A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Insite in Hindsight

The little flower over the "i" means it's good for you
I am going to do something that at first sight may seem cheap and lazy: I am going to re-post a piece I wrote over five years ago. Readers of this blog will know that this is something I’ve only ever done once or twice before, and not because I’ve run out of time or ideas for new posts. Rather, I do it either when current events warrant it by making the old post have new significance, or else when an outlandish prediction I’ve made has finally come to pass. In this case, I am doing it for both these reasons.

Recently, the unthinkingly “progressive” ideologues on the city council of my hometown voted to open up three “safe injection sites”, doubtless with more to follow. Toronto has in effect decided to import a really bad idea from Vancouver. For readers in more sane jurisdictions who don’t know what a safe injection site is, it is essentially a medically safe law-free zone for junkies to shoot up in without having to worry about getting arrested or overdosing. Vancouver opened its first one in 2003.

For a conservative like me, this seems like a hare-brained scheme. But ask a progressive, and she’ll tell you it’s eminently sane and contributory to the common good. In re-posting this piece below, I ask you, which of us is right?

The piece was written back in 2011, as drug-blighted Vancouver was opening more safe injection sites. First, for the benefit of those who think state-sponsored shooting galleries are ill-advised, charity demands that I set out why its defenders think it’s a good idea. Here are what are claimed to be the main benefits of the policy: (i) addicts can receive timely medical attention should they overdose, (ii) the provision of clean needles will keep them relatively healthy and disease-free, and (iii) proximity to health services and the availability of information will hopefully attract more junkies into addiction treatment.

On the other hand, I argued that safe injection sites would send a mixed message about the social undesirability of drug abuse, thereby undermining the message that it is a behavior best avoided. Similarly, I cast doubt on the notion that more addicts would seek treatment, partly because the authorities had gone to such efforts to make drug addiction safe and comfortable, thereby removing some of the incentive to quit, and partly because there were already not enough treatment spaces available to meet current demand, let alone increased future demand.

Six or seven years on, how many of the progressive fantasies around safe injection sites have become reality in Vancouver? Strangely, when it comes to actual policy evaluation, the progressives have been eloquently quiet. From what I can tell, they were right about one thing: According to the BC Centre for Disease Control’s latest available (2014) annual report (p. 18), safe injection sites seem to have had a considerable role in reducing the rate of new HIV infections among intravenous drug users in British Columbia. That much I’ll grant.

Otherwise, to put it… ahem… charitably, the results of safe injection sites have been mixed. First, it seems to have done little or nothing to reduce overdose deaths in British Columbia. The Globe and Mail refers to a “surge” in overdose deaths since 2009. “Surge” implies something sudden, and anomalous. What we have in reality is a relatively long-term seven-year trend. Experts blame it on the advent of fentanyl abuse by addicts. I don’t buy this explanation, since this trend began long before fentanyl hit the streets. No, what we seem to have is a clear policy failure: safe injection sites are simply not preventing overdose deaths. According to the Globe article, the progressive lunatics running the asylum have a solution — more safe injection sites! Another solution is to keep the sites open 24 hours, presumably because, since making shooting up convenient didn’t work, the answer is to make it even more convenient. Granted, the 24-hour concept would only be operative Wednesday through Friday. Why? Well, because apparently “Insite has tracked a 50-per-cent increase in overdoses from January to May, 2016, specifically on the Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays of welfare-cheque distribution week, according to a Coastal Health statement.” In other words, public funds are being spent on government-sponsored shooting galleries in which dope will be injected that was also purchased with public funds.

Despite Insite and its ilk, junkies are still dying. I leave it to you to judge how bad a thing that is (it frankly doesn’t rank high on my list of pressing social ills). But at least they’re not getting AIDS as frequently, so in that sense, safe injection sites are keeping junkies safe. However, they are doing little to keep non-addicted Vancouverites safe, since hundreds of thousands of used needles are turning up in schoolyards, children’s playgrounds, and residents’ flower beds all over the city. Just a little taste of the progressive utopia coming soon to Toronto.

Without more ado, here’s the original post.

*        *        *        *        *
INSIGHTS FROM INSITE

For someone like me, who is of mildly conservative leanings, the application of public policy can be visualized as the dropping of a stone into a calm pond. Much like ripples, public policy has social effects that radiate outwards from the centre of social action. The most proximate effects are the ones that tend to get noticed, these being more pronounced and closer to the point of impact. The concentric circles further out are less pronounced and eventually fade away into imperceptibility.

However, while those inner ripples are fewer in number, the outer ones are more numerous and widespread. Thus, like ripples, the greater overall effects of a policy might just be those that we least take notice of. Herein lies the task of the conservative social policy analyst. Where others might be tempted to focus only on proximate effects, she must look to the long-term and often indirect effects, to that which is hidden. She must do this not out of a reflexive impulse to pooh-pooh any measure that smells like change. Rather, she must do it out of a desire to urge us to slow down, just a bit, and to consider for a moment whether we may not be creating unintended consequences through the best-laid plans of mice and men.

For some time now, there has been a social experiment going on in Vancouver’s drug-blighted Downtown East Side. It is called Insite, a program that provides a safe injection site for junkies to shoot up in. The main aim of Insite is to cut down on the rate of drug-related deaths by users. A recently-released study indicates that, by this standard, the program is a clear success. There is now talk of expanding the program to various other cities.

However, the current federal government here in Canada has always hated the idea of Insite and has bent over backwards to try to get it eliminated, to no avail so far. They don’t like the idea of coddling a group of citizens they consider to be little better than criminals, and they have gone to some lengths to provide their own counter-evidence purporting to show that Insite is actually a failure.

The government is on firmer ground when it appeals to an economic justice argument, for the fact is, Insite technically subsidizes junkies to shoot up, using funds presumably provided by taxpayers. If a convincing case can be made that taxpayers don’t want to subsidize junkies, then this to me represents a compelling case not to do so. On the other hand, if the program works, and if taxpayers can be convinced that it’s worthwhile, then, Insite is economically defensible. And if Insite relied only on charitable donations rather than tax funds, then no economic injustice would be committed. But I have a gut feeling that the current government would still hate and oppose the program in either case, so their aversion to it really has little to do with economic justice as such

I loathe the current federal government, so it pains me to find myself in ― qualified ― agreement with them. I have grave reservations about Insite. However, my reservations are not based on the federal government’s preconception that addicts are ipso facto criminals rather than persons. Thus, in what follows I will address their problems as if they were upright citizens deserving of just as much respect as you or me, albeit they happen to be citizens with a very serious health problem.

Also, my grave reservations about Insite are not based on any skepticism about the validity of the study indicating Insite’s success. I am willing to grant that the available studies are correct: Insite has been successful in its stated goal of reducing drug-related deaths in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

However, the successes focused on in these studies are what I was referring to above as the inner ripples of policy, its immediate or proximate effects. But what about the outer ripples, the ones that are harder to see or to measure? I heard an interview on the radio last week with a senior administrator of the program (unfortunately I didn’t catch his name). He stated that the goal of Insite was to “keep addicts disease-free until they are ready to make the decision to seek treatment for their addictions” (I’m necessarily paraphrasing here, but pretty accurately, I think).

The evidence indicates they have indeed been kept (more) disease free. This I won’t dispute. But it begs a larger question: What warrant do we have to assume that untreated addicts reliably make the decision to seek treatment? Evidence here varies, but most of what I’ve seen is not encouraging. That is one of the unseen ripples of the policy.

We can also follow the ripples a little further out. For example, what warrant do we have to assume that untreated addicts reliably make the decision to seek treatment when they receive services that enable them to continue using drugs relatively safely? If Insite facilitates addicts’ safe drug use, might it not be the case that a very strong incentive to quit ― the high probability of disease or overdose ― has been removed? This question was screaming to be answered in the interview, but neither interviewer nor interviewee seemed much interested in addressing it. On the interviewer’s part I imagine this was motivated by an implicit desire to display his social liberal credentials to a mostly like-minded CBC audience.

Defenders of Insite have argued that the availability of information and professional consultation available at Insite will help guide users to treatment options. Perhaps this is the case, but again, it is an empirical claim for which we want evidence. The report touting Insite’s success simply tells us that addicts using it are more likely to remain disease-free. It is (tellingly?) silent about how many of them end up seeking treatment. Until we have information on this, the claim that addicts who avail themselves of Insite’s services are more likely to seek treatment remains an unproven hypothesis, not a fact.

There is further reason to doubt this claim’s validity: most professionals in the “addiction services industry” (I don’t really know what else to call it) will tell you that there is a shortage of spaces available in treatment facilities. There are too few spots to service current demand, let alone an increase in demand.  Logically, this means that it would be impossible to treat more patients given current resources. So Insite cannot be leading more addicts to treatment, because the treatment isn’t there for them to be led to.

Obviously this is not an argument against Insite’s claim to efficacy in bringing addicts closer to treatment. If anything, it’s an argument for an increase in resources devoted to addiction treatment. Again, however, we must consider the policy ripples a little further out. Might it be the case that the increased access to addiction treatment information is at least somewhat ― if not entirely ― offset by the convenient and comfortable drug injection environment offered by Insite? At the very least, we must admit that mixed messages are being sent here: “We’d like you to consider getting treatment for your addiction. Here’s a brochure. And here’s a clean needle and a comfy room to shoot up in.” A junkie could be forgiven for taking away from this the message that his addiction is not so bad for him after all, and that treatment is not imperative.

Much of one’s attitude toward programs like Insite will depend on the views one has about the nature of addiction itself. Addiction is a puzzling phenomenon. Once upon a time, it was simply viewed as a matter of lack of willpower, and was thus regarded as a moral problem, a moral failing. We could call this the “moral disease” view of addiction. It has to a large extent fallen out of favour among researchers (along with many other things that employ the term “moral”). Speaking very broadly, the moral disease view has largely been replaced by either of two currently popular models of addiction. Fortunately, my reservations about Insite are unaffected by whichever of these views one happens to hold.

The Disease Model

Probably the most widely accepted and fashionable paradigm for understanding addiction is the disease view, which treats it as if it were a medical condition on all fours with, say, diabetes or cancer. Of course, there is a large psychological component to this particular disease which differentiates it from purely physical conditions, but for treatment purposes, addiction on this model is seen as a medical condition, a psycho-physical sickness beyond the control of its victim. This is the operational viewpoint of most Twelve Step programs.

From what little I know about the history of addiction treatment (and it’s probably more than the average person, for personal reasons I don’t wish to expand on here), the disease model was developed in the treatment of alcoholics in the early 20th century for at least two reasons. One was that clinicians noted that chronic alcoholism had a more or less definite disease pathology, a natural progression or history of symptoms, when left untreated. Another was the hope that by seeing alcoholism as a medical condition, people would be less judgmental of alcoholics, and alcoholics would be more willing to seek treatment once the stigma of their condition was removed. In other words, it was specifically hoped that the disease model would replace the old moral disease view with its accompanying social stigma.

Both of these were valid points to some extent. Chronic and very acute alcoholism does have a fairly well-defined physical pathology. And probably more problem drinkers have ended up seeking treatment than they otherwise would have once the social stigma attached to the “disease” was mitigated.

On the other hand, not all problem drinkers fit a disease profile that was originally developed with the most advanced late-stage alcoholics in mind. It was a one-size-fits-all model that has not proved very helpful in understanding the “disease”, if disease it be. And although more people sought treatment, the treatment programs based upon this disease model have been notable only for their abysmal success rates. Alcoholics Anonymous has been around since 1939. It does not track its success rate in treating alcoholics. You’d think they would want to. But there is probably a good reason why they don’t. Others have done the studies on their behalf, and the general consensus is that Alcoholics Anonymous is a failure at keeping people sober. There are far more failures than successes, and even among the “successes”, relapse rates are sky high. If alcoholism is a disease, and if A.A. is the “cure”, then as a doctor, I’d consider taking my chances by prescribing a placebo to my alcoholic patients.

Long-time members of A.A. will counter by saying that the organization is not supposed to “keep people sober”. Alcoholics are supposed to keep themselves sober; the responsibility for recovery always lies with the alcoholic herself. But doesn’t this seem in tension with the notion that addiction is a disease for which its sufferer is not responsible? A.A. members will also tell you that failure or relapse happens because an alcoholic can’t be treated unless he “is ready” to recover, or has hit bottom and decided to give up the drink. But again, this seems in tension with the disease model’s stress upon the notion that alcoholism is not a function of the alcoholic’s lack of willpower.

Sooner or later it seems, every treatment scheme predicated on the disease model runs up against this tension. The disease model may be better at luring the addict into treatment, but at bottom, the treatments themselves end up stressing willpower and the addict’s own inner resources for recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous is no exception. As a matter of fact, their entire program of recovery can be viewed as a conscious attempt to instill in the alcoholic a transformational revolution of character, the beneficial moral effects of which will hopefully mimic those of intense religious conversion. It is no coincidence that Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., was greatly influenced by William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is important to stress that such an approach works on the internal resources of the alcoholic’s own moral agency, which seems rather at odds with the disease model of addiction. After all, we don’t cure cancer or diabetes by relying on the character or willpower of the patient.

In a true disease model, the patient is just that ― a patient. But addiction treatment almost always ends up (as it must, I believe) treating the patient as an agent. Perhaps the success of such programs might be improved if they were to be honest about this from the beginning. Maybe we must fess up and admit that kicking addiction is a matter of willpower after all (helped along, of course, by a certain degree of moral support from others). Obviously, putting it this way grossly oversimplifies the phenomenon of addiction. But then again, so does the disease model.

The Rational Choice Model

The other school of thought ― the rational choice model ― is less popular than the disease model, at least among clinicians. The rational choice model has been adopted mainly by behavioural economists because it fits well with the observed behaviour of addicts. In a nutshell, this model views the addict as a rational consumer, in almost all respects the same as you or me.

Generally speaking, when the price of a good increases, consumption of that good tends to fall. The rate of decrease of demand will vary from one good to another, and from one agent to another, but the general trend is obvious. The addict’s consumption of drugs is, in principle, no different. If you lower the price of cocaine or heroin, addicts will tend to increase their consumption of them, and some people will begin to consume these drugs who otherwise might not have.

The fact that the addict is addicted to the drug simply means that his demand for the drug is inelastic relative to other goods. If the price of heroin goes up, before he considers cutting down his consumption, the junkie will instead often forego food or rent. This seems like an irrational consumption choice, but if each of us were to systematically examine our own consumption choices, we would often find similar though perhaps less harmful patterns. I once knew someone “addicted” to electronic gadgets; he absolutely had to have the latest thing, spending well beyond his slender means, even if paying for it meant that he didn’t know how he would make his rent or pay off his ridiculous credit card bill. My wife might say that my penchant for book collecting meets this description. There just happens to be no self-help group akin to Alcoholics Anonymous that I know of for my particular form of consumption aberration (if there were, I’m sure my wife would have left a brochure on my pillow by now).

The rational choice model views the addict as making choices about consumption, based on what they believe will best satisfy their overall preferences. To the third party observer, these choices can seem downright irrational, but to the person making the choice it seems perfectly rational: they have a (very strong) desire for a drug, which gives them pleasure or ― what amounts to much the same thing ― relieves their pain. Any approach to treating the addict should treat them as rational persons making choices based on a preference set and an information set. Such an approach would work on improving their decision-making by modifying their preferences and providing them with information. Inevitably, there will also be situational and environmental factors standing in the way of better decision-making, things such as easy availability of the drug, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc.

The point is, rather than approaching the addict as a powerless patient whose addiction is an external force majeur that strikes him through no fault of his own (the disease model), the rational choice model treats the addict as an empowered, decision-making agent, responsible for his own conduct. He ought to be praised for his good choices, especially when, as in the case of addiction, good choices are difficult choices. And he ought to be held responsible for his bad ones. The prevailing view that addiction seizes and controls the addict, as well-intentioned as it might be, is probably misguided. It is one part of an overall tendency to “medicalize” conduct that is moral in nature. I will illustrate this medicalization of moral conduct with an anecdote from an essay by Theodore Dalrymple.

Dalrymple was a prison psychiatrist. He was interviewing an inmate who was in prison for viciously beating up his girlfriend badly enough to put her in the hospital. This was not unusual behaviour for this particular inmate. Dalrymple asked him why he beat up his girlfriend. He replied to the effect that he had difficulty controlling his anger and she had made him really angry. Not really his fault, you see. The general gist of his answer was that he was in prison due to a problem largely beyond his control ― he had “anger management issues”, to use the parlance of our times. He simply couldn’t help beating his girlfriend to a bloody pulp. Dalrymple then asked him how it was that since he had been in prison he had managed to be well-behaved, with no outbursts of anger or violence. He replied that the guards didn’t let prisoners get away with that kind of bullshit in prison.

The prisoner had ascribed his violent behaviour to a quasi-disease model of anger, which he probably picked up by osmosis from the liberal claptrap he was hearing around him. Working from within the disease model, the prisoner’s subsequent good conduct behind bars makes no sense. But working from the rational choice model, it makes perfect sense. He was able to modify his behaviour in the presence of a strong incentive, namely getting the proverbial tar beaten out of him by a prison guard. Research on addiction done by behavioural economists bears this phenomenon out.

This has obvious implications for programs like Insite. When we ask ourselves what motivation Insite offers addicts to quit, we mostly come up empty-handed. Again, yes there are brochures and addiction counselors, but there are also the clean needles and the safe and comfy shooting galleries that cancel these out. The rational choice model predicts a poor long-term treatment prognosis for users of Insite. I hope someone will do the research to test this hypothesis. It represents one of those outlying ripples of this particular social policy, one of those rare ones that is, in principle, empirically measurable. And the test should probably happen before the program is expanded, not afterward. That is how conservative policy analysis should work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Our Robots, Ourselves

Anyone who has been following the US election spectacle — and really, the media have made it impossible not to — will by now realize that the insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are a collective cry for help from the middle and working class. People are struggling, and the usual ways of doing things have not helped them one iota. Hollowed-out factory towns, main streets full of boarded up shops, and parents whose lives now revolve around heroin rather than around jobs that pay a living wage. These are the legacies of several decades of politics as usual.

Despite their quite radical ideological differences, there is an interesting and significant overlap between them on this issue: both acknowledge (or at least claim to acknowledge) the growing numbers of formerly prosperous Americans who have fallen through the cracks. I never in my lifetime thought I’d hear the presidential nominee for the Republican Party call for ripping up trade deals and penalizing companies that offshore jobs. That kind of Bolshevism is not the usual stuff from which Republican presidential hopefuls are made. And to find that these positions of Trump’s tally with those of Sanders, well, we live in interesting times.

However, even within these broad areas of agreement between Trump and Sanders, there are more subtle differences. Each of them blames the problems facing the working class on different enemies. Regarding trade deals, Bernie Sanders views the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the devil’s right hand, while Trump views the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade deal in the history of the United States. Sanders blames offshoring for job losses, while Trumpian nativism tends to focus on the role of (illegal?) immigrants in supposedly taking jobs away from hardworking American-born citizens.

I read an article recently that made me think they were both missing what is — or is about to become — the biggest enemy facing the middle class, namely robots. The article was about how workers in China are being replaced by robots. The Chinese wage differential that was boosting their economy to such heights is no longer a comparative advantage. Soon, it seems, there won’t be anywhere left in the world where humans are cheap enough to hire. Embedded in the article were some statistics on the purchasing of industrial robots around the world that made for chilling reading. For the benefit of readers, I have charted the numbers and provided year-over-year percentage changes. Here is the picture worldwide:



These numbers are just for the past few years. Note particularly the large jump from 2015 to 2016. Now, here is the picture for North America (the US, Canada, and Mexico):



“Roboticization” is not as pronounced in North America, at least as judged by year-over-year increases. But I posit that this is simply an indicator of a mature economy that has been roboticizing for decades now. On the other hand, the chart shows a steady increase, without the dip in year-over-year increase that occurred in the worldwide numbers between 2014 and 2015. And the surge in the red line between 2015 and 2016 is still very pronounced in North America.

Now, what do these numbers have to tell us about the human impact of roboticization? The article mentions a kitchen utensils factory in Foshan, China, which replaced 256 workers with nine robots. If, therefore, we were to assume that each new industrial robot represents 28 jobs lost, it would mean that some 1,232,000 North American workers are poised to lose their jobs in 2016. Of course, many of these jobs will be Mexican, which won’t cause many Trumpists to shed tears. But still…

It might be the case that the robots in the Chinese example are extraordinarily efficient. For the sake of argument, let's instead assume that on average each new North American robot only replaces five workers — an admittedly arbitrary number. In that case, “only” 220,000 workers will lose their jobs to robots in 2016. But look again at that red line, at that year-over-year increase in robot purchases. If that increase only remains where it is, another 276,540 people will lose their jobs in 2017. The damage really begins to add up. And this is not a new process. It has been going on for awhile now. Is it possible that robots have something to do with all the empty factories, boarded up shops, abandoned homes?

So far, to my knowledge, this issue hasn’t made it into the campaign speeches of either Sanders or Trump (or anyone else, for that matter). They instead blame job losses on illegal “aliens”. Or on bad trade deals. Or on offshoring. Or, in Sanders’ more vague language, on “Wall Street”. Any of these might be a contributing factor to some extent. But look just look at at those numbers above. At some point in the not-too-distant future politicians will have no choice but take notice, as roboticization advances and becomes as plain as the nose on one’s face.

It may happen sooner rather than later if roboticization moves up the income ladder and starts gobbling up white collar jobs. We are on the cusp of a brave new world of robots, artificial intelligence, and big data, a world in which a chatbot can already outperform lawyers in overturning parking tickets.

Imagine it: a world without lawyers. Maybe they can replace our politicians too. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.


It raises some philosophical questions. If we are all fated to be replaced by robots and chatbots, what do we say about a species that makes itself obsolete? Or, if we find a way to structure our economy such that "benevolent" robots have merely freed us all from drudgery to do more pleasurable things, what do we say about a species that only lives for pleasure? What is the place of work within humankind's moral economy?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Piers Plowman and the Cock’s Egg

I have a friend who works at the same university I do, and last fall we decided to spend our lunch hours reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Key to this experience was that we would take turns reading the text aloud and discussing it as our lights led us. It was an enjoyable and profitable experience. So much so, in fact, that once we were finished we decided to tackle William Blake’s Milton: A Poem.

That experiment didn’t work out nearly as well. We right away decided that we needed to have a look at some secondary literature. Problem is, the secondary literature seemed to be as opaque as the Blake text itself, in some cases more so. After three wasted lunch hours, we gave up on Blake. Certain things about the poem — including its tangled syntax and occasional lack of agreement between subject, verb, and object — led us to the conclusion that Blake (poor soul) was clearly mentally ill. The only explanation we could come up with for this literary mess was that he was schizophrenic. This diagnosis was more charitable than deeming him an outright fraud. Pity we could not extend this charity to the myriad academics who have made their careers in Blake studies, including, I’m sorry to say, my countryman Northrop Frye.

So setting aside Blake, we picked up Piers Plowman by William Langland. It’s rather heavy going. Compared to Chaucer’s Middle English, Langland’s is idiosyncratic, much further away from modern English, and the story is heavily allegorical. And although one should not expect standardized spelling in medieval English, Langland’s (or his scribe’s) is all over the place.

The edition we chose (the Norton Critical Edition) also does not help. It is a parallel text, with Middle English on the left page and modern English on the right. This is good, because unlike with the Canterbury Tales, I find I need a translation to refer to as I struggle through the original. Indeed, my friend and I have taken to reading a couple of pages of the translation aloud, and then going back and reading the corresponding Middle English aloud. However, in transcribing the text, the editors have chosen not to use the “yogh” or ʒ character, which would have been pronounced somewhere between a hard g and a y. Instead, they replaced every instance of it with either a g or a y — usually the latter. What this means is that a word like “ʒift” gets transcribed as “yift” when it should clearly be “gift”. It makes parsing a difficult text unnecessarily harder.

The translation could be better. At one extreme, the translators often leave untranslated and unglossed words that require explication. At the other extreme, they often kill the metre and alliteration by providing a bad or awkward translation for a word that is perfectly intelligible in the original — they obtrusively translate where translation is unnecessary. Although, the translation is laid out in verse, it is not what one could call poetic. In addition, they sometimes provide English translations for Langland’s Latin quotations in their places in the verse, while at other times they relegate the translation to a footnote, while at still other times they provide no translation at all.

But perhaps worst of all, they sometimes provide a translation that is simply wrong. An interesting example occurs at Passus VI, ll. 284-285, where Piers describes the simplicity of his diet. Here is the translation, followed by the original Middle English (italics mine):

      “And yet I say, by my soul, I have no salt bacon
      Nor any hen’s egg, by Christ, to make ham and eggs,”

      “And yet I sey, by my soule, I have no salt bacoun
      Ne no kokeneye, bi Cryst, coloppes forto maken,”

Once you realize that kokeneye is “cockeneye” or “cock’s egg”, you immediately see that the translation makes little sense. First, by default, all chicken eggs are hen’s eggs, so there is nothing to be added by describing them as such. Second, at the risk of stating the obvious, a rooster is not a hen. Hence, a rooster’s egg is not a hen’s egg. Hence, the translation is bad in a quite literal sense.

But that is not all. Rendering “cockney” as “hen’s egg” also misses much nuance. First, let us agree on one simple fact: roosters do not lay eggs. As such, a cock’s egg is an imaginary entity, like a unicorn or pixie dust. Thus, in a sense, Piers could be understood as saying, “Not only do I not have an egg. I don’t even have an imaginary egg.” (i.e. he has less than nothing). That is conceivably the sense a reader might get if the translators had simply translated kokeneye as “cock’s egg” or “rooster’s egg”. At the very least, some of Langland’s earthy colloquialism would have been preserved.

Langland’s Piers is trying to convey a notion of scarcity. For him, food beyond the very basic is hard to come by. It is worth noticing that there is a related figure of speech still used today to convey the notion of scarcity: we sometimes describe a thing as being “scarce as hen’s teeth.” Just as roosters don’t lay eggs, neither do hens have teeth. In both cases, to describe something as a cock’s egg or a hen’s tooth is to describe a nothingness. By contrast, to use the term “hen’s egg”, as the Piers Plowman translators do, is to refer to something that is extremely common, thus undermining what I take to be the author’s intention.

Interestingly, Langland’s is the earliest citation for “cockney” in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is a word with an interesting history. Its primary use was to refer to an egg that was small and misshapen. This may have been the way Langland intended the word, if you wish not to accept my more figurative glossing of a cock’s egg as a fictional entity used to describe a nothingness.

However, shortly after Langland’s time, “cockney” came to refer to an overly coddled child, and, by extension, to a “milksop”. It could also refer to someone with overly refined and delicate tastes. This is the sense intended by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1628), when he writes of people who are “overprecise, Cockney-like, and curious in their observation of meats.”

By 1520 “cockney” was being used to refer to town-dwellers, presumably because they were perceived as being soft and effeminate. I posit that there is another reason that the term came to be applied to townies: in The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1604), Thomas Wright remarks that “Sundry of our rurall gentlemen are as well acquainted with the civill dealing, conversing, and practise of citties, as many Kockneis with the manuring of lands, and affayres of the countrey.” In other words, it wasn’t just that townsfolk were effeminate; they were also ignorant — ignorant of agriculture, husbandry, and rural pursuits. They were the kind of people that wouldn’t know the difference between a rooster and a hen, or whether his eggs came from the one or the other.

My theory here is supported by a couple of lines from “The Reeves Tale” in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written just a decade or two after Langland wrote Piers Plowman:

      “Whan this iape is told another day
      I sal ben halden a daf a Cokenay”

As daft or clueless as a Cockney.

Funny enough, the Norton Critical Edition translators of Piers Plowman were not the first to trip over this word. In a footnote, the editor of an 18th-century edition of Chaucer’s Poetical Works (Edinburgh, 1782) glosses Chaucer’s use of “cokenay” in the above passage as follows: “That this is a term of contempt, borrowed originally from the kitchen, is very probable. A cook, in the base Latinity, was called coquinator and coquinarius, from either of which cokenay might easily be derived.” He then cites our very passage from Piers Plowman and says that “it seems to signify a cook”. This explanation obviously makes no sense whatsoever as applied to the Piers passage. He then goes on to suggest that it might also have something to do with Cockaigne, the mythical land of idleness and luxury. Again, rather a stretch — although one might see a plausible path leading from Cockaigne to an idle and pampered Londoner.

In short, “cockney” is a word with a very rich web of overlapping significations. I’m not completely sure what Langland’s precise intention was in using it, though I’ve given you my theory. But what I do know is that he didn’t intend it to mean “hen’s egg”.