Room to Maneuver?

Conversable Economist Timothy Taylor, at the end of a post correcting yet another repetition of the Hoover myth:

And the elephant in the room, which Judis doesn’t discuss, is the accumulation of debt. After all of the deficits of the 1930s, the total ratio of federal debt held by the public still totaled only 44.2% of GDP in 1940. Throughout the 1930s, the federal government had a lot of capacity to borrow–and could then still ramp borrowing much higher to finance the fighting of World War II. But in 2011, total federal debt held by the public is an estimated 72% of GDP. Looking ahead over the next decade, the federal government has a lot less capacity to borrow.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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91 Responses to Room to Maneuver?

  1. I agree. For me, maybe anxious is a better word?
    And seriously, 1. what, exactly, is bad about such a deficit, what consequences do you foresee?; 2. what corrections can be made and what consequences do you think will come of such corrections?

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    Wasn’t that the whole point of the 2001-2008 policy of cutting taxes and running up large bills? To crank up the public debt to the point where there could never again be another New Deal?

    One Washington maxim is that no Congress can bind future Congresses, but that’s not really true. By ramping up the debt, a Congress can greatly constrain future Congresses’ options. As we’re seeing.

  3. James Hanley says:

    D.C., I think you’re right, in both paragraphs.

    Phil, my concern is that it constrains the U.S. in doing anything really significant that might come along. In my ideal world, of course, the government does less, so this constraint might not matter much. But since my ideal world does not exist, and we’re probably not going to privatize most of the interstate highway system, etc., it means we’re constrained in taking care of the infrastructure we have. We’re constrained in responding to massive disasters, whether natural or man-made. And assuming serious fiscal policy works, we’re dramatically constrained if the economy drops precipitously again. Also, if we do reach the point where we can’t pay back our debts (sovereign default), our credit rating declines, the cost of borrowing goes up, we can end up in the position of needing to borrow just to finance payments on our borrowing, and economically the U.S. begins to look and perhaps behave like a 3rd world country.

    That’s the extreme version. We’re not there yet. But getting anywhere close enough to talk reasonably about those things as a possibility seems unnecessarily risky to me.

  4. I understand thinking about reducing government interference in individual enterprise. I probably agree; but, it is naive in an important sense. So much so, that certain regulation is required. In this speech, http://www.cato.org/events/china/papers/crane.html , Milton Friedman is quoted as writing, “The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority.”

    Are we to believe removing governmental regulations so that individuals are allowed to accumulate whatever wealth is possible will cause coercion to be removed from society? I don’t think so. In fact, that’s how monarchies, dictatorships, and oligarchies are created. So that the problem will not go away with the removal of governmental regulations. In fact, the very idea of our democracy might be removed.

    We need better understandings of the problems with which we are being faced.

    Continual reliance on past experts as resources might not be a good idea?

  5. Matty says:

    Are we to believe removing governmental regulations so that individuals are allowed to accumulate whatever wealth is possible will cause coercion to be removed from society?

    Do regulations in fact limit how much wealth a person can accumulate? Taxes yes but I’m not aware of any government that has a regulation setting the amount a person can own.

    I don’t think so. In fact, that’s how monarchies, dictatorships, and oligarchies are created. So that the problem will not go away with the removal of governmental regulations. In fact, the very idea of our democracy might be removed.

    I’m not sure monarchies are created by reducing regulation but I see what you’re getting at. The concentration of wealth leads to a concentration of power (wealthy individuals), another concentration of power (government) can counter this. I think this is broadly true but it leaves a lot of problems unsolved for example.
    -How do we know which concentration of power is going to do us most harm?
    -Which concentration is most suceptilble to public presure? Governments have voters they need to attract every election but businesses have customers they need to attract every sale.
    -Why should the wealthy and government be the only two options on the table, why not use pressure groups and similar to create a third (and fourth, fifth etc) centre of power to counteract both?

  6. .
    I think Matty is probably correct. And, that might be why it is not the wisest move to rely on resources from experts of the past in order to shape opinion about what must be done to create a better future.

    Some innovative thinking has to come into play.

    Maybe putting a limit on how much wealth can be accumulated is a worth while subject for consideration. Maybe not.

  7. Dr X says:

    Well I don’t know if it was intentional, but that’s what was infuriating about the Bush deficits. That said, while we have less room than we might have had if the Republicans not behaved like such morons, I don’t know that a specific number has been identified as some sort of debt/gnp ratio tipping point. While debt was at 44% in 1940, it reach 120% by 1946. From there, debt/gdp declined steadily until the late ’70s when it fell below 40% where it held until 1980, when the fiscal conservatives swept into office to teach us about responsible budgeting and leaving us with almost an almost 70% debt/gdp by the time they were done teaching us about fiscal conservativsm. Then the free spending liberals took over the White House and debt GDP fell, until the conservatives decided that we needed another 8-year lesson in fiscal responsibility, guiding us from the low 60s into the 70s.

    Anyway, my ranting aside, beween where we are now and the 120% debt of 1946, there is plenty of daylight, which I think indicates that we could do an awful lot more if we had to or wanted to. Reving up the economy alone would close a considerable chunk of the gap, but it’s pretty obvious we’d also have to raise taxes back to at least 1990s levels and trim future spending. But the point is, there is still plenty of room for a big event. How it plays out in the long run would depend on long-term policies. If we get anymore conservative fiscal restraint, I expect that we will become Greece.

  8. D. C. Sessions says:

    I don’t know that a specific number has been identified as some sort of debt/gnp ratio tipping point.

    Concentrating on a single metric is patently foolish in so many other contexts that we would be well advised to suspect it here, too. As a lender, I would be much more interested in the reliability of the debtor in handling debt. A nation like the USA of 1945, which had demonstrated its ability to mobilize huge portions of its economy in pursuit of a goal and which demonstrated over the next decade or more its willingness to make sacrifices to pay off its debts would impress me as a good risk as long as it was even theoretically possible for it to service that debt.

    It seems to me that we, as a nation, have traded on that sterling example for the last 60 years or so. But the people who actually shouldered those responsibilities are either dead or no longer in control, eh? Today, the creditworthiness of the United States has to be considered in light of a powerful minority who refuse to raise revenues enough to even cover existing obligations without going deeper into debt, many of whom consider a default on the national debt to be a useful step towards their goals.

  9. James Hanley says:

    Today, the creditworthiness of the United States has to be considered in light of a powerful minority who refuse to raise revenues enough to even cover existing obligations without going deeper into debt, many of whom consider a default on the national debt to be a useful step towards their goals.

    You’re on a roll today, D.C. I agree. But, wait, aren’t you suggesting that people have rational expectations, which plays right into uncertainty? *grin*

    Are we to believe removing governmental regulations so that individuals are allowed to accumulate whatever wealth is possible will cause coercion to be removed from society?
    The assumption underlying this concern, I think, is that without regulation wealth concentration will become so excessive that the rich will be able to do whatever they want to everyone else. I’m not persuaded about that assumption. That type of wealth accumulation is more often found in systems with very strong controlling governments than in systems with governments that regulate pretty lightly.

  10. .
    …a powerful minority who refuse to raise revenues enough to even cover existing obligations …
    .
    !!!

  11. .
    That type of wealth accumulation is more often found in systems with very strong controlling governments than in systems with governments that regulate pretty lightly.
    .
    At some point it’s obvious that people gaining power are the same no matter where they are found. Maybe you have noticed how much fawning takes place in the presence of a super wealthy person? It is pretty difficult to not be impressed with your own worth when every one around you is bowing and scraping in your presence.
    .
    The more concentrated power is the more power the possessor exercises. Think, the richest person in America.
    .

  12. D. C. Sessions says:

    The assumption underlying this concern, I think, is that without regulation wealth concentration will become so excessive that the rich will be able to do whatever they want to everyone else. I’m not persuaded about that assumption. That type of wealth accumulation is more often found in systems with very strong controlling governments than in systems with governments that regulate pretty lightly.

    Granting arguendo the correlation, which way does the causation run? Does a strong government lead to concentration of wealth or does a concentration of wealth lead to an oppressive government? Does Carlos Slim have a clue to the answer?

    I see no reason to believe that human societies naturally disperse power, and a good bit to believe that power tends to accumulate in them barring opposing forces. Nor do I see any reason to believe that there is a fundamental difference between financial and fiscal power; they are demonstrably convertible.

    This leads me to believe that the best that most of us can hope for is a balance of powers restraining each other enough to let the rest of us live our lives relatively unmolested. The challenge, then, is to ensure that the powers of wealth remain in opposition to each other, and that the power of government balances the power of concentrated wealth, and that minorities have enough weight between themselves to oppose the tyranny of the majority.
    In some future day, I’m sure that the balance will be different from today’s and the cause of liberty will demand different adjustments — but today, in the USA, the main threat to the power of the wealthy is that their own lack of restraint will drive people to extreme measures to claw back some of the power that the plutocrats have accumulated by aligning the power of the State with the wealthy instead in check on the wealthy.

    I would, in other words, greatly prefer 1933 to 1793.

  13. Matty says:

    The more concentrated power is the more power the possessor exercises. Think, the richest person in America.

    I do, usually when the internet breaks,and they are not kind thoughts.

    But then I thought about another American, one who doesn’t make the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest and according to wikipedia is paid $400000 a year and I thought about what he can do to man hiding on another continent and suddenly Mr Gates doesn’t seem such a big problem.

  14. .
    This leads me to believe that the best that most of us can hope for is a balance of powers restraining each other enough to let the rest of us live our lives relatively unmolested.
    .
    Well, there are times when the best we can hope for is just not feasible. The game turns into a challenge called, King of The Mountain. And, the prize is that the winner takes all. They aren’t going to stop. They DO want it all.
    .
    The best we can hope for is to realize that at a certain point in the accumulation of great wealth there needs to be a sing that says, “Dead End – Turn Around”. And, the way that happens is a ninety-nine percent tax beyond that certain point.
    .
    We presently are able to recognize that there is a phenomenon resulting from the accumulation of great wealth. I’m not exactly sure of what it is; but, it has something to do with the drying up of the money supply. When all the pie is off the table, the gourmand starts looking around at other tables for more pie. Right now, they’re finding more pie in China and any other places where there’s money to be made.
    .
    While we sit here day dreaming.

    We’re going to occupy Grand Rapids on the 8th.
    .

  15. D. C. Sessions says:

    Pinky, it sure sounds to me like you’re hoping to accumulate enough power in small Bills [1] to counter the power of Wall Street [2] precisely in the hopes that 99% of us can get on with our lives.

    [1] And Janes, and Joses, and …
    [2] Shorthand notation for the power of concentrated wealth.

  16. James Hanley says:

    D.C., I think the causation can run both ways. But Hafiz Assad and his cohort weren’t rich until they seized control of the Syrian government. Can we name a rich person who seized control of a government, held onto it until death, and killed so many people along the way? Berlusconi just ain’t even in the competition.

    Keep in mind, I’m not completely anti-government. I think government is inevitable, and that in the absence of it some Assad like warlord will turn himself into the de facto government. I want a government designed to have enough power to prevent that outcome. I just don’t know that I want one that has much more power than that. Surely our own government has done about as much to promote concentration of wealth via protective regulation for businesses as it has done to disperse wealth through redistributive measure.

  17. Surely our own government has done about as much to promote concentration of wealth via protective regulation for businesses as it has done to disperse wealth through redistributive measure.
    .
    Say, what?
    ..
    How come wealth is so highly concentrated in the top one tenth of one percent?
    .

    .

  18. “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Lord Acton

  19. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    Surely our own government has done about as much to promote concentration of wealth via protective regulation for businesses as it has done to disperse wealth through redistributive measure.

    And that one statement says it all. Those that see government as the answer to all problems believe that the problem isn’t too much government power just that it is controlled by the wrong people or is wrongly configured. They think that the answer is more regulation and taxation, regulating and taxing the right people for the right reasons.

    If it the situation doesn’t improve the answer is even more regulation and taxation.

  20. Lance says:

    Pinky,

    How come wealth is so highly concentrated in the top one tenth of one percent?

    Pinky you seem to be lumbering under the impression that (more government) = (more justice).

    James is pointing out the fact that our leviathan federal government, gobbling up more and more resources and spewing ever increasing volumes of regulation, has not stopped the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

    In fact a great deal of that regulation is designed to insure that the wealthy, who can afford hordes of lobbyists, can gain a competitive advantage over those that do not have access to the organs of government.

    If you think capitalist based systems are more prone to this dilemma you are ignoring a a great deal of history.

  21. .
    Those that see government as the answer to all problems believe that the problem isn’t too much government power just that it is controlled by the wrong people or is wrongly configured. They think that the answer is more regulation and taxation, regulating and taxing the right people for the right reasons.
    .
    Just who is it that sees government as the answer to all problems? It is government’s job to represent the voting public. And, in this sense, government has its work cut out for it. Instead, the public is getting stiffed by a government elected by them; but, bought and paid for by special interests.
    .
    The continuation of Libertarian jabber is a real pain.
    .

  22. .
    In fact a great deal of that regulation is designed to insure that the wealthy, who can afford hordes of lobbyists, can gain a competitive advantage over those that do not have access to the organs of government.
    .
    Ain’t that the truth!! In fact, that is exactly the main problem. I just pointed at it in my previous post–a government bought and paid for by special interests. That is exactly what you get when you fall for the Libertarian line of jabber–it’s the license big money wants to pull off all its shenanigans against any upstarts they want to stifle. I don’t need to go outside of my own business experience to know that your statement is right on point.

    Those bastids get in bed with our governmental representatives and they snuggle up real close in a way that qualifies as corruption. How about some regulation identifying and punishing corruption?

  23. Matty says:

    I think what Lance is suggesting is that the people writing the regulations to identify corruption will themselves be corrupt and so instead of solving the problem they will find ways to increase it. That said the idea that we can shut off existing regulations while leaving people with the wealth they gained via those regulations and proclaim that the system is now open and free of distortion by government strikes me as unrealistic.

    Add in the problems of identifying what is corruption versus what is a legitimate transaction with a government official and how to implement any changes and progress in whatever direction will wind up being slow and, one might almost say, marginal.

  24. Matty, I think you are soooo correct in your thinking.

    The model of special interest groups getting their hands on what our representatives do in government at every level from city to the national level is eroding our democracy. It is a mockery of the First Amendment which throws the door wide open so groups can associate. It would be almost impossible to get a law on the books to limit special interest lobbying.

    There are so many ways the problems we’re facing can be addressed. But, how can we do that when political movements like the Tea Party will NOT listen to reason forcing our government to a standstill? I guess the people just have to learn that if something is to be done, it is up to us to form a structure that will over ride our government. What could that possibly be? I am at a loss except for revolution.
    .
    .

  25. D. C. Sessions says:

    I think what Lance is suggesting is that the people writing the regulations to identify corruption will themselves be corrupt and so instead of solving the problem they will find ways to increase it.

    As always, quis custodiet ipsos custodes. That’s going to be a key issue in any attempt to balance power against power: what happens if they join forces instead of keeping each other in check? And yet, the alternatives are to either do away with power altogether or invent a universe where power is electromagnetic rather than gravitational. Choose wisely.

    That said the idea that we can shut off existing regulations while leaving people with the wealth they gained via those regulations and proclaim that the system is now open and free of distortion by government strikes me as unrealistic.

    I agree it’s unrealistic. It would involve Goldman Sachs [1] voluntarily relinquishing the power it’s gained just when it looks like everything is going their way. On the other hand the alternative Matty describes would lose them not only the power they see within reach but the huge gains they’ve already made. Their best case would, in brief, require a “class traitor” like FDR — if they’re lucky.

    If not, they get Matty’s haircut imposed on them. If they really screw up or get really unlucky, they get the full 1793 solution instead of the metaphorical one. Given modern transportation, I don’t think we’ll see knitting grandmothers watching even in the extreme case.

    [1] To represent a large class

  26. D. C. Sessions says:

    I guess the people just have to learn that if something is to be done, it is up to us to form a structure that will over ride our government.

    What, we wake up suddenly in 2011 and realize that it takes organization to accomplish anything in a country of more than 300 million? Who knew?

    The roots of the Right’s power today were planted in Nixon’s time, just as the roots of Roosevelt’s coalition trace back to the 1890s. Even billionaires need time to put together front groups and “think tanks” like Heritage, and they can afford to have occasional invitation-only get togethers with enough others of like mind that they can get a critical mass into one room.

    Countering that kind of density with sheer numbers takes a lot more organization and it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it takes generations. If history is any guide, it’s going to be 2040 or so before any serious mass movement gets up enough steam to seriously challenge the Goldman Sachs power coalition. My bet is on major extrinsic forces to smash the current system instead of any homegrown opposition reforming it.

  27. James Hanley says:

    Pinky (Phil),

    I think you actually made my point in your complaint about lobbyists. Because that’s where the system works to help concentrate wealth. When you and I are forced to pay more for sugar and sweetened products because Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and sugar cane growers in Florida lobby for tarrifs on Central American sugar, it’s shifting wealth from us to ADM, which already has a lot more than either you or I.

    Sure it’s not what the system is supposed to do, but it’s what the system does. The majority of governments in the world do it to an even greater extent than ours, and every government does it to some extent. It doesn’t matter how democratic they are, and in fact it is partly because they are democratic, and have to pay attention to supporters, that they do it. (Nevertheless, democracies do actually do less of it than autocracies, since they have to woo a broader swath of supporters.)

  28. .
    Of course, D.C.S. correctly sums things up.
    .
    But, there is something we CAN do as Americans in light of these problems with which we’re being faced. For example, for some reason–maybe I know and maybe I don’t–there seems to be a swelling up of Libertarian thinking in academic circles. It does–sorta–make sense. But, it is naive and no academic should ever allow him or herself to be guilty of being naive. Obviously, many are and very much so.
    .
    Citing the gigantic drug cartels of the Western Hemisphere one can see a real life example of Libertarianism. Does anyone here think that, taking away the anti drug regulations, big money wouldn’t get into the addictive drug business? The possibility of that is an excellent example of what an in place Libertarian government will bring to America. The nature of drug addiction is such that no matter what any rules or regulations might be, the addict”s primary purpose in life is to fulfill the obsessive desire for his or her fix. So, it is a market that no matter what the economic conditions, it will always thrive. Sure, Libertarianism sounds good. It’s just like pie in the sky–it makes your mouth water. The end game is disgust.
    .
    We need to recognize just how stupid Libertarianism is. Yet, it sounds so good.

    .
    .
    .

  29. James Hanley says:

    Matty’s haircut.
    Isn’t that the name of a punk band?

    For the record, since I keep my hair very short, each time I get a haircut it is most definitely marginal.

    What, we wake up suddenly in 2011 and realize that it takes organization to accomplish anything in a country of more than 300 million? Who knew?
    First response: Sigh, that’s the problem. The difficulty of the coordination problem increases in proportion with the size of the group to be coordinated.

    Second response: Lots of coordination/organization occurs spontaneously (c.f. Hayek), and that’s a very good thing. And sometimes it can impose very serious constraints on government’s ability to act, even at the behest of its well-organized supporters.

    If history is any guide, it’s going to be 2040 or so before any serious mass movement gets up enough steam to seriously challenge the Goldman Sachs power coalition
    And then we’ll shift from an anti-market, pro-corporation approach to an anti-market, anti-corporation approach. Many will define that as progress.

    My bet is on major extrinsic forces to smash the current system instead of any homegrown opposition reforming it.
    I’m less certain about that, but not enough so to bet against you.

  30. The least we can do about Archer Daniels is to buy Beet Sugar which is grown and processed in Michigan. Both major brands are packaged in red, white, and blue–not yellow.

    The Saginaw Valley is a major source for sugar. And, the run is on right now.
    .
    Drive over there to see the gigantic mountains of beets at the weighing stations along side the highways. The smell of beet pulp is in the air as the processing plants are going full blast.
    .

  31. Lance says:

    Pinky,

    Citing the gigantic drug cartels of the Western Hemisphere one can see a real life example of Libertarianism.

    Are you freaking kidding me? If you think that the illicit drug trade is an example of libertarian free market ideas at work you are seriously deluded. It is the exact opposite. It is a market distorted by the most draconian civil and criminal sanctions possible. It is a classic example of what happens when government tries to impose restrictions on supply. The price soars and those willing to violate the law make huge profits by use of deadly force and those that want the product are subject to cartels that can charge huge sums since they have no legitimate competitors.

    It also imposes “externalities” on the rest of society for the ever increasing costs of ever growing para-military drug police and has spawned a parasitic prison system that profits from making use of even small amounts of drugs a felony.

    Calling this libertarian just because the cartels operate outside of government is to ignore the fact that many government officials south and maybe north of the border are involved.

  32. Matty says:

    A lot of you seem to be under the impression I suggested a solution when I was explaining that I think solutions are hard to find. I did make two points that kind of point to the sort of solution I that could be possible but they are a long way from, “here’s what to do”

    – If the existing power holders gang up and you don’t like it, the only option may be to create new centres of power.
    -Any significant change is going to be slow and difficult to achieve.

    As for my haircut, I thought I had all those pictures destroyed.

  33. Dr X says:

    @Lance:

    Those that see government as the answer to all problems believe that the problem isn’t too much government power just that it is controlled by the wrong people or is wrongly configured. They think that the answer is more regulation and taxation, regulating and taxing the right people for the right reasons. If it the situation doesn’t improve the answer is even more regulation and taxation.

    I think this characterization was more typical of American liberalism pre-1990s. Disregard for secondary and tertiary effects of policy were commonplace. I do believe that there are many people today who do not see more government and more regulation as the solution to all problems, nor do they see less government as a wise universal prescription.

    The notion of better policy is not just a fiction. If you look at public/spending/GDP across nations, it is clear that there are significant differences in government policies that matter enormously. There are states with relatively small PS/GDP that are poor and terribly corrupt and states with rather high PS/GDP that maintain a high standard of living, greater income equality and low-corruption.

    The whole point of the so-called third way was to recognize that there are differences in government policy that can recognize the efficiency of markets, while also recognizing a significant, beneficial role for government.

    The tougher question for me is not whether big government or small government is better, It is how and why do some countries develop government policies that take advantage of market efficiency at the same time that they may have have fairly large public sectors that provide a great deal of freedom, low-corruption and stability?

    Why does Denmark do so much better than Pakistan when Pakistan’s public sector is less than half that of Denmark? Well, actually, the question isn’t why the Danes do so much better, but how did they get there and how do they maintain it? Culture would seem to be a factor, but what about structural issues? The organizing and structuring of government power may be very important. Foundations matter a great deal.

    Yes, you can eliminate rent-seeking by eliminating government altogether, but does size of government determine rate of rent-seeking? I’m not so sure. Rent-seeking occurs at a much greater rate in developing countries with lower public spending/GDP than in developed countries with higher public spending/GDP. And that’s not to say that bigger government is the determinant. I think that there are structural and, perhaps, cultural differences that are far more important.

  34. .
    Lance:
    Are you freaking kidding me? If you think that the illicit drug trade is an example of libertarian free market ideas at work you are seriously deluded. It is the exact opposite.
    .
    No, I’m not kidding. I am dead serious.

    The motivating factor here is a consumer oriented situation where the provider ignores any and all regulations as though the government is in the way of their liberty to pursue their goals and objectives. They’re willing to create private armies to protect their interests. (Think Nozick’s description of Libertarian thought) Think of Constitutional Prohibition in America. Addiction is a problem that will never be satisfied by any legislation of prohibition. Our government has created an entire industry for that purpose and the only accomplishment is achieved is to raise the price and profits involved. Our tax dollars are poured into an impossible fix. On the other side, industrious marketers circumvent any laws–ignoring regulations–exercising their liberty to amass great fortunes. Now, entrepreneurs are pushing for fences and other profit opportunities to continue this money making war.
    .
    So, what’s the answer? How about making the drugs legal and regulating the production, processing, and marketing with a rule that will not allow anyone already in the business to be licensed? That is an area where an informed government can do good with its regulatory powers.
    .

    .

  35. I find myself siding with Matty.
    .
    The problems we’re facing go way deep–took generations to create. We can work on the symptoms one at a time; but, that’s going to take more time than any of us has.
    .
    The problem is only going to go unfixed for so long and then, Bam!! The shit is going to hit the fan.
    ..

  36. Lance says:

    Dr X,

    “I think that there are structural and, perhaps, cultural differences that are far more important.”

    Certainly this is true and I didn’t mean to imply that I favor no role for government. Providing infrastructure that is not available from market sources and making sure people do not set up cartels or other coercive mechanisms, in other words play by the rules, is a critical role for government.

    Pinky,

    Making drugs legal is typically a libertarian proposition. It would seem odd that a person claiming the current system is an example of a libertarian failure would suggest legalization as a remedy.

  37. .
    Making drugs legal is typically a libertarian proposition. It would seem odd that a person claiming the current system is an example of a libertarian failure would suggest legalization as a remedy.
    .
    Yup, you are correct–no doubt about that whatsoever.
    .
    So what does that mean?
    .
    I’m sure you know that there is good and there is bad in just about every ideology. But, when one party is willing to dig in and never compromise, we’re in trouble.
    .
    I’m looking for a quote by Habermas. If I find it while this topic is still hot here, I’ll post it.
    .

  38. D. C. Sessions says:

    And then we’ll shift from an anti-market, pro-corporation approach to an anti-market, anti-corporation approach. Many will define that as progress.

    Oscillation is typical of negative feedback systems with latency. If it takes a long time to gather support for a reform, you can pretty well bet that the reform will go overboard.

    That’s one of the fundamental problems with an analysis that only looks at equilibrium solutions.

    Oh, and by the way: in a nod to Our Gracious Host’s field, I’ll point out that the USA’s winner-take-all approach to setting public policy has both latency and high gain built in. A minority has to build up a lot of “pressure” before it even gets to the point of having any electoral representation at all, and once it does it keeps going long past the point of any reasonable balance or compromise. Add the power of incumbency (not to mention gerrymandering!) and you have the equivalent of one of the classic unstable systems: single-pole negative feedback with hysteresis.

    Show that model to any electrical engineer past junior level and she’ll tell you it’s impossible to stabilize or even to reduce the swings to anything remotely near the theoretical equilibrium point.

  39. D. C. Sessions says:

    Oh, and BTW: in case anyone missed the reference, a “haircut” is ending up with marginally less than you started with. Taken to 1793 extremes, you need bushel baskets.

  40. James Hanley says:

    D.C.,
    Oscillation is typical of negative feedback systems with latency. If it takes a long time to gather support for a reform, you can pretty well bet that the reform will go overboard.

    I was actually just thinking about the fact that whatever momentum builds up, I’m willing to bet it will be more liberal than libertarian. That is, I expect to lose out regardless of what happens.

    But although it differs from what I was meaning, I very much like your analysis. Your description of the system is right on, and the engineering description of it is new to me, but very intriguing. I’m wondering if anyone’s written that paper yet, and knowing how political scientists think (they tend not to think like engineers, even most of the policy folks), I doubt it. Perhaps one of the more mathematically inclined folks has modeled something like that, but I don’t know. You may have really hit on something important but as of yet under-developed.

  41. .
    This is taken from Habermas’ second lecture, part Iv:

    In the Aristotelian tradition, the old European concept of politics as a sphere encompassing state and society was carried on without interruption into the nineteenth century. On this view, the economy of “the entire household,” a subsistence economy based on agrarian and handicraft production and expanded through local markets, forms the foundation for a comprehensive political order. Social stratification and differential participation in (or exclusion from) political power go hand in hand—the constitution of political authority integrates the society as a whole. This conceptual framework no longer fits modern societies, in which the commodity exchange (organized under civil law) of the capitalist economy has detached itself from the order of political rule. Through the media of exchange value and power, two systems of action that are functionally complementary have been differentiated out. The social system has been separated from the political, a depoliticized economic society has been separated from a bureaucratized state. This development has put too great a strain upon the classical doctrine of politics. Since the end of the eighteenth century, it has split apart into a social theory grounded in political economy on the one hand and a theory of the state inspired by modern natural right on the other.
    .
    The title is, Hegel’s Concept of Modernity. I think it relates to the discussion here in this comment thread.

  42. Lance says:

    D.C. Sessions,

    Circuits are a bit easier to model since all of the components are known and most are linear.

    The economy acts much more like a chaotic system than a classical oscillator. Dynamic and strange attractors model economic recessions and booms better than the rules of electrical systems.

  43. Scott Hanley says:

    D.C., that’s one of the most insightful and unexpected analyses of the electoral structure that I’ve ever seen. I’ll be thinking about that for a long time to come.

  44. D. C. Sessions says:

    The economy acts much more like a chaotic system than a classical oscillator.

    Lance, you can’t claim that feedback effects stabilize a system and at the same time claim that the most basic mathematics of feedback systems don’t apply. That’s just pure special pleading.

    If a system is chaotic (e.g. gas dynamics) you can still model the statistical distribution of the various paths that a disturbance has on its equilibrium state and determine the stability of that state. It’s just a matter of whether at any given time the returning effects are in-phase or out-of phase with the resultant disturbance.

    And, of course, any negative feedback system with positive feedback (e.g. gerrymandering) will either end up in a bistable state (or superposition of them) or else oscillate, depending on whether the negative feedback has peak values greater than the positive feedback.

    Nonlinearity works against stability since it offers more states where the stability criteria can fail.

    And BTW gents: the fact that this strikes y’all as novel is very disturbing.

  45. James Hanley says:

    the fact that this strikes y’all as novel is very disturbing.

    People go into political science because they care about issues. The fortunate few become analytical, rather than mere advocates. But few come in with, or go out with, or ever acquire along the way, any real familiarity with engineering. And most simply reject the concept of applying any such concepts to social systems. At a conference I once objected to a (fairly eminent, and appropriately pompous) public policy scholar that he was badly oversimplifying a policy area that really needed to be understood as a complex adaptive system. He condescendingly replied that complex adaptive systems were a nice analogy, but not really applicable. Another guy (at the time a grad student, but very bright) jumped up at that point and said, “No, it’s not an analogy, it is a complex adaptive system.” But we were ignored.

    I’m willing to agree this is a major flaw in the discipline.

  46. .
    Models are great tools for helping us explain our ideas to each other. Where would we be without them?

    .
    .

  47. D. C. Sessions says:

    The reason I’m so surprised is that the economic and political literature is loaded with appeals to feedback systems. It’s quite explicit — even outside of the quantitative stuff, people describe equilibria and restoration of equilibrium all the time. Economics is, arguably, nothing but equilibrium and displacement in one form or another.

    And yet … it boggles my mind that the literature isn’t carpeted with at least nods to the most basic considerations for stability of feedback systems.

    As you imply, every field has key questions that it considers and it’s not completely surprising that one field would make something like dynamic stability a core undergraduate topic while the question never comes up in another. But for crying out loud, are we so far into C. P. Snow country that the economics faculty at MIT never talk to the engineers? That none of the engineering students ever jumped to econ or any other social science? That none of those quants who came from engineering and math ever naively ran their models as a feedback system?

    Hell, that none of the social science grad students ever had parents in engineering? (OK, $DAUGHTER is a sociologist so it’s less of an issue. Still …)

  48. Lance says:

    D.C. Sessions,

    Lance, you can’t claim that feedback effects stabilize a system and at the same time claim that the most basic mathematics of feedback systems don’t apply. That’s just pure special pleading.

    Uh, where did I say that?

    The problem with modeling complex non-linear systems is that a very small perturbation can cause
    large amplitude swings into other phase states. Also you must know the boundary conditions to a very exact degree to make predictions about future states.

    And, of course, any negative feedback system with positive feedback (e.g. gerrymandering) will eiher end up in a bistable state (or superposition of them) or else oscillate, depending on whether the negative feedback has peak values greater than the positive feedback.

    OK, but there can be stable regimens for periods of time if the feed backs come into resonance before swinging to another stable state. This is what causes the “attractors”. They are often easier to describe post facto than to predict.

    In the context of this discussion, a bifurcated system of equal positive and negative forcings and feed backs, it would be tempting to predict a bi-modal distribution, but as I said complex dynamical systems are rarely as simple as a circuit composed of sources, sinks, resistors, capacitors and inductors.

  49. James Hanley says:

    are we so far into C. P. Snow country that the economics faculty at MIT never talk to the engineers?

    Yes. I’m unusual in the degree to which I walk across disciplinary boundaries. Obviously I delve into economics a lot, my dissertation required a substantial amount of reading in biology (there were times I could only shake my head in wonder that I, a political science student who’d been a terrible biology student in high school, was sitting in the science library reading articles in the Journal of Theoretical Biology), as well as bits of the anthropological and psychology lit dealing with evolutionary theory, and now I’m co-teaching a Nuclear Weapons and Power course with a chemist. Most political scientists stick closely to the field, as do most scholars in most disciplines.

    There are, unfortunately, strong incentives to do so. Political science and history, for example, are intimately related fields, but I know two political scientists who’ve had their work rejected by poli sci journals as being history, but rejected by history journals as being poli sci. The only area where cross-over is really strong is in constitutional law, where for the most part there’s precious little to distinguish the writings of political scientists from those of law profs. (Just by dipping into biology and economics I’ve caused more than a few colleagues in the discipline to dismiss me as unworthy.)

    Now I can’t say definitively that no one has applied the concepts you’re talking about. If they have, it’s probably in the highly formal literature that’s beyond my limited mathematical abilities to really follow. But few political scientists are familiar with that literature because few of them have mathematical learning beyond the basic algebra they long ago forgot. I can definitively say that if such a literature exists it is not mainstream, or even widely known to exist. That is, if it exists no one has made the argument accessible to the masses of the discipline.

  50. Exactly, Lance, exactly.

  51. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    I think econometrics is an attempt to bring rigorous mathematics into economics.

    As I think I mentioned earlier my brother-in-law has, or is in the process of getting (I can’t remember), a degree in econometrics. I gave him some feedback on his senior project. After spending some time reading his text books and inquiring about the discipline I was distressed by the fact that while the equations being studied are interesting and certainly important to an understanding of economic systems the field itself doesn’t seem to place much emphasis on empirical verification.

    At least the texts I reviewed seemed content to fall back on the kind of sweeping generalizations and hand waving typical of most of economic theory.

  52. I agree that models developed in one discipline can often be cross disciplined.
    .
    Some disciplines are more inclined toward positivity than others. Some disciplines are regulated by laws of governance with a strong authority while others fall under a control so fickle as human nature, whatever that is.

    .
    .

  53. Dr X says:

    @DC

    And yet … it boggles my mind that the literature isn’t carpeted with at least nods to the most basic considerations for stability of feedback systems.

    I won’t say it boggles my mind, but in my field I’m much in the minority as someone who frames the mind as a complex adaptive system regulated by feedback. The conscious aspects of mental functioning operate both by instruction and selection, but the entire unconscious system operates purely on selection, which is why people are often bedeviled by behavior they can’t seem to consciously control. This framework, only minimally described here, informs everything I do clinically. When I actually talk with other clinicians about it, it seems to create a great deal of upset. People would rather feel that stability of the mental system can be entirely maintained consciously, never mind that as we go through our day, our mind quite consciously and automatically adjusts/adapts to our environment (think about driving). We only see the trail left by the activity of the unconscious adaptive brain. I’ve pretty much transferred this sort of thinking over to how I would assume any human activities operate.

  54. James Hanley says:

    in my field I’m much in the minority as someone who frames the mind as a complex adaptive system regulated by feedback

    Heretic!

  55. Dr X says:

    “never mind that as we go through our day, our mind quite consciously and automatically adjusts/adapts to our environment”

    And that should read UNconsciously and automatically adapts.

  56. Dr X says:

    re crossing disciplinary fields, one of my cousins earned a PhD in I/O psychology at SUNY, another a doctorate in economics at Harvard. At various points in their careers their work looked much more similar than dissimilar.

  57. .
    …one of my cousins earned a PhD in I/O psychology at SUNY, another a doctorate in economics at Harvard.
    .
    If I were setting schedules of study, both would be listed under Communications Studies.

    .

  58. Dr X says:

    Yep. pretty much communication, feedback in learning (adaptive) organizations.

  59. .
    Communications studies doesn’t have a lot of room for models under the authority of any scientific law.

    Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory. comes to mind.

    .

  60. Troublesome Frog says:

    I double majored in computer engineering (spent most of my electives in signal processing) and economics (math/modeling track) and noticed that I often ended up taking the same material from two departments, but the faculty definitely thought about those techniques in two very different ways. The economists tended to be very empirical while the EEs were more theoretical. My guess is that it’s because economists deal with absolutely filthy data and EEs actually have good underlying models for how circuits work.

    That being said, you can find plenty of textbooks on optimal control and estimation theory as it applies to economics, and economists definitely understand the principles involved. The engineers I know who went in the econ direction all ended up on Wall Street rather than pure econ research, though. I strongly suspect that most of the accountants and MBAs who drive much of finance have never heard of this stuff.

    I hadn’t thought about looking public opinion and election results in terms of feedback and control, but that sounds very clever. It could have some very interesting results if there’s a good way of quantifying the variables involved.

  61. .
    I hadn’t thought about looking public opinion and election results in terms of feedback and control, but that sounds very clever. It could have some very interesting results if there’s a good way of quantifying the variables involved.
    .
    Check out Sociology 101.

    .

  62. D. C. Sessions says:

    Check out Sociology 101.

    On the one hand, I know someone who teaches that.

    On the other, she’s my daughter.

  63. Lance says:

    Sociology?

    Most of it is about as much a science as Scientology.

  64. .
    Most of [sociolgy] is about as much a science as Scientology.

    Not being a follower of Scientology, I can’t speak for them; but, sociology is the study of human beings and the groups in which we operate. I guess that makes it as appropriate as any study regarding the issues in this thread. Human beings, as most of us know, are not as predictable as magnetic currents.

    .

  65. James Hanley says:

    The problem with sociology, from my perspective, is that it begins with the assumption of the group as the relevant unit of study, rather than the individual.

    On a side note, I’m pretty sure this thread has set a record for comment on this obscure little blog of mine.

  66. Group vs individual

    But, economics and politics–they’re both all about group interactions.

  67. James Hanley says:

    But, economics and politics–they’re both all about group interactions.

    That’s not what I was taught by either my political science profs or my economics profs. (Granted, there are political scientists who think that, but the rest of us know that we’re really right.)

    Seriously, I disagree. Economic transactions happen between specific identifiable actors. Even business decisions are made by specific identifiable individuals. And even when we talk about a group doing something, that group’s “choice” is simply the conglomeration of the choices of the individuals.

    And politically, groups don’t vote, individuals do. Groups don’t press for legislation, individuals do. It often pays off to organize those individuals into a group, but it still is ultimately just the sum of those individuals’ decisions to participate.

    As political scientist Ken Shepsle wrote, “Groups, classes, firms, and nation-states d not have minds, and thus cannot be said to have preferences or hold beliefs.” And as Mancur Olson demonstrated, groups don’t naturally form, in the sense of being organized and active. Someone organizes them.

    It’s sometimes an efficient shorthand to speak of groups, but it can’t be more than a shorthand or our analysis is ending at much too abstract a level. To say economics and politics is about group interaction is, from my view of the world, exactly the way to go about it all wrong.

  68. .
    But, my guess is that nothing happens in politics without the group and that the same is true of economics? But, it’s just my guess–what I know of economics wouldn’t fill a bug’s ear.
    .
    Groups are made up of individuals; so, sociology does focus on the individual as a role member of the group. And, the individual gets his or her identity from the groups in which they participate.

  69. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    The problem with sociology, from my perspective, is that it begins with the assumption of the group as the relevant unit of study, rather than the individual.

    Amen brother.

    It is akin to the previously discussed problem with the idea of “social justice”.

  70. Key these words in your search engine:
    Sociology begins with the assumption that no one is an island; we are not simply individuals with complete autonomy and self-determination, but rather social beings.

    The sociological perspective asks us to explore a central paradox-that we both shape and are shaped by the social world in which we live.

    Sociologists use the tools of social science to understand how our location within multiple webs of social relationship influences both our worldview and our access to valuable resources.

    It takes more than saying something to make it so, Lance.

  71. Lance says:

    Pinky,

    As a physicist I readily admit to a certain chauvinism towards the “soft” sciences. And they don’t get any squishier than sociology.

    It takes more than declaring humans a “social” species to validate what passes for the “science” of sociology. Just read the Wikipedia page describing sociology to get a taste of what I’m talking about.

    Much of “modern” sociology is deeply infected with politics which should come as no surprise given the fact that Karl Marx is often cited as the founder of the science of sociology.

  72. I’m not here to defend sociology–only to learn from people like you, Hanley, Sessions, X and many others..
    .
    Sociology and sociologists make up two different subjects. There are many “fathers of sociology” and maybe Carl Marx is one of them He was, after all, a brilliant intellect. I’ve read some of his stuff and much of it makes sense; but, much of what has been carried out in his name is a mockery and evil. I suppose the same could be said about a lot of the great intellects.
    .
    The only reason I brought sociology up was that I saw a tendency here for some to allow the possibility that some law of physics could be applied almost direcrtly to economics. Basically, what I have proposed is that there is something to applying positive models across the disciplines. I wasn’t knocking political science, economics, or physics. To me, sociology, economics, and political science are all subsets of the schools of communications studies and, as such, all might be considered, as you say, soft sciences. I guess physics is a little on the soft side as well. At least I hear it is. I know people that say physics is a subset of religion; but, they’re nuts.
    .
    .

  73. D. C. Sessions says:

    The problem with sociology, from my perspective, is that it begins with the assumption of the group as the relevant unit of study, rather than the individual. The problem with sociology, from my perspective, is that it begins with the assumption of the group as the relevant unit of study, rather than the individual.

    A) That’s like saying that the problem with hydrodynamics hydrodynamics is that it deals with groups of molecules rather than with quarks.
    B) The generalization WRT sociology sounds, shall we say, quaint to this father of a sociologist whose daughter’s research is in the social interactions of developmental psychology and emotions.

  74. D.C., I think you misunderstood Dr. Hanley’s comment. But, it also looks like there is a typo in your post. It’s confusing to me sorry to say.

  75. D. C. Sessions says:

    But, it also looks like there is a typo in your post. It’s confusing to me sorry to say.

    There should be only one “hydrodynamics.”

  76. Dr X says:

    WRT: with regard to

  77. Lance says:

    D.C. Sessions,

    A) That’s like saying that the problem with hydrodynamics is that it deals with groups of molecules rather than with quarks.

    I don’t presume to speak for our esteemed host but, the obvious problem with this analogy is that molecules and quarks are in fact identical to each other, as is there behavior, and therefor hydrodynamics, and other techniques that rely on stochastic ensembles, are a valid way of dealing with them while each human being is massively more complex and individually diverse and making generalizations about them in arbitrary groups is rather sketchy as a scientific proposition.

  78. D. C. Sessions says:

    Lance, Boyle’s Law works just as well for mixtures of gasses as it does for pure gasses. Gravity works just as well for galaxies (which are bogglingly more complex than groups of individuals) as it does for grains of sand.

    Or, closer to my own work, solid-state semiconductor principles work very nicely despite the fact that no two transistors, despite everything we do to make them uniform, are ever even close to identical.

    If there were no way to reliably treat groups of people, epidemiology would be a waste of time and resources. Marketing in general would be of no use. The entire business of advertising would be a waste of money. Much closer to the subject of politics, polls would also be worthless [1]. And I put it to you that that experiment has been done and the results are in.

    [1] Care to guess who employs a whole lot of sociologists?

  79. Dr X says:

    I don’t see the individual and the group as an either/or situation for the purpose of understanding human beings. There is a great deal about human experience and behavior that simply can’t be understood outside an intersubjective context.

    To say that human beings are social is rather vague. It can sound like social relations are one of many human behaviors, end of story. But what has become increasingly clear is that minds are formed and shaped by what is, in effect, brain-to-brain communication. Within the brain, neurons communicate via electrochemical activity, while across brains, the communication is wireless. But make no mistake, one brain alters both the physiological and experiential activity of the next brain.

    Sensory organs are receivers and sensory-perceptual systems automatically and unconsciously process inputs that alter brain activity and, from what the mounting evidence suggests, deeply influence ongoing brain structuralization and implicit corollary experience of emotion, identity, self and the formation of operational heuristics.

    It’s difficult to “prove” this, but this our best bet based on a great deal of research that has approached psychology relying upon differing primary units of study ranging from the basic study of brain hardware, to child development, sensory-perceptual research, neurology, neuropathology, neuro-rehab, clinical and social psychology. These different disciplines don’t reflect discrete human functions, but study can take any of them as a jumping off point for concentrated research attention.

    There are dozens of ways to approach this discussion, relying on any of those jumping off points. One example is Daniel Stern’s extensive observational research, recording and coding mother-infant interactions beginning back in the 1980s. One thing we see is that there is an elaborate back and forth between mother and infant that is, in real time, shaping the experience and, no doubt, the neurological substrates of experience for both the mother and child. Before language emerges, sounds, changing pitch, volume of sound, rhythm of speech and a host of sensory cures are exchanged between mother and infant altering how each feels, not just emotionally but physically. It’s within this bipersonal, signaling matrix that the very plastic brains of infants undergo formation. It’s also believed that after giving birth, mothers’ brains become more plastic temporarily, reforming as part of the process. Mutual signaling activity and the ongoing modification of brains and minds continues through life, although the certain structural changes occur more slowly.`

    And when brains transmit to brains, things happen that would not otherwise happen. At the group level, unexpected phenomena emerge when brains directly communicate with other brains. People who would never dream of killing can become part of a genocidal crowd. Rioting and looting can emerge. Those are at negative the extremes, but I have no doubt anymore (as I once did) that groups are extended brain operating systems that exhibit their own selected phenomena that are every bit as important as neurology, learning, etc., to understanding human life and behavior.

    Another example from research: at the neurological level, the discovery of mirror neurons (in macaques) and study of human brain activity reveals that as we observe other people in activities, we engage in automatic,non-conscious brain simulations of the same activity we’re observing. What we see is processed and reproduced in us at non-conscious levels, joining our brains with the brains of others at relatively rudimentary levels. An Escher drawing come to mind. This is very much how the intertwining of brains, experience and self is understood. Because so much is happening within the activity of non-conscious brain hardware, we can feel that our minds are far more independent of others than they really are. But if you spend enough time carefully observing human beings and spend considerable time on informed examination of your own conscious experience, the trails of unconscious brain-to-brain connection are everywhere.

    Human minds really are part of dynamic networked systems, and if that isn’t appreciated, human psychology looks like the psychology of autism.

  80. i know who employs a whole bunch of sociologists. They are being sucked up by the marketing industries right and left.
    .
    You are correct, D.C.S. regarding using models cross discipline. When we deal with human beings in our groups, there are mind boggling numbers of variables. So, the best sociologists are in high demand. No doubt.

  81. Lance says:

    D.C.

    Boyle’s Law works just as well for mixtures of gasses as it does for pure gasses. Gravity works just as well for galaxies (which are bogglingly more complex than groups of individuals) as it does for grains of sand.

    Mixtures of gases are still an ensemble of two or three identical molecules. And Boyle’s law only applies under certain conditions for certain gases. The “real gas law” is a much more complicated affair.

    Need I point out the differences even among identical twins, let alone any two random people?

    Look I’m not saying that sociology can’t learn things about groups of humans, just that it is very limited in its ability to generate predictive models of human social behavior.

  82. Lance says:

    Dr X,

    To say that human beings are social is rather vague. It can sound like social relations are one of many human behaviors, end of story. But what has become increasingly clear is that minds are formed and shaped by what is, in effect, brain-to-brain communication. Within the brain, neurons communicate via electrochemical activity, while across brains, the communication is wireless. But make no mistake, one brain alters both the physiological and experiential activity of the next brain.

    If that is true I can’t imagine a model being constructed that could hope to predict the behavior of a large number of humans over even a modest time frame.

  83. If that is true I can’t imagine a model being constructed that could hope to predict the behavior of a large number of humans over even a modest time frame.
    .
    Now steps in the computerized intelligence machine. The future is filled will exciting things we haven’t dreamed about.
    .
    How many more Steve Jobs are out there chomping at the bit?
    .

  84. Dr X says:

    @Lance:

    “If that is true I can’t imagine a model being constructed that could hope to predict the behavior of a large number of humans over even a modest time frame.”

    I generally agree. That said, researchers are learning about highly predictable behavior that arises in specific situations and conditions. That’s the thrust of situationist research and, for that matter, behavioral economics. Both are about identifying unconscious heuristics that tend to kick-in in specific situations. See for example, Philip Zimardo’s research.

    http://www.lucifereffect.com/

    But dynamic, brain-to-brain activity is pretty unstable, with wide unexpected swings often occurring as people develop more ongoing involvement. Still, since relationships are also embedded in situations, and operational brain heuristics exist, we can foresee in certain circumstances, the greater or lesser likelihood of certain behaviors occurring even in relationships.

    I would hesitate to use the word science to describe this work. I don’t call psychology a science. Scientific method can be brought to bear to develop theories, but it’s not physics. What, for example, would be comparable to physics in attempting to understand the apparently important role of narratives in mental activity? Reductionism, study at the level of smaller units, is only partly informative or not informative at all, depending on the larger unit we’re attempting to understand. On the hand, we can look at some larger units of study, without looking at the smaller units, and learn quite a bit.

    A dated reference, but it makes a point.

  85. Dr X says:

    It isn’t time, just yet, to let the longest thread in BHP history die.

    Something else that occurred to me, James writes:

    The problem with sociology, from my perspective, is that it begins with the assumption of the group as the relevant unit of study, rather than the individual.

    Contrasting this view with my own described above, I think it’s fairly obvious that we have a difference in metaphysical assumptions. If the individual is both the primary and “real” unit, while social units are treated as mere human constructs, then group aspects of human nature, and group claims of human rights and the kind of government most suited to human beings would more likely be dismissed as fictions, while individual claims would be regarded as real.

    But as I’ve proposed above, groups are real human units in a physical and neurological sense that is much more metaphysically real than some human-constructed, derivative fiction. So which metaphysical realities count and which don’t when making normative statements about the role of government?

    Regarding the individual as the primary unit and only unit relevant to defining human nature and its political implications has other problems as well. Why start with the whole individual as primary? Clearly, human beings have constituent parts. Why not build a politics based on the parts, which might be called primary units? At this juncture, we might say that the whole of an individual is greater than the sum of its parts, conceptualizing politically relevant aspects of humanhood or personhood as emergent properties of being, fundamentally different in kind from the parts of a human individual. But then the same thing could be said of the relation between groups and individuals. Groups are more than individuals and groups have their own emergent, fundamental properties. Why wouldn’t group properties have implications for governments created by groups?

  86. Good thinking, Dr. X.

    The movie, Field of Dreams, is a great example of the relationship the group has to the individual as well as to reality. To realize something is to make it real.
    .
    Groups come in a broad variety of structures each having its own roles and outcomes. Building a baseball park next to a cornfield is sure to provide parts for every role involved. America is the ultimate field of dreams. There are many, many roles to be filed–each one by individuals. One doesn’t exist without the other. I’m sure it’s just as true with quarks and atoms.
    .

  87. Matty says:

    group claims of human rights

    Can you unpack this a bit, I’m having a hard time thinking of rights a group can have that are not simply the sum of the rights of individual members (including the right to form groups).

    As for thread length, I believe PZ Myers now has a comment thread than spans two blog networks so there’s plenty of room to go.

  88. D. C. Sessions says:

    I’m having a hard time thinking of rights a group can have that are not simply the sum of the rights of individual members (including the right to form groups).

    Any kind of right to collective action. They might not be impossible to phrase as direct extensions of individual rights, but you have to jump through hoops to get anything like similar results.

  89. I’m having a hard time thinking of rights a group can have that are not simply the sum of the rights of individual members
    .
    Rights are identified according to the group purpose and structure. Think of these different types and see how authority can vary; The normative, comparative, formal, informal, aspirational, contactual, and disclaimant groups with each identified by its structure. The family is one of the most important reference groups and its rights are not a matter of the sum of the individual members.

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