Monday, 29 January 2018

Economics, the evidence-free discipline – from the horse’s mouth

If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, “What would I do if I were a horse?”
Ely Devons, British economist

Ever since I started working in a job that periodically puts me in economics lectures, I’ve noticed that economists have a very different idea of what constitutes evidence for their statements than what scientists do. And when I say “noticed”, I mean it’s been thunderingly obvious. The health sciences, in particular, spend hours upon hours drumming into their students’ heads how much it takes to call your practice “evidence-based”. In economics lectures I’ve heard lecturers say outright, “If your analysis of the data disagrees with economic theory, trust economic theory.” Economics is at about the stage medicine was at in the mid-nineteenth century, when blood-letting and cold showers were the go-to treatment for every ill because physicians knew how the body worked, damn it, and didn’t need jumped-up empiricists coming in telling them how to do their job thank you very much.

A nineteenth-century physician practising bloodletting

But I don’t think nineteenth-century physicians ever proudly declared that their theories were evidence-free and thought it a mark of superiority. Yet I encountered economists saying exactly that, in an article from only a year ago, in a debate with a libertarian on Tumblr recently. I’m referring to the Mises Institute’s “Ten Fundamental Laws of Economics”. The list includes some uncontroversial items, but also contentious ones such as “Productivity determines the wage rate”, “Labour does not create value”, and “Profit is the entrepreneurial bonus”. It ends with Law 10: “All genuine laws of economics are logical laws.” This is explicated as

Economic laws are synthetic a priori reasoning. One cannot falsify such laws empirically because they are true in themselves. As such, the fundamental economic laws do not require empirical verification.

Which basically translates to “Anyone who disagrees with us is wrong by definition.” This is not about economics being a “soft science” rather than a “hard science”. This statement makes economics as practised by the Mises Institute not a science at all.

The phrase “synthetic a priori” is, in this context, pure bafflegab, but unfortunately it’s going to take a bit of unpacking. The philosopher Immanuel Kant divided truths along two lines. First, they can be “synthetic” or “analytic”. An analytic truth is basically simply a definition of a word: the usual go-to example is “All bachelors are unmarried,” which is true because being unmarried is part of the definition of being a bachelor. A synthetic truth is one that can’t be derived from the definitions of words alone, such as “I have two cats.” Second, truths can be a priori or a posteriori – Latin for “from before” and “from after”, respectively. An a priori truth has to be true in any conceivable universe; you know it is true before you go investigating. “One plus one equals two” is an a priori truth. An a posteriori truth is one that might or might not be true, and that you therefore can’t know is true until somebody investigates, such as “I have eaten the last of the cheese.”

Two lines of distinction potentially divide a set into four subsets, in this case analytic a priori, analytic a posteriori, synthetic a posteriori, and the one we’re interested in, synthetic a priori. Three of these are uncontroversial. All philosophers agree there is no such thing as an analytic a posteriori truth, and most philosophers agree there are analytic a priori truths and synthetic a posteriori truths. The big disagreement over Kantian philosophy is over whether there is such a thing as a synthetic a priori truth – whether there is anything that has to be true in any conceivable universe, but that can’t be reduced to definitions of terms and logical deductions from such definitions. The Mises Institute puts economic principles in this category. What would this mean?

Kant himself populated the synthetic a priori category with mathematical truths like “One plus one equals two”. Personally I’m inclined to the school of thought that mathematics is in fact analytic. There are arguments to be had on both sides, and I won’t go into them. I suppose the four-colour map theorem might count as synthetic a priori – no-one has ever created a map that needed more than four colours to fill it without any two areas of the same colour touching, and somebody has proved that this is indeed impossible via a computer program, but the proof is too complex for a human mind to comprehend. The point is that no-one can even imagine such a map. It’s inconceivable. For the Mises Institute’s “laws” to be synthetic a priori, it would have to be the case that no-one could even imagine a world in which productivity did not determine the wage rate.

The Mises Institute might respond that someone who thinks they’re imagining a world in which productivity doesn’t determine the wage rate is kidding themselves, just as someone who thinks they’re imagining a five-colour map is kidding themselves (your mental picture is just a vague squiggle; you aren’t filling in the details). But it is not at all difficult to imagine a shareholder-profit-maximizing corporation deciding to funnel 100% of the profit margin from a productivity boost into shareholder dividends instead of wages. Nor is it hard to imagine every other firm in the market doing the same, thus leaving no competing employer to whom the employees could defect. The Mises Institute is committed to the claim that this scenario is not merely implausible but unimaginable. Either that, or the phrase “synthetic a priori” in their statement is bafflegab.

Of course, if economic principles are not synthetic a priori, then what the Mises Institute is doing is making up excuses for why their beliefs shouldn’t be exposed to empirical testing, and if you find someone doing that then they’re up to something dodgy. My Tumblr correspondent claimed that societies organized according to these theories could produce and distribute goods and services “way more [efficiently] than any Marxist or Keynesian society can.” Well, that’s an empirical question. I have sat through more than enough economics lectures to be well aware of the theories as to why the free market is meant to be the most efficient means possible of maximizing production and optimizing distribution of goods and services. But only empirical data can tell us whether it is the most efficient means possible. Any attempt to put it beyond the reach of empirical investigation, such as the Mises Institute is here guilty of, suggests that its proponents fear it would disappoint them.

And before someone asks, yes, for all the respect I have for the Marxist community for the work they do in activism towards social change, I do have to concede that Marxists are equally prone to shielding their theories from the possibility of being refuted by reality. I have written about that elsewhere on this blog, if you care to go looking. But Marxist theories don’t at present dominate the global economic system. Capitalist ones do. The point is that only reality can tell you what’s true. Nineteenth-century medicine wasn’t dislodged by some other theory-driven approach; it was corrected by recourse to empirical evidence. In economics as in medicine, when the “experts” cling to their pet theories over reality, people die. We need evidence-based economics and we need it yesterday.

Monday, 8 January 2018

I support Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller

There’s a news video from New Zealand going round the world at the moment. It was taken by a casual attendee at the Rhythm & Vines Festival in Gisborne for the New Year. Two women, one of them topless, are walking through a casual crowd; a man watches them pass, then sneaks up behind the topless woman, gropes her, and runs away. Both women turn around, walk over to the man, and hit him. The women are Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller and her friend Kiri-Ann Hatfield. The man who assaulted Anello-Kitzmiller hasn’t been named.

Why am I just telling you what happens in this video, instead of showing you? Because I wanted to show you Anello-Kitzmiller’s statement on the incident instead. I’ve never previously seen the ethical core of naturism and body-positive feminism stated so comprehensively and so succinctly.

...I would like to point out that I had that body art done at the festival. There was actually a stall selling the “glitter tits” get-up, and I paid to have it done, as well as many other girls I saw walking around with it. In addition to that, the waterslide at R&V was handing out $50 to the first man and woman to go down the slide naked, and another $50 to the next man and woman. I saw plenty of naked men that day getting absolutely no harassment for revealing themselves. There were naked men in the mosh; my best friends got naked and ran through the crowds; I saw plenty of guys walking around with no shirt on and a handful of girls as well.

So I want to ask you, what is the difference? Both men and women have nipples, although men’s nipples are seemingly useless and my breasts are there to feed children, should I ever choose to have them some day. The difference is that women have been over-sexualized for way too long and it needs to stop. I wanted to share my body because I think it’s an important step to normalizing the naked body and desexualizing [it]. The more often people see nudity, the more they realize... that it’s nothing to gape over. Nudity at festivals helps erase pornstar ideals of what our bodies “should” look like. My breasts are not sex toys. They are not an invitation. My body is beautiful, and no matter who says otherwise, it cannot and will not demean my own self-worth. Nor should it for anybody else.

I’ve been accused of “trying to turn New Zealand into America” in a few comments. This is a narrow-minded accusation. Besides, the similarities are there regardless. The amount of naked people running around at Splore in New Zealand would be severely overwhelming for those of you who couldn’t handle a few bouncy “glitter tits” at R&V. I will say that the majority of New Zealand has seemed to be more conservative than Portland, Oregon, but sexual harassment happens everywhere, all over the world. I have never experienced so much hostility at a festival before, but I don’t doubt that there are festivals in the States where the crowd is also less free-spirited than others.

I have been accused of “asking for it” too many times to count. It’s disappointing that people really believe that what you’re wearing has any connection to what you actually want. Comments stating that I was “asking for it” or that I “had it coming” are promoting rape culture. When you say something like that, you are justifying that man’s actions when he violated my rights to my own body, and you are telling other like-minded people that, should they ever want to sexually assault or rape another human being, it’s OK. It is never OK and we are never “asking for it”.

...The cool thing about being able to get naked at festivals and like-minded events is that you don’t have to get naked if you don’t want to. Do what you’re comfortable with and only do what makes you happy. I personally love being naked because it made me realize that I am indomitable. Nothing anybody says about me or my body could ever wound me. At Rhythm & Vines both men and women came up to me and told me that I was disgusting, that I should cover up, that I [should be] ashamed, that I was a slut, but I kept my top off all night and I danced until 6am and I had the best time of my life regardless.

On “trying to turn New Zealand into America”, I’m surprised that such an accusation was ever made, because I was under the impression that it was more the other way around. It’s American censoriousness in particular that nudists tend to blame for the restrictive nudity rules on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The recent movement to banish breastfeeding from public spaces – a bizarre bit of prudery unheard-of even in Victorian times – is as far as I can tell very largely American, and doesn’t seem to have taken hold here. I think the truth is that the United States contains both the most and the least nudity-friendly places in the English-speaking world; Portland, Oregon, is evidently among the former.

[EDIT: A Tumblr mutual informs me that the last part of that sentence is sadly not true. However, the United States does contain San Francisco, where public nudity was temporarily legal, and Brattleboro, Vermont, where it still is. Also, I’m ashamed to report that my attention has been drawn to a recent incident in Auckland where a woman was evicted from a bus after a fellow passenger took offence at her breastfeeding. I still think this is far from the norm in New Zealand, but I can’t in all honesty maintain that it “hasn’t taken hold.”]

While New Zealand sadly doesn’t attain Brattleboro standards of body acceptance, our nudity taboo is far from absolute. My town hosts a nude rugby match most years, though they’re not doing it this year; the Kawarau Gorge bungy-jumping station used to let people jump naked for free until they found they were losing too much money; and the whole country had a “National Nude Day” (mostly pubs offering specials to naked customers) for a few years about a decade ago. I used to belong to a group that went walking nude in the bush around Dunedin, and most people we met responded positively. And, as Anello-Kitzmiller points out, nudity is at least tolerated at many New Zealand summer festivals – a tradition going back to Nambassa in the 1970s – and was specifically encouraged at Rhythm & Vines. Which means that everyone who’s commented to say her toplessness was “inappropriate” is simply wrong.

That is, however, a minor error compared to the premise that, if her nudity had been inappropriate, then it would have been OK for the man who harassed her to do what he did. Of course, personally I think that nudity ought to be acceptable everywhere it’s physically safe. But even given that we can’t snap our fingers and wish for society to outgrow all its repressive norms overnight, there is no way sexual harassment is an allowable means of enforcing those norms. If female toplessness had been banned at Rhythm & Vines, then the proper response would have been for a security team member to bring her a towel or spare shirt and explain their standards. The assailant would still be no more justified in his actions than a truck driver is justified in killing cyclists who stray into the wrong lane.

The other argument is of course that old chestnut “He’s a man, he couldn’t help himself.” There were half a dozen other men in that video and they somehow managed to help themselves (although they didn’t help Anello-Kitzmiller by doing anything like intervening). And it wasn’t as if he took one look at her breasts and zoned out or something; he waited until she had gone past and then made his move. The assault was a deliberate choice on his part. If he had genuinely been unable to help himself, then he should have been under restraint or at the very least in the care of a minder. Since he was able to help himself, deterrent action such as Anello-Kitzmiller and Hatfield took was the appropriate response.

Frankly, I think “He couldn’t help himself” and “Her nudity was inappropriate” are both smoke-screens for our society’s ugly underlying attitude. Both are nonsensical on the face of it, but both make sense if you make one abhorrent ethical assumption: “Men may act on any sexual impulse they feel towards women.” Then everything falls into place. Skimpy clothing becomes inappropriate anywhere sexual activity is inappropriate. The assailant couldn’t help how he felt about Anello-Kitzmiller’s breasts.

And no, you can’t take gender out of it by restating that as “People may act on any sexual impulse they feel towards anybody.” Our society does not condone women acting sexually, nor men acting sexually towards men. Accordingly, men are granted much broader freedom with our bodies in casual contexts like music festivals. The festival I go to at New Year’s doesn’t encourage nudity, yet there were plenty of men going shirtless in the heat this year. If I, a bisexual man, had sneaked up behind one of them and groped him, and he’d (rightly) hit me, how many people do you think would have defended my actions on the basis that he was “asking for it”?

(In case you’re wondering why I, a nudist, go to a New Year’s festival that doesn’t allow nudity, it’s partly a shortage of options down this end of the country but mainly about the music. I love traditional folk music and I have bigger autistic sensory issues with loud thumpy contemporary music than I do with clothing even in the summer heat. And I wear a kilt, which helps. And for the hottest days there’s a small swimming-hole upstream of the main one where hardly anyone goes.)

The same assumption again must be behind the frequent rejoinder: “Men are turned on by breasts. How do you intend to change that?” There’s no need to change men’s feelings. What needs to change is how men consider themselves entitled to act on their feelings. Suppose you’re hungry in the supermarket – I’ve used this analogy before – and you walk past a big bulk bin full of chocolate chips or something. Do you dig your hand in and grab? Not if you’re over the age of about four. Do you stand there staring and drooling? Not if you have any self-control at all. And chocolate doesn’t even have human rights. The problem is not that men think breasts are nice; the problem is that men think breasts are permission.

Which gives us good grounds for hope that men can change. Men do seem to have evolved to like the look of breasts – I’m afraid there’s not much evidence for the idea that this response is created by society or culture. But society and culture do determine what constitutes an acceptable or an unacceptable way to behave. Our culture needs to change, and it can change if we put in the work. I salute Madeline Anello-Kitzmiller for her contribution to that work, both by displaying her body and by penalizing that man for disrespecting it. Whether you join her in the former effort can only be your own personal choice; but we all need to contribute to the latter. Let’s build a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment at every level of society we can influence, starting now.