What’s More Immediate Than Falling Off A Bike?

Featured image is Children on Bicycle by Ernest Zacharevic

You have, in your head, a model of a bicycle. Two wheels, a frame, handle bars, pedals. If you’re like me your model includes some extras that aren’t strictly necessary to a bike, like gears, a chain, a gear shift and brakes, but we can leave that aside. You might even have a particular bike in mind, with a particular colour, a particular number of wheel spokes, with a particular rider, in a particular place going to a particular location.

If you have some basic dynamics training you can even make a bit of an explicit model of how that person would ride a bike, using the force of the legs as applied to the pedals, the friction with the ground, the various moments of inertia of the wheels and frame, and the center mass and center of volume of the rider/bike combo. Perhaps you have even heard some stories about more exotic varieties, tandem bicycles or pennyfarthings or butcher’s bikes and the like, which follow the same basic models, though with completely different parameters.

It’s a mistake to think this has anything at all to do with the model you actually use to ride a bike. That model doesn’t have colours, or chains, or even wheels. The bike is stripped down to the most basic elements needed to control it, the handle bars and the pedals (depending on the bike there may also be a handbrake and a gear shift, but these aren’t essential). Your brain does a complex calculation on the senses available to it, of the stresses on muscles, the fluid in your inner ear and the relative angles and motion of nearby objects which it combines to form a sense of balance. Riding a bike is a complex mapping of this sense of balance to action, a negative feedback loop between your hands, the handlebars, your body’s position on the bike and the feeling of imbalance.

You may understand on some level that the handlebars are attached to the front wheel, and turning the handlebars causes the wheel to turn, which causes the bike to turn which results in a centrifugal force restoring your balance, but that kind of formal chain is utterly unnecessary to the learning. When you feel such and such and imbalance, you turn the handlebars so far, which restores the balance. You turn the bars to turn the bike, which produces a centrifugal force, and so you shift your weight to restore the sense of balance. Similarly, you are going too slow, you push harder on the pedals, you are going too fast, you ease up on the pedals.

The exact mechanics by which a bike works might be of interest, depending on what you want to do. Understanding the mechanics of angular momentum can let you build gyroscopic self balancing bikes for use by the disabled for example. Understanding gearing allows both more torque or more speed depending on the situation. Understanding how a wheel works, while non-essential to control, can help anticipate the ways in which you will be required to react to a mud puddle, or a patch of gravel. But none of these extra elements will make their way back into the riding model. What use would they be?

The vast majority of our mental models work in this way. It is thoroughly a calculation, a learned series of simultaneous equations and feedback loops that don’t produce a thought, but a feeling and (unless you can consciously suppress it) an action. The model you require to explain exactly how many degrees you would need to turn the bike handles to stay upright is fairly complex, and knowing how to perform it wouldn’t help you not fall down next time. You probably haven’t the slightest clue what the moment of inertia around the relevant axis is, and unless you’re a civil or mechanical engineer probably don’t even know how you would go about calculating it. You just felt like you were falling over and turned the handlebars until you didn’t feel that way anymore.

Keynesianism in Democracy

Two years ago, semiconservative pundit Josh Barro declared that “Conservatives Have No Idea What to Do About Recessions.” The eminent progressive economist Paul Krugman agreed, then tweaked crotchety Josh by saying this idea-less condition afflicts not only “anti-intellectual and doctrinaire” Republican policymakers but also “prestigious conservative economists” such as, um, Barro’s father Robert.

Conservative intellectuals like Robert Barro, Krugman suggested, have rejected the economists’ notion of aggregate demand, and in so doing they have rejected not only Keynesian economics but also the wrong-yet-acceptable monetarist alternative and its very great avatar Milton Friedman. Why? Because politics: Krugman sees Barro père as having “the sense that acknowledging that markets fail, ever, would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.”

With apologies to Alex Pareene’s version of Malcolm Gladwell: Say that Krugman is right about Robert Barro’s motivations. Could Barro still be right in rejecting Keynesian economics? What if Keynesian economics contains a lot of truth, though? Surely then Barro would be wrong in refusing to advance those true Keynesian ideas.

Or would he?

In 1977, the classical liberal economists James Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner argued that the advancement of Keynesian economic ideas is counterproductive in a mass democracy. Buchanan and Wagner allowed that there could be some ‘truth’ in Keynesianism but said that intellectual economists—few in number and limited in influence—can no longer assert the consistent level of control over economic policy that would be necessary to deliver results. Why not?

John Maynard Keynes, as evidenced in material cited by Buchanan and Wagner, tended to think of policy in his Britain as being handed down by an intellectual aristocracy that would not soon be displaced. Keynes believed that sway over the economic levers could and would be maintained by smart folks, whatever else may transpire. But in America now, as Paul Krugman and Josh Barro both know, that ain’t so. The columns and tweets of today’s smarties, whoever they are, are just an input into the roiling democratic processes that determine policy.

So what should that input be? Krugman’s answer is twofold: Keynesian economics and Democratic Party politics. We are fortunately blessed to have with us a party of politicians who take their cues from sensible people. The Democrats are smartly Keynesian, and so if they remain in power then countercyclical policy is guaranteed. Stimulate the economy when it busts, then use boom times to control inflation and reduce debts.

But Buchanan and Wagner pointed out that since the boom-time Keynesian policies of tighter money, lower spending, and higher taxes are never popular with voters, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet on continuous Democratic victories. An opportunistic opposition party could put forward pseudo-Keynesian ideas designed to win elections: Say, if tax cuts are stimulating during recessions, then shouldn’t they be stimulating all the time? A voter who really understands Keynesianism, who learned what she was taught in intermediate macro, wouldn’t be suckered by such an opposition. But in a mass polity dominated by noneconomists, vague notions about the benefits of ever-lower taxes can sink in. Sometimes the Republicans win, and who knows what they end up doing.

So Buchanan and Wagner’s answer was this: Mass democracy requires a wiser brand of economist, one who understands Keynesian economics but refrains from offering the Keynesian policy prescription. Economics professors shouldn’t, in their classrooms, push their smart kids to advocate for strongly countercyclical budgeting. Teach them about the idea, yes, but teach them too about the politics that are likely to frustrate its successful implementation, and remind Timmy in the front row that he’ll never chair Ways and Means.

Buchanan and Wagner thought a better result would obtain if the economists and their sharp students hold that politicians should consider the government to be broadly constrained by its budget. Then less nuttiness gets around. The idea of ever-lower taxes, dumb on its face, is affirmed as dumb. And some of the less defensible Gladwellism in politics is stymied. A crotchety man or two might be happy about that much.

They would be, right?

On Bullshit in Economics Textbooks

“This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. …

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

—Harry Frankfurt

Imagine an economist sitting down to write a textbook. The task requires the economist to write about many matters on which he is not expert. If the economist drafted the entire book in an initial sitting, we who have been edified by Harry Frankfurt would imagine that the chapters on matters outside the economist’s expertise will be relatively suffused with bullshit. With effort—research, correspondence with colleagues, and so forth—the author should in subsequent drafts be able to reduce the proportion of bullshit in those chapters. But it could hardly ever be possible to eliminate the bullshit. Often it may be the case that no one is sufficiently expert in the matters at hand to give an authoritative account. The author may be in the position of a politician who must address a difficult issue and has only the input of divided experts and a divided electorate to go on, and so bullshit ensues.

Presuming this model of authoring to be correct, what does it tell us when we come across big amounts of bullshit in a textbook chapter? It might be that economists at large have no experts on the matters discussed. It might be that the textbook author did not exert much effort in writing the chapter. It might be that the matters at hand are controversial.

Econ 101 has in some quarters a reputation for consisting of dry theoretical propositions. But the opening chapter of an introductory economics textbook is really a prime place to find bullshit. This could be the case because economic science itself does not tell us exactly how to begin speaking about economics. Adam Smith gave us an exemplar when he started The Wealth of Nations with a discussion “Of the Division of Labor,” but there is no definitive reason to follow Smith in this regard and in the succeeding centuries economists have gone about the task in various ways.

One principles text I had the chance to use in recent years doesn’t even contain the phrase “division of labor,” let alone near its outset. The first two words of its Chapter 1 are in fact “Barack Obama.” Its third sentence describes Obama as “the Economist in Chief.” In the sixth paragraph it emphasizes that “President Obama has to decide how best to use the nation’s limited resources.” The second paragraph reports that prior to his inauguration Obama “asked [his economic advisers] whether the economy would recover from recession without further government intervention.” Come on, man. That conversation did not happen.

That there’s this bullshit doesn’t make the textbook’s introduction to economics unworthy. Pointing up shared American identity to connect with students might be okay. The overall impressions students take from the chapter may be useful and correct in the main. But you’d be right to say the author doesn’t care a lot whether every sentence written is true or not. And you have to think bright students notice that. I suspect a number find it alienating.

If bullshit in textbooks is a problem, it’d be good to measure its volume. Possibly one could take the first 50 sentences from several textbooks, mix them up, then present them to economics graduate students as a 50-question test a la Politifact: “Rate each sentence True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.” And is our bullshit skewed? The subjects could also rate each sentence in terms of whether it conjures a centralized or decentralized view of economic affairs, a command or market economy, a national or world system. I doubt any will be surprised if economists’ prior commitments primarily manifest themselves amidst bullshit.

Reconciling Pluralism and Liberationism in Education

As part of my writing project over a short holiday from work, Adam asked me to discuss a piece he wrote back in November on this site.
It’s helpful to return to Tamara’s piece where I think she best describes the tension Adam struggles with:

However, if part of a university’s responsibility is to reflect society as it should be, to not just boast diversity, but actively work to promote inclusivity, then it’s reasonable that students would expect their university to take measures to ensure all students feel welcome. This sentiment seems to be at the core of calls for trigger warnings, explicit racial quotas in admissions and employment, and other efforts to fulfill the university’s role as reflection of societal progress. Following this line of reasoning, college administrations have a duty to create a safe space for students, which either equals or exceeds its duty to cultivate an intellectual space. Looking at it this way, it’s less difficult see why some college campuses seem to be coming apart at the seams right now.

If I were to shorten Adam’s main points, they would be as follows:

When justified on the basis of discovery, there’s a natural link with the notion of pluralism in ideas as a tool for finding the best ideas. When justified on the basis of freedom, however, we get closer to the goal of greatest diversity in ideas and people as an end in itself. Pluralism in ideas, people, and governments for pluralism’s sake.

First, pluralism can be interpreted as similar to federalism, inasmuch as pluralism values diversity in itself in demography just like federalism values diversity in itself of political systems.

The tension that Tamara identifies in her piece is, I think, between federalists in the domain of ideas on the one hand, and liberationists in the domain of diversity on the other. For the latter, diversity in demography is a tool for liberating minorities from the chains of a white patriarchal normative system— but also for liberating whites of each sex from that very system, by exposing them to groups who have been marginalized by it.

Second, this interpretation of pluralism, which Adam finds particularly effecting, stands in contrast to other popular rationalizations of demographic diversity, namely a politics of liberation. Diversity should be enforced as a means of liberation itself for those who are oppressed.

Under this rationalization, the activity of introducing diversity in demographics is, itself, illiberal to pluralism of ideas because it is privileging a singular set of intellectual beliefs. Indeed, third, education itself, when conceptualized as a liberating activity:

[Precludes pluralism in education b]y imposing a single form of education on all, …forcing any tensions over competing visions into the scale of the nation, rather than the locality.

Ultimately, the problem lies with authority, without which a federalist/pluralist and liberationism are doomed. After all:

Pluralism of all stripes is often anti-authority, or at least an attempt to minimize the problem of authority. But the problem of authority is inescapable; even more so for those who take seriously the value of diversity. A serious understanding of such value must be connected to a serious understanding of its limits.

I would argue that diversity in the classroom is first and foremost a necessary condition for learning. In the ideal environment, students are provided with varying interpretations of the information they are being taught. More than that, students are asked to critically analyze the interpretations before them, and, eventually, to determine which is the most accurate or compelling. Fundamentally, this is what we expect learning (particularly in a higher education setting) to be. Each of these steps, providing multiple interpretations of information and critiquing these interpretations, is greatly dependent on diversity of both faculty and students.

What worth is inquiry in a classroom full of like-minded individuals? Without multiple views expressed, questions lose their power and purpose, and there can be no learning. We fail because students have arrived with one set of beliefs, and left with the same beliefs, unchallenged, no further developed, and given institutional approval without institutional critique.

Perhaps this argument is unconvincing. Why is diversity in demographics a requirement for diversity in ideas? Consider one of my favorite blog posts ever written, which succinctly describes privilege in the language of mathematics that I myself had always used to understand the meaning of privilege. In discussing say, income inequality, a homogeneous classroom filled with individuals who were raised with limitless opportunities could at best theoretically conceptualize alternative views to an argument that “equal opportunity for success exists in America.” Their entire life was surrounded with confirmatory evidence, where effort and caring were the only obvious prerequisites to success with high school academics and non-academic barriers to college attendance were non-existent. What occurs in a classroom like this is, at best, a sort of slum tourism without any real meaning.

We don’t need liberationism to justify diversity in education, we need diversity to ensure education.

I’ll get back to liberationism in a moment, but first it is important to recognize that this justification of diversity, that it ensures education, does not require a pluralism or federalism that values diversity in itself. Diversity is not a value based on freedom of ideas nor is it a value based on a mechanistic argument that suggests diversity is more likely to find the best ideas. Instead, diversity is of value because education as a process requires challenge and critique, whether they serve to change minds or deepen conviction (hopefully through further development). Whereas the pluralism/federalism Adam describes values diversity almost endlessly, the value of diversity to cause education is quite bounded. It is completely appropriate to discard views that are unable to pose serious intellectual threat. There is little value in considering say, conspiracy theories when discussing the Apollo missions.

That’s a loaded example. But there is also little value in teaching detailed theories that depend upon the existence of lumineforous aether, regardless of the fact that they represented cutting edge at one time.

Diversity of demographics, or even ideas, within institutional education can be justified on a far narrower set of beliefs that do not require the same anti-authoritarianism conflict of a broader pluralism.

So diversity is justified on a weak form of Adam’s pluralism/federalism case that does not rise to valuing diversity in itself, but instead values diversity that leads to a meaningful impact of conflicting view points that are necessities for learning. These views must be both experiential and intellectual for rich learning. In this weaker conceptualization, anti-authoritarianism is far less central. In fact, we have a highly individualized conception of knowledge construction that depends upon individual analysis and an individual determining which truth is the most compelling.

Does this absolve the university setting from actively seeking diversity as part of a liberationism framework? Actually, not at all. We can satisfy the pluralist needs of the classroom without liberationism, but we can also satisfy these needs through liberation. Rather than understanding liberation as a central embedded component of pedagogy or the learning process, we should understand liberation as the result of being educated.

Without debating signaling versus human and/or social capital accumulation, it is clear that formalized education provides positional benefits in the labor market and in “social markets” such as forming partnerships and nuclear families. Even when education does not directly empower, it certainly can serve as an obstacle to accessing fully participation with a whole class of society. If we believe there is a moral imperative similar to say, equality of opportunity, it’s quite obvious we can imply that there is a strong requirement that universities accept diverse student bodies and a diverse teaching force since education is a mediator of opportunity.

I don’t think this implies, by the way, that universities are compelled to generate “safe spaces” beyond enabling learning to happen. The process of education as it exists generates opportunity through complex mechanisms that are not entirely separable. There could be aspects of confronting a culture of power and authority that is critical to educations “opportunity generation”. Importantly, if we accept the argument for diversity as a process required for education to occur, we have to be vigilant about discarding the very conflict that allows learning to happen.

The challenge facing education is not accepting the notion that not all ideas are created equal or are worthy. I have ceded that in this very post and definitions of academic freedom already largely acknowledge this fact as a prime distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech. Instead, the challenge is the demand of the academic left that their ideas have already met a high burden of authority that necessitates the eradication of certain view points as worthy of consideration in the classroom.

The conflict is not between liberationism and federalism. It is not pluralism run amok. It is, in fact, a crisis of authority, but not in the existence of authority but instead of whether absolute authority belongs to the current strand of the academic left. They certainly seem to think so, but far from everyone is along for the ride.

† This may not satisfy Adam, who I think will read this conceptualization as falling pray to the same problems of authority. I disagree. The very insistence that views are critiqued and alternatives presented is a statement of authority on how we build knowledge and learn. We don’t have to remove individual involvement in identifying legitimate authority and authoritative claims by asserting authority. That’s too strong a form of this challenge much like his pluralism/federalism is too strong a conception of the value of diversity of thought. Some ideas *are* worth more than others, so much so that we can discard some from even being presented. That does not mean that authority implies a lack of conflict in the education process between people, ideas, experiences, etc. The existence of more than one conflicting authoritative claim practically defines areas of worthwhile study.

Author’s Note: It is rare that I can go back directly to a piece of writing I did for a weekly assignment for a college course from my sophomore year (almost a decade ago!) and find almost everything I want to say. So thank you to UC170 and the “weekly response” I wrote on Diversity on October 16, 2006.

The Tension Between Pluralism and Standardized Education


Tamara’s excellent inaugural post as a Sweet Talker brings into sharp focus many of the frames we so often unthinkingly approach the question of higher education with.

I particularly liked the way that she linked the goal of pluralism in ideas with diversity in demographic backgrounds. The quotes she provides seem to indicate that having a wide variety of ideas around is good in itself, rather than as a means for arriving at the correct one or offsetting the problems with the largely better but still flawed ones. Taken in that light, it seems obvious that demographic diversity would be a necessary condition for the greatest possible variety of ideas—more backgrounds, more cultural variety, therefore more variation in accepted wisdoms or even in counter-cultures against the former.

I am reminded of a group that is usually treated as an ideological enemy of the diversity in demography crowd, but a friend to the pluralism in ideas crowd—the modern defenders of federalism. That is, those who believe that the ideal world would have the greatest variation in political systems at the smallest possible territorial level with unlimited freedom of movement between the systems. This ideal is justified either on the basis of maximizing freedom—you have the most options in political systems and thus governments are much more euvoluntary—or on the basis of discovery—you are much more likely to find the best possible system if you allow the largest possible trial and error process to play out.

When justified on the basis of discovery, there’s a natural link with the notion of pluralism in ideas as a tool for finding the best ideas. When justified on the basis of freedom, however, we get closer to the goal of greatest diversity in ideas and people as an end in itself. Pluralism in ideas, people, and governments for pluralism’s sake.

In another piece I created three provisional labels; federalist, propertarian, and liberationist. Federalist should be straightforward from what I described above, and propertarians are simply those who believe that freedom just is the existence of well defined and enforced property rights. The liberationist, on the other hand:

Under the liberation framework, individuals are liberated from something—superstition, prejudice, poverty, even from family ties or marriage. They are free not only to sell their property or form a community according to their own values, but to hold themselves to no one’s standards but their own. In practice, there are always specific standards either in the background or explicitly. Science is the great liberator of minds over religion and superstition. Policy provides just men an avenue for liberating the poor from their poverty. In law, liberation is embodied in anti-discrimination, affirmative action, and welfare of all stripes.

The tension that Tamara identifies in her piece is, I think, between federalists in the domain of ideas on the one hand, and liberationists in the domain of diversity on the other. For the latter, diversity in demography is a tool for liberating minorities from the chains of a white patriarchal normative system—but also for liberating whites of each sex from that very system, by exposing them to groups who have been marginalized by it.

Liberationists often also espouse pluralism in ideas as part of their core beliefs. But the role of standardized education—higher as well as K-12—in the modern liberationist framework creates a serious tension. If the purpose of a standard education is to crack up the dominance of white patriarchal norms by exposing everyone to pluralism in action, then it is already excluding many ideas from the outset, just like a monism would do. By imposing a single form of education on all, it also precludes pluralism in education, forcing any tensions over competing visions into the scale of the nation, rather than the locality.

However, I do not think that the liberationists are in some way solely guilty of this. Their only fault, in terms of conceptual problems, is their dedication to eradicating conformity (and hence norms) by using the very tools which create conformity. Norms both create power relations and are an ineradicable part of how human beings work and think together. It makes sense, then, that liberationists would use it as a tool for change—but self-defeating when the goal of the change is to get rid of the very things that make it possible.

Hillary Clinton highlighted the tensions in a 2006 remark on vouchers:

Suppose that you were meeting today to decide who got the vouchers. First parent comes and says ‘I want to send my daughter to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School’ and you say ‘Great, wonderful school, here’s your voucher. Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send, you know, my child to the Jewish Day School. Great here’s your voucher! Next parent who comes says, “I want to send my child to the private school that I’ve already dreamed of sending my child to.’ Fine. Here’s your voucher.

Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send my child to the school of the Church of the White Supremacist.’ You say, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t send…we’re not giving a voucher for that.’ And the parent says, ‘Well, the way that I read Genesis, Cain was marked, therefore I believe in white supremacy. And therefore, you gave it to a Catholic parent, you gave it to a Jewish parent, gave it to a secular private parent. Under the Constitution, you can’t discriminate against me.’

Suppose the next parent comes and says ‘I want to send my child to the School of…the Jihad.’ Wait a minute! We’re not going to send a child with taxpayers dollars to the School of Jihad. ‘Well, you gave it to the Catholics, gave it to the Jews, gave it to the private secular people. You’re gonna tell me I can’t? I’m a taxpayer. Under the Constitution.’

Now, tell me how we’re going to make those choices.

This is a cogent critique of the federalist side of the education debate. But it implies that a universal, standard public education resolves it, which simply isn’t true. The same choices are made, they are just made centrally, and for everyone all at once, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Or in a decentralized way.

For my part, I don’t think any of the conceptual problems with either liberationism or federalism can be resolved without a theory of legitimate authority. Authority in terms of ideas and knowledge, but also in terms of the exercise of power. Education is an area in which both of these types of authority are crucial. We cannot have pluralism all the way down where theories of legitimate authority are concerned; without a basic consensus on these twin questions, there cannot be an education.

How can students be taught without being asked to acknowledge the authority of teachers? How can schools be ordered without recognizing the authority of administrators? How can syllabuses be set and standardized without recognizing the authority of some sources of knowledge over others?

Pluralism of all stripes is often anti-authority, or at least an attempt to minimize the problem of authority. But the problem of authority is inescapable; even more so for those who take seriously the value of diversity. A serious understanding of such value must be connected to a serious understanding of its limits.