the stronger position, but, legendarily, cannot provide any sort of coherent reason why that side holds an advantage. The next master, examining the same board, would, it was said, reach the same conclusion, but be able to offer no better reasons why.

At least, that was the story. Because of the even greater number of possible moves and the difficulty mid-game of assessing which side held the stronger position, it was thought that Go would not fall to machines any time soon, at least, if they used the same sort of logic used to create the chess playing programs.

Evidently, this was incorrect. So now Go has suffered the same fate as chess: the best players are not players, but machines with programs that have run through millions and millions of possible games, measured the results, programmed themselves to follow paths that generate the desired results, and so now cannot be defeated by mere mortals. (1)

But of course, the claim isn’t that AI is mastering games where the rules clearly define both all possible moves and outcomes, but rather is being applied to other fields as well.

After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:

“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”

“Capable of establishing their own objectives” Um, what? They are programs, run on computers, according to the rules of computers. It happens all the time that following the rule set, which is understood to be necessarily imperfect in accordance with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, computer programs will do unexpected things (although I’d bet user error, especially on the part of the people who wrote the programming languages involved, is a much bigger player in such unexpected results than Godel).

I can easily imagine that a sophisticated (read: too large to be understood by anyone and thus likely to be full of errors invisible to anyone) program might, following one set of instructions, create another set of instructions to comply with some pre existing limitation or goal that may or may not be completely defined in itself. But I’d like to see the case where a manufacturing analysis AI, for example, sets an objective such as ‘become a tulip farmer’ and starts ordering overalls and gardening spades off Amazon. Which is exactly the kind of thing a person would do, but not the kind of thing one would expect a machine to do.

On to the Enlightenment, and Hank’s concerns:

“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”

Anyway, go watch the videos at the bottom of the article linked above. What you see are exactly the problem Dr. K is worried about – “AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology” – although in a more basic and relevant context. The engineer in the videos keeps saying that they wrote a program that, without any human intervention and without any priming of the pump using existing human-played games of Go, *programmed itself* from this tabla rasa point to become the (machine) Master of (human) Masters!

When, philosophically and logically, that’s not what happened at all! The rules of the game, made up by humans and vetted over centuries by humans, contain within themselves everything which could be called the game of Go in its logical form. Thus, by playing out games under those rules, the machine is not learning something new and even less creating ex nihilo – it is much more like a clock keeping time than a human exploring the possibilities of a game.

The key point is that the rules are something, and something essential. They are the formal cause of the game. The game does not exist without them. No physical manifestation of the game is the game without being a manifestation of the rules. This is exactly the kind of sophomore-level philosophy the developers behind this program can almost be guaranteed to be lacking.

(Aside: this is also what is lacking in the supposed ‘universe simply arose from nothing at the Big Bang’ argument made by New Atheists. The marvelous and vast array of rules governing even the most basic particles and their interactions must be considered ‘nothing’ for this argument to make sense. The further difficulty arises from mistaking cause for temporal cause rather than logical cause, where the lack of a ‘before’ is claimed to invalidate all claims of causality – but that’s another topic.)

The starry-eyes developers now hope to apply the algorithms written for their Go program to other areas, since they are not dependent on Go, but were written as a general solution. A general solution, I hasten (and they do not hasten) to add: with rules, procedures and outcomes as clearly and completely defined as those governing the game of Go.

Unlike Dr. Kissinger, I am not one bit sorry to see the Enlightenment, a vicious and destructive myth with a high body count and even higher level of propaganda to this day, die ASAP. I also differ in what I fear, and I think my reality-based fears are in fact connected with why I’d be happy to see the Enlightenment in the dustbin of History (hey, that’s catchy!): What’s more likely to happen is that men, enamoured of their new toy, will proceed to insist that life really is whatever they can reduce to a set of rules a machine can follow. That’s the dystopian nightmare, in which the machines merely act out the delusions of the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s the delusions we should fear, more than the tools this generation of rootless, self-righteous zealots dream of using to enforce them.

  1. There was a period, in the 1980s if I’m remembering correctly, where the best chess playing programs could be defeated if the human opponent merely pursued a strategy of irrational but nonfatal moves: the programs, presented repeatedly with moves that defied the programs’ heuristics, would break. But that was a brief Star Trek moment in the otherwise inexorable march forward of machines conquering all tasks that can be fully defined by rules, or at least getting better at them than any human can.