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Category Archives: Economics
Economics is a young science offering knowledge which did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology or history. Its methodology is different, examining acting individuals and not historical events or social aggregates. It demonstrates social regularities or “laws” which can not be legislated out of existence or ignored, like gravity. The conclusions of economic science threaten many partisans and have led to the first debates about the validity and universality of logic itself in response. Despite the claims of critics, economic theory has achieved a lot of practical success, such as the liberalization that allowed for the “Industrial Revolution” to transform Western civilization. Knowledge of economic theory is directly intertwined with the flourishing of mankind anywhere.
Part One, HUMAN ACTION, I. Acting Man
Psychology examines WHY a man acts, praxeology studies, deductively, what we can know from the fact THAT a man acts. It views action as effective, or ineffective, never rational/irrational or “good”/“bad”. Human action requires knowledge of causal relationships and a belief in man’s ability to influence them. All human action seeks the removal of felt uneasiness.
II. Epistemological Problems of the Science of Human Action
Economics and history are the two main branches of praxeology. History is an arrangement and interpretation of data concerning human action in the past; it is not predictive but descriptive. Human action is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon and thus can not be studied according to the “empirical” methodologies of the natural sciences requiring a single variable amongst innumerate constants.
Economics demands methodological apriorism, or the acknowledgement that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical understanding of causality does not hold. All of his experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical (theoretical) categories, i.e., understanding money requires knowledge of the concept of money to make sense of data concerning money.
Methodological individualism asserts action can only be studied through the behavior of individuals. This is not violated by the fact that man puts meaning in collective entities and aims his actions in certain ways operating under these beliefs. Praxeology is also methodologically singular and causal-realist— it examines specific actions carried out by specific individuals at specific places and points in time. “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.”
Historians can only achieve “verstehen”, or understanding, by selecting certain data as valuable and excluding other data as irrelevant to their inquiry. They must utilize the best theories of other intellectual disciplines (economics, physics, biology, etc.) to interpret the data and its significance. History is “open to interpretation” only when the underlying theories relied upon are still controversial and debated. There are no constants in the history of human action.
“The end of science is to know reality”, economic theory is developed to better understand practical economic problems men face, and this fact guides man’s inquiry into the discipline although it does not change its aprioristic character. Economics studies real acting man as he exists, not an ideal type, e.g., homo economicus.
III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason
Socialist philosophers could not defeat the logical theories of early economists so they turned to the undermining of reason itself as a method of defending their ideas. Without any biological evidence, Marxian polylogism asserts that every class has a unique logic derived from its class consciousness. “Ideology” is any idea which deviates from pure proletarian logic but is nonetheless useful to the class espousing it. Polylogism scan not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action
Man refers to an internal, ordinal scale of values when acting. Action can be thought of as an exchange of one set of conditions for another, more satisfactory, set of conditions. Economics examines the meaning men give to things, as translated through their actions, not what various 3rd parties observing might think about such action in accordance with external value systems. Value is within men and therefore subjective, not within things, intrinsically, and therefore objective. Economics examines what man DOES (and DOES NOT, but could have…) do, not what he ought to do. Cost is best thought of as the value of the next best thing given up.
Action is always aimed at the future. “The present” is a praxeological category and a conceptual ideal used to examine discrete, continuous actions. In physical reality, only the past and the future exist. The future is uncertain, implying we aren’t even sure in the moment how much of our action belongs to the present versus other time periods. Time must be economized like any other scarce resource. Actions can not happen synchronously, always either sooner or later. Man’s values can and do change over time, and with it, his actions.
Metaphysically, the world may in fact be deterministic; but man’s experience is one of choice. In matters of uncertainty, man faces class uncertainty (the qualities of the members of the class are known, but the character of a specific event which might take place within that class are unknown; e.g., dice roll) and case probability (some causal factors guiding the outcome are known but others are not and the case itself is unique compared to other events; e.g., presidential election). Human action falls under the rubric of case probability. Case probability can not be statistically quantified because it would involve summing items with no common denominator. Game theory is also an inappropriate means for studying human action within the market economy because it adopts the metaphor of combat when the competitive division of labor is cooperative and positive-sum. All praxeological prediction is based on “understanding”, not quantification.
VII. Action Within The World
Utility is how we describe those things which help remove felt uneasiness. Subjective utility is different than objective, or technological, utility. Man does not choose between total supplies of goods but only those discrete amounts of the supply useful to his specific end. He satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants and therefore values the means “at the margin” of what less urgent want he has to give up (Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns). Supply is a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given end. Technological recipes are not part of supply because they are inexhaustible once discovered. The Law of Returns identifies the fact that there is always a most efficient, or optimum, way to utilize scarce means to achieve a desired end; but this optimum can only be discovered through experience because of the uncertain nature of human action. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”
The introduction of the book is Mises’s explanation for why he wrote the book— to ground economics in the science of praxeology and to refute the various anti-economic philosophies. It seeks to answer the simple question, “Why did Mises write this book?”
1. Economics and Praxeology
Economics is a young science. It introduced new knowledge about human society that did not fit into the existing disciplines of logic, mathematics, psychology, history or biology. It stood in opposition to earlier methodologies for explaining social phenomena, such as historicism, which focused on social aggregates and metaphysical supernaturalism. Other social philosophers focused on practically changing society through forms of social engineering, believing any kind of regularity to social relationships was non-existent and thus not worth considering in their schemes. The discovery of social regularities contained within economic study proved an intellectual revolution. But the revolution was limited in scope until a general theory of human choice (praxeology) could be developed.
2. The Epistemological Problem of a General Theory of Human Action
Economic study suffered a serious early crisis during the “Methodenstreit” in which the epistemology of economics was argued between historicists (economic history), logical positivists (emulators of the natural sciences) and praxeologists (methodological individualists and deductive logic). These economic methodology debates quickly became radical in nature, leading to the first charges against rationalism in all of scientific debate which up to that point had accepted human logic as universal and immutable. Such criticisms bring into question ALL scientific findings, but they are really aimed only at economics specifically. Thus, Mises wants to ground economic theory in the general theory of human action to demonstrate it’s universality and defend it from polylogist and anti-rational criticisms.
3. Economic Theory and the Practice of Human Action
Economics receives criticism as being an imperfect science. All science is imperfect, and is subject to change and improvement over time. One major school of criticism comes from naturalist scientists who blame economics for not adopting their own methodology— they suffer from a narrow focus and can not see the virtue in doing things any way but their own. The other major school of criticism is that economics hasn’t solved all social problems, so it must be barren. This perfectionist fallacy ignores the great progress economic theory in action has achieved so far, such as the “Industrial Revolution”, which was directly enabled by progress in economic thought applied to the political realm which freed the energies of entrepreneurs and creators. The modern era is characterized by ignorance and hatred toward economic science, it is also an era of social disintegration, wars and mass social calamities. The fate of civilization’s progress and the progress of economic science are directly intertwined.
Mises wrote this book to situate economic theory within a wider body of human choice, known as praxeology. He did this to defend it from its critics, but also to expand the breadth and knowledge of the science to gain new insights on social phenomena. In that sense, Mises’s book is both reactionary, and revolutionary.
Part One, HUMAN ACTION, I. Acting Man
Human action is the study of means used to obtain certain ends. It does not study the ends themselves nor does it administer judgments about personal values. Human action is purposeful action, it is not animal action, instinct or reflex. And it does not concern itself with the reasons for ends being chosen. Within the framework of human action, all actions taken are either effective, or ineffective, they can never be judged as irrational or rational. For man to act, he must be aware of causal relationships that he believes he can influence. Human action demands methodological dualism— human action is assumed as an ultimate given, it is beyond the scope of praxeology to investigate causes antecedent to it. Human action is a necessary category of the life of man, he can not avoid choosing in the act of living, life itself being a choice over death. What man strives for in acting is to relieve felt uneasiness— some call this happiness but it is not an objective category and can best be thought of as an improvement in his position as judged by himself, though happiness is a commonplace referent for the concept. Positivism demands an experimental, inductive, natural sciences approach to knowledge of human action yet it tacitly accepts the methodological dualism of praxeology in appealing to man’s rational mind to consider an alternative way of performing economic science.
II. Epistemological Problems of the Science of Human Action
Praxeology and history are the two main branches of the science of human action. History is a collection and systematic arrangement of data of human action experience in the past; it can not tell us anything that is valid for all human action and thus can not predict anything about the future, it can only tell what has taken place before. Complex phenomena with interlaced causal chains can not be used to validate an existing theory— the natural sciences require the ability to set constant all entities but one variable which is then tested. All human experience is filtered through human reason, which is a priori valid and universal to all individuals. It is the unique structure of the human mind and it is impossible to conceive of or interpret human experience other than through the logical structure of man’s mind. This gives rise to methodological apriorism, which means that it is impossible for man to conceive of a reality in which the fundamental logical relationships of his mind and his understand of causality do not hold. “Human knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the human mind.” Primitive man who is said to understand miracles is a man who has a difference of content of thought, not of the process of thought itself— the attribution of miracles to life phenomena was an early attempt at establishing causal relationships in the world around man. The concept of action implies belief that the means chosen are valid and that the end sought is valuable— it does not imply that the action is guided by a necessarily correct theory or appropriate technology for achieving the end sought. Action == reason, action is how man effects his reason in the world around him. All human experience must be filtered through pre-existing logical categories, for example, experience of money requires knowledge of the theory of medium of exchange to make sense of the data of money. “It is the meaning which acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character.” In this way, collective entities can have meaning for man’s actions even though methodological individualism holds, which implies that only individuals are capable of acting. “There is no social collective conceivable which is not operative in the actions of some individuals.” Methodological collectivism is revealed to be a false idol when considering the fact that there is a multiplicity of coexisting social units and mutual antagonisms— which social collective is “acting” in this case? Human action also follows methodological singularism, it is convened with concrete action of a definite person, at a definite date and a definite time, not action in general. Praxeology is causal-realist— what happens in acting? what does it mean to say that an individual did X, at Y place and Z time, and not A at B place and C time? What is the result of him choosing one thing and setting aside another? Human life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions, though these actions may be taken in the context of a larger project to which they belong. For example, “A cathedral is something other than a heap of stones joined together. But the only procedure for constructing a cathedral is to lay one stone upon another.” Historians must select which data are valuable to study by referencing a specific end or theory which they are using to make their choice. The historian seeks at “verstehen”, or understanding, he does not make up facts or interpret data as he likes but applies all his best knowledge of existing science in other branches to understand the “meaning” of the data he looks at— its implications and significance. However, this “understanding” is always limited by the current state of the underlying sciences he depends upon. Empirical data by itself is seen to be hollow when we acknowledge the recording of miracles and witchcraft by numerous human witnesses in past history— these events can not have logically occurred even if we have collected data of people verifying them in the past. Where the underlying science is unsettled, history may prove to be “open to interpretation” as to the significance of events recorded. There are no constant relations in the field of economics and so establishing things such as the “elasticity of demand” of a good are nothing more than historical facts, not future-predicting theories of human action. “Happiness” is not an inappropriate measure of human action due to technological limitations but because it is not objective and universal in its implications— it means different things to different people. Logic, mathematics and praxeology are universally valid for all humans capable of reason. “What counts for history is always the meaning of the men concerned.” All historical events are described and interpreted by means of ideal types, e.g., general, president, businessman, entrepreneur, doctor, tyrant. But ideal types belong only to history— human action concerns itself with real acting man as he is, which is the mistake made by the German Historical School or the American Institutional School, which built their theory around the “ideal type” of “homo economicus”. This was a make believe intellectual phantom with no connection to real, acting man. “Praxeological knowledge is within us” and is in this sense experience based, but it is something that belongs to everybody who is capable of human reason, and no amount of experience or description to an entity not capable of it could lead to their understanding. “The end of science is to know reality”, and we use our experience of daily life to decide what interests us and what we should explore, but not how we should explore it (theory building). Economic theory refers to practical problems simply because that is what man is concerned with understanding. Economics is necessarily politically contrarian because it serves to provide knowledge of the limitations of human action and thus the necessary restraints that exist for human legislators and warlords in their social engineering endeavors. Economics is holistic, special theories of economics must be encased in a greater framework which is itself consistent in order for special theory to be valid. Praxeology belongs only to man— superhuman entities capable of anything would not fit into a theory involving entities which have limited means of satisfying their ends.
III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason
The classical economists destroyed all socialist theories and demonstrated their impracticality. Instead of admitting defeat because they could not construct a logical theory, the socialists turned to questioning the efficacy of human reason itself. They decided to substitute mystical intuition for universal logic (similar to divine right of kings for monarch). Marxian polylogism states that every social class has its own distinct logical structure within the mind. There is no biological support for this assertion and Marxists make no attempt to establish anything beyond this assertion. Marxian “ideology” is a doctrine which is incorrect from proletarian pure logic but which is beneficial to the class interests of the one who espouses it. Marxists provide no explanation for why minority policies which are deemed injurious to the wider social body nonetheless come to pass without the majority stopping them. “The fundamental logical relations and the categories of thought and action are the ultimate source of all human knowledge.” We can not even imagine a system that operates otherwise without referring to this logic in our inquiry, and we can not explain logic without using logic. This means logic is an ultimate given. Polylogism scan not explain why people of the same social class nonetheless arrive at different conclusions about the truth.
IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action
Economics concerns itself with the way thinking man turns things into means by way of action. It is concerned with the meaning men give to things through their action and not what third parties think about such action. Man’s ends can be thought of as existing on a scale of values, which are ordinal. It is a simple rank of things he’d like more over things he’d like less, the satisfaction of which serve to remove felt uneasiness. These scales don’t exist in any real sense and are simply a tool used to understand the concept of action, and they are revealed definitely only through concrete action. The values that things have are within the person of whom action is taken, they are not intrinsic to the things themselves. Economics concerns itself with what man DOES do, not what he should or ought to do, e.g., prices of “sinful” goods must be explained from the way men value them, not how an ethical system claims they should. Action can be thought of as an exchange, where a less satisfactory set of conditions is given up for a more satisfactory set of conditions. Costs are the value of the next best thing given up. Profits are the excess of gains over costs. Anytime costs exceed gains, loss is incurred.
Change and time are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Thinking takes time and is itself an action. Action is always aimed at altering the events of the future because the present moment is fleeting. The present is an ideal boundary line separating the past and the future. The past is designated as the place where opportunity to consume or do has passed. The future is designated as the place where the opportunity to do or consume has not yet taken place. The present is the place in which it is too early to do some things and too late to do others. The uncertain nature of the future means that we have a vague notion at any given moment of how much of our action we can consider “now” or present. Time must be economized like any other good due to the fundamental nature of reality. Actions are never synchronous, they always are in a relation to one another of being sooner or later. Man’s values and thus actions can change over time. There is a difference between logical consistency, and praxeological constancy. Irrationality does not apply.
“To acting man the future is hidden”, it is possible in a metaphysical sense that events are entirely deterministic but this is not the experience that man himself faces; he faces an experience of choice. In matters of uncertainty, acting man faces two kinds of probability, class probability and case probability. In class probability, the actor knows all qualities of the class itself, but knows nothing of the character of any specific event which might take place within that class. In case probability, he knows some of the factors guiding the outcome of a specific event but not all of them and the outcome itself is unique and not categorizable with other “class” events. The case is characterized by its uniqueness, not its similarities, to other identical events. Human action is based upon case probability, where no safety or stability can be purchased or achieved— all human action is inherently speculative with regards to the likelihood of a given action achieving the aimed at end. Case probability can not be quantified because it would require the summing of non-identical items. And game theory is an inappropriate means to study human action because human action in the division of labor aims at benefitting all participants, not just sum (i.e., zero sum game). Competition has been wrongly characterized as a form of combat when really competitors win their customers by achieving excellence and preeminence. All allusions to military terminology or characteristics is purely metaphorical. Because praxeology studies multi-causal events, its prediction is necessarily qualitative and reliant on “understanding” (verstehen), it can never be quantifiable or mathematical in nature and there can never be any certainty with regards to its outcome.
VII. Action Within The World
Utility is that which has causal relevance to removing felt uneasiness. Subjective use-value utility is different than objective (or technological) use-vale utility. Objective use-value may be obscured, incorrectly utilized or multiplicitous in comparison to subjective use-value. Acting man does not choose between total supplies of various goods serving as means— he chooses only between the relative, discrete amounts for his purposes against other ends he could pursue. And because he satisfies his most urgent wants before his less urgent wants, he values the means “at the margin”, meaning in consideration of the value of the least urgent want he’d have to give up. The law of diminishing marginal utility is implied in the category of action. It is futile to attempt to calculate composite values of total supply based off of knowledge of partial supplies— this is not how acting man utilizes discrete amounts of supply. Supply itself is characterized by a set of homogenous goods which could equally satisfy a given want. Technological recipes are not part of supply, once known they are inexhaustible and can be used as many times as is desired— however, the action leading to their discovery does involve scarcity and supply. The law of returns simply states that for any combination of real factors of production there is an optimum in relation to the productive end desired with regards to most efficiently utilizing scarce resources. It can only tell us that there is an optimum. It can not tell us how to arrive at it— this is something that must be achieved through experience (technological vs. teleological knowledge). The law of returns applies to all branches of production equally. The indivisibility of certain means of production is what gives rise to the fact that often large-scale production is more efficient and therefore optimum than small scale variants. Labor is the employment of human physiological capacities as a means of obtaining desired ends. Leisure is preferred to labor and labor itself suffers from the law of diminishing marginal utility. Additionally, not all labor is equal in quantity and quality within an individual or population. “Men do not economize labor in general, but the particular kinds of labor available.” The supply of labor available is conditioned upon genetics, social conditioning and innate human subjective preferences for labor vs. leisure. The potential supply of labor for each kind of work necessarily exceeds the demand in the long run because labor can be shifted and retrained to perform new tasks. Labor is always more scarce than the material factors of production (land, capital). The substitution of “labor saving” machinery for human labor does not render labor abundant so long as there are still more material productive factors available to combine with the freed up labor to pursue additional human well-being. Activities which provide immediate gratification are not labor nor work but consumption goods themselves, of the first order. Mises believes the creative genius is a special case which does not subscribe to the praxeological laws conditioning labor and is more equivalent to “manna from heaven” in that he toils under different conditions, for different reasons, and he can not be substituted, ordered/planned nor replaced. Production is not a creative act but one of rearrangement of already existent phenomena. Man is creative only in thinking, not rearranging the world according to his thoughts. Man’s capacity to work is a given much like the state of natural resources and animal substances. The material changes of man’s economy are due solely to the ideas he holds in his head about what is desirable. “Production is alteration of the given according to the designs of reason.”
What happens when the computer engineering bubble hits the Silicon Valley finance bubble in a collision directly overhead of the philosophy of education?
In “Learn Different“, the New Yorker surveys a for-profit, tech-inspired elementary education startup. Some key takeaways of the company’s approach to education, according to the reportage:
- No professional school admin; school is run by teachers
- “Micro-school” with small total enrollment
- Mixed classrooms; pre-K through 3rd grade in combined learning environment
- “Franchise” model; locations in major cities throughout the US
- “Highly tailored” education that uses technology to track student progress
- “Playlist” driven lesson plan; students work through pre-assigned steps on tasks of interest
- Surveillance; students are recorded with video and audio for later playback and analysis by teachers
- Big data; used to analyze student progress and adapt lesson plan to strengths and weaknesses
- Private tuition, approx. $30,000/yr
According to the editor’s tag on the article, AltSchool is an example of “Silicon Valley disrupts education.” In the disruption literature there is the idea of disruptive and sustaining technologies– disruptive technologies create a paradigm-shift in the strategic world upon which the industry in question competes, while sustaining technologies simply allow for more efficient continuation of the existing competitive dynamic. Better horse breeding practices are an example of sustaining technology in the era of the horse and buggy, while the internal combustion automobile is an example of a disruptive technology in personal transportation.
If AltSchool is disruptive technology, then the questions are:
- What is the primary strategic principle for mainstream education?
- How does AltSchool represent a paradigm-shift?
It’s perhaps difficult to say exactly what the principle of mainstream education is. There are many interest groups who vie for influence over the system so it is by no means a monolithic group. That being said, there is perhaps a cohesiveness of interests: provide jobs and economic resources for “educators” and administrators (including the politicians who are the ultimate stewards of the system) while creating a student body that will be cooperative with the political system around it and willfully integrate into the various economic relationships that sustain it. “Question everything” this is not.
The AltSchool gives meek lip service to the idea of an individual-oriented learning experience, but upon further investigation it seems that this is not about making the student the master of his education, but making the education a more subtle component of the student’s social indoctrination.
Ventilla [the founder of the company] also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.”
While there isn’t necessarily anything blame-worthy in being mindful of conditions in the workplace which students might one day be interacting with, it also isn’t exactly revolutionary to incorporate job-worthiness into one’s educational philosophy. The “workplace of the future” is an extrapolation of the “workplace of the present” into future periods.
In San Jose, students’ scores on annual state tests were made available only after the end of the school year. At AltSchool, Seyfert could keep tabs on her students’ daily, if not hourly, progress. Every task card on a student’s playlist is tagged to denote not just academic skills, like math and literacy, but also social and emotional skills.
What is the value of all of these statistics? If you are teaching to a standard (ie, you have an end goal in mind of what your student should “look like” when their education is “complete”), then being able to measure progress toward that standard would be instrumental. The application of technology to this problem of measurement might introduce some efficiencies or even capabilities that are impossible without it. But then, this wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation but rather a sustaining innovation.
If your methodology is centered around the development of the individuality of the student himself, then the best such statistics can provide is a description of strengths and weaknesses. There would be nothing actionable as there would be no specific goal. Suzie is good at math. Jerry is good at reading. But what of it? And even then, these descriptions would only be valuable to compare Suzie and Jerry to others, but what value are such comparisons to the individual being compared? He cares not for it.
Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.” (Ventilla may question the utility of foreign-language acquisition, but fluency in the jargon of Silicon Valley—English 2.0—is required at AltSchool.)
The obsession of the school seems to be in building excellent quantitative measurement tools. These pieces of software can be updated and tested rapidly. But the educational principles themselves produce effects which are long in both maturation and duration. We can’t be sure of their results until many years have passed, if even then, and they’re most easily tested through logical inquiry, not mathematical interpretation. As human nature and cognitive capability are not improving any faster than iteratively through “geologic time”, it’s unclear what value these rapid upgrades to the software provide to the improvement of the philosophic principles of education that have supposedly been disrupted by AltSchool.
There was some humorous contrary evidence:
The previous day, Otto said, a guest teacher had come in to lead several students in a 3-D-modelling project, using a Web site called Tinkercad. “We built little models online—some people built phone cases, or little towers, or yo-yos,” Otto said. “I built a toilet, because I thought it would be fun. It has lots of different components—you have the base, you have the seat, you have the back.” He clicked to the site and pulled up his model. “I was looking around at pictures of toilets online,” he said. “I think I want to make it a bit more shaped for your back. I also want really sanitary toilets. And I want to make it really comfy. I’m quite bony, and I’m small, and if they don’t have a cushion they hurt.” Eventually, Otto said, he planned to 3-D print his prototype: a model toilet, fashioned to his personal specifications and preferences.
I really enjoyed this comment and I am glad the journalist captured it. First, it suggests that maybe the AltSchool is creating some spaces for the individual student to explore their interests, deeply. Second, Otto comes from a financially successful family whose parents are accomplished corporate types. It seems that, given the freedom to pursue his own interests, he can think of nothing better than building a comfortable toilet. That must give mainstream educators (and maybe even his ambitious parents) the chills!
If you can pull your own preferences out of your head for a moment and just look at this boy’s effort from his own perspective, though, isn’t it glorious?
The point of the hackathon was to sketch out in code potential solutions to “robot tasks”—routine aspects of a teacher’s job that don’t require teaching skills. Kimberly Johnson, the head of product success and training, addressed the team. “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it,” Johnson said.
Since the previous hackathon, three months earlier, teachers at AltSchool had filed more than a hundred digital “tickets” to Johnson, indicating how AltSchool software might be improved. Some teachers had asked for a more streamlined way to input data. Johnson acknowledged, “It is a lot of work to go into each card and click the learning objective and click the score and click ‘save.’ It’s just four or five clicks, but it adds up.” The teachers also wanted to enter assessment scores to groups of kids at once. “If you say, I want to give all of these kids threes, and all of these kids fours, there must be an easy way to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it would look like, but you could probably hack something together.”
Again, the emphasis on data technology over teaching philosophy. Now, it sounds like the school is trying to free up the teachers to focus on teaching by improving their technology interface. But the question begged is, “What makes the technology interface so central to their teaching philosophy?” This comes back to the question of disruptive versus sustaining technology. How is the student served by all the assessments? Life is its own assessment.
But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.
We turn now to that great social philosopher, Ludwig von Mises, who said of genius and the creation thereof in his “Human Action“:
The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.
Now here are two very different philosophies. At AltSchool, “individuality” and creativity are being taught as part of the lesson plan and the methodology of the school in service of the demands of a future workplace so envisioned. For Mises, the creative individual is something natural, inexplicable and uncontrollable and he is in service to himself first and foremost.
I think it is Mises’s ideas that are disruptive here.
AltSchool’s perspective does not necessarily require abandoning texts that have long been considered central to a humanist education, but it does mean approaching them anew. One middle-school class undertook a lengthy study of the Iliad by focussing on the theme of “rage” and designing a spreadsheet that logged instances of it. They then used data-visualization techniques to show their findings, and wrote persuasive essays based on their results. Afterward, their teacher, James Earle, wrote, “Analyzing a piece of literature this way turns the work into a piece of robust data that can be understood quantitatively, in addition to allowing a qualitative reading.”
But what is the value of this new understanding? What does it add that is new and different? Yes you can do this, but what thinking informs the should?
Mediratta [vice-president of product] envisaged a time when AltSchool technology would get “into the sci-fi realm.” What insights might be drawn from aggregated data culled from video and audio? He spoke of the video moments that teachers were bookmarking. “The next useful thing would be for us to analyze all the things that are bookmarked, and to draw inferences,” Mediratta said. “Like, bookmarks seem to happen when the classroom is noisy. So let’s generate a few other interesting moments that the teacher might want to look at—say, a moment when the classroom was full of kids but was dead quiet. What was happening there? Is this good? Is this bad? Or you could look at a moment when it was absolutely chaotic—but maybe that is what the activity called for. So we can start applying machine learning to this data to start driving inferences. Maybe what we should be doing is detecting when the classroom gets noisy, and then we could have the head of the school, who is also an educator, stop by your classroom and participate and help.”
The meta-philosophy of modern education is control, the schooling agenda is a by-product of the aim to control others. The desire to control the schooling environment seems to be what is behind the focus on applying technology to surveil and measure the students and their activities.
AltSchool is not disrupting anything as far as I can see. From my understanding of what education is and what education isn’t, I don’t see a place like AltSchool meeting my needs, but that does not mean it won’t be successful in terms of the paradigm of mainstream education, within which I believe it is situated.
Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia (buy on Amazon.com)
by Joe Studwell, published 2007
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers” examines the economic development of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines, which are “linked by powerful, unifying themes… similar historical legacies and a very particular relationship between political and economic power.” In so doing, it helps the reader understand curious facts such as how,
a small region that, concurrently, could not boast a single non-state corporation among the global top 500 [but] none the less accounted for a third of the wealthiest two dozen people on the planet.
The narrative of southeast Asia is that it is rapidly privatizing after a narrow-miss with communism and concentrated state-owned enterprise intervention throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s post-war period and this explains some of the fantastic personal fortunes of various “business families” in the area. But if these supposedly privatized economies can’t boast globally competitive businesses, how are these people managing to get so rich?
The three minor inquiries of this major inquiry are (pg. xii):
- why have secretive tycoons come to rule the economies of southeast Asia?
- what have they contributed to the region’s overall economic development?
- why are they still so powerful when the depth and potency of the Asian Financial Crisis — an event to whose origins they were central — appeared, to many observers, to be likely to emasculate them? (It did not.)
In searching for answers, the book explores several key themes (pg. xiii):
- historical; the southeast Asian economy is the product of a relationship between political and economic power that developed in the colonial era and was sustained, with a different cast of characters, in the post-colonial era
- mechanical; a political elite grants to members of an economic elite monopoly concessions, normally in domestic service industries, that enable the latter to extract enormous amounts of wealth, without a requirement to generate the technological capabilities, branded corporations and productivity gains that drive sustainable economic development
- political; it was expedient for new indigenous political leaderships to nurture their own dependent class of, typically, non-indigenous tycoons who could siphon off economic rents, give a share to their political masters and not pose a threat to political power
- economic; instead, growth came from a combination of small-scale entrepreneurs, many concentrated and around manufacturing, and a policy of renting out the local labor force to efficient multinational exporters
- crisis; these arrangements seemed to work acceptably well until the July 1997 onset of the financial crisis
- repetition; most of the institutional failings revealed by the crisis have not been tackled in the decades since the crisis broke and it remains unclear whether they will be [there could be another crash, as a result]
The introduction to “Asian Godfathers” is outstanding. It is one of the best, most coherent summaries of the major arguments of a comprehensive work such as this that I have come across, so it is worth quoting extensively from it before outlining and commenting on the rest of the book.
First, why is the book called “Asian Godfathers” (pg. xiv)?
The use of the term godfather in this book aims to reflect the traditions of paternalism, male power, aloofness and mystique that are absolutely part of the Asian tycoon story… a very romanticized myth…has grown up around southeast Asia’s tycoons [along with] sub-myths about race, culture, genetics, entrepreneurialism… the entire grounding of economic progress in the region since the end of colonialism.
The Asian tycoons are not just characters in the book, they are characters in real life and they have worked hard to consciously develop their public character themselves. And with regards to character, it is interesting to note that,
Most of Asia’s godfathers are ethnic Chinese.
This would seem to fit into the “historical” theme, as during the colonial period many of the ennobled members of the business community were part of the Chinese diaspora throughout southeast Asia and their relationships with indigenous and colonial governments were similar to the roles and functions which exist today between political and economic elites in the region due to the seeming “special” status a racial or ethnic outsider can obtain in such scenarios.
That being said, Studwell objectively rejects the idea that there is a “culture-centered explanation” for the success of (mostly) Chinese tycoons in southeast Asia, founded on three points:
- notions of a cultural imperative ignore historical context; arbitrary decisions made by former colonial powers have led to present-day coincidences, such as the high percentage of “subcontinental ancestry” individuals serving as lawyers and judges in Singapore or Malaysia
- the Chinese are non-homogeneous and the Chinese in southeast Asia are typical of the Chinese race in general; Chinese emigres were a self-selected group willing to take significant risks for chances at a brighter future, and they emigrated from geographically, culturally and linguistically different regions around China at different periods of time
- the Chinese emigration generally can not be conflated with the godfather phenomenon; while overseas Chinese enjoy above-average incomes in some places, there are also large populations of emigre Chinese who live in poverty similar to the indigenous populations
So does this mean culture and race mean nothing in explaining southeast Asian economic outcomes? Not quite. (pg. xix)
This book argues that these individuals are above all the economic products of the political environment in which they operate and that it is this same political environment that is preventing the region from achieving sustained economic progress. In a worst-case scenario, southeast Asia may be headed towards Latin America-style stagnation and inequality.
So, again, how do these people get so rich? Essentially, they are “asset traders”, trading assets from one political system (Asia) to another (the Western world/global market economy) and they get paid for arbitraging between the two in the form of rents.
Asian godfathers exploit political inefficiency for gain… their companies’ performance in terms of productivity typically lags behind that of the overall economies in which they operate… it is the smaller scale local businesses and the hard work and thrift of ordinary southeast Asians that have driven development.
Interestingly, this is the same argument that was made about the Chinese communist party in control of coastal trading cities and the inland rural entrepreneurs who were driving economic change in China that was put forth in “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics“. The state-connected actors get all the credit for “producing” measurable trade activity that their political obstructions necessitate, and the contribution of thrifty commercial operators in the domestic economy which are harder to measure and observe go without note despite being at the root of the phenomenon of “third world development” in these regions.
This is one of the central myths shattered by this book– that the mega-wealthy businessmen of southeast Asia are bootstrapped entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets and that Hong Kong and Singapore have grown because they are liberal, free market economies in a world of state intervention and control. The truth is almost exactly the opposite, with the individuals topping the “rich list” representing a group of crony capitalist concessionaires par excellence, and Hong Kong and Singapore in particular representing what happens when you channel large volumes of cash flow through controlled banking and finance regimes, regardless of wider economic or social principles.
This political economic arrangement is not new, and it is not even just colonial. As Studwell argues, it starts with migration pre-dating European control of the region and it relies upon an ancient
racial division of labor in which locals were the political entrepreneurs– focused on the maintenance of political power against indigenous rivals and, later, in partnership with European and American colonists — and outsiders who became economic, and as a corollary bureaucratic, entrepreneurs.
In a sense, there’s really nothing unique or extraordinary about these arrangements. From the dawn of time some groups in society have sought political control over others, which is to say, they seek to live at the expense of the productive people in society. The ancient trade economy resulted in migrant businessmen who proved to be capable administrators not only of their own affairs but also as hired tax farmers and local bureaucrats for the indigenous rulers. Over time, these two groups came more and more to rely upon one another, the businessmen on the rulers for explicit monopoly concessions in return for loyal service, and the rulers on the businessmen for a class of people who could actually get their hands dirty with revenue generation for the state while serving as convenient scapegoats or distractions for the frustrations of the local populace concerning their rule, when need be.
These political arrangements always result in poverty, suffering and gross economic inefficiency. In the case of countries where the governments overtly monopolize or nationalistically control real enterprises, there is the perennial problem of an artificially low supply resulting in artificially high prices. Combined with foreign trade controls which prevent competitive global exports from arriving in their markets, you have the set up for an extremely lucrative arrangement for these “godfather” types who bridge the gap between the inefficient, politically-controlled domestic markets and the efficient, competitive global market. The success of the “trade nations” of Hong Kong and Singapore, then, can be explained by political interference in the nearby local economies, not the absence of such interference in their own:
What is important about Hong Kong and Singapore is that they are archetypal city states — ‘port city states’ would be more precise. Since colonial inception they have offered tariff-free trade (with few or no questions asked about what is being traded) and have been places to park money (with few or no questions asked about where the money came from)… Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands… For as long as surrounding countries have imposed tariffs or quotas on trade in their efforts to fund government, Hong Kong and Singapore have profited from circumventing those restrictions.
In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, “Hong Kong’s immediate hinterland is Southern China… Singapore’s dominant hinterland… has long been Indonesia.” When was the last time you saw China or Indonesia show up on a list of globally competitive economies?
The reason Hong Kong and Singapore are such large financial centers, in particular, is that
Ethnic outsider tycoons who have profited from business concessions in surrounding countries have always sought to keep the funds offshore, fearing — with good reason — that they may one day be the victims of political change.
Perhaps overlooked by some,
Singapore… increased account secrecy provisions and changed trust laws in a manner designed to attract the kind of money Switzerland had dealt in… foreign private banks almost doubled between 2000 and 2006
And meanwhile, “to sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corruption money from China.”
In conclusion, rather than proving the efficacy of free markets (which Hong Kong and Singapore largely do not have in terms of domestic industries), instead the experience of these island countries serves to prove
That a city state with a strategic deep water port in a region that has relatively higher levels of mismanagement, corruption and political uncertainty will prosper with little reference to official economic philosophy.
But what about the “godfathers” themselves? Surely they are talented businessmen in their own right despite the relatively uncompetitive markets in which they thrive?
Whether it is as a sop to the political class to help fool the local populace that it has options and opportunity, or it is a sop to their own egos to glory in a sense of achievement and capability that has not been earned, the godfathers’ public personas are men of meager means who rose through the ranks in short order to become industrial and financial titans in their adopted countries while the reality is that most came from already successful families with existing political connections that they enhanced, or, to the extent they were “penniless” before their rise, they certainly didn’t do it through hard work and sweat equity of their own but happened to be in the right place at the right time and got control of an early government concession which became the rocket engine to the top. Many godfathers of the present generation were war-time smugglers, gambling operators or even cooperators with occupying forces as southeast Asia changed hands back and forth during World War II. As Studwell observes,
whether Hong Kong has been ruled by British colonialism, Japanese imperialism or Chinese communism, it has always been managed through the same group of people.
According to one local observer and member of the monied class, “In one generation it is very difficult [to rise from rags to riches ] because it is not an open society.” And according to a local scholar, “I have yet to find a businessman who started as a coolie.” As such, the godfathers have a notorious reputation when it comes to expensive entertainment vices and
the rumors are legion and suggest a form of gambling that echoes that of Middle Eastern potentates — vast sums of money blown away by people who do not know its real value because they have not really earned it.
Nor are their social habits those of the hard-working middle-class bourgeoisie who cherish being part of their communities and maintaining stable, monogamous relationships with supportive spouses. Says one observer, “None of these people has social friends. They fuck a girl, shake off their horniness and then it’s back to work.” It appears to be the life of an addict and by another’s estimation, “If they don’t have a woman a day they can’t function.” The Asian godfathers are more Bill Clinton than Bill Gates, it seems.
Another important aspect of the godfather character is secrecy. While private businessmen are often protective of their trade secrets, customer relationships, technological know-how and tactical elements of their strategy, this is a different form of caginess. Says Studwell, “Most deals involve some element of government licensing or concession, things that both parties prefer to keep private.” The godfathers get special advantages from the government which, if known, ruin their reputations as self-made men, and the governments themselves want the mystique maintained so as to confuse the masses as to how they are controlled (and how they benefit by their arrangements with these business stars.)
And that secrecy is extremely valuable because
At the heart of the average godfather’s empire is a concession or license that gives rise to a monopoly or oligopoly activity… this non-competitive core cash flow, the river of molten gold that will keep him going through good times and bad
allows the godfathers to build their empires, and survive the inevitable setbacks and speed wobbles as uncompetitive pseudo-entrepreneurs jump head first into a bevy of unfamiliar industries and businesses and try to swim without the floaty wings of government assistance.
Though there are many such arrangements detailed in the book, the explanation of Hong Kong land development patterns on page 68 is worth quoting at length as a kind of summary of how these special arrangements serve to entrench a group of large scale crony capitalists:
The British administration set the scene for real estate oligopoly because it chose to depend heavily on land sales — all land was deemed “Crown land” until sold — to fund its budget. As Hong Kong grew in the post-Second Word War era, the government auctioned off development land in ever more expensive chunks: US$1 billion a pop for large plots by the mid 1990s. Anyone who acquired land in the secondary market that was not designated for building — agricultural acreage in the New Territories was targeted by the tycoon families behind Sun Hung Kai and Henderson in the 1970s and 1980s — had to pay a hefty upfront conversion premium before construction could begin. The effect was to rule out small players and persons without good connections to the large British banks. A government-commissioned 1996 report by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council found that three-quarters of new private residential housing was supplied by only ten developers between 1991 and 1994, and 55 per cent came from the four biggest developers. A separate look at profitability considered thirteen large residential developments. Margins were extraordinary, especially where conversion fees had been set by private tender on large lots of agricultural land. In such cases, the lowest return the Consumer Council found — as a percentage of total estimated development costs, including land — was 77 per cent. The highest was 364 per cent.
For everyone else in Hong Kong, the outsize cost of housing relative to all other living expenses is a constant complaint.
Middle class Hong Kongers, meanwhile, paid low nominal taxes but some of the world’s highest rents, or mortgage repayments, and apartment management fees equivalent to 13-15 per cent of rents.
Interestingly, Hong Kong locals see this as inevitable, not as a necessary outcome of a crony land development and ownership system, but as the necessary outcome of living on a small island! The argument is that there is only so much land, and they aren’t making more (nevermind landfill projects like the airport, ports, etc.)– somehow competition serves to lower prices in every other area of business but in Hong Kong real estate, no matter how tall you build the buildings, supply never improves and prices keep going up. They’re totally bought in on the godfather propaganda.
The whole system seems outrageous to an outsider, as Studwell describes
a graft-seeking culture among indigenous politicians. “They’re broke every week… feed your mouth, feed your prick. That is how they think.”
while the south-east Asian system is corrupt, it is more efficient than ones that pertain in socitieies where the holders of power also seek to be exploiters of business rents.
Here he is referring to places like Africa and parts of the Middle East, but the metaphor could also be apt in looking historically at feudal Europe versus bourgeoisie Europe, where one of the primary political trends was the reduction of large landed estates into ever smaller, privately owned parcels controlled by individual land owners or small businessmen.
So, if the godfathers are not business geniuses, what are they and how do they manage to get anything done across their humongous and complicated business holdings? According to Studwell,
their activities are more like those of supercharged chairmen: setting strategy, deal making, hobnobbing, but ultimately leaving others to execute the substance as well as the detail of what they put in train
and it is their gweilo, or running dogs, who are the real business men in their organizations. Yet, even then these individuals are not as much businessmen as they are “enforcers”, with the top enforcer being more akin to “‘the chief slave’. This is the first person called when the godfather wants something done.” And these gweilo, like the godfathers themselves, are rarely members of the local populace but are instead drawn from “a globally traded management cadre” who graduate from top universities and can be found running large enterprises around the world.
The final piece of the puzzle is the godfathers’ relationship with capital markets. The first thing to note is that every godfather has his own affiliated bank, for example, “By the mid 1990s every major business [in Indonesia], and many lesser ones, had a captive bank.” Interestingly, even “different factions of the military had banks”! With control of a bank, godfathers can tap into cheap capital pools and then hand off social problems to the government in the event of a crisis such as the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
And while massive, cheap leverage is the favored form of financial fuel, the godfathers have also found unique ways to employ their legerdemain in the equity markets via that ever-so-wonderful technique of arbitrage. In fact, this explains the puzzling question of “why, despite heady economic growth, have long-term stock market returns in south-east Asia been so poor?” For example, Studwell notes that “Between the beginning of 1993 and the end of 2006, dollar returns in Thailand and the Philippines were actually negative; their stock markets destroyed capital.”
The answer is simple: “buying equities in south-east Asia is fundamentally about buying into the godfather business model”. And the godfather model contains the implicit query
why work hard to increase a company’s stock price and pay dividends when all the capital you need is available at a real interest rate close to zero per cent from a bank whose board you control?
From this standpoint, then, it should come as no surprise that
the eight largest conglomerates in the region exercise effective control over a quarter of all listed companies, while the top twenty-two conglomerates control one-third of listed vehicles.
What is, perhaps, surprising is how the godfathers have managed to profit even from running their listed companies into the ground. This was one of the most fascinating reveals in the book:
The game here was for tycoons to sell low-grade property assets into new corporate entities, back-load the debt repayments of the purchaser and list them with the story that dividends in year one would be a guide to future earnings.
The money used to finance this arrangement is often provided by their bank. And when the publicly-listed corporate structures verge on insolvency, the godfather’s private companies offer to repurchase the assets at pennies on the dollar. It is an outstanding bait-and-switch which allows them to swipe millions (billions?) along the way formerly belonging to “dumb money” mutual funds. In many instances of these IPO-to-privatize shenanigans “the boss himself would own only about 10 per cent of what he was selling, a powerful signal that the asset was overpriced.”
The 1990s leading up to the Asian Financial Crisis represented a kind of Golden Era of banking charlatanry for the godfathers where “Hong Kong, for instance, had negative real interest rates from the end of 1990 to the start of 1995”, which allowed for such inanities that “K. S. Lo, the real estate tycoon and elder brother of Vincent Lo, [telling a CSLA analyst] he would buy any property in Hong Kong sight unseen.” If that kind of anecdote isn’t revealing of the reality of the free market, competitive real estate economy in Hong Kong, nothing is.
Studwell has produced an outstanding and deeply-researched resource in “Asian Godfathers.” While my review focused on Hong Kong and Singapore, which are of particular interest to me personally, there is just as much detail here about Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Phillipines, as well as a variety of throwaway lines that come out of the mouths of the main characters and those forced to bask in their wake alike that are just too funny not to chuckle about. The great detail with which Studwell describes the machinations of the godfathers and the mass of damning evidence he provides that they not only do not operate in free economies but only exist because of the nature of southeast Asian government manipulation of regional economies is deeply satisfying to this reader and I am sure it will be refreshing to other curious minds as well.
This book is not a classic that can be read again and again with new insights about the human condition to appreciate every time, but it is an outstanding treatment in its specific area that I would strongly recommend to anybody curious to know more about southeast Asian political economy in general, and how crony capitalism works specifically, not just in these economies but around the globe because the formula is similar, if not identical. There are only so many ways to rip people off and it turns out it doesn’t require too much creativity. I plan to purchase and read a copy of Studwell’s How Asia Works in the future, and I am also considering a few other titles selected from his extensive bibliography, including: