News

Loading...

Monday, December 31, 2012

She Calls My Office All the Time!

During a hospital ad just now, a doctor who had successfully operated on a cancer patient said, "She loves life! She calls me all the time, just to let me know what she is doing!"

Let's give that a try: Start calling your doctor "all the time," just to give him little updates on your day. Let me know how that goes.

Röpke on the Price System and Laissez-Faire

"The tying of prices to costs, which many regard as one of the stupid quirks of 'capitalism,' thus assumes a function which is central to any economic system, whatever its organization: the function, namely, of effecting the best possible allocation of the nation's productive resources. This does not in the least imply that our economic system founded for the most part on the price system, is perfect. For in the price system, only those individual demands count which are backed up by the requisite purchasing power. Even if the price system functioned ideally, the factors of production would be employed in the 'best possible' manner only in relation to the existing (and unequal) distribution of income. No one will seriously pretend that our present distribution of income is the best possible. As the result of such unequal distribution a rich cat fancier, to take one example, can buy milk to feed her animals while milk is denied to the mother of a family of poor children because she cannot pay for it. We should not make the mistake of equating the explanation of the price system with a glorification of it, for this would be to fall into the error of the classical school which derived from such explanation premature conclusions with respect to economic policy (laissez-faire liberalism)." -- Economics of the Free Society, p. 37

You're Out of Touch, You're Out of Context

A very cheap complaint often made here on the InterWebs is, "You're setting up a straw man by quoting out of context!"

Well, unless one is going to paste the entirety of an author's life work into a post, every quote has obviously been removed from its context! The key to when this charge is valid and when it isn't is, "Was there something important in the context that significantly changes how one reads the quote?"

For instance, Rothbard claimed one of Mises' favorite quotes on fractional reserve banking was "Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling." But when we read the context, we see Mises liked the quote as an example of a popular error:
It is a mistake to associate with the notion of free banking the image of a state of affairs under which everybody is free to issue banknotes and to cheat the public ad libitum. People often refer to the dictum of an anonymous american quoted by Tooke: "Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling." However, freedom in the issuance of banknotes would have narrowed down the use of banknotes considerably if it had not entirely suppressed it.
Rothbard was quoting out of context in the blameworthy sense, and this post shows how to make that claim properly: show the context that changes the meaning of the quote!

Of course all the quotes I post here are "out of context," at least in the unproblematic sense. If you want to show that they are also out of context in the blameworthy sense,it is your job to post that context. And then I will post a correction. If you show up here with only the charge but no evidence, your case will be summarily dismissed.

Thanks for the Heads Up!

My phone has sent me multiple alerts about the fact that tomorrow... is New Year's Day!

Who knew?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

It's good to warm my bones beside the fire

In the snowy Poconos, sitting in front of a blazing fire in my wood stove, feet up, sipping some port and reading the new A Companion to Michael Oakeshott: does life get any better?

(I've limited Internet access here, but I am piling up posts for when I return to the civilization of Brooklyn.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Eek, That Was Embarrassing!

Two days after re-listening to Susan Boyle sing "I Deamed a Dream," I got to "enjoy" hearing Anne Hathaway performing it from the movie soundtrack. Apparently the idea was that histrionic acting might work as a substitute for singing ability.



Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Twentieth-Century Intellectual...

Was conducting essentially simultaneous love affairs with Iris Murdoch, the wife of H.L.A. Hart, and the wife of Fred Hoyle?

Philosophy Questions Presuppositions

"Bosanquet asked himself what a philosophical inquiry implies. His answer was that everyone knows a flower is a different thing when understood by the botanist, chemist or artist, and philosophy cannot hope to compete with these specialists in their own terms. Instead, the philosopher takes the flower, interrogates it, and determines its place and significance in the totality of experience: 'And this we call studying it, as it is, and for its own sake, without reservation or presupposition.'" -- David Boucher, from A Companion to Michael Oakeshott

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Efficient Markets? That Is a Presupposition, Not a Finding!

Pete Boettke points us to a wonderful passage from David Glasner:
An especially pretentious conceit of the modern macroeconomics of the last 40 years is that the extreme assumptions on which it rests are the essential microfoundations without which macroeconomics lacks any scientific standing. That’s preposterous. Perfect foresight and rational expectations are assumptions required for finding the solution to a system of equations describing a general equilibrium. They are not essential properties of a system consistent with the basic rationality propositions of microeconomics. To insist that a macroeconomic theory must correspond to the extreme assumptions necessary to prove the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium is to guarantee in advance the sterility and uselessness of that theory, because the entire field of study called macroeconomics is the result of long historical experience strongly suggesting that persistent, even cumulative, deviations from general equilibrium have been routine features of economic life since at least the early 19th century. That modern macroeconomics can tell a story in which apparently large deviations from general equilibrium are not really what they seem is not evidence that such deviations don’t exist; it merely shows that modern macroeconomics has constructed a language that allows the observed data to be classified in terms consistent with a theoretical paradigm that does not allow for lapses from equilibrium. That modern macroeconomics has constructed such a language is no reason why anyone not already committed to its underlying assumptions should feel compelled to accept its validity.
It is always possible to depict any situation as an equilibrium of some sort or other: we can just take whatever phenomena that seem to imply disequilibrium and simply posit some counteracting factor that shows the situation actually is an equilibrium: price controls don't create a disequilibrium, they just create an equilibrium in which queueing time plus price equilibrates supply and demand.

The problem with theorizing that posits "equilibrium always" is that it drains the idea of any empirical oomph: if markets are always as efficient as they can be, economics is reduced to simply giving its blessing to whatever social arrangements currently exist.

Why Conspiracy Theories Are Often Otiose

Stephen M. Walt gives us a good example here:
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.

Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Correctly analyzing class interests often explains what might otherwise be understood only as a conspiracy, a insight for which we can thank Marx.

Making Consciousness Useless and Inexplicable

Consider these quotes:

In his new book Free Will, Sam Harris says, "This [neuroscientific] understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet." Jerry Coyne asserts in a USAToday column: "The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics."

At least these fellows understand the logical implication of reductionist materialism: if reductionist materialism is true, consciousness is both useless and inexplicable. "Evolving consciousness" certainly cannot aid a "biochemical puppet" in any way whatsoever: his consciousness will have no influence whatsoever on what his body actually does, and so cannot possibly give him an evolutionary edge.

As you can see from these quotes, this is no straw man I have invented: those are the words of two of the very leading lights of reductionist materialism. They understand what their metaphysics implies. That many people who have casually embraced the idea don't comprehend its implications is not surprising: the amount of hate with which one must be filled to launch such an assault on human dignity is fortunately beyond most people's carrying capacity.

And, of course, the view expressed by Harris and Coyne is self-defeating rubbish: the words that come out of the mouth (or the keyboard) of a biochemical puppet are not his "conclusions" or his "understanding," but whatever noises his biochemical masters caused him to emit.

You Should Just Watch This...

at least once a year, OK?


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Oh Holy Night

"The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you." -- Werner Heisenberg

"If you study science deep enough and long enough, it will force you to believe in God." -- Lord Kelvin

"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." -- Max Planck

"Those who say that the study of science makes a man an atheist must be rather silly. Something which is against natural laws seems to me rather out of the question because it would be a depressive idea about God. It would make God smaller than he must be assumed. When he stated that these laws hold, then they hold, and he wouldn’t make exceptions. This is too human an idea. Humans do such things, but not God." -- Max Born

"The world is rational... the order of the world reflects the order of the supreme mind governing it." -- Kurt Gödel

"An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God." -- Srinivasa Ramanujam

"My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being...When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups...I want to speak to their souls." -- John Coltrane

"Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church's greatest ornament." -- Igor Stravinsky

"It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it… Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty?" -- Jack Kerouac

"A brilliant inspiration shows me that I have an unusual weapon at my disposal to help me penetrate to the core of reality: mysticism -- that is to say, the profound intuitive knowledge of what is, direct communication with the all, absolute vision by the grace of Truth, by the grace of God." -- Salvador Dali

And let us close with an image of another artist who attended mass almost daily:

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Maple Syrup Cartel

Did you know there is one?

Why Have a Driver...

if he can't do anything?

Let's say a manufacturer's rep tells you his company has developed an automobile that it entirely self-operated: in fact, there is not even any mechanism by which a human could intervene in the car's operations.

But when he shows you the vehicle, there is someone sitting in the "driver's" seat.

"What's he there for?"

"Well, he could prove useful."

"How is that?"

"In case something goes wrong."

"But you told me the car is a causally closed system: there is no way for something from outside the car itself to guide its operations."

"That's right."

"So how could the driver be useful?"

"You know, he can reflect on what is going on. Be aware of the environment. Spot dangers."

"So then he could take control of the car, based on the trouble he spots?"

"Oh, no, impossible. The vehicle runs completely automatically."

At this point you would just throw up your hands, because the rep is talking incoherent nonsense, right?

Reductionist materialists are in the exact same position as the rep in the above scenario: On the one hand, they wish to explain consciousness as an evolutionarily useful adaptation. On the other hand, they wish to hold that the world described by physics is causally closed: there simply are no true causes in the world other than the interaction of the particles and fields that physics has discovered.

But it is incoherent to hold both of these views at once. If the car is a causally closed system, there is no usefulness to the driver. If the driver, because he becomes aware of a danger, can do something to change the operations of the car, then the automotive system is not causally closed.

If reductionist materialism is true, then consciousness cannot be useful to organisms. The only way of incorporating consciousness into reductionist materialism is as a useless by-product of mechanisms that actually are useful.

If consciousness is useful to organisms, then reductionist materialism must be false.

Retroporn

The vintage goods stores in my area now frequently have stacks of 40-and-50-year-old Playboy magazines for sale... I guess so hipsters can wank ironically.

Hurray, Thoreau!

Not against all sensible gun control, but against destructive nonsense passed in the emotional wake of a horrible event. (I deliberately refuse to use "tragedy" in reference to any event like Sandy Hook, because the word has its own meaning that is diluted by using it for every single happening we don't like.)

In particular, pro-gun-control progressives, how will we make sure that new laws passed are not assaults on the civil rights of our already-most-assaulted demographic, poor, young black males?

A Moral/Practical Conundrum

Walking home tonight, I found a significant sum of money lying on the sidewalk. (Thus refuting neoclassical economics. :-)

It is nothing like the sort of sum one could retire on, or anything like that, but it could buy you a nice meal with wine at a good restaurant.

My conundrum is this: If I could with any certainty identify who dropped the money I would gladly -- well, at least not begrudgingly -- give that person back their money. On the other hand, if anyone else at all is to have the money, I figure it should be me: as Kirzner says, finders keepers. Better me than someone who is going to lie and try to claim the money under false pretenses. At least I came by it honestly.

So, the question is, how do I maximize the chances of getting the money back to its rightful owner while minimizing the chances some liar will trick me? This guy tells me that in these circumstances I should just accept it as a gift from fortuna. What do you think?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I See Garth Hudsons Everywhere!

The latest hipster trend here in Brooklyn is that all the hipster guys look like they are preparing to tryout for a "The Band" cover band. (Man, that name makes talking about them awkward sometimes, don't it?)


That's Garth Hudson on our far left: most of the time, it looks like they're planning on getting the Garth Hudson role.

DeLong Takes Down Douthat

Brad DeLong is disgusted with Ross Douthat for making the following assertion:

"FOR a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left…"

What a crazy thing to say! No one would have jumped on an event like this to push their pre-existing policy agenda. In fact: "No, Ross Douthat. For a week after the Newtown shooting the conversation was dominated by grief, terror, and sorrow."

"What kind of a sociopathic nut writes such a lead?"

And we can turn to the writings of DeLong himself to show how wrong Douthat is. Look at the outpouring of sorrow and grief in the very first post he wrote relating to the shootings.

Ouch, wait a second! That post had nothing to do with grief, terror, and sorrow. It was a heavily sarcastic post using the shooting to push DeLong's pre-existing policy agenda.

Well, at least in his second post related to the shootings he didn't do that.

Gulp! No, his second post also used the shootings to push his pre-existing policy agenda.

I guess my title should have been "DeLong Takes Down DeLong."


Episcopalian Paradise

In his sermon today, our priest was examining the Christmas manger scene. He said, "The quiet of the manger, with people of different nations and different stations in life gathered peacefully together, harmoniously focused on a single person, is an image of that first earthly paradise, in England... ah, I mean, Eden!"

Why a Mechanistic Evolutionary Theory Is Logically Incapable of Explaining Consciousness

The very attractiveness of Darwinian and NeoDarwinian theories of evolution was that they show how mechanisms can reproduce with alterations that continually fit them to the environment. The process was posited to take place without any design, and with no conscious intention on the part of the mechanisms to survive or to modify themselves. All teleology is forbidden.

It should be obvious that while such a theory might account wonderfully for the appearance of ever more sophisticated and complex mechanisms, it is logically, not empirically, incapable of explaining why any of those mechanisms should ever become self-aware. All of the action in the theory is in the mechanisms: self-awareness cannot possibly make any difference to the fitness of these mechanisms, by the very postulates that made the theory attractive in the first place. At best, consciousness is some sort of accidental, weird by-product of mechanistic evolution, something totally useless with which we are nonetheless saddled.

Unless, "Well, it just happened" is to count as a good scientific explanation, a mechanistic theory of evolution cannot explain consciousness.

You Probably Did Not Know This About Me, But...

I have worked on numerous films... and been dead for over twenty years!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why Online Instruction...

is no substitute for the real thing:

"Plato’s Socrates called this activity periagoge, where one experiences a conversion in wonder to pursue truth. Teaching is not the student’s reception of doctrine, whether conservative or otherwise, but the attempt to pass the embodied experience of wonder, where the teacher’s presence becomes as important as the ideas that he or she is communicating."

Of course, this does not apply to the transmission of merely technical knowledge: for instance, I can imagine learning structural engineering just fine online. But not a liberal education.

Friday, December 21, 2012

American Exceptionalism...

is true in at least this sense: few peoples have ever talked as much about their own exceptionalsim for as long as have Americans! (The Romans might be a comparable case.)

Marx and Rothbard, Sitting in a Tree?

I'm reading a review of Capital, the State, and the Monetary Mode of Power in The Review of Political Economy, and I am really struck by how similar the Marxist view of credit creation is to that of the 100%-reservists: basically, it is a way of bestowing claims to goods upon certain (undeserving) people. This certainly is not an argument against either the Marxist or Rothbardian view... in fact, some people might be encouraged that someone arrived at the same finish line from a different starting point. But I wonder how many people in either camp are aware of this similar conclusion?

All Statistical Knowledge Is Built upon Historical Knowledge

Sometimes we encounter the contention that statistical studies in the social sciences are "rigorous," as opposed to the kind of "soft" knowledge we get from "merely" narrative history. This is mistaken in several ways, but probably the most fundamental is that any validity and significance of any statistical study in the social sciences are themselves based upon historical understanding.

For instance, if we are studying industrial output in the Soviet Union, we have to know that data on such things was systematically doctored: and knowing that is a matter of historical understanding. Similarly, if we want to correct for this false reporting and try to get at the true figures, we must examine plant records, diaries, post-Soviet interviews, and so on: again, an historical inquiry.

"Ah," you ask, "but what about where there wasn't such data distortion?" Well, we can only determine that there wasn't through... historical understanding.

There have even been cases where a "researcher" was found to have simply made up data without doing a study at all. His methods may have been "rigorous" in processing this "data," but the data itself was sheer fabrication. How can we expose this? Examining lab notes and similar studies, interviewing research assistants, looking into the researcher's biography, i.e., through an historical inquiry.

Claiming that statistical social science has a higher epistemic value than "mere" history is like claiming "I can stand up a lot longer than my legs can."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hagelian Dialectics

I'm starting to think this Hagel-nomination business could be pretty important: read Scott McConnell as to why.

Seriously, when mentioning that one is an American, not an Israeli, senator supposedly disqualifies one from higher office, I think it is time to push back.

Like a Bored Orangutan

Ever wonder what story might lead up to this line?

"Well kids, the reason you can't come downstairs on Christmas Eve is because an obese wizard from Lapland who happens to be the moral custodian of the human race is spraying his genetic material all over the walls like a bored orangutan."

Then wonder no more.

The First African-American President, Sure...

but isn't the Obama's presidency even a little more remarkable than that?

I thought of this while reading Oggi today*: the reporter remarked the Obama was the first black president of the United States. And I thought, "Yes, but it's not like we were last our anything: Italy hasn't elected any Africans as prime minister, has it?"

And then my thoughts went even further: has any nation with a population mostly of European descent ever elected someone largely not of European descent as head of state, prior to Obama? So, the criteria: the country has a population over 50% of which are European in ancestry, and they have elected a head of state of at least 50% non-European ancestry. Had it happened before 2008?

Here's one possibility, but a tough case to decide: Fujimori in Peru. The reason it is tough is that the population has a very high proportion of people of mixed descent, so it is not clear to me if it counts as a country with a majority European population, but I think it probably does not.

PS: While trying to research this question a little bit -- what exactly does one Google for here? -- I found this article, in which the authors write, "Many nations have had women presidents and prime ministers, including Ireland and India." I'm figuring that, being good progressives, the authors declared Maggie an honorary "non-woman" when it comes to heads of state.

* -- Does that count as stuttering?

Time Flies When You're Having Fun

The thing is, as I'm discovering while trying to get grading done on 70 finals and 20 term papers, it does not seem to slow down when you're not having fun.

It's Ironic About Irony, Isn't It?

I noticed this when I was at the apartment of a friend who collected the plastic figurines they give away at fast food places. He collected them ironically, of course. But this, I noted with curiosity, didn't change the fact that he was eating at fast food places a hundred times a year, and had filled his apartment with ugly-looking junk.

The Last Psychiatrist dissects this phenomena here: irony, he notes, is a way to pretend to be distant from something while actually being all in: Did my friend think the fast food companies cared whether he was giving them his money ironically or not? The irony with which he handed over his pay to them did not, I imagine, spoil the view the CEO of QuickyChix enjoyed from his seaside villa one little bit.

Toward a Truly Free Market

My review of John C. Médaille's recent book with the above title is online here. Taylor and Francis loads this link up with fifty free views, and then you pay, so read it free while you can.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Don't Know Exactly What to Do About Guns

But I do know this: I don't trust anyone who pretends the following facts simply don't exist:

"In 1954, there were only a dozen armed robberies in London but, by the 1990s-- after decades of ever tightening gun ownership restrictions-- there were more than a hundred times as many armed robberies.

"Gun control zealots' choice of Britain for comparison with the United States has been wholly tendentious, not only because it ignored the history of the two countries, but also because it ignored other countries with stronger gun control laws than the United States, such as Russia, Brazil and Mexico. All of these countries have higher murder rates than the United States.

"You could compare other sets of countries and get similar results. Gun ownership has been three times as high in Switzerland as in Germany, but the Swiss have had lower murder rates. Other countries with high rates of gun ownership and low murder rates include Israel, New Zealand, and Finland."

Republicans Try to Slide the Blame

One Denis Boyles writes, in the Claremont Institutes Christmas book review:

"As the economy began collapsing first under Bush in 2008, then under Obama in 2009-10..."

Although the recession ended in June 2009, the economy was still "collapsing" in 2010! And I bet that initial yard market will slowly slide forward as well: if Boyles could get away with it, he would have the recession starting after Bush gloriously left office in the midst of plenty and boom times for all.

Look, it's one thing to say "The recovery would have been faster if not for Obama's policies." Maybe. But it is just lying to claim the economy was still "collapsing" in 2010.

How to Shut Down a Conversation with Bullying

As soon as someone deviates an iota from your preferred position, shout "Racist!" And make sure a powerful lobby is ready to back you up in making the charge.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A House of Cards, as Viewed by Saltwater and Freshwater Economists

Saltwater: If we just keep injecting glue everywhere the cards meet, we can keep building higher!

Freshwater: Those cards blowing around all over the place? That's progress!

What Does Everything Depend Upon?

Everything:

'"It's all riding on it all right there," [Ryan] said.'

Malthus on Savings

"No political economist of the present day can by saving mean mere hoarding." -- Principles of Political Economy, p. 38

Some commenters have taken me to be endorsing Malthus when I post quotes from him or try to create a model that duplicates what he was thinking: I swear, I am only attempting to understand him at present. Once I do that, I might endorse him or not!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wow, Sensible Discussion of Gun Control!

Sullivan lists some sensible possibilities. (I'm not sure they are good ideas, but they strike me as plausibly good ideas!) And here is a very good quote from David Frum:

"When thinking about gun measures and mental health measures, the right question to ask isn't: will such-and-such a measure prevent all killings? The right question is: will it contribute to reducing the number of killings as we have previously successfully reduced automobile fatalities?"

This is a nice contrast to the dream-world commenter at Rod Dreher's blog, who, in response to Dreher's rather truistic comment that it is not possible to create a world in events like Sandy Hook can't happen, responds, "That’s hardly a reason not to try."

Right, that it is impossible for a human being to jump to the moon using only their muscle power is "hardly a reason not to try"!

It's this sort of mad thinking that drives ventures like the "Drug Free America Foundation." Look, you nut jobs, America is not going to be "drug free," ever, never, ever. And shooting for impossible goals does huge damage: for one, it diverts all sorts of resources from really achievable goals, like those that the "America in Which Drugs Do Less Damage Foundation" might shoot for.

Progressives, How Did That Rush to Legislate Work Out for You?

Some people seem to think that, if I urge calming down, in the wake of Sandy Hook, before legislating in response to it, I am really just trying to delay better gun control forever. Well, no.

But since it is often self-described progressives who are most enthusiastic about better gun control, those of them who wish to use the emotions of this massacre to push through some legislation might consider an earlier time when a high-emotion event was used to push through someone's pre-existing legislative agenda because, by God, WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING, and don't you care about murder victims?!

I'm talking about a little piece of legislation called The Patriot Act, a huge bill giving those who wanted vastly expanded law enforcement powers a laundry list of goodies they had already desired well before 9/11, passed by Congress barely a month after the attacks, and clearly passed without anyone in Congress having had time to read the whole bill.

Do you really think it was better that we JUST DID SOMETHING than that we, for instance, appointed a high-level commission to study what happened for six or eight months, and declared that only when their report was in would Congress consider any legislation? Whatever passed after some months of study might have still been bad, but do any progressives really think it could have been worse than The Patriot Act?

Do you remember when you were a kid and you were ready to explode? What did your mother tell you? "First count to ten before you do anything."

Really, all I am saying is that commonsense advice applies even more so to legislation, which is harder to undo than an angry curse or a punch.

A Semi-Regular Sight in My Hood

A full US mail cart, sitting unattended in the middle of the sidewalk:



Where's the mail carrier? At a bar down the street? Getting his Christmas tip from the owner of the house nearby? In any case that cart sat unattended at leastthe whole time I was writing this post.

Occasional Churchgoers

My wife came to mass yesterday. I said, "I bet the church will be crowded today: a lot of people like you will be showing up."
"Yup," she said, "the Christmas, Easter, and post-massacre crew will all be there today."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Adam Lanza, the Perfect Cypher upon Whom We Can Project Our Agendas

"Tough cases make bad law," it is often said. I suggest a corollary: extreme events make bad legislation.

Adam Lanza seems to offer us a mystery (since no one seems to have any idea what drove him to this massacre) onto which everyone can project their already-arrived-at conclusions:

He used a gun to commit his crimes. We need stricter gun control!

He committed his crimes in a state with strict (by American standards) gun-control laws, in a place that was designed to be "gun free": so right-to-carry laws are the solution!

He was home schooled (for a time): home schooling should be forbidden!

He was home schooled because he had been in public schools and had had difficulties there: public schools are the problem!

He played violent video games: ban violent video games!

His parents were divorced: we need to promote stronger family values!

This is why I reject using the immediate aftermath of such events to promote one's pre-existing agenda: even if you get your way, it is likely to be in a sloppy, emotion-driven fashion. Some people have read my rejection of this use of violent events to drive legislation as an anti-gun control stance: not at all! There are certain measures, such as requiring background checks at gun shows, that strike me, at first glance, as extremely sensible. (I am no expert on the topic, so that's why I add "at first glance.") But I would like whatever legislation we arrive at in response to these sort of events to be based on reasoned consideration on, say, careful statistical studies of how much right-to-carry laws help prevent crime versus how much widespread gun ownership spurs on crime. I have no idea how such studies will turn out, but I think relying on them will be a lot better than passing legislation based on "Oh the humanity!"

Malthus on the Labor Theory of Value

"But it seems very strange and incorrect to consider mere labour as wealth. No one would give anything for it if he were sure that it would yield no gratifying result. It is in the expectation of this result alone that labour is employed. The sick man employs a physician, not because he's pleased with the trouble which he gives him, but because he expects that his health may be benefited by the advice which he receives." -- Principles of Political Economy, pp. 28-29

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reductionist Materialism Is Obviously Wrong, and...

non-reductionist materialism tends to wind up being not materialism:
The question is whether they can reject reductionism consistent with maintaining a position that can in any interesting sense be called “naturalistic.” In particular, non-reductionistic versions of materialism have a tendency to collapse into either property dualism -- the sort of view defended by Chalmers -- or a quasi-Aristotelian commitment to formal and final causes -- which (as I noted in my own review of Nagel) is essentially what Nagel is defending. So, if one rejects both Chalmers’ and Nagel’s views (as, of course, Dupré does) it is no good to note that most naturalists are no longer reductionists, and leave it at that. One needs to show that this anti-reductionism doesn’t effectively put these naturalists precisely into either Chalmers’ camp or Nagel’s; and Dupré does nothing to show this.
Note: This is Feser's response to John Dupré's complaint that Nagel shouldn't be addressing reductionism, because, Dupré says, no one in the philosophy of science takes reductionism seriously anymore. So any reductionist citing Dupré and claiming "See, here's a prominent philosopher who agrees with my rejection of Nagel," is taking an odd stance since, in fact, Dupré criticizes Nagel for writing a book rejecting your position because, he says, essentially everyone in the philosophy of science now rejects your position, so what's the point of criticizing something so obviously wrong?

Therefore, what is going on here is we have two atheist philosophers both agreeing that of course reductionism is wrong, but arguing as to whether that leaves us a materialist option or not. That such an argument is taking place offers little comfort to reductionists.

And Brad DeLong is as far from understanding what is actually under dispute here as is a Amazonian tribesman from comprehending a dispute between two aeronautical engineers as to what actually creates lift in an aircraft. Instead he stands in the jungle in a loincloth shaking a spear and shouting the name of his god, "Darwin!" as their helicopters fly by, way over his head.

OK, Progressives, Can You Think About This?

I have a friend in the neighborhood: let us call him "Herman."

When I met Herman, I thought he was probably homeless. He dressed kind of like he was, his dental state looked like he might be, and he seemed to just do odd jobs for a neighborhood grocery store. But, whatever: Herman was friendly, liked a good joke, and told some himself, so he was alright by me.

But gradually, I saw Herman more and more places in the neighborhood, taking out the trash, sweeping the sidewalk, moving a piece of furniture. Well, a very energetic homeless man.

Then he told me he was renting a place in the neighborhood for his business. We chatted a little about that, but it didn't make much of an impression on me.

Yesterday I saw him blocks from his usual stomping grounds. "Herman, what are you doing up here?"

"Oh, I have so much new business. I'm all over. I just got a couple of dozen buildings in Park Slope."

"What? How can you do all that?"

"Oh, I have about 15 people working for me."

"Really?"

"Sure: the only reason I still come out and do some of the buildings is it keeps me healthy. I like using my hands: God's greatest gift to us."

I was more than a little bit startled by this news. I thought for a moment, and then said, "Herman, I do some work with a national magazine: they'd love a story like this. Would you be interested in being interviewed?"

"Oh, maybe in a few months when I get going a bit more."

But I suspect something very different: my guess is that his business is all underground, and a magazine profile might bring trouble.

And here is something I wish progressives would think about a bit more: You know all those forms and forms and forms that businesses have to contend with to make sure they are treating employees fairly and cleaning up their wastes properly and doing double-entry bookkeeping just so that they are paying enough taxes: do you understand the effect these have on stamping out or driving underground enterprise among the very people the progressive program purportedly is designed to help?

One might almost begin to suspect the following: Consider the fact that IQ is, at least as I contend, not a measure of "general intelligence," but a measure of one's ability at the very specialized task of manipulating complex symbolic systems. As those who can manipulate those complex symbolic systems began to gain control of the major productive forces of society (and yeah, I'm a go all Marxist on your asses here, progressives), what they did was to alter the legal system to protect their class interests: they passed law after law making it harder and harder for anyone not adept at manipulating complex symbolic systems to run a business that is both legal, and does not pay out oodles and oodles of money to accountants, lawyers, etc. who can manipulate such systems.

Herman is obviously a bright man. I now begin to suspect he makes a lot more money than I do. Nevertheless, he needs to operate underground, due largely to legislation passed by progressives that purportedly helps people like him but in fact protects the privilege of people like me.

That is progressive?

Malthus on Production and Consumption

"The same tendency to simplify and generalize, produces a still greater disinclination to allow of modifications, limitations, and exceptions to any rule or proposition...

"To explain myself by an instance. Adam Smith has stated, that capitals are increased by parsimony, that every frugal man is a public benefactor, and that the increase of wealth depends upon the balance of produce above consumption. That these propositions are true to a great extent is perfectly unquestionable. No considerable and continued increase of wealth could possibly take place without that degree of frugality which occasions, annually, the conversion of some revenue into capital, and creates a balance of produce above consumption; but it is quite obvious that they are not true to an indefinite extent, and that the principle of saving, pushed to excess, would destroy the motive to production. If every person were satisfied with the simplest food, the poorest clothing, and the meanest houses, it is certain that no other sort of food, clothing, and lodging would be in existence; and as there would be no adequate motive to the proprietors of land to cultivate well, not only the wealth derived from conveniences and luxuries would be quite at an end, but if the same divisions of land continued, the production of food would be prematurely checked, and population would come to a stand long before the soil had been well cultivated. If consumption exceed production, the capital of the country must be diminished, and its wealth must be gradually destroyed from its want of power to produce; if production be in a great excess above consumption, the motive to accumulate and produce must cease from the want of an effectual demand in those who have the principal means of purchasing." -- Principles of Political Economy, pp. 6-7

Friday, December 14, 2012

Yes, the Connecticut Shootings Were a Bad Thing

The man who did the shootings was evil. Evil can rear its head anywhere, even in a tony suburb: one shocked resident was quoted as saying "I thought I lived in the safest place on Earth!"

And that's the problem with a lot of the reaction I see: too many people think evil is something that exists, perhaps, in far away lands, amongst people with incomprehensible customs and practices, but that ought never to touch me, because I live in a respectable neighborhood in a respectable town in a respectable country! They are like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: they think they can ignore those goings on in far-away lands, because the Shire is nice and respectable.

While the shootings in Newtown were certainly awful, don't they pale in comparison to the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in a period of a few months? But during the Rwandan genocide, I never recall being approached by neighbors with tears in their eyes, asking me if I had heard what happened. I don't recall anyone I know immediately advocating for better machete-control laws. Evil is happening in some far-away land to extremely foreign people: well, that's no business of ours, is it?

And, lest you think I am too far removed from Newtown to really be concerned: My sister, two of my nephews, my cousin's widow, and two of their children live (lived?) in Newton, and my cousin's kids went to that the school where the shootings took place: I think my cousin's children are OK (because they weren't in kindergarten), but I don't know that for a fact.

So, no, I am not callous about what happened today. It is just that I already realized that evil can arise anywhere, and we cannot buy immunity from it with gigantic defense budgets and strict zoning laws. That evil should rear its head close to me and mine is sad, but not shocking: I already understood we live in a fallen world.

Malthus on Empiricism in Economics

The first business of philosophy is to account for things as they are; and till our theories will do this, they ought not to be the ground of any practical conclusion... a frequent appeal to this sort of experience is pre-eminently necessary in most of the subjects of political economy, where various and complicated causes are often in operation, the presence of which can only be ascertained in this way. A theory may appear to be correct, and may really be correct under given premises; it may further appear that these premises are the same as those under which the theory is about to be applied; but a difference which might before have been unobserved, may shew itself in the difference of the results from those which were expected; and the theory may justly be considered as failing, whether this failure arises from an original error in its formation, or from its general inapplicability, or specific misapplication, to actual circumstances. -- Principles of Political Economy, pp. 8-9

The Desire to Simplify

"In political economy, the desire to simplify has occasioned an unwillingness to acknowledge the operation of more causes than one in the production of particular effects; and if one cause would account for a considerable portion of a certain class of phenomena, the whole has been ascribed to it without sufficient attention to the facts..." -- Principles of Political Economy, p. 5

Amen, Reverend Malthus!

The Problem with DOING SOMETHING!!! about a Tragic Event

In response to the shooting in Newtown, my school shut down one of the two entrances to campus.

The problems with this are:

1) The fact that this shooting was much closer to us than other mass shootings gives it emotional wallop, but absolutely no significance for the likelihood of anything similar happening to us; and
2) The entrance that remains open is not guarded: anyone who wanted to could drive a mechanized infantry combat vehicle through it and it wouldn't be noted for five or so minutes. I imagine police might be put there for a couple of days, but even if so, the guns will be in the trunk, and I am sure they are not going to search every car entering campus.

In the emotional wake of a spectacularly bad event, the urge to immediately DO SOMETHING!!! should usually be resisted. (Of course, if there was an earthquake, and you expect an aftershock, or a shooting but the shooter got away, you probably should react swiftly!) The reason is the "something" is likely to be pointless or worse. After we all have calmed down a bit, and are able to think, then we should talk about what to do.

Essay Versus Multiple Choice Exam

On a multiple choice exam, the first people to leave almost always have the best scores.

On an essay exam, they almost always have the worst.

While Reading This Blog Today...

don't stuff beans up your nose!

And that means you in particular, Fetz!

Former Austrian Bob Murphy "Puts the Boot In"

Over at Nick Rowe's blog:

"I imagine you would see a bunch of different explanations given, if you read Mises, Hayek, Haberler, Rothbard, etc. on the business cycle. And since they would be doing it in words, not a formal model, it would be hard to put our finger on exactly what the claim was."

Ouch, Bob, ouch!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A General Glut in a Three Commodity Economy, with No Money

In honor of Adam Smith, production in this economy will consist of beaver and deer, and, in an addition in honor of Silas, arrows (intended to pierce the heart of blog writers he dislikes).

I produce beaver.

Bob produces deer.

Silas produces arrows.

In period 1, I produce 10 beavers, intending to trade 5 of them with Bob for 10 deer, and 5 of them with Silas for 20 arrows.

In period 1, Bob produces 16 deer, intending to trade 8 of them with me for 6 beavers, and 8 of them with Silas for 20 arrows.

In period 1, Silas produces 30 arrows, intending to trade 15 of them to me for 6 beavers, and 15 of them to Bob for 10 deer.

In period 2, I find Bob only offers 7, not 10, deer for 5 beavers. I find Silas only offers 13 arrows, not 20, for 5 beavers.

In period 2, Bob finds I only offer 4 beavers, not 6, for 8 deer, and Silas only offers 10 arrows, not 20, for 8 deer.

In period 2, Silas finds that I only 3 beavers, not 6, for 15 arrows, and Bob only offers 6 deer, not 10, for 15 arrows.

Ex ante, every market participant produced with the belief his production would produce a subjective profit at the exchange rate he foresaw holding in the market. But, when he actually brought his goods to market, he founds he was forced to sell at what, for him, was a subjective loss. If he had known what the market outcome would really be, he would have produced less. (And in the next period he is likely to produce less, leading to a "slump.")

As Malthus and Sismondi saw it, the above describes a general glut. (Perhaps some current macroeconomists would say, "No way! The market will equilibrate anyway." Well, OK: I am talking about a Malthusian-Sismondian general glut, not whatever you think of as a general glut.)

Money is not the (fundamental) loose joint in the economy: the fundamental loose joint is the "dark forces of time and ignorance."

UPDATE: The above scenario assumes we each have some reservation demand for the items in question.

Aggregate Supply and Aggregate Demand

Sometimes we see people who view themselves as "pro-Say's Law" arguing that "Keynesians are wrong about growth being demand driver: supply has to come before demand."

This is odd, to me, because, while I think it is questionable whether Say's Law always holds (unless one states it as a tautology, in which case, it will always "hold," but trivially so), it certainly is based on a genuine insight: people supply commodities on the market in order to demand others: supply IS demand, just seen from a different perspective. But once one gets that, then it is clear that neither supply nor demand can come first, since they are simply different views of a single action: offering something in exchange for something else.

So, why even separate them in macroeconomic analysis? I am mulling this over, but my current suspicion is that problems may arise with one or another aspect of this single action. For instance, if taxes on income over $10,00 were raised to 99.99%, and the economy slumped, we would point to a supply-side problem, in the sense that everybody knows everybody wants more stuff, but the effort of producing doesn't seem worthwhile at such a punitive tax rate. On the other hand, if the economy tanks even though there are few barriers to supply, except for the fact that eight out of every ten people has become a Buddhist monk and taken a vow of poverty, we can notionally separate aggregate demand and aggregate supply and say, "This is a demand-driven slump."

Well, that is what I think today, at least.

Why Romney Lost

I happened to have to research the famous "you didn't build that" quote; I was stunned once again by how the right-wing punditry deliberately distorted what was the obvious meaning of that speech. Here is a good summary of the "controversy" (aka smear campaign) with a great clip from Jon Stewart -- make sure you watch the Obama-Romney mash-up at the end.The bottom line: when you best campaign strategy was to generate bat-shit crazy misinterpretations of your opponents statements ("grade-school Marxism"!), you really have no campaign of which to speak.

Cave Claymation




"This, of course, does not make the world outside of the cave any less real."
(Hat tip Rod Dreher.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Nut Job Alert!

I just ran across one Erik Rush, who says things like:

"As we got increasingly closer to the 2012 general election, it was my assertion that Obama would not be re-elected without employing widespread fraud of one form or another."

Despite the fact he was leading in almost every poll taken, he was actually trailing!

"The pre-election data simply did not point to such a decisive win for Obama."

Despite the fact that the pre-election data showed almost the exact result that really occurred occurring, it did not "point to" that result!

And finally:

"His latest book, Negrophilia: From Slave Block to Pedestal ~ America’s Racial Obsession, examines the racist policies by which the political left keeps black Americans in thralldom, white Americans guilt-ridden and yielding, and maintains the fallacy that America remains an institutionally racist nation."

So, America has policies that keep blacks in "thralldom" and that also maintain "the fallacy that America remains an institutionally racist nation."

You see, institutionally racist policies are in place that generate the false impression that institutionally racist policies are in place!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Universal Gift Card: Available Since 1000 BCE!

I just heard an ad on the radio for a "universal gift card": you give it to your loved ones, and they can use it to buy anything.

Hasn't this sort of "gift card" been around for a while, though?


At the Deli

ME: Hey boss!
DELI MAN: Hey boss!
M: Do you carry electronic cigarettes?
D: Yes, cigarettes, plain and menthol, and cigars.
M: Just the plain cigarettes.
D: You are trying to quit smoking?
M: No, trying to start. But I'm worried: if I go straight to real cigarettes, they might be too much for me, and I'll just give up. I hate to fail at something, so, I'm planning to start slowly, and work my way up to the real thing.
D [Blank stare for a few seconds.]: OK, boss, whatever you say.

Your Final Exam Questions

Well, at least if you are taking my course on The Great Transformation they are:

1) Describe the division of labor.
What does Adam Smith see as its advantages?
What are some possible disadvantagtes?

2) What is the idea of dialectics as developed by Hegel?
How did Karl Marx apply the idea to history?
How did feudalism trasition into capitalism in this view?

3) How does Max Weber characterize the spirit of capitalism?
Specifically, how is it different from the traditional attitude towards economic life?
How did Lutheranism and Calvinism contribute to that change?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Whew! Finally Done with Madison and Jefferson!

The authors reach a number of interesting conclusions, for which their evidence is quite convincing. Amongst them: Madison and Jefferson should really be regarded as different but equal personalities in the founding period, in contrast to the more common view that treats Madison as Jefferson’s lieutenant. Both men were primarily politicians rather than political theorists: the political theorizing they did was to support their political positions. And that point leads to the next: Madison’s position on constitutional interpretation was whatever it needed to be to advance his political goals: the constitutional views on display in The Federalist are only a small portion of his written output, and later, in the dispute over the Jay Treaty, he took a quite different view: “The only way to appreciate Madison’s constitutional thinking is to measure comprehensible changes in his view in response to specific political problems” (p. 641). (I’m pretty sure “measurable” is being used metaphorically here.)

Oh, So Parents Can Make a Big Difference

Take that, Bryan Caplan!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

David Gordon Misconstrues the Linda Problem

Kahneman and Tversky famously posited that there is a "conjunction fallacy": people often assign a higher probability to a "plausible" case with more specific conditions than a general one. That clearly is erroneous.

David Gordon tries to deny Kahneman and Tversky have exposed any error in people's reasoning. He writes:

"I do not think this result demonstrates that the people in the survey have reasoned wrongly. Suppose, when asked about the probability of Linda's occupation, people think it very unlikely that she has chosen to be a bank teller. They think, by contrast, that she very likely identifies with feminism. When asked about Linda's being both a feminist and bank teller, they may not recall their earlier estimate of her being a teller. Rather, they may simply lower their estimate that she is a feminist, to reflect the new information that she is also a teller."

The reason Gordon tries to debunk Kahneman and Tversky is clear: as a market fundamentalist, he cannot bear any suggestion that market actors are not perfectly rational. But his response is ludicrous: first of all, the experimental subjects were not given "new information that [Linda] is also a teller": they were asked to assign probabilities to various statements about her. Never were they told that one of the statements is true!

But even worse, Gordon's "they may not recall" is far, far worse for the hypothesis that market actors behave rationally than is Kahneman and Tversky's interpretation of their result. Kahneman and Tversky actually gave subjects these two statements in immediate succession:

1) Linda is a bank teller.
2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Gordon is claiming that there is no failure of rationality here, because, five or ten seconds after assigning a probability to statement 1, the subjects have no memory of what they just did, and assign a probability to statement 2 from a blank slate.

If people's short-term memories are really that bad, it is hard to see why workers hired by a company at time T can even remember who they work for at time T + 5 seconds! Farmers who have picked apples at time T will not even remember they have any apples at time T + 5 seconds! It is very hard to see how markets can work under such conditions.

The right way for libertarians to respond to these findings, I think, is to note that government actors have the same biases as market actors, not to deny the findings of scientific psychology!

As I Begin to Understand Macroeconomics...

I begin to see how Say's Law is perhaps the most important concept in the subject. In saying that, I am not contending that Say's Law* always holds (nor am I claiming it doesn't!): I am suggesting that many (most?) macroeconomic disputes can be understood as disputes over its applicability.

If we pay attention to the Keynesian model, we see that the "paradox of thrift" occurs when S (savings) > II (intended investment). The model contains no hysteresis, so it makes no difference how that condition came about: it could be a increase in savings not matched by an increase in intended investment, or it could be a drop in intended investment not matched by a drop in savings.

The "right" way to deny that this paradox is of importance is not to say it implies savings is bad, because it doesn't, but to try to show that II shifts along with S, which Bob Murphy understands: "In contrast, a Rothbardian (say) is going to argue that when people save more, investment will go up, and so we’re not in trouble."

Yes, he's got it here! A gap between S and II would generate this "paradox," but per Rothbard (and all advocates of the classical understanding of the market for loanable funds), such a gap won't arise, because a change in S will also change II.

Now, we've gotten to the real issue under contention: do changes in S and changes in II (generally) endogenously equilibrate, or don't they? If they do, Say's Law holds, and the classical view is correct. If they don't, Keynes is correct, and the market economy is not inherently stable.

* As Thomas Sowell notes in his great book on the history of Say's Law, there are over half-a-dozen different things this law might be taken to claim.

Why, If I Post on Materialism in the Future, Comments Will Be Closed

I don't in the least mind intelligent objections to my posts on this blog: after all, I continually post comments from many readers who object to this or that view of mine.

However, I have found that when I post something on the topic of materialism, I am flooded with comments that are so dumbfounding to me that I am not sure how to rationally continue to converse with the commenter.

To cite just one example: faced with the challenge to the materialist view of explaining what makes vastly different physical implementations of a "single" algorithm "the same" other than the non-physical idea of the algorithm, one commenter claimed that it was that all such implementations produced the same neural patterns in our brains. And the same thing is true of all of our categorizations: for example, all the furry little critters we call "squirrels" are so called simply because each of them causes similar firings of our neurons.

When someone says something like this, I simply have no idea how to continue rational conversation with the person. First of all, isn't "neuron" also one of our categorizations? And isn't "similar pattern" another? So right away, this view quite obviously devours its own tail: it attempts to reduce our categorizations of "reality" to "neural patterns," but "neural patterns" is itself a categorization we have made of reality, so it really says nothing more than "we categorize." (Of course, if someone taking this line could show why our category "neural patterns" is somehow specially privileged over other such categories, they might evade this critique. But I have never encountered such a demonstration. Furthermore, if such a demonstration were offered, it would have to appeal to some objective criterion of its own truth that did not invoke "neural patterns," and so would immediately refute itself.)

Secondly, as a man of science and someone who thinks science discovers things about reality, and not just about patterns of neurons in our brains, it seems to me that, for instance, the fact that the one of the things we just happen to call "a squirrel" can only breed with another such thing, and not with one of the things we happen to call "a pig," or "a rock," or "mold," is a pretty good indication that there is something more to this "squirrels" term than simply a statement about our own neurons.

So let's turn to algorithms. In my twenty years working as a software engineer, I often had to implement algorithms. I realized that to do so, what I had to do was first grasp the idea of the algorithm. Then, once I did so, I had to make sure that my code correctly embodied that idea. So, if I was implementing the Sieve of Eratosthenes, I would check my work by seeing if my program, in fact, produced prime numbers and only prime numbers as output (a check which depended on grasping the idea of a prime number, rather than engaging in a literature review of neurological research). Not once did I ever concern myself with the possibility that someone else's neural patterns might not "decide" that my program was not an implementation of that algorithm: if my program was (for the right reason) producing primes and only primes, then the failure of their "neural patterns" to recognize that fact simply meant that they hadn't grasped the idea behind the algorithm. My empirical success as a programmer ought to count as good evidence for these supposedly empiricist materialists that I was and am correct in thinking this way. But, of course, materialists are not empiricists at all: as the logical positivists recognized quite well, all strict empiricism ought to say about, e.g., scientific experiments is that "After I had perceived that I had mixed what I perceived to be chemical X with what I perceived to be chemical Y, I perceived a movement in the mercury of what I perceived to a thermometer of +10 degrees."

In any case, faced with such manifest irrationality as the claim that animal species are really just patterns of firings of human neurons, I find myself at a total loss as to how I might proceed without a total waste of my time. Therefore, if I happen to post on metaphysics in the future, I probably will post with comments closed.

Golden Meteors and Cantillon Effects

Let us imagine a world economy entirely on the gold standard. In our imaginary world, gold is scarce, but with a difference: every once in a while, a meteor of pure gold hits the Earth -- and, we might even imagine that these meteors are sometimes of a great enough size that they represent a significant change in the world's gold supply, say, several percent. Furthermore, this is a "finders keepers" world, so whoever happens to discover this lump of gold first owns it.

It is clearly true that these random events will effect relative prices. If Farmer Joe who finds one of these meteorites in his wheat field simply loves Picassos, his find might have a large impact on the price of Picasso's paintings. But would any economist who touts the efficacy of markets and market prices see any terrible difficulty hindering the working of the market process in these events? Isn't it simply the case that there has been a change in effective demand, and market prices will change to reflect that change? And although my example doesn't happen in our world, analogous cases do: "And then one day Jed was shooting at some food / And up from the ground came a bubbling crude / Oil, that is." It is quite possible that a dirt farmer may accidentally discover an oil field on his and, and suddenly be able to effectively demand much more than he formerly could: Market actors, per standard theory, will shift their output to reflect this fact.

The above scenario came to me as I have been contemplating Steve Horwitz's analysis of the impact of Cantillon Effects on the economy. Steve contends:
More systemically, these relative price effects increase the epistemic burden on market actors as prices become less reliable signals of underlying consumer preferences and opportunity costs, thanks to the temporary pushes and pulls from the injection of excess supplies of money.  People are simply more likely to guess wrong about what a price movement means, and are thereby more likely to make irreversible (at least to some degree) decisions with respect to investments in human and physical capital.
Aren't injections of money into the economy by the central bank much like the landing of our gold meteors? Now, I am very sympathetic to the argument that there is an issue of equity here: the meteors' landing spots are outside of human control, but the central bank deliberately places these golden meteors, say, in the vaults of the big investment banks, and that is unjust. But, given that it has done so, why doesn't the market simply adjust to such real changes in effective demand just as it would to the discovery of our gold meteors? Given that certain consumers really are wealthier after the injections, and opportunity costs really have changed, doesn't the new constellation of prices simply reflect this new reality in the same way it would after Farmer Joe discovered his gold meteorite?

I can conceive of one line of response to the above considerations that those who worry about Cantillon Effects might offer: "True, those gold meteors would increase the epistemic burden on market actors, and would lead to more wrong guesses about what a price movement means, but they are outside our control. On the other hand, these injections of money by the central bank are within human control, and so are unnecessary increases on the epistemic burden on market actors."

Is this the correct way of understanding this argument? Steve? Bob?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Why Materialists Crack Me Up

Now, don't get me wrong: I love materialists. Some of my best friends are materialists! But they actually seem to think that idealists, dualists, panpsychists, etc. are unaware of the existence of neurons! So conversations with them go roughly like:

Non-Materialist: [Spends a paragraph explaining Whitehead's panpsychism.]

Materialist: Neurons!

NM: Yes, I am aware of neurons. [Spends a paragraph explaining how Aquinas would have understood the relationship between the brain and our thoughts.]

M: Neural firing patterns!

NM: Yes, I know, there are neural firing patterns associated with our thinking. [Spends a paragraph showing how Berkeley would have fit this into his metaphysics.]

M: Synapses!

NM: OK, I'm not posting any more of these.

M: Close-minded coward!

[By the way, you might think that comments are closed on this post, but that is just some faulty neural wiring causing you to believe that.]

Stupid Human Tricks, Part LXVII

Here is a fun game to play:

Choose a thinker whose ideas you instinctively don't like.

Root around in their biography until you find something unsavory. (It will be there, don't worry.)

Now, you can discredit that person without even having to bother with their ideas! Watch:

"Keynes didn't like Jews!"

"Oakeshott was a womanizer!"

"Jefferson kept slaves!"

"Mises said nice things about Mussolini!"

"Marx was very dirty and neglected his children!"

Why, once you've seen this enough, you might almost start to imagine that we are all fallen sinners.

It's the Same Old DeWrong, with a Different Beat Since Reason's Been Gone

It is always fascinating when one can detect an irrational obsession in an otherwise smart person. I have no doubt Brad DeLong is smart. But when it comes to any questioning of reductionist materialist dogma, DeLong just loses it. For instance, in "responding" to Steve Landsburg, he starts his post off as follows:

"Someone who claims to be a 'friend' makes me aware that others are joining Alvin Plantzinga and Gene Callahan on the side of Thomas Nagel's creationists..." (Is 'friend' perhaps in quotes here because DeLong has no friends and knows this person must be making the claim up? Hahaha, just kidding, Brad, I'm sure you have at least one friend!)


Here, we have hit upon the Paretain "residue" that drives DeLong's irrational rants: he hates creationists. Now, Nagel is not a creationist, I am not a creationist, and Landsburg is not a creationist, but DeLong is afraid, very, very afraid, that some creationists might like some of the things we say! So what we say must be stamped out at all cost, even at the cost of spouting nonsense, making up arguments and putting them in one's opponents mouth, and random name-calling with no regard to when the name applies and when it doesn't.

And now look at the title of his post: "THE QUESTION IS WHETHER OUR MINDS ARE TOO POWERFUL TO BE THE RESULT OF PURELY DARWINIAN PROCESSES." Yeah, why all caps? I don't know. But who has made any claim about the "power" of our minds? Nagel? No. Me? No. Landsburg? No. DeLong has simply invented this out of whole cloth! The real issue, as far as I understand Nagel, and certainly as I would put it, is "Why should evolution, understood in purely Darwinian terms, have spawned organisms that are conscious and can reason, instead of just spawning automatons that can survive without thought?" I am not saying that this question is not answerable by strict Darwinians (perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't); no, I am just saying that DeLong has totally missed the point: it is not a question of "power," but quite the opposite: if, as you reductionists insist, mere mechanisms thoughtlessly implementing algorithms can evolve so as to continually enhance their own survival, what the heck is the evolutionary point of making them all worried and neurotic by developing consciousness in them? Now, Darwinists may or may not be able to give an adequate answer to that question; that is not what I wish to discuss here. No, my point is that DeLong has not even engaged with the real question at all.

Nagel (as I understand his argument from reviews, not having read the book) is claiming that, while Darwinian evolution may account quite well for a lot of what we find in life, it is incomplete. Well, isn't that exactly what the scientific attitude towards all of our scientific theories is supposed to be? They are all provisional, and all will be supplanted by better theories one day? (For the record, I regard Darwin's theory as one of the giant achievements of science. In fact, with my daughter, who appears to be very adept at biological reasoning, I often present her with little challenges: "Emma, think about this trait: how would you account for it in terms of evolution?" She typically then uses her knowledge of evolution and her reason to devise a very adept answer.)

So who is being "unscientific" here: Nagel, who acknowledges the genuine achievements of this theory but notes it leaves some things unexplained, or the "evolutiomentalists," who dogmatically insist that, "No, if you doubt the total and complete explanatory power of this theory for even a moment, you must be cast out as a heretic"?

Finally, look at the rubbish DeLong launches at Landsburg: because in the case of a neutron star, it is not true that "The ratio π of the circumference of a circle to its radius is such that 6.29 > 2π > 6.28," therefore Landsburg has "self pwned."

Oh my. How about this, DeWrong: "The closer any real space comes to being Euclidean, the more closely will the equation given above be accurate for relating the circumference of a circle in that space to its radius."

The above certainly seems to be a statement about reality. Does DeLong really want to deny it?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Algorithms and Reductionism

Ken B. makes an interesting point in the comments, although not, perhaps the point he intended to make!

The question is, what do we make of an algorithm? Well, if we are true materialist reductionists, we would have to say that an algorithm really just is its physical manifestation, e.g, the microchip on which it is running and the electrons moving about in there: this is what it means to be a materialist reductionist, after all.

But now consider a particular algorithm, say, the Sieve of Eratosthenes. That algorithm can be implemented on an old-time mainframe built with vacuum tubes, on a iPad, with a large set of hot and cold water taps, or even in my brain. These physical structures are about as different as can be, and yet Ken admits that it is the same algorithm implemented on each of them. Therefore, what is the same in these wildly physically divergent cases (which I would call the idea) must, necessarily, be something not physical.

So there are parts of reality which are not physical. QED, reductionist materialism is false.

UPDATE: Ken asks me to add the following: "I am not arguing for what you call materialism. I am arguing that no soul is needed to explain or account for consciousness, and that consciousness will be explicable in terms of the physical substrate just as cancer is, or adaptation is. That's my position actually, mind is a darwinian adaptation of meat. I don't deny for example Bob Murphy's confusion over the debt exists, only that that existence is an aspect of the workings of the brain in his head. No brain no confusion."

Careless Whispers

The guy next to me on the train has been whispering into his phone for fifteen minutes. Ah! I imagine he thinks he's being polite, but it would be much, much less disturbing if he just talked normally.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Steve Horwitz Gives the Best Austrian Response I've Seen on Cantillon Effects

Here.

Some people have called me a "born-again Keynesian." Others have said I've "sold out to the dark side."

Uh-uh. What I really am is someone who found out that the "kindergarten Keynesianism" he was spoon-fed by various "pop-Austrian" authors was as inaccurate as the "kindergarten Hayekianism" he found amongst various scribes on the left. (And I discovered that when I had to teach Keynes, and, as an honest teacher, felt I had to really get his ideas as he saw them before I could properly teach them.)

So what I "really" am is a guy who now is working his ass off to grasp this whole debate, including the perspective of the hundreds of economists besides Keynes and Hayek who offered thoughts on the nature of the business cycle.

Whoa-oh, Halfway There...

My efforts to learn Italian are paying off: I was driving to work today, and a flock of dinosaur-descended winged creatures flew past my windshield. My first articulate thought was "gli uccelli."

Yes! There was no translation at all, I simply named the critters in Italian first. Still a long way to go, but I finally feel I will reach the finish line.

Association Football Amongst the Hipsters

Now, I've got nothing against association football (soccer). Hey, I spent a fair amount of time in pubs in the UK, so I had to get into it. I realized that what I had to do was adjust my mindset.

The typical American watches soccer and thinks, "What the hey? These guys hardly ever score! And the crowd seems to get frenzied simply at a shot on goal."

Well, if you are a parent, the solution to this puzzlement is easy: pretend you are at your eight-year-old's basketball game. If anyone even gets a shot off, everyone is very excited. If they actually get their shot near the rim, there are wild applause. And a basket pretty much means "Game over."

That's soccer. OK? Once you take that mindset, you can enjoy the game.

However, it still puzzles me how Brooklyn hipsters who would disdain American football attentively watch Premiership games. I guess they are just in love with all things European... oh, wait, so am I.

OK, OK, I should just admit I am an over-aged hipster. Forget the whole post.

Materialism Don't Predict Squat

A very curious claim I just came across is that a good argument for materialism is its track record of successful predictions.

1) Materialism itself is a claim that "There exists nothing but matter." (Or matter and energy, or whatever other moving target materialists choose to shoot at this decade.) To the extent it ever predicted anything, it was that matter is an inert substance behaving in a mechanistic way. Quantum physics wrecked that prediction, but materialists simply shrugged and changed what materialism meant.

2) The person who said this probably meant the predictive success of science, but that is simple confusion: materialism does not equal science, and vice versa. For the first two hundred years after the Scientific Revolution, every major scientist of which I am aware was either a dualist or an idealist. Many of them took their understanding of matter to be proof of dualism!

Furthermore, successful prediction in the physical sciences may be about "material" things, but it intimately involves very non-material things, namely, methods of reasoning, scientific laws, and mathematical formula. Therefore, the success of science itself would seem to be an excellent refutation of materialism. E = mc2 is not made of matter, although, of course, any particular instance of communicating it will have some material conduit. But notice how utterly unlike each other the sound waves made when I say the formula and the pixels involved in displaying it here are; yet it is the same idea in each case.

Someone (I can't imagine whom at the moment) may claim that we call these physical things "the same idea" as part of a convention of a "language game"; all very well and good, but we note that conventions and language games ain't physical neither.

Contributing to the Salvation Army

I noticed yesterday that I tend to keep giving a dollar to every Salvation Army volunteer (?) I see throughout the holidays. Why, I wondered, don't I just give twenty dollars to one of them and be done with it?

And that made me realize that I am usually being charitable as much to the person doing the collecting as to whomever they are giving the money to. They standing out there, shivering in the cold, ringing them little bells, and everybody just walking by them... I want to give them a dollar and a hug.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Good Advice on Academic Writing

Found here. (Hat tip Pete Boettke.)

I have found using this blog as a testing ground for ideas to be formally published later as an especially useful tactic! It not only gets me feedback from my wonderful and much appreciated commentariat, it motivates me to write these things down in the first place.

Ooh! Spooooky!

P.S. Huff notes how many prominent 20th century philosophers have rejected materialism... and the majority of them are not "religious" in any usual sense of the term. (Bertrand Russell, for example, was a strident atheist.) One reason is there really has never been forwarded any decent argument for materialism, while it introduces many well known difficulties. Evidence of this lack of good arguments for materialism is the frequent resort of many advocates of materialism to sheer name calling, the most typical name invoked being "spooky," with "magical" perhaps running a close second. Anyone who says, as, for instance, Chalmers does, that consciousness must somehow be a fundamental component of the universe, is accused of invoking "spooky" entities in his metaphysics, and calling upon "magical" causes.

The silliness of this tactic can be readily understood by how easily it is turned around on its practitioners. The universe was originally totally devoid of consciousness, but "magically" completely insensate matter gave rise to "spooky" consciousness haunting its realm. The material universe itself "magically" boot-strapped itself into existence, from the "spooky" realm of the quantum vacuum.

The invocation of these terms is propaganda, not philosophy!

UPDATE: Oh, and I should have mentioned, as Berkeley so clearly pointed out, there is nothing in all of metaphysics as "spooky" as the matter posited by the philosophers of the scientific revolution: as Descartes, Malebranche, Locke and others made clear, this matter is invisible, inaudible, untouchable, unsmellable, and untasteable: none of these properties are properties of matter, as they conceived it, but are instead caused in our minds by our encounters with matter. Now, that's a spooky entity: matter has no color, no sound, no taste, no smell, no texture, and yet it "magically" causes, in our minds, color, sound, taste, smell, and texture. This "matter" in itself is entirely beyond perception, yet it somehow, "spookily," is at the root of all we perceive. And even though we never, ever can even possibly perceive it, we must believe in it nevertheless!

Oscar Robertson's Triple-Double Season

Wikipedia reports: "Oscar Robertson is the only player in NBA history to achieve this feat [of averaging a triple-double]. During the 1961–62 season, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game."

My son said, "But Dad, he only had 181 triple-doubles in his career. Wouldn't this mean 82 of them came that one year?"

I said, "No, those were his averages. He had games below those numbers in each category."

"OK, but shouldn't that still be about 70?"

"Hmm, let's see: if his distribution on each of these is a Bell curve, I'd expect that maybe in 25 or 30 games he'd miss a double in assists, maybe in 20 or so in rebounds, and in a handful in points. So perhaps..."

"Dad, right here..."

"Wait a second! Hmm, perhaps in 40 games he actually had a triple double."

"Dad, right here on the page it gives the actual number: 41!"

Ah, the power of statistical reasoning!

Nick Rowe Cleverly Demonstrates That Cantillon Effects Really Represent Fiscal Policy

What he does is show that for every effect we supposedly generate through monetary policy, we can generate the exact same effect minus monetary policy, using taxation and expenditures alone. So it is the taxation and expenditures, and not the monetary policy, that is generating these effects.

Now, he should do a similar post showing how all re-distributional effects in an Overlapping Generations Model are also due to taxation and expenditures, and not to the debt itself. Because the exact same technique he used for Cantillon effects demonstrates the exact same thing for an OLG model with government debt!

UPDATE: As rob noted in the comments, my original posted was not worded as well as it could have been. Therefore, where I originally wrote "fiscal policy," the post now reads "taxation and expenditures."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

That Thar Is Some Fine Programmin', Google

In Blogger's HTML mode, I pasted in some code to embed a video. Then I shifted back to Compose mode. Oh, I realized I wanted to change the embedding code, so I went back to HTML mode... and Blogger shows me this:

I did not get to make the change I wanted.

Might as Well Face It, You're Addicted to...

iPhone!

I left my house to go to the Y without my phone (on purpose). I got about half a block away, and wanted to check my e-mail. Wow, I didn't have my phone!

When I realized how weird that felt, the first thing I wanted to do was... to write a blog post about it. For which I needed... my phone.

Ah! Now the weirdness had doubled down. Oh boy, I really had to talk to someone about this. For which I needed... my phone.

Oh boy. The only thing that might relieve my mounting sense of panic would be a nice game of Angry Birds!

Reductive Materialism Requires Philosophical Ignorance

These paragraphs from Ed Feser lay out the case so clearly that I will quote him at length:
Now, Nagel’s point is not that there is something wrong per se with overthrowing common sense in this way (as Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke etc. did).  It is rather that whatever value this method has, it cannot coherently be applied to the explanation of conscious experience itself.  If the reductive method involves ignoring the appearances of a thing and redefining the thing in terms of something other than the appearances, then since our conscious experience of the world just is the way the world appears to us, to ignore the appearances is in this case just to ignore the very phenomenon to be explained rather than to explain it.  Consciousness is for this reason necessarily and uniquely resistant to explanation via the same method scientific reductionism applies to everything else.  For the application of the method in this case, writes Nagel, “does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”  To treat the appearances as essentially “subjective” or mind-dependent is precisely to make them incapable of explanation in entirely “objective” or mind-independent terms. 
Hence “in a sense,” Nagel continues, “the seeds of this objection to the reducibility of experience are already detectable in successful cases of reduction.”  As I have put it myself in several places, the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitative features -- secondary qualities, final causes, and the like -- since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were.  But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.
Now the lesson Nagel drew from this in the 1974 article was not that physicalism is false so much as that “physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we do not at present have any conception of how it might be true.”  But the early moderns who inaugurated this conceptual revolution tended to draw the stronger conclusion.  Indeed, writers like Cudworth and Malebranche saw that the method in question can be used to argue for a kind of mind-body dualism.  For if you maintain that color, sound, heat, cold, odor, taste, etc., as common sense understands these features, do not exist in matter, then they do not exist in the brain or body any more than they exist in the material world external to the brain and body.  If they do exist in the mind, though, then the mind must not be material.  Dualism can hardly be refuted by the reductive method, then, precisely because dualism follows from that method. 
Now that conclusion is actually a bit too strong, though the Cudworth/Malebranche style of argument has had defenders down to the present (e.g. Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul).  For one could argue instead, as Berkeley did, that only the qualities we know of in conscious experience are real and the mathematically-redefined material world is a mere fiction -- idealism rather than dualism.  Or one could argue, as Russellians do, that the sensory qualities presented to us in conscious experience are what “flesh out” the abstract structure described by physics -- thereby putting something like color, sound, etc. as common sense understands them back into matter after all, but in a way that is very different from the way common sense supposes them to be there.   (As David Chalmers suggests, though, this really amounts to a kind of riff on property dualism.)  And of course, we Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would reject the assumptions that lead to this tangle in the first place, dismissing Cartesianism and materialism alike as riffs on the same fundamental error of treating what are really just physics’ useful mathematical abstractions from concrete material reality as if they were the whole of concrete material reality. 
What you cannot coherently be, consistent with the reductive method described, is any sort of reductive materialist, which has been at least historically the standard form of materialism.  And this, I would say, is why materialism was so rare in modern philosophy before the late twentieth century.  It takes real historical ignorance seriously to think that the scientific revolution somehow supports reductive materialism and that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, et al. were non-materialists merely because they didn’t have the courage and/or foresight to follow out the implications of that revolution.  In fact, they were the ones who were consistently following out those implications, while materialists like Hobbes were the wishful thinkers.  Perhaps the proud ignorance of the history of philosophy that some (though by no means all) of the early analytic philosophers exhibited made it possible for materialism widely to come to seem plausible by the 1960s.