Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Frugal Science

Carolyn Kormann has an article, Through the Looking Glass, in this week's New Yorker. This article profiles Manu Prakash, a biophysicist at Stanford and his invention of the Foldscope. The Foldscope is a small, foldable microscope, with the case made of paper. It is an example of frugal science. Prakash hopes to make these microscopes widely available to people in third world countries. One impact might be that residents in, say, African countries will be more conscious of disease-causing micro-organisms, since they can now see such. But, it is not clear to me, what the overall impact of this project might be.

Frugal science reminds me somewhat of E.F. Schumacher's "appropriate technology". It seems to me that in the last few years I've read articles about people developing new stoves and toilets without water targeted to have very low cost and for distribution among the global poor. (THose links are the result of googling now - not where I first read about them.) It seems to me solar power now gives isolated communities a capability to have power without being hooked up to an extensive infrastructure. I like to look for hopeful stories.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Obscure Postmodern Language

I try here to outline certain postmodern1 doctrines that, in a full development, might result in one using obscure terminology. None of this is to say that every postmodern writer using polysyllabic terminology is expressing complicated ideas in the most effective way. Nor do I want to argue that it is impossible to ever write clearly2 about (some subset) of these ideas.

People have a tendency towards reification3, towards talking as if certain abstract ideas are concrete realities. For example, they might tend to confuse relationships between people with relationships between things4. And people tend to think dualistically, or at least to categorize things into pre-existing categories. And with dividing things into two categories, one may tend to elevate one over the other, or to define the inferior in terms of the negation of the properties of the superior5. One might think that these confusions become embedded in our language6. It is not as if we have access to a language appropriate for a "view from nowhere", where nature is carved at its joints7.

Furthermore, current classifications and fundamental ideas embodied in current language have a history; our current language does not reflect how people always thought. In looking at past patterns of language and governance, one should try not to read our current way of thinking into the past8.

One might also think current classifications have a functional relationship to class structure, hegemonic9 ethnicities, patriarchal relationships, or whatever10.

I have deliberately been abstract here. But, I suppose, I might mention some examples. In economics, I think one is confused if one looks at capitalism as catallaxy, that is, purely in terms of market relationships, in which all parties are free. Furthermore, many things have been said to be socially constructed. I think here of money11, race12, gender13, and sex14.

In fully trying to explicate these ideas, one can be expected to struggle with bewitchments brought about by language. One might look for multivocalities in past texts. How have current suppositions been read into them? How might they be read from a subaltern position? How might language be expanded so as not to deny normalcy to currently marginalized groups? So reasons exist why academics thinking along postmodern trends might express themselves obscurely.

The above is not to say that these ideas cannot be criticized15.

Update (21 December 2015):
  • Am I agreeing or disaggreeing with what Robert Paul Wolff says here?
  • Noah Smith has a knee-jerk reaction to postmodernism.
  • The blogger with the pseudonym "Lord Keynes" has often complained about left-leaning postmoderns.
  1. For purposes of this post, I do not distinguish between deconstruction, post structuralism, various trends in the social studies of science, etc.
  2. Richard Rorty is an example of a postmodern philosopher known for clear - but not necessarily easy - writing.
  3. The popularity of the term "reification", in postmodern discourse, comes from Georg Lukás.
  4. This is how Marx defined commodity fetishism.
  5. I am thinking of how Simone de Beauvoir, early in The Second Sex, describes women being defined as the Other.
  6. Here I point to Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work, unpublished in his lifetime.
  7. I guess this relates to Jacques Derrida's claim, "There is no outside the text."
  8. Michel Foucault, in particular, offers provocative studies of changing European thought in the classical age, between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century.
  9. The popularity of the term "hegemony", in postmodern discourse, comes from Antonio Gramsci.
  10. As Marx said, "The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes."
  11. This is an example of how something can both be socially constructed and real. Obviously, money has quite real effects in modern societies.
  12. Think of the use of the words "Black" and "Colored" in South Africa and in the USA. In the former, they are not synonyms, while among older Americans of a certain sort, they are.
  13. I gather Judith Butler originated the concept of gender as performative.
  14. Judith Butler also questions whether sex is necessarily a biological division. People might be classified based on chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics. More than two categories exist in many of these classifications, and they do not always line up. Philip Mirowski observes somewhere that, for the International Olympic Committee (and the International Association of Athletics Federations), these classifications are a quite practical issue. After all, they are structured to find exceptional humans.
  15. For explicit references below, I only give critiques. I am sympathetic to the idea that the popularity of postmodernism among academics was connected to an inability to successfully improve material conditions for many.
  • Samir Amin (1998). Spectres of Capitalism: A Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions, Monthly Review Press.
  • Terry Eagleton (1996). The Illusions of Postmodernism, Blackwell.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Keynes On Rational Expectations And Policy Ineffectiveness

John Maynard Keynes' famous saying, "In the long run we are all dead", is from Chapter III of A Tract on Monetary Reform. He describes, in Chapter II of this 1924 book, how governments can obtain resources from their citizens through a deliberate policy of inflation. In this sense, inflation is like taxation. He also discusses how people might react to such a policy, making it difficult for the government to "tax" at the same rate without constantly raising the rate of inflation.

In Chapter III, Keynes states a general principle:

"...a large change in [the quantity of cash], which rubs away the initial friction, and especially a change in [the quantity of cash] due to causes which set up a general expectation of a further change in the same direction, may produce a more than proportionate effect on the [price level]. After the general analysis of Chapter I. and the narratives of catastrophic inflations given in Chapter II., it is scarcely necessary to illustrate this further, - it is a matter more readily understood than it was ten years ago. A large change in [the price level] greatly affects individual fortunes. Hence a change after it has occurred, or sooner in so far as it is anticipated, may greatly affect the monetary habits of the public in their attempt to protect themselves from a similar loss in future, or to make gains and avoid loss during the passage from the equilibrium corresponding to the old value of [the quantity of cash] to the equilibrium corresponding to its new value. Thus after, during, and (so far as the change is anticipated) before a change in the value of [the quantity of money], there will be some reactions on the values of [the parameters of the quantity equation in Keynes' Cambridge formulation], with the result that changes in the value of [the price level], at least temporarily and perhaps permanently (since habits and practices, once changed with not revert to exactly their old shape), will not be precisely in proportion to the change in [the quantity of cash]." -- J. M. Keynes, pp. 81-82.

It seems to me that the above is the Lucas critique, but with a more realistic understanding of human behaviour. What exactly did Lucas contribute again?