economics, history, humor, oversimplify, politics

Twelah of Stonina

No, the title is not the name of a character in a dreary fantasy epic.  It links 2 examples of something that can happen to oversimplifications as circumstances change: what is initially harmless (and perhaps mildly beneficial) can become pernicious.
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As in my earlier post arguing that oversimplification is unavoidable but can be done honestly, a whimsical example that is easily understood breaks trail for a serious example that is not.

1. Puzzles

Instructions for puzzles usually explain what the solution should look like, w/o constraining how to get there.  The Jumble series of puzzles has been around for decades, originally just on printed pages but now online also.  I sometimes solve the puzzle as printed in my daily newspaper.  (Yes, I am that old.)  Taken literally, the instructions for a Jumble do constrain the how, but in a way that strikes me as a harmless oversimplification in explaining the what.  More precisely, it was harmless until the series went online.

The weird words in the title of this post are scrambled versions of the ordinary words wealth and nations.  A typical Jumble puzzle invites the reader to unscramble several such scrambled words and then use the letters at some specified positions in the ordinary words to complete the caption of a cartoon.  Printed and online versions of the puzzle for 2016-06-10 are displayed below.  Both the layout and the use of “Now” in the printed instructions indicate that unscrambling comes before completing.  Similarly for the online instructions revealed by the [HELP] button.


While I sometimes proceed in the instructions’ order, I more often guess the completion before unscrambling all (or even any) of the words.  So what?  I can put my pen anywhere on the page at any time.  The sequencing in the instructions is just a convenient way to explain what would be a solution to a Jumble puzzle.  One could rewrite and reformat the instructions so as to explain that w/o extraneous sequencing (as in the instructions for Sudoku), but it is not obvious how to write sequence-free instructions for Jumble that are as clear as the oversimplified instructions with extraneous sequencing.  Why bother?

Here’s why.  Look at the online version.  That bright green square is a place for typing, if U so choose.  The interface does a good job of allowing U to drag letters rather than type.  After unscrambling all the scrambled words, U will see the available letters appear above the caption and can type or drag to complete the caption, just as U typed or dragged when unscrambling.   While the interface displays several signs of  good software engineering, it takes the informal specs too literally and mandates the heuristic of unscrambling all the words before doing anything to complete the caption.   (Being a nerd myself, I can sympathize.)   What began as a harmless oversimplification became a killjoy.

As it happens, I started by guessing the caption for the 2016-06-10 Jumble, then verified that my unscramblings of 3 words were consistent with my guess, and then used the resulting tentative knowledge about letters to be contributed by the word still scrambled as a hint about how to unscramble it.  (A tiny example of how science works.)  No can do in the online version.  There is a [HINT] button that doles out a single letter in a single word.  My preference for making my own hint is not just a consequence of my being compulsively self-reliant.  My own hint is discovered and might be misleading because I might have guessed wrong at the start.  The online hint is an infallible gift from on high.  No fun in that.

If U want to work on the online version of this particular Jumble, U can click on its image to visit a page with today’s puzzle and then use the page’s calendar widget to go back to 2016-06-10.

Now it is time for the serious example, which starts in the same century as the scene depicted in this example, but on the other side of The Pond.

2. Free Markets

The other momentous document published in 1776 was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, with a then-harmless oversimplification that has become a now-pernicious dogma.

Smith’s readers were familiar with intrusive governments and quasigovernmental organizations like craft guilds.  Mercantilist governments restricted who could sell what to whom.  Guilds set the prices of what their members made.  That was normal, as was censorship, state-sponsored religion, and commercial privileges granted by royal whim.  Smith was aware that his readers might find his free-market ideas disturbingly anarchic, and he tried to reassure them with his famous fantasy about an invisible hand.  He succeeded too well.

Smith remarked that, while he advocated much less intrusive government than his readers considered normal, there were still important government functions needed to make his free markets work.  He mentioned some explicitly.  Unsurprisingly, he did not mention those that would not be on anybody’s radar for over a century.  Markets cannot work properly w/o transparency: potential buyers need to know what they would be getting and how much they would be paying.  Apart from providing a trustworthy money supply, there was no obvious need for laws and regulations to make markets transparent.  They seemed obviously transparent; nobody wearing a 3-cornered hat noticed that transparency was being assumed and might someday need to be enforced.

With the passage of time, Smith’s ideas took hold, the economies of his nation and ours grew richer and more complex, and economists eventually realized that markets cannot be perfectly transparent.  What happens when they are seriously opaque?  When getting pertinent info is costly?  When some of the info floating around is false?  When insiders have pertinent info that they act upon but keep to themselves?  Long technical answers won Nobel Prizes for Kenneth Arrow and Joseph Stiglitz.  The financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its precursors illustrate a somewhat oversimplified short answer that suffices for present purposes:

The shit hits the fan.

By the time the importance of transparency and the need for laws and regulations that enforce it had become common knowledge among thoughtful advocates of free markets, the invisible-hand fantasy had morphed into market fundamentalism.  That dogma is a godsend for anybody who wants to act like a psychopath but suffers from the inconvenience of having a conscience.  It is OK if I scramble to enrich myself and U scramble to enrich yourself, no matter how much we harm each other or anybody else.  If the stupid gummint stays away and just lets “The Market” work its magic, everything will come out as well as possible in the real world, where resources are scarce and buying anything precludes buying something else with the same money.

Like religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism is rigid, simplistic, and oblivious to the suffering it causes.  The real world is indeed harsh.  It is also vastly more complex than fundamentalists concede, perhaps more complex than they can imagine.  Enforcing fairness and transparency w/o stifling useful innovation is not easy.  More generally, finding a good balance between public and private economic activity is not so easy as it seems to market fundamentalists (or to socialists, at the other extreme).

Much longer (but still readable) discussions of opacity and other market failures can be found in books like The Roaring Nineties by Joseph Stiglitz.  Perverse incentives lead to perverse behavior.  Is that really surprising?

ethics, humor, oversimplify, philosophy, politics

Green Grass and Golden Rules

Like overeating, oversimplifying is something we should always try to avoid.  Oops, that’s an oversimplification.  Sometimes it is harmless (or even helpful, for certain purposes or as a temporary expedient) to oversimplify; sometimes it is hardly better than lying.
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Is grass green?  Not if it’s Japanese blood grass in autumn.  Does a bear shit in the woods? Not if it’s a polar bear.  Is the sky blue?  Not at 1:00 AM.  Something important is hiding in plain sight here.  Everybody and their uncle have always known counterexamples to the claim that the sky is blue, and some of them have been celebrated with striking photos.  On the other hand, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau wanted to poke fun at reflexive Republican opposition to anything proposed by President Obama, he used this same claim in the Doonesbury strip that appeared 2015-05-24 in my local paper.  Clinging to his tattered hope for bipartisanship, Obama responds to an aide’s disillusionment by announcing something he thinks will be utterly uncontroversial: that the sky is blue.  The last panel shows a subsequent press conference held by the Senate’s Republican majority leader.

Leader McConnell, is the sky blue?
I am not a meteorologist.

Whether or not U agree with Trudeau’s take on the attitudes of those who pass for Republicans nowadays (and whether or not U found the strip funny), I trust that U did recognize the question about the sky’s color as a more polite version of the question about ursine defecation.  Even tho U know about sunsets.  Even tho U know that everybody else knows about them too. What is going on here?

1. Everything Is Oversimplified

Well, not everything.  The black and white cattle living on the farm near my house are not oversimplified.  They just are what they are.  Much of what I might say about them is oversimplified.  Indeed, it is hard to find anything nontrivial to say about them that is just plain true (like 2+3 = 5), w/o any qualifications or exceptions.  From a distance, they are black and white cattle, lounging on green grass under a partly blue sky.  Look more closely, and a few of them have brown instead of black.  Does it matter? Not to me.  Maybe it would matter to somebody who breeds Belted Galway cattle.  I just admire the bu-cow-lic scene and stay upwind.  Does a cow shit in the pasture?

Overeating is something people often do.  They should always try not to, and many of us can succeed most of the time.  Oversimplifying is more complicated.  Sometimes it is harmless (or even helpful, for certain purposes or as a temporary expedient); sometimes it is hardly better than lying.  Trying not to oversimplify is generally good, but the cure can be worse than the disease.  It may be better to oversimplify, be honest about it, and remain open to working on a more accurate formulation as the the need arises.  A more accurate formulation may well be good enough for a long time, but not forever.  Scientific theories and engineering calculations are like that.  Guess what?  So are ethical principles.

2. Why Is “Golden Rules” Plural in the Title?

What we call “the” Golden Rule has been formulated in various ways by various cultures.  A nice discussion appears on pages 83-86 in the book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Cathcart and Klein.  (The book is a great read, even if U aced Philosophy 101 and have already heard many of the jokes.)  They use an old joke to illustrate how seriously oversimplified the rule is:

A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule.

It gets worse.  Even when how people like to be treated is pretty much the same thruout a group, the Golden Rule stumbles.  I was both amused and disturbed when cartoonist Scott Adams showed how badly it stumbles in a Dilbert strip I should have saved.  The boss proclaims that company policy will henceforth be to follow the Golden Rule.  Dilbert objects; the boss asks why.  The resulting exchange goes something like this:

Would U like me to give U $100?
Um, yes.
OK, follow the Golden Rule and give me $100.

The boss is reduced to sputtering indignation.  Dilbert is clearly taking the rule too literally and ignoring an implicit consensus about exceptions.  But what are they?  I could not say where Dilbert errs.

Most of the formulations discussed by Cathcart and Klein are somewhat clunkier than our culture’s usual

Do unto others as U would have others do unto U.

They amount to saying

Do not do unto others as U would not have others do unto U.

Maybe people thought of the Dilbert objection and tried to get avoid it by prohibiting X rather than mandating Y.  This does help, but there is still a problem.

Would U be disappointed if I refused your request to give U $100?
Um, yes.
Please give me $100.
 I see.  U are just as hypocritical about the Confucian version of the Golden Rule as U are about our usual version.

If U fall off a boat and I hear U shout a request to be thrown a life preserver, I will try to do just that.  Just don’t walk up to me and request to be given $100.  What is the difference?  People can start with our usual formulation of the Golden Rule, admit that it is grossly oversimplified, consider what seems reasonable in thought experiments like this, try for a more explicit consensus about exceptions, and remain open to considering more adjustments as more situations arise, either in practice or in thought experiments.  Can we do better?

Immanuel Kant tried valiantly to do better with his Supreme Categorical Imperative, which is a fun read if U like reading tax laws or patents.  Cathcart and Klein have the details.

As a former wannabe mathematician, I would very much like to see a nice crisp formulation of the Golden Rule (or of any other important general principle) that just nails it, w/o exceptions or vagueness.  Nice work if U can get it.  If I ever get stuck with trying to help socialize a child, I will give the kid our usual version of the Golden Rule, say that it is a great starting point for thinking about how to behave, admit that real life is messier, and offer to talk about it more as the need arises.  I will not mention Kant.