Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mencius: the Dao and Spin

Book Two of Mencius' "Duke Wen of T'Eng" starts with one of Mencius' followers, Ch'en Tai, asking about why the teacher won't "stoop to serve" by going to work with one of the "August Lords" to help him to become an Emperor. He quotes a common saying of the time, "Bend a foot to straighten ten". Mencius refuses to accept this suggestion and responds with two arguments, first that people shouldn't force themselves on their betters, but then another that I find more interesting:
"And besides, bend a foot to straighten ten is talking about profits. When it's a matter of turning a profit, don't people think it's fine even if they bend ten feet to straighten one?"
Mencius expands this point by relating a story that seems somewhat strange to our ears. He mentions a chariot driver named Wang Liang who got assigned to an archer named Hsi by Lord Chien. The two of them went out one day, didn't catch anything at all, and Hsi told Chien "He's the worst driver in all beneath Heaven." When Wang heard about this, he asked Hsi to go out with him again. This time, Hsi shot ten birds in one morning. This time he said "He's the finest driver in all beneath Heaven!" Mencius then said that Hsi wanted Wang to drive for him all the time, but Wang refused. He explained himself to Lord Chien in the following way,
I drove hard for him according to the precepts, and we didn't catch a single bird all day. Then I drove shamelessly for him, and in a single morning we caught ten birds.--- ---I'm not accustomed to driving for little people. I'll go now if you please.
Mencius finishes the chapter by bringing the analogy from the driver, through the saying about "bending" to "straighten".
Even though he was a mere driver, Wang was ashamed to compromise for an archer. They could have piled birds and animals up like the mountains, but he still wouldn't do it. What kind of person would bend the Way to please others? You've got it all wrong:  if you bend yourself, you'll never straighten anyone else." 

The first question that comes to mind is how someone could be "compromised" as a chariot driver for an archer. I'm not an expert on ancient Chinese mores, so I can only speculate. But lots of societies have taboos and rules about hunting. For example, we have laws in Canada about not wasting meat. We also have hunting seasons, etc. There are also a long list of birds and animals that we are forbidden to kill. We do not kill vultures, for example, because they clean up dead animals and therefore deal with unsightly messes. We also are forbidden to kill porcupines because they are one of the few animals that a lost and starving human can easily kill with a club---which means that it is everyone's interest that they be abundant and not afraid of people. We also don't "jack" deer with bright lights, use salt licks, or hunt bears at garbage dumps---because it is "unsporting". Nor do we use high powered rifles in the more settled part of the country because missed shots are a menace to innocent bystanders. I can only assume that in Mencius' time there were similar rules governing hunting. It appears to me that Hsi had no qualms about breaking them, yet Wang was appalled.

In other words, Hsi was concerned about profit, whereas Wang was concerned about the "Way", or, Dao. What is the Dao for Wang? We don't know. But I would suggest that from my reading of Mencius that he would suggest that there is an ethical/social dimension to it. A person can't just be concerned about making profits and still adhere to the Dao.


I got thinking about this because we have just had a week where the excesses of capitalism really seem to have exploded across the media. In Canada the CBC broadcast a major expose about an investment firm that has encouraged super wealthy people to "give" their money to shady corporations in the Isle of Man as a way to avoid paying taxes.

In addition, we have the spectacle of Volkswagen being caught deliberately spoofing the emissions control regulations on their vehicles and investors buying up generic drug manufacturers so they can increase the prices charged on important life-sustaining drugs by as much as 7,000 percent.

These are pretty clear-cut examples of capitalist excess. But there are other examples of "bending a foot to straighten ten". For example, the place where I work has big signs all over the place talking about how much carbon has been saved by the energy saving light bulbs that have been installed there. A friend of mine who knows about such things just about choked when he saw them. He said that the carbon savings are grotesquely over-blown. And I know for a fact that the lights, which are designed to go off at night, are switched on five nights a week by the cleaning crew as soon as the computer turns them off to save energy. As a result, I strongly suspect my friend is even more right than he thinks.

What is happening with the signs at my workplace is "spin". That's when an institution hires professionals whose job it is to read every situation in the most favourable way possible and promote that to the general public as objective fact.


When I was at university I read a paper about scientific accuracy that talked about things like parallax. This the seeming displacement of an object as seen from two different places. An example of this is when we look at the hands of a clock and see how the time seems to change if we look at it from one side of the hand, to directly over the hand, to the other side.  This diagram from Wikipedia illustrates another example.

How Parallax Works
The point that the philosopher was making was that when a scientist takes a measurement such as with a thermometer, for example, he has a choice to make. He can try to "fudge" the data to support his hypothesis by looking at viewpoint "A" or "B", or, he can look at 90 degrees to the object, and write down what the temperature really is. This is a ethical choice. In the same way, at every step of the scientific process, a researcher has opportunities to "fudge" her results to conform to her expectations. This means that scientific objectivity is ultimately a question of ethics. This ethical stance is the exact opposite of spin, which is the process of avoiding the direct view and instead selectively choosing a viewpoint that will always make a preconceived viewpoint look the best.

What this means is that the activity we call "spin" is not only not objective, it is profoundly unethical. And the people we call "spin doctors" are not only not objective, they are profoundly unethical. In other words, spin doctors are evil. The person who wrote the copy that adorns the walls of my workplace is an evil person who makes their living by committing evil acts. That is why my friend reacted with visceral disgust when he saw them. 


I don't think that Mencius would call a spin doctor "evil". I very much doubt that any Daoist I have heard of would either. "Evil" is more of a Western, Judeo-Christian concept that stems from ancient Persian ideas of there being a dualistic battle between two gods, one representing "good" and the other "evil". In contrast, the tradition of Western Philosophy tends to see what we call "evil" as being misguided behaviour that is caused by ignorance and a stunted psyche. My reading of Chinese thinking would suggest that it is much more in harmony with the philosophical tradition than the Judeo-Christian one. So while I don't really believe in the idea of "evil", I know that many of my fellows citizens do. So, at least once, I want to call spin "evil" more as a rhetorical device than anything else.

I did this because I don't think that most people really understand how damaging spin is to our society. It is a subtle poison that rots the foundations of science and democracy. That is why, like my friend who reacted to the posters on the walls of my work place, I have a strong emotion of revulsion and disgust every time I see it.

I mentioned earlier that one of the nastier things revealed this week is the way speculators have been buying up companies that produce generic drugs and then dramatically jacking up the prices they charge. Here's one of these miscreants being interviewed by Bloomberg "News".

This is probably one of the best examples of spin that I have ever come across. This corporate leech has been very carefully primed by his marketing people and he is being interviewed by the usual type of corporate reporter who was probably selected for her good looks---she certainly doesn't know how to ask tough questions in an interview! If you watch the interview Shkreli goes through the following arguments:
  1. the drug is under-priced compared to cancer drugs
  2. the cost of production is not the only cost of production
  3. the company needs money to provide "dedicated patient services"
  4. the company will ensure that no patients will be denied the drug for financial reasons
  5. market competition will create new and better drugs
Let's look at these statements one-by-one.

First, with regard to the relative pricing. Starvation never justified malnutrition. So pointing out price gouging by one drug doesn't justify it in another. Shkreli is implicitly assuming that there is some sort of objective, fair, market mechanism that is setting drug prices. But economists will point out that medical services---including life saving drugs---are what they call an "inelastic market". No one who is suffering from a terminal illness would turn down a life-saving treatment because of cost. As a result, there can never be any competitive pressure exerted to reign in excessive prices. Moreover, because of the fact that medical services are governed by professionals, most patients are totally at the mercy of doctors and can only do what they are told. This means that even if it were possible to find cheaper alternatives to a given therapy, the patient would lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate the different alternatives with any hope of being able to find the optimal one. This is why medicine is a regulated profession and doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic oath and nurses to the Nightengale pledge. (It is also why engineers in Canada wear an iron ring.) There can be no competitive market in such situations, which is why regulated professions follow ancient systems of governance based on a sense of "duty" and ritual oaths. 

Shkreli lists off a bunch of production costs that he says bumps the price well above the $1/pill cost of making the drug. He mentions distribution, "FDA costs" and other manufacturing costs. If there are extra costs associated with the product, why not itemize them and add them to that $1 figure? I would suggest that if he did so, he would have come up with a figure that was only marginally bigger than that $1/pill. So instead, his spin doctors told him to reel off these other vague items and let the listener assume that these are very significant costs that simply cannot be avoided.

Next on the line is "dedicated patient services". This is a delightfully ambiguous term. What does it mean? Probably not much more than advertising. Have you ever heard from a drug company when you were being treated for an illness? I haven't. My interactions have all been with doctors, nurses and pharmacists---which are all regulated professions that have been decoupled from private enterprise and the free market. The only "dedicated patient services" I care about come from doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

As for the idea that this drug company can charge whatever it wants for this drug because they will make sure that "poor folks" still get it is patronizing. First, it only refers to the specific drug in question. What about all the other drugs that Shkreli has purchased but haven't been subjected to the media spotlight? Do the protocols all cover them? Secondly, it only refers to this moment in time. Any voluntary actions by the company can be removed whenever the media spotlight is taken away. Third, how is this protocol to be enforced? Can Shkreli prove that every doctor, hospital, and insurance provider will know that this special protocol exists whenever a poor person darkens their door with this problem? Or will they just look at the price on a computer spread sheet and say "yup, that's the price---and you can't afford it"? Special deals always get lost in the shuffle when poor and disenfranchised people get involved. That's what the class system and poverty is all about. That's why we have a welfare state instead of "noblesse oblige".

Finally, here's the biggest old canard of them all to finish off. The free market will give us new wonder drugs if we just throw enough money at it. I call "bullshit" on this. First of all, contrary to the spin, most primary research is not done by private entities but rather through government facilities, universities, and, charities. That's because businesses are not in business to find out how the universe operates but rather to make money. And when a business does do research to find some sort of practical application, such as a new drug, it leans heavily on primary research done for the public good. So why do we trumpet up the last stage of the work and ignore the first part?  Spin.

In fact, private research is a tremendous drag on scientific progress. There has been a real change at universities over the past few decades where private money has infiltrated science labs. Where once scientists routinely collaborated informally and people used to be able to wander into each other's labs to see what was going on, now doors are locked and people are secretive about experiments that could have practical implications. Even worse, because of the pernicious influence of big money, a lot of scientific results have been twisted as companies do things like publish only positive results and bury any studies that suggest that there might be problems. In drug research this is a tremendous problem. Just do a quick Google search of "buried drug studies" and lots of interesting stuff will come up, here's one that looked especially interesting. So far from empowering research into new drugs, the free market leeches off public research and damages scientific progress by reducing collegiality and reducing the reliability of published data.


Canada is currently in the midst of a federal election right now, so there is a tsunami of spin washing across the country. Of course, the lame-stream media is full of it. But what I find especially distressing are the people I know who are just as excessive in their use of spin in their expressions of partisanship. Loyalty can be a wonderful thing. I know my dear and lovely wife is totally loyal to me---as I am to her---and it fills me with a warm glow. But people shouldn't give their loyalty to frail institutions like political parties. Instead, like Wang and Mencius, we should be loyal to the Dao. It is true that for life to continue we all have to make compromises, but we need to make them grudgingly and only if they cannot be avoided. We shouldn't embrace them as a "career path". So when someone asks us to "bend a foot to straighten ten", remember that, as Mencius says, we usually end up bending ten to straighten one. True leadership inspires, it doesn't seduce.   

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