Friday, 31 October 2014

Trickle-Up Economics

     That the trickle-down theory of economics has enjoyed such marketshare in the public mind for the last thirty odd years is testimony to the power of branding. Similar names for the same product, "supply-side economics" and "voodoo economics" have been less successful. "Supply-side" is still used because although only a few economists actually know why it's called that, you can sound like you know what you're talking about. "Voodoo economics" doesn't afford that cover; if enough people claim to understand something, then calling it inexplicable nonsense will backfire by making them look smarter for understanding it, whether they actually do or not.
     The real strength of the trickle-down metaphor is in its simple and obvious intuitive imagery. Of course water trickles down from wherever you pour it, eventually finding its way to the bottom. It's a law of nature, this gravity thing, and pretty widely accepted even among Young Earth Creationists (mostly).

     The trouble with the metaphor, and with the theory generally, is that it actually mixes two incompatible metaphors, effectively flipping the force of gravity upside down. We call it "trickle-down" because we have a strong tendency to speak of wealth and social class in vertical terms: we have upper and lower classes, prosperous people are upwardly mobile, it's lonely at the top. We accept this social heirarchy metaphor unquestioningly, and in the context of describing social heirarchy, it's just fine. But metaphors are dangerous if we take them too literally, and it's a mistake to assume that the force of gravity in our social metaphor which will bring the high and mighty crashing down into poverty if they're not careful also applies to their money flowing downhill, because that's not what the original metaphor was crafted to explore.

     It is useful to think of money as a kind of fluid. We talk of cash flow, liquid assets, currency and charges. But which way does it flow? That's much more complex, because money flows in so many different directions; I might pay you today to do something for me, and you might turn around and use that money to buy something from me tomorrow. In general, though, it's a safe bet that if money is accumulating in any particular place, there's a reason for it: money tends to flow towards rather than away from such places. The mere fact that it's accumulating there is at least prima facie evidence of that.
     We generally call people who accumulate money "rich". There are all sorts of reasons why rich people become rich, some of them good, some of them bad. Some people become rich by being really good at providing something that everyone needs. Others are good at gaming the system. Others inherit wealth, others steal it. If you've heard anything about Thomas Piketty's tome, Capital in the 21st Century, you might be aware of his analysis that income from capital tends to be more than growth, which means that wealth will naturally tend over time to accumulate in the hands of those who own capital. But whatever the reason, we can think of these places where money accumulates, regardless of the reason, as "down" with respect to the natural flow of money. Money flows downhill, into the pockets of those who are good at making it, and away from those who are bad at keeping it.

     In other words, money does trickle down, but down is where the wealthy are, while the poor live in the arid highlands, praying for rain.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Refining vs. Redefining

     It may be a little late to the game to be talking about this, now that a clear majority of people in Canada and the U.S. actually favour same-sex marriage, but just the other day I was talking to someone who brought up the linguistic argument. He had no problem whatsoever with same-sex relationships; he just objected to changing the meaning of the word "marriage", which (he argued) has always been understood to mean a particular sort of relationship between a man and a woman, and that if we're going to sanction similar sorts of relationships between men and men, or women and women, we should come up with a new word for it, rather than dilute the meaning of good old-fashioned "marriage".
     This seems like the sort of argument that would appeal to someone like me, because I tend to be the grammar/usage purist at dinner parties and similar events, and I place a great deal of value on using words correctly. I reliably object whenever someone tries to explain acupuncture or shiatsu using phrases like "energy lines", because energy is a well-defined and quantifiable scientific concept: force times distance. I tremble with rage at "irregardless" and don't even get me started on using quotation marks for "emphasis".
     And yet, expanding the set of relationships captured by the word "marriage" does not bother me at all. Why?

     I don't love words and grammar and punctuation rules for their own sake. All by themselves, they're kind of arbitrary, and any number of other equally effective rules could be devised. Indeed, they have been: that's what other languages are. In English, we tend to distinguish between subject and object by word order (subject - verb - object), but in Japanese, the subject is often simply implied, the object marked by a particle, and the verb at the end of the sentence goes.
     No, I care about English words and the rules of grammar because I understand how versatile they are and how they can skillfully be used to convey meanings with rigorous precision or with playful ambiguity. I don't object to people knowingly misusing a word for effect; that's not actually a misuse. I do object to habitual misuse that degrades a useful meaning so that I can't use it anymore, and have to go into a long pedantic exposition before I can get to my main point. (Okay, so maybe I seem to like being pedantic, but I'd rather be able to get to the main point. When I have one, anyway.)

     So I want the words I use to be useful. I want them to capture the meaning that is really at the core of what I'm talking about, and not merely some label for an arbitrary list of elements. Let's imagine, for example, that everybody only ever used a Thermos to keep hot drinks hot, and if you asked anyone what a Thermos was, they'd say "It's a special kind of bottle that keeps hot things hot." Let's say the word came to be defined that way (assuming it lost its trademark status, that is), and dictionaries universally adopted that definition.
     Then, someone discovers, that if you put a cold liquid in a Thermos, it stays cold longer! My goodness! What a discovery! Whatever shall we call this new function? If a Thermos is a device that keeps hot things hot, we can't call it that. Maybe Cryos or something?
     But that's silly. It's the same object, whether it's used to keep things hot or keep things cold, and moreover its actual function is neither, but to limit the flow of heat energy between the inside and the outside, whatever the temperature is. The appropriate thing to do is to revise our definition of the word, not to invent some brand new one in order to preserve an outdated (mis)understanding of what the old thing was.

     I applaud this kind of refinement of meaning. Words are tools, and I want them to be the best tools we can make them. We should be wary of discarding their traditional meanings too quickly, because very often there are good reasons for why a word came to mean what it does; the words we have today are the product of many generations of productive bickering among writers and speakers and philologists who probably raised and considered many of the same concerns we think we're bringing up new today. But we should also be willing to change the old meaning when it is clearly inferior to the new proposal.

     And that's what I think is true of the word "marriage" today. I don't necessarily accept that the word itself just meant one man and one woman before, but even if I did, I submit that that's a pretty inelegant kind of word to preserve. We know now that the legal status that goes by the name of "marriage" when it applies to a man and a woman can also perform the same function with a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Insisting that we come up with a new word for it in those cases is just as silly as insisting that we can't call something a Thermos when it's used to keep something cold instead of hot.
     Yes, I care deeply about the integrity of our language, and to me, the word "marriage" is made stronger and more useful, not diluted, by expanding it to include all spousal relationships regardless of the gender permutations involved. What that couple has is a marriage, and I don't actually need to know what their genders are in order to understand the essential qualities of their relationship.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Calm down, everyone. It's just an idiot.

     Yesterday, in our nation's capital of Ottawa, there was an incident that has drawn a great deal of attention and led to much wringing of hands. A man with a hunting rifle shot and killed a soldier standing guard by our National War Memorial, and fled the scene in a car. Shortly thereafter, the same shooter arrived a couple of blocks away at Parliament Hill, and ran into Centre Block. There were two exchanges of gunfire, after which the shooter lay dead. There were two casualties: the shooter and the soldier he had shot. Some of the staff in the Parliament block were injured, but no one else was killed.

     Now, this certainly was a significant event, and definitely newsworthy, but let's try to put it into perspective. So far as we know, one person, for reasons known only to himself, undertook heinous acts of violence. He murdered one guy, and then was shot while presumably trying to murder some others. We grieve for the man he killed, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, and the shootout on Parliament Hill is scary to contemplate not just because it's where our government does its work but because it's a location so familiar to us from media scrums and tours. (I was there myself earlier this year.)
     But that's about as far as it should go. This was not a meaningful attack on us as a nation or an act of war, because a lone deluded individual doesn't and shouldn't have that kind of power. Back in 1981, a mentally ill man shot President Ronald Reagan in the bizarre belief it would impress an actress he was infatuated with. What does it matter who yesterday's shooter was trying to impress, or what ideology he thought he was advancing? He was a criminal idiot, and that's how we ought to react to this.

     The sad truth is that people are murdered from time to time, even in Canada. It's a tragedy when it happens, and we should look to ways to prevent it, but the happier truth is that it happens less and less often. More and more of us live our entire lives without ever killing anyone. Violence may never completely disappear from human society, but it is in decline. A side effect of that decline, though, is that we are more shocked by violence when it does happen, and perhaps a little more prone to overreact.

     So what should be done?  I'm not sure we need to do much differently at all, at least not in response to this incident. It's just another data point to consider when formulating policy on a number of issues: gun ownership, mental health, etc. Probably security procedures at Parliament Hill may need to be revised somewhat, as it's a little troubling someone was able to run all the way up into the front door and get as far as the library while brandishing a hunting rifle. They make visitors go through metal detectors, after all. And yet, let's not forget that he actually failed to kill anyone else, and ended up dead himself. Although he shouldn't have got as far as he did, they did stop him.
     But there is absolutely no reason why this should have any impact whatsoever on foreign policy. It should not dissuade us from participating in the fight against ISIS, nor should it stir us to escalate our contribution. The criminal stupidity of a lone gunman should not move us to anger or fear. Let's not give him that power.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams of Certainty

     Last week, I was reminded of a dream I once had, many years ago as an undergraduate in philosophy. Perhaps it was because I fell asleep while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but in my dream I had been working through a philosophical question, and suddenly had an epiphany: all the pieces of a proof suddenly fell into place. In that moment, I knew, I really knew with absolute certainty, that I had just proved with perfect logical rigour, relying only on unassailably self-evident premises, the existence and immortality of the soul!
     And then I woke up, and it evaporated. I could not remember anything about my proof, other than the conclusion, which by itself is no proof at all. I tried my best to reconstruct it, but I came up with nothing.
     There were two choices I had at this point. I could take my dream at face value, relying on that feeling of certainty to assure me that the proof actually existed and was still out there for me to rediscover, which I dearly wanted to do. Or, I could recognize that in all likelihood, what I had dreamed was not the proof itself, but the feeling of having found it, and there was no particular reason to believe any such proof actually existed. Eventually, and with some disappointment, I had to accept that the dream was just a dream.

     Although I hadn't consciously thought of this experience in many years, it seems to have played an important role in shaping the skepticism that has characterized most of my thinking since then. In particular, if you've read through the lengthy comment threads on some of my more theological postings here, it illustrates why I have never accepted the subjective claims of certainty promised by my anonymous commenters. They assure me that if I would only open my heart to Jesus, I would then know, really know with absolute certainty, The Truth. And once I had that sense of certainty, I would need no further proof.
     But I know that sense of certainty already, and I am unimpressed by it, because I am aware of the possibility that it can be mistaken. How certain you feel about something bears little relationship to how likely you are to actually be correct, and so even if you promise me that I'll feel certain and even if I believe you that I will feel certain, none of that amounts to an assurance that I'll be any closer to knowing the truth.
     Some people are really uncomfortable with uncertainty. They crave that feeling of certainty, and feel it gives them strength, and maybe it does that. I will probably never know that kind of comfort outside of a dream, but I'm okay with that. I find a different kind of comfort in being aware of my own fallibility, in knowing that while I'm very likely wrong about most of what I believe, I am wrong honestly, and willing to correct my errors when I become aware of them. In a way, it's kind of exhilarating, like taking off the training wheels or jumping in at the deep end of the pool. It isn't that I find the risk of being wrong a thrill; it's that I've learned that the apparent safety of the training wheels or the shallow end of the pool are illusions.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Misquoting and Misspeaking

     Once again, I must bring up the proper use of quotation marks. They are not to be used for emphasis. See? I just emphasized "not" with italics. And just now, I set apart "not" with quotation marks because I'm referring to the word itself, not its meaning or reference or anything else. Putting something in quotation marks means you're quoting (hence the name) what someone said, not paraphrasing or restating.

     I bring this up because another pseudoquote just crossed my Facebook feed today, this time attributed to Vice President Joe Biden.

"No ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights."

     The image circulated with this alleged quote goes on to say, "Yes, America, our Vice President said that!" Except he didn't. He did not utter this sentence.

     I watched the video, and what he does say is almost as dumb, if you take it strictly literally: "And let me say at the outset to all the press: No law-abiding citizen in the United States of America has any fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed in any way. None. Zero."
     That is obviously false. There's lots of law-abiding citizens in the U.S. who do fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed, and lots of law-abiding citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed every day. (The practice of civil forfeiture, for example, has gotten rather out of hand, which I take to be a pretty clear violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.)

     Now, you could take Mr. Biden as meaning exactly what he said, and if in fact he does believe that no law-abiding citizen does fear infringements to their rights, then statement attributed to him in the image macro would be a defensible inference about his beliefs. But it's not a quotation. You could say "Joe Biden believes that no ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights", and that'd be fine. Just don't use quotes unless you're actually quoting the actual words he actually said. (Seriously, is that so hard to understand?)

     But I want to go a little farther and argue that this would be a silly and uncharitable inference about Mr. Biden's actual beliefs. To me, it seems far more likely that he missed a word in his written speech, and that what he was supposed to say was that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear infringement of their constitutional rights. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see a couple of similarly clumsy oratory missteps.
     Let's be fair. Public speaking is not an easy thing to do, and mistakes happen. Working from a script (which is what any written speech is going to be, even if you write it yourself) has its own difficulties; it takes time to absorb the flow of the lines and internalize their meaning, and to find your own inflections, pauses, emphases. Joe Biden may be affable and confident, but if he's a gifted orator then this was not a day that showed it. Interpreting what someone says always takes a bit of cognitive effort at the best of times, and sometimes requires us to cut the speaker some slack while we correct for errors. We should do this regardless of whether or not we agree with the speaker's views, because successful communication is a matter of trying to discern what the speaker actually means, rather than seizing upon whichever meaning reinforces our own beliefs.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fair Warning and Photo Radar

     I've written before about speed limits, and generally argued against speeding, so it may come as a surprise that I have received seven photo radar tickets. Admittedly, six of them came over several months after I had my license plate stolen by some nitwit who apparently drove a 1985 Supra, if the images on the summonses are to be trusted. I had reported the plate stolen promptly, so I never had to pay any of the six, and needless to say, it wasn't me speeding.
     The seventh was just this past year, and it was for going 60 km/h in a 50 zone, which wouldn't have bothered me but for the fact that it was a short stretch of the road between two zones where the limit was 60. Also, it did surprise me a little, because I had always understood that there was an unwritten rule that they wouldn't issue a ticket if you were within 10 klicks of the limit, not that I have ever thought that was a valid legal argument against any actual speeding ticket. And also it was probably my wife driving.

     Now photo radar has become a hot topic again here in Edmonton, with the mayor responding on his blog to a petition of angry drivers who want photo radar abolished. They argue that it is a cash cow, that it doesn't actually make us safer, and that speed limits are too low anyway. I'll not address those again here, but instead, I wanted to consider what Mayor Iveson said (and I've said in the past myself) about speed limits, and how exceeding them at all is illegal, period, end of story. I agree with that, of course, but I want to argue here for why there ought to be a buffer as a matter of policy, and how it should be handled.

     First, the reasons for a buffer. I've read that highway engineers usually try to establish speed limits based on the 85th percentile of free traffic flow, meaning the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling. Although vehicles may vary in their performance and individual drivers vary in their skill and tolerance of risk, taken in the aggregate they can give a pretty fair idea of what people can handle safely and comfortably. I imagine they probably set the actual limit a little bit below that point (perhaps they just round down to the nearest 10 km/h), which would make sense because traffic flows most efficiently when everyone is going close to the same speed, and if only 15% of drivers feel comfortable at or above the posted limit, you'll likely have a lot of people going considerably slower and gumming up the works. So the optimum limit should be something a clear majority of drivers can confidently handle.
     But there's a curious fact about posted limits, which grocery store owners understand. Put up a sign that says "Limit 5 per customer", and people who normally would only have bought one will buy four more. To some extent, the same psychology applies to speed limits, and so drivers who might otherwise have been content at 48 km/h will feel they're missing out on something of value if they don't snap up those extra 12 klicks. So even if they do set the limit at the 85th percentile, it seems likely that the general flow of traffic will usually be at or near the speed limit, which is, after all, a good thing: we want everybody to be going approximately the same speed.
     Now, posted limits are one thing, but the facts of driving are such that sometimes you need to adjust your speed upward or downward in order to make certain maneuvers, such as getting into position to change lanes. Ideally, to avoid exceeding the limit, you'd just slow down and drop back behind the car next to you so you can change lanes, but in practice that's not aways the safest or best choice (especially given the prevalence of tailgating). So occasionally going a few klicks over the posted limit is a perfectly reasonable thing to do for certain maneuvers, and ought not to be discouraged when it's done responsibly in that kind of context. Moreover, I'd be willing to bet that traffic engineers who prescribe a speed limit are building into it assumptions that normal traffic flow will include such minor incidental variations around that value.
     As well, there's the scarcity of attention; a driver has only so much of it, and we want drivers to focus their attention where it is needed most. Although they shouldn't completely ignore the speedometer, micromanaging it is not a good investment of attention, either. A too-rigidly enforced speed limit without any buffer will begin to punish drivers for the wrong thing: watching the road. You could argue that to avoid this problem, you can just set your speed around 5 klicks below the posted limit to leave yourself some wiggle room, and of course that's true. However, remember the "Limit 5 per customer" phenomenon, and the fact that traffic engineers almost certainly take this into account when setting limits in the first place. It's likely that when they post a limit of 80 km/h, they expect and intend for traffic to comply by driving at 80 km/h and not 75 km/h.

     And yet, speed limits are legal limits; if you exceed them, you are breaking the law. If you build into it a formal buffer of 10 km/h, then in effect you're really just raising the "actual" speed limit by that amount. So what to do?

     One of the advantages to a live traffic cop pulling you over is that he or she has some discretion to let you go with a warning, when a warning is sufficient and effective. Why not have photo radar do the same thing? When it catches you exceeding the limit by 10 km/h or less, it would send you not a summons, but just a warning that you've been caught speeding. There would be no penalty, but if you get into the habit (that is, if you get too many warnings within a reasonable time period), you will start being fined.
     Mayor Iveson explained, in his blog, that the proceeds from photo radar do not go into general revenue but are used to fund traffic safety initiatives, so it seems to me that this would fall right within that mandate. The infrastructure for processing such cautions is already in place, so this would be a cost-effective way of delivering a message to exactly the people who need to hear it.