Aware of how we generalize


I wonder whether I can develop sort of a general pattern on the basis of the case studies I presented in my recent updates: « Let’s Netflix a bit », « Brique par brique », and « Dans la tête d’un non-éléphant ». I mean, what I can do, as a social scientist, in a cognitive sequence that starts with finding the key metrics for the situation, in order to discover anything, then unfolds into finding the sources of information on the actual values of those metrics, just to use that information to identify the key resources, the core processes, and the fundamental ethical values of the social pattern studied.

Key metrics are observable, empirical variables, which I can use to assess the situation in a social context. Finding those key metrics and nailing down their actual values is the essence of what can be deemed as ‘economic method’. This is very largely the essential discovery that Adam Smith made: social systems can be observed mathematically, as sets of equations. Thus, the first step in that method I am unfolding in front of myself, and in front of you, my readers, is to find the key numbers in my social environment. How many people are there in my immediate social circle? With how many of them I should interact daily in order to build for myself a position in the local hierarchy?

Yes, I know, it sounds a bit artificial. People don’t intuitively think like this. I know I intuitively don’t think like this. First conclusion: this method I am unfolding is largely made into formalized research, not really the first cognitive reflex in a new social situation. I think that the other branch of the same path, which I have just published in French, in that update entitled « Dans la tête d’un non-éléphant », is a bit more intuitive. It spells: find the key rules of conduct in your social environment, try to nail down their alternative formulations, and find the meta-rules that serve to select the actual rules of conduct among all the available alternatives. In other words, figure out the game which is being played, get the hang of its rules, and then you have better grounds for enquiring about the numbers.

Good, let’s practice. I start exercising with the topic of my current research: renewable energies and my EneFin concept, that quasi-cooperative scheme where small consumers of energy buy, in the form of complex contracts, both energy and capital shares in the local suppliers of that energy. See, for example, that update entitled ‘The Tribal Equilibrium of the Joule’, in order to have a relatively fresh idea of that concept. When I step, as a newcomer, into any local market of energy, how can I identify the basic rules of the game that is being played in the whereabouts?

As it regards energy, the basic game is about how much energy do I need to occupy a given place in the local social hierarchy, and how much do I have to pay for that amount of energy? As you can notice, I do not really care, as a social Robinson Crusoe, about the natural environment. Yes, it sounds and looks primitive and short-sighted. Still, as I am trying to deconstruct honestly the course of social discovery, this is what I observe in my own thinking as for the market of energy: reference to natural environment and its well-being comes only secondarily, after I have put in place my essential bearings in the social reality strictly spoken.

Anyway, in this particular case – the market of energy – the rules of the game I am playing are very much quantitative. They are prices and quantities, essentially, but not exclusively. The contracts habitually practiced in that market come immediately after, or even ex aequo with prices and quantities. Contracts give an idea of the market power that individual market players can really deploy when negotiating the modalities of their mutual transactions.

If I had to present this path of discovery in a teachable form, like ‘Getting to know a local market of energy, in five easy steps’, what would it look like? Lesson #1 would probably start with a general advice: take some statistics about the local market of energy, for example from the website of the International Energy Agency, or from the World Bank, and check how much energy you are likely to consume per your own capita. Yes, that data is in kilograms of oil equivalent or in tons thereof, and your energy bill will be most likely in kilowatt hours, and thus it is useful to remember: 1 kg of oil equivalent = 11,63 kWh. Try to think, how much energy, above the strictly personal use, does a person need, in this particular market, when they want to start a small business, or when they want to turn from an individual into an organisation?

Lesson #2: get to know the prices of energy in your local market. Is there any reliable source of information in this respect, or do you have to sign, first, a contract with the local supplier of energy, and buy some, and receive a bill, in order to know the actual price? The transparency of pricing is an important institutional trait in energy markets, especially as it comes to the relative market power in small users, like households or really small businesses. As – or if – you become informed about the prices of energy, you can calculate the typical budget spent on energy, or simply the average annual energy bill, in typical social actors.

Lesson #3: get to know the typical contracts, in that local market of energy. First of all, is there any source of information about the contents of a typical contract for the supply of energy, or, as it is sometimes, and sadly, the case for the prices of energy, do you have to sign the contract first, and only then you are entitled to receive all those appendixes in small print, which fully explain what you have just signed? Yes, I know some of you can laugh, at this point, but I remember signing my first contract for the supply of electricity, for my first fully owned apartment in Poland, back in 1992. I had to sign a summary form, which essentially stated that I agree to the terms which will be delivered to me in written form once I sign that particular form. Kafka, you say? Yes, happens sometimes.

Anyway, in that lesson #3, the interesting path to follow in your own discovery is to observe the diversity of contracts. I am connecting, here, to my last update in French, entitled « Dans la tête d’un non-éléphant ». In this particular phase of research, it is interesting to discover how many different and clearly distinct contractual patterns are there in the given local market. Is it a ‘mono-contract’ environment, or is there some flexibility? The former suggests a typical market structure from textbooks on microeconomics: monopoly or oligopoly. The latter suggests something more competitive.

Basically, lessons #1 – #3 should tell us what room for institutional innovation is there in this precise market, i.e. what are the odds that a new institutional scheme will work and gain participants.

Good, lesson #4. Once we know the quantities, the prices, and the contracts, it is time to try something practical: a business concept. Not even a fully blown business plan, just a business concept. As you see that local market, can you think of a new, promising business? Logically, what you supply in the market of energy is, well, energy. There is not much room for product innovation in that respect. Still, as you think of it, what we consciously purchase is not the strictly spoken energy, as we do not decide about each individual electron flowing through the plug, but rather the access to energy. You can think about many different forms of that access.

A quick idea, just like that. Imagine a city with many, publicly available charging points for electronic devices. At some of them you can pedal to generate electricity, but just at some. Imagine that you have something like a unique login ID, or codename, which you use to plug your electronics into those publicly available sockets. Every time you use that form of energy outside your household (or the headquarters of your company), the corresponding intake of kilowatt hours charges your account. That would be a market of energy, where consumption is as individualized as technologically possible.

In that lesson #4, you can play with assessing this business concept. What are the odds that it catches on anywhere on Earth? What is the SWOT map, i.e. what are the required competitive strengths, the weaknesses to avoid, as well as opportunities and threats generated by the market?

I have that intuition that you reach the summit of scientific understanding about anything when you can design and control an experiment pertaining to that anything. This is the path to follow in your lesson #5 about the market of energy. Design and control an experiment, related or unrelated to the business concept from lesson #4. How can people experiment with energy? What types of behaviour are important to observe experimentally? How can you achieve, in your experimental environment, the usual attributes of a good experiment: isolation of precise phenomena, acceleration of their occurrence (as compared to real life), observability?

Why do I put experimentation in the last lesson? This is an old principle known to all engineers: if you can experiment with something, and survive, and have some fun, and, on the top of all that, have some new knowledge, it means you’ve got the hang of the thing.

I am taking on another particular, the teaching of management, a teaching I deliver to the 1st year Undergraduate students. If, hypothetically, I try to manage any type of organisational structure, from any hierarchical position that allows any management whatsoever, what are my first steps into an unknown territory? How can I know the rules of the game and which rules are a priority to figure out? Intuitively, I would look for the things that hold the surrounding organisation together. Are those people working together, although, let’s face it, they sometimes hate each other, because they refer and report to a common leader, or rather because they have common goals?

Thus, my lesson #1 in management would consist in observing patterns of behaviour in people around me. What exactly do they do together? How do they cooperate? How do they compete against each other? It is important, in that first lesson, out of the five (allegedly) easy steps, to observe rather than speculate. Just find patterns in human behaviour. The easiest way to do it is sequencing. Any pattern, in any part of observable reality, is a sequence of events. As you observe human behaviour around you, look for recurrent sequences. There are bound to be some. Mr A holds a meeting, every three of four days, with persons B, C, D, and E. The meeting usually lasts about one hour. The person D is usually pissed off, after those meetings.

Another one; when a customer complains about poor quality of the product, those complaints usually trigger a row. Who is arguing with whom?

Lesson #2 means jumping to another source of information: financial statements. Here, a remark. I know many people have a profound disgust of numbers and mathematics, usually because of shitty teaching thereof at the level of elementary school. Still, the outcomes of shitty teaching can be reverted, simply by triggering our own curiosity into action. The financials of an organisation are like the health metrics of a human. If you want to know somebody’s health, you need to understand the meaning of numbers like pulse, body temperature, the average length of sleep time during one night etc. Same thing with financials. They are pertinent metrics of an organism, period.

So, you go to those financials, and you take all of them, like the balance sheet, the income statement, the cash flow statement, and you simply look for the greatest numerical values. You figure out what is sticking out, quite simply. You select the categories attached to those numbers, and you connect them, as if you were connecting the dots in one of those graphical quizzes. This is an almost painfully basic, practical application of the scientific principle known as ‘the Ockham’s razor’. The principle states that the most obvious answer is usually the right one, where the most obvious means the one which requires the least assumptions. In this case, the greatest financial values are supposed to be the most important.

You can also get more sophisticated, during lesson #2, and take financial statements from two distinct periods, in the same organisation. You match the financial categories from two periods, and you calculate the relative magnitude of change, like value from the period T1 (later), divided by the value observed in the same category in period T0 (earlier). If you move along this tangent, you will pay attention to those categories, where the relative magnitude of change x(T1)/x(T0) is the greatest, in plus or in minus.

Lesson #2 teaches you basic empirical observation of quantitative variables, and now, in lesson #3, you are going to combine those empirical observations with the patterned human behaviour from lesson #1. Whatever type of measurement you chose in lesson #2 – the greatest absolute financial values or those displaying the greatest magnitude of change – in lesson #3 you assume that people do things about money. The patterns of behaviour you nailed down in lesson #1, they have a function, and that function is most likely connected to those big, or those quickly changing, financial amounts you observed in lesson #2. In lesson #3, therefore, you are pinning down the actual strategy – or strategies – in the organisation you are studying.

Here, one important distinction is due. The commonly used definitions of strategy, in management science, usually refer to the goals of the organisation, and the tasks planned in order to achieve those goals. Me, in my own little scientific garden, I cultivate the beautiful, behavioural flower of no-bullshit. I deeply agree with Bernard Bosanquet who used to say that it is bloody hard to know for sure what people want, and it is much more sensible to watch what they do. I also cherish John Nash’s point of view, namely that a strategy needs to have reasonably proven payoffs if it is to be seriously used in the future. To me, a strategy is a recurrently repeated pattern of action, with recurrently occurring results. A strategy can be something that people – or organisations – do even without being aware of doing it.

Anyway, in lesson #3, you define those connections between money and behaviour, as the typical strategies in the given organisation. Time has come for lesson #4, the lesson of what-if, the lesson of change. You know what people usually do in an organisation, you know what they are after, in terms of financial payoffs, and now you can imagine what will happen to this organisation if some of those parameters change. For example, what kind of change will this business – if this is a business, of course – undergo if they have the opportunity to attract an extra 40% of equity? (i.e. an addition of equity capital equal to 40% of what they already have as equity; search for the definition of ‘equity’, just to make sure you know what I am talking about). What would happen if they had to cut their equity down by 40%? What kind of strategies would they apply if there is a new opening, in their target market, which allows to pump their gross margin up by 20%, through higher prices? What if a new tax cuts their gross margin down by 20%?

Time for lesson #5, which is of the same kind as lesson #5 about the market of energy: design and control an experiment. Take the organisation you have studied in lessons #1 – #4. You can use the hypothetical changes you traced in lesson #4, or something else that comes to your mind as intriguing, like what-happens-if-I-press-this-button-oops-I-am-sorry but now transform those paths of change into experimental sequences. You give people some input – a task, a piece of information etc. – and you design a detailed sequence of how they should be responding to that input. You design that sequence so as the response, observed in the participants of your experiment, brings you the most valuable information possible.

You know what? I start liking that approach ‘learn Whatever The Hell You Want in 5 Lessons’. I know, I know: liking my own ideas is a slippery path. It is easy to misstep and fall into the abyss of hypocrisy. Still, I like the thing. Those five lessons about the market of energy seem to cover pretty much the basics of Microeconomics, one of my main teaching curriculums, and so, having covered microeconomics and management, I attempt a graceful jump towards another of my teaching paths, that of Political Systems and Economic Policy.

In order to make my jump look more graceful, i.e. in order to mask the possible awkwardness of my movements, I am doing something I like doing: I revert. I like reverting. This time, when teaching something about Political Systems, I will start, in lesson #1, by asking my students to design an experiment. Yes, this time, they start at the point where the students of management would be asked to finish. Let’s take a practical case: the constitution of The United Republic of Tanzania. The one from 1977.

Click this link, download the constitution and ask yourself the following question: how could you possibly stress-test the system? I mean, where can you see the weakest spots in the constitutional order? What sort of phenomena can hypothetically turn this order into disorder, and into what kind of disorder? At this stage, as this is your lesson #1, you can advance pretty intuitively. I am giving an example. In Part II, Article (47), points (1) and (2) of this constitution you can find the following rule: « 47.-(1) There shall be a Vice-President, who shall be the principal assistant to the President in respect of all the matters in the United Republic generally and, in particular shall assist the President in making a follow-up on the day-to-day implementation of Union Matters, perform all duties assigned to him by the President, and perform all duties and functions of the office of President when the President is out of office or out of the country. Without prejudice to the provisions of Article 37(5), the Vice-President shall be elected in the same election together with the President, after being nominated by his party at the same time as the Presidential candidate and being voted for together on the same ticket. When the Presidential candidate is elected the Vice-President shall have been elected. »

Now, imagine that for some reasons, the Vice-President has not been elected, or has been elected but he or she has resigned right after having been elected, and there is no one willing to take the office. In short, no Vice-President. What happens to the political system of Tanzania in such a case? Is it like that block of domino, which, once knocked down, drags the entire constitutional order into deep s**t (spell, as usually, s-asterisk-asterisk-t)? Or, maybe it is just a minor inconvenience?

Take another constitution, that of Australia. Do the same scanning as for this particular case. Look for really soft spots in the system: the institutions, political actors, or mutual checks of power between political actors, which, once disabled or out of control, can knock the whole system out of balance. The question is quite important, by the way. The Australians have the tenth Prime Minister appointed, over the last 10 years. This is a lot of change. Some kind of deep imbalance might be at work. Maybe you can put your finger on it?

Time for lesson #2: generalize the experiments from lesson #1. Take the same countries, those from lesson #1, Tanzania and Australia in the occurrence, and try to sketch the alternative avenues their respective political systems could possibly take from the present moment, into the future. Like three alternative paths of change for each country.

Lesson #3: generalize the observable idiosyncrasies from lessons #1 and #2. What structural (i.e. durable) differences can you notice between the two cases, Tanzania and Australia? What sort of difference between them can you pin down, as for the relative solidity of their constitutional orders, as well as regarding their possible paths of change? How would you describe the unique features observable in each of those political systems?

Lesson #4: figure out the rules of the game. If you had to give a piece of advice to your friend, like how to make a political career in Tanzania, what would you recommend? What does it mean to make political career in Tanzania? What are the most likely stages and pit stops? How long could it take to make the career in question? What strategies should your friend use to cover that path?

Move your (imaginary?) friend to Australia and try to repeat the process of designing their career path in politics. How is it different from Tanzania?

Lesson #5: nail down general metrics for political systems. Sum up your experience from lessons #1 – #4. Now, imagine that somebody asks you: ‘What are the most important facts and numbers to look upon if we want to understand how a given political system works? Which stones should we lift and turn in order to discover the fundamental mechanics of a political system?’. Now, I know that you might feel slightly ill at ease at this point. How can I make general rules on the grounds of two case studies? Well, firstly, this is how science works: brick by f***ing brick, you build that house. You observe one thing, you observe another thing, and you draw your conclusions even if you are not aware of drawing them. That whole piece of intellectual gymnastics, in 5 lessons, serves to make you aware of how you generalize.

Besides, as it comes to political systems, you do not have like a huge sample of cases; it is barely 150 more or less observable entities on the entire planet.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

Support this blog


Leave a Reply