MIT (7) Juliet

One of the greatest aspects of studying at MIT was being able to interact and study with the other students, who were all very smart. Juliet was a PhD student from Poland who was on a full scholarship and studied with Professor Alpha. She had the opportunity to study at the University of Chicago or MIT, and she chose the latter because she could also take classes at Harvard. Being a master’s student not on scholarship, I was impressed by this. Being from Poland, she was well-versed in the Soviet Union experience and so was an anti-communist; I remember that she was a supporter of Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement. I too was an anti-communist, but mostly from a systems engineering workability perspective, not personal experience. Juliet was so happy to be in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave after her early Polish communist experiences, and I was happy for her being in America.

Juliet was intense and wouldn’t let go of an argument. She was not alone in exhibiting this characteristic, but while intensity and tenacity were admired in your standard leftist, pro-socialist, those same characteristics were seen as problems for those who held anti-communist views. I met Juliet at a student get-together during the fall semester where she talked my ear off for a long while about some vague philosophical topic  that seemed important at the time.

It was now at the beginning of my second semester at MIT, the spring semester, and we students were going through a process called, “shopping for classes,” in which we visited the first day of a bunch of classes, kept the ones we liked, and dropped the ones we didn’t. I was visiting a class of this well-regarded, supposedly a genius, but hyper pretentious professor who, if memory serves, was teaching a class on European trade unions, which of course attracted Juliet because she knew a lot about the topic. Before arriving at MIT, I had been watching reruns of Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas and was struck by how many people mentioned Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. So I offered a comment based on Tocqueville and pronounced it the American way, “Toke-vil”, so this pretentious professor took the opportunity to correct my pronunciation, “Toke-veeeel”. I had seen enough and there was no way I was going to take this class with this guy.

After class Juliet caught up to me and asked me if I was going to take the class, and I said no. She asked me if I was interested in Tocqueville, and I said yes, but why do you ask? Juliet said there was a professor at Harvard who was giving an entire class on just Tocqueville and was I interested? I figured after with my imbroglio with Professor Charlie, there was no way they would ever let me be a PhD student, so I might as well take one class at Harvard before getting thrown out, so I said “Sure!” and we made arrangements to take Tocqueville together at Harvard.


Mamet, Feynman, and Conservatism

Recently, Sundance at The Conservative Treehouse (TCT) wrote about liberal playwright turned conservative playwright David Mamet who somewhat famously said:

In order to continue advancing their illogical arguments modern liberals have to pretend not to know things

Mamet is a wordsmith and analyst of human nature, so he says that liberalism must by definition be illogical. An expert logician would say that any system of complex enough to be interesting, which includes social systems, will have a certain amount of internal inconsistency, but Mamet contends that the inconsistency goes way beyond accepted and understandable levels.

A related though stronger argument than Mamet’s is offered by physicist Richard Feynman (MIT ’39, Nobel ’65) who said that, the game he plays is a very interesting one called, “Imagination in a Straightjacket.”  That is, what he imagines must agree with everything he knows, and Feynman knew a lot. If what he imagines doesn’t agree with what he knows, then he immediately gives up. The integration of large amounts of knowledge in Feynman’s brain constituted his theoretical and cognitive straitjacket.

This mental discipline should apply to policy formation, but I can assure you that it does not. 21st century policy is based on the advertising ethic — “the truth is that which sells.” As Sundance points out, the very smart people in the political establishment spend a lot of time figuring out how to benefit from and sell policies, but very little thought goes into ensuring that they’re workable and benefit their intended audience.

This, it seems to me, is a good working definition for conservatism, the consideration and integration of all known knowledge to ensure workable and sustainable policies. This seems to be what Mamet is alluding to. Moreover, this is not what the modern globalist and socialist political establishment does though this is what everyday citizens expect. The new wave of nationalist politicians would do well to formulate policy based on Feynman’s discipline, but doing so will be hard.

MIT (6): International Relations (IR)

After dealing with the quirks, comments, and concerns of Prof. Charlie, it was off to a big second semester trying to be a conservative at MIT in the belly of the socialist beast. That semester I took a class from Prof. Alpha who had been a math major as an undergrad, which in the vernacular of MIT is Course 18. Being a EE/CS or Course 6 kind of guy, I was looking forward to Alpha’s theory of international relations (IR) class. The only problem was that Alpha was teaching alternatives to the standard theories, and since my back ground in IR or Course 17 political science was somewhat shallow, it was going to be challenging to understand the alternatives without having been taught the standard IR theory, but I was always up for a challenge.

Alpha taught many concepts that were considered slightly “out there.” These include political geography, the idea that there are world centers that change over time, such as from Amsterdam to London to New York, and that what’s nearby matter more than what’s far away. Also, Alpha introduced me to Anthony D. Smith and nationalism studies, which made a lot of sense to me but seemed to politically correct for my fellow students. Alpha had us read James Grier Miller’s Living Systems, because he recognized that political systems were complex social systems. More on that later. Finally, Alpha taught me the importance of the secondary literature by having us read commentaries on Thucydides, which I remember because the précis used the word “navel” as an adjective to describe sea battles, which was not correct — oops. We also took a test to see how Machiavellian we were, which I almost maxed out. One of my classmates said, “I can’t believe I got a higher score than Lowell!”

One thing I noticed about my fellow students was that they often were quiet and didn’t ask questions, while I was always talking, especially in Alpha’s class. He liked that I had a Course 6 background, so we were always alluding to mathematics but I seldom knew exactly what he was talking about. The class had a significant break, and I remember one day several students asking me what Alpha was talking about, but I had to confess that I really didn’t know, I was just trying to keep up. But I was learning lots and even though I was struggling a bit, Alpha was supportive, which was nice.

MIT (5): Meeting With Charlie

I had tried to arrange a meeting with Prof. Charlie several times, but his demeanor was always stand offish, distant, and strange. As a student, it’s easy to take this kind of behavior personally, so I dismissed it initially. But as I walked to Charlie’s office for our meeting, I was hoping for an A, which would have given me four A’s for my first four classes, which would have been an auspicious start to my new career in political science. The meeting was in Building 20, a “temporary building” from WWII that had somehow managed to survive past the cold war. The floors in the hallway outside Charlie’s office were worn, wavy wood and walls were made of decades old plywood. Charlie’s office was spare and dimly lit. I sat in a chair in front of Charlie’s desk, where he told me my paper deserved an F. I was surprised.

He said that he had checked up on my other grades. This was surprising because when he found the three A’s, I expected that this would cause him to think that maybe my paper had a point. Instead, Charlie was just looking for information to support his point, that my paper was flawed and that I was flawed. When the information didn’t agree with his assessment, he immediately discounted it in a process called, “selection bias.”

I was caught off guard and off balance. I thought we would discuss the content of the paper, identify what was good and bad, what needed to be worked on, and perhaps be assigned some additional reading. I expressed to Charlie my expectations, and he said that was not possible. My head was spinning, and Charlie sensed that, so he said to come back in a few weeks and we would discuss next steps. I left the meeting, Charlie’s office, Building 20 and walked across the dark December MIT campus with my head spinning. How could I have gotten this paper so wrong?

I went home and reviewed the logic, and it all made sense to me. Hayek’s thesis that over-centralization of information prevented political and economic systems from working effectively was recognized theoretically with a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1974, and fall of the Soviet Union because of socialism seemed to provide a significant and relevant empirical case. This seemed to me to be a highly relevant and applicable argument because it connected human rationality — specifically, bounded rationality — to politics. Moreover, the fact that extreme democracy, having people vote on all important issues, would place a premium on the packaging and transmission of information via the mainstream corporate media rather than Soviet-style planning commissions, seems to have changed the type and form of the informational bottleneck while giving it the appearance of distributed cognition rather than solving the actual information processing cognitive problem.

I made another appointment with Prof. Charles prepared with my argument and sat again in front of his desk. He said that the paper couldn’t be salvaged or rewritten. I said that I disagreed because that I was trying to do was this. Before I could defend my paper, Prof. Charles interrupted me, by raising his voice and shouting, “You’re paper meant nothing — Nothing!” His emotionally reflexive outburst left me a little stunned. Quite frankly I expected more professional behavior from a tenured MIT professor. Charles gathered himself and said that he was going to give me an incomplete for the class, I could not rewrite the paper, and that was final.

I left Charlie’s office for the second time, but for some reason I felt better than last time. First, there was nothing to do but focus on next semester’s courses, so there was an increased clarity of purpose. Second, I wasn’t going to forget about the problem, instead I was going to park the problem because Charlie didn’t actually refute the paper, he ended the conversation with an emotional outburst, which raised several questions. Why was he so upset? And why wouldn’t he talk about it?


MIT(4): Democracy

Prof. Charlie had written a book on democracy that I thought would be good to read and comment on with respect to rationality because it would show that I’m interested in Charlie’s work, thereby laying the foundation for future conversions, and it would help to establish connections between individual cognition and group-level politics, which seemed reasonable since I was taking the course for political science credit. Also, according to the rumors among the graduate students in the department, this work was the basis for his tenure decision. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I began Charlie’s book, which was — in a word — terrible. Charlie was an advocate of extreme democracy, which appeared to be part of the “workable socialism 2.0” literature.

Charlie’s primary idea was that tradition socialism was problematic due to an over centralization and an over-reliance on centralized planning due to Hayek’s critique in The Road to Serfdom and his later work on complexity. So his solution was, instead of having subject matter experts or property owners make decision, have people vote on all important issues. The problem was I had just moved from California and had seen the ballot initiative process up close and first hand. There were so many ballot questions that were confusingly worded and there was so much confusing advertising that even an MIT student who was very interested in politics had trouble understanding what to vote for, so what chance did the average voter have? Moreover, the ballot initiatives were not all independent: sometimes they impacted each other, so how to reconcile to ballot initiatives if they passed and worked at cross purposes? Finally, it seemed to me that extreme democracy as practiced in California, given the importance of advertising and media-based information channels, which meant that the illusion of democracy reduced, yet again, to establishment politicians controlling the outcome, the functional equivalent to central planning. This pertains to human cognition because economists assume that people are able to take in almost limitless information, synthesize it, and make informed decision. The problem is that this  view of rationality is flattering but unsupported by evidence. Experiment psychology, in contrast to economics, finds that people are boundedly rational, and there are well-known and predictable limits to the way  people process information, and those limits are in fact reached quite quickly. In other words, the fundamental assumptions of economic rationality were not true.

I figured that Charlie must have thought these issues though — after all, he was an Ivy League-trianed, big time, tenured MIT professor — so he must know what he’s doing, right? So I wrote up a critique of Charlie’s extreme democracy work not because I thought I was correct but because I didn’t understand how he could have reached the conclusions he did, so I could state my argument as clearly as I could, then he could see I was interested and what I was thinking, and he could correct me and suggest some reading and we could go from there. However, while this seemed logical to me, that’s not the way it worked out.