A global roar

It would be a wonderful thing if a million people around the world voiced their support for the Burmese democracy movement: Stand with the Burmese Protesters. Here’s the bumf from their petition

Hi, have you heard about the crisis in Burma?

Burma is ruled by one of the worst military dictatorships in the world. Last month Buddhist monks and nuns began marching and chanting prayers to call for democracy. The protests spread and hundreds of thousands of Burmese people joined in — but they’ve been brutally attacked by the military regime.

I just signed a petition calling on Burma’s powerful ally China and the UN security council to step in and pressure Burma’s rulers to stop the killing. The petition has exploded to over 500,000 signatures in a few days and is being advertised in newspapers around the world, delivered to the UN Security Council, and broadcast to the Burmese people by radio. We’re trying to get to 1 million signatures this week, please sign below and tell everyone!

Thank you so much for your help!


Boycott Politics

Boycotts have the alure of radicalism, they give a false impression of action through inaction. Really they are a mode of political action which has been colonised by consummerism. The individual consumer choice is seen as the locus of political operation, and it becomes harder and harder to convieve of political action in any other form. It’s a seductive view in these times. If to be is to shop what could be more radical than to deny yourself something?

Boycotts allow us the pretence of taking a stand when really they are an abdication of responsibility. If something is wrong, then by all means avoid doing it yourself — but recognise that as long as the choice is there to be made, your own abstention is nothing more than a sitting on the sidelines while the tide of the battle goes to those offering the choice.

Contrary to this, to not boycott something whilst campaigning for its abolition is to assert your right and your obligation to demand change. I’ve little respect for medieval monks who believed that outside the monastry was a state of damnation and decay, with final judgement immenent, and whose response was to wall themselves into their monastries and pray for their own salvation. The boycott alone as a political act is just as selfish, just as mistakenly righteous, just as mislead.

I gave a speech once at a debate against the death penalty and the opposition speaker said that if i didn’t like it I could leave the country. I campaigned against an academic publishers involvement in the arms trade and was told that if i didn’t like the arms trade i should quit my job at the university. So here again we have the idea of politics as individual consumer choice, an idea which colonises the debating space. By keeping my job at the university, by engaging with the publishers both professionally – by publishing – and morally – by campaigning for them to drop their arms trade links, i asserted my engagement with them and the legitimacy of my claims on their behaviour.

I’ll repeat, if something is wrong then there is a moral need to avoid consuming it — i wouldn’t buy candles made from human fat, for example. But also i wouldn’t rest while candles made of human fat were available for sale, and i wouldn’t believe that merely refusing to purchase them myself was an adequate or appropriate response.

books politics systems

Questions for economists

Tim Harford wrote ‘The Undercover Economist’ and also writes the ‘Dear Economist’ column for the Financial Times. His book is excellent — a very readable introduction to economic theory and how it applies to various facets of everyday life. I was going to write him a letter, but then I found out that he’d sold half a million copies of his book and so, reckoning that he’d be too busy to write back to me, I am posting my thoughts here. This is partly for my own benefit as a note-to-self and partly because I’d be very happy to get answers from anyone or everyone on the questions I ask. Useful references are an acceptable substitute for wordy explanations.

Dear Undercover Economist,

On development — can everyone be rich? Won’t there always have to be someone to work the fields / clean the toilets / serve the coffee? Technologists answer: automatisation will remove much of life’s drudgery. Environmentalist retort: resources put limits on growth. Economists: imagine a world where every economy is ‘developed’. In that world we would expect to find people are wealthy according to their talents (because talents define scarcity). My question : in that world, what will the utterly talentless be paid to do with their time? Presumably we’ll still be forcing them to clean toilets, because the toilet-cleaning robots will be too expensive (they need to be in order to pay the wages of the very-expensive-to-hire toilet-cleaning-robot designers).

Information asymmetry: Akerlof (1970) has a description of how information asymmetry can prevent a viable market existing. Harford’s discussion credits to information asymmetry the reason why you can’t get a decent meal in tourist areas, but I am wondering if the effects are far more wide reaching that this. Big organisations will have an information advantage over individual consumers (on some things), as will anyone who devotes their entire economic energy to a single domain (eg selling avocados) over someone who is time poor (eg the typical avocado buyer). Coupled with a dynamic economic environment, couldn’t those with informational advantage effectively manipulate those with informational disadvantage? In other words, i’d be willing to bet that in a static market even an extremely informationally-deprived / cognitively challenged agent will work out the best deal, given enough time. But if the best deal keeps changing (and those with the information advantage keep changing it to suit their ends) the chances of the individual agent aren’t so good. File under benefits of collectivisation / market failure?

Efficiency of the market leads to loss of diversity (because all inefficient solutions are squeezed out). Diversity has it’s own value, both in system robustness (see ecosystems) and in terms of human experience (belonging to a specific place, variety being the spice of life, etc). So how do we incorporate the value of this diversity into market systems? I would submit that diversity is an example of something that exists above the single-agent view of things — is an example of an emergent phenomenon (see below). (Previously on idiolect Why is capitalism boring?)

Markets don’t have foresight. Do free marketeers admit that this is one of the functions of government? For example imagine agents who like to consume some finite resource. Presumably a ‘free market’ will be the most efficient way to organise their consumption. Efficient consumption of the resouce leads to its disappearence. Then what? In the Undercover Economist (p237) Harford says that in markets ‘mistakes cannot happen’ because any experiments with resources stay small scale. I would submit that while this is true at the micro level, with respect to efficiency — in other words, I agree that markets tend to efficiency — this is not true at the macro level, with respect to whole-system health.

An objection to this is that markets do have foresight because the individual agents have foresight – so they will incorporate into their cost function the anticipated future (so, eg, anticipated future resource availability). But what is agents do not have the information, or motivation to worry about the future? Does my concern just resolve down to the existence, or not, of the tragedy of the commons? Perhaps. I think key is the existence of a discontinuity between agent-level information and collective-level information; ie the issue is really about emergence, which is what the tragedy of the commons is really a specific example of.

Side note: if you are a market economist you are a de facto fan of emergence. Aggregate effects which emerge from mass individual action = emergence. Disconnection between individual goals (eg profit) and collective outcomes (efficiency). Etc. Economics is interesting precisely because their are non-obvious relations between agents and outcomes.

Side note the second: there is an essential similarity between economics and cognitive psychology – a focus on information processing. Further, market economics recognises the power of distributed information processing, as does the connectionist school of cognitive psychology. This is the reason I talk about agents, rather than consumers. I believe that the same principles will not just apply to the economic and social sciences, but also to the social sciences (remember Minksy’s “Society of Mind”). A question: can we usefully apply the idea of a distributed, free, ‘informational economy’ to undestanding neural coding? (Remember Glimcher’s “Neuroeconomics”)


Hope for Omar Deghayes

Following on from this

The British government has requested the release of five former UK residents being held in Guantánamo Bay, the Foreign Office said today.

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, has written to the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, asking that the men be freed from the US base in Cuba. They are not British nationals but had lived in the UK before they were detained, the Foreign Office said.

The decision by the prime minister, Gordon Brown, marks a break from his predecessor, Tony Blair, who generally held that the British government was not obliged to seek the release of Guantánamo inmates who had lived in Britain but did not hold citizenship.

Reports the Guardian


An Open Letter to Omar Deghayes

Omar Deghayes, ISN 727
Camp Delta,
PO Box 160,
Washington, DC 20053

Dear Omar

I am writing to you after hearing your brother speak at a meeting in Sheffield, UK, where I live. I am going to send this letter to Jacqui Smith, our new Home Secretary, and make it public as well, so forgive me if I repeat some things to you – I am aware that you know these things only too well, but I want other people who might see this letter to understand what has happened to you and how important it is that you are brought back to the UK.

Your brother told us about how your family came to Britain in 1987 after your father had been assassinated because of his opposition to Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya. He spoke of trips to the UK before that where your father took you to Speaker’s Corner and said “This is what it should be like in Tripoli”. He said how your father pointed to Britain and said “Britain is the most just country in the world”. He told us how it was because of British justice and British fairness that when you fled persecution you came to Britain to seek sanctuary.

You have been detained in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility for nearly five years now, where the American government is making a mockery of ideals of justice which the president tells us he wants to spread around the world. Today, July the 4th, it is two-hundred and thirty-one years since the America Declaration of Independence. That famous phrase must ring hollow for you now: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. It rings hollow for me, hearing how your human rights have been abused: you have been kidnapped, tortured, denied a right to trial, denied even the right to be formally charged, to have evidence presented against you, to even know what the American government believes to be true that they imprison you. It is injustices like these that are listed as accusations against the British King in the Declaration of Independence. That document uses the phrase ‘Arbitrary Government’, and it seems to me that these are the warning signs of a slide towards more ‘Arbitrary government’ and all that that entails.

It is shameful that the British government claims not to be able to represent you because you are officially a citizen of Libya. You are a British resident and the British government should offer you protection from persecution. I know how important it is that when you are released you come back to the UK, to live in safety with your family, rather than be deported to Libya; I heard in the meeting how the Libyan official who visited you in Guantanamo threatened to kill you if you were sent back to Libya. For justice to be justice it must protect everybody.

In Sheffield we have a movement called ‘City of Sanctuary’ which is dedicated to creating an atmosphere of hospitality for asylum seekers and refugees – we want to be a city that takes pride in the welcome it offers to people in need of safety. I sincerely wish that the British government would show some of the same attitude and make representations to the Americans to bring you home. I want to be proud of the British government, and proud of British justice in the same way I am proud of Sheffield as a City of Sanctuary.


Tom Stafford

Save Omar Campaign website:

Documentary about Omar: here

Text of the American Declaration of Independence

City of Sanctuary


inner teachings

If you read about Taoist alchemy [1] then, apparently, there is an interesting feature of the teaching. This is that it has a common standard intepretation – an ‘outer teaching’, which is about materials; which substances to add to which substances to get what potions, etc – and a deeper, hidden intrepretation – an ‘innner teaching’ which is about spirituals, what the written lore is really about, and which concerns various tantric practices (i.e. mystical activities, some of which involve putting your genitals into various places). By the by, you get the same theme in western alchemy, the idea that the outer teaching – about turning lead into gold and all that – is really a distraction, or veil, for the inner teaching – which is about (perhaps!?) immortality, perfect knowledge, etc.

There is inner and outer teaching in Christianity as well. The standard intreptation (read: common depiction) of the christian metaphysic is cartoonish: a hell of burning fire, a heaven of clouds and angels with harps, a perverse God who puts apples on trees just so innocents will eat them. Alongside/within this there is a more sophisticated reading of christian theory with all its great themes of sin, forgiveness and justice and wotnot [2]. What interests me is that, here, the inner and outer teachings have conicident implications. Although they differ in their semantic content (and level of sophistication) the implications are the same: go to church, live a pious life according to the teachings of jesus, etc

Here’s a third example, in a different arena, in which I believe there are inner and outer teachings: the justification of the invasion of iraq. Now it is obvious that the outer or popular justifications for the invasion are lies. We obviously didn’t invade because of Saddam’s Links to al-Qaeda, nor was it about WMD, nor was it about Saddam being an evil tyrant. Although they were believed by many misinformed people, these things appear insufficient as causes for our invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, some of us wonder, what is the real reason, the true justification? What, in other words, is the inner teaching that those in power of the Western armies must believe? As with Christianity there is this coincidence of consequences between inner and outer teachings. The misinformed public can believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and want vengence, the White House can believe that we need the oil (or want to make a statement of brute force on the world stage to shore up US hegemony, or want to stop Iraq trading oil in euros, or whatever you believe the real reason was for our invasion) – but the effect is the same: invade Iraq.

So I’ve been thinking about this business of inner and outer teachings, in a kind of undirected way; does the categorisation make sense? Is it as common in theologies as it seems from these three examples? Most importantly, is it functional? What social, institutional or psychological work does it do?

This occured to me, and you can tell me if it is convincing – the point of an inner and outer teaching is where there is no true centre to a set of beliefs. The appearence of hidden meaning is really a function of a set of symbols of such fecundity that they yield an intepretation as rich as the mind that decides to interrogate them. One meaning for a superficial reading, another for a deeper reading. And another for a still deeper reading, or for a deep reading which brings with it a different set of biases or assumptions. The existence of inner and outer teachings are the resolution of two dynamics. One made of institutional forces which promote consistency of actions (also known as compliance in some circumstances!), the second a more personal drive to remove inconsistency in beliefs. The different levels of teaching allow everyone to pick a symbol intepretation which they are comfortable with, without needing to feel like they are contradicting those who use another level of intepretation. The belief (meta-belief) in a higher level of meaning – the inner teaching – allows everyone to happily follow the same behavioural path without having to challenge each other over inconsistencies in their symbol intepretations.


[1] Not something I regularly do, admittedly, but I do have this book ‘The Secret and Sublime:Taoist Mysteries and Magic: Taoist Mysteries and Magic’, John Blofeld (1973)

[2] There are parallel inner and outer teachings for different aspects of Christian theology. Witness the recent discussion on whether the standard story of Jesus dying for our sins indicates that god is ‘perverse’ (not that I follow Christian theology, but it was on radio 4 at about 7 yesterday morning)


Sustainable Communities Bill – Caborn reply



The Sustainable Communities Bill


On the 23rd November Nick Hurd MP (Conservative, Ruislip-Northwood), the first MP drawn in the Private Members Ballot, immediately informed us that he would adopt the Sustainable Communities Bill. This is excellent news and means it is now officially in Parliament as a Private Members Bill. The first reading of the Bill will take place on Wednesday 13th of December where it will be officially tabled in Parliament.

This is the result of over 3 years of hard work and we would like to say a BIG THANK YOU to all our supporters whose help and actions have made this possible. With continued hard work over the next six months we can win this campaign and see the Bill made law!

Lots of work still to be done

The next hurdle is Second Reading to be held on Friday 19th January 2007. In order to ensure that the Bill progresses on that day we need 100 MPs to be present to win a vote (winning 99-0 is no good)


freedom in the usa

Holy Crap! Why is so much of the US population in prison!? Both relative to other ‘basically well-functioning advanced capitalist democracies’:


(This from Crooked Timber post)

And relative to the the US of 25 years ago:


(from Martin Sereno’s presentation on Peak Oil.)

While we’re at it, here’s another slide which Sereno labelled ‘the beginning of corporate planet’.


(of course, although some would like it to be, what’s true for the US isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the planet)


Multilateralism in an age of decline

It is, then, conceivable that we could be in for a period in which a synchronised upswing in the global economy turns into a synchronised downturn, as weaker demand from the US ripples out to the export-driven economies of Asia and the Eurozone. Protectionism will then exacerbate the recession. To which the response might be: a good thing, too. If, as Al Gore was arguing during his visit to London last week, the world is on the brink of ecological catastrophe, we ought to lose our fixation with growth and concentrate on self-sufficiency and sustainability instead…..From this standpoint, anything that throws sand in the wheels of the globalisation juggernaut is welcome. What we need is a full-scale cathartic crisis that will enable a new and better world to emerge.

It might not be that easy. True, a collapse of the Doha round, and a sharp contraction in global growth, could provide two of the elements that brought about change in the mid-20th century. But in the 1930s, the progression of events did not go stock market crash, recession, new world order. It went stock market crash, financial collapse, beggar-my-neighbour devaluation, protectionism, fascism, world war, new world order.

Clearly, the solution to Gore’s looming environmental Armageddon has to be collective, rather than unilateral. There is no way that the US, for example, is going to take action to cut carbon emissions unless it is sure every other country is doing likewise.

Yet the chances of multilateral action will be diminished in a climate of fear generated by economic weakness. The report on the economics of climate change currently being undertaken by Nick Stern at the UK Treasury is likely to conclude that the costs associated with a reduction in the emissions to the levels deemed safe by scientists are relatively modest. Gore himself believes that tackling climate change will be good for business, opening up plenty of new opportunities to make money.

That’s as may be. Multilateralism is a delicate plant; it does not thrive in harsh climates and the same impulses that drive countries to put up trade barriers when times get tough will persuade policymakers to listen to the special interest groups arguing that the price of tackling climate change is too high. The growth-at-all-costs lobby will be strengthened.

Delayed, but there is a day of reckoning
Larry Elliot in the Guardian, 26 June 2006.


use of terms

Isn’t it peculiar that, among democrats, the word ‘populist’ is used as a term of abuse?


the tiresome, monotone real world

But synthetic worlds, he [Edward Castronova] admits, have grown so powerful and their architecture so intricate that they are now in direct competition with our daily lives, and the growing exodus or migration of young adults into these mythical worlds must reflect the tiresome, monotone worlds that the players inhabit in the real world. Their online existence, he says, “is better than the alternative, that is, a daily life on Earth, which seems to show no progress towards anything.

– James Harkin in The Guardian



From a brilliant Zoe William’s essay on irony from 2003

Our age has not so much redefined irony, as focused on just one of its aspects. Irony has been manipulated to echo postmodernism. The postmodern, in art, architecture, literature, film, all that, is exclusively self-referential – its core implication is that art is used up, so it constantly recycles and quotes itself. Its entirely self-conscious stance precludes sincerity, sentiment, emoting of any kind, and thus has to rule out the existence of ultimate truth or moral certainty. Irony, in this context, is not there to lance a boil of duplicity, but rather to undermine sincerity altogether, to beggar the mere possibility of a meaningful moral position. In this sense it is, indeed, indivisible from cynicism. This isn’t to say that “truth-seeking” irony has evaporated – many creative forms still use irony to highlight the sheer, grinding horror of pursuits or points of view that are considered “normal” (like The Office, for instance; and much of American literature is masterfully good at employing irony with a purpose – to choose at random, Pastoralia, by George Saunders, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, anything by Philip Roth, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen).

But other strands of media use irony to assert their right to have no position whatsoever. So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front – and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects – and here are some tits!” Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Char lie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope – “I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.

and, later

To know inauthenticity isn’t the same as being authentic. Or even, just because you ironically know you’re wrong doesn’t make you right

events politics technical notes

Delocator UK

Mike Dewar has got the Starbucks Delocator UK to beta and the database now needs populating – so if you know of any cool indepedent cafes, get yourself to and add them in.

In case you don’t know about the Delocator family (US, CA), the way it works is this: you put in a post code or a description (e.g. “Sheffield City Centre”) and the Delocator shows you were the indepedent cafes are, so you don’t have to visit starbucks and encourage that pestilence in your city.

Well done mike!

Update 20.3.06: I asked mike if the results could provide an emailable URL and he’s done it. Look – here’s the results for near where I work – how’s that for user-responsive development!


who do you trust

This seems important, although not very cheerful

On January 23, Edelman released survey findings that shows (in the U.S.) trust in


total surveillance mission creep

At the end of last month, a leaked letter from Andy Burnham, the Home Office minister, revealed that the identity cards for which we will involuntarily volunteer will contain radio frequency identification chips(8)

If you read George Monbiot’s articles on his website they come with references!


bloodless regieme change

There’s an uncharacteristically gushing (and inspiring) story in this week’s Economist about the possibility of internally-driven, bloodless, regieme change in dictatorships. Some selective quotes (article here, paywalled):

But all the evidence is that people power, if it is to bring about a lasting change that increases freedom, must bubble up from below. It must be indigenous, broad-based and, ideally, non-violent.

Moreover, the most important factor in contributing to the emergence of a freer society is the presence of strong and cohesive non-violent civic coalitions.

It may take years to develop, and it may not always turn out quite as is hoped, but people power is catching: the more often it works, the more often it will be used.


Own the whales

Hubert’s had a great idea – it will be the first in a series of libertarian environmentalist direct-actions. Now, there’s a school of thought – offensive to many on the left – that environmental exploitation happens precisely because a resource is held in common, rather than owned by someone (who therefore has an interest in using it wisely). Wasn’t resource mismanagement the original inspiration for the tragedy of the commons idiom, after all? So if everything, everywhere – every rare species, every piece of rainforest, etc – is owned by someone, they might be protected better.

So here’s the plan; if the Japanese Whaling Ships can go into international waters and harpoon whales – essentially saying “This one is mine” and killing it – what’s to stop me going and tagging a whale with my name and mobile number, attaching a GPS – essentially saying “This one is mine” – and letting it go free? Then when the Japanese Whalers come across a whale they have to check if it is unowned, or whether they need my permission to take it and kill it. “What happens when they kill it anyway?” I asked Hubert. “Simple”, he said, “I sue them.”

“And”, he continued, “the great thing about this strategy is that it is very empowering for the individual. You don’t have to wait for governments to pass environmental legislation, you just get out there and see what the court system decides.”


work, feminism and private life

[From Madeleine Bunting’s ‘Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruling our lives’ (2004, p306-7) after a section on the commercialisation of intimate life – paid therapists for emotional support, paid visitors for your nursing-homed mother, etc:]

Ten years ago, there was still a debate about whether women should be working; young women now regard the idea that they should stay at home as simply absurd. Some debates have been settled, but that only increase the stakes of those questions which remain.

A new and dangerous frontier has been opened up: if women have moved into the workplace only for their traditional caring labour to be abandoned, outsourced or squeezed to the edges, we will all suffer for it. The mission of feminism to achieve equality will hijacked by a capitalism eager for cheap, flexible labour and emotional skills on its terms. What we will reap is exhausted men and women, neglected children, loneliness, relationship breakdown and everyone short-changed of the well-being which is a product of the bonds of care. This threatens a commodification of the emotional life; in parallel developments emotional skills play an ever bigger part in the labour market while private emotional relationships are starved of the time and energy which they need to flourish, and are then outsourced. This would be the final triumph of market capitalism, whereby the separate sphere which once belonged to women, and from which the market was excluded – of the private life, of home and family – is opened up for commercialisation. The pressure bearing down on the reciprocity and commitment of these private relationships is colossal; it’s a tribute to the strength of many individuals that they struggle to hold true to their intuitive understanding of relationship. It would be a tragic betrayal of the grand vision of twentieth-century feminism if it had inadvertently contributed to the market


biographic solutions to structural contradictions

[talking about the way corporations have embraced aspirational culture, making self-improvement part of the benefits/goals of employment]

“But the philosophy of improving ‘personal performance’ also plays into the hands of employers’ rationale that well-being and coping with stress are the responsibility of the individual employeee. It reinforces the tendency for individuals to search for ‘biographic solutions to structural contradictions’, as the sociologist Ulrich Beck put it: forget the barricades, it’s revolution from within that matters. This cultural preoccupation with personal salvation stymies collective reform, and places an onerous burden on the individual. It effectively reinforces the anxieties and insecurities which it offers to assuage” [Bunting, 2004, ]

Madeleine Bunting. Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruling our lives (2004), p. 200


Market capitalism fosters prosociality

[Talking about how the development of market capitalism has relied on the cultivation of trust between actors who do not know each other personally]

“Now i realise how improbable this sounds. Markets, we know, foster selfishness and greed, not trust and fairness. But even if you find the history unconvincing, there is this to consider: in the late 1990s, under the supervision of [Samuel] Bowles, twelve field researchers – including eleven anthropologists and one economist – went into fifteen “small-scale” societies (essentially small tribes that were, to varying degreesm self-contained) and got people to play the kinds of games in which experimental economics specialise. The societies included three that dependedon foraging for survival, six that used slash-and-burn techniques, four nomadic herding groups, and two small agricultural societies. The three gmaes the people were asked to play were the three standards of behavioural economics: the ultimatum game (which you just read about [if you were reading the book]), the public goods game (in which if everyone contributes, everyone goes away significantly better off, while if only a few people contribute, then the others can free ride on their effort), and the dictator game, which is similar to the ultimatum game except that the responder can’t say no to the proposer’s offer. The idea behind all these games is that they can be played in a purely rational manner, in which case the player protects himself against loss but forgoes the possibility of mutual gain. Or they can be played in a prosocial manner, which is what most people do.

In any case, what the researchers found was that in every single society there was significant deviation from the purely rational strategy. But the deviations were not all in the same direction, so there were significant differences between the cultures. What was remarkable about the study, though, was this: the higher the degree to which a culture was integrated with the market, the greater the level of prosociality. People from more market-orientated societies made higher offers in the dicatator game and the ultimatum game, cooperator in the public goods game, and exhibited strong reciprocity when they had the chance.

From James Suroweikcki. The Wisdom of Crowds – Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few (2004) [which i commented on in ignorance here], p.126. Refs for this study are:

Joseph Henrich et al. “Economic Man in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioral Experiments in Fifteen Small-Scale Societies”. Originally a Sante Fe Institute paper but then became a BBS paper.

Henrich et al. (2001). In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies. American Economic Review 91, 73-78. PDF here

What i love about the behavioral economics paradigms is that prosocial behaviour validates itself. Once you drop the narrow, economic, one-shot, sense of the word ‘rational’, it is rational to cooperate in these games because it is rational to cooperate if you think others will cooperate and it is rational for them to cooperate if they think you will.

Surowiecki also discusses [p.106] Vernon Smith, who showed experimentally that a free market of real people with imperfect imformation etc could still be near-optimal in efficiency terms. Apparently a major economics journal wasn’t interested in the result because it had already been demonstrated that markets were efficient theoretically. On the same page Surowiecki aknowledges the caveat that economic efficiency tells us nothing about the social cost of market operation


Get Your War On Christmas Redux

Last year, I made a note to myself (here) to check whether this ‘toon from Get Your War On was still sadly relevant.


Faith in progress

The infuriating Bryan Appleyard had an interesting, doomsday predicting, article in the Sunday Times, ‘Waiting for the lights to go out‘. He suggests that the cultural assumptions have exactly reversed since the middle ages. At that time we had a faith in the imminent end of the world, but reason said it would continue. Now we have faith in progress (and, at the very least, survial), when reason says that these are The End Days.

elsevier politics

What next for Elsevier?

DSEi finishes today. We’ve had some successes in the campaign to get it stopped. I’m still thinking about the Elsevier angle, and what the next step is for academics who’d like Elsevier to stop involving them in the arms trade (thanks everyone who provided feedback on this, here, at CT, and in person).

I think academics are well placed to persuade Elsevier to stop organising arms fairs. As a group, we’re generally easily convinced of the morality of the affair (‘What? These guys publish medical journals but also assist in the sale of cluster bombs and illegal torture equipment?!‘), and also we fill, review, edit and purchase their journals. Question is, of course, how do we persuade them? After discussion and thought, here’s what i think the answer is: We’re going to ask them. That’s right, i suspected i was a liberal, now i’m certain of it. Elsevier have a reputation (and a customer base) to lose. Even if they believed their own arguments that it isn’t immoral to organise these arms fairs, there’s no reason why they need to keep organising them.

I think the two main things to do next are:

1. Raise awareness of Elsevier’s links to the arms trade
2. Encourage individuals and organisations to contact Elsevier about this

It’s not just university academics who can be reached either. There’s all the medics (Elsevier publish nearly 800 medical journals); the teacher’s (which use Elsevier products in the classes – I wonder what the AUT would think of all this?); the Lawyers (who use an Elsevier product, Lexis Nexis, to access case law); the social workers (there’s a flagship journal for social workers ‘Community Care’ published by Elsevier). And then there’s the librarians. Bless the librarians. If the librarians are against you, you’ve really got problems.

Anyway, so i think i’m clear on what i’d like to do now. It’s just the doing it. Enter period of letter writing, union motions, publicity chasing etc. If you’d like to help, or you know of any group with an interest in Elsevier please get in touch. tom [at] idiolect [dot] org [dot] uk

elsevier politics

DSEi round up

The Lancet letter, and the accompanying editorial (my post about this, full text, on indymedia) got good coverage: The New York Times, Today programme, ABC (Aus), Ottawa Sun (Ca), Pravda (Ru), The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Independent, BBC News Online, The Statesman, The Times, Vancouver Sun, Associated Press Newswires and The Guardian (that i know of)

The march on tuesday was successful for what it was. BBC coverage. Direct action today and yesterday has caused lots of disruption, amid a typically overwhelming police response – indymedia. And in the news today: BAE systems has been funding Pinochet, which seems in character.

elsevier politics

Elsevier and The Lancet

In the latest edition of the Lancet an editorial calls for their publisher, Reed Elsevier, to cut its ties with the arms trade.

There’s a letter in the same issue (signed by me amongst others) saying the same thing, and a response letter from Elsevier. They say what they’ve said to me previously, although they left out the bit about respecting my right to think they are immoral profiteers and they’ll keep doing what they want thank you very much (i paraphrase).

I was asked by a journalist what I thought of their response. Here’s what I said (and this applies to both their response published in the Lancet and their response to me personally which I put up on the blog):

Running this kind of arms fair may be legal, but it isn’t moral and it certainly isn’t appropriate for a scientific and medical publisher. I suspect that the majority of scientists and medics would not want to be associated with this aspect of Reed Elsevier’s activities – the Editors of the Lancet certainly don’t.

Secondly, the defense industry may be vital to democracy and humanitarian missions, but the way the arms trade currently conducts itself is notoriously poorly regulated, unaccountable and secretive. The history of the sale of illegal technologies, of unethical technologies (such as the cluster bombs the Lancet editors make mention of) and sale of weapons to countries with poor human rights records exemplifies this. These abuses will continue at DSEi 2005, and Elsevier makes itself complicit in them.

Elsevier is putting profit above humanitarian values – just like the arms trade as a whole.

The story is covered by The Guardian

elsevier politics

Academics and Elsevier

I’ve been corresponding with the publishers Reed Elsevier about their involvement in the arms trade. Reed Elsevier is an academic publisher, which also has a subsidary company, Spearhead Exhibitions, which hosts DSEi – the world’s largest arms fair. You can see what I’ve written to Reed Elsevier, and what they’ve written back, elsewhere on this blog (one, two, three, four).

I believe that the DSEi arms fairs are immoral, geopolitically reckless, sometimes illegal (e.g.) and improperly regulated (e.g.). Beyond this, I resent that a publisher which profits from the hard (and publicly funded) work of academics uses those profits to support the sale to undemocratic & repressive governments of such things as depleted uranium shells, cluster bombs, missile technology and small arms. The arms fairs Spearhead organises (yes, DSEi isn’t the only one) are a measly amount of Elsevier’s business, but it is a part that makes academics complicit in the deaths of civilians, in torture and in political repression around the world.

What can academics do to pressure Elsevier to drop this part of their business? What should we do? Here’s some possibilities. Feedback very welcome – which of these, if any, are reasonable, feasible and might be effective?

1. Write to the Chairman of Elsevier, Jan Hommen, and ask him to reconsider his position: Jan Hommen, Reed Elsevier PLC, 1-3 Strand, London WC2N 5JR.

2. Contact your union, and/or support any motions which express disaproval of Reed Elsevier.

3. If you are member of a scientific society which produces a journal, find out who the publisher is. If it is Elsevier, find out when the contract renewal date is, and the procedure for society members to influence the decision of who that contract goes to.

4. If you write journal papers, bear in the mind the publisher when submitting papers. Obviously you aren’t going to withhold submitting a paper just because the journal is Elsevier, but if you are faced with a choice of journals, one of which is Elsevier, you could cross that journal off your list first?

5. For your papers published in Elsevier journals, insert a line in the acknowledgements along the lines of “The author(s) note with disappointment the involvement of Elsevier with the international trade in arms”

6. When reviewing papers bear in mind the publisher of the journal. Put those for the Elsevier journals to the bottom of the pile.

Any more?

Update – Manual Trackback: Crooked Timber

elsevier politics

Elsevier’s response (2)

Elsevier got back to me about my response to their response to my letter. The PDF is here .



First Against The Wall

Dude, I just googled “First against the wall” and the top hit was this, the wikipedia entry for Karl Rove. Karl Rove is George W. Bush’s senior advisor, chief political strategist, and deputy chief of staff in charge of policy!

elsevier politics

a response to Elsevier

Stephen J. Cowden
General Council & Company Secretary
Reed Elsevier
1-3 Strand
London, WC2N 5JR

21 July 2005

Dear Mr Cowden

Thanks for your reply (12 July) to my letter of 29th of June. I asked three questions in my letter:

  • Will Elsevier stop helping to organise arms fairs, specifically DSEi (next scheduled for September 2005)?
  • How does your involvement in the arms trade square with your playing ‘a positive role in our local and global communities’?
  • How should the members of academic and medical communities feel about this involvement?

  • You answered the first, with a straight ‘no’. I’d still like to know the answer to these two:

  • How does your involvement in the arms trade square with your playing ‘a positive role in our local and global communities’?
  • How should the members of academic and medical communities feel about this involvement?

  • And to this I’ll add another:

  • How can you say believe that sufficient “rigorous checks” are made on the exhibitors at DSEi and that their activities are “legitimate” when illegal activities, such as the sale of landmines (banned by international convention) have been shown, repeatedly, to be organised at DSEi? [1]. Are you able to provide details of the checks that your organisation carried out on exhibitors?

  • I look forward to hearing from you


    Tom Stafford