Sunday, 15 November 2015

Orrin Klapp as Seer

Orrin Klapp (1915-1997) won attention in the 1970s and 80s for his sociologising of the digital revolution. But his first book, Heroes, Fools and Villians, is also remarkable, for its seeing-round-corners glimpse of developments barely heralded in 1962.

Klapp’s contentions are wholly American in reference, but they are all bottomed in a general vision of any society as a Weberian struggle for role and type, and thereby status. Three pieces of foresight stand out:

1. Bowling in a Lonely Crowd.
Klapp uses his Weberian vision to moot a lamentable decline in American culture of the emulative power of the Hero type relative to that to what he calls the ‘Good Joe’ (in modern  parlance, the ‘great guy’ or ‘loveable guy’). He states without enthusiasm that ‘the persistent effort to be liked ... is one of the strongest straits in American character’, and contends that an empty geniality has become an object of aspiration.  He uses this conclusion to boldly call out as hollow the apparently vigorous American civil society of the the fabulous fifties: ‘When joining and belonging seem at an all time high, we must consider most of this organisation as pseudo' (p112). Klapp's dismissal amounts to a warning of the subsequent collapse of ‘the nation of joiners’ that was painfully chronicled a generation later by Robert Puttnam.

2. Boys will be Girls.  
Klapp uses the residual strength of the hero role to contend that the status race is subversive of traditional sex roles.  Heroes, he stresses, are almost always masculine in quality. ‘It is still a man’s world when it comes to handing out medals.’(p.97). The plain implication is that women will want to assume masculine roles - and yet that implication begs the question as to why such a wish was only becoming manifest in the latter 20th c? A lead is provided by Klapp’s contention that although we will be typed (whether we like it or not) we nevertheless have some choice over type. Increasing education had expanded the type-choice of women - the low status type wife-mother was no longer an almost inevitable typing - and so accommodated flight of women from low-status traditional roles. The upshot is the unremarkable suggestion feminism is about women becoming men-like, but he adds an extension that applies to bizarre role-assumption seen by men in recent  years, and barely envisageable in 1962 :  ‘with increasing Congresswoman, woman executives, lady athletes cowgirls and so on it seems reasonable to expect further convergences of the sexes – perhaps even to the point of men imitating women’. Indeed.

3.Pixelation not Perspiration. 
In keeping with his belief that the rigour of the hero is ceding prestige to the affable ‘Good Joe’, Klapp predicts ‘our future Edison may well devote his talent to improving pin ball machines’ (p.102). In the light of the fact that 34 million ‘core’ gamers in the United States are ‘playing video games for an average of 22 hours every week’ ( , Klapp’s prediction would not  be a total mischaracterisation of what Jobs and Gates have wrought.

It was only in his last decade of activity that Klapp took on with both hands the informational evolution. In the 1970s Klapp pictured society choosing its 'boundaries' so as to make the most of its informational context. In economists' terms this notion amounts to optimising over the size of the information set. The foundational premise of such an optimisation is that there exists an ‘opportunity locus’ between information of value and informational junk, and that the slope of the locus is positive: to have more information of value (‘news’, ‘data’) is to get (and have to get) more informational junk (moronic remarks posted on Youtube, Facebook trivia, pseudo-measurements of the unmeasurable). Obviously, information of value has positive utility, while informational junk  has negative utility. The optimisation problem is clear: just as the investor chooses over the risk-return locus to maximise utility, so society chooses a point on the ‘information opportunity locus’ to maximise utlity.  (This choice of society might be implemented formally - by banning  production of excess information -  or, more probably, by applying a social sanction to such excess: ‘silence is golden’, or an ethic of ‘point’ and ‘relevance’).

One might try to apply Klapp’s pre-internet theorising to the extraordinary increase in information production over the past 25 years, and with doleful conclusions. I suggest the informational locus in information of value –informational junk space has shifted left.  That is, the acquisition of moderate amounts of information is now concomitant with more informational junk than before. Could the utility-maximising response to such a shift be the choice of less information of value and more junk?

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A Too Serious a Matter for Judges

At his ANU book-event on Tuesday night Paul Kelly maintained some of the wrath, if not ‘rage’, over ‘The Dismissal’ of 11 November 1975. There was something ‘rotten’ in Australia, Kelly declared, that sired the fell events of that day. ‘Rotten’? You mean, something bespeaking decay? Or was the constitutional calamity of ‘75 sourced not in something mortiferous in Australian life, but instead in one if its vitalities; a dysfunction functional vitality, to be sure; to wit, that active force in Australian life that seeks to make a legal object all that it surveys. Kelly’s new book The Dismissal (co-authored with Troy Bramston) provides new material for such an interpretation. The authors’ discoveries underline how utterly juristic was John Kerr’s conception of the office of Governor General. To Kerr the office he filled was a kind of super-judge, a sort of Chief Chief Justice. Thus his itch during the crisis to wrap himself tight in the counsels and ‘opinions’ of judges: the then Chief Justice, Garfield Barwick (CJ 1964-81), and a future Chief Justice, Anthony Mason (CJ 1964-81); not to mention a future Federal Court Judge, Bob Ellicott. Kerr seems to have sought and weighed their advice to the exclusion of any others. Did Kerr ever seek the counsel any of the four living former Governors-General? Paul Hasluck, Richard Casey, William Philip Sidney, and William McKell – the last of whom had experienced the trials of Australia’s Constitution in granting, (amid some controversy) a double-dissolution in the face of Senate ‘obstruction’ in 1951. Did Kerr ever seek the counsel of the one living former Prime Minister who was in political retirement, Robert Menzies? (Menzies had pungently, but privately, opposed the Senate blocking of supply in 1974). It might be replied that Kerr was seeking ‘legal advice’; but that is the rub: the office of Governor General is not a judicial position, it is an executive one. It is an odd executive position, certainly, but executive all the same; and best filled with those with executive experience in the state; former politicians and soldiers. But what need did Kerr have of such as these? He had already announced as Chief Justice of NSW that its citizens owed more to the court house than the parliament house. He was wholly beholden to a legalistic mind-set: his memoirs were entitled Matters for Judgement. Of course. Most specifically, Kerr – and thereby Australian political life – was in the thrall of the legalistic mythology of Solving Conflict By Reason; a rationalistic illusion that had been fatally fostered in Australia by Henry Bournes Higgins, and which underlay the massive halter on the Australian economy known “Arbitration and Conciliation” of which Kerr was wholly a part. (He sat on Commonwealth Industrial Court for six years). Kerr – as Kelly stresses - was a conflict-avoider, and his actions during the constitutional crisis were part of his quest to place the law In Place of Strife. It is melancholy testimony to the futility of that quest that it ended in the hatred of him by those who had appointed him, the faithless snubs of those he had appointed, and the embarrassed chill of the Crown he supposedly represented.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Becker or Beccaria?

There once was a young marquis who didn’t know what to do with his life. Fortunately, two older friends took him in hand, found him a journal to write for, and a cause to champion: the abolition of the barbarous punishments of an earlier epoch that had trespassed into the Age of Reason. The friends conceded to others that the young man ‘knows nothing of our criminal system’ and that  ‘… writing is laborious for him, and costs him so much effort that after an hour he collapses and can’t go on”.  But no matter:  “When he had amassed the materials” they ‘wrote it out, arranging them in order, and made a book out of them’ (Pierro Verri quoted in Paolucci 1963 xiv). In 1764 On Crimes and Punishments appeared, nominally written by Cesare Beccaria but in all probability by Pierro Verri, given Beccaria’s suspicious near zero productivity in the subsequent decades. But however anticlimactic his later career, Crimes and Punishments gave Beccaria a hugely successful entrĂ©e into the republic of letters.

The timing was, after all, perfect. In 1762  - just three years after Adam Smith had announced that even the ‘greatest ruffian’ is not without the principle sympathy -   a blameless calico merchant was broken on the wheel at the order of a tribunal of Toulouse nobility. Voltaire stormed at this outrage, and in 1764 the King annulled the terrible sentence. Thus Crimes and Punishments is very easily seen as  a shriek of the cult of sensibility against the official violence of the day. But there are other interpretations. Henry Paolucci takes the book to be an act of complaisance of a renegade noble, simultaneously gratifying the bourgeois and pleasing the absolute monarchy by deploying a bourgeois rhetoric to justify the extinction of aristocratic prerogative (Paolucci 1963). Bentham took it as the kernel of his philosophy, and historians of ideas prize it as a fountainhead of utilitarianism. I would suggest Becarria is recognizable as a prototype of the criminologist of our day: Becarria almost totally ignores crimes of violence, and construes legitimate punishment purely as an act of social efficiency. He accommodates no notion of equity as foundation for punishment: “an eye for an eye” - most palpably a principle of equity – is as alien to him as it is to the current criminological mind set.

But the author of the volume under review has a different use for Crimes and Punishments.  For Harcourt it is device to launch himself at his overarching target; policies of deregulation and free markets. His point of impact is the Economics of Crime, with its seemingly Benthamite logic and its ‘Chicago’ provenance. Some how, it is insinuated, Becaria will be the key to Becker, and all that spells.

Harcourt turns the key, but, regrettably, the lock doesn’t move. Harcourt immediately notes the incongruity between Becker and Beccaria. Beccaria may have been Benthamite avant la lettre but he was no economic liberal. And this is no surprise: utilitarianism  - the maximization of aggregate utility – amounts to an infinitely ramified prescription of what should be done, and is consequently perfectly totalitarian in implication.

And Chicago is not Benthamite, anyway. Its normative axiom is Paretianism not utilitarianism, something quite different. And its distinguishing axiom is a positive one:  a panglossian assumption of ‘efficiency’. Stigler, Becker etc do not merely seek efficiency, desire efficiency, hope for efficiency. Rather, they hold everything is efficient. Whatever is extant is efficient. And this applies to regulation as much as anything else. In the United States sugar regulation has been extant since 1789. And, consistent with his tenets, Stigler in a posthumous publication defended the appalling thicket of regulation engulfing this industry (Stigler 1992).

I venture to doubt whether the author approves a protection racket – in all senses of the term - that drives up sugar prices for hundreds of millions of consumers to the benefit of a tiny group of producers with politicians in their debt. But I am even more ready to wager the author of the Illusion of Free Markets would pour scorn on any move to deregulate that industry. For it is his evident conviction is that every economic encounter is and must be rigged, fixed, sewn up. He is possessed of a nihilism about the very possibility of the abolition of privilege, the symmetrical treatment of parties. This is not simply a nihilism about the attainment of an ideal, but even about the merely closer approach to the ideal.We are permanently trapped, it seems, in abusive associations. It is perhaps not surprising that this drastic nihilism is asserted rather than argued. What would be the argument? The frequent observation that to play is to have rules is no argument for this nihilism. Neither is one provided for by the author’s learned and curious history of 18th century regulation.

Harcourt, Bernard E (2011), The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of the Natural Order¸Harvard University Press.

Paolucci, Henry (1963) ‘Introduction’ to On Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria, Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill.

 Stigler George J. 1992  ‘Law or Economics?' Journal of Law and Economics, 35( 2), pp. 455-468.