Archive for February, 2013

Opinions and Authority Figures

February 25, 2013

About education, and thinking, and opinions:

“There are almost as many routes to a Thomas Edison degree as there are students. In a way, that is the whole point of the college, a fully accredited, largely online public institution in Trenton founded in 1972 to provide a flexible way for adults to further their education.

“We don’t care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years in a monastery,” said George A. Pruitt, the college’s president, “as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique.”

“Learning takes place continuously throughout our lives,” he said. “If you’re a success in the insurance industry, and you’re in the million-dollar round table, what difference does it make if you learned your skills at Prudential or at Wharton?” ”

The above clip from the NY Times caused me to reflect on some of the writing I’ve done and the occasional arguments that have arisen because of that. For too many, I think, academic credentials count for more than the thought behind a concept, even when a brief examination should indicate that there is no relationship between those credentials and what’s being discussed.

In many disciplines, there are schools of thought that emphasize a certain approach. In economics, you were likely to examine trends as a monetarist or as someone who favored taxation as a tool to examine and manage a national economy (at least, when I took economics, that’s changed now in a number of ways, as economics progresses as a science). By favoring one or the other school of thought in a discipline, education forces the student to adopt a viewpoint of what he’s studying and often this viewpoint reflects that of the teacher. As a result, well educated people may often disagree profoundly with other well educated people based on differences in schools of thought.

And for those who have educated themselves outside of mainstream thinking, those same well-educated types might reject any ideas put forward. For those outside the thinking, they rely on those magical letters (PhD) to provide legitimacy…even when the degree was achieved in a field that doesn’t relate precisely to what’s being discussed, as for example someone trained as a tax attorney who’s now going to have to focus on monetary policy because he’s been appointed to the Federal Reserve.

Not that the above has happened; it’s just an illustration. Another illustration might deal with medicine; orthodox medicine, oriental medicine, holistic approaches via herbs….

But I also comment on things like global warming, and the discussion got quite heated (:-)) in one venue. Most people now accept that the planet is warming up, and that human activity is at least partially at fault for this. And so we turn to accepted authority for answers and policy guidance, and never question whether their opinions are really relevant because they were educated and have since done their research before global warming was accepted fact. And we also find that politics and greed enter the discussion, because those PhD’s are readily sold to politicians or industrialists who use them for their own selfish purposes. Confusion is easily exploited for profit by the shortsighted and greedy.

Another area I comment on has to do with dark matter. I thought the mathematics was at fault for a time, but I’ve since changed my mind. It’s the interpretation, not the math, and the assignment of mathematical symbols to real-world data and then manipulation of those symbols without sufficient regard to just how descriptive they are of the data they’re supposed to represent. And there are any number of ‘authorities’ on dark matter out there, PhD’s and academic degrees in plenty, professorships barely behind that…and yet, no one has actually DETECTED anything that could be dark matter. Undeterred, the ‘authorities’ on dark matter soldier on, spending enormous amounts of money and much time down in dark holes in the ground. Somehow, investigation of dark matter apparently is best done down in the guts of old mines. Even when the investigation has so far failed to find anything of significance.

There is no authority on global warming. There is no authority on dark matter. Whatever authorities there are who deal with economics, they tend to disagree with each other to the point where one must question their standing as an ‘authority’. There are just people with opinions, and some of them have advanced degrees. Just not degrees in the topic they’re so certain of. Meantime, it’s up to all of us to actually think about the topics we discuss before we decide to believe, or how much belief we’re going to invest in opinions.

One day there may be true authorities on these subjects. But not yet. As a final illustration, Linus Pauling published an essay regarding the structure of the DNA molecule. He had already received a Nobel for chemistry…and his model was wrong. After Watson and Crick, the discipline began to really take off, and now there are real geneticists and even something undreamed of back then, epigeneticists. But UNTIL Watson and Crick published their hypothesis, there were only people with wrong opinions.

Even if they did have advanced degrees.

Pity the Poor Fed

February 12, 2013

Economics, and politics. Pity the poor Federal Reserve.

Taxation, and spending. Taxation removes money from the system. Government spending replaces it in the economy. Done right, taxation can slow uncontrolled growth and spending can stimulate a sluggish economy. In so doing, taxation and spending can damp the boom-bust cycles that plagued the economies of nations a century ago. Cycles are still there, just not so damaging as the Great Depression turned out to be. Upturns and downturns we have; but we can generally prevent people from dying due to famine.

But taxation and spending are driven by politics.

Political interest is in turn driven by self interest; how to acquire money, and what is the money you’ve acquired worth? Inflation (adding money to the supply) decreases the value of the money already out there. Inflated money is easier to acquire but invariably buys less. That’s why inflation tends to hit people on fixed incomes, that is incomes that can’t adjust via such things as pay raises, hardest. It also means that people who have acquired money and squirreled it away really hate inflation; that money slowly loses value. Interest paid on saved money helps, but currently interest is actually less than the rate of inflation, so savings in the US lose value instead of gaining.

So politics ties up government as one group urges us to spend more and thereby stimulate the economy. Another group urges that we spend less and not borrow or tax to raise money that’s being spent. These two groups are usually driven by self interest at some level instead of the needs of a rationally managed economy.

And then there’s the Fed. Their purpose is to manage the economy. They attempt to do this by increasing or decreasing the money supply, and have been using something called Quantitative Easing to increase the money supply and thereby stimulate the economy. And even as they do this, politics is working to counter their activities by REDUCING the amount spent by government. Cutting spending is the mantra of the TeaPublicans in Congress, and even the Democrats are buying into this idea. According to Robert Kuttner, the Obama administration is committed to reducing government expenditures by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

Note the problem here, which is the problem of government in general: no flexibility. The reduction is to take place regardless of what the economy is doing. The Fed at least meets quarterly and attempts to make adjustments based on what the economy is doing at the time; but political rhetoric is not so agile. Having convinced your supporters that taxation is the problem or that government spending is out of control, you’re not going to be able to change their minds.

Even if the politicians who use this to get themselves elected really do understand economics. And most of them are about as ignorant as the people who vote for them.

So it’s not so much that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in our government; it’s that the right hand is actively countering what the left hand is up to.

Pity the poor Fed.