Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: "The Long Depression" by Michael Roberts

Amazon link

I've now completed Michael Roberts's book. I'm struck by how much of the material in it was previously aired on his prolific (and excellent) blog.

Here's the review from Socialist Review.
"Michael Roberts provides a most convincing explanation of how we got to the current economic situation: the “law” developed by Karl Marx that recurrent capitalist crises arise out of contradictions within capitalism that lead to crises of profitability.

Using data to validate this classical Marxist theory, Roberts shows how, “the behaviour of the profit rate confirms the predictions Marx made about the historical trend of the mode of production. There is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall.”

In The Long Depression Roberts brings together much of the analysis he provides on his blog, The Next Recession. In a series of well argued chapters, Roberts provides both a comprehensive history of capitalist crises and an analysis of the current state of the world economy. He uses clear graphs and charts to illustrate and validate his arguments.

Alternative Marxist explanations that claim crises are due not to a crisis of profitability but to under-consumption are countered theoretically. Roberts backs his arguments up with empirical data throughout.

He explains why debt matters; how the slump of 2008 developed into a depression; the crawling recovery in America; the failings of the Euro project.

In no part of the world economy today are there signs of recovery. Japan is still facing stagnation. The emerging markets will not save the world if the West slides back into recession, as Roberts points out.

With the largest economies now growing at well below the previous rate of output, and levels of profitability still low, we are living in a period Roberts describes as the “Long Depression”. There have been two previous long depressions under capitalism — one in the late 19th century, the other in the mid-20th century.

The depression of the 1880-90s ended only after the “bankruptcy of many companies, a huge rise in unemployment, and the destruction of things and people in the millions.” It took the massive destruction of capital in the Second World War for the Great Depression of the 1930s to end."
This book is not an easy read - it's rather dry. You are overwhelmed by graphs, statistics and deep, deep dives into economic history. On the other hand, the writing is intelligent, you sense the sophistication of the analytic hinterland and you really do need to know these things.

Roberts explains (p. 6):
"this book is not theoretical, although the different theories presented to explain economic depressions are discussed and criticised on their merits from a Marxist viewpoint. But the critique is mainly based on using empirical evidence. I leave the theoretical debates and, in particular, the theoretical defense of Marx's crisis theory to other authors and another day."
His note here points to "Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s" by Michael Heinrich.

As someone who was seeking a clear conceptual framework to understand the dynamics of our present predicament, I was disappointed at the amount of reverse engineering I had to do on the text. So on balance a good factual and statistical account of the economic state of the world and its trend behaviour, supporting a compelling paradigm. It needs to be augmented by a high-quality theoretical exposition of Marx's crisis theory, which the author suggests Heinrich can provide.

Zombies hold back the recovery

Michael Roberts emphasises in his book, "The Long Depression", that capitalist economies recover from recessions - slumps - only by the restoration of the rate of profit. This comes about via three mechanisms:
  1. Reduction in taxes on business revenue streams (via Government cuts and 'austerity')
  2. Reduction in workers' real wages, benefits, conditions and bargaining power 
  3. Devaluation of constant capital.
All of these phenomena will naturally be politically contested by workers but the mechanism I found most difficult to understand was the third. How does constant capital get devalued in a slump?

Here is what Stuart Easterling had to say.
"Another factor in restoring profitable accumulation is a depreciation in the price of constant capital (tools and machines). Consider, for example, a capitalist who purchased a computer for $1,000. A couple of years later he goes out of business, and one of his competitors wants to buy up his assets. By that time the value of the machine has fallen (it can be produced much quicker) and so the price is only $750. Obtaining the computer at the new price devalues the capital, as described earlier in the case of the Tecan machine.

"However, let’s also assume that the bankrupted capitalist is desperate to unload his assets, in order to pay his debts. Therefore, he sells his computer for only $500. The machine has therefore also depreciated in price. Most importantly, the surviving capitalist benefits from this.

"In certain circumstances, constant capital can also be depreciated through overproduction; that is, if computers are heavily overproduced, they can be purchased on the cheap by capitalists seeking to restore their accumulation.

"Hence, as Marx notes, during crises "part of the commodities on the market can complete their process of circulation and reproduction [purchase and sale] only through an immense contraction in their prices.... The elements of fixed capital are depreciated to a greater or lesser degree in just the same way [Capital, Volume III, Chapter 15, Section 3]."

"In other cases, capital that can no longer be profitably employed is simply destroyed: A bankrupt steel factory’s machines may just lay idle and rust, for example. Through this process of devaluation, depreciation and destruction, the surviving capitalists are able to renew profitable capital accumulation."
This process of creative discussion is currently on hold in the UK economy, where much capital languishes in "zombie companies" just ticking over, barely able to pay the interest on their debts. If interest rates rise, expect a wave of bankruptcies, unemployment and depreciation of constant capital as described above.

Roberts predicts a new recession over the next few years.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Preobrazhensky's lessons for Corbyn?*


With the Labour Party possibly, or even likely, to form the next UK administration, attention turns to how seriously to take their economic programme. I mentioned the Marxist economist, Michaels Roberts's views in my previous post. He reflects the Marxist orthodoxy: that attempts to implement socialist policies within the framework of a capitalist economy and state create a protracted economic and political crisis. Either the workers movement will transcend capitalist relations of production (OK, this is a euphemism for socialist revolution) .. or there will be a catastrophic defeat for the labour movement ushering in a period of reaction and a new rise in the capitalist economy.

I agree those are the alternatives and would expect the latter outcome with overwhelming probability.

It is, however, interesting to think about the nature of the economy after a successful socialist revolution. Unfortunately, the only example we have is the extremely atypical case (as regards 21st century advanced capitalism) of Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

Yevgeni Preobrazhensky was
"... a member of the governing Central Committee of the Bolshevik faction and, its successor, the All-Union Communist Party, Preobrazhensky is remembered as a leading voice for the rapid industrialisation of peasant Russia through a concentration on state-owned heavy industry.

"Closely associated with Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition movement of the 1920s, Preobrazhensky fell afoul of the secret police during the decade of the 1930s, suffering expulsion from the Communist Party and internal exile in 1932 and a new arrest ending in execution in 1937 during the Great Purge. ...

"He argued in The New Economics that the USSR had to undertake the "primitive accumulation" that early capitalist societies had had to. That is, the peasants' agricultural surplus had to be appropriated to invest in industry. Thus the Soviet Union had to undertake by planning in "socialist primitive accumulation" what England had undergone by happenstance in the 17th century.

"This theory was criticized politically and associated with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, but it was arguably put into practice by Stalin in the 1930s, as when Joseph Stalin said in a speech that the Soviet Union had to accomplish in a decade what England had taken centuries to do in terms of economic development in order to be prepared for an invasion from the West. This argument is disputed by Trotskyists and Soviet historians."
I'm interested to understand his theoretical analysis of economics in a society no longer based on generalised commodity production so have added Preobrazhensky's book to my reading stack (already way too big). Given the current revival of interest in Marxism - as the ideological foundations of neoliberalism continue to fray - perhaps it's time to issue a new edition on Amazon and Kindle?

There are some hard-liners in the Corbyn leadership (McDonnell and Milne) but I suspect that in office they would behave more like a traditional European Socialist Party. But who knows?


* What are the lessons? I haven't read the book yet, but perhaps that he should refrain from at least the gratuitous killing of the kulaks?

Friday, September 22, 2017

"The Long Depression" - Michael Roberts

Amazon link

I've been impressed by Michael Roberts's blog posts, on the right sidebar here in the web view. He is insistent that lack of profitability is both the proximate cause of crises and the underlying reason for long depressions, such as the one we're currently experiencing. He is also prepared to make predictions.

So this seemed to be the book to get (published in July 2016) to learn more about his thinking. Here's the Amazon summary.
"Setting out from an unapologetic Marxist perspective, The Long Depression argues that the global economy remains in the throes of a depression. Making the case that the profitability of capital is too low, and the debt built up before the Great Recession too high, leading radical economist Michael Roberts persuasively presents his case that this depression will persist until the profitability of capital is restored through yet another slump."

Here is Michael Roberts talking on "Economic crisis and the long depression" at Marxism 2017:

Roberts talks for 33 minutes - he's interesting, rather tribal, but can perhaps be forgiven in the circumstances. Then there are a number of questions/contributions from the floor until at 54 minutes Roberts again takes the microphone to respond.

His most interesting point is at 1 hour 3 mins when he gives the example of Venezuela as a government which was trying to implement populist measures 'outside the envelope' of what is possible within a capitalist economy. The economy crashes, of course.

Two minutes later he's comparing the situation there with a possible Corbyn government taking office during the predicted next recession. The divergence between what will be promised and what will be possible will be extreme. Roberts is understandably skeptical about 'post-capitalism in one country', seeing the modern economy as inherently global in scale.

But what lesson are we to draw from this? It's a very stupid general who marches the proletarian troops to battle knowing they are to be slaughtered. Yet the idea of global socialist revolution starting via a Corbyn victory in the UK is risible.

So, Michael Roberts, what is to be done?

I suspect that Roberts is well aware that capitalism still has a way to go before immanent contradictions lead to its supersession. The driver for that will not be voluntaristic vanguard parties (hello, SWP?) but the trend to total automation.


I'll let you know what I think: it's competing with Steve Keen's book and Capital Vol 2 at the moment. But I think it's a priority.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dining in the underpass (a diary)

1. In Which We Encounter a Hipster Cafe in a Poor Neighbourhood (Tuesday 19th)

We're staying in the Holiday Inn, Bristol at the Stokes Croft (St James Barton) roundabout tonight. Check-in isn't until 3 pm so we're wandering the (rather poor) neighbourhood first.

Hilarious so far. The area (the bearpit in the plaza in the centre of the roundabout) has been occupied by anti-austerity protesters and dossers. Everything is covered in graffiti. There is parkour and a woman sitting in lotus position on the asphalt shouting random stuff to passers-by. We hasten on.

We visit the nearby St James Priory cafe. Hipster-friendly but the toilets have MI6-style key-code pads (the code is printed on your receipt). Keeps the dossers out.

I had lost my receipt but a kind woman gives us hers.
I fail by misreading C9367Z as C93672; who knows
why Clare's attempt (above) doesn't work.

We watch carefully as it keeps one in every two customers out too. As both Clare and myself fail, we resort to tailgating.

We decide to move on to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It's the start of term at Bristol University, hard to traverse the pavement at the top of Park Street for registering students.

I particularly liked this Xenomorph at Bristol Art Gallery

2. In Which We Check-In to the Bristol Holiday Inn

Meanwhile our hotel has had a partial aircon failure. We have been moved to an inferior room at a discount. Oh, and for similar dosser-related reasons the lifts only work via an elaborate protocol with the keycard. After abject failure we call the reception woman to tutor us.

The Chinese restaurant that's so highly recommended - adjacent to the bearpit - had its steel shutters down when we passed earlier. The metal was covered in graffiti and the place looked like a garage on a derelict estate.

By half past six when we decide to eat, it's opened to reveal a classic Chinese restaurant frontage. They can't do much about the area, though. Clare whispers that we should look inside first to see if they have tablecloths.

The Mayflower: a highly-recommended Chinese restaurant

Bristol has world-class graffiti

Inside it is a jewel - a large Chinese contingent vouches for authenticity

Pictured as we left - the Mayflower is to the right; there is a homeless man
in a tent somewhere off-picture.

The food is truly excellent.

3. In Which We Visit A Pub I Last Attended 49 Years Ago

The Christmas Steps

The progressive headmaster of Bristol Grammar School arranged weekly lectures for sixth formers back in 1968. We all trooped down to the Big Hall where an invited speaker would broaden our minds. Some of us had an alternative vision, however. The 17 year old me - with some equally-bohemian friends - would instead migrate to the Christmas Steps pub for an hour of underage drinking.

My favourite drink was a pint of Brown and Bitter. Only later did I discover that this traditional Bristol mix used the bottle of Brown Ale to disguise adulterated Bitter. Apparently I was insulting the Publican every time I ordered it.

No matter. Eventually the headmaster took a roll-call and we were all exposed. Most were caned, but I escaped as I was about to leave school. I was merely interrogated as to why I had done it. I replied that having opened an opportunity for choice, it was naive of the school authorities to imagine that some people wouldn't exercise it.

I hope they were pleased with this adolescent insight.

4. The Next Day Where We Visit Whitchurch Garden Christmas Centre

Whitchurch Garden Centre (!?)

Little Red Riding Hood and an animated Beaver

On the way back to Wells this morning, with Clare needing a bag of mulch, we stopped at the Whitchurch Garden Centre (we had not visited before). The vista above greeted us .. .

Monday, September 18, 2017

Marx and a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Marx, as far as I know, did not explicitly write about the impact on capitalism of the widespread introduction of a universal basic income.

He did however, (in chapter 33 of Capital, Vol 1) write about an equivalent situation: the economics of the early Australian and American colonies.

Because the land was unowned, it was possible for new, penniless immigrants to rapidly acquire a homestead for themselves and their families, making them effectively self-sufficient.
"Free Americans, who cultivate the soil, follow many other occupations. Some portion of the furniture and tools which they use is commonly made by themselves. They frequently build their own houses, and carry to market, at whatever distance, the produce of their own industry. They are spinners and weavers; they make soap and candles, as well as, in many cases, shoes and clothes for their own use. In America the cultivation of land is often the secondary pursuit of a blacksmith, a miller or a shopkeeper.”
This makes capitalist production difficult.
"The absolute population here increases much more quickly than in the mother-country, because many labourers enter this world as ready-made adults, and yet the labour-market is always understocked. The law of supply and demand of labour falls to pieces.

On the one hand, the old world constantly throws in capital, thirsting after exploitation ...; on the other, the regular reproduction of the wage labourer as wage labourer comes into collision with impediments the most impertinent and in part invincible. ...

The wage-worker of to-day is to-morrow an independent peasant, or artisan, working for himself. He vanishes from the labour-market, but not into the workhouse. This constant transformation of the wage-labourers into independent producers, who work for themselves instead of for capital, and enrich themselves instead of the capitalist gentry, reacts in its turn very perversely on the conditions of the labour-market. ...

It avails him [the capitalist] nothing, if he is so cunning as to import from Europe, with his own capital, his own wage-workers. They soon “cease ... to be labourers for hire; they... become independent landowners, if not competitors with their former masters in the labour-market.” ...

“Our capital,” says one of the characters in the melodrama, "was ready for many operations which require a considerable period of time for their completion; but we could not begin such operations with labour which, we knew, would soon leave us. If we had been sure of retaining the labour of such emigrants, we should have been glad to have engaged it at once, and for a high price: and we should have engaged it, even though we had been sure it would leave us, provided we had been sure of a fresh supply whenever we might need it.”
But sadly not. This little difficulty in kick-starting American capitalism was, however, only temporary.
"On the one hand, the enormous and ceaseless stream of men, year after year driven upon America, leaves behind a stationary sediment in the east of the United States, the wave of immigration from Europe throwing men on the labour-market there more rapidly than the wave of emigration westwards can wash them away.

On the other hand, the American Civil War brought in its train a colossal national debt, and, with it, pressure of taxes, the rise of the vilest financial aristocracy, the squandering of a huge part of the public land on speculative companies for the exploitation of railways, mines, &c., in brief, the most rapid centralisation of capital.

The great republic has, therefore, ceased to be the promised land for emigrant labourers. Capitalistic production advances there with giant strides, even though the lowering of wages and the dependence of the wage-worker are yet far from being brought down to the normal European level."
In Marx's time, the mid-nineteenth century, working class factory life was truly horrendous. This is well-documented in the later chapters of Capital Vol 1.

What lessons can we learn for the twenty first century?

If people can genuinely acquire the necessities of life without labouring for wages then most - given a free choice - won't be signing up as employees. They may do voluntary work or various leisure activities .. but clocking in every day? Forget it .. though work that was interesting and not coercive might still attract a few economically-self-supporting individuals.

I offer you the example of the recently-retired on good pensions.

Taken in the round a UBI set at the level of the average wage would be strongly subversive of the continued operation of a capitalist economy. Pitched at a subsistence level as a variant of welfare, it's a different story.


Capital Volume 1, which I've just completed, is an eclectic book. The first four chapters are rather abstract, dry and repetitious although not too intellectually demanding. They are necessary, however, to establish the foundation for the rest of the book.

Subsequent chapters alternate between conceptual analysis (interesting but quite repetitive) and detailed anthropological/statistical studies buttressing and illustrating the economics. Generally they come down to the appalling conditions of the working class of the time, mostly in England.

The last part of the volume is a very interesting account of the process of capitalist rise from the ashes of feudalism. Broadly answering the question: where did the working class and the capitalist class actually come from?

Marx is a very verbal thinker, avoiding mathematics and equations. Everything is explained in words which can help understanding while simultaneously hindering it. If only he had formalised his concepts while retaining the helpfully-tutorial explanations; most modern accounts do that.

I personally found it useful to have Marx's reproduction equations in mind as I read the volume.

Next is Volume 2, where we move from production to exchange.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The gag is on

Walking down to Waitrose this morning - and dragging the new sholley, my weight-training-induced sore forearms still haven't gone away and it's 'no more Mr Heavy-Shopping-Bags' - I ventured this thought to Clare.

"Shall I tell you the new thing I've learned today?"

Grudging acquiescence.

"You know I'm continually fascinated by the way AI and robotics are going to transform capitalism, and how exactly that transformation's going to work ..."


The new thing was from Part 2 of Michael Roberts' insightful series, 'Robots and AI: utopia or dystopia?' ..
"The question often posed at this point is: who are the owners of the robots and their products and services going to sell to make a profit?  If workers are not working and receiving no income, then surely there is massive overproduction and underconsumption?  So, in the last analysis, it is the underconsumption of the masses that brings capitalism down?

"Again, I think this is a misunderstanding.  Such a robot economy is not capitalist any more; it is more like a slave economy.  The owners of the means of production (robots) now have a super-abundant economy of things and services at zero cost (robots making robots making robots).  The owners can just consume.  They don’t need to make ‘a profit’, just as the aristocrat slave owners in Rome just consumed and did not run businesses to make a profit.

"This does not deliver an overproduction crisis in the capitalist sense (relative to profit) nor ‘underconsumption’ (lack of purchasing power or effective demand for goods on a market), except in the physical sense of poverty. ..."
Roberts here puts his finger on the key mode of production change required by total automation: production of exchange-values collapses and all production is of use-values, just like in slave-owning antiquity.

The issue is, who gets to be the recipient of such wonders of production, the owners of the robots .. or everyone? It seems contentious.


Where to start? The only place was the labour theory of value.
"So Marx said that the capitalist pays the worker the value of his labour-power - what it costs to maintain the worker as an effective employee - and sets him to work. But the value the worker actually creates in his day's labour is more than this, and that value belongs to the capitalist, creating his profit once realised in the exchange process.

"But if the worker is replaced by a robot ..."
But Clare was having none of this.
"That can't be right. If the worker is paid less than what he produces, then the employer won't be able to sell all his products. No, Marx was quite wrong."
I hesitatingly began to talk about Marx's simple and expanded reproduction equations, Departments I and II .. but the audience had switched off.

In truth, I don't think the objection can be addressed in ordinary conversation, the sources of demand being manyfold: in addition to the needs of proletarians you will find capitalists' spending on themselves, the market for reproduction and expansion of the means of production .. .

No less a luminary than Rosa Luxemburg got it wrong.

In fact I explained quite clearly both simple reproduction and expanded reproduction within capitalism on this blog, but if you review the two posts you will see the analysis is not wholly trivial.

This afternoon I considered going through the spreadsheets with her - and decided against having my arm bitten off.


You may have heard over the last couple of days: Mathematicians Measure Infinities and Find They’re Equal.

It relates to whether there are cardinal numbers between the infinity representing the size of the natural numbers and the larger infinity capturing the size of the real numbers. The continuum hypothesis says no, but that can't be proven using the normal axioms of set theory.

The work of Malliaris and Shelah has some bearing on the matter although not all is completely clear (is the cardinality of p = t the same as the continuum?).

I said to Clare, "Did you know there are different sizes of infinity?"

She snorted, "That kind of nonsense is just what gives mathematics a bad name."

I advanced on her with paper and pen; she sat back on the couch, closed her eyes, put her hands over her ears and started to hum.

Das Kapital for the 21st Century? - Anwar Shaikh

This week's topic is economics. You will see a new blog on the sidebar: A Critique of Crisis Theory by Sam Williams.

In the 1970s the International Marxist Group (IMG) was known as the most intellectual of the far-left organisations. Theory was taken seriously but as a member in my early twenties I never learned much economics - I was not the only one. An abiding memory was of a conference where a senior comrade gave a speech on economic perspectives: a colleague whispered to me that all he had done was take an editorial from The Economist that week and dress it up in Marxist language - I was appalled.

Amazon link

I'm in two minds about Steve Keen's book. I understand that it's dumbed down, written for students contemplating entering university-level economics. The book describes the vast arc of economics history stretching from the classical era of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx (who arguably terminated that tradition by making it politically explosive) through to the rise of the neoclassical tradition, Keynesianism and the confusion we are in today (Sam Williams' analysis is shorter and more definitive).

On the downside, in areas I know something about (quantum mechanics, special relativity) Keen's writing is confused although blusteringly self-confident. Throughout the book he has eschewed equations and diagrams, which is insane - he is reduced to conveying exactly the same concepts in prose which completely obscures his narrative. I was concentrating closely and his verbal arguments elide important steps and don't really hang together.

So I'm thinking Keen is interesting but intellectually underpowered, the kind of tourist guide who you sense isn't really authoritative.

The guy I'm really meant to read, apparently, is Anwar Shaikh.

Amazon link

Sam Williams writes:
"Shaikh’s book is by a modern university-educated economist written for other modern university-educated economists. Economics blogger Michael Roberts in his review says Shaikh’s “Capitalism” is more difficult than Marx’s “Capital.” I agree with Roberts on this point, and I think it is important to examine why this is so.

One reason is that Shaikh’s book demands a thoroughgoing knowledge of Marx’s work, including all three volumes of “Capital.” But it also requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of modern orthodox bourgeois economics—neoclassical marginalism. While parts of the book use Marxist language, the bulk of it is written in both the language of English and mathematics in a way that will be familiar only to those well grounded in orthodox bourgeois economics.

Shaikh provides some “translation” between the terminology employed by Marx and that used by modern economists, but it is hardly sufficient. In addition, where in the many places Shaikh uses the jargon of neo-classcal marginalism in place of basic Marxist concepts, it renders his language imprecise. Marx’s terminology was designed to describe in precise terms his analysis of capitalism. The terminology of neo-classical marginalism was developed for quite different purposes, to say the least, though it’s always possible to see what Shaikh is getting at provided the reader is sufficiently fluent in both “languages.”

Shaikh does provide a useful appendix listing the meaning of symbols he uses in his mathematical equations. The list is a long one.

Marxist political activists, even if they are highly educated Marxists but lack knowledge in today’s bourgeois economic orthodoxy, will have trouble understanding the book. But professional economists thoroughly grounded in modern bourgeois economics will be if anything in even greater trouble. The reason is that trained as they are in present-day bourgeois economics, they will also have a great deal of difficultly with the book unless they also have a thorough grounding in Marx. Though they will feel “more at home” with much of the terminology than will Marxist political activists, the Marxist foundations of the book will escape them.

The professional economists who will have the least difficulty with “Capitalism” are those familiar with the work of the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa. For those somewhat familiar with Shaikh’s work, this will be no surprise. Much of Shaikh’s work has revolved around the “transformation problem”—the problem of transforming Marx’s values—or direct prices—into prices of production.

Shaikh has spent a considerable part of his career in refuting the suggestion by various critics of Marx that Sraffa’s work has both refuted Marx’s theory of value and surplus value and rendered it unnecessary. Essentially, these critics—also mostly university-educated economists—hold that the capitalist economy can best be described in terms of prices of production. According to them, analyzing capitalism in terms of “value” merely gets in the way.

But even professional economists familiar with Sraffa, unless well grounded in Marx, will not find “Capitalism” an easy read. I would most certainly not recommend Shaikh’s “Capitalism” as an introduction to modern Marxist economic thought.

None of this detracts from the importance of this work, however. Shaikh is undoubtedly one of the most important economic thinkers of our time. What it does mean is that it may take many years—or decades—for the arguments in this book to be assimilated into the understanding of the workers’ movement. I hope to contribute to this process in this extended review and critique."
So this is exciting and daunting! Although Michael Roberts in his review strikes a cautionary note.

Amazon link

Here is my go-forward plan (I have almost completed Capital Vol 1).
  1. Read Capital Vols 2 and 3 and Theories of Surplus Value (Vol 4)
  2. Read David Harvey's "Limits to Capital"
  3. Engage with Shaikh's book (or watch the video lectures).
I would like to complete this plan within my lifetime.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Diary: crown prep

Eight minutes and twenty seconds ago I was sitting on the couch, fidgeting and waiting for the right moment to leave.

Now I'm walking down the road towards the dentist. I'm going for crown preparation - always unpleasant. I'm a bit spaced out, to be frank.

I see a man walking 15 yards in front of me: same age, same clothes, same appearance. I think: "It's almost like I'm looking at my future self ten seconds time."

I make a note of where he passes. Ten seconds later I pass that very same spot. I think: "I'm now my future self."

I look at the sun, a vague ball through scudding clouds. I'm seeing the sun in its past, eight minutes and twenty seconds ago.

"Hello sun," I think, "You seem pretty solid for an object existing at the same time as I was fidgeting on the couch." I guess my former self is as real as the sun.

My crown prep will take 50 minutes. As I approach the dentist, I imagine my future self passing me in the other direction, on the way home, the ordeal complete. That future self exists just as much as I do right now, entering the surgery. But just elsewhen.


My new dentist is a young Polish woman, mid-twenties, with a brisk no-nonsense style. I'm guessing INTJ - she's usefully keen on explanation. She looks like an alien in her smock, full-face mask, cap, magnifying goggles and blinding-white forehead LED.

She's good with the injection, though; slow and gentle. I say how much I appreciate a dentist with empathy. The two of them giggle.

Then it's twenty minutes of electric drill whining in my mouth. The top-left molar is being ground down, shaped, flattened. I don't feel much - it's just stressing.

The really uncomfortable part is the mould, which feels like a length of squiggy plasticine cupped in a long, thin plastic container whose edge bites into my cheek.

"Bite hard and hold," she says. The two or three minutes is painful and interminable.

The final part, where she glues a temporary crown, is relatively uneventful. I have to come back in two weeks to have the real thing fitted.

"Don't worry if it comes off," are her final words.

I leave the dentist, start to walk home. 'Oh yes', I think, 'I'm now that future self I was so busy inferring but couldn't actually see 50 minutes ago.' *


The temporary crown survived dinner and even flossing, but split in two and detached on encountering a xylitol chewing gum.

There's a little sensitive area at the back which is forcing me to bite on the right. But it's pointless getting a new temporary crown - it would never survive.

Two weeks.


* I wrote about this (more correctly!) here .. the physicist's view as expressed by Einstein. You can see that my musings were all just a coping mechanism!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tour of Britain 2017 in Cardiff, in the rain

We drove down to Cardiff yesterday (Sunday) to see the final stage of the Tour of Britain. The weather was predicted to be cold and gusty with heavy showers. My joy was further enhanced by Cardiff's notable traffic congestion, combined with road closures which prevented access to our hotel.

Whinging aside, we fortuitously ended up parked next to a pub a stone's throw from the Wales Millennium Centre, just where the riders were to do three loops of Lloyd George Avenue before completing stage 8.

Waiting for the cyclists at the Wales Millennium Centre - Lloyd George Avenue

A Madison-Genesis team car was handing out inflatable flappers (you can see the black tubes in the picture below on the right) and eventually the peloton arrived. Frankly we could hardly believe the riders' fortitude: it was horrible out there. We had to keep rushing back into the Millennium Centre's café for hot chocolate to stave off hypothermia!

As Clare says in the video below - "It's lovely here!"

Cyclists are made of considerably sterner stuff.

Team Sky take the curve: is that G. with his white sunglasses?

Clare enthusiastically flapped as the riders approached (video below).


This morning we visited Dyffryn Gardens (National Trust), about six miles west of Cardiff. The weather was still poor and Clare was complaining that her gore-tex was way too burka-like.

The author at Dyffryn Gardens - between rain showers

The gardens are good, however, and the greenhouse has plants from several habitats.

Clare explains about air plants in the 'Rainforest Room' at Dyffryn.


We arrived home just after lunch and Clare put some frozen fish in the top oven (on maximum heat! - why?) to defrost. Then she forgot about it as we walked down to Waitrose to restock.

Memory returned as we walked back about twenty minutes later. I jogged to the house clutching my two shopping bags and could hear the fire alarm even from outside. The house was thick with acrid smoke; eyes streaming, I ran from room to room throwing open doors and windows.

Finally I opened the oven, and through the billowing smoke I could see the seared fish. With oven gloves the tray was deposited in the back garden (below).

The tray contains the remains of the plastic plate - not fish

It looks like fish-skin in the metal tray. Not so, dear reader, you are looking at the remains of a plastic plate. Here is the response of the chef.

The chagrined cook

As I write she has passed the door with tools from my toolbox. She truly believes you can scrape that melted plastic off .. "good as new".


[update: remarkably, she seems to have pulled it off ..]

Jerry Pournelle RIP

Very sorry to hear that Jerry Pournelle has just died (of pneumonia after a long spell of ill-health).

I read his classic to Clare. Steve Sailer wrote a memoir here,

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Only engineering convinces

Amazon link

I'm only in the earliest stages of Steve Keen's critique of neoclassical economics (above). He's very successful in exposing their logical inconsistencies and utterly implausible assumptions.

From my own amateur reading of the standard texts, I recall authors conceding these points on the excuse that (i) we can learn something from pure models, and (ii) that despite the flawed assumptions the results seem surprisingly accurate.

I know that Dr Keen is underwhelmed by such hand-waving and will address those points in later chapters.


Keen is somewhat puzzled by the fact that leading economics journals won't see the force of his (undoubtedly correct) arguments or publish his erudite papers. He has some explanations in terms of cultural inertia, the apparent successes in the past of the neoclassical programme and even the usual lack of real-world consequences of getting the foundations so very wrong. He admits wryly that economics just isn't like physics or engineering.

This seems to me the crux of it:

  • People will believe all kinds of things if doing so underpins their self-interest.

  • If there are no practical consequences (ie nothing that can't be explained away), mere argument will never gain traction.

  • If you believe humans will never fly (“if God wanted man to fly he would have given him wings”) then only an aeroplane will refute you.

I'm waiting for the final chapters where Keen unveils his alternative macroeconomic model which, I believe, successfully outperforms those of the neoliberals.


Remember those stories of how racist AI systems were categorising criminals by their mug shots? Plainly, said liberals, crime was a matter of unfortunate circumstances. How could faces (which identical twins suggest are genetically shaped) have anything to do with it?

Yet it was engineering - hard to argue against.

The Economist (liberal susceptibilities very much on hold) reports today: "Advances in AI are used to spot signs of sexuality".
"When shown one photo each of a gay and straight man, both chosen at random, the model distinguished between them correctly 81% of the time.

When shown five photos of each man, it attributed sexuality correctly 91% of the time.

The model performed worse with women, telling gay and straight apart with 71% accuracy after looking at one photo, and 83% accuracy after five. In both cases the level of performance far outstrips human ability to make this distinction.

Using the same images, people could tell gay from straight 61% of the time for men, and 54% of the time for women. This aligns with research which suggests humans can determine sexuality from faces at only just better than chance."
Sexual orientation not so much a lifestyle choice after all.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

"Surfing Uncertainty" - Andy Clark

Amazon link

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has a glowing review of Andy Clark's recent book.
"Sometimes I have the fantasy of being able to glut myself on Knowledge. I imagine meeting a time traveler from 2500, who takes pity on me and gives me a book from the future where all my questions have been answered, one after another. What’s consciousness? That’s in Chapter 5. How did something arose out of nothing? Chapter 7. It all makes perfect intuitive sense and is fully vouched by unimpeachable authorities. I assume something like this is how everyone spends their first couple of days in Heaven, whatever it is they do for the rest of Eternity.

"And every so often, my fantasy comes true. Not by time travel or divine intervention, but by failing so badly at paying attention to the literature that by the time I realize people are working on a problem it’s already been investigated, experimented upon, organized into a paradigm, tested, and then placed in a nice package and wrapped up with a pretty pink bow so I can enjoy it all at once.

"The predictive processing model is one of these well-wrapped packages. Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

"Surfing Uncertainty isn’t pop science and isn’t easy reading. Sometimes it’s on the border of possible-at-all reading. Author Andy Clark (a professor of logic and metaphysics, of all things!) is clearly brilliant, but prone to going on long digressions about various esoteric philosophy-of-cognitive-science debates."
It's prose like this which confirms what a great writer Scott Alexander is.


The underlying thesis of Surfing Uncertainty is certainly not news to AI researchers.
"We never see the world as our retina sees it. In fact, it would be a pretty horrible sight: a highly distorted set of light and dark pixels, blown up toward the center of the retina, masked by blood vessels, with a massive hole at the location of the “blind spot” where cables leave for the brain; the image would constantly blur and change as our gaze moved around.

"What we see, instead, is a three-dimensional scene, corrected for retinal defects, mended at the blind spot, stabilized for our eye and head movements, and massively reinterpreted based on our previous experience of similar visual scenes. All these operations unfold unconsciously—although many of them are so complicated that they resist computer modeling. For instance, our visual system detects the presence of shadows in the image and removes them. ...

"Predictive processing begins by asking: how does this happen? By what process do our incomprehensible sense-data get turned into a meaningful picture of the world?

"The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.

"The bottom-up stream starts out as all that incomprehensible light and darkness and noise that we need to process. It gradually moves up all the cognitive layers that we already knew existed – the edge-detectors that resolve it into edges, the object-detectors that shape the edges into solid objects, et cetera.

"The top-down stream starts with everything you know about the world, all your best heuristics, all your priors, everything that’s ever happened to you before – everything from “solid objects can’t pass through one another” to “e=mc2” to “that guy in the blue uniform is probably a policeman”. It uses its knowledge of concepts to make predictions – not in the form of verbal statements, but in the form of expected sense data. It makes some guesses about what you’re going to see, hear, and feel next, and asks “Like this?”

"These predictions gradually move down all the cognitive layers to generate lower-level predictions. If that uniformed guy was a policeman, how would that affect the various objects in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the distribution of edges in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the raw-sense data received?

"Both streams are probabilistic in nature. The bottom-up sensory stream has to deal with fog, static, darkness, and neural noise; it knows that whatever forms it tries to extract from this signal might or might not be real. For its part, the top-down predictive stream knows that predicting the future is inherently difficult and its models are often flawed. So both streams contain not only data but estimates of the precision of that data.

"A bottom-up percept of an elephant right in front of you on a clear day might be labelled “very high precision”; one of a a vague form in a swirling mist far away might be labelled “very low precision”. A top-down prediction that water will be wet might be labelled “very high precision”; one that the stock market will go up might be labelled “very low precision”.

"As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.

"First, the sense data and predictions may more-or-less match. In this case, the layer stays quiet, indicating “all is well”, and the higher layers never even hear about it. The higher levels just keep predicting whatever they were predicting before.

"Second, low-precision sense data might contradict high-precision predictions. The Bayesian math will conclude that the predictions are still probably right, but the sense data are wrong. The lower levels will “cook the books” – rewrite the sense data to make it look as predicted – and then continue to be quiet and signal that all is well. The higher levels continue to stick to their predictions.

"Third, there might be some unresolvable conflict between high-precision sense-data and predictions. The Bayesian math will indicate that the predictions are probably wrong. The neurons involved will fire, indicating “surprisal” – a gratuitously-technical neuroscience term for surprise. The higher the degree of mismatch, and the higher the supposed precision of the data that led to the mismatch, the more surprisal – and the louder the alarm sent to the higher levels."
Alexander's review continues to explain the theory outlined at greater length in Clark's book, and then moves on to applications. I was particularly struck by the reanalysis of autism (probably biased to Asperger's Syndrome).
"Autistic people classically can’t stand tags on clothing – they find them too scratchy and annoying. Remember the example from Part III about how you successfully predicted away the feeling of the shirt on your back, and so manage never to think about it when you’re trying to concentrate on more important things?

"Autistic people can’t do that as well. Even though they have a layer in their brain predicting “will continue to feel shirt”, the prediction is too precise; it predicts that next second, the shirt will produce exactly the same pattern of sensations it does now. But realistically as you move around or catch passing breezes the shirt will change ever so slightly – at which point autistic people’s brains will send alarms all the way up to consciousness, and they’ll perceive it as “my shirt is annoying”.

Or consider the classic autistic demand for routine, and misery as soon as the routine is disrupted. Because their brains can only make very precise predictions, the slightest disruption to routine registers as strong surprisal, strong prediction failure, and “oh no, all of my models have failed, nothing is true, anything is possible!”

"Compare to a neurotypical person in the same situation, who would just relax their confidence intervals a little bit and say “Okay, this is basically 99% like a normal day, whatever”. It would take something genuinely unpredictable – like being thrown on an unexplored continent or something – to give these people the same feeling of surprise and unpredictability.

"This model also predicts autistic people’s strengths. We know that polygenic risk for autism is positively associated with IQ. This would make sense if the central feature of autism was a sort of increased mental precision. It would also help explain why autistic people seem to excel in high-need-for-precision areas like mathematics and computer programming."
Clark's model also has suggestive things to say about schizophrenia and dreaming.

The idea that most of sensorimotor cognition is an interweaving of bottom-up sensor feature-extraction and top-down model-driven sensory-motor prediction is extremely persuasive and seems a shoo-in for exploitation by artificial neural network research. The architecture of the first round of AGIs seems to be emerging.

One thing not obviously accounted for is that great mystery: consciousness.


Surfing Uncertainty is on my 'to read' list and you'll get impressions later..

Diary: Montacute House

To Montacute House and Gardens (National Trust) today.

We're in the Meadow at Montacute House 

After walking with the sheep in the meadow surrounding the house and gardens (above picture), we decided to visit the adjacent village of Montacute. We ended up in the Kings Arms Inn, an historic and atmospheric hotel somewhat marred by:

- tabloid jokes hanging between the spirits dispensers behind the bar,
"I haven't spoke to my wife in years. Didn't want to interrupt her."
- a cold draft from the open front door which forced Clare to move her armchair, for which she was duly reprimanded by the woman behind the bar,
"Could you please move that back, you're blocking access."
- and signs in the toilet asking residents to keep quiet late at night, warning,
"Swearing will not be tolerated."
OK. Glad that's sorted then.

Diary: a brief history of scotoma

I visited the optician yesterday, an annual check-up as my father had Low-Tension Glaucoma.

What a scotoma can look like

Being organised, I prepared a detailed record of those weird scotoma events I've been experiencing this last year,. I suppose I secretly believed, despite Internet/Google reassurance, that something else might be implicated.

The optician read the note below with care.
Vision scotoma record of occurrences

1. 5th November 2016.
After weights exercise, visual illusion to the right of central visual field (both eyes separately). A flickering jagged arc. This is consistent with a scotoma. Same phenomenon with either eye closed. After half an hour it began to move out and enlarge while retreating further into peripheral vision. After an hour it disappeared.

2. 19th January 2017.
This phenomenon reappeared 19th January 2017, again (some time) after exercise, at 6.10 pm. Visible duration 20 minutes. Started at the centre of the visual field, a flashing-lightning V-shape with vertex at 8 o’clock. Gradually got larger until it vanished past the boundary of the visual field.

3. March 8th 2017
Same symptoms as before: jagged V-shape fading in five to ten minutes.

4. March 26th 2017
Five hours after exercise, proximately after ice cream (!)

5. Saturday July 29th 2017, 8.40 pm
While reading on the Kindle app felt a bit weird in the head and noticed an opaque, light grey cloud in the centre of the right visual field. I could see text clearly above and below (more above). The shape was like a large horizontal island from a great height; wider than tall with rough edges. The effect lasted about five minutes then vanished. I abandoned reading and went for a shower.

6. Tuesday 22nd August 2017 8 pm
Visual field cloud (right eye) - repetition of July - exactly the same symptoms. Grey/brown rectangular/angular/jagged-edged opaque patch screening the visual field in the right eye. Centre of the visual field, could see above and below it. Around 8 pm while watching Game of Thrones. Felt like scotoma but lasted only a couple of minutes. Had done fairly intensive exercise the day before.
He then proceeded to confirm that it was indeed scotoma, entirely consistent with my advancing age and generally low blood pressure, and that a darkened room was the best way to recover.

During the rest of the examination, as a bonus, I got treated as an intelligent patient - almost a peer, I felt.