Math anxiety turns political

In a recent interview, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked about the problem with his party’s proposed “budget” (if we may loosely use that word for a set of proposals that refrain from actually saying how much money will be raised, or how it will be spent), and suggesting that it would “take me too long to go through all the math”. He actually spent a couple of minutes avoiding wasting time by going through all the math. And in an interview the following day he further expatiated on his mathless mission of mercy: “I like Chris [Wallace, the interviewer]. I didn’t want to get into all of the math on this because everyone would start changing the channel.”

Sure, you may think you want to know how I’m going to be covering the pension and health care you think the government has promised you (“federal government legacy costs”, as his running mate might term them), but trust me, the answer involves MATH! MATH, I TELL YOU! Imagine Jack Nicholson at the end of A Few Good Men yelling, “You want the math? You can’t handle the math!” Paul Ryan is a selfless soul who has descended into the pit of reckoning, done battle for your sake with the math demons, and returned with a golden budget for all our sakes. Surely we cannot be so cruel (and so self-destructive) as to demand details of the horrors he encountered there. Maybe Obama has done okay protecting us from bin Laden and alQaeda, but only Paul Ryan is going to be able to save us from Euclid and alGebra. Continue reading “Math anxiety turns political”

Who built that?

Obama vs. Romney vs. Brecht smackdown


I’ve avoided writing comments on US politics, mostly, but here’s something that really needs another perspective. Mitt Romney has seized upon a comment of Barack Obama in a campaign speech:

If you are successful somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet, so then all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Romney mocks this statement as anti-capitalist, anti-entrepreneur, which to a certain extent it is; at least, it is opposed to the maximalist Führerprinzip of heroic capitalism. This is how Romney puts it:

To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft … to say something like that is not just foolishness, it’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.

Well, sorry if they’re insulted, but they seem to have a pretty thin skin. The left has been defending Obama by saying this is twisting his words out of context (which it is), and that Obama LOVES entrepreneurs, which is also probably true. But the fact that they are fighting on these terms just shows how low the left has sunk, both intellectually and spiritually. There was a time when the left could have said, the entrepreneurs and business leaders certainly have their roles to play, but they are not the only ones making a contribution to the country, or to building a business. (Well, there were also those on the left saying that the entrepreneurs and business leaders are thieves and scoundrels, who will be the first with their backs up against the wall when the revolution comes.)
As so often, the quintessential formulation of this apparently difficult political concept comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Who built the seven-gated Thebes/ In the books I find only the names of kings./Did the kings lug the massive stones?/…Caesar smashed the Gauls./ Didn’t he at least have a cook?” So the proper response to Romney would be, “Steve Jobs built Apple. By himself? Didn’t he at least have a cook?” Continue reading “Who built that?”

Where the money is…

Mathematical finance as an accessory to crime

Not long after I finished my PhD in probability theory, a significant fraction of the field was devoured by the financial mathematics moloch. Particularly in Europe, probability theory positions disappeared, to be replaced by openings in financial mathematics, which either went unfilled or cycled among a very few senior researchers and a few quick-change opportunists (and, gradually, their fledgeling academic progeny).

Everyone felt they had to get in on the action, and of course there was a certain amount of positive feedback. When many jobs chase few graduates, it generates huge demand among students for training in such a demonstrably burgeoning field. Obviously, the academic feedback was limited by the fact that most of the eager young ‘uns were seeking employment in banks, not in academia — but the banks were hiring as well. Anyway, just about 10 years ago, a Dutch colleague asked me if I might be interested in joining his own institute’s planned financial mathematics group, for which they were proposing to create TEN new positions. My reply was that finance did not interest me as a topic of research, but I added that there was something unseemly — bordering on unethical — in mathematicians’ headlong chase after banking lucre. The current generation of mathematicians is the trustee of a vast and powerful system of analysis, whose creators were supported, honoured, and financed by public institutions. What is it but a crime, when we abscond with the fruits of this scholarship, and sell it off (cheaply) to banks, who will use it to extract billions of dollars from financial markets? Continue reading “Where the money is…”