Jennifer Cook O'Toole. The Asperkid's (Secret) Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome.
This is (as it says on the tin) for teens and tweens, but my therapist recommended it to me because he is pursuing the idea that I might have Asperger's and he thought I might find it interesting. The book is well-written and -organized, and thank God that analogies like being a cooked noodle rather than rigid spaghetti (that is, be flexible rather than rigidly adhering to black-or-white thinking, which people with Asperger's are apparently known for). It starts, after the usual front matter, with a long list of guidelines, then chapters that group the principles together and elaborate on them, using the author's life experience--she has Asperger's and so does her husband and, it sounds like, their kids as well. My personal recommendation is to read the chapters first, and then go back to read the list if you need a quick refresher; I didn't realize this as I'd bought the book in ebook (Kindle) format and couldn't readily flip through. (Admittedly, I could have checked the Table of Contents, so shame on me. Still, there's nothing like being able to quickly riffle through the pages of a physical book; it's just that I'm trying to avoid clutter buildup after the massive decluttering in which we donated a few hundred books to the local library.)
O'Toole is very good at explaining "neurotypical" social behaviors and rules. Whether these explanations are helpful to actual people with Asperger's I can't tell you, since at this point I'm not entirely convinced it's the case that I really have it. (I think it may be just as likely that I'm just empathy-deficient.) I can figure out social rules. I can even function using them. Just, most of the time, I also privately find them tedious. Anyway, that's something my therapist and I will figure out together, I guess.
Topics covered include making friends, levels of friends, telling whether someone really is a friend; bullying and ways to deal with it; how not to bore people; the importance of tact and what neurotypical people usually mean when they want you to be "honest" (usually they don't mean it). I did find the section on dating to be, well, dated. It assumes heteronormativity, and more than that, the particular flavor where it's always the guy asking the gal out, which I have never really held with, but I suppose no one is asking my opinion. (I will be teaching the lizard that if she wants to ask people out, that is perfectly fine--not everyone will like it, but this is life; there is always someone, somewhere, who doesn't like one of your opinons.)
I saw at least one Amazon.com review mentioning this as also being a good resource for their GT kid--any "odd" kids who might tend to get teased or bullied. I could see that being the case. I never had particular problems with bullies, and the lizard hasn't either, but such resources are good to know about.
In any case, while this didn't tell me things I didn't know about human behavior, it was a good read and an interesting look at the viewpoint of an Asperger's author.
Click to enlarge:
The weird waviness is it being unduly flattened by the scanner, because I tried for way too long to get accurate colors with a camera and GIMP and could not.
Pattern by Teresa Wentzler (and a giant pain, it varies the height of the rows it puts in and so I had to take a ruler and pencil in lines so that I could have a proper 1 square = 1 stitch chart). Stitched over two on Antique White MCG evenweave; main stitching in silk, Caron Waterlillies, Cherry 101; satin stitch and Algerian eyelets in DMC pearl cotton size 12, Ecru (best way to do satin stitches EVER); backstitch in DMC 801 (done over one on the diagonals); shiny bits in Krenik #4 Braid Beige (013).
The colors don't quite glow the way I wanted when I saw the silk in the store, but I'm pretty happy with it all the same.
Hello once more! This episode of my travelogue takes in Tahiti/Moorea and Easter Island. I’m writing this from Chile, where the next episode might be quite dramatic …
We left New Zealand early in the morning on the first of March, and arrived in Tahiti early in the evening on the 28th of February, creating our own virtual leap year. We worked out surprisingly late that we were going to need to book accomodation for the 28th twice. The international dateline wriggles back and forth over that part of the Pacific, basically reflecting the individual choices of the islands as to whether they’d like their clock to be slightly more convenient for Asia or for America.
I nearly wrote “for Asia and Oceania” there, but we quickly discovered there’s no such place. New Zealand isn’t part of the same continent as Australia – it’s simply the largest Polynesian island. Australia is a continent on its own, and the islands of the Pacific form their own continent, sparsely populated and mostly underwater. The country of French Polynesia (there’s no such country as “Tahiti”, I did not previously know) is a massive one, roughly the size of Europe. About one per cent of its area is land.
Air Tahiti Nui has an unusually good in-flight magazine (it actually has two; the main one and “Tahiti Vahine”, a magazine dedicated to writing articles about how there’s more to Tahitian women than the exotic stereotype). A you’d expect, several of the articles made passing reference to Paul Gaugin, possibly Tahiti’s most famous resident. And each one of them seemed to have found a newly unattractive facet of the great artist’s personality. I was aware that he’d abandoned his wife and children – this fact appeared in a moral philosophy article we studied at college, on the question of whether the act was redeemed by the art. But Gaugin was also a massive racist, particularly with respect to Tahiti’s substantial Chinese population. From the graffiti I saw, this attitude was not entirely gone, although there were also regular appearances of “CHINE POUVOIR” on the walls to suggest that the Pacific Island Chinese community were giving back as good as they got.
The Tahitians don’t play rugby as far as I can see, despite the French influence. They play a bit of soccer, and Moorea had one basketball court that was in occasional use. But it was very clear indeed that the national sport that everyone was really into was canoe racing. We were on a flight from New Zealand with a canoe racing team. They were a bunch of guys in matching lime-green rashguard shirts, not massive like the Maori rugby-player giants, but incredibly broad across the shoulders and all carrying their paddles in special cases as carry-on luggage. The lads were clearly having a fine old time – I didn’t catch what they’d been doing, but there are regular dragon-boat races in Auckland and in Wellington, so it wouldn’t suprise me either that there were Polynesian canoe races too, or that a bunch of Tahitian ringers had stormed the dragon boat circuit.
I got a look at their boat too, as it was unloaded with a bunch of surfboards from the hold baggage. A Tahitian racing canoe looks for all the world like an Olympic rowing boat, with a small outrigger, also made of fibreglass. They also come in one-man versions (and presumably fours, eights and the equivalent of double sculls). And they really move. Presumably they can’t be anywhere near as fast in a straight line as boats with long oars and movable seats, but they zipped through the waves like nobody’s business and I would guess they’re a lot better at making turns. There was a big race on while we were there, something like thirty kilometres, halfway round Moorea – the winning team were sponsored by the island’s power company and it was as big a deal as Boat Race day in London.
3.Rapa Nui Protests
We were in Easter Island / Rapa Nui for a week. This meant that it was pretty nerve-wracking for us when, on the second day of our stay, the entire island was shut down by protests by the Polynesian population. So we drove out in the morning, and quickly came up to a point where the road was blocked by a pickup truck parked sideways, with a rope barrier attached to it, and a couple of guys holding placards and telling everyone, in Spanish and English, that it was all closed and that we had to go back to town to wait. We were able to take the patient view, but for the people on short two- or three-day packages, it was no joke.
Basically, the Rapanui have a long-standing set of grievances against the government of Chile, relating to the status of the Polynesian language, the amount of “immigration” by non-Polynesian Chileans to Easter Island, and various issues between the islanders and the Chilean national parks authority which I didn’t fully understand. Since all the tourists stay in Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, and nearly all the important archeaological sites are outside the city limits and only accessible by three road links, it’s comparatively easy to shut down the entire tourism industry with a couple of roadblocks. So we spent a couple of days hanging around the protests, talking to the Rapanui about what the problem was, with (on my part) a sort of general agenda to push the conversation onward from general political principles of the struggle to specific discussions about how they might be persuaded to make a specific exception for me.
You have to feel some sort of instinctive sympathy for the Rapanui. They’re the last remnants of the population that made the moai, and they’re pretty badly off compared to other Polynesian populations. I don’t know whether they were actually correct in claiming that the benefits of the tourist trade were mainly taken by non-Polynesians, but that certainly seemed to be the official view of the Rapanui “parliament” (albeit that as far as I could tell, plenty of the guys on the roadblocks did not by any means agree with the council of elders, either in terms of ultimate goals or tactics.) And at the end of the day, it’s pretty clear whose statues they are, so they’ve got the right to make decisions about their own land.
But …well, it reminded me too uncomfortably of a certain strand of nationalist politics that was entirely familiar to me from Wales in the 1980s. They know that the tourist industry is their only hope of economic viability, but they don’t fancy working in it. Their basic objection to people from outside is simply that they’re not from round here. And it seemed to me that issues of language and culture were to some extent being used as a political smokescreen; the ahu and moai were clearly genuinely important historical and cultural sites, but to claim that they were literally sacred seems really very much like pushing credibility; the megalith religion was long since gone well before the first European contact. About thirty years ago, they changed their policy and started to refuse all requests to lend any of their archaeological treasures to foreign museums, and this seems really short sighted to me.
At the end of the day, Easter Island has to have a tourist industry if it is going to provide any sort of livelihood for the Rapanui. This is certainly the only possible basis on which independence from Chile could be viable. If it has a tourist industry, then it needs to invest in the infrastructure of a tourist industry – at present, even such basic blocking-and-tackling moves as “commission and print an official guidebook” haven’t been carried out. And the only people who are proposing to make that sort of investment in tourist infrastructure are the ethnic Chilean residents. It isn’t, at the end of the day, a defensible position for a national independence movement to have a main policy goal of something which would make national independence economically impossible.
While I was in Rapanui, I happened to notice, in the British newspapers, that “Leisure Studies” would no longer be an A-Level. This was, as you’d imagine, greeted with all sorts of chortling from Oxbridge-educated journalists about academic rigour and such. God, what morons. As it happens, the North Wales of my youth has been utterly transformed in the last ten to twenty years, rebuilding its economy from post-industrial wasteland. There’s a former quarry in Bethesda which is now Europe’s longest zipwire. The Llechwedd slate caverns are now full of trampolines and bungee activities. All of these things have been put together, I’d bet, by people who have studied Leisure Studies or similar courses, probably at local FE colleges. Because tourism is a proper industry in which people earn real money. But it still seems to suffer from a pejorative stereotype under which the provision of hospitality services is thought to be some sort of snivelling, forelock-tugging anachronism, rather than a highly skilled job that needs training and talent to do properly. You can bet your life that the Swiss don’t see things this way, which is why everywhere I’ve been on this trip, I’ve seen “Hotel Interlaken” or similar-named new developments. In Switzerland, “Leisure Studies” can be pursued to postgraduate level in the extremely well-regarded hotel schools, and they’re the ones who have got it right.
4.Tahiti travel tips
Papeete, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bit of a dump. It’s not the world’s largest Polynesian slum – that would be one of the poorer districts of Auckland – but there’s a lot of immediately recognisable urban deprivation on the streets. The trouble is that the economy of French Polynesia is dominated by the big hotel chains which are the largest employers, and the capital city only really exists as a transfer point for the package trade. There is a tourism industry which isn’t dependent on the big resort complexes, but it’s more or less entirely French-speaking so you have to be a little bit on the ball to work out what to do and where you’re meant to be going.
We left the island of Tahiti pretty immediately the morning after arrival and took the short ferry journey to its sister island of Moorea, which I think was the right decision. Moorea is absurdly pretty – it has the mountain of Bali-Hai on it, as made famous in South Pacific. It also has one or two stretches of the encirling reef which are regarded as among the world’s greatest surf breaks, but having only just barely learned to surf on soft sand in New Zealand, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour when it came to putting my fragile flesh anywhere near sharp coral.
There’s one road which runs round the island and one which runs into the central highland, meaning that all addresses are given as either “kilometres clockwise”, “kilometres anticlockwise” or “near the agricultural school”. The road takes you round past coconut groves (the trees all have steel collars wrapped round them to stop rats from climbing up them) and pineapple plantations. The beaches are white sand and the climate is warm without ever getting stifling. The sea is an extraordinary shade of blue and the hills are a bright green from the same Kodachrome palette, making it almost impossible to take a bad photograph. It’s a very nice place. My advice to the independent traveller would be to head for the Hotel Tipaniers or (more of a backpacker kind of deal) “Mark’s Place”, buy yourself a small crate of Hinano Beer and accept that you’re going to be a bit of a beach bum for a while.
I wondered initially whether there were rabbits in Moorea, but then in the evening it became apparent that the holes you saw dug in the garden were occupied by crabs! The local crabs were astonishingly ugly, scuttley things which would run sideways across the road, seeming to stare up at you. They also grabbed things – a pair of my shoes which I’d left out by our garden steps ended up next morning sticking out of a crab’s house.
5.The statues non mystery
According to all the travel books I read, the Easter Island statues are “mysterious” and “unknown”, but it was not clear at all to me in what this mystery might have consisted. Everyone knows who carved them (the Rapanui, ancestors of the current Polynesian inhabitants), how they carved them (out of soft volcanic tuff, with obsidian chisels) and why they carved them (memorials of an ancestor cult). They don’t know exactly how they were moved across the island from the “quarry” in which they were carved to the standing sites, but the variety of competing theories just underlines the fact that this isn’t a very important mystery – as archaeologists from Thor Heyerdahl onward have shown, once you put your mind to it, you can think of half a dozen ways to move a great big stone across an island if you really have to.
The idea that there is some great mystery about the moai seems to go back to Captain Cook’s accounts of his voyages; apparently when he landed and asked the locals “what’s that?”, he got an uninformative answer. When combined with the fact that the Rapanui had given up on the megalith cult a hundred years or so earlier and taken up the “Birdman” cult as their main religion and cultural practice, so can see how the idea might have taken hold that the statues had been created by unknown past occupants. But it isn’t true. It’s the sort of thing that could have been sorted out quite easily with a bit of investigation, but that wasn’t really Cook’s style. His memoirs tend to follow the same pattern on each island – a landing, an exchange of trade goods, rhapsodies about the friendliness of the natives, an “incident” (usually involving someone from Cook’s crew shooting somebody) and then, inexplicably, the natives became hostile and it was time to leave.
6.The Diamond issue
If you’re reading about Easter Island at all, you quickly find yourself realising that you’ve got to make your mind up about the “Jared Diamond Question”. That question being, whether the view of Easter Island’s development and history in his book “Decline” bears any resemblance to reality at all. Lots of anthropologists and archaeologists get very cross about this, and I can sort of see why, because it’s easy to reduce that book to a simple and obviously ridiculous fairy tale where some Polynesian or other cuts down the last tree on the island and then looks up with a kind of Wile E Coyote “duhhh” expression on his face. This is daft, as quite apart from anything else there are still plenty of trees on Easter Island (as the local museum shows, arboriculture was actually practised – they cultivated trees and dug special pits to protect their saplings from the wind). Diamond also, in various bad-tempered online exchanges, seems to be very committed to the view that it was specifically the megalith cult which was the problem, and in my view goes well beyond the available evidence in insisting that the process of statue-moving just must have been really really intensive in the consumption of timber. I don’t think this stands up.
But …there’s a kind of “lost the battle/won the war” element to the clear holes in his story. It is pretty settled fact that the Rapa Nui population was already in sharp decline by the time the European colonists arrived – they obviously accelerated things, but everyone seems to agree that things had already got very bad. And it also stands out a mile within a minute or so of landing on the island that this isn’t the sort of environment where traditional Polynesian cut-and-burn agriculture is going to work well. There’s some decent evidence that local wars contributed to the destruction of fishing infrastructure (Diamond kind of goes on about canoes, because it fits into his obsession with trees, but actually the Rapanui, like other Pacific Islanders, built fish traps. Nobody relied on canoe-based fishing as a staple food source, for obvious reasons). And Easter Island had a serious problem with rats, which arrived with the islanders, but which there was no strategy for controlling, other than to use them as an emergency food source.
So in my view, Diamond’s central claim – that Easter Island’s history is basically one of gradual human-caused environmental degradation, which left it unable to sustain life – is not so far off being right that it can’t be used as an organising metaphor for his book. He just didn’t need to put quite so many cherries on the top.
7.Logistics around the world
The Polynesian islands are about as remote as it gets in terms of the international supermarket supply chain, and that is to say … not really all that remote. The French supermarket giant Carrefour stretches out its long arm – and its astoundingly good own brand of Breton cider – as far as Tahiti without any problems. Pushing my trolley around the supermarket in Moorea, I saw many old friends on the shelves, plus a few lines which had clearly been sent there by a FFE in the Carrefour shipping department who was simply looking to show off (“foie gras in the Pacific? Oh I think that is not so difficult to achieve. But people there will also want apricot conserves and pate de campagne. I can achieve that too”).
Tahiti also gets the benefit of Kiwi ingenuity, coming from the other direction; Silver Fern Farms, a pretty ubiquitous meat processor, boxes up all the bits of the beasts that New Zealanders won’t buy and exports them to its neighbouring developing world populations. So it was that, having locked on the logo and been pleasantly surprised by the cheap price of imported veal, I ended up standing in a kitchen wondering what the hell I was going to do with a box of veal hearts.
The fact that all the imported food seemed to be priced about where I’d expect it to be in an OECD supermarket did make me wonder how the locals managed, given that they didn’t seem to be earning OECD wages. The answer was that they ate a lot of fish, particularly tuna, which was locally caught, absurdly cheap and very good indeed.
Easter Island seemed to be more of a challenge for the shipping industry as it’s considerably further away from anywhere. If you’re allergic to fish, as one of my kids is, you’re going to have a tough time. But even there, it was more a question of things like fresh produce not being available at all, rather than being expensive. It really lets you see how amazingly cheap container shipping is, and even airfreight isn’t so very much as a proportion of the price of anything with any value-added element to it at all.
8.Lazy days with sharks and rays
We rented a couple of kayaks and paddled out over the lagoon. The way that islands like Tahiti and Moorea are formed is that you have a volano which pokes out of the sea. Around the volcano grows a coral reef, and then over time, the cone of the volcano collapses. This gives you a smaller, internal volcanic island, with a ring of coral around it marking the limit of where things used to be. It means that you can get exciting surf breaks a kilometre or two out, past the reef, but the seashore and the beaches are protected and the sea is basically millpond smooth.
Maybe half a kilometre out from where we were staying, there’s a spot where the tourist boats go every day and feed the rays. The rays have, unsurprisingly, got used to this, and so they show up at the same time every day. That part of the reef is also hospitable to black-tipped sharks – ranging from about the size of a human leg to (as I repeatedly reminded my children) roughly big enough to swallow a five-year old. They’re basically nocturnal animals though – at eleven in the morning, they’re clearly swimming round in a kind of daze which is close to sleeping as sharks get. They don’t even notice the tuna and bream swimming in front of their faces, let alone the tourists taking photographs of them. As far as I can tell, they just perceive us as shadowy obstacles and whoosh round us, in their own sharky world.
They’re amazing looking creatures; the row of blunt gills set back behind their big white scary eyes make them look more like a BMW sports car than any animal on earth, and I can’t believe this wasn’t the intention of the Bavarians. To be standing there on a shallow reef with a mask on and just ducking down and watching them circle around you, then seeing a great big ray undulating its wings and gliding past, trailing its sting behind it, is pretty special. On a couple of occasions, the sharks took it into their heads to form a school and move somewhere else and that was a real sight. We had twenty or thirty of them, lined up three or four abreast, and progressing forward with a sinister sense of purpose. I swam behind them for a while to try and see where they were going, but I soon lost touch.
A brief summary of this week’s polls before I have some downtime:
YouGov/Sun (17/4) – CON 34%, LAB 34%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 14%, GRN 5%
Opinium/Observer (17/4) – CON 36%, LAB 32%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 5%
YouGov/S Times (18/4) – CON 33%, LAB 36%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (19/4) – CON 34%, LAB 35%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 5%
Ashcroft (19/4) – CON 34%, LAB 30%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%, GRN 4%
Populus (19/4) – CON 32%, LAB 34%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 15%, GRN 4%
ICM/Guardian (19/4) – CON 34%, LAB 32%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 11%, GRN 5%
TNS (20/4) – CON 32%, LAB 34%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 15%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (20/4) – CON 34%, LAB 35%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 13%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (21/4) – CON 35%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 13%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (22/4) – CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 14%, GRN 5%
ComRes/ITV/Mail (22/4) – CON 36%, LAB 32%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 10%, GRN 5%
Populus (23/4) – CON 32%, LAB 35%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 14%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (23/4) – CON 33%, LAB 35%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 6%
Panelbase (23/4) – CON 31%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 17%, GRN 4%
Survation/Mirror (23/4) – CON 33%, LAB 29%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 18%, GRN 4%
The UKPR polling average continues to show a tie – CON 33%(-1), LAB 33%(-1), LDEM 8%(nc), UKIP 14%(nc), GRN 5%(nc). Some of the individual pollsters are showing consistent leads for one party or the other (YouGov and Populus, for example, are generally showing small Labour leads, ICM and Ashcroft small Conservative leads) so it’s not the case that all the pollsters are showing an exact tie, more than the average of the different companies’ house effects is neck and neck.
There was one Scottish poll this week – a new YouGov poll that confirmed their previous 24 point lead for the SNP (tabs), there was also a new YouGov poll of London for the Evening Standard with topline figures of CON 32%, LAB 44%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 10%, GRN 5% (tabs).
There were three constituency polls. Lord Ashcroft released two extra constituency polls with his weekly GB poll, showing the SNP ahead in Edinburgh North and Leith and Edinburgh South. Meanwhile Survation released a new poll of Thanet South, showing Nigel Farage nine points ahead. We should have some more constituency polls from Lord Ashcroft first thing tomorrow morning, including a poll of Rochester and Strood.
The latest forecasts from Election Forecast, May 2015, Elections Etc, the Guardian and YouGov are below, all continue to show a hung Parliament, but the models disagree on whether the Tories or Labour will be ahead on seats – Elections Etc, Election Forecast and the Guardian all have the Conservatives with more seats, YouGov and the Guardian have Labour slightly ahead.
Elections Etc – Hung Parliament, CON 286(-6), LAB 263(+3), LD 26(+4), SNP 51(nc), UKIP 4(nc)
Election Forecast – Hung Parliament, CON 283(+3), LAB 270(-7), LD 24(-3), SNP 48(+6), UKIP 1(nc)
May 2015 – Hung Parliament, CON 270(+2), LAB 273(-3), LD 26(nc), SNP 55(+1), UKIP 3(nc)
Guardian – Hung Parliament, CON 273(+4), LAB 268(-3), LD 28(-1), SNP 55(nc), UKIP 4(nc)
YouGov Nowcast – Hung Parliament, CON 270(+4), LAB 277(-2), LD 27(nc), SNP 50(nc), UKIP 3(-2)
Columbia University has a renowned department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. It boasts a faculty of 36 professors and lecturers. In the last five years, they’ve produced 52 publications on topics ranging from the regional novel to medieval heresy. This year alone, they’ve offered 119 classes, where hundreds if not thousands of students speak Spanish (as well as other languages).
The Spanish language—written and spoken—is clearly prized by Columbia University.
Unless you’re a worker.
According to a petition being circulated by the Columbia Dining Workers and the Student Worker Solidarity group, the executive director of Columbia Dining, Vicki Dunn, has banned dining hall workers from speaking Spanish in the presence of students. The students don’t like it. She also banned the workers from eating in the presence of the students, forcing the workers to dine in a closet instead. (Mercifully that ruling was revoked.) And more generally she seems to take random student complaints as an opportunity to issue arbitrary and ever-changing edicts.
The two groups are circulating a petition with the following demands:
1. Columbia dining appears to have temporarily reversed the closet rule, but continue to discriminate against workers for speaking Spanish. This must cease immediately.
2. We as students demand that Columbia administration stop using individual student complaints to justify racist and degrading policies such as the prohibition of specific languages and the relegation of workers to cramped and unsanitary spaces.
“This shouldn’t be happening in student’s names, own your own decision, don’t try to pin this on students” – Anonymous Columbia Dining Worker
3. Workers ask that from now on, all new workplace policies be written down, publicly visible, and negotiated with their unions so as to prevent continued abuses.
Please read it and sign it.
Tonight’s YouGov figures CON 33%, LAB 35%, LD 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 6%
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) April 24, 2015
Update: The Tory final push
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) April 25, 2015
Which is _obviously_ nonsense. And clearly the kind of opinion that nobody who has actually read, and paid attention to, the science fiction written by the science fiction grand masters can make with a straight face. (see this Heinlein quote, for instance.)
Except that earlier today I bumped into a link to the Asimov short Profession, and while thinking about the politics inherent in it, I realised that a younger me would not really have noticed those politics. And then that an awful lot of the fans who feel disenfranchised can spot the politics of something which points out unfairness to people that aren't them, or that places the blame at the feet of people like them. But political writing that says that they're great, and downtrodden, and that one day their specialness will be recognised, because the world should be arranged so that people who don't fit into neat categories, but instead think special creative thoughts, are the most important - that doesn't feel at all political. It's just a statement of the obvious, after all.
And it's things like this that have made me ever more aware that it's not just that the personal is the political - that _everything_ is political. It's just things don't feel political to people when they embody a situation that feels both normal and right to them. I mean, I bet Friends doesn't look political to most people watching it. But that it feels intensely political for anyone who thinks that every joke about Charles Bing in a dress sets back the cause of LGBT rights.
All of which doesn't explain why the Sad Puppies are raising this _now_. I'm fairly sure that the exact same discussions happened during the New Wave - if we'd had the internet making it easier to organise block votes then would the same thing have happened?
There’s an interesting book review over in the Wall Street Journal of Joe Stiglitz’s latest tome. Essentially a collection of essays about how the world would be a much better place if people just sat up straight and did what they were told by one J. Stiglitz. Something that is of course possible because he is a very good economist and the world pays far too little attention to the strictures of economists whether good or bad. However, he is guilty of falling foul of Worstall’s Fallacy:
Mr. Stiglitz constantly refers to income inequality without adjusting for taxes and transfers. But this is misleading. A 2014 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study showed that the lowest quintile of income earners saw their market income grow just 16% between 1979 and 2011, while the highest quintile experienced a 77% increase. But after adjusting for taxes and transfers, the CBO found that the lowest quintile, which receives about a third of its income from transfers, saw an increase in income of 72%, while the top quintile had a gain of 87%. In other words, liberal policies of tax and redistribute have created a much more level playing field than liberals will admit.
Liberals are the like the dog that finally caught the car.
I should emphasise that I didn’t come up with the name “Worstall’s Fallacy”. Although given that I’m not a good economist I do my best to propagate that name. Have to gain my fame and renown in some manner. As to what the fallacy actually is we cannot examine some problem with a view to deciding upon public policy to try and solve that problem without taking account of what it is that we already do to try and solve that problem. Yet that’s exactly what Stiglitz is doing there.
Sure, it’s possible that income is unfairly distributed and that further we think we’d like to do something about it. But what is it that we need to look at before we do so? Well, quite, if we just go and look at the income distribution before all of the redistributing that we already do then we cannot know whether we should be doing more, can we? Say that the gini is about .48 for the US (around the real value) and we thought that the world would be a better place if it were about .40. OK, that’s just great. So, let’s go do something! Except, we already do some redistributing. In fact, we already do enough that the gini for the US is about .38, .39. So, we shouldn’t in fact be doing more redistributing in order to reach our goal. And if we didn’t look at the results post-intervention we wouldn’t know this.
Note that it doesn’t in fact matter what the gini is here for the logic to be true. It also doesn’t apply only to inequality. Say we’re worried about poverty. OK, we know how to cure poverty, we just give poor people more money. But in the US the poverty line is measured before almost all of the money that we give to poor people. So, we can’t look at the official number of people under the poverty line and thus decide that we need to do more about US poverty. We need to look at the situation after the money we give to poor people. Only then can we decide whether we should be doing more or not.
As a general rule of public policy we need to look at what we’re already doing and its effects before we can even try to decide about whether we should do more about that problem. To fail to do this is Worstall’s Fallacy.
Most recently, he was mulling over what turn out to be "Should I bop Groucho on the nose?" He chose poorly.
Not that we will be all that surprised with the news that Jared Bernstein is wrong of course. As an adviser to Joe Biden and a thoroughly left liberal to boot all that we need to ponder at any one time is the specific method by which Bernstein is wrong on matters economic. In this case it seems to be that he really likes the idea of a new tax, a financial transactions tax, because, you know, higher taxes. He’s thus rather casting around for a reason as to why to have an FTT. And pretty much any old thing will do as a justification.
A financial transaction tax is a Pigouvian tax!
Well, sorta. If we can show that what is happening in financial markets is a negative externality then an FTT would indeed be a Pigouvian Tax. But we do need to show that there’s a negative externality there first. For if we find that there’s actually a positive externality there, a public good, then we wouldn’t call it a Pigou Tax at all we’d call it “stupid” instead.
A better, simpler way—and one with numerous positive externalities—is a financial transaction tax, a small excise tax on the security trades, typically a few basis points (hundredths of a percent) on the value of the trade. A three basis points FTT is scored as raising over $300 billion over 10 years, a score that includes its dampening impact on trades.
Well, we need to show that there would be positive externalities. And that tax revenue isn’t one of them by the way. As every analysis of an FTT, including the European Union’s model of one, shows the deadweight costs of an FTT are so large that they actually shrink the economy. And shrink it by enough that whatever revenues one thinks are coming in from the tax itself we lose more revenue from the other taxes in that now smaller than it would have been economy. There really is a reason why Sir John Mirrlees, the Nobel Laureate for his study of tax systems, thinks transactions taxes are a really bad idea.
Of course, that last bit is a feature, not a bug. We’d have to try it to find out, but it is widely believed that an FTT, even one of the tiny magnitude just noted, would wipe out most high-frequency trading.
But why would we want to do that? HFT increases liquidity in the markets. Increased liquidity produces lower spreads between bid and ask. That makes the markets cheaper to use for all participants. Of course, there’s people who lose because of those reduced spreads: the traditional market makers. But allowing people to be competed out of business by new technology is why we don’t have buggy whip makers around any more. So that Goldman Sachs had to close down a market maker they’d spent $8 billion buying a decade or so before, well, tough luck to the guys at GS really, rather than we’ve got to ban HFT.
In that regard, the FTT is a Pigouvian tax: a tax that offsets the significant, external costs imposed on the larger society by activities like smoking or polluting. And it does so while generating much needed revenue.
There are, of course, arguments against the FTT—by reducing trading, it dampens liquidity; it pushes traders to other exchanges to escape the tax. I deal with some of these concerns here, as does Dean Baker here. I take these concerns seriously, but my strongly held belief is that the likely benefits outweigh potential costs.
As I say, that Bernstein is wrong isn’t a surprise, it’s why he is that has to be examined. HFT lowers the costs of the markets to all so it’s not actually a problem that needs solving. And the FTT, that proposed solution, would actually shrink the economy and thus provide no net revenue. Other than that it seems like a great idea of course.
So instead of a technical workaround that the quant jocks could probably beat before the regulators had their shoes on, the smart move here is to introduce a small FTT. I’d love to see this idea surface in the forthcoming campaign…any takers???
Both Friends of the Earth and Elizabeth Warren have indicated their support for the FTT. How much more proof do we need to know that it’s not a good idea?
Was Hayek merely a Cold Warrior who is irrelevant today, or does he still have something to teach us? I ask because of two things that have happened to me this morning.
First, I read Steven's observation that my scepticism about the efficiency of bonuses is consistent with the notion that bosses "simply lack the knowledge to run their firm effectively." Secondly, I fell into a conversation with a stockbroker who believes that he has the ability to spot fund managers who have the ability to beat the market.
Hayek is relevant to both issues. For me, his massively important insight is that individuals' knowledge is fragmentary and limited:
The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources...it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.
If this were all, Hayek would be merely a historic figure - someone who was on the right side of history, but is irrelevant now.
But I don't think he is. The question he posed - what are the limits are individuals' economic knowledge? - still matters in at least two ways:
- If extensive knowledge is possible, then bosses might be able to manage big companies well. If not, then centrally planned companies will be inefficient. Sure, perhaps competition will eventually weed out egregious incompetence, but market forces might not grind so finely as to eliminate all inefficiency - and might even in some cases actually select in favour of quacks and charlatans.
- Should we trust fund managers with our wealth? If some people know better than the market, then maybe. But if individuals are less good at information gathering than the market, the answer is no. And the evidence (pdf) suggests no.
I'd add a third example. Labour's promise to "cut the deficit every year" is also a claim to knowledge. It just about makes sense if you know that the economy will grow every year. But this cannot be known; recessions are unpredictable and unpredicted.
There's a common theme in these three examples. The claim that individuals can possess extensive knowledge is also a claim to power and wealth; CEOs, fund managers and politicians all say: "trust us, because we know better."
In this sense, Hayek's message has shifted. Whereas it used to support dominant western institutions, it now undermines them. For this reason, it might be no coincidence that the question "what are the limits of our economic knowledge?" is rarely asked nowadays.