(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘politics

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”*…

 

We should remember that we will pass down a whole society to our kids—including the natural environment that underwrites the quality of life of future generations. If the cost of ensuring that large numbers of children do not grow up in poverty and that the planet is not destroyed by global warming is a somewhat higher current or future tax burden, that hardly seems like a bad deal—especially if the burden is apportioned fairly. Now suppose, by contrast, that we hand our kids a country in which large segments of the population are unhealthy and uneducated and the environment has been devastated by global warming, but we have managed to pay off the national debt. That is, after all, the future that many in the mainstream of the economics profession are prescribing for the country. Somehow, I don’t see future generations thanking us…

Economists have botched the promise of widely distributed prosperity: why they have no intention of stopping now– and why that matters so much: “The Wrongest Profession.”

* John Kenneth Galbraith

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As we recalculate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1602 that Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or The Dutch East India Company, as it’s known in the Anglophone world) was born.  Generally considered the world’s first trans-national corporation and the first publicly to issue stocks and bonds (and the first company to be ever actually listed on an official stock exchange), it began with a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.  The VOC also prefigured the mega-corporation of today in that it had quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.  Considered by many to be the greatest corporation in history, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in international trade for almost 200 years.

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Written by LW

March 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers”*…

 

On October 20, 1880, just a couple weeks before the U.S. presidential election of that year, the New York newspaper Truth published a letter made up of two short paragraphs signed by James A. Garfield, the Republican candidate for president. Those two paragraphs could have been, as the paper wrote a few days later, Garfield’s “political death warrant.”

Addressed to one H.L. Morey, the letter concerned the immigration of Chinese laborers to America. “Individuals or companies have the right to buy labor when they can get it cheapest,” the letter read. “We have a treaty with the Chinese Government… I am not prepared to say that it should be abrogated until our great manufacturing and corporate interests are conserved in the matter of labor.”

More than 135 years later, that might sound reasonable enough. But in the 1880s, America was caught up in a cascade of nativism and anti-Chinese sentiment. To parts of the American populace—in particular, voters in California and other western states, where Chinese labor was seen as a threat to white workers—this was an outrage…

The 1880 election was going to be very close. It was the first election after the end of Reconstruction, and while the Republicans were still the party of Lincoln, they were divided among themselves. Garfield had been nominated at the longest Republican National Convention ever, after 36 rounds of balloting in which neither of the two leading candidates, Ulysses S. Grant and Senator James Blaine, was able to command a majority. Democrats controlled the South and much of the West. To win, Garfield would have to sweep the North and the West Coast…

The “Morey letter,” as it quickly came to be known, was a classic October surprise, an attack in the waning days of a campaign meant to land a death blow. But the letter also raised some pressing questions…

An all-too-true (and all too resonant) story of 19th Century fake news: “The Enduring Mystery of James A. Garfield’s Immigration Scandal.”

* Richard Brinsley Sheridan

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As we double-check our sources, we might send eloquent birthday greetings to William Jennings Bryan; he was born on his date in 1860.  An orator and politician from Nebraska, he was a dominant force in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as the Party’s nominee for President (1896, 1900, and 1908). He served two terms as a member of the House of Representatives and was Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1915, a position he resigned because of his pacifist position on World War I).

He was perhaps the best-known orator and lecturer of the era.  A devout Christian, he attacked Darwinism and evolution, most famously at the Scopes (“Monkey”) Trial in 1925 in Tennessee; an ardent populist, he was an enemy of the banks and the gold standard (c.f., his famous “Cross of Gold” speech).

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Written by LW

March 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…

 

These are interesting times for the concrete industry. After the misery of the 2008 financial crisis, construction in America is back in rude health, albeit patchily. Texas, California, and Colorado are all “very hot,” attendees say, as places where new hotels and homes and offices are being built. Demand is so high in these states that concrete-pump manufacturers are apparently having trouble filling orders. Employees worry that with baby boomers retiring, there isn’t the skilled labor force in place to do the work.

But America’s public infrastructure is still a mess—rusting rebars and cracked freeways stand as miserable testaments to a lack of net investment. It’s a complex and cross-party problem, as James Surowiecki has described in The New Yorker. Republicans have shied away from big-government investment– though of course Trump paved his pathway to the White House with pledges to build roads, hospitals, and, of course, a “great great wall”– and the increasing need to get the nod from different government bodies makes it hard to pass policy. For politicians keen on publicity, grand plans for big new things are exciting. But the subsequent decades of maintenance are thankless and dull…

Georgina Voss reports from World of Concrete, the concrete and masonry industry’s massive trade gathering—a five-day show that attacts more than 60,000 attendees.

How the construction business and the politics of the moment are mixed for the pour: “Welcome to the SXSW of Concrete.”

Pair with this piece on the state of dams in the U.S.

* Günter Grass

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As we wait for it to set, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that a method for manufacturing elastic (rubber) bands was patented in Britain by Stephen Perry and and Thomas Barnabas Daft of London (G.B. No. 13880/1845).

In the early 19th century, sailors had brought home items made by Central and South American natives from the sap of rubber trees, including footwear, garments and bottles.  Around 1820, a Londoner named Thomas Hancock sliced up one of the bottles to create garters and waistbands. By 1843, he had secured patent rights from Charles Macintosh for vulcanized india rubber.  (Vulcanization made rubber stable and retain its elasticity.)  Stephen Perry, owner of Messrs Perry and Co,. patented the use of india rubber for use as springs in bands, belts, etc., and (with Daft) also the manufacture of elastic bands by slicing suitable sizes of vulcanized india rubber tube.  The bands were lightly scented to mask the smell of the treated rubber.

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Written by LW

March 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying”*…

The notion that intelligence could determine one’s station in life… runs like a red thread through Western thought, from the philosophy of Plato to the policies of UK prime minister Theresa May. To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.

Sometimes, this sort of ranking is sensible: we want doctors, engineers and rulers who are not stupid. But it has a dark side. As well as determining what a person can do, their intelligence – or putative lack of it – has been used to decide what others can do to them. Throughout Western history, those deemed less intelligent have, as a consequence of that judgment, been colonised, enslaved, sterilised and murdered (and indeed eaten, if we include non-human animals in our reckoning).

It’s an old, indeed an ancient, story. But the problem has taken an interesting 21st-century twist with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI)…

Go mental at “Intelligence: a history.”

Pair with Isaac Asimov’s lighter piece to the same point, “What is intelligence, anyway?

* Oscar Wilde

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As we celebrate variety, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne; he was born on this date in 1533.  Best known during his lifetime as a statesman, Montaigne is remembered for popularizing the essay as a literary form.  His effortless merger of serious intellectual exercises with casual anecdotes and autobiography– and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts” or “Trials”)– contain what are, to this day, some of the most widely-influential essays ever written.  Montaigne had a powerful impact on writers ever after, from Descartes, Pascal, and Rousseau, through Hazlitt, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to Zweig, Hoffer, and Asimov. Indeed, he’s believed to have been an influence on the later works of Shakespeare.

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Written by LW

February 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace”*…

 

What does having money mean for us and for our neighbors? When the art critic John Ruskin took up this question in 1860, he started from the assertion that more money for us means less money for them, and he didn’t have to go much further to conclude that disparity, after all, might be the whole point of the enterprise…

Suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants?

In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighbourhood must be poor and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired under the name of riches is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person).

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, John Ruskin on the Master/Slave paradox: “Blessed are the Poor.” (From Ruskin’s “The Veins of Wealth.”)

[Image above, from here.]

* Confucius, The Analects

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As we wonder about wealth, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote (the first version, he varied the lyrics over time) of “This Land is Your Land.”; he didn’t record the song until 1944, nor publish it until 1954.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics (to an extant tune) in response to to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio, he lifted his pen…as he’d considered writing a retort, he’d thought to name it “God Blessed America for Me”; happily, it surfaced with the title we know.

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Written by LW

February 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Astonishment is the root of philosophy”*…

 

When we speak of a “presidential philosophy,” we do not ordinarily have in mind the intellectual debt a president may have had to Renaissance natural philosophy. But Herbert Hoover’s intellectual development seems to require that we widen our ordinary scope. Hooverism may in fact be the last echo of a sort of statesmanly engagement with philosophy that probes somewhat deeper into the order of things, and into humanity’s place in that order, than does the recent genre of campaign-minded, policy-focused, ghostwritten memoirs…

Herbert Hoover, the last “philosopher President”?  Justin E. H. Smith makes the case in “Between the Mine and the Stream.”

* Paul Tillich

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As we contemplate contemplation, we might send the best of all possible birthday greetings to lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, Renaissance humanist, and councillor to Henry VIII of England, Sir Thomas More; he was born on this date in 1478.  While he is probably most widely remembered as the author of author of Utopia, More was beheaded by Henry for refusing to accept the king as Supreme Head of the newly-established Church of England (More was acting in accordance with his opposition to Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and the Protestant Reformation)…  for which he was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.  (He is remembered by the Church of England as a “Reformation martyr.”)

Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of More

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Written by LW

February 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“A certain elementary training in statistical method is becoming as necessary for everyone living in this world of today as reading and writing”*…

 

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history. We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how – if at all – we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside…

The ability of statistics to represent the world accurately is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over – and putting democracy in peril.  William Davies provides historical context, a clear diagnosis of the problem, and thoughts on a response in his important essay, “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next.”

* H.G. Wells, World Brain (1938)

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As we take note of numbers, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Roger Newland Shepard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A cognitive scientist and emeritus professor at Stanford, he has received both the National Medal of Science and the Rumelhart Prize.  While his contributions to his field are many, Shepard is probably best known as inventor of multidimensional scaling, a method for representing certain kinds of statistical data in a plane (or in space) with minimal distortion, so that the data can be apprehended by non-specialists.

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Written by LW

January 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

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