What Get’s the Blame for the Slowing Economy?

There isn’t a doubt that if you walked into any pet shop you’d hear the resident Galah talking about secular stagnation.

The current issue of the flag ship journal of the elite, Foreign Affairs is dedicated to the issue of slow or stagnant, global, economic growth.

Steven Rattner, a leading economics columnist, wrote recently in The New York Times that secular stagnation, for the most part, can be blamed on our political leaders, who have been far too enthralled to fiscal austerity

What’s unusual about today’s raft of challenges is the extent to which governments around the world have added to the problems, rather than ameliorating them. Poor policy choices, like misguided spending priorities and too much austerity…Anti-deficit fervor has led to a meat-ax approach to spending cuts, under which nondefense discretionary outlays (which include key pro-growth areas like research and development and infrastructure) have fallen in real terms by nearly 20 percent over the past five years, at a time when they should be growing substantially…The past two recessions were caused largely by private actors: the risky lending of the mid-2000s and the dot-com bubble at the turn of the century.This time, if we fail to break out of the current stagnation — or worse, fall into global recession — the fault will lie with our leaders

Surely this analysis is too weak. Far better to ask what is to blame rather than who is to blame.

“Our leaders” have pursued fiscal austerity because their dedication to neoliberal ideology and neoclassical economics remains undiminished.  Rattner himself still by and large is committed to this, as can be seen with his prattle about financial market deregulation and economic growth in the very same article.

Even the critique presented here is too simplistic. Neoliberalism largely functions as an ideological fig leaf covering underlying processes occurring in the global economy, what we used to call “globalisation.” It is, to no small degree, globalisation through its competitive race to the bottom dynamic that helps to foster the almost permanent pursuit of fiscal austerity.

Neoliberalism, with all its attendant faults and foibles, will endure, whatever the intellectual credentials of neoclassical theory, so long as those underlying dynamics endure.

Furthermore, so long as the concentration of economic and political power obtains, a concentration facilitated by globalisation, without any countervailing power by social and labour movements mobilising from below, our “leaders” will play the, neoliberal, tune paid by the piper.

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Chomsky’s Merge, Einstein’s Dice, and Schrödinger’s Cat

One of the world’s leading defenders and exponents of what Adam Smith referred to as “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” has an interesting little review of the latest scientific work of one of that maxim’s leading critics, Noam Chomsky.

I speak of course of The Economist and its review of Chomsky and Berwick’s “Why Only Us,” which focuses on the minimalist programme in linguistics and what that might tell us about the evolution of language.

Chomsky has always held that questions regarding the evolution of language should be put off until we get a better handle on what language is; we can’t account for the evolution of something whose essence we are ignorant of, an important point to remember when one comes across this or that evolutionary theory of morality.

Chomsky argues that the minimalist programme now is starting to reveal the essential core feature of language, enabling us to start in earnest upon an evolutionary theory.

The review, I feel, misses the mark.

It states of Chomsky and Berwick’s position on evolution

The emergence of a single mutation that gives such a big advantage is derided by biologists as a “hopeful monster” theory; most evolution is gradual, operating on many genes, not one

But that is the very challenge of accounting for the evolution of language for it is precisely a singularity, to borrow an expression from the biologist de Duve, in the history of life. No prior analogue appears at all in the history of life. Any evolutionary account of language must start from the singular fact that its evolution was not gradual.

Anyways, many biologists do not subscribe to the view that most evolution is gradual. Quite a few evolutionary biologists subscribe to the punctuated equilibria of Jay Gould and Elderidge.

Whatever one may feel of Chomsky and Berwick’s account surely their desire to provide an evolutionary account that is singular, implicit in the title of the book, rather than gradualist is correct. The emphasis upon parsimony that undergirds the Chomsky and Berwick account is also, I think, correct.

The last line in the review is interesting, as it exposes the current of interpretation underpinning the text.

Linguistics is now divided into a Chomskyan camp, a large number of critics and many more still for whom the founder of the modern discipline is simply irrelevant. He is unlikely to end up like Freud, a marginal figure in modern psychology whose lasting influence has been on the humanities. Mr Chomsky’s career is more likely to end up like Einstein’s—at least in the sense that his best and most influential work came early on

Chomsky, like Einstein before him, is a misguided, perhaps tragic, old figure whiling away largely ignored on the search for a parsimonious “unified field theory” that promises to furnish us with a “theory of everything.” All the while the young’uns are pushing the frontier of knowledge with exciting, more empirically grounded work.

One can’t help but feel that there is a certain “linguistics wars” interpretation at play here. Of this Chomsky said it well better than I

Attempts to provide psychosocial Foucaultian accounts of what happens in science may or may not have some interest (in my opinion, they are of little interest), but they have to be done seriously and accurately. Otherwise we have something on the level of gossip columns

To provide some of my own errant speculation. Consider the passage on merge (for more detailed popular accounts see Chomsky’s “What Kind of Creatures Are We?” and Baker’s “Atoms of Language”)

Merge simply says that two mental objects can be merged into a bigger one, and mental operations can be performed on that as if it were a single one. The can be merged with cat to give a noun phrase, which other grammar rules can operate on as if it were a bare noun like water. So can the and hat. Once there, you can further merge, making the cat in the hat. The cat in the hat can be merged with a verb phrase to create a new object, a sentence: The cat in the hat came back. And that sentence can be merged into bigger sentences: You think the cat in the hat came back. And so on

Merge presupposes, as a computational procedure, it seems to me, the prior existence of concepts. Merge then, one might speculate, gave us the ability to form holistic conceptual schemes about the world even though our data of the world, or our stimulus, is so improvised or that our theories be so under determined by them.

There lies the, cognitive, key to science?

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Nuclear Terrorism, Deterrence, and the Social Construction of Risk

Whatever one may think of the quantification and ontology of risk surely it is a fascinating exercise to compare the way society perceives risk through a consideration of contrasting cases. When there is a mismatch between the perception of risk and the reality of risk we can be sure that social, political and economic forces are responsible for the construction of that perception of risk.

Nuclear terrorism is a classic case. When Obama came into office nuclear terrorism was presented as the leading security threat facing the United States, and Obama pledged that he would do more to combat the threat and so we had the periodic nuclear security summits that have marked his period in office, the next of which kicks off tomorrow. Now the leading security threat, we are told, is Putin’s Russia, although, ironically, Putin’s stabilisation of Russia has improved the security of nuclear materials and facilities.

The risk of nuclear terrorism, from Bush the Idiot onward, has been vastly inflated. Graham Allison had the probability of a nuclear jihadi attack, more than a decade ago already, at greater than 50% and others had it levels that could considered to be relatively high. I have always felt the probability of nuclear terror to be low, even minuscule, and I believe the historical record has bared this out. Nuclear terrorism is best studied as classic case example of the social construction of risk.

Compare all this with climate change. The probability of global warming exceeding 2 degrees C be hardly trivial, and the consequences far exceed those of nuclear terrorism. Yet states have done more, for example invading Iraq, to mitigate nuclear terrorism than they have to combat climate change. Something that affects the poor and which can be shunted to future generations, or to the public at large as with systemic financial risk isn’t too risky, but something that can be inflated to secure the interests of the rich, for instance nuclear terrorism with the invasion of Iraq, is to be presented as an awesome risk.

Jihadi terrorists are often presented as being interested in the bomb because they possess a certain irrational mindset born of an almost millenarian ideology. This leads to the supposition that if they could acquire a bomb they would unhesitatingly use it against a vulnerable Western urban-industrial target, to borrow the lingo of nuclear strategy. Jihadi groups are rational strategic actors, and a key objective of jihadi strategy has always been the acquisition of territory, in the very heart of the Middle East, in which they could build a state. Islamic State managed to achieve this long cherished goal, ironically on the back of the invasion of Iraq consent for which was built on the hyped threat of nuclear terrorism, and state building and administration has been an important IS preoccupation.

If jihadists do ever seriously make a stab at getting the bomb it will be because of the familiar, rational, logic of deterrence. It will be because they would seek to deter an attack, through possession of the bomb, on an enclave or territory that they have acquired in the heart of the Middle East, not out of an irrational and a priori desire to kill as many people as possible. In this sense nuclear terrorism wouldn’t be a sui generis nuclear security issue as it would revolve around the familiar logics of state based nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation.

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