Sunday, September 8, 2013

Head-Bang of the Month (Con Law Division)

A recent New York Times article talks about a new approach by voting-rights advocates after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. It seems that in another recent decision, Justice Scalia affirmed Congress's right to regulate Federal elections under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, known as the "elections clause." The article goes on to say:

The clause is much less well known than, say, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and yet Congress’s power under it, Justice Scalia wrote, “is paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which [Congress] deems expedient.”

Now "a growing circle of legal scholars" is looking this decision,  which "may point the way to a new approach to protecting voting rights."

Huh? Much less well known? A new approach?

Guys, the Constitution is only a little over 4,000 words long, not counting the amendments. That's 16 double-spaced typed pages. It's the shortest constitution in the world. I am not a Supreme Court justice, nor even a constitutional lawyer, nor even a lawyer, but I knew about this clause, and even cited it in connection with voting rights.

How do we explain this? I suppose that laymen have an incorrect picture of what constitutional lawyers do. We think of them as sitting around reading the Constitution all day. Actually, they are probably sitting around reading Supreme Court decisions, and lower-court decisions, and journal articles about Supreme Court decisions and lower-court decisions. So they probably never think about parts of the Constitution that don't happen to be the subject of court cases.

But still....All I can say is, thank goodness for Justice Scalia. That's the first time I have ever written those words, and probably the last. Granted, he was (the most offensive) part of the majority that created the problem. But without him, who knows how long it could've taken "legal scholars" to come up with this idea?

Attack of the Zombie Philosophers

The New York Times online recently ran a guest column called "What Is Economics Good For?"  It is framed as advice for the incoming chairman of the Federal Reserve from two philosophers of science. Their main advice: Don't think that economics is a science.

When we put a satellite in orbit around Mars, we have the scientific knowledge that guarantees accuracy and precision in the prediction of its orbit. Achieving a comparable level of certainty about the outcomes of an economy is far dicier.

That's because it's a more complicated problem, right? No:

The fact that the discipline of economics hasn't helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist.... The trouble with economics is that it lacks the most important of science’s characteristics — a record of improvement in predictive range and accuracy. This is what makes economics a subject of special interest among philosophers of science. None of our models of science really fit economics at all.

This is just depressingly superficial. Apparently there's been essentially no progress in philosophy of science since I encountered it thirty-odd years ago. Here is the way a philosopher of science thinks: "Physics is science. Therefore, the more closely something resembles physics, the more scientific it is. Social science is not very much like physics, therefore it's not very scientific."

Might not the problem be, instead, with the philosophers and their "models of science"? It appears the philosophers haven't done much over the last three decades about understanding sciences other than physics, even natural sciences. Science, in their view, is all about prediction. Begone, Charles Darwin, you pseudo-scientist! Where are your predictions? Begone, paleontologists and seismologists! Come back when you've got some predictions. Meteorologists, you're improving, but you'll never be true scientists, because you'll literally never be able to know what the weather will be 30 days from now. You'll never have the accuracy and precision of physics.

The philosophers never say this, of course. They take it for granted that Darwin was a scientist, even though he doesn't fit the model. What the examples above suggest is that not all scientists make predictions; some spend their time understanding and explaining things. I'm reasonably satisfied that we understand earthquakes better than than we did a hundred years ago, even though seismologists have made no progress over that time in predicting them. And similarly for the origin of species.

Nor do I follow what the authors mean by "prediction", or, for that matter, "economics". Apparently what they mean is that economists haven't done very well in forecasting recessions-- not much better, in fact, than seismologists in forecasting earthquakes.

But there's more to economics than that; even just within macroeconomics, some theories have done very well at predicting what would happen after the recession began. And there's more to prediction than forecasting. Any time you formulate a  testable hypothesis, you're making a prediction. Chemistry had one stunning success in forecasting, when Mendeleev's periodic table predicted the characteristics of elements that hadn't been discovered yet. Since then, chemists have continued to do science, without, as far as I know, making forecasts.

Finally, one would expect that philosophers of science would have a reasonable acquaintance with the particular science they're talking about. But here's their advice to the new Fed chairman:

An effective chair ... will be one who understands that economics is not yet a science and may never be. At this point it is a craft, to be executed with wisdom, not algorithms... What made Ben S. Bernanke, the current chairman, successful was his willingness to use methods — like “quantitative easing,” buying bonds to lower long-term interest rates — that demanded a feeling for the economy, one that mere rational-expectations macroeconomics would have denied him.

Paul Krugman calls a foul:

Whoa! They apparently imagine that QE was an intuitive reaction by Bernanke, one that academic macroeconomics would never have suggested. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Philosophy of science, of course, doesn't claim to be scientific. But it does claim to be true. The philosophers need to get to work gathering some evidence for their theories, in places other than the comfortable precincts of physics. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn wrote about physics; what are you going to write about?