Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Frederic Bastiat, Call Your Office!

     I was powerfully struck by this evisceration of California’s anti-wildfires posturing and similar expressions of left-liberal “do-gooderism” by the great Richard Fernandez. Here’s the gut punch:

     Knowledge inequality makes "magical" solutions inevitable because an ever-smaller fraction of the public know how things work or are paid for. Healthcare woes? Medicare for All. Housing crisis? Make affordable housing a "right." Students choking under loans? Write it off. Graduates without literacy or numeracy? Teach Woke Math.

     Fix the wildfires by tightly regulating development sounds like a solution. Following Arthur C. Clarke's famous adage that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," many things are now solved by linguistic legerdemain....

     There's no objection to magic because many people, especially in or from the Third World, are surrounded by found marvels like cell phones, machine learning, GPS, CRISPR therapies, etc. They are used to things that simply work -- though none but the sages know how. Immigrants can be forgiven for thinking, as they wander in their misery through the technological wonders of California, why the magi have simply not waved their wands and created the same level of comfort for them. In a world of magic, what's one more spell, because that's all it takes, right? It must be because -- and the politicians never tire of telling them -- the wizards are selfish and holding back.

     Please read it all. At first glance, I was inclined merely to point and clap. Then my analytical gears started to turn.

     What accounts for the sort of knowledge asymmetry Fernandez fingers in this essay? Is it a remediable condition, or has the advance of technology and other forms of specialized knowledge made it ineluctable?

     The answer may be “yes” to both clauses.

     The past few decades’ explosion in ever more scientifically and technologically rarefied forms of knowledge has caused a kind of intellectual galactization of the human race. Clusters of us who share particular pockets of knowledge, usually owing to the occupations we’ve chosen and have been educated or trained for, can communicate about it with one another but with no one else. For example, my own former field of computer programming was once integral, untroubled by internal compartments or divisions among practitioners. Programmers moved freely among software’s various undertakings; indeed, our employers demanded it of us. It certainly isn’t that way today; specific sectors within the software field have ramified and specialized to the point that their practitioners can’t speak conprehensibly about it to anyone not a member of their set. The divisions are highlighted by the help-wanted ads, which specify the expertises candidates must possess in great, jargon-laden detail.

     In that sense, an asymmetry in the distribution of knowledge is inevitable. Life is too short for any but the highest of geniuses to master a great many scientific or technological disciplines...and in case you haven’t noticed, supergeniuses are in rather short supply relative to the demand. But that’s far from the whole of the problem.

     The distribution of knowledge across a population is confronted by various mediating agencies: the education system, the media, the political system, language barriers, and others. Those agencies and institutions act as filters and gatekeepers, determining to a large degree who may learn what. Moreover, none of them can be regarded as a disinterested participant.

     Virtually any institution that has persisted for some time acquires an overriding objective: its own perpetuation. If the institution is involved in the dissemination of knowledge, its masters may come to see its perpetuation as dependent upon the suppression of certain kinds of knowledge and the substitution of propaganda for it. This has been the case with American education for at least thirty years, especially in the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and history.

     Add to this:

     Mix well, serve cold, and retreat swiftly.

     More could be said about this subject, though I doubt my Gentle Readers, being a highly intelligent bunch, need to read more about it. Population dynamics, especially the migration-powered intermixture of more intelligent with less, and more educated with less, are certainly involved. The power of government to conceal the actual costs and consequences of its actions also plays a role. But the largest factor yet to be discussed is the prevalence of third-party decision-making and the bases upon which it proceeds:

  • Certain persons are nominated as decision-makers, typically through political processes;
  • The decision-makers are charged with the solution of some “problem;”
  • They decree rules or rule changes they claim will “solve” the “problem,” often after considerable public pressure, log-rolling with ideological or political adversaries, and “melon-slicing” to distribute consequential gains;
  • The decision-makers then turn their attention in some other direction.

     Note what’s missing from the above:

  • Deadlines for performance;
  • Objective metrics for improvement or deterioration;
  • Accountability for the decision-makers, who seldom if ever pay any costs for the consequences of their decisions.

     The general public is told that if we will only have patience, all will be well. And, as we are seldom equipped to thresh our way through the curtains of lies, misdirections, and obfuscations erected by the decision-makers, their pet “experts,” and their media handmaidens, we stand back, do what we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and try not to be too horrified by what follows.

     Forgive me, Gentle Reader, but I can’t go on from here. My blood pressure is spiking. Perhaps I’ll be back later with a joke or some cartoons. In any event, do have a nice day.


Manu said...

As NN Taleb often says, the politicians don't have skin in the game. They suffer no penalty for being wrong, usually. And we lack the means to effectively punish them anymore.

So I don't expect it to improve any time soon.

Linda Fox said...

It starts and ends with money - take away the financial support for the foot-soldiers, and most of their ability to screw up things for the rest of us fades away.

Any foundation not involved in DIRECT financial support of charities/medical research/pure scientific research, is taxed on assets. Period. Either give away 10% of your assets each year, or face taxation on that portion.

Any endowment fund has to give away at least 5% of their assets each year, in direct support of student tuition. Any growth exceeding that limit is taxed. No person employed, either directly, or as a contractor, may have a salary greater than $100K, and that includes bennies/deferred salaries/housing/tuition - every way that a person could be compensated other than direct salary.

Failure to meet all those conditions causes their charitable status to be revoked.

If they are actually an altruistic type, let them prove it with their actions.