Friday, March 09, 2007

*sigh*

I have more to say, but I also have work to do. If only I were Glenn Greenwald, and could get paid for this shit. Ah, well. Perhaps on the weekend. (I certainly have to stop this "not posting anything for two weeks" business.)

Anon.

Inflation and wages in Canada.

I could stare at this chart for hours. There's several fascinating lessons to be learned. One is the one actually discussed in the linked post, namely that Alberta's wage boom has been coupled with massive inflation. So, the gain is actually quite minimal; the average Albertan has only marginally more buying power than at the same time last year. There's a lesson here about the "resource curse", I just know it....

Ontario and Quebec, the workhorses, both lumber along with respectable gains (Ontario's about twice Quebec's). But the Maritimes, with the exception of Newfoundland (for some reason), have all experienced exceptional wage gains compared to inflation. I don't know how to explain it -- my amateur economics gives out on me at this point -- but it's certainly against the common wisdom, which claims the Maritime provinces are economically weaker than the rest of Canada.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan also seem to be posting big gains in wages over inflation, but about twice as much as BC's. Again, I can't explain it; but what are those two Western provinces doing that BC (and, to a much greater extent, Alberta) aren't? T

he explanation given in the post for the Maritimes and part of the West seems specious to me, namely that since wages in those provinces are below the national average, proportional wage gains are easy to come by. That may be true, but unless inflation in those provinces is equal to or greater than inflation nationally, the disparity between the two measures doesn't make sense. Furthermore, it doesn't explain why BC and Newfoundland are outliers. There's also a suggestion that Manitoba and Saskatchewan are reaping benefits of a western boom without the associated inflation. That's not implausible (the wage increases are pretty uniform across the west, ranging between about 3.5 and 4.5%), but why is inflation so concentrated in Alberta, then? And why is BC at the bottom end of the wage increase?

Pain.

According to this, there is a gene such that, if it is (in effect) "turned off", the individual in question does not feel pain. I wonder about this, on a number of grounds. First, is everyone's experience of pain dependent on this gene? Or are there variations on this score? Second, is this really inhibiting the experience of pain or the report of pain? Or maybe the awareness of pain? (Does it even make sense to say there is an experience of pain which I am not aware of? Well, if I am unconscious, certainly my body can respond to painful stimuli. Does that count?) And, third, does this work for all kinds of pain? Or just particular sorts of physical pain?

I don't claim to have answers to any of these questions. I know there's a growing philosophical interest in pain, though, and it seems to me that the central sorts of questions are left entirely untouched by this sort of result. (Unless your last name is Churchland, I suppose.)

Fair trade.

Here we find an article discussing the Fairtrade Mark and the associated organization, The Fairtrade Foundation. There are a couple of arguments made that I find interesting. First is by a group called Action Aid, a charity that works in developing countries (or so the article claims). The argument goes that Fairtrade is insufficiently ambitious, as it simply works within an inherently unfair system. The defense made by Fairtrade is that the inability to help everyone is no reason to not help someone. I agree. Even if radical change is better, small change can still be good.

But, there is an argument made to the effect that Fairtrade is not actually good. Fairtrade operates by enforcing labour and environmental standards on producers, as well as paying producers a premium for their products. Economically, though, this is a bad idea, for a handful of reasons. First, increasing the price artificially stabilizes the market. If demand for a product is plummeting, the optimal course of action is diversification of production. Price-fixing, even in the relative way Fairtrade does, just delays the need of diversify. Fairtrade tries to reject this argument, on the ground that diversifying requires investment, which requires money in itself. This is fine, but is disingenuous once one realizes (and the article does not make this clear) that Fairtrade does not require that Fairtrade premiums be used to help stabilize the economic processes generally. Instead, the premiums only have to be used to stabilize the current production. In other words, the system is actually set up to artificially stabilize itself, not to stabilize itself in accordance with basic laws of economics.

The second economic argument, however, is that increasing prices actually helps destabilize the market. Here's how it works. Producer makes Product. Product normally sells for $x/unit, but, with Fairtrade, sells for $x+y%/unit. The higher price thus results in higher profits for Producer. Producer, wanting even more profits, steps up production of Product. The increased volume of Product meets the (for the sake of argument) fixed level of demand for Product -- thus, the price goes down. Now, the price is $x-w%/unit. Thus, the Fairtrade price is no longer $x+y%/unit, but $(x-w)+y%/unit. Since y remains constant, the premium thus decreases, and thus profits decrease. So, unless production is held at a fixed rate (which Fairtrade not only doesn't guarantee, but seems to discourage), producers still end up screwed. In the example, Producer could, in theory, end up producing more Product but still making the same profit, at a lessened unit price. I see no way for a premium-based Fairtrade system to escape this problem.

This then suggests that Fairtrade premiums are a bad way to go.

NAFTA.

This is a good little argument about why NAFTA didn't have the totally stupendous economic results it was supposed to. Speaking generally, increased trade is a good way to improve a country's economy. However, this is speaking generally. In other words, it's a big honkin' ceteris paribus clause. Some of the items cited in the article -- recession, for example -- are not always within the control of governments, so can't really be avoided or a source of blame. However, some of the others -- notably, the lack of investment of increased tax revenues into improving infrastructure throughout the rest of the country -- are clearly within government control. So, was NAFTA to blame? Not so much. Bad government, however, was.

(As an aside, I would love to see how conservatives would explain the failure of their precious free market in this regard. Government intervention seems pretty unquestionably necessary to divert the advantages of increased trade into future economic stability.)

Institutional learning.

I feel like I'm picking on Richard Chappell today. Ah, well.

Anyway, here, Chappell comments on "assembly line" schooling. He claims that there are benefits to "individualized" or "customized" learning, which is possible with "new technology".

He's not totally wrong. Flexibility in learning is necessary. Unfortunately, he's wrong to suppose that it doesn't already exist. Alternative schools as well as options in post-secondary education do open up different paths for different students to travel. Perhaps, though, Chappell means that the options are not sufficiently expansive. Certainly, the post seems to suggest that's what he means with talk of "individualizing" education.

However, there is a problem here, in that "individualizing" is not the same as "customizing". Let me explain by example. Suppose I want a customized car. I go and choose my car, then I have various parts of it changed: new paint colour, different rims, new engine, etc. But, I started with the same basic item that anyone else could have, merely altering it to suit my tastes. If I want an individualized car, though, then I want to start with something that nobody else has (or, to really follow the analogy through, can have). In any society, the latter option is insane. Unrestrained "creativity" -- the result of an individualized learning process -- is a recipe for chaos. There are certain basic things you just need to know in order to interact with other adults in mutually beneficial ways. So, on basic grounds of self-interest, purely individualized education is a bad idea.

The latter does make sense. But, if it's customizing education that we're after, it's not clear that the current system is really inadequate. As said, there are options, ranging from choosing different classes to going to a different school (or even home schooling). So, in order to argue that education needs to be more customized, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what level of customization already exists, coupled with some defense of what level of customization is optimal (and why that). Else this amounts to little more than a childish suspicion of institutions.

Chimpanzees again.

I haven't seen this disseminated very widely. Basically, researchers in Senegal have observed chimps sharpening sticks and using the sticks to hunt for food. Yet another connection between ourselves and our closest genetic relatives.

They're taking the Hobbits to Isengard!

Context and the desperately poor.

Just so no-one believes that philosophers are all as stunningly brilliant as I am, I point you to this. Richard Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera is (currently) an undergrad philosophy student. So, maybe it's not totally fair to pick on the flaws in his argument. Then again, since they're fairly obvious, and well-discussed in the literature....

Chappell argues that there's something wrong with a scheme to pay women money to donate their eggs for scientific research. He argues this on the basis of three scenarios:
  1. Status quo: poverty without alleviation
  2. Voluntary exchanges, so the poor can do things they don't want to do to avoid something they want even less (ongoing poverty)
  3. Redistribution through minimal income
(I'll ignore, for the sake of this post, that redistribution and minimum income are two different proposals.) Chappell's argument for (2) over (1) is made on entirely utilitarian grounds. He claims that this is respectful of autonomy, in that we should let people decide whether to engage in particular transactions of possible benefit. (There's also some confused talk about democracy and paternalism, but I'll ignore that, for the sake of charity.)

Generally speaking, I am highly sympathetic to Jonathan Dancy's position (argued in Moral Reasons and Practical Reality) that there's a hell of a lot more going on in ethics than utilitarians, even of the most sophisticated sort, are capable of dealing with. This is a good object illustration, for Chappell is presuming that (1) through (3) represent a clear lexical ordering of the options, which can then be decided between on the basis of a simple principle, i.e., which is the most good. But the lexical ordering is not clear; indeed, while I won't follow Dancy and say it is always variant, it is certainly highly variant, to an extent that Chappell does not acknowledge.

For example, someone who is genuinely desperately poor -- let me arbitrarily define that as someone who cannot afford to feed themselves -- could be tempted to give up a tremendous amount of what they do have in order to obtain what they don't. Unless the trade is philanthropic -- that is, unless the trade is of something of greater good than what is given up -- then the poor person is either just as badly off as they started, or even worse. So, the amount that is being offered in exchange for what the poor person has provides a context in which the reasons that justify the poor person's decision shift polarity. That is, the fact that a voluntary exchange of value can be undertaken can serve as either a reason for it (when the exchange is of benefit to the poor person) or against it (when the exchange is of neutral benefit or actual detriment to the poor person). Given that the reasons the poor person has can shift in this way, it follows that, in the former cases, the exchange is morally permissible, but, in the latter cases, it is impermissible.

(Incidentally, this is why the democracy and paternalism stuff is not relevant. It's perfectly consistent to say the exchange is morally impermissible because it exploits the poor person, but permissible because to interfere would be paternalistic. We would then have to weigh these two reasons (and all the other relevant reasons) in order to make a well-grounded decision. Paternalism isn't some sort of trump that can be waved around to defeat all reasons; the, unquestionably paternalistic, laws which prevent children from signing contracts without parental consent are a good example.)

Aside: of course, to make matters worse, the reasons for the person exchanging with the poor person may shift polarity independently of the polarity shift of the poor person's reasons! I'm ignoring that, because that discussion will make things even more complicated than they are.

Back to the main point. To make Chappell's problem even worse, there are other relevant features of the context that he neglects to fill in. For example, poverty is a continuous variable. That is, there are degrees of poverty, ranging from "will die in the next hour" to "just can't make ends meet". Given that, no matter what is offered in exchange for the goods of the poor, there is always a risk of coercion through what we might call contextual irrationality. By this I mean that a person who, in a different context, would recognize that they do not have reason to give up what they have for something of equal or lesser value, may be in a different context such that they fail to recognize the reasons. If we are dealing with the desperately poor, this is in fact very likely: people who are starving are far from ideally rational, and can thus be encouraged to give up very valuable things for very little return. Given that, the situation starts to look coercive in a very distressing sense, namely by taking advantage of systemically-produced misery.

This, then, gives us at least two moral problems with the ordering: first, the amount offered is a bit of context relevant to determining the polarity of the reasons the poor person has, and thus the morality of allowing the exchange; second, the state of the poor person affects whether or not the exchange is coercive, and thus the morality of allowing the exchange. And these sorts of contextual factors multiply rapidly. (Dancy would say without limit; I'm not yet convinced of that.)

In short, then, while I'll accept the ordering of (1) and (2) as less optimal then (3), I don't accept the ordering from (1) to (2). And this is because of the (very obvious) role that context plays in determining the ordering. The question then becomes whether, if we fully specify the context, could we come up with a better ordering? Dancy would say "no"; I'm not nearly so confident. At the very least, though, it is likely that this new ordering would cut across the line drawn between (1) and (2). Hence, we should not always favour schemes of voluntary exchange with the desperately poor.

As I said, there's a big literature on this sort of issue out there. Chappell is a philosophy student, so he should know to at least check before thinking that there's some obvious issue that "ethicists" (his word) are overlooking.

''Rogue'' foreign aid.

This is an older piece from the International Herald-Tribune on foreign aid. I find it interesting. The main contention is that foreign aid from democratic Western countries to Africa (and other parts of the world) is being supplanted by aid from other states, such as China, who offer more money with fewer stringencies. The article insinuates that this is somehow sinister on the part of the Chinese (and everyone else doing it), but I really don't see why.

Ultimately, it seems that the problem that the writer is trying to identify is that the US' agenda is being shut out in favour of somebody else's. In other words, someone else is trying to mutually benefit with poor countries.

Foreign aid works like this (warning: gross oversimplification coming!). Countries who lack certain infrastructure elements necessary for economic prosperity (beneficial trade arrangements, solid private property laws, etc.) are given money in order to create those elements. Once the elements are in place, economic prosperity follows, so the aided country can pay back the foreign aid.

So, regardless of the intentions of the aiders, as long as the aided countries are able to (and do) spend the aid to improve their lot, then there doesn't seem to be a problem. The aiding countries get something out of the deal, but the aided countries do as well.

Now, I'm not so naive as to think that the aided countries will actually do this with the aid. After all, one of the key causes of global poverty, particularly in Africa, is corrupt regimes who pocket money instead of directing it to help the citizenry. But that's a different problem. So, too, is whether the aiding countries are slapping conditions onto their aid which inhibit its use for development. Where the money comes from doesn't seem to be a big deal, really.

(Amusingly, Googling the author, Moisés Naím, leads to his personal website, where his bio lists that he has an MSc and PhD from MIT. Here's the funny part: it doesn't tell you in what. Botany? Mathematics? Chemical engineering? Who knows! He claims expertise in economics, but writes about politics... but for all I can tell, his PhD is in Marketing.)

(Also, his Wikipedia entry is a blatant cut-and-paste of his official bio. Well done, Dr. Naím!)

Just cool.

This is just cool. Basically, they're fire-starters, used by ancient tribes. Rather than the old "rubbing a string against a twig and praying" method, though, this devices work on rapidly increasing pressure inside a sealed tube. The increase in pressure and fixed volume correlate with a rapid increase in temperature -- i.e., a spark. There's even video of them working (one of them underwater, no less).

McClelland, Anti-Semitism, and the Usual Blogosphere Crap

This is beyond absurd. Warren Kinsella is a child. Jason Cherniak is a child. Robert McClelland may, on occasion, be an idiot, but he's not an anti-semite.

There's been a little dust-up in ye olde Canadian blogosphere because, in a reply to a comment (in a thread containing some genuinely anti-semitic commentators), McClelland said, approximately: "if they [some nameless government group, I surmise] came for the Jews, I wouldn't care". This has been read as "anti-semitic" by the afore-mentioned children, as well as many others.

This is why we need more philosophers in public discourse: not caring is not equivalent to judging right. At the very most, not caring is equivalent to judging neutral (i.e., neither right nor wrong). More appropriately, though, not caring is usually symptomatic of a motivational gap between judgement and action. That is, McClelland says he "doesn't care" meaning that, even if he agrees that "coming for the Jews" would be wrong, he isn't sufficiently motiviated to do anything about it. In the very same thread, McClelland commented that he is tired of Jewish groups failing to defend leftists against being accused of anti-semitism -- so, in other words, the motivation that would accompany a judgement of wrong is being overridden by dissatisfaction and cynicism. Which is completely understandable (and, for what it's worth, happens to me all the time).

Kinsella et al. have piled on to try to accuse McClelland of anti-semitism, however, despite the total lack of evidence. Kinsella's piece in the National Disgrace (I won't link to it; I don't link to the paper; find it yourselves) brings up the tired old canard that criticizing actions of the Israeli government is instantly "anti-semitic". By that logic, criticizing the US government is anti-Christian and criticizing the government of Zimbabwe is racist. It's absurd on its very face: criticizing a government, even in very harsh terms, does not make one anti-semitic.

Kinsella also tries to draw the anti-semitic conclusion from comments McClelland has made accusing Jews of being murderers. That is also not anti-semitism. If the connection is "he's a Jew, therefore he's a murderer", then that would be anti-semitism; but what evidence is there that McClelland thinks like this? The answer, once again, is none. The more plausible, and charitable, way of reading McClelland's point is that he is noting the support of many Jews for Israel, despite (e.g.) Israel's vicious retaliation against Lebanon over this past summer (which I also criticized; check the archives), and drawing the not unreasonable conclusion that those Jews are also responsible for the Lebanese deaths. (I'm not endorsing the conclusion, because I don't buy the principle it turns on. However, it's not unreasonable. Noam Chomsky tends to reason like this, as does Peter Singer.)

What else have we got? The tired old "Fuck the Jews" post that McClelland posted some years back, which was clearly -- clearly to non-children and non-idiots, that is -- intended as a provocative thought-experiment? (I'm not saying it was successful, but it was clearly a thought-experiment.)

The very most that McClelland can be accused of is insufficient strength of character to overcome his cynicism and accept the motivation that follows from a judgement of wrong. (And, really, most people can be accused of that. Be honest.) He may also be accused of somewhat tactless phrasing (but, hey, it's a blog: you want cautious reasoning, go find a book). But anti-semitism is a serious charge, and should only be levelled in serious circumstances on the basis of genuine evidence. Terribly unserious people hysterically denouncing a few sentences, and doing it on the basis of blatant misreading, should not be throwing the word "anti-semitism" around. Indeed, they should probably not be allowed near sharp objects without adult supervision.

As an aside, I wonder to what extent this teapot-centred tempest is actually based on the genuine problems facing the federal Liberal party, which both Kinsella and Cherniak foolishly support. It's understandable, if not justifiable, to lash out at other people when something near and dear to one's own heart is failing so badly.

Now, has anyone got anything serious with which to support the charge? Or is this just a pathetic blogswarm against, in this instance, an innocent man?

To forestall any obvious questions, to support an accusation of anti-semitism, you need at least one of the following:
  1. Evidence of direct harm against Jews or believed Jews
  2. As (1), but against those who associate with or are believed to associate with Jews
  3. As (1), but against those who are sympathetic towards or are believed to be sympathetic towards Jews
  4. Etc.
The pattern should be obvious. Unless Jews (or believed Jews, or associates of Jews, or believed associates, etc.) are actually harmed, then there is no evidence of anti-semitism. None. Zip. The empty sausage. This applies to any "ism" equally well: you're not a racist unless you harm, say, blacks.

Furthermore, you also need to be doing it for the following reason:
  • Because they're Jews (or believed Jews, or associates of Jews, etc.)
Suppose the following: suppose all Jews are also actually murderers. Each and every Jew has killed someone in cold blood. Let us also suppose that something in the nature of being a Jew entails being a murderer: that is, it is impossible to be a Jew and not be a murderer. Then we could justify harming Jews, at least in the sense of depriving them of their liberty by throwing them in jail. However, we would not be doing it because they are Jews but because they are murderers. At the very most, "Jew" would be a convenient way to track the morally objectionable quality "murderer".

This is, of course, a toy example. The real world doesn't work like this. Belonging to any minority (or majority, for that matter) group doesn't track any one morally objectionable quality, nor a fortiori any set of qualities. This, then, is the error made by racists, anti-semites, sexists, et al: they use a morally irrelevant quality as a proxy for a morally objectionable quality, when there is in fact no such connection between the qualities. This is why when anti-semites try to defend themselves, they'll often point to things like "Jews can't be trusted", "Jews are all thieves", and various other offensive and inaccurate stereotypes. The anti-semite knows that everyone would agree that people who can't be trusted or thieves should be despised, to some extent, so they try to argue that every Jew fits those categories. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of Jews do not; and those that do do so not because they are Jewish.

Since there is no such evidence in the case of McClelland, it is grossly irresponsible and, in its own right, immoral to accuse him of anti-semitism. I note, with a touch of irony, that this is exactly the sort of accusation made against the left that he claims Jewish groups do not respond to, which he then uses to explain the lack of motivation discussed above. In other words, by accusing Robert McClelland of being an anti-semite, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever (let alone sufficient evidence), Kinsella et al are supporting his claim that he has reason to not care when "they come for the Jews".

The less said about the NDP's "condemnation" of McClelland, the better. I have read the letter. (I believe it was Cherniak who posted a copy of it to his blog.) It was anemic at best. At worst, it was the kind of political ass-covering that I find disgusting. If the NDP are going to be in any way different from the other parties in the federal Parliament, they need to grow a set: when some random idiot with a blog tells them there's an "anti-semite" running the Blogging Dippers, the correct response is "Oh, yeah? Prove it.", not "Well, we find that offensive too; please visit our new official blogroll... vote NDP!" Pathetic. (Is it too late to found a real Socialist party in Canada?)

(I don't have any particular love for McClelland nor the NDP, obviously. I belong to no parties. My association with McClelland is limited to reading his blog and being on the OntarioBlogs blogroll, which he administers. My only point in writing this is to expose how utterly stupid the accusations against him are. Honestly, in a week where Ann Coulter, US right-wing media darling, exposes how viciously prejudiced she is -- yet again -- we have twits like Kinsella running around and talking about Robert McClelland? In a national newspaper, no less?)

UPDATE (about 6pm EST): In discussion in the comments, with Lord Kitchener's Own, I've realized that this may leave readers with the impression that I think there is no ground to blame or censure McClelland for his comments. That is not my point at all; my point is only to focus on the "anti-semitic" label and how it is not at all appropriate. There may be other labels that will stick -- my personal favourites are "excessively cynical" (a character flaw) plus "egregiously offensive" (in the sense of vulgar) -- and thus other reasons to condemn McClelland's conduct.

However, that said, I have also learned, again from comments (this time, from Erik Abbink) that McClelland has been drummed out of the Progressive Bloggers. This strikes me as excessive, particularly given that the PB mods claim his comments were not anti-semitic. If McClelland is guilty of being offensive or too cynical, then, perhaps, the mods could justify some kind of punishment. (Although, really, are character tests now necessary in order to be part of a policy- or principle-based community?) If McClelland were an anti-semite, then that could justify throwing him out of PB. But, if he's not an anti-semite -- as the PB mods admit, and as I have argued -- then this is clearly an excessive, and thus unjustified, response.

So, to summarize. He has not done what some think he has done, but that does not mean he has done nothing. He may have deserved some punishment for what he has done, but he did not deserve this.

Those are my views on the subject. Shift them if you can.