Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

A few years ago, I wrote a blog in which I listed funny but fictional mathematical paradoxes, for instance that a surprise birthday party thrown for oneself isn’t a surprise party unless no one shows up. Funny, and insightful, and I hope worthy of Bertrand Russell or Rodney Dangerfield.

But if you remember, further down the list I wrote something that wasn’t fake at all, but instead so horribly true it’s hard to laugh at: “Two groups working successfully by themselves will fail when they combine their efforts. This is also known as democracy.”

This idea appears to be as timely as ever, since a brace of new blogs and studies tell us that partisans on both sides of the political spectrum currently hold lots of horribly irrational beliefs about government. The Daily Kos, a liberal political blog, recently conducted a poll of Republicans to find out how many wacky ideas they have. Turns out they have several, the most famous of which is that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country, so was never eligible to be our president. It’s a powerful, if false, statement–showing a helpless and disenfranchised Republican mind trying to regain his sense of personal potency now that his party has imploded, his economic and political ideas have proved disastrous and his self-esteem ranks up there with that of famously depressed drunk Billy Joel. The Tea Party might make you believe again, if they had any beliefs.

But Kos’ tidy avoidance of 9/11 truthers reveals a big mathematical problem all its own. By focusing only on weird Republican ideas, at least half (maybe two thirds) of his number set is missing (a set that would sink a hole in the floor, as surely as a toxic potion of Bertrand Russell’s antinomy sank number set theories). Ilya Somin writes here that “ignorance and irrationality” actually beset partisans of both political stripes, and goes on to mention some of the stranger parochial beliefs of sectarian leftists, including the desire of some for secession and their disturbing ideas about the influence of Jews on the economy. Somin gives a great compelling argument for why these beliefs flower, mostly that voters don’t have incentives to acquire new knowledge that hurts their team. In other words, it’s game theory at work. Voters aren’t thinkers but sports fans rooting for their own groups; they don’t care if the Yankees win because some kid in the stands unfairly snatched a pop fly away from the opponent’s outfielder.

Selective information gathering (shunning bad information about your guy and drinking up bad information about the other guy) allows Democrats to ignore the fact that it was some of Bill Clinton’s policies that helped cause the financial crisis (even if he was following a deregulation path set by Ronald Reagan). By the same token Republicans are currently blocking reform that would actually help Republican constituents, hampering economic stimulus packages that would create jobs, pounding the table for tax cuts that would make the deficit 90% of GDP over the next 10 years, and destroying legislation that would curb out-of-control medical costs. Why do they do this? They are afraid to break ranks, lest they help opponents. Somin says that you vote for your team because there are greater payoffs to being part of a team than constantly breaking ranks to do the right thing. What payoff do you get following the shifting sands of statistics? Being friends with statistics is like being friends with Mr. Spock. You don’t get a lot of joy out of it and he won’t watch “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” with you.

I have problems with Somin’s points, too, though. The most important is that it’s very static and doesn’t look at how people occasionally play red rover and cross sides, nor does he see how the changing paradigms lead to political stability. He doesn’t look into game-breaking patterns or ask why they happen. When George W. Bush signed immigration legislation that for once pointed to a rational path to citizenship, liberal pundits were quick to support him, and it gave skeptical Republicans the fig leaf they needed to finally turn on him, the way New York turned on former Knicks coach Pat Riley when he went to Miami. The 9/11 attacks also undermined the game, briefly unifying left and right (unless you count the relatively small number of Afghan War opponents). There is also a rather large political center he’s forgetting–a group that comprises mushy weenies who can’t make up their minds; Hegelian synthesists who wait until they have as much information as possible before making a plan of action (or inaction); people blithely ignorant of politics under all circumstances because they have better things to do with their time; and those who don’t have a dog in the fight for one reason or another, perhaps recent immigrants whose desire to assimilate overshadows their feeling about who runs the Senate postal committee.

Why else do people join teams? Again, because they feel helpless against prevailing political winds. It’s often noted that people in totalitarian societies turn to bizarre religious ideas in the form of millenarian movements. (When the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua, they had to contend with Virgin Mary sightings among Catholics who decided their nation was under the influence of Satan, and of course, much earlier several Jewish millenarian movements sprouted up in the Middle Ages as a result of anti-Semitic persecution). It’s exceedingly silly when conservatives call Obama the anti-Christ, but consistent with political powerlessness throughout history. When you can’t have the Earth, you take the fight to heaven, where you promise to tap whup ass another day on heathens and grassroots community organizers.

And how else would you describe a 9/11 truther if not as quasi religious? After all, perhaps one of the most salient descriptions of a religious person is his dedication to post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies. If the world is here, there must be a God who made it. If I got cancer, it’s because I did something wrong. If I only sire girls, my young Tudor dynasty must be cursed. If the 9/11 attacks helped George Bush declare war, he must have planned them all by himself. My belief in this is so strong, I can ignore something as important as two plane loads of people smashing into the Twin Towers and countless radio and cell phone dispatches laying the blame squarely on a group of radical Islamists. The belief is unfalsifiable, therefore comes very close to being religious. You show me a truther (or a birther), and I’ll show you a tongue-speaking, snake handling, eyeball-rolling-back-in-the-head Pentecostal.

What’s scary is that within the liberal and conservative spheres, the need for team loyalty is such that you see no negative feedback on the local level when false information flies around. If you read the right wing blogs these days, for instance, it’s frightening how many false assertions go unchallenged by Republicans on these sites who ought to know better or who might feel the need to challenge inaccuracies the way, say, Wikipedia readers do. If you read “The American Thinker” for instance, you’ll find lots of unchallenged statistical red herrings proving that global warming doesn’t exist, and seemingly nobody smart enough there to raise objections against their compeers. You’ll also find that the recession wasn’t caused by undercapitalized, overleveraged Wall Street banks at all (as everybody over the age of 12 should know) but was evidently caused by ACORN forcing banks to lend to poor people. I want you to ponder the stupidity of a person who can demonize one “get out the vote” organization so completely. First it was responsible for mass voter fraud (not possible) then white slavery (patently untrue) and now the financial crisis.  Next thing you know, ACORN will be responsible for the Holocaust, Alzheimer’s disease and your dad’s hemorrhoids.

The fact is, as, again, everybody over 12 should know, subprime lenders popped up everywhere to take advantage of rising housing prices for the very same reason candle makers churn out more candles for Christmas. They were seeking opportunity from market inefficiencies.  It was not a plot by poor people–it was a nasty asset bubble sadly characteristic of the U.S. economy these days when the U.S. dollar has shrunk, when foreigners thus flood our country with money to buy these assets cheap (causing them to swell) and Americans themselves meanwhile spend more than they produce by borrowing against such inflated assets. It was a systematic error was caused by cheap money, and it ain’t the last bubble you’re going to see, folks. It’s the market at work. It’s capitalism gone wild, and without regulation, it’s going to happen again and it’s going to fuck you and your family.

There are many conservative-leaning economists who know this. Why do they not step up to challenge other conservatives? Do they not have guts? Or does the game require them to go mute and turn to zombie-economists? (There’s a movie pitch for you!)

These problems with communication, misinformation and denial have led some people to argue that ignorant people just shouldn’t vote at all. I can’t get behind that idea. Why? I truly believe there’s a rational impulse floating under the game theory. When people aren’t happy with their own guy, they don’t vote. That’s a good thing. It could be that people only vote when they’re angry, but that’s not such a bad thing either. Voting against something is a way of introducing negative feedback into the system. I don’t want the Democratic majority to be knocked out of office this year (and I’ve given them money so they won’t be). But I’m also angry that when I voted in a bunch of liberals in 2008, they didn’t act more like liberals–throwing more money into job creation and suspending bipartisanship with people who were not going to help.

If Democrats lose their substantial majorities now, there’s now going to be gridlock. Is that bad? Not necessarily. It likely means the horribly destructive Bush tax cuts will expire, and we will start balancing our budget. At some point, the economy will recover and it will be no thanks to Republicans or Democrats but to market forces beyond the control of both. Higher taxes won’t stop it, just as they didn’t stop the Internet boom. When the jobs come back online, of course, you will be paid less and you will likely be working in the service industry. You can thank globalization and Ronald Reagan for that. On the other hand, sooner or later, Republicans will look at cap and trade not as a punitive measure wrought upon them by hippies but just another business opportunity like so many others that help a market economy thrive.

We might have to lean on the rudder to get the ship going in the right direction, but we’ll have a political center offering ballast to keep the ship upright. As long as this center doesn’t disappear (or let itself be bullied), then it’s very possible common sense ideas can come to pass. It took us 15 years to figure out Vietnam was an incredible cock up. It only took us seven to figure out Iraq was messed up.

Even in game theory, it seems, there’s progress.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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(Originally posted Friday, December 07, 2007)

Mathematical Paradoxes Discovered by Betrand Russell But Unpublished Until Now

–*A surprise party thrown for oneself is not a surprise party unless nobody shows up

–*A drunk cannot ever truly know he is a drunk until he his told by somebody, likely his wife, who he will then not believe

–*If a tree falls on an asshole in the forest, it is likely nobody will care

–*The existence of God can be proved ontologically by the idea that He is conceivable … or because your mother told you so.

–*None of the eight heads you stuffed in a duffel bag will fit the same way after you have successfully loaded them once.

–*Say we have a logical precept in set theory in which a woman says she only loves those men who are not in love her … yeah, that’s pretty much the way it works.

–*The Prisoner Paradox: A man set to be hanged at an uncertain point in the next five days will, because of logical deduction, in fact never be hanged … that is, not unless somebody with some guts takes the initiative.

–*Language is not something that is best understood by words themselves, which is evident to anyone who has listened to Roland Barthes go on and on and on.

–*Two groups working independently and achieving success will somehow see those successes turn to failure if the same two groups are combined. This is also known as democracy.

–*Infinity plus one is still equal to infinity, so fuck you and your “common sense.”

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