Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Debt: the seed of civilization

In these days of anti-capitalist protest, it is important to know that keeping track of debts led to the inventions of counting and writing, and eventually gave voice to art. [This is based on “Money: the seed of civilization,” an article for the Texas Numismatic Association’s TNA News, vol. 53, no. 6, November/December 2011. Other text is derived from comments posted to the Econolog and OrgTheory blogs about the recent works of anthropologist David Rolfe Graeber. Citations are at the bottom.]

 As a numismatist and an advocate for the Austrian school of free market economics, I find David Graeber’s work, fascinating. Von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard were largely ignorant of numismatics, hence of the history, art, and science of the moneys in which they invested so much emotion and thought.  Nonetheless, Graeber’s left-wing anarchist fear of money validate the warning from von Mises that capitalists and socialists often agree on the facts; they disagree on what the facts mean.  Graeber does know the facts. 
The works of numismatists Charles Opitz and Robert Leonard on primitive money substantiate at least the broad outlines of Graeber’s conjecture. Underlying that, however, is the deeper understanding of “debt.” It begins as a social obligation: not the transfer of “stuff” but the acknowledgement of status and relationship.  Wampum was invented by Hiawatha to ameliorate conflicts in order to rally the local tribes against the French and English invaders.  Soon, those invaders, knowing money, adopted wampum as an ad hoc currency. 

Left anarchists are not alone in their fear of the marketplace. 
“The Money Masters” is a video you can watch on YouTube.  The argument is that the Rothschilds created debt-based fractional reserve banking to control the world.  This video was touted by two Objectivist websites, Rebirth of Reason (here) and Objectivist Living (here).  Like most American conservatives, Objectivists advocate for gold as the monetary standard.  Murray N. Rothbard (though purged from Ayn Rand’s inner circle) argued that anything other than 100% gold backing for currency is fraud.  Most conservatives agree with this argument.  F. A. von Hayek, a self-identified liberal, did not.  Hayek argued for complete laissez faire in banking and did not presume to predict what forms of money would compete best in which markets once the legal monopoly is removed. 
There is in fact no known example of a human society whose economy is based on barter of the ‘I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow’ variety. Most economies that don’t employ money — or anything that we’d identify as money, anyway — operate quite differently. They are, as French anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously put it, ‘gift economies’ where transactions are either based on principles of open-handed generosity, or, when calculation does take place, most often descend into competitions over who can give the most away. … [The] economists get it … precisely backwards. In fact, virtual money comes first. Banking, tabs, and expense accounts existed for at least 2 thousand years before there was anything like coinage, or any other physical object that was regularly used to buy and sell things, anything that could be labeled ‘currency’. (Graeber here.)

I agree with Graeber that ultimately money grew from ritual gift exchange, just as the turbine generator descended from the campfire.  However, it is erroneous to project ourselves on so-called “primitive” people, even by reading the reports of “early” explorers.  From your grandparent to your grandchild is five generations. Any longer period may be “forever.” Assimilation of neighbors, displacement by foes or weather, and the occasional brilliant idea are among the many factors that can be lost to time.  When European explorers, including anthropologists, first met other people, the assumption was too easy that they always lived here, spoke this language, ate these foods, married in or married out.  They may not have. 

We do have a good history of the evolution of debt to money.  Again, we too easily assume that coinage is the foundation of money.  It was not.  Sophisticated fiduciary documents are thousands of years older than the first coins.
Clay tokens were antecedents to writing

Starting about 8000 BCE, a system of small clay tokens standing for farm produce became common across the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.  By 5000 BCE, the tokens were routinely stored in clay jars.  You cannot see into a ceramic envelope, so the tokens were also impressed on the outside to show what had been baked within.  Two thousand years later, rather than the tokens, pictographs of them were written on solid clay hemispheres.  In another thousand years, these became tablets with cuneiform writing. 
Pre-Literate Art from Catal Huyuk
Through this long development, large numbers such as 4, 5, 6, and 7 were invented.  Before about 5000 BCE they could not even be conceptualized: five was recorded as “three-one-one.” 
Also, starting about 3000 BCE, as inscribed on statues, these cuneiform characters recorded personal names. They also begged short prayers of the gods.  The first poetry only came about 2700 and the famous Code of Hammurabi dates only to 1700.  Most subtly, the ordered writing of merchants, left to right, up to down, lesser to greater, eventually gave painting and sculpture a vocabulary of space.  Before debts and contracts were invented, artistic space was open and unstructured. 

Neo-Sumerian cylinder seal
Prof. Schmandt-Besserat first published her findings in Scientific American in 1978.  Ovcr the next decade, visiting museum collections, she arrayed enough proof to fill a large two-volume corpus, Before Writing (University of Texas Press, 1992).  The essential facts and evidences were then condensed into a popular paperback, How Writing Came About (University of Texas Press, 1996).  A children’s book was published in 1999, The History of Counting.  Most recently (2007) the University of Texas Press released When Writing Met Art. 

The weakness in Graeber’s theory, like that of Marx’s communal prehistory, and even the self-sufficient yeoman of Jefferson democracy, is that there was no Eden stolen from us by the Serpent of Debt, Commerce, and Division of Labor.  We now know a direct line of development from debt to numeracy, literary, and the spatial vocabulary of art. 

Schmandt-Besserat makes clear that these early instruments were not money as indirect barter.  They were not passed from hand-to-hand.  However, they did record economic value and carried seals naming the parties.  In that, they foreshadowed the invention of coinage thousands of years later.  More subtly, this medium was like a modern bank draft because when these promises were paid and cleared, they were discarded. 
Debt led to writing by way of numeracy: inventories precede the Gilgamesh by thousands of years. We may be no more trapped and enslaved by debt than we are by literature, central heat, and the Hubble Telescope. If greed is good, then debt may be better.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Merry Newtonmas!

The Birth of Modernity
"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, let Newton be! and all was light."

A little boy born in a small village across the sea would grow up to bring light to the world

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died.  Newton is perhaps best remembered for his work in physics, the Three Laws of Motion and his Law of Gravity.  To prove his physics, he invented the calculus.  He also invented the reflecting telescope.  His work in optics showed that white light is composed of colors.  This laid the foundation for the wave theory of light, though he advocated for light being a particle.  Newton demonstrated vector arithmetic.  He delivered an algorithm for conveniently computing square roots.  He offered an original proof for the Binomial Theorem (also called “Pascal’s Triangle”).  His image appears on coins and bank notes, which is appropriate since he was Master and Warden of the Mint, rescuing Britain’s money from looming disaster.  Sworn as a justice of the peace, he circulated in disguise among criminals to pursue counterfeiters.  He served in Parliament, representing Cambridge.  He was president of the Royal Society, England’s crown chartered association for scientists.  Alone, any of Newton's achievements would have left his imprint in history.  Together, they give shape to a complex and powerful intellect. 
Middlesex token 1792

Today, we ignore his religious writings, the extent of which actually eclipsed his scientific production.  His heretical Arian beliefs foreshadowed modern Unitarianism, but he swore under oath to be a Trinitarian so that he could teach at Cambridge. 

Newton’s colleagues called him fearful, cautious, suspicious, insidious, ambitious, excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction. Even his relatives and his true friends were modest in their praise of Newton. Physically sound in his life, he died at 84. He had lost only one tooth, still had much of his hair, and read without glasses. Yet, he was a hypochondriac, suffering from illnesses and diseases that he treated with medicines he made for himself.  

Newton's Reflector built by Himself
Newton’s many biographers illuminate different aspects of his life.  To Richard S. Westfall, he was “never at rest.”  Michael White called him “the last sorcerer” a soubriquet first suggested by John Maynard Keynes.  Newton did bring his alchemical knowledge to the Mint to test the gold plate for coinages; and he also conducted time-and-motion studies to improve efficiency.  But David Berlinski closed his story when Newton was appointed to the Mint, calling the last 30 years of his life “uninteresting.”  Yet that is where MIT professor of science journalism, Thomas Levenson, begins his narrative.  Richard P. Feynman once sought to treat his students to a complete demonstration of Newton’s proof of Kepler’s Laws and found that he could not: thanks to the calculus, we have forgotten much geometry. 

The fundamental industrial technology we take for granted is possible only because of Newton.  Moreover, his work launched the Enlightenment, offering a rational and experimentally-testable explanation for both celestial and mundane motion.  This suggested that all natural phenomena, including human events, could be understood by the same scientific method.   
Merry Newtonmas, everyone!
The Zebrowskis are part of small, but apparently growing, number of atheists, skeptics and other nonbelievers who make merry over Newton’s contributions to science and math—the discovery of gravity, the invention of calculus and the first reflecting telescope, to name a few.
Religion News Service 12/16/2011 here.

Merry Newtonmas 2012 here.


Berlinski, David. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World. New York: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Craig, Sir John. Newton at the Mint. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.
Craig, Sir John. "Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters."  Notes and Records of the Royal Society (18), London: 1963.
Craig, Sir John. “Isaac Newton - Crime Investigator,” Nature 182, (19 July 1958), pages 149-152.
Keynes, Milo. “The Personality of Isaac Newton,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society (49), London: The Royal Society, 1995.
Levenson, Thomas. Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist (Boston;New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 336 pp. $25
Marotta, Michael. “Merry Newtonmas,” Newsgroups: rec.collecting.coins, Date: Mon, 25 Dec 2000 11:49:41 GMT
Marotta, Michael. “Sir Isaac Newton: Warden and Master of the Mint”
Newman, E. G. V. "The Gold Metallurgy of Isaac Newton." The Gold Bulletin Vol 8. No. 3, London: The World Gold Council, 1975.
Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: a Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. Reading, Mass.: Helix Books, Perseus Books, 1997., The Newton Project, Professor Rob Iliffe Director, University of Sussex, East Sussex - BN1 9SH Web site pages of the British Royal Mint.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Another Case of Fraud in University Research

“ ...  he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.”

On the Strategy Profs blogsite (here) Prof. Freek Vermeulen (associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School) wrote about the case of Diederik Stapel.  Stapel earned a cum laude master’s (1991) and a cum laude doctorate (1997) from University of Amsterdam.  He taught at the University of Groningen (2000-2006) and then the University of Tilburg, where he launched the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research.  He was made dean of the social and behavioral sciences faculty in 2010.  (Wikipedia here.)   Then, it all fell apart.

In Vermeulen’s words:  "For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully read literature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that."

In my response on that blog site, I pointed out that loss of your degree is the appropriate remedy for academic fraud. 

One of the highlights of my studies at Eastern Michigan University was the class in “Ethics in Physics” which I took for graduate credit as a cognate elective.  The class was first created over 25 years ago by Prof. Marshall Thomsen, and has continued to top the list of such offerings by all schools.  My professor was Patrick Koehn.  (Prof. Beth Kubitskey made this her master’s thesis and also has taught the course.)  For my term paper (Google Docs here), I set academic fraud in a criminological context because very little research has been done by criminologists on this.  I also found a deep precedent for allowing the university to deal with its own problems.  The word “universitas” refers not to the collection of colleges or their classes, but to the charter which grants the institution legal standing to deal with its own members.
Academic sanctions also avoid the useless reprisals, retaliations, and retributions of the governmental courts and prisons.  

“In responding to and resolving the criminal behavior of employees, organizations routinely choose options other than criminal prosecution, for example, suspension without pay, transfer, job reassignment, job redesign (eliminating some job duties), civil restitution, and dismissal...
While on the surface, it appears that organizations opt for less severe sanctions than would be imposed by the criminal justice system, in reality, the organizational sanctions may have greater impact...  In addition, the private systems of criminal justice are not always subject to principles of exclusionary evidence, fairness, and defendant rights which characterize the public criminal justice systems. The level of position, the amount of power, and socio-economic standing of the employee in the company may greatly influence the formality and type of company sanctions.  In general, private justice systems are characterized by informal negotiations and outcomes, and nonuniform standards and procedures among organizations and crime types.”
(Hallcrest Report cited in Introduction to Private Security, Hess and Wrobleski, West Publishing, St.Paul, 1982, 1988. The Hallcrest Report I and II, by William C. Cunningham and Todd H. Taylor, et al., Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, 1985 and 1990.)
Criminologists point to the failure of “general deterrence.” It is famous that cutpurses worked crowds gathered to watch the hanging of a cutpurse.  However, white collar crime in general and academic fraud specifically meet all the criteria for free will and rational choice.  It is planfully competent.  Academic fraud cannot be blamed on your parents, your neighborhood, or your lack of educational opportunities.  It is not a genetic disorder or a vitamin deficiency. 

Diederik Stapel gave back his doctorate.  Jan Hendrik Schön had his rescinded by the University of Konstanz.  For defrauding the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison; but he kept his degrees.  While prison is pain and is intended to be so, a year of incarceration is nothing more than a harsh sabbatical.  Disgrace is bad enough, but the loss of your degree – having to give it back or having it taken from you – is and should be a sword over your head.

Earlier posts on this blog:
Who Guards the Guardians? links to my other blog CSI:Flint – Who Guards the Guardians? which I created after presenting to two middle school classes for "Super Science Friday" at the University of Michigan Flint campus, May 5, 2011.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Economic Value in a Liberal Education

On the blog, OrgTheory, Prof. Fabio Rojas has been arguing against indiscriminate college education. His thesis is that college is largely not necessary for the work that college graduates find. The majors in question are humanities and fine arts. Clearly, engineers including computer science majors remain in demand. These comments are edited from and based on my responses there.

Adam Smith pointed out that theology degrees were subsidized and produced little life earnings, whereas doctors and lawyers pay for their own schooling and are rewarded well. So, this is all known.

On the other hand, Mark Van Doren's Liberal Education taught that the full range of intellectual pursuits combined is necessary to the development of a fully competent individual. In the medieval university, the two broad studies were the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy). Today, these are classes in communications, literature, film, art and art history, foreign languages, computer literacy, algebra, statistics, calculus, physics, biology... the entire university catalog.

The first steam engines were not built by degreed mechanical engineers because that college major did not yet exist. The same applies to electrical engineering and famously to computer programming. Community colleges and universities alike scramble still today to offer classes in computing topics that did not exist when professors were freshmen from medical imaging and geographic information systems to website design and mobile applications. (Music is no longer taught with mathematics and physics, as it was in the Middle Ages, though electronic hardware and software offer frontiers of understanding and expression). Yet in those cases, exactly and specifically, broad and deep knowledge bases were integrated to create new technologies.  The  most economically valuable education may be the one that is pursued for its own sake.

Moreover, as Prof. Fabio Rojas is a sociologist studying economic interactions, I had to ask what value is delivered by classes in sociology and economics. Sales and marketing, and bookkeeping and accounting were and are important and valuable services; but neither sociologists nor economists were ever in demand. Despite the polling and public relations work of Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert King Merton, sociology never escaped from Marxist criticism of our market society. And sociology ends there with no practical solutions to any perceived social problem, except that we should be nice to each other. Do Microsoft and Apple employ hundreds or even dozens of economists from Chicago or Harvard, while hometown pizza and florist shops take on part-time economists with community college certificates? Of course not.

We know from measurable results that police officers with college degrees both make more traffic stops, and yet have fewer negative interactions with the public: they work harder and better. But college classes in criminology do not teach traffic stops or public relations. Something else is engaged.
Alternately, it may be true that only hubris allows anyone to predict today what skills will be demanded tomorrow. Rather than perceiving education as something we pass through as we acquire the sum total of all previous knowledge - a task never really possible even to a medieval apprentice - we recognize the importance of lifelong university engagement. We should look forward to a future where several degrees at every level are the hallmark of a productive intellect - while keeping in mind that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs would have met that benchmark.

Caution is demanded when we speak of “the job market” or “the economy” or “society.” These may be reifications or they may be easy labels or they may be fantasies. Ben & Jerrys, the Mondragon cooperative, the solitary Microsoft Developer, or the person working part time for three places in three different capacities may be outliers or they may be the hidden norm. That is what change is: an unperceived new norm, measurable only after the event.

One complaint from Prof. Rojas, made also by some of the Occupiers in the news, is that the massive student loans can never be repaid from expected earnings, especially from degrees in the humanities. However, over the course of a lifetime, a communications major at a series of low-paying white collar jobs may never pay back the principle and interest of a loan, but still net out more money than working without a degree. Sending Sallie Mae a check for $100 or $200 a month is not much worse than the billing for cable-TV, heat, or electricity, and less than an automobile loan. Second, while it is broadly true that service sector and manual labor jobs pay less than white collar work, it is not necessarily true. You do not need a degree to be successful in sales. (A communications degree would be a good choice.) Third, it is a truism that entrepreneurship pays more than employment, for instance owning a styling salon or an oil change franchise. Perhaps the problem is training people to work for wages rather than for opportunity.

If the college loan program fails – as it seems it may – then, this is merely another bubble, no different from the South Seas or Dot.Com or Housing bubbles … given that the failures are allowed to wash out. Of course, that is not true here, as student loans are not affected by bankruptcy and default. That does not mean that the loans will be repaid, only that the debt will carried on everyone’s books, as liabilities for borrowers and assets for lenders, and not real at all in either case.

Ultimately, education can never be taken away. Thus, we raise the general education level. In previous generations, we taxed property in order to create public schools. But we know that government spending is necessarily a bad investment — and these are often bond issues: the district sells bonds to raise cash and pays them off from taxes. Again, these are apparently massive debts that are never repaid.  Were universal high school or grammar school bad ideas, not worth the investment?

Prof. Fabio Rojas's relevant posts on OrgTheory
All of the above based on this discussion from Arnold Kling on Economics and Liberty about wasted education, "The Great Stagnation."

Inconvenient Questions about Global Warming

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics, 2006) suggests many questions about basic facts. 

From about 20 minutes in to about 25 minutes in, the presentation faltered from confusions of color and graphics. At about 00:20:34 the former US Vice President showed a graph of “temperature” over the past 650,000 years in Red.

I assume that this is Earth’s average surface temperature, but that was not explicit, nor was it explained how he knew. How CO2 was determined is also not clear. During the middle of the Pleistocene there was no US Weather Bureau to read thermometers. So, how do they know, perhaps from fossil trees or maybe from coal or peat bogs? I agree with the apparent fossil record, but it includes huge extinct beasts like the megatherium and glyptodon and little evidence of hominids and their campfires. What caused the end of the previous ice age if not anthropogenic global warming.

The first graph shows CO2 in blue. It gives Temperature in degrees F, showing a dramatic increase. The scale is 0, 0.5, 1.0 and the line rises from 0.0 to above 0.5.

Then the legend changes. The color scheme inverts. At about 21:00 minutes, the display shows 650,000 years of CO2 in Red. Temperature is in blue.

At about 00:21:35 the uncalibrated temperature over 650,000 years is shown together with with CO2. Then from 00:22:34 to 00:22:49 the Red CO2 at our current measure or level or amount goes up and off the scale but the blue Temperature does not. Should not the temperature have increased dramatically by half a degree or more?

If CO2 is increasing at alarming rates, that can only be important to us if temperature is also increasing, melting the ice caps, bringing citrus to Michigan, and so on. Apparently that is not the case. Even if atmospheric CO2 is increasing, Earth’s nominal average surface temperature seems not to be.