Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’


David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Ant Series (time/money), 1988

Tom Chatfield [ht: ja] makes a compelling case that, in the era of “big data,” we often suffer from what is called a recency bias, the “tendency to assume that future events will closely resemble recent experience.”

It’s a version of what is also known as the availability heuristic: the tendency to base your thinking disproportionately on whatever comes most easily to mind. It’s also a universal psychological attribute. If the last few years have seen exceptionally cold summers where you live, for example, you might be tempted to state that summers are getting colder – or that your local climate may be cooling. In fact, you shouldn’t read anything whatsoever into the data. You would need to take a far, far longer view to learn anything meaningful about climate trends. In the short term, you’d be best not speculating at all – but who among us can manage that?

The same tends to be true of most complex phenomena in real life: stock markets, economies, the success or failure of companies, war and peace, relationships, the rise and fall of empires. Short-term analyses aren’t only invalid – they’re actively unhelpful and misleading. Just look at the legions of economists who lined up to pronounce events like the 2009 financial crisis unthinkable right until it happened. The very notion that valid predictions could be made on that kind of scale was itself part of the problem.

And the solution?

What’s needed is something that I like to think of as “intelligent forgetting”: teaching our tools to become better at letting go of the immediate past in order to keep its larger continuities in view.

Now, if only we could intelligently forget mainstream economics—and spend more time studying history, including of course the history of capitalism. Then, we’d be in better shape to understand the recurring boom-and-bust-cycles that regularly throw millions of people out of work and subject them to the kinds of crises they’ve been forced to endure for the past nine years, while those at the top once again benefit from the way the game is rigged.


Leicester City was not going to win the Premiership—not by a long shot. Nor was the Republican nomination supposed to be handed to Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders, well, there was no chance he was going to give Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money (and machine) in the Democratic primaries.

And yet here we are.

Leicester City Football Club, as anyone who has even a fleeting interest in sports (or reads one or another major newspaper or news outlet) knows, were just crowned champions of the Premiership, the highest tier of British football, after starting the season at 5000-1 odds. There really is no parallel in the world of sports—any sport, in any country. (By way of comparison, Donerail, with odds of 91-1 in 1913, is the longest odds winner in Kentucky Derby history.) And the bookies are now being forced to pay up.


Similarly, Donald Trump was not supposed to win the Republican nomination. Instead, it was going to go to Jeb Bush and, if he failed, to Marco Rubio. (And certainly Ted Cruz, the candidate most reviled by other members of the GOP, was not supposed to be there at the end.)


Finally, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination was written off almost as soon as it was launched. And yet here is—winning the Indiana contest by 5 points (when it was predicted he would lose by the same number of points) and accumulating enough pledged delegates to be him within a couple of hundred of the presumptive nominee.

What’s going on?

In all three cases, the presumption was that the “system” would prevent such an unlikely occurrence, and that the pundits and prognosticators “knew” from early on the likely outcome.


So, for example, the winner of the Premiership was supposed to come from one of the perennial top four (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City)—not a club that were only promoted from the second division of British football in 2014 and last April were battling relegation (they finished the season 14th).

Pretty much the same is true in the political arena: neither Trump nor Sanders was taken particularly seriously at the start, and along the way the prevailing common sense was that their campaigns would simply implode or wither away. The idea was that the Republican and Democratic parties and nominating contests were structured so that their preferred nominees would inexorably come out on top.

There are, I think, two lessons to take away from these bolts from the blue. First, the “system,” however defined, is much less complete and determined than people usually think. There are many fissures and spaces in such systems that make what are seemingly unlikely outcomes real possibilities. Second, our presumably certain “knowledges” are exactly that, knowledges, which are constructed—in the face of radical uncertainty—out of theories, presumptions, blind spots, and much else. The fact is, we simply don’t know, and no amount of probabilistic certainty can overcome that epistemological gap.

So—surprise, surprise—Leicester City and Trump won, while Sanders has put up a much more formidable challenge than anyone expected from a socialist presidential candidate in the United States.

 George Grosz, "Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie" (1922)

George Grosz, “Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie” (1922)

Back in 2011, I suggested we move from focusing on the pathologies of the poor to those of the rich. And that’s exactly what psychologists seem now to be doing. We’ve seen studies of “social class as culture,” “sharing the marbles,” and much more.*

The latest is Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, and Chris G. Sibley on “social sampling”—that is, the idea that wealthier people may be less supportive of redistribution than poorer people because they infer society is wealthier than it actually is because they are surrounded by other wealthy people. And that’s exactly what the authors found:

wealthier (relative to poorer) Americans reported moving in wealthier social circles and extrapolated from them when estimating wealth levels across America as a whole. . . In turn, these estimates were associated with the perceived fairness of wealth distribution in America and with opposition to redistribution, a finding that is consistent with theory on normative-justice judgments.

These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.

Dawtry, Sutton, and Sibley are certainly on to something: we often arrive at social judgments based on anecdotal evidence—things we have either heard or seen—and many of our anecdotes are produced or disseminated within our particular social circles. Those circles are our “sample.”

But that’s not enough. Because we also have other knowledges of the world around us—knowledges that come from the news, novels, music, religious sermons, political speeches, and so on. We’re not just limited to what is said and repeated within our narrow social circles.

So, sure, wealthy people might think the rest of society looks like the worlds in which they live and work. But they also know, through other means, that it isn’t really like that. There are many more people earning far lower incomes than they might come across on a daily basis. Grotesque inequalities exist and they’re getting more and more extreme.

If the rich don’t know about those inequalities, given the other knowledges that are widely available, then they are engaged in practices of willful ignorance.

And that’s another pathology we need to take into account.


*Readers will note I find myself always turning to George Grosz to illustrate my discussions of these studies. There must be some other artists I can use. Any suggestions?


I won’t attempt to take on Greg Mankiw’s latest defense of the 1 percent. Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have raised most of the relevant issues.

But, in his defense of his defense, Mankiw does make a curious admission: capitalism is fatally flawed.

The admission actually occurs in his textbook [pdf], where Mankiw sends us to read his explanation of who bears responsibility for the most recent financial crisis (hint: it’s half the fault of government, and half Wall Street). Then, he admits that financial crises “do occur from time to time.”

Finally, keep in mind that this financial crisis was not the first one in history. Such events, though fortunately rare, do occur from time to time. Rather than looking for a culprit to blame for this singular event, perhaps we should view speculative excess and its ramifications as an inherent feature of market economies. Policymakers can respond to financial crises as they happen, and they can take steps to reduce the likelihood and severity of such crises, but preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.

Yes, indeed, “speculative excess and its ramifications” are in fact “an inherent feature” of capitalist economies.* But then, Mankiw adds, “preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.”

What Mankiw sees as a problem of knowledge is what the rest of us see as a problem of economic institutions. It’s precisely because the economic system is arranged so that a tiny minority at the top is able to continue to capture the surplus that financial crises occur on a regular basis.

What the rest of us know is that defending the 1 percent is precisely what will guarantee more financial crises in the future.


*And, for Mankiw, they’re something we simply have to put up with because “for human welfare, growth swamps fluctuations.”


The other day over lunch, we discussed the issue of growing inequality and economic instability and whether or not the elite is aware of what is going on right now.* Do the members of the political and economic elite know about how dire conditions are for a large part of the population, and then choose not to do anything about it? Or, alternatively, are they so sheltered in their gated communities they are simply ignorant of the forces that are tearing this society apart?

This is the problem, then, of the “unknown knowns,” which Slavoj Žižek defines as “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Jonathan Gray [ht: ja] thinks the “acute fragility of our economic system” is one such unknown known, “one of many facts we all know but have decided not to think about.” And he considers this “resolute avoidance of unsettling facts” to be “a deep-seated human trait.”

I’m not convinced. While I don’t pretend to know what the members of the elite think (I’m not a member and I don’t spend time with them), their spokespeople may reveal something about what they’re thinking (or at least what they want to hear). David Brooks is one such example. When he explains away inequality by the “superstar effect” and blames poverty on the bad decisions and character problems of the poor, he is both acknowledging that inequality and poverty are problems to be reckoned with and attempting to defuse them so as to avoid a “primitive zero-sum mentality” that holds “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor.” Basically, what that means is that policy should focus on providing better opportunities for those at the bottom and, if they don’t take advantage of them—if they remain poor—it’s their own damn fault. There’s not much more that society—including and perhaps especially those at the top—can do for them. I prefer to call that deliberately unknowning a known.**

As for the general (non-elite) public, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what is going on, at least as revealed in recent surveys (e.g., by Gallup and Pew). They know there’s a growing gap between the rich and poor and that’s a bad thing for the society in which we live.


And they know the nation’s economy is in bad shape, long after the official recovery was declared.


I don’t see much evidence of unknown knowns there. By and large, people seem to be pretty aware of what is going on, in terms of both inequality and the acute fragility of our economic system.

More important, I don’t see any evidence of a deep-seated, shared human trait to avoid unsettling facts. What I see, instead, is a determined campaign to attempt to unknow what we full well know in order to forestall any kind of fundamental questioning of our current economic institutions.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to stop pretending and acknowledge what we do, in fact, know.


*I’ve been having lunch with a colleague and friend once a week, while school is in session, for more than 20 years.

**On the other hand, one way of interpreting the recent stridency about the problems of inequality and economic fragility on the part of some mainstream economists, such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, is that the members of the ruling class don’t appear to be willing to know what is known.

Know this!

Posted: 27 September 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Richard Florida continues to peddle his story of knowledge workers, the creative class, and urban clustering (about which I have raised questions before, such as here and here).

But economic inequalities have become so glaring and obscene, even Florida has finally come to admit their existence:

The main threats to America’s growth model don’t come from other countries, but from domestic contradictions. The more talented people cluster, the greater the economic returns they produce. But as these clusters of highly educated people form and grow, they tend to push out the middle class, resulting in a ruthless sorting of people and places. As great as its potential may be, this new economic landscape is also notable for its widening fissures.

The cultural, political, and economic gulfs that separate advantaged and disadvantaged people and places go well beyond the wage gap. Knowledge workers benefit from living in neighborhoods with better schools, better amenities, and lower crime rates, while less advantaged groups are sometimes stuck in place, with limited prospects for climbing even one rung up the economic ladder, and insufficient resources to move out of stagnant areas.

And how creative can Florida get, now that he knows about all those poor people clustered into into depressed areas of cities? The best he can do is suggest that poor people get up and move to his “knowledge centers,” where their chances for moving up the ladder will be improved.

Here’s a not particularly creative alternative idea: end poverty!


Harvard has received quite a battering in recent months.

After the student cheating scandal (and the accompanying investigation scandal), we’ve witnessed the Reinhart-Rogoff error-ridden scandal followed by the Ferguson gay-bashing scandal.

Now, we have the scandal of Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation.

All of these scandals involve the production and dissemination of knowledge, and what fascinates me (and a friend with whom I’ve been discussing these issues) is the wide array of arguments that are offered in order to preserve the idea that what happens at Harvard is in fact (to use Louis Althusser’s term) a “knowledge-effect.”*

Consider Zack Beauchamp’s investigation of l’affaire Richwine.

First, of course, Richwine’s dissertation on the genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America must have been legitimate knowledge-work because it was done through the Kennedy School at Harvard and we know that’s a “very serious” place, that has produced “outstanding scholars,” with “kind,” knowledgeable professors (like George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher “Sandy” Jencks) who, of course, are engaged in their own first-rate knowledge-work.

Second, Richwine successfully went through the “normal” steps for achieving a doctoral degree: courses, comps, prospectus defense, dissertation research, and a dissertation defense. And we all know that each of those steps guarantees that knowledge-work is being done and that, in the end, new knowledge has been created.

Third, Richwine used high-quality (for economists, that is) statistical methods, which are considered impeccable, and therefore the work is unassailable in terms of its economic model. It certainly looks like knowledge, because it is produced by a knowledge-producing machine we call statistics and the econometrician says the work was carefully done and that, in itself, suggests the integrity and validity of the work. And, of course, the statistical techniques and economic model are somehow considered independent of the “other stuff”—the race and IQ connections—such that they stand on their own as criteria of knowledge-production.

So, there we have it, all the pieces that make Richwine’s dissertation resemble of piece of knowledge, to display the appropriate knowledge-effect.

And yet. Richwine is now the Heritage Foundation’s former Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies, because it was politically inconvenient to leave him in his post. But Richwine still has his Ph.D. from Harvard.

While the rest of us are left wondering what it is that constitutes the knowledge-effect that serves as the basis of much contemporary work in the social sciences—which, in the name of “good science,” metes out its rewards and punishments to thousands of scholars whose work is measured according to the scholarly standards set by the Harvards of the world; and which determines the fate of millions of Americans through the public policies suggested by the “best and brightest” whose work is taken as knowledge by think tanks and legislators in Washington.


*The knowledge-effect, for those not familiar with the term, was Althusser’s way (e.g., in Reading Capital) of making sense of what Marx called the “mode of appropriation of the world peculiar to knowledge.” Althusser begins with the important distinction between the real-concrete (the real object) and the thought-concrete (the object of knowledge), which is the basis of his critique of all forms of empiricism. He then argues that the criteria for producing knowledge—the knowledge-effect—are internal to the practices of each particular scientific discourse. In this manner, Althusser shifted the terms of discussion, clearly indebted to Foucault’s focus on “epistemes,” from the presumption of an original ground of knowledge (related in one way or another to some real object) to the contemporary mechanisms within specific knowledge practices whereby knowledges are produced and recognized as so many knowledge-effects.