Ask Zompist: Salting the economists

What do you think— with how much, or how little, salt should we take things said by Paul Krugman (and other economists)? On the one hand, he seems to be smart and insightful; on the other hand, he seems to assume certain things (like the IMF model of development, Ricardo’s trade prescriptions, and the seesaw model of inflation and unemployment) as self-evidently true and right even though there are various reasons (some of them covered by you) to have doubts about them. So, where do you agree with him and where do you disagree with him, and why? And what do you think how economics, as a field, is likely to develop in the near future (keeping in mind that this might well be different from how you might think it should develop)?


I don’t think Krugman in particular supports the neoliberal IMF model.  He’s an unrepentant Keynesian, after all— at the moment, for instance, he’s advocating a huge stimulus plan and actually worried that Obama won’t make it big enough.  That’s the opposite approach to the ‘austerity programs’ that the IMF imposes on developing nations.  Similarly, I remember him advocating currency controls during the 1990s troubles in southeast Asia.

A layman should be cautious, but not over-cautious, when disagreeing with experts.  Mere ignorance isn’t very attractive, and to be sure where the experts are not is a sign of quackery.

Where we can criticize the economists is in the assumptions they make about the world, intended to be simplifying, and arguably distorting instead.  An obvious one (now questioned by many economists) is the rationality of economic actors.  In many areas people simply don’t behave with a cold-blooded eye to their financial advantage.  Sometimes they’re simply valuing things other than money (e.g. prestige or conformism or fair play); sometimes they’re just dumb (e.g. the persistence of racism, which shrinks the market and discards good workers).

Thinking about money and incentives can produce a healthy cynicism— I like Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist for this.  Harford obviously spends too much time in coffeeshops, and he answers interesting questions like “Why do cafés cluster together?” and “Why are consumers willing to spend so much on coffee these days?”  On the other hand, there’s Joel Spolsky’s observation that incentives are counter-productive in management: you get more of what you measure, but rarely in a way that benefits the business.  The workers always learn to game the system, and more direly, their intrinsic motivation (doing a good job) is eroded by the extrinsic one (bonuses and incentives).  Economists helped produce highly inflated compensation for executives; in theory this was supposed to motivate them better, but with the failure of two major industries (investment banking and automobiles), it’s hard to see it as anything but dangerous looting.

Another issue, again recognized by good economists, is externalities.  The market doesn’t properly value non-production costs (e.g. pollution, or the despotism of oil-producing regimes) or long-term ones (e.g. mine cleanup or resource exhaustion or bubbles bursting).

The expert to really distrust is the one who never says “I don’t know.”  In retrospect, Greenspan’s air of authority, which so cowed even Democratic legislators, proved to cover an out-of-touch ideology more than any actual sagacity.


Fallout 3 gallery

I want to try Left 4 Dead, but there’s still so much Fallout 3 to do.  Here’s some recent highlights.

Dave, in his New Republic of Dave.  He got and left his previous realm when I manipulated the ballot box during what he expected would be a triumphant re-election as president of the Republic of Dave.  If this wasn't pathetic enough, next time I checked in on him, he'd been eviscerated by a Deathclaw.
Dave, in his New Republic of Dave.

Dave stormed out of his previous realm when I manipulated the ballot box during what he expected would be a triumphant re-election as president of the Republic of Dave. If this wasn’t pathetic enough, next time I checked on him, he’d gotten eaten by Deathclaws. 

Sometimes I make some poor fashion choices.
Sometimes I make some poor fashion choices.

I still like the Vault 101 jumpsuit, but I hate having to pay to repair it.  Raiderwear is interesting and easy to come by.  But now I’m wearing the Laather Armor since its protection level is much better.

Combat as seen within VATS.
Combat as seen within VATS.

Nice action shot, but I wield a knife like a girl, don’t I?  An upward thrust is more effective, or so I’m told… I don’t get to attack many Raiders in real life.

Amusing show at the Museum of History.
Amusing show at the Museum of History.

As in Oblivion, there are a lot of interesting little things to run into– Uncle Leo, for instance, the only friendly Super Mutant; or an artfully arranged crashed train; or the lesbian Ghouls; or Tinker Joe, who even in death (NPCs should really be more careful about the wildlife) is faithfully attended by his robots. 

I think my one complaint is that some quests require huge skill scores to fully experience.  I had to throw a couple of levels’ worth of upgrade points into Speech, and now I’m building up my lockpick and science skills, putting some things on hold till I’m ready.  On the other hand, just about everything turns out to be useful in some way, eventually.  I took a toy car home as decoration; it turns out I can use it to build a dart gun.  And after a long time, I finally got some great weapons that use the .44 bullets I’d been accumulating.

Ask Zompist: Feline-descended humans

In Almea, hominids don’t originate from primates but from an amphibian ancestry… So, I was wondering if it was possible to imagine human-like aliens descending from feline-like aliens.


Oh dear, you want to create furries, don’t you?  Well, you certainly can imagine it… it’s common enough in sf/fantasy.  Though why does everyone pick cats, wolves, and foxes?  Capybaras, bonobos, wallabies, and platypuses could use more love.

Or do you mean, can you do it plausibly?  That depends on whether you’re writing fantasy or sf.  In fantasy, humanoids are the norm and need no justification.  Fantasy is more about the sense of wonder, or even spiritual or metaphysical exploration; it’s not hung up about biology.

Lots of sf is fantasy-with-phasers; but in theory sf is supposed to be scientific, and there’s little excuse for humanoids— except for the low budgets of TV shows.  Looking around our planet, it’s striking how varied are the animals even within one particular niche— among medium-large herbivores, for instance, we find deer, ostriches, and kangaroos.  Intelligent species should show at least that amount of variety.  The humanoid form, with its long thin limbs, derives from primate brachiation; a species that never lived in the trees shouldn’t look like us.  (And other common attributes of sf humanoids, such as breasts and lack of body hair, aren’t even shared with the other great apes.) 

Think about behavior, too… primates are intensely social creatures, and that was probably the engine for the development of our intelligence, such as it is.  A mostly solitary animal like a cat isn’t likely to go that route.  Lions might work better.  I also suspect that it’s not coincidence that we’re omnivores.  Omnivores have to be more adaptable… also more active; both characteristics could also facilitate intelligence.

Best language theory yet

I’ve just read Michael Tomasello’s Constructing a Language (2003), and no, it’s not about conlangs.  It’s about how children acquire language.  It’s one of the best books on language I’ve read; also one of the most difficult.

As adumbrated in Chapter 1, the Generative Grammar hypothesis focuses only on grammar and claims that the human species has evolved during its phylogeny a genetically based universal grammar. 

Jeez, don’t open with a joke or anything.

Contra Chomsky

I already reviewed an essay of Tomasello’s; the book is an extended form.  In brief, he destroys the idea of the poverty of the stimulus.  Chomsky was reacting against Skinner’s stimulus-response notion of language, rightfully pointing out that there has to be a good deal of mental machinery dealing with language— language is nothing like a conditioned response.  His mistake was to assume that this machinery was innate— that children don’t hear enough language to deduce its principles.  As Tomasello shows, reviewing study after study, there is no evidence for this.  Children learn most easily precisely those constructions they hear the most often, and the more difficult constructions take longest to learn.

In later years Chomsky, faced with the vast array of human languages, elaborated the idea of parameters: there are a bunch of switches (OS or SO?  pro-drop or not?  AN or NA?) which determine a language’s particular grammar; all the child has to do is learn what the settings are for the language she hears.  Again, the evidence is against this.  Simply put, children don’t suddenly acquire settings; their competence increases slowly and (this is a key point) item by item, construction by construction. There’s not a sudden point where (say) they realize that English isn’t pro-drop.  They mix constructions with pronouns and those without. 

A major argument for innateness is that children learn languages “naturally”, supposedly within a window of opportunity and much easier than adults.  I’ve addressed this before, and Tomasello repeats some of the same objections, but adds a good new one: children have the advantage of having no first-language interference. 


How do children learn language?  We know most about the years from 1 to 4, which have been best studied.  Tomasello doesn’t believe in a language organ at all; he maintains that human language depends simply on human cognitive abilities, and the key one, appearing at about 2 years of age, is the ability to maintain joint attentional frames… that is, the child interacts with an adult, about some situation.  The key word is attention: the child only now can understand that others have mental states, and seek to affect them.  Animal language is all about expressing states: the animal is horny or hungry or wants to go home, or sees a predator.  Other animals may react to these expressions, but they’re not intended as communication— in fact the animal is quite likely to make the same expressions when alone.  What distinguishes human language is the ability to model other minds (and thus to try to affect them). 

Joint attentional frames are Tomasello’s response to Quine’s dilemma about ostension: pointing to a rabbit, do we mean the rabbit, the rabbit’s foot, the act of running, the color of the fur, or a bag of rabbit parts? 

Tomasello points out, by the way, that ostension is of less use than we might think in language learning.  Verbs, for instance, are most often used not to point out an ongoing action, but to describe one that just occurred or that’s about to occur— neither of these are things that can be pointed to.  Even nouns often occur when not present (“Where’s Daddy?”  “What does a cow say?”).

What the frames provide is meaning and context.  Basically, toddlers learn language because it’s the commentary to a situation they already understand.  (To put it another way, if you leave the TV on, they won’t learn about elections or American Idol.  There’s no attentional frame to give them a handle on the words from the TV, so they don’t learn anything from it.)  A child won’t learn ‘rabbit’ from a random act of pointing.  They learn the word in a familiar, information-rich context: playing with a pet, visiting a zoo, reading a book, whatever.  They pretty much already understand what the adult is doing and what the utterance means, and they can use that to figure out what any unfamiliar words mean.

Bag those trees

Tomasello rejects generative grammar and formal linguistics entirely.  The language organ hypothesis posits that children have a full adult understanding of grammar and only need to learn how to activate it.  This just doesn’t match the years-long struggle children have to acquire language and the mistakes they make.

How do they acquire language?  Item by item— and the items may be words, phrases with open slots, or entire constructions (e.g. passive voice).  The evidence is that they don’t learn to link up these items right away.  E.g., learning the verb hit, they don’t really have a concept of the verb’s subject and object.  They learn the word’s particular slots: hitter and hittee.  It’s only much later that they abstract out general syntactic categories like subject; and particular items may indeed remain as anomalies in adult speech. 

As an example, generative grammar treats questions as a transformation of statements… “Where’s the rabbit?” is related to locatives like “The rabbit is in the cage.”  But Tomasello points out that for many children, the first multi-word constructions they produce are questions: where X, what’s X?  They can hardly be transforming statements when they’re not producing statements yet.  Rather, they learn the questions because they hear similar questions from adults. 

Some aspects of language are delayed because they require more cognitive sophistication.  The proper use of pronouns and definite articles, for instance, requires an understanding of what other people know.  Young children use these features based only on what they themselves know.  There are items and constructions that aren’t mastered until well unto school age.

Further research needed

The book starts with words and simple constructions, and progresses to more complicateed ones.  It gets weaker as it goes on, not because Tomasello’s argument declines, but because the research gets thinner.  There just aren’t enough studies of how children learn the more complex constructions of their language.

Still, his usage-based linguistics is perhaps the first overall theory of language that strikes me as being on the right track in general.  He rejects generative syntax and innate linguistic competence entirely, and that may be going too far.  But as a heuristic, it’s completely correct: we should explain as much as we can with general cognitive abilities before positing language-specific ones. 

Chomskyan linguistics in particular seems like arid speculation verging on pseudo-science.  The whole idea of parameters, for instance, is an invitation to fool oneself: any anomalous data can be swept under the rug by adding a new parameter.  The best alternatives so far have been people who are more sensible (e.g. Lakoff and McCawley) but who still are very far from the neurochemistry of the brain.  I’ve long felt that we won’t be getting near the truth till linguistics is a lot more like color theory: read Hardin’s Color for Philosophers and note how much vision and color perception derive directly from facts about neurons.

Tomasello isn’t at the neural level yet, but he deals refreshingly in facts, both facts about child language acquisition and facts about human cognitive development.  It doesn’t exactly liven up the book, but a few decades of this and I think we’ll get a whole lot closer to exactly how we do this language thing we do.

Advice for troubled corporations

One of the companies I used to work for made an interesting change a few years ago: it’s now an employee-owned company.  As it was explained to me, this provided two advantages that have helped keep it profitable during some rough years:

  • The considerable expense of the former CEO’s salary is gone.
  • There are tax benefits to being employee-owned.

Some of you sickly corporations out there might want to try it: buy out the VC guys, fire the CEO, profit!!!

One may reasonably ask, if this is such a bright idea, why don’t more companies do it?  Perhaps there’s a good economic reason for this; if so, it certainly didn’t apply to my former company.  I’ll wager that the answer is mostly social: the decision maker at most companies is the CEO, the very person who loses his job in this scenario.

Do companies really need rock-star CEOs?  The last few years should have shown that they’re as likely to drive their companies into the ground as to make them fly.  Personally I suspect that in a century or less, people will look back at the CEO era with amused disdain, as we look back at the age of kings and empires.

Edit, Mar. 2022: I learned recently that last year, this company was acquired by a larger firm. I thought I should point it out for completeness.  I don’t have any info on why they did it, or even how it worked (how many owners were there?).  My guess though is that their product line was too small– the insurance industry, which was what they sold to, wanted comprehensive solutions, and they could offer only one part.

2008 cartograms

From Andrew Sullivan: county and state level cartograms for the presidential election.

It’s a good example of the effect of the Electoral College, which amplifies a comfortable-but-close popular vote total into a 365-173 Electoral College landslide.

Interesting how completely the third parties were a sideshow this year.  CNN didn’t even bother to include them in its charts.  Nader, Barr, and two others all together got 1.1% of the vote.  It’d be interesting to know if this was mostly in states where it didn’t matter– if people avoided the fringe parties in battleground states.

Wasteland Survival Guide

It must have been fun for the Fallout 3 developers to take their own area and turn it into a nuclear wasteland.  I wonder if there’s something interesting to mark the location of Bethesda Softworks. 

The Capitol, now infested with Super Mutants.  Just like today HAHA
The Capitol, now infested with Super Mutants. Just like today HAHA

 Unlike my friend Chris who is playing as a complete bastard, that bastard, I’ve been a fairly nice girl.  I mean, there was that robot I blew away in the National Archives, but hey, getting him what he wanted would have required a lot of mutants to die, right?  And if I require payment for services rendered, well, it’s a tough world and there are worse people out there.  Chris, for instance.

It’s an amazing game.  It looks like there’s not as many quests as in Oblivion, but they tend to be more detailed and offer far more interesting choices.  It’s also even less directed.  In Oblivion there were obvious sources of quests– the various guilds.  In Fallout 3 it’s all side quests… you have to move around and talk to people to even get them. 

I’m up to level 8, and I finally have enough ammo (and at the moment, enough stimpacks).  And the game still feels like it’s opening out… I just discovered that you can make your own drugs, for instance.  The NPCs feel much more alive than in Oblivion, too… they chat with each other sometimes and actually have interesting conversations.  (A small-time gang leader, for instance, talks over some doubts about his mission with his girlfriend.  Infinitely better than all that talk about mud crabs.)  They also run away if they’re hurt too badly.

The VATS system (which allows you to pause combat and target opponents’ body parts, then see a slo-mo cinematic of the carnage) is entertaining, but I’ve been using it less and less.  You can hit targets more accurately without it, and you don’t have to wait for AP to regen.

Amusing tidbit: some female Raiders have some rather sexy armor.  If you take it off them (to sell, of course, you pervs), they end up in a T-shirt that covers more than their original outfit.

Ask Zompist: Lieberman

What’s your take on the point that’s come up in blogs and on TV about the Democrats potentially “kicking Sen. Joe Liberman (I-CT) out”of their congressional caucus?

 My initial reaction is posted here (, so if you’d like to respond to that I’d be grateful— but this is about asking you, not asking me, so most of all I’d like to know what you think the Democrats should do.

I’d better reply before events take over…  There’s some justifiable anger at Lieberman’s consorting with McCain and running as an independent; but I think it’d be foolish to kick him out.  It’s not merely prudent to have one extra vote; it’s a certainty that it’ll be needed one day and probably many days.
There’s a profile in this week’s New Yorker of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who’s been increasingly critical of his party, especially on Iraq.  (He accompanied Obama to Iraq this summer.)  Frustrating as they are to ideologues, we need this sort of people—the rather small group of politicians who inhabit the middle ground between the two parties.

Sun rises; Emperor tossed into pit; Barad-dûr implodes

It’s been clear for weeks which way the election was trending, but I don’t trust near-sure things.  But the results make me very happy.  Obama fought a very smart and tough campaign, taking on— and winning— red states that McCain couldn’t afford to lose.  In a sense all he had to do besides that was to stay cool and let McCain shoot himself in the foot, and McCain obliged.

Years ago Richard Nixon observed that the way to become a Republican president was to move as far right as possible in the spring, and as far back as possible in the fall.  For a time Karl Rove revised this by eliminating the leftward half of the trek: the Republicans would become a permanent majority by going all hard right all the time. Sadly, McCain followed this nasty and divisive method, and I hope his loss drives an iron spike through its heart.  

A better candidate, or the old McCain, might have done better, but I think the election was in large part an overdue reprimand to George Bush’s incompetence— and the important point is, Bush was not mere bad luck.  He was the clear choice of the GOP, “Our Leader”, and the conservative movement closed ranks till very recently, throwing out even their own when they dared to dissent.  None of Bush’s mistakes were an accident.  The disasters of Katrina and the financial industry are a direct result of anti-government ideology: if you put people in charge who pooh-pooh the very idea of government, you’ll get bad government just when you need it.  The disaster of Iraq (and increasingly Afghanistan) was a direct consequence of Republican xenophobia: if you put people in charge who hate half their country and the whole of the rest of the world, you’ll be hated by the world.  And the disasters of bill signing statements, government torture chambers, and other assaults on constitutionality come from putting authoritarians in charge.

I have sympathy for actual conservatives— at least, those who recognize that the Republicans have nearly destroyed real conservativism.  Conservativism isn’t supposed to be about increasing government spending, lies and bullshit, an imperial presidency, and endless war.  The younger generation of conservatives realizes that their own movement needs to be reformed.

The election was also what Obama insisted it was: a vote for change and hope.  He never overplayed his blackness, and the whole point is that we needn’t either.  The thing to celebrate is that we can now elect the best person for the job, white or black.  (And, male or female.  Despite bruised feelings, it’s obvious that both parties are now ready to seriously consider a female president.)  But everything that Obama is sends a strong and overdue message to the world— that the better elements of the American dream are back on top, opportunity and inclusiveness rather than fear and disdain.

My condolences to gays and lesbians for their losses in California and elsewhere.  The consolation, though, is that victory is so close we can taste it.  It won’t take another generation; it’ll be five or ten years.  Look at the margin in California: 48-52.  Or Arkansas of all places: 43-57.  The right will count these as tactical victories, but they’ve lost the war.  To be a cultural value, something (say, homophobia) has to be accepted by ultra-majorities— 80% or more.  When it’s in the 50s, it’s just politics, and given current trends it will change very soon.