"It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting our high technology from WEAPONRY to LIVINGRY."
- Buckminster Fuller (h/t Suzy Waldman)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Incompetent Spectra

Usually I like Andrew Sullivan, but his approval of this schematic disturbs me:

Only a non-scientist could come up with a taxonomy like this. We have six distinct categories and only one degree of freedom (angle); for reality to really parse like this requires an explanation.

(One could say the same for the color wheel, and in fact, I do. The psychology of color perception is a baffling business... But it happens we can see just about an octave of light which helps a bit.)

It reminds me in some vague qualitative way of Roger Pielke Jr.'s double taxonomy of scientific types, in which he obtains precisely the identical decomposition using two drastically different tactics. I'm reasonably convinced he made some effort to understand my critique but didn't manage it.

So the convenient symmetries of Sullivan's graph (no such thing as a corrupt libertarian, then?) just don't have the ring of truth. What's more, this completely misses what I consider the fundamental determinant of politics, the question I ask first, which is how much the respondent considers politics a managerial question in a quantitative physical domain. Whether such issues as energy, climate, demographics, ecosystem stability, ocean chemistry, trace toxins, and bulk trash enter into your model or not is to me the dominant question. I don't care if your solutions are "conservative" or "liberal" so much as I care whether your idea of politics addresses the fundamental engineering questions raised by a large population on a small planet.

The fact is that most participants in politics from most parties are uninterested in these matters. This makes most politicians woefully incompetent. The left-right dichotomy will not go away, and making it into a hexagon or the more familiar and more plausible two-factor spectrum (public sector and private sector "liberty")doesn't help.

The main issue right now is whether you see governance as a quantitative problem.


manuel "moe" g said...

You will tell me not to say "Welcome back", but I must say "Welcome back". Who else covers the same beat you do? ;-)

Quoting MT: "I care whether your idea of politics addresses the fundamental engineering questions raised by a large population on a small planet."

The people who take notice that the gravy train will run out in the near future are strange birds, always a small minority. I believe (based on my misunderstanding of group selection, I am sure) that the distribution of personality types in human groups is adaptive, and that the huge majority will always "go along to get along". It is adaptive to have a sprinkling of "Nervous Nellies"/"Pandoras" who will identify and prepare for the inevitable collapse for their selective advantage, but no more than a sprinkling of these forward looking types are needed/adaptive.

So what you ask of politics, politics cannot deliver, because the nature of politics to be compatible with the base wants/needs of the majority, whether explicitly as in a democracy, or implied as in state with the potential for revolutionary revolt.

(Wow, this turned out much more pessimistic than I wanted before I typed this out. Possible mitigation: if the majority see that we of clear vision are living soundly and well, and not frantically compulsively stressed to consume expensively marketed artificial needs that are mere trinkets, our visibly fulfilling lifestyle may win over enough converts.)

As always, I am sure I am mistaken in my extreme view, and would appreciate to learn of the sensible middle way.

Paul said...

There are some interesting thoughts in this link on some local efforts to live sustainability:


Paul Middents

Greg said...

Until reading this, I'd generally thought the two dimensional classification was pretty good - the placement of current and 20th century political figures and movements on that chart seems sensible and self-consistent. Yet your critique resonates strongly ... and I think I see why both are true. As has been commented before, the last 200 years have "suspended Malthus" so pretty much all the politics we know have been able to treat such physical limitations as lesser considerations. So existing political classification has been able to ignore stance towards those limitations.

As it appears highly likely we are moving into a future where Malthus will once again be correct, we will need new modes of political thought that are simply not represented on existing popular political classification systems. I'm not enough of a historian to suggest whether the politics of previous Malthusian eras will be applicable to this one - but I think we should read up on them.

All that aside, the hexagon is a joke. There's no such thing as a dogmatic conservative?

Hank Roberts said...


The guy who came up with that writes, 'answering' people in his blog:

"I can’t imagine how someone could be a selfish libertarian."


manuel "moe" g said...

Following up on Hank Roberts's comment, I finally found out what libertarians are talking about when they speak of "deontological ethics".


Glibertarian: "The most important aspect of democracy is the ability of a well financed minority to doom all of civilization." Hence Dickie Tol screaming "Authoritarianism" and such.

The creator of the "Blinkered Hexagon" is in the comments of that post. I have read a lot of Scott Sumner's blog posting, and he is usually less vapid (although he pulled some big boners when posting on climate change).

[See also http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/picturing_politics ]

EliRabett said...

For every difficult problem there is a simple but wrong solution.