Thursday, January 23, 2003


Thursday, 23 January 2003 (Day 41)

The first time I learnt about experimental economics was back in the days when I was vainly striving to turn myself into some kind of economist. The prescribed text for second year microeconomics was Heilbroner's Hirshleifer's Price Theory and Applications. The first micro lecture for the year was interesting. The lecturer was a new arrival and was taking over the course for the first time. He hadn't had any say in the selection of the text and apologised for the fact that it was so bad. As it was too late for the text to be changed, with it being listed in the faculty handbook and all, the best he could do was to assure us that there would be a new text the following year. As I struggled with Heilbroner Hirshleifer, I at least had the consolation of knowing that other students who came after me would be spared the same struggle.

In most of the book's chapters there were those little coloured boxes where authors of texts like to present interesting information which is outside the main argument of the chapter, but nonetheless relevant. Heilbroner Hirshleifer had an especial penchant for presenting animal behaviour studies which supported the economic theory he was presenting. There was a remarkable amount of it, drawn either from laboratory work using the techniques of the famous psychologist B F Skinner or material drawn from zoologists' field studies of animal behaviour. The classic experiment in this field at the time was a study of microeconomic consumer price theory, using Skinner's rats and stats experimental methods: in more mainstream economic texts it was treated fairly dismissively, but not in Heilbroner Hirshleifer. I was inspired to pull the economics journal where the article first appeared and read it. It was the most woeful scientific article I've ever come across, at least from the point of view of someone educated in the biological sciences. If it ever appears on-line I might indulge myself in the luxury of fisking it but don't hold your breath.

Reading this article, with all its deficiencies, led me to develop an interest in their other publications most of which I managed to track down. One was a study of wage theory, using (much to my surprise) the same experimental set up that was used for the study of consumer price theory. It's amazing the insights you can get into human nature by putting rats into confined spaces where they receive a reward for pressing buttons.

Equally amazing are some of the insights you can get into human social behaviour, by putting people into artificial situations and observing their behaviour. The classic examples of this approach are two experiments in social psychology from the US. In one, the subjects were told by the researchers that they were participating in an experiment on human learning. A rigged draw was conducted to divide the experimental subjects into instructors and students. The students (who were all actors) were to be trained in some simple task using the technique of negative reinforcement: each time a mistake was made the instructor was to administer an electric shock. The more mistakes the higher the voltage. None of this was real: what was being tested was just how far people would go in obeying authority or exercising power over someone else. The second experiment involved setting up a simulated prison in the basement of a campus building: it had to be stopped after 24 hours because the warders were getting a little too enthusiastic and the prisoners a little too oppressed.

Neither of these experiments would get past a university ethics committee these days: they're used, in the teaching of research ethics, as classic examples of what not to do (at least they are according to my social researcher pals). But that hasn't stopped this idea being used by television producers - it's the whole basis of reality TV shows, such as the egregious Temptation Island which pretty convincingly demonstrated that when you take people out of their normal social environment, with the unrecognised supports and constraints which make their relationship work, most men will start thinking with their dicks and most women will start thinking with the female equivalent. Especially if they have the encouragement of a sleazy presenter showing them carefully selected video footage intended to convey the impression that their partner's brain has already flown south into their underwear.

All of which makes me skeptically curious about this article (link via John Ray) based on an experimental study with results which suggest that people will accept impoverishment themselves if they are given the chance to impoverish others. Here's the first paragraph:

The countless individuals who are at the receiving end of irrational malice from their lessers will agree with me that an experiment conducted at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford was more of a confirmation than an investigation of human nature. [my emphasis]


From this auspicious beginning, the very comely Ilana Mercer launches into an attack on income tax as an expression of this desire of the socially inferior to tear down their betters. After a brief resume of the experimental protocol (participants were given random amounts of cash: by sacrificing a little of their own, they were able to purchase the "right" to force someone else to sacrifice theirs). In her final paragraph, Mercer proposes her idea of a fair solution to the tax problem:

... the least toxic tax is probably a poll or head tax, where all are taxed equally. Let the poor set the rate. This will sever the blood supply to the metastasizing state like nothing else.

Less for the "federal Frankenstein" is also less with which it can facilitate human wickedness.

Of course there's something resembling argument in the middle but as the resemblance is purely accidental I hope you'll excuse me if I ignore it.

What I'm curious about is the experimental study itself and if anyone can provide information on it I'd appreciate it if you'd drop a comment or an e-mail. I'm also interested in whether anyone has studied the opposite hypothesis: that most people might be prepared to accept others getting richer as long as they genuinely stand to get richer themselves in the process. No, that's a stupid idea - forget I brought it up.

Afterthought: Mercer's home page has this quote from Proudhon:

Liberty is the mother, not daughter, of order

I wonder if she knows that he's also the "Property is theft" guy.

- *** -

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

No Bag Limit

Wednesday, 22 January 2003 (Day 40)

Today brings the welcome return of hero-columnist Janet Albrechtesen to the opinion pages of the Australian, with a piece on John Howard, the feminist hero. Here's the first paragraph:

ANOTHER black armband unravels. Long depicted as the Antichrist on women's issues, John Howard has once again proved to be the quiet achiever on behalf of women.

There's plenty more where that came from, so it looks like this year's Janetism season is off to a fine start.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Fool for Love?

Tuesday, 21 January 2003 (Day 39)

Living in Melbourne, I haven't been personally affected by the Canberra fires and offhand I can't think of anyone in Canberra that I dislike intensely enough to wish their homes had burnt down. Even if there were, there's something a little tacky in finding that sort of consolation in major catastrophes and people tend to be unimpressed when you make such sentiments public (link via Tim Dunlop).

So I spent this morning trolling the news sites looking for something else to write about and, two days behind the times, I found this report from the Sunday Herald Sun at It's about Jack Thomas, the Al-Qaeda "suspect" and loser who was arrested recently in Pakistan. Thomas has been helping the Pakistani authorities with their enquiries: under Pakistani law he can be held without trial for up to a year so he may be doing so for some time yet.

The report provides a lot of background on Thomas that's been missing from most of the coverage so far, including the fact that he was arrested while boarding a plane for Melbourne. Once there no doubt he planned to give our lads in trenchcoats the slip once again just as he did when he left Australia in 2001. According to family friends, he first converted to Islam for much the same reason that some people convert to Catholicism: so that the love of his life would consent to marry him. Perhaps now he is feeling that this was about as wise as it would be to make scurrilous allegations about the character and behaviour of dingoes while camped at Uluru.

Today's good news, for Thomas anyway, is that the Australian High Commission in Pakistan has been granted consular access to Thomas so he might not end taking the magical mystery tour to Guantanamo Bay, unlike Mamdouh Habib. This isn't going to please anybody who believes that this is the best place for Australian converts to Islam but I say stuff 'em: it's the only way to make a good straw man.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Opinion Piece of the Day

Monday, 20 January 2003 (Day 38)

Jocelynne Scutt reveals the most offensive aspect of our most recent sad day for cricket in today's Australian. Much against my will (it's going to cost me my new position in the Ozblogistan Thought Police), I'm forced to say that this is a sad day for commentary.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

A Brief Note on the Blog Roll

Sunday, 19 January 2003 (Day 37)

I've made a few overdue additions to the Blog Roll: Rob Schaap's blogorrhoea, William Burrough's Baboon (where I am described, quite gratifyingly, as "an unassuming assassin of the neo-comfortable") and, by way of penance for past sins, (The very real) mieka von samorzewski. The inevitable link to Aussie Blogs is also there too albeit in a form which is not quite the official Aussie Blogs HTML.

More on Dynamism

Sunday, 19 January 2003 (Day 37)

Here are a couple of new ideas for you: I'd like to claim that they're totally original but humility and intellectual rigour dictate otherwise. Change is the only constant or, if you prefer a more metaphorical expression, you cannot step into the same river twice. The future is inevitable, so we might as well learn to get along with it. Don't worry, it's not the historically inevitable crisis of capitalism and the ensuing dictatorship of the proletariat that's inevitable: that future clearly hasn't happened and we can safely say that it has been indefinitely postponed. The future is definitely a capitalist, free market future and probably democratic as well, and it's already here. Or it will be once those boring stasists have been pushed aside and the way is open for the full flowering of the dynamist vision.

As I indicated that I might, I'm revisiting Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies. On reflection, I think that the least fatuous thing to be said about this tomelet is that the title would more properly read Virginia Postrel's Preferred Future and Its Enemies (that's a dangerous petard to leave lying around and no doubt I shall be hoist by it in due course). As Postrel herself admits:

There is in fact no single future; "the" future encompasses the many microfutures of individuals and their associations. It includes all the things we learn about ourselves and the world, all the incremental improvements we discover, all our new ideas, and all the new ways we express and recombine them. As a system, the future is natural, out of anyone's control, though it is driven by the artificial: by individual attempts ... to fashion realms of personal control.

Anyone read A J Ayer on Marx? Ayer notes that just because a particular future is historically inevitable, it does not follow that it is morally right and suggests that faced with an inevitable but morally appalling future, the best thing to do might be to oppose it. By the way, this comes from a philosopher who believed that voting for the (British) Labour Party was something that was worthwhile although he wasn't able to give a logically positivist justification of why this was so. Postrel manages to go one better than Marx:

The dynamist camp has the opposite problem [to the stasist camp], and the opposite strength. Although fewer in number, dynamists permit many visions and accept competing dreams. To work together, they do not have to agree on what the future should look like. Their "central organizing principle" is not a specific outcome but an open-ended process. A dynamic future tolerates diversity, evolves through trial and error, and contains a rich ecology of human choices. Dynamists are the party of life.

Well, that's alright then, but you begin to wonder why it should be necessary to write a book about it: especially a polemical work which argues that the technocratic left and the reactionary right should leave the future the hell alone. Still, Postrel's statement of the dynamist position, means that I can, in good conscience, declare myself a dynamist even if in working out my own version of an acceptable dynamist future I end up with a preferred microfuture which requires political and social measures which are diametrically opposed to those supported by other dynamists. As long as I'm in the party of life, rather than the other party, I can't see that it really matters.

This Week's Reading and Other Matters

Sunday, 19 January 2003 (Day 37)

This week the Potemkin is moored in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, where I'm baby-sitting a dog. She's a Jack Russell Terrier - the archetypal small nervous dog. This week's Age colour supplement has a profile of Jeffrey Masson, author of The Truth About Dogs, who has been roundly criticised for wildly anthropomorhising and sentimentalising evolution's most successful grovellers. In any event, I'm keeping an eye open for any signs of dominance behaviour: It's hard to think of anything sillier than letting a Jack Russell think that it can run your life.

I have a couple of books here to fill in the idle hours - Manning Clark of course (another chapter or two and I might be ready for the next installment of the Tugboat History of Australia) and one other, where the author poses this question (among others):

How is it then that we have fallen into taking seriously someone like the economist Milton Friedman who walks about equating, in a silly, indeed an immature manner, democracy with capitalism?

Apart from that the bookshelves are full of old "boys' books" from the 1960s, full of stories in the Magnet and Boy's Own Paper tradition where no dialogue is complete without at least one ejaculation, you know the sort of thing:

"You filthy Hun!" ejaculated Biggles.

Of course word order is critical here, otherwise the literary effect can be spoiled by an unintended double meaning which is quite ludicrous. Especially if Biggles happens to be giving his joystick the usual heavy workout.

Around the blogging traps, I notice that Scott Wickstein has blogged on Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies in Left vs Right, or Statist vs Dynamist? If this is a sign of movement in the BlogGeist, I'm weeks in front, for once, but not entirely averse to revisiting this topic. But first I have a small, nervous and slightly overweight dog to walk.