equality is not equity

When I studied economics at Sydney University in the 1980s the Economics Department was split down the middle between the happy clappies (religionists who swallowed the free market koolaid and wanted the world remade to fit their models) and the realists who wanted a data driven profession. It was so divided that the Department was effectively two departments though students got credits by studying either strand and it was compulsory to take units in each.

These days many more younger economists are data driven and not happy clappy ideologues. Realists point out that the problem of production has long been solved by humans and what remains are the problems of distributing the incredible wealth of the planet and externalities (pollution for example). Solving these are political questions. Those who don’t want them solve carry on with myths of scarcity.

There are unfortunately sufficient numbers of happy clappy economists who are either convinced of their religion or happy, like other scientists, to sell their services to the highest bidder.

That bidder falls into three main categories. 1) media controlled by profiteers, 2) university chairs endowed by profiteers, 3) government servants and politicians within the koolaid camp. The argument they often use is that the worker bees won’t work unless they are forced to, that they will sit at home and accept government handouts if you let them. So cruelty and hardship are the best motivators. There is plenty of evidence that this is la la land but the happy clappies ignore it while dressing themselves in happy clappy ecobabble.

I was a government economist for a while and three instances spring to mind.

1) I worked with a particular economist in the Australian aid agency that steadfastly refused to accept that Papua New Guinea was a dual economy (ie swathes of the economy were outside the wage sector and were therefore unresponsive to neoliberal economic levers which were popular at the time.

2) Another economist was happy that “the market” operated nicely in the Philippines so that people could eke out a living on garbage dumps. There was absolutely no personal downside or responsibility for these ideologues promoting their delusions. They wielded enormous power over our regional economies and on multilateral bank boards (ADB, World Bank etc for which I also had policy input). The bureaucratic manouevering was something to behold

3) The mastery by the then World’s Greatest Treasurer Paul Keating (I served under him and Hawke in the Prime Minister’s Department) of the dominant ecobabble. He learnt the script like no other and it was always about media performance, public perception and how he had the facts under complete control and could tell you which economic levers to pull as if they were real and not constructs within an economic model. That we were riding a mineral boom at the time seemed to be lost on the happy clappies who briefed him and those that gave him the award while real wages fell pretty much worldwide in a trend that is continuing.

So to the “value” question, central to “economics”. Marx had a labour theory of value which was rubbish (duckduckgo on why). Sraffa tried to save the theory, unsuccessfully. “Time” as a metric would probably suffer the same fate. But the critical point is the model into which you plug your value metric. All models have assumptions and simplifications and will eventually trip you up unless tested rigorously against the real world. If the model includes measuring things which are self-referenced within the model (GDP is a classic example) then it’s garbage in garbage out and your metric is useless.

And in modelling the world (economies, weather, biological systems) we come up against complexity and the NP-hard barrier. NP-hard algorithms, under our present state of knowledge, can be proven to run the life of the universe and still not give you an answer. You are then left again with a basic political and moral question in deciding how to organise an economic system. People like Sam Harris think morality can be measured. He might be right.

But for me in the meantime as a striving older wiser humanist realist scientific economist there is only one metric worth the cake. Call it what you like – sharing, love, compassion, caring. Build your societies and economies on these. Altruism versus fear has a strong genetic link as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog and the gene seems split 50:50 among living organisms (science published early 2016 showed different ant colonies possessing measurable differences on a related metric).

Good luck with your study of economics.

Here’s three books to begin with:
1. Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality
2. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide
3. Thomas Piketty

alcohol muscle man

Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) developed by World Health Organisation.

Write down the number in brackets for your answer, then add up the total number.

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?
(0) Never
(1) Monthly or less
(2) 2 to 4 times a month
(3) 2 or 3 times a week
(4) 4 or more times a week

2. How many alcohol units do you have on a typical day when you are drinking?

(0) None
(0) 1 or 2½
(1) 3 or 4
(2) 5 or 6
(3) 7 to 9
(4) 10 or more

3. How often do you have six or more units on one occasion?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

4. How often during the last year have you found that you were unable to stop drinking once you had started?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

5. How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

6. How often during the last year have you needed a first drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

7. How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

8. How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?
(0) Never
(1) Less than monthly
(2) Monthly
(3) Weekly
(4) Daily or almost daily

9. Have you or someone else been injured as the result of your drinking?
(0) Never
(2) Yes, but not in the last year
(4) Yes, during the last year

10. Has a relative, friend, or a doctor or other health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?
(0) Never
(2) Yes, but not in the last year
(4) Yes, during the last year

If you’ve scored 8 or more you are drinking to a hazardous and harmful level.

If your score is between 8-15 you can probably help yourself with a stern talking to and a plan to cut back.

If you’ve scored 16 or over you may need professional help and continued monitoring.

Good luck.

steiner girl spiral glenaeon

Book review: Geoffrey Ahern, Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and Gnosis in the West, James Clarke and Co, Cambridge, 2009

Extricating loved ones from a cult is hard. Most refuse to acknowledge they are even enmeshed by a cult and even when presented with evidence may dismiss the evidence as a conspiracy theory. An essential part of the process of extricating loved ones from a cult is giving detailed non-judgemental information to the victim. This book will be an enormous help in that regard.

Ahern sets out the staggering evil beliefs of the Steiner cult including on Down’s syndrome children (this will make your skin crawl), magic, supernatural beings, angels and the moon (said to be inhabited by “plant-animals”).

The book describes the secret elite and the First Class which dominate and control the cult from behind the scenes. Most parents sending their children into this environment have no idea what they are getting into or who their money ends up with.

An excellent index has entries on Nazism, cancer (cult members say it’s due to an undeveloped pyschic state), thought-reading, and astral bodies of various kinds (some are made of light and contain the written history of the cult). Unfortunately it lacks an entry on colour beliefs, but does have one on Australia.

That a cult and its “schools” founded on the ravings of lunatic Rudolf Steiner about Theosophy and Anthroposophy can be funded with  our taxes beggars belief.

The book will repay careful reading for anyone considering a Steiner “education” for their children.

For a 2014 expose on the cult in NZ read Catherine Woulf’s excellent article in the Listener.

The conservative NZ Government called for public submissions on their draft Natural Health Products Bill.

The Bill is a flawed sop to the alternative medicine (altmed) industry and a pretend attempt to acknowledge the importance of science in health.  Let’s not forget, alternative medicine is like pointing to a dog and saying “That’s my alternative cat.” It’s still a dog.

Let’s not forget also that the almed industry is a dangerous multi-million dollar profit centre. Associate Professor Alastair MacLennan, of Adelaide University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology estimated the industry was worth about $1 billion a year – $620 million on alternative medicines, and $309 million on alternative practitioners. This was based on 1993 data, however, and these days altmed has mushroomed into a very serious rival to Big Pharma for the health dollar. A patient of MacLennan almost bled to death on the operating table. She had failed to mention she had been taking “natural” potions to “build up her strength” for the operation – one of them turned out to be a powerful anticoagulant which nearly killed her. I wonder if it was a “low risk” one that the NZ Government is happy about?

Here’s my submission:
This Bill is flawed on many levels.

I oppose using the concept of “traditional”. It is a nebulous and anti-scientific category, open to abuse by advertisers promoting their products when there is no evidence for the efficacy of those products. I have led aid missions in a developing country where it was “traditional” to rub cow manure into the navel of new born infants. Resulting disease for the child was “traditional”.

I oppose the dichotomy between “Health Claims” and “Therapeutic Claims” which is designed again to water down the requirement for scientific evidence.

The notion of “low risk” is unacceptable. Different people have different physiological responses to the same substance. Many substances we previously regarded as “low risk” have now been shown to have significant risk. Once again, the proposal is designed to allow the altmed industry to continue to sell snake oil on the grounds that “it can’t do much harm”. Such a manner of regulating is a flawed and irresponsible model for the parliament to follow and I urge it not to.

I look forward to the day when we have no separate “natural” products legislation and only have legislation demanding strong scientific evidence for any health claim.


yes, this blog title has a small p for philanthropy and the image begins to say why. Man in Suit. Greenwash. Fixing the whole world. Don’t you just love the hubris?

I was raised in a superstitious religious household where philanthropy was a value. So I’ve thought about the issues for a long time. My background led me to want to work in the international aid game which I did for many years.

I calculated that many aid projects would get better outcomes simply by giving cash away. My bosses didn’t like my calculations because of the Unspoken Rule  – We  run a business subsidy program for our own suppliers, Kevin, not an aid program. So at least I like the part of the image above where cash is flowing out of the watering can.

I got the Unspoken Rule message loud and clear when I came back after negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Chinese Government for a Tibetan aid project. I had negotiated a program of local training and local manufacture for solar parabolic cooking dishes (saves the backbreaking work of picking up sheep shit to burn for cooking fuel) and for local medical centres with a strong flaxroots health and women’s education focus (wash your hands after shitting and don’t rub cow shit on your new born babies’ navels). The Chinese had wanted a big hospital so the negotiations were interesting.

I was hauled over the coals for the MOU and the project was rewritten. My boss at the time specifically asked me why I had not built in opportunities for our businesses. I knew my bosses would be upset and that it would be the end of my career ladder in that part of the system, but I had decided I would no longer play by the rule that the more money that ended up back in our own compatriots’ pockets, the better. I also had other career options opening up. Brave ay?

It seems that the same mechanisms that I found in Government aid are also in private aid such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). This article is an extraordinary catalogue of the damage they do.

So with the recent rise of the Philanthropy Industry (PI) I’ve been thinking of these issues some more. The essential problem with most philanthropy is that it fails to diagnose the problem, or if it does it fails to act on it. Some philanthropists actually make the problem worse – read Christopher Hitchens’ book on that dangerous nutcase Mother Theresa for a perfect example. I made the effort to meet her in Kolkutta during a research trip to India and formed the view that she was a hard-nosed greedy stupid woman. She was also incredibly rude and mean of spirit which truly stunned me. So Hitch’s book came as no surprise.

PI is typified these days by buzzwords such as “charity evaluator”, “effective giving”, “scientific altruism” and combinations of these phrases mixed and matched. Just like any industry, PI has its jargon.

PI is also typified these days by companies such as Good Ventures, the Gates Foundation, and Mark Zuckerberg’s self-serving tax avoidance scheme (Hey Mark, 如果我说得不对请告诉我).

Motivation ranges from trying to achieve good publicity to a genuine, if mistaken, belief in how to achieve a better world. Motivation to make a buck out of the PI industry as one of the “charity evaluators” such as GiveWell is also high.

Recently I spent a little time looking into Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook co-founder) and the philanthropic activities he does with his partner Cari Tuna. They formed Good Ventures which says it researches causes and charities in a scientific way. Yeah, sure. They and others like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who have signed the Giving Pledge say they have been influenced by moral philosopher Peter Singer’s notions of Effective Altruism and his book ‘The Life You Can Save.’

I’m not arguing here against Singer, but my PI conclusions? Not all philanthropy is bullshit. Only most of it. I haven’t done the sums so might need to modify the conclusion about ‘most’ if more info comes to hand. In any case, we need structural change, not trickle down philanthropy from rich gits trying to soothe their consciences or run a tax avoidance scam.

If your philanthropist is not arguing for structural change then be very very suspicious, especially if they are one of the 68.

27 Jan 2016

K playing the tea towel

Me playing a tea-towel.

Would you chose a reading teacher who couldn’t read? Lot’s of “music teachers” can’t read music. If you chose them have some very good reasons. Even some registered music teachers cannot sight read and/or sight sing, including in Australia and New Zealand.

Some teachers might play or sing wonderfully but actually be musically illiterate. It’s like being able to recite a wonderful piece of poetry beautifully but not be able to read something simple when it’s put in front of you. Sad and very limiting.

So when you go to meet the prospective teacher, take some sheet music. Ask them to sing it. Ask them to play it. Ask them to clap the rhythm. If they can’t, or won’t, look elsewhere.

Tell the teacher you want your kid to learn to sight sing first, then learn to sight read. Tell them you want your kid to be able to write music, to be able to take musical dictation and to compose their own stuff by writing it down. It’s just like learning to read and write in school and will come easily if the child is young and the teacher makes it fun. Tell them you think an important part of making music is to make it with friends and other students and have lots of fun soirees. Tell them the last thing you want is for your kid to be pushed through the examination system.

Unfortunately when I was sent to piano lessons as a young kid the whole culture of the Australian Music Education Board (AMEB) was designed to produce playing monkeys for the exams and NOT kids who could read music. The musical literacy part of the curriculum was worth 5% of the exam mark. Serious. This is a great pity and condemned a few generations of people to musical illiteracy. And there are still a few teachers around like that.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I remember being very pleasantly surprised when I first went to China that all the kids and adults I met could sight sing. Popular tunes were printed on playing cards in a simple notation which I had never seen before.  The notation card is below and here’s the song being sung on youtube –  The Little Swallow (小燕子).

little_swallow_chinese muscial notation card

When I first went to China I took some sheet music with me (a book of Mozart Sonatas) because I couldn’t bear to be away from the piano for three months while I studied Chinese. Getting to know people on the train journey from Guangzhou to Beijing included singing each other our favourite or national songs. So it occurred to me to whip out my Mozart and show people. They could sight sing the western notation too!!

MozartPianoSonataE-flat major

Mozart Piano Sonata above.

I’ll always remember finding a vacant piano practice room in the institution I was studying at (now renamed Beijing Normal University 北京师范大学) and happily plonking away. Suddenly I was aware of someone standing in the doorway listening to me. He said he loved what I was playing and could I play it again. So I did. Then I realised it might be his turn at the practice room because I hadn’t booked it. I asked him to play and he sat down and launched into a stupendous display of virtuosity. It left me feeling like I had been Using an Axe in Front of Master Lu Ban the Carpenter’s Front Door (班门弄斧 Ban’s Door Brandish Axe) in the four character Chinese proverb (most Chinese proverbs are four characters).

Here’s the story of that Chinese idiom which I’ve copied and cobbled from various sources:

Master Lu Ban was a famous carver of the Spring and Autumn Period. His carving was so skilful that a phoenix he did flew for three days. The great Tang dynasty poet, Li Bai (李白), was an outspoken and romantic type of person who loved a good time and often went out drinking with his friends. One time, when he and some friends were out boating, Li Bai got dead drunk, fell into the river, and drowned.

For centuries after Li Bai’s death, many people who felt themselves to be geniuses would go and inscribe poems in front of his tomb. Finally a Ming Dynasty scholar Mei Zhihuan (梅之煥) went to his grave. He felt that the people writing their own inscriptions were highly overrating their own abilities. So, after all of their poems, he added another one, the meaning of which was: “Here lies Li Bai, a poet who will go down in history, Inscribing one’s poem in front of his tomb is the same as showing off one’s skill with the axe in front of Lu Ban’s door.” I don’t know if anyone else wrote another inscription after that, and history doesn’t record terribly much about Mei Zhihuan.

So brandishing an axe in front of Lu Ban’s door means to flaunt your ability in front of an expert, to show you don’t know your own limitations. Sometimes, this idiom is used as a polite expression, indicating that the people to whom we are speaking are much more talented than ourselves.

And if f you ask me to teach music I’ll say 班门弄斧 [ban1 men2 nong4 fu3].


Evil Doesn’t Exist

Howard K Bloom’s brilliant book shows this beyond reasonable doubt: The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into The Forces of History (1995).

What we call evil is simply the workings of human genetics. This book is the most brilliant exploration of biology, societies and history I’ve ever read.

It’s also an important contribution to the discussion about the clash of civilizations debate because it shows that human nature, not religion per se, is the culprit we need to understand. And, more importantly, we now have the scientific tools to understand human nature in much more detail than ever before.

After publication, it was misquoted by islamic fundamentalists who called for his punishment. The irony of course is that his analysis applied equally to christians. On p.176 he says “Christians by the millions would take upon themselves the privilege of killing, torturing and raping those who weren’t members of their triumphant creed.”

Here are some reactions to the book:

“an underground sensation in the scientific and literary communities….” — The Independent Scholar

“A revolutionary vision of the relationship between psychology and history. The Lucifer Principle will have a profound impact on our concepts of human nature. It is astonishing that a book of this importance could be such a pleasure to read.” — Elizabeth Loftus, Prof. Psychology, University of Washington, author Memory and Eyewitness Testimony

“The Lucifer Principle is a tour de force, a brilliant and seminal work.” — Sol Gordon, PhD, founder, The Institute for Family Research and Education

“a powerful thinking tool, complex and ambitious, bold, with an exceptional ability to integrate across an astonishing range of scientific information. I found myself alternating between ‘Wow!’ and ‘Aha!’ experiences. — Allen Johnson, chair, anthropology department, UCLA

“a freshly viable theory of human social evolution.” — The Washington Times

“a long step forward in the human effort to understand human biology … Its novel assessment is brilliant; its historical facts are unassailable…outstanding.” — Richard Bergland, MD, award winning researcher on brain endocrinology, founder of the department of neurosurgery, Sloan/Kettering

“A trenchant examination of ‘big ideas.’ Howard Bloom turns many of our preconceptions upside down, and in the process shakes our thinking loose so we can see the world differently.” — Mike Sigman, CEO, LA Weekly

“I’m in full agreement with ‘The Lucifer Principle.’ It is fascinating, erudite, enjoyable, stimulating and lively.” — Jerome D. Frank, MD, PhD, Prof. Emeritus Psychiatry, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

“Howard Bloom has written a ‘World History’ from a new and different viewpoint based upon the psychological structure and natural predispositions of the human mind. His story…is a challenging and welcome alternative to those based on theistic or political assumptions. — Horace Barlow, Royal Society Research professor of Physiology, Cambridge University



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