Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Evil Effects of Robot

From Hungary and Transylvania: with remarks on their condition, social, political and economical, Volume 1 by John Paget (1839):
The system of rent by robot or forced labour,—that is, so many days' labour without any specification of the quantity of work to be performed,—is a direct premium on idleness. A landlord wishes a field of corn to be cut; his steward sends out, by means of his Haiduks, information to the peasants to meet at such a field at such an hour with their sickles. Some time after the hour appointed a great part of them arrive, the rest finding some excuse by which they hope to escape a day's work; while others send their children or their wives, declaring some reason for their own absence. After much arranging they at last get to work; a Haiduk stands over them to see that they do not go to sleep, and between talking, laughing, and resting, they do get something done. Where horses are employed, they are still less inclined to hurry; lest they should tire them for the next day, when they use them for their own purposes.

Now how much does the reader suppose such workmen perform in one day ? Count S-- says, just one-third of what the same men can do easily when working by the piece; and he has accordingly compounded his peasants' one hundred and four days' robot for a certain amount of labour, which they generally get through in about thirty-four days.

Another evil of the robot is the ill-will it begets between the masters and the workmen : their whole lives seem to be a constant effort, on the one hand, to see how much can be pressed out of the reluctant peasant; and, on the other, how little can be done to satisfy the terms of agreement, and escape punishment. Mutual injury becomes a mutual profit; suspicion and ill-will are the natural results.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Robot Revolution?!

From Act I, R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. Translation by David Wyllie.
Helena: But do be careful, sir; this little girl has frightful intentions

Domin: Good heavens, Miss Glory, what could that be? Are you thinking of getting married?

Helena: No, no, God forbid! Not in my wildest dreams! I've come here with plans to start a revolution among your horrible robots!

Domin: (jumping up ) A robot revolution?!

Helena: (standing ) Harry, what's wrong?

Domin: Haha, Miss Glory, you'll never manage that! A robot revolution! You might more easily start a revolution among the nails and bobbins in the spinning mill than among our robots! (sitting ) You were a wonderful girl, you know, Helena, you enchanted all of us.

Helena: (sitting beside him ) But I felt so daunted by all of you in those days! I felt like a little girl who'd got lost among ... among ...

Domin: Among what, Helena?

Helena: Among enormous trees. You were so confident, so powerful! And you know, Harry, even after these ten years I've never lost that feeling of ... that anxiety or something. And did you never have any doubts? Not even when everything was going wrong?

Domin: What was going wrong?

Helena: Your plans, Harry. When there was that uprising against the robots by the workers and they started smashing them, and the robots were given weapons to defend themselves and the robots killed so many people. Or when governments started turning robots into soldiers and there was so much war, and all of that. You know.

Domin: (stands and walks up and down ) We were expecting that to happen, Helena. Don't you see, that was just a transitional stage before things would be ... different

It's Greek to Me

Ωστόσο, πολλοί οικονομολόγοι θεωρούν ότι αυτή η αντίληψη είναι λανθασμένη: μία παραλλαγή της «λογικής πλάνης του δεδομένου αριθμού θέσεων εργασίας» (lump of labour fallacy), κατά την οποία ο όγκος της εργασίας είναι συγκεκριμένος και οι θέσεις εργασίας μπορούν και πρέπει να κατανεμηθούν σύμφωνα με αυτόν.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coming UnHitched

Not since Elizabeth Taylor or Michael Jackson have we seen such a torrent of obituary (& some obitchuary). But for a whiskey-swilling, tobacco-stained scribbler? Who knew Christopher Hitchens was a celebrity of the first rank? Although the Sandwichman never drank with Hitchens, he can say with documented certainty that he drank with someone who has. But who can't?

I used to read Hitchens's Nation column eagerly in the 80s, along with Cockburn's "Beat the Devil." In those days, shit happened and you had to get by reading between the lines in the mainstream media for two weeks until last week's copy of The Nation arrived in the mail to confirm your suspicions.

What I learned from Hitchens was the persuasive power of journalistic impressionism. I once tried to use one of his columns as a source for something I was researching. I had the impression there was substance there, but when I tried to pin down the facts, they weren't there. Just a confident swirl of innuendo, hearsay and conjecture sprinkled with some peripherally relevant facts that were neither controversial nor conclusive with regard to the grave matter in question. Take notes:

The significance of Hitchens passing may have more to do with the fact that he was the last of a dying (no pun intended) breed -- the erudite, iconoclast commentator who kept up with current events so you wouldn't have to. It's not that iconoclasm or erudition as such has disappeared. Instead, it has become generalized, through blogging, and in the process has been deprived of its exchange value.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A New Theory of Supply and Demand

Nine-tenths of the confusion and obscurity in which the doctrine of price has hitherto been involved has arisen from searching after the unsearchable, from seeking for some invariable rule for inevitable variations, from straining after precision where to be precise is necessarily to be wrong. Supply and demand are commonly spoken of as if they together formed some nicely fitting, well-balanced, self-adjusting piece of machinery, whose component parts could not alter their mutual relations without evolving, as the product of every change, a price exactly corresponding with that particular change. Price, and more especially the price of labor, is scarcely ever mentioned without provoking a reference to the 'inexorable' the ' immutable,' the 'eternal' laws by which it is governed; to laws which, according to my friend Professor Fawcett, 'are as certain in their operation as those which control physical nature.' It is no small gain to have discovered that no such despotic laws do or can exist; that, inasmuch as the sole function of scientific law is to predict the invariable recurrence of the same effect from the same causes, and as there can be no invariability where as in the case of price one of the most efficient causes is that ever-changing chameleon, human character or disposition, price cannot possibly be subjected to law. -- William Thomas Thornton, 1866.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Know What You’re Professing

In an op-ed at the New York Times today, Know What You’re Protesting, Greg Mankiw replied to the November 2 walk-out of his Econ 10 lecture. Mankiw's second reaction, after nostalgia, to the walkout was "sadness at how poorly informed the Harvard protesters seemed to be." The Sandwichman's reaction to Mankiw's reaction is astonishment at how poorly informed the Harvard PROFESSORS seem to be. They are poorly informed in the sense of what they think they know that just ain't so. Some examples are Edward L. Glaeser, Lawrence F. Katz and N. Gregory Mankiw.

A few years back Mankiw commented on Albert Einstein's suggestion that shorter working hours would enable more people to be employed. Mankiw dismissed Einstein's economic views as "about as well thought out as my views on quantum mechanics." What he appears to not have known was that John Maynard Keynes took a similar view of the matter. At EconoSpeak, Peter Dorman gives a good description of exactly what is wrong with introductory economics courses. Dorman points out "there is a central narrative at the introductory level," which "presents a system of perfectly competitive markets" yet "[m]ost of the interesting and important work in economics is about... deviations" from that central narrative such as "externalities. behavioral anomalies, sticky prices, etc."

I think this criticism is correct, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. It seems to me that the perfectly competitive market narrative is a stand-in for and derivative from a more explicitly elitist narrative which only becomes clear from an examination of the 18th century ideological context from which the competitive market narrative evolved. That is to say, it is not just any old narrative; it is a theodicy (a "vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil").

Sandwichman is perhaps using an analogy? The market narrative is like a theodicy? No. Sandwichman is referring to documented statements of principle:
Every religious mind views and adores the Providence of God, which has thus appeared for us, by providing sufficient work for the poor, and wages for their work.
Three cheers for the Providence of God but it needs to be kept in mind that the "evil" in question is the suffering of "the poor" through unemployment, low wages, harsh working conditions and a progressive loss of control over their own lives. Here, I have to agree with Mankiw, or at least with the headline on his op-ed piece, "know what you are protesting." It is not merely Mankiw's teaching of introductory Economics nor, as Peter Dorman points out, the customary narrative of the competitive market that needs to be questioned. It is the antiquated, elitist and clandestine theodicy from which that market narrative springs that needs to be exposed and repudiated.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Afterthoughts on the use of machines...

from The Song of Steel by Charles Buxton Going

Look! We have slain the forests, thou and I--
Soiled the bright streams and murked the very sky;
Crushed the glad hills and shocked the quiet stars
With roaring factories and clanging cars!

Thou builder of machines, who dost not see!
That which thou mad'st to drive, is driving thee--
Ravening, tireless, pitiless its strain
For thy last ounce of work from hand and brain.

Are thy sons princes? Hard-wrung serfs! They give
Toil's utmost dregs for the bare chance to live;
They dig and delve and strive with sweat-cursed brow
In forge and shop. Master? Nay! Thrall art thou!