Are humans or computers more reasonable?

This essay, The Long History of Algorithmic Fairness, sent me to some of the new-to-me references, among them How Reason Almost Lost its Mind by Paul Erickson and five other authors. The book is the collective output of a six-week stint in 2010 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. That alone endeared it to me  – just imagine being able to spend six weeks Abroad. And in Berlin, which was indeed my last trip Abroad in the brief period in September 2020 when travel was possible again. I started the book with some trepidation as collectives of academics aren’t known for crisp writing, but it’s actually very well written. I suspect this is a positive side-effect of interdisciplinarity: the way to learn each other’s disciplinary language is to be as clear as possible.

The book is very interesting, tracing the status of ‘rationality’ in the sense of logical or algorithmic reasoning, from the low status of human ‘computers’ (generally poorly-paid women) in the early part of the 20th century, to the high status of Cold War experts devising game theory and building ‘computers’, to the contestation about the meaning of rationality in more recent times: is it logical calculation, or is it what Herbert Simon called ‘procedural rationality’? This is a debate most recently manifested in the debate between the Kahneman/Tversky representation of human decision-making as ‘biased’ (as compared with the logical ideal) and the Gerd Gigerenzer argument that heuristics are a rational use of constrained mental resources.

How Reason… concludes, “The contemporary equivalents of Life and Business Week no longer feature admiring portraits of ‘action intellectuals’ or ‘Pentagon planners’, although these types are alive and well.” The arc of status is bending down again, although arguably it’s machine learning and AI – ur-rational calculators – rather than other types of humans gaining the top dog slot nowadays. As I’ve written in the economic methodology context, it’s odd that computers and also creatures from rats to pigeons to fungi are seen as rational calculators whereas humans are irrational.

Anyway, the book is mainly about the Cold War and how the technocrats reasoned about the existentially lethal game in which they were participants, and has lots of fascinating detail (and photos) about the period. From Schelling and Simon to the influence of operations research (my first micro textbook was Will Baumol’s Economic Theory and Operations Analysis) and shadow prices in economic allocation, the impact on economics was immense. (Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams covers some of that territory too, although I found it rather tendentious when I read it a while ago.) I’m interested in thinking about the implications of the use of AI for policy and in policy, and as it embeds a specific kind of calculating reason, thought How Reason Almost Lost its Mind was a very useful read.

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Places, and not

By chance, I’ve read a few books about places this week. Two were sent by an academic friend: Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul and Marc Augé’s (1992) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. The third was a treat to self, Gareth Rees’s Unofficial Britain.

I enjoyed The Global Soul, not least because it travels all over the world and I have so had it with lockdown. I’ll be back on trains and planes as soon as anybody lets me. The book sent me off into pleasant reveries about cities I’ve visited and the best hotel rooms. Although Iyer worries about the delocalisation of his kind of life, my experience is that places are – still – very different. You can always tell when you’re Abroad. That’s why I like it so much. The difference is stimulating.

Non-places is another matter. The only thing I could understand it to be saying is that many people can no longer be identified by being tied to a bounded geographical locality, and there are these deracinated transient spaces like airport lounges and car parks. Either gibberish or banal.

Unofficial Britain was the best antidote to Non-places, being a celebration of exactly such locations – multistory carparks, under motorway flyovers, hospital corridors, travellers’ hotels. As Rees observes, they all have a quite distinctive culture and even inhabitants, and are often places of heightened emotion. We just don’t see them generally. I tore through this book, which took me from hairs rising on the back of my neck (ghosts in suburbia) to howling with laughter (the motorways chapter – it alone makes this book worthwhile). What’s not to like?

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When being fair to others is efficient

The title had slightly put me off the new book by David Bodanis: The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean. I’m not in the mood for self-improvement, given that (a) it’s January, always the worst month of the year and (b) it’s lockdown – so more in the mood for gin and chocolate. Despite my rather truculent seasonal despondency, though, I really enjoyed reading it.

The title is misleading, I think. The book seemed to me to be really about the power of making sure you get the widest range of information possible, by listening to enough people with respect and treating them well enough that they say what they think – while at the same time retaining enough scepticism about their motives. Not so much ‘do as you would be done by’ fairness, more ‘efficiency wage’ fairness – the way you treat people structures their incentives. There’s also a flavour of Team of Rivals about the argument: if you don’t listen to your opponents, or those who disagree with you, reality will bite you at some stage.

The author has his own views, though, and describes this as fairness, or as decency.  The book is structured into two halves. The first is a series of stories about effective leadership, divided into exemplars of the three skills of listening, giving and defending. Most of these are not well-known people – such as Paul Starrett, who won the contract to build the Empire State Building, or Ursula Bower, a British woman who led a team of hill tribe warriors in the mountainous North of India against the Japanese in the second world war. These tales are told crackingly well, and I raced through these chapters.

The second half works a bit less well, although still a compelling read. It starts by contrasting Goebbels and Roosevelt when young, the experiences that shaped them and how they responded, and broadens out into why Roosevelt’s leadership paved the way for the Allied victory and America’s postwar success. Perhaps it’s inherently hard to get the optimal focal length when so many volumes have been written about both men and about the war.

The book then ends with a very nice section of ‘readings and reflections’, a reading list with notes providing a sort of meta-commentary on the theme of decency, or how to be a good leader (one of Aristotelian virtue) in any context.

All in all, highly recommended. It certainly cheered me through a couple of grim January evenings.41RKfm5a9SL._SY346_

 

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Progress, and Greed

As there’s not much to do this holiday other than go for walks and read, and the dog has her limits in terms of walking now she’s 14, I’ve polished off (as well as Veblen) Robert Nisbet’s (now quite old) HIstory of the Idea of Progress, and a thriller, Greed, by Marc Elsberg.

The Nisbet book is quite interesting – apparently it’s a standard text for certain courses but was published after my time in the lecture hall. The book defines the idea of progress as a threefold phenomenon: a reverence for knowledge or science; a belief that it comes about through humanity’s own efforts; and a sense of incremental gain over time. The movement forward through time is a key aspect: Nisbet argues that the idea of progress had a setback during the Renaissance – contrary to what one learned at school – because of the widespread belief that the Middle Ages had been a regression from ancient Greece and Rome, and the belief in cycles that never moved on rather than forward momentum. Inherent, too, in that momentum is the ability to look forward to things getting better in future.

The read across to economics is obvious. ‘Growth’ is really another word for progress. I’m obviously interested in how we ought to be measuring (and thinking about) changing living standards: if policies are supposed to make things better, then what constitutes better and for whom? The advocacy of well-being or happiness, or degrowth, is in effect a claim for the benefits of stasis rather than forward movement. It’s well-known now that although happiness measured on any finite scale (a stationary time series) will not be correlated with income per head (a non-stationary series) over any length of time; but is correlated with growth in income. I wonder whether that’s a fundamental link and not just a statistical correlation? Or to put it another way, if people in two countries today have the same median income per capita but one has been growing and the other static, what should we expect about their well-being?

Anyway, mulling all this over for a lecture this spring. And good to fill gaps in one’s education anyway.

41yoBakhC+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Greed is a page-turner about the murder of a Nobel prize winning economist at an ur-capitalist summit to prevent him giving a speech that would mathematically prove that a communitarian economy will grow faster than an individualist one. The mega-rich hedge fund guy is the murderous villain, and the Berlin anarchists win the day, having defied death many times over. The author has drunk the London Mathematical Laboratory/Ole Peters kool aid, for anyone interested in the character of the proof. Still, it’s set in Berlin, has lots of chases, and chunks of economic discussion too. What’s not to like (whatever you think about Peters’ dismissal of all economic theory prior to his own insights)? A must-read for anyone who hopes that understanding non-ergodic stochastic processes can make them rich.

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Veblen, institutions and ideas

Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics by Charles Camic isn’t a biography of Thorstein Veblen so much as an intellectual history. Although there is biographical detail, its purpose is to situate Veblen in his milieu, not only from an immigrant midwstern farming family but also in at the birth of academic economics in the United States in the later decades of the 19th century. This was an era when universities were being founded, some on the model of research universities imported by men who had studied in Germany. It was also a time when economics was in flux, with a progression from classical economics – and Mill’s textbook – to institutionalism on the German historical model to the new marginalism.

Camic makes two central arguments. One is that – contrary to the firm impression shaped by the only major biography to date – Veblen was far from being an outsider. On the contrary, he studied with the leading economists of the day (such as John Bates Clark, or Richard Ely), spent years on the faculty at the University of Chicago where he edited the Journal of Political Economy, wrote many academic articles and was invited to give lectures at other top departments. He was, Camic very convincingly argues, at the heart of the academic economics of the day until late in his career. Only at the end did he fall off the top rungs of this ladder, and then because of his personal entanglements and not for any intellectual reason.

The other claim is that Veblen’s economics, and indeed his entire intellectual formation, was due to an environment in which the idea of evolution pervaded everything. Hence it was not surprising that the evolution of institutions should play such a major part in Veblen’s economics. It was not because he was an outsider that Veblen condemned the ‘nonproductive’ rich in Theory of the Leisure Class, but because he considered American social and economic institutions had evolved in a parasitic, an extractive, direction. Consistent with this argument, when he wrote about economic theory, he firmly condemned the new marginalist approach as ahistorical: how could the marginalists fail to see that the marginal productivity of the rich nore no relation to the value they could extract from the economy? One might today readily agree the same point about the monopoly capitalists of big tech, but the subtitle of the book is odd – far from Veblen successfully unmaking economics, the marginalists went on to hold sway until relatively recently and are hardly down and out even now.

Nevertheless, this is a really interesting book, in effect a sociological study of the formation of the top US economics departments still dominating the profession globally today, the years when they separated from other disciplines, and were characterised by a pluralism reflecting the ferment of debate within the profession. It left me thinking what a shame it was that Veblen had left the academic world before the end of his career – he ended up writing for popular publications – because although individuals rarely turn the tide by themselves, he might have influenced what became a close-to-monoculture in economics (to borrow the evolutionary metaphor). For example, in his final academic post at Stanford he published (in 1908 and 1909) significant articles – unknown to me before this – about the “intangible assets of the community” and their role in production, the “storehouse of knowledge”. How modern this sounds. But he was kicked out of Stanford for an indiscreet relationship, and that was that. I have read Theory of the Leisure Class, and found it almost unreadable. Nevertheless, I’ll be toddling off to have a look at these two late articles.

I enjoyed reading Veblen – one for anybody interested either in the man himself or in the history and sociology of economics. It certainly succeeds in over-turning the prevailing myth that Veblen was an outsider. Iconoclast perhaps, but from within the heart of academic economics for much of his career.

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