(mis)adventures in software development...

19 December 2013

Quantitative Geek Screwing

Category Technology

Geeks vs economists: Why us geeks will lose.


The only kind of economics that is worth a damn is philosophical, not mathematical or scientific. Real economics is philosophical – like history or literature – in the sense that it merely tries to observe and understand, not to manipulate people as if they were pawns on a chessboard.

The other kind of economics – modern, “scientific” economics – is a fraud. It pretends not only to understand an economy, but also to be able to improve it.

Modern economists have been at it for nearly 100 years: planning, organizing, theorizing, controlling, adjusting, pontificating, forcing, setting prices, suppressing interest rates and committing other acts of wanton economic vandalism. During that time, there has not been a single confirmed sighting of anything close to success.

Bill Bonner

Occasionally, I like to ponder the tough (and possibly nonsensical) questions in life. Like, why do politicians pay no attention when knowledgeable people within technology industries make logical and well thought arguments on issues that directly affect their industries? Yet, thoroughly discredited economists, who have been proven wrong many times before, still wield so much power that they can influence politicians to implement illogical policies that would have once been considered completely crazy?

What leads me to such pondering is the confluence of recent events. In particular, the global financial crisis and its aftermath; and more recently, the federal election here in Australia. As predicted, the Coalition comfortably won the election, which will likely have many implications for the technology community in Australia, but perhaps the most prominent concern is the fate of the National Broadband Network. With the Liberal Party in charge, the mostly fibre NBN as we know it is now dead.

It’s unfortunate that the issue of broadband infrastructure has become so politicised in Australia. It means that those of us involved with technology — the geeks of Australia — are going to be screwed. Again. Because based on past experience, when it comes to battling politicians, we tend to lose.

Sure, us geeks might have a minor victory, every now and then. But there are many, many more failures.

Perhaps because we are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to matters of politics. We might be smart, but this means we also tend to be logical and rational — maybe too logical and rational. Success in our careers is somewhat determined by our abilities to think logically and analytically. We are therefore prone to take that same approach to other areas. Even in areas where things like logic and reason are not valued at all, and may in fact be a disadvantage — like politics.

Which is why we might think the idea of replacing Australia’s ageing, degraded copper-based communication network with new optic fibre infrastructure would be an eminently sensible thing to do, for a whole swathe of sound technical reasons. That doesn’t mean the politicians and economists running the show will see it that way.

We might forget, or find it difficult to fathom, that in the world of politics, spin and bullshit reign supreme. Such antiquated notions like truth and facts don’t matter much when dealing with the Merchants of Bullshit. While we were learning and honing our technical skills, the politicians and lawyers and economists were busy honing their bullshitting skills. It is these master bullshitters that are now our adversaries in areas where technology and politics intersect, like the NBN, but in many other areas as well. We have no choice but to engage in battle with these bullshitters, because our worlds are likely to intersect more and more often, as new technology disrupts existing industries.

It probably doesn’t help that there’s a vein of naivety and apathy about all this within tech communities. We naively think technological solutions alone will win. We are too apathetic to engage in what, to us, is the really boring game of politics.

But just because we aren’t interested in meddling in politics, doesn’t mean politicians and others in power won’t meddle in our industries. Quite the opposite, actually.

They will meddle as they see fit, despite their lack of understanding of technical issues.

We’ve seen this clearly in Australia for decades now, when it comes to technology and communications policy. The supposedly pro-free-market Liberal Party privatised Telstra in a way that made it impossible to have true competition in broadband, because competitors could not compete with Telstra’s vertically integrated monopoly position in the market. Yet now, over 15 years later, the Liberal party is arguing that the private sector should build broadband infrastructure, not the government. Then why hasn’t the private sector done so by now? They’ve had time. Why are the majority of broadband users in Australia still relying on ADSL technology over poor quality copper wiring?

Rational arguments from the technical community are falling on deaf ears. Instead, the new government is already reframing and spinning the issue to suit their purposes. In response to the totally reasonable concern from those within the technology industry, Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dismissed criticism as reckless, petitions as undemocratic, and claimed the government has a mandate to implement crappy communications policy.

Instead of taking advice from people within the technology industry who actually know what they’re talking about, decisions about the future of one of Australia’s biggest technology infrastructure projects will be entirely determined by politicians and economists.

The same professions that largely caused the global financial crisis.

OK, so not all politicians and economists are equally clueless. And when it comes to the global financial crisis, there’s plenty of blame to apportion, both to governments and the private sector. But it’s clear some seriously flawed combination of government policy, based on some seriously flawed economic thinking (assuming anyone was actually thinking), contributed to the global financial crisis. In a sane world, this means the GFC would have completely destroyed the credibility of many mainstream economists, ratings agencies, and politicians.

That doesn’t seem to have happened. The same groups of people are still in charge, the ratings agencies are still in business, and many of the same economists who advocated the market interventions that contributed to the GFC have the temerity to give advice on how to fix the economy — and people are actually listening to them.

The tech community could possibly learn something from those economists. Not about economics, clearly, but about bullshitting for influence, power and profit.

Seems to to have worked well for them. Economists still hold the same level of power and influence as before — maybe even more. They know how the game is played, and they are so good at playing the game that not even one of the greatest financial crises in history could derail their train of bullshit.

Too much debt in the economy caused a major financial collapse? I know, let’s inject trillions of dollars of more debt into the economy, because nothing could possibly go wrong with that idea!

Printing money” has negative, hyper-inflationary connotations, and historically has never, ever worked? I know, let’s call it “quantitative easing”, and this time it’ll work for sure, because this time it’s different!

Whenever I hear the term “quantitative easing”, I can’t help thinking about a rather inconsequential controversy in Australian politics way back in the pre-financial crisis 90’s. An upstart wannabe political operative from an upstart minor political party, in response to some aggressive questioning from a journalist, said (possibly flippantly) that they could fund their poorly thought out populist and racist policies by printing money. Whether he meant that seriously, or just said it to get rid of the journalist was unclear, but the media at the time had a field day with that quote! Oh what a silly racist, they decried. Not only is this new political party xenophobic and divisive and racist, but economically illiterate as well! Everyone knows money printing is hyper-inflationary and stupid and silly and insane! Theses people are not to be taken seriously, and have no business playing the grown up game of politics! If we’re going to have politicians peddling divisive racism, they must at least be economically literate racists!

Amazing how much one global financial crisis can change the fortunes of money printing as a concept!

Now, money printing is all the rage, with the Federal Reserve leading the way, and little criticism from the mainstream media. The money printers are hailed as saviours of the global economy, as opposed to shady private banking cartels covering their own asses, and screwing the American middle-class in the process. And the financial markets love it! Everyone has bought into the bullshit so thoroughly that the merest hint that the Fed will taper sends financial markets into a panic.

It might be instructive if those in the tech community with allusions to activism kept in mind that this is world we are living in. A world where you can be proven wrong by a global financial crisis, and still retain credibility. A world of Schrodinger’s money printing, where printing money is both bad and good, depending on who is advocating it, and their agenda, not to mention how it’s branded.

A world where economists have more say over the future of Australia’s broadband network than technology experts.

Economists have managed to convince the world that to cure to all our economic ills is an obscene amount of money printing, a prospect that would have once been unthinkable in economic circles.

But the tech community can’t even convince a few politicians of the benefit of an optic fibre broadband network.

Not to mention that we also failed to stop politicians censoring the internet, spying on us, invading our privacy online, and taking away our digital rights.

Clearly, us geeks need to work on our bullshitting skills, if we have any hope of out-bullshitting the bullshitters.