Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cisalpine, Transexual Blues

In honor of Shonk and Wabulon's discussion here, I give you:

The Cisalpine, Transexual Blues

I'm a transsexual guy
Down from Cisalpine Gaul
I'm a transsexual guy
Down from Cisalpine Gaul
You think you seen some sexes baby?
I tell you I seen them all

Out east in Arabia
You gotta look up my sweet baby-a
Out east in Arabia
You gotta look up my sweet baby-a
If you ask "Man or woman?"
All you'll get is "Well, maybe-a"

People asked my motives
In Hispania Ulterior
People asked my motives
In Hispania Ulterior
But that crazy little trisexual
Shim was not inferior

They said I'd catch chlamydia
Way down south in Numidia
They said I'd catch chlamydia
Way down south in Numidia
But I didn't care at all
Cause that heptasexual was so pretty-a

Bureaucratic inefficiency

Okay, they're doing some construction work on Route Six just east of my house, meaning they had to make it into a one-lane road, which slows down my trip to town.

I understand all that, but really: did they have to make it into a one-lane road in each direction?!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Spelling bee in Dinka

Aren't you glad you aren't taking part?

Dinka is a Nilotic language with about two million speakers, mostly in southern Sudan. It's a tone language, and, in addition to tonemes and two varieties of breathing--all of which intersect--it has, of course, vowel length. In phonemic transcription, leaving out suprasegmentals, we have, e.g., the following, all valid, all different (contrasting):
(For more, see the current number of Language, where I learned this.)

With a title like that...

You'd think you were halfway through the book already.

Bailyn describes the utopian reformer Pieter Plockhoy, who founded a small utopian community along the Delaware. Perhaps Plockhoy's greatest work, but certainly his greatest title, was:

A way propounded to make the poor in these and other nations happy, by bringing together a fit, sutable, and well–qualified people into one household–government, or little common-wealth, wherein everyone may keep his propriety, and be imployed in some work or other, as he shall be fit, without being oppressed. Being the way not only to these and other nations from idle, evil, and disorderly persons, but also from all such as have sought and found out many inventions, to live upon the labour of others. Blessed is he that considereth the poor... He shall be blessed upon the earth. (The Barbarous Years, p. 314)

Finnish Burn Beaters

Finns along the Delaware River in the 1600s were slash-and-burn agriculturalists, something apparently still practiced in 1893 in Finland, when this painting was executed:

They lived in rough log cabins in New Sweden, and soon after settling there they could be found dressed in animal skins instead of European clothing, and shod in deerskin moccasins. Bailyn claims the Finns had "a greater affinity to the culture of the native Americans then did any other Europeans in North America" (The Barbarous Years, p. 276), and that it was the Finns who were initially responsible for what we think of as the American frontier style of life.

Good examples to follow

But first some butt kicking:

"The only hope for the Indians' conversion, [the Dutch] concluded, lay in 'subduing' them by overwhelming numbers and military power, and then showing them good examples of Christian behavior." -- Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years, pp. 274-275

What a Strange Band

The lineup: John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead Steve Jordan of the SNL Band and the Blues Brothers, amongst others But then the topper is the bass player. See if you can tell who he is without peeking in the YouTube comments section:

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Return of Wabulon!

The legendary Wabulon, who, contrary to rumors, was probably not with Aaron Hernandez the night Odin Lloyd was shot, has resumed blogging!

Meaning you can't blame me for everything!

a to the b power

Since I don't know and am too lazy to find out how to make this thing write small superscript numerals, I'm using "^" here for exponentiation, OK? Well, even if it's not OK, that's what I'll be using, OK? You wanna step outside?

2^4 = 16. 4^2 = 16 also! Not counting the trivial a = b, are there any other pairs of positive integers such that a^b = b^a? How many? Not counting the trivial a = b, how many pairs of positive real numbers are there with a^b = b^a (we've already found one)?

Here's part of the answer: for every pair of positive real numbers {p, 1/p}, p <> 1, there is a pair of positive real numbers {a, b} such that a^b = b^a, and the correspondence is biunique. If p yields the pair (a,b) , then 1/p yields (b,a). So the number of pairs {a, b} with this magic property is uncountably infinite, just like the positive reals that they match.

So what are they?

Tragic misunderstanding redux

"Europeans continue to expand their settlements into Indian lands and to fence in their own fields while allowing their animals to forage in the Indians' farmlands. The Indians continued to kill the roaming livestock as just retribution for damages done and to seek vengeance for sleights and injuries, some of which the Europeans were not aware of having inflicted." -- Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years, p. 268


A right isosceles triangle:


Here a = 5, b = 5, and so c = 5...not 5 sqrt(2). Yet this is perfectly ordinary Euclidean plane geometry, just that some points are, actually, almost all of them.

Sorry, Pythagoras, not even smart guys are right every time.

Cis and Trans

"Cis" means "this side" ("cisAlpine") or "same side" ("cis,cis-butadiene") and "trans" means the opposite. But, suddenly, "cis" on the model of same sex and "trans" on the model of nonstandardly opposite-to-expected gender often mean pretty much the same thing, as in "cissexual" and "trans people"! See how sex spoils everything? Your mama warned you, but did you listen?

OK, the vultures have started circling...

So I guess it is farewell:

Thanks for reading.

And this guy just by himself...

Must be some sort of cosmic trickery, yes?

Friggin' Nature

Two days ago, I was sitting on the porch, thinking "Man, there aren't many bugs around this summer."

Now I got this crap:

There are literally dozens of species of bugs, which I can't identify, buzzing around my back porch light. This is compared to two days ago, when the only critters around the back door were a couple of dozen mayflies. Crimminy, if this nature thing would just stay put, we'd have a lot easier time modeling it!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Google translate missteps

If I type "50 miles" in English, Google translate comes back with "50 km" in Italian. WTF? Does Google translate really not have any rule that says that kilometers are different than miles? Yes, I understand that language translation is a very difficult computer science problem. But recognizing that kilometers are different than miles seems to be one of the things that computers ought to be able to do very easily. I call failing to account for this a major fail on Google's part.

What if Rothbard had been against Newton's politics?

Murray Rothbard was a very bright man. But he was also a "true believing" ideologue, and as such, what ever he could use to bash his ideological opponents over the head was A-OK by him. And thus his argument against the Keynesian multiplier, which has created a little kerfuffle in the blogosphere of late.

Let us imagine that, for some reason, Rothbard had hated Isaac Newton as much as he hated Keynes. Here is what he would've done with Newton's second law of motion, with every bit as much intellectual validity as his "argument" against Keynes.

From this point on, until you see the second line of asterisks, I speak as pseudo-Rothbard:


Let us recall that those stupid Newtonian's hold that force equals mass times acceleration or:

F = ma

Which means that:

F / m = a

Now let us look at a similar equation:

F = ma

Where "a" represents "age". By a move exactly like those silly Newtonian's use, we can now see that:

F / a = m

This would mean that the older one gets, the less one weighs! Good God, Newton was an idiot.


What Rothbard's "demonstration" showed was that not every single thing that can be put in a ratio has empirical significance. Wow, what a surprising finding!

And here is what is really weird about this whole matter: the idea of a multiplier is, at its root, a strongly pro-market idea. If you've taken Macro I, you will know that the multiplier applies to private investment every bit as much as it does to government expenditure. Basically, it says that if you start a business, the positive effects will not be limited to your own profits, but will multiply throughout the economy: the people you employ in your business will spend their wages, and that spending will spur on other businesses as well, and so on. Really the only "Keynesian" part of this is that there might be situations in which private investors are reluctant to invest, and in those special circumstances Keynesians recommend that the government step in to fill the gap. Now, that may be a good idea, or it may be a bad idea (perhaps due to crowding out and malinvestment issues), but is not an obviously stupid idea. One thing for sure: the idea of the multiplier is far less stupid than Rothbard's argument against it.

Regulatory madness

A homeowner is told he needs a permit for his kids' treehouse, because it is in a wetland.

OK, regulators, but... He built the thing up in a friggin' tree. I don't think that would interfere much with the swamp critters living below the treehouse.

As someone who is not opposed to environmental regulation per se, this gives me one of those Jon Stewart moments, where I facepalm due to the regulators striving their utmost to discredit themselves.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The fact that living beings have evolved

Says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God:

“There is grandeur in this view of life... having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” -- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

That doesn't sound fun

"Fifteen Maryland militiamen were captured, and tortured [by the Susquehannock Indians]. They were dropped twice into a raging fire intensified by bear fat and pitch... then taken out, bound to flaming poles, and slowly roasted until a designated 'devil chaser' tore the flesh from their faces, cut out their tongues, cut off their fingers and toes, which he threaded on strings for necklaces and knee bands, and finally tied them to burning bundles of reeds while boys 'with a great noise' shot arrows into their smoldering bodies." -- Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years, p. 154

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A tragedy of mutual misunderstanding

I'm now a couple of chapters into Bailyn's book, and rather than being a straightforward morality play, with either the English or the Indians as villains, I am seeing the early years of English settlement in North America as a tragedy of mutual miscomprehension.

Perhaps the most crucial factor at work was how empty North America seemed to the English colonists, versus how full it was for the native Indian inhabitants of the eastern forests. My rough estimate from the figures that Bailyn provides is that England was populated at about 100 times the density of eastern North America. To English eyes, therefore, the Indians were barely using the land, and there was plenty of room for them to expand and establish plantations and towns. But the way of life that these eastern forest Indians had established, in fact, required 100 times the land per person as did the English way of life.

The above fact could be taken in two different ways: the Indians were ecologically wise stewards of the land, who respected its carrying capacity, or the English had much more efficient economic arrangements, and could make use of land far more effectively than the Indians could.

I am inclined, as is my wont, to suspect that all limited views have some truth in them. After all, there were so many English heading over to North America precisely because they had exceeded the carrying capacity of their own island, given the technology of the time. But it is also true that, had they adopted certain practices well-known in Europe, such as knowledge of how to replenish depleted farmland, that the Indians would have been able to expand their own population well beyond what it was in 1600, without severely damaging their environment.

What would've happened had each group been able to appreciate the viewpoint of the other, I know not. But it was not to be, and what actually happened fills me with sadness.

Dead Again

My insomnia movie last night was Dead Again. Three observations:

1) When Kenneth Branagh wants to act like what he thinks of as "an American," what he does is make the character act like a jerk. Just check him out in some of the hypnotism scenes.

2) Emma Thompson has a bad case of "the overactings." I don't know her whole ouvre, but she did it here and she sure did it in the Harry Potter movies. I think actors with English stage training tend to be prone to this: the amount of emoting necessary to project an emotion from a stage to someone sitting in the back row of a theater is way more than is necessary to portray the same emotion when you have a camera on you in a close-up.

3) Andy Garcia: When Hollywood tries to make a young person look old, why do they always wind up make them look like they're wearing a Halloween costume instead? I'm no makeup expert, so I assume this is a very difficult make up task. If so, why not just dye Garcia's hair white, and have him stay up all night drinking before he has to play the old version of his character? Yes, he might not look like he was 80, but he wouldn't look like a ridiculous parody of an old person.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My question was a good one

I wrote a post recently wondering about Indians' geographical knowledge. It turns out that not even the experts know for sure:
In effect, through its lateral linkages, [the Indian path network] extended from Canada to Florida and west into the Mississippi Valley. How wide in the end the extent of the coastal Indians' geographical awareness was, what sense they had of ultimate spatial magnitudes, is difficult to discover. (Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years, pp. 15-16)
I have been wondering about questions like, did the eastern woodland Indians have an inkling that, say, the Aztecs existed? I guess no one knows, but they did have widespread contacts:
The sources of Ontario's most exotic trade goods were particularly far-flung: slaves and marine shells from Florida and the lower Mississippi, copper from Lake Superior, volcanic glass and pipestone from the Dakotas and Wyoming. (ibid. p. 17)

The Barbarous Years

I'm reviewing the book with the above title by Bernard Bailyn. I'm in the "flipping through randomly to get a sense of the book" stage right now. One thing I ran across was Bailyn's account of the Virginia massacre of 1622.

If you want to dispel yourself of any notion that colonial American history consists entirely of peaceful Indians being exterminated by ruthless colonists, then you need only read an account of that event. Acting on Chief Opechancanough's plan, which had been years in the making, the Indians wandered unarmed into English settlements, and offered trades, or even sat down to breakfast with their English hosts. (For the the Indians to share meals with the English, or even sleep over at their houses, was apparently very common before the massacre.) At a certain moment (it is not clear from Bailyn's account if there was a signal), the Indians grabbed whatever weapon was at hand -- "axes, hammers, shovels, tools, and knives" (p. 101) -- and slaughtered their hosts, killing over 300 English men, women and children. They mutilated the corpses, burned down farms, and killed or dispersed farm animals. The attackers apparently especially singled out as targets the settlers who had been friendliest towards them, "as if the acculturation they had sought, with its assumption of divine sanction, was a special danger that had to be utterly obliterated" (p. 102).

The English, of course, were not blameless, and had been very careless about encroaching upon Indian lands with their plantations. But you can see why their view of the Indians was a little less accomodative after this event.

Amtrak security silliness

In an effort to make rail travel as annoying as air travel, Amtrak had passengers from Washington to New York form a giant queue by keeping the entry to the departure track for the 12:25 closed until about 12:05. At that point they opened it and began laboriously checking tickets and IDs before allowing passengers to enter that boarding area. I puzzled over how in the world they would process all of us in twenty minutes.

Well, for about ten or twelve minutes they slowly plodded along like that, handling perhaps a quarter of the line... and then they simply let everyone else rush onto the train!

Sometimes I begin to suspect that the most paranoid among us are correct, and we simply are being trained to follow orders however stupid they are.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Walter heading east

When you have a visit from Walter
He won't wear more than a halter
He'll stay on your couch
But don't be a grouch
You can't let your hospitality falter

Friday, June 21, 2013


From the formless void
Order appears
Thatcher and Reagan approve

The meaning of space travel

"The superb irony of the ecumene having the shape of a sphere that brings the concupiscential explorer of reality back home to himself, and of this sphere being situated in a cosmic horizon of infinite extension and duration, has hardly yet entered the consciousness of a mankind that is reluctant to admit concupiscential defeat... Concupiscential exodus must go on, and since it has become a bit silly to chase around the earth, one must engineer roundtrips to the moon. Moreover, since the center of the cosmic horizon is everywhere and nowhere, so that again one is thrown back to the earth as the physical center of meaning, the cosmos must be dotted with a few extra-ecumenes that will inject sense into concupiscential expansion. Hence, we live in the age of other worlds than our own, of invasions from Mars, and of flying saucers. Anything will do, as long as it puts off the confrontation with the divine mystery of existence." -- Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, p. 211

What do you call...

A fragile feline that hangs out by the place they make sandwiches?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Pigou was not a Pigovian

Blackboard analysis showing a market failure does not justify moving directly to a tax or subsidy:

"High-sounding generalisations on these matters are irrelevant fireworks. They may have a place in political perorations, but they have none in real life. Accumulation of evidence, the balancing of probabilities, judgment of men, by these alone, practical problems in this region can be successfully attacked." -- "State Action and Laissez-Faire"

Transaction costs

Are God's way of ensuring everything doesn't happen at once.

Consequentialism, Part II

Consequentialism, I find,is typically espoused by people who like to see themselves as "hard-headed," practical, empirical sorts of folks. So, faced with something like the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WWII, they say, "Unlike starry-eyed idealists, I am a realist: I consider the consequences. The US won the war; therefore, dropping the bombs was worth it." (Note: I am not saying all consequentialists would approve of dropping those atomic bombs. I am just presenting a typical sort of consequentialist argument.) They actually convince themselves that people subscribing to other ethical systems don't think of the consequences of actions!

I guess it shows how easy it is too willfully blind oneself, because it ought to be rather obvious that the US winning the war was not quite the only consequences of dropping the bombs: there is also the minor consequence of a quarter of a million dead Japanese, and many more maimed and injured. The people who object to the bombing do so based on that consequence. Elizabeth Anscombe did not object to the bombing as such; she objected to the bombing because it had the consequence of killing numerous non-combatants. If the US could have dropped two bombs, killed no one, and won the war she would have been fine with it, I am certain.

What the consequentialist is really arguing is not that "consequences matter" -- absolutely everyone knows that -- but that he gets to decide how much weight to give to different consequences. And obviously one can't do that consequentially! (That creates the infinite regress I described in my previous post on this topic.) Somehow, the consequentialist has devised a scheme that weighs the consequence "American victory" as being worth much more than the consequence "lots of dead and injured Japanese."

Whenever one finds an obvious load of codswallop like consequentialism passing as a "theory," you can be sure something else is going on. I suspect for many consequentialists the real deal is that as long as they personally like the result of some action, they think it is OK. (For instance, they like the fact that the US won WWII, and they don't really care how many Japanese died or suffered in the process.) But unlike, say, Nietzsche, they don't quite have the guts to come right out and state this baldly. So, they declare themselves "consequentialists." But that is not an ethical theory: it is just some camouflage thrown over egoism.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Consequentialism's obvious flaw

Consequentialism tells us it is good to do something if the consequences of doing it are good. But how do we judge if the consequences are good? If we do so by looking to their consequences, obviously we have entered an infinite regress. Therefore, we need non-consequentialist criteria for judging a consequence good or bad.

In that case, consequentialism turns out to be not a complete system of morality, but merely the idea that we ought to pay attention to the consequences of our actions. But what moral theory says we should not pay attention to those consequences?! Every moral thinker of whom I am aware would differentiate between cutting a person with a knife to kill them from cutting them with a knife to save their life in an operation, which is judging the action by its (likely) consequence. (Yes, intentions are involved, but the intentions just are aiming at a certain outcome, right?)

So consequentialism is either impossible or trivially true.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Intellectual progress

The idea of intellectual progress proceeding in a straight line through history is easily debunked. One need only hear a tenured academic putting forward the same idea as Callicles (all arguments are really about power), which Plato easily dismissed 2400 years ago, as if it were some clever, "post-modern" insight just discovered, to realize we mostly move in circles.

Space Travel: Putting off the Inevitable

Mankind will one day disappear from the universe. This thought fills some people with so much anxiety that they seek to escape fate through dreams of populating the stars. I think it is a bit better to deal with what is here and now.

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time. -- Anaximander

Utilitarianism, true and false

Could a man with a beard like this really be a utilitarian? I think not: there must have been mice and spiders living in there, which is not very utile, if you ask me.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rationalism in urban planning

"It is idle to expect a well-planned town to result from the independent activities of isolated speculators as it would be to expect a satisfactory picture to result if each separate square inch were painted by an independent artist. No 'invisible hand' can be relied on to produce a good arrangement of the whole from a combination of separate treatments of the parts." -- A.C. Pigou, The Economics of Welfaree, p. 195

Notice how Pigou begs the question by beginning asking for a "well-planned town."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fantasy, Ancient and Modern

"Nevertheless, in fairness to the ancients one must say that they were not more indulgent in this respect than the moderns are in there comparably structured state of existential disorientation, for, ever since the plurality of worlds has been introduced again to the general public through Fontenelle's Entriens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), Western society has descended to the vulgarian grotesque of flying saucers, an invasion from Mars, investment of public funds in listening to signals from other worlds, a wave of excitement that the pulsar admissions could be such signals, and the industry of science fiction that is based on this conceit." -- Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, p. 81

Reconciling Keynes and Hayek

Duke University edition:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Classification schemes are not true or false

They are helpful for some purpose, or unhelpful.

This came to mind in answering a comment by Lord Keynes in which he classified William Jennings Bryan as a progressive.

There is a fact of the matter about whether Bryan is dead or not. There is a fact of the matter about him acting as an attorney in the Scopes trial. There is a fact of the matter as to whether he was over six feet tall.

But there is no fact of the matter as to whether Bryan was a progressive or not: historians create these categories to make the abundance of history more manageable. (There is a fact of the matter about whether Bryan called himself a progressive or not, but self-designation is not binding on historians: just because Mao said he was a democrat doesn't mean historians have to agree with him!) Historians lump some things together because they think it is useful somehow, and keep others apart because they think that is useful. So, for instance, our lecturer on the progressives contrasted them with Bryan because:

Bryan: populist, democratic, pro-small farmer, pro-small business, wary of technocrats
Progressives: elitist, bureaucratic, pro-conglomeration (but not pro-unregulated-monopoly), technocratic

But, of course, Bryan and the populists would have agreed on some things, and for some purposes it might be best to categorize them together. Neither classification would be right or wrong, just useful for some purposes but not for others.

With all that said, I offer you Borges' wonderful classificatory scheme for animals:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The modern mind?

"And what is modern about the modern mind, one may ask, if Hegel, Comte, or Marx, in order to create an image of history that will support their ideological imperialism, still use the same techniques for distorting the reality of history as their Sumerian predecessors?" -- Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, p. 68

Cost of production theories of value

I am working as a gold prospector. I go out one morning to pan for gold. I wade into the icy waters of an Alaskan river and begin the laborious task of sifting through the stones on the river bottom. After ten hours of work I find a single lump of gold, weighing some fraction of an ounce. I throw the lump in the pouch I keep around my neck.

I pack up my gear and get ready to head home. But just as I turn away from the river, I hear a hissing noise and then a splash behind me. I turn around and see that the water is steaming in a certain place. I look there and, lo and behold, there is another lump of gold of the same size as the one I prospected: a golden meteorite has fallen from the sky! I grab it from the water and throw it also into my pouch.

Now, I head to town to sell my gold to a buyer. When I dump out the contents of my pouch, I can't even recall which lump took ten hours of labor to acquire and which took almost none. Not only that, the buyer doesn't ask! He has no concern as to how much labor is "embodied" in these two pieces of metal. He just weighs them and pays for them based on their weight. "Embodied" labor plays no part whatsoever in the exchange value of these items.

Nor, when a jeweler fashions these two lumps of gold into rings and sells them, do the women who wear them worry about how much labor "went into" one ring versus the other. "Embodied labor" makes no difference to use value either.

Yes, we directly perceive other minds

"This is the spirit in which Wittgenstein takes it to be the case that to perceive a person’s body just is to perceive his or her soul. In particular, correctly to perceive certain movements in the facial muscles just is to perceive worry, fear, or joy; correctly to perceive a certain pointing motion with the arm just is to perceive an intention to call our attention to something; correctly to perceive a certain tightening of the muscles and to hear a groan just is to perceive pain; and so forth. The claim is not that these mentalistic descriptions are reducible to a description of the bodily motions. The claim is rather that the mentalistic aspect and the bodily aspect form a kind of unity, just as with the sentence." -- Ed Feser

Protection Against Self-Exploitation

I have a visiting scholar's card for the Duke library. When I log on to a computer here, it tells me my time is limited to 935 minutes per day.

That's 15.6 hours. Set aside the fact that the library isn't even open that many hours per day, who could spend 15.6 hours sitting at a library computer terminal?

The early progressives

I am reading a serious work of history on the early American progressive movement at present. Something that is abundantly clear is that the notion I've seen circulating recently on the Internet, that these progressives were not intimately tied to eugenics movement, is simply propaganda. Eugenics flowed naturally from and fit neatly into the rest of the progressives' views: Imperialism, racism, anti-individualism, and top-down planning by elite experts. These were truly creepy people, and they make it totally understandable why those who oppose them felt the need to forward a doctrine like methodological individualism when faced with opponents for whom the lives of millions of individuals meant nothing, so long as "society" advanced. (Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that the only thing wrong with war was that it killed the wrong people.)

UPDATE: I have now attended the lecture that went with our reading, by Tim Leonard of Princeton, who has devoted ten years of work to studying the progressive movement of (roughly) 1880-1920. Leonard is not even anti-progressive (his presentation was called "Progressivism: The Light and Dark Sides"), and he has strongly reinforced the understanding I got from his paper. Some quotes -- I was jotting these down as he went, so I do not claim I have him word for word, but I have never distorted his meaning:

"It is hard to find a progressive who wasn't a scientific racists." (He listed John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Edwin Seligman as exceptional "egalitarian progressives.")

John R. Commons was quoted as claiming that allowing inferior races to work was selecting for the unfit.

Theodore Roosevelt claimed that "race suicide" (of white Anglo-Saxons) was the "greatest problem of civilization."

Henry Seager said that American workers needed protection from "defectives."

Woodrow Wilson signed a bill permitting coercive sterilization into law as governor of New Jersey.

The 1924 immigration reform was designed by progressives to keep out inferior races. ("Race" at the time would have been applied to what we call ethnic groups such as Slavs, Jews, and Italians.)

The conquest of the Phillipines was unproblematic because Filipinos were not capable of giving consent to being governed.

The progressives generally considered the Bill of Rights an archaic impediment to their plans.

Our British guest Malcolm Rutherford commented during the Q&A that British progressives were probably even more fascinated by eugenics than were their American counterparts. (By the way, Rutherford, another expert on the era, sat through Leonard's whole talk, and did not object to a single factual claim Leonard made.)

Part of my motive in writing this post is this one. Note well: when I first read Williams' post many months ago, my thought was, "Hmm, that's interesting: I've seen some of the claims Williams is disputing; I wonder who is right?" Not being an expert, I didn't take a side.

But having met two experts now, I am pretty damned sure Williams' is wrong on at least two of his claims: progressives certainly were, in general, racists, and, in general, technocratic scientific wonks. Other of his claims are clearly correct: For instance, the progressives obviously were not Marxists. Marxists are far better than these people! And they clearly were not anti-American: they were strongly nationalist.

One final query: What sort of juvenile idiot feels the need to answer charges that his intellectual movement is "lame," and does so by comparing lists of celebrities with other movements? (Ah, it is fun to let loose and write like Marx from time to time!)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The evidence for different business cycle theories

Off the top of my head, I can think of five different "live" theories of the business cycle:


Given that we just had a serious downturn, we might ask which of these competing theories is confirmed by recent events?
The correct answer is… all five of them! Don't believe me? Just go read the bloggers in favor of these different theories. They will all tell you that recent events are exactly what should be expected, given that their theory is true.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Walk into splintered sunlight

That was their best option... *Assuming the current institutional framework*

A leftist critic of current institutional arrangements says something like, "It is terrible the way that capitalist industries exploit workers, like those poor people who died in Bangladesh."

A typical response from a defender of the current system, especially one with some economics training, will often run something like, "If those workers had had any better options in their opportunity set, then they surely would've taken those, instead of working at that factory. Therefore the factory owner was actually doing them a favor, because they would have been worse off without that option, even if things turned out badly in the end."

This is true… under current institutional arrangements. But it is an absurd way to defend current institutional arrangements against someone who thinks that we ought to have different ones.

Obviously, under significantly different institutional arrangements, the workers would have been facing significantly different opportunity sets: perhaps worse, perhaps better, but surely different. Then the relevant question becomes not "What other options did those workers actually face when they took those jobs?" but "What other options might those workers have had if, say, the international economic system was pushing worker-owned cooperatives instead of advancing the interests of huge multinational corporations?"

PS: I know the company in Bangladesh was not a multinational, but that is who they manufactured for.

PPS: I don't seem to have been clear enough in the above, given the first comment. This post was inspired by an actual conversation I heard:

Marxist: Late capitalism produces awful outcomes for workers, like that factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Neoclassical economist: Well, that must've been the best option in those workers opportunity set, otherwise they wouldn't have chosen to work there.

This is obviously complete rubbish as a response to the Marxist. Marx himself would've readily agreed that, given the existence of industrial capitalism, most workers would have no better option than to slave away for some capitalist under awful working conditions. Pointing out this fact again is hardly a come back!

Monday, June 10, 2013

When a Difference of Kind Becomes a Difference of Degree

"Man is a part of nature but he is not merely a part of nature. He knows that he is such, and therefore he is more than a mere part." D. G. Ritchie, "On the Rationalist of History"

Nature-become-self-aware is different enough from nature-lacking-self-awareness that we have undergone a phase shift. Ice is not just chillier water, and humans are not just smart monkeys.

Marx's Labor Theory of Value

Since I first had to teach Marx in a history of thought class, I have come to appreciate him much more. His writings are full of interesting insights, and many of the critiques of him turn out to be critiques of a strawman. Marx is far better than I had thought!

So it was with great interest today that I went to a lecture by a Marxist on the Marxist theory of value: maybe there were gems in there I had missed as well.

No: the Marxist theory of value is far worse than I had suspected. The notion that only living labor can produce surplus value appears to be based on sheer assertion and definition. It seems to me could create an equally sound theory of value for my ideology of "Celticism": I define surplus value as something that is only produced by living Irishmen (and women... let's not be ethnocentric and sexist!), value which is then expropriated from them by the exploitative non-Irish. If you ask me, "So, industries that employ lots of Irish show the highest profits?" I reply, "No, the capitalist competitive process redistributes that Irish surplus value equally across all industries." It is as though I tell you that, by definition, there are elves all over the place, and then construct an elaborate framework to explain why it is we never see any evidence of them anywhere.

And the thing is, Marxists don't need the labor theory of value! It is an albatross around their necks. They could adopt modern value theory, and just claim that capital grabs a huge share of the producer surplus and only leaves crumbs of that surplus for labor. And that assertion they could defend with actual evidence, rather than having to construct a theory as to why all of the evidence for their claim is continually vanishing.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

It's a Loosing Battle!

Has anyone else noticed that misspelling "losing" as "loosing" is becoming extremely common in the last few years? I don't recall ever seeing this before, perhaps, five or ten years ago, but now I see it all the time.

Or was I just missing this in the past?

Marx on the business cycle

From Chapter XVII of Theories of Surplus Value:

But the crisis is precisely the phase of disturbance and interruption of the process of reproduction. And this disturbance cannot be explained by the fact that it does not occur in those times when there is no crisis. There is no doubt that no one "will continually produce a commodity for which there is no demand," but no one is talking about such an absurd hypothesis. Nor has it anything to do with the problem. The immediate purpose of capitalist production is not “the possession of other goods”, but the appropriation of value, of money, of abstract wealth...

Money is not only "the medium by which the exchange is effected," but at the same time the medium by which the exchange of product with product is divided into two acts, which are independent of each other, and separate in time and space...

That only particular commodities, and not all kinds of commodities, can form “a glut in the market” and that therefore over-production can always only be partial, is a poor way out. In the first place, if we consider only the nature of the commodity, there is nothing to prevent all commodities from being superabundant on the market, and therefore all falling below their price. We are here only concerned with the factor of crisis. That is all commodities, apart from money [may be superabundant]. [The proposition] the commodity must be converted into money, only means that: all commodities must do so. And just as the difficulty of undergoing this metamorphosis exists for an individual commodity, so it can exist for all commodities. The general nature of the metamorphosis of commodities—which includes the separation of purchase and sale just as it does their unity—instead of excluding the possibility of a general glut, on the contrary, contains the possibility of a general glut...

At a given moment, the supply of all commodities can be greater than the demand for all commodities, since the demand for the general commodity, money, exchange-value, is greater than the demand for all particular commodities, in other words the motive to turn the commodity into money, to realise its exchange-value, prevails over the motive to transform the commodity again into use-value.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Concrete and the Abstract

"[Moving from the abstract to the concrete] is obviously the scientifically correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought... For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole." -- Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Friday, June 07, 2013

Anybody want to chat?

We finished our workweek of nine two-hour sessions discussing the history of political economy, plus shorter lunch sessions on teaching micro and several hundred pages of reading. I sat in the dorm's living room, watching sheets of water fall from the sky. I was hungry and wanted to go eat, but I have no car here, and it was raining far too much to walk anywhere. Nothing much was on the TV, so I started going through my "favorites" list on my phone to see who was available to chat. Finally, I tried all of my favorites except one. But I hesitated to call that number: Would Arecibo Car Service really want to discuss the weather in North Carolina with me?

Drinking Cosmos and Riding Taxis

Après moi le déluge

Did you know...

That colonial American slaveowners were very familiar with the characteristics of various African ethnicities, and would "shop" for slaves from particular areas? They knew, for instance, which ethnic groups grew rice, and would advertise for slaves from that group if they had a rice plantation. Or if they had a smithy, they would look for slaves from ethnic groups that were particularly skilled at metalworking.

Tim Duncan...

Came out to the press conference tonight wearing a really baggy flannel shirt. Is this a new trend: the NBA grunge look?

Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Contradiction in Adam Smith?

Or perhaps not? Discuss.

Passage 1:
"The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder." -- Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.II.42

Passage 2:
"A superior may, indeed, sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave, in this respect, with a certain degree of propriety to one another. The laws of all civilized nations oblige parents to maintain their children, and children to maintain their parents, and impose upon men many other duties of beneficence. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. When the sovereign commands what is merely indifferent, and what, antecedent to his orders, might have been omitted without any blame, it becomes not only blamable but punishable to disobey him. When he commands, therefore, what, antecedent to any such order, could not have been omitted without the greatest blame, it surely becomes much more punishable to be wanting in obedience. Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice." -- Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.II.8

Adam Smith's Project

"The beginnings of The Wealth of Nations made part of the course, but only as a fragment of the immense design of showing the origin and development of cultivation and law; or, as we may perhaps put it, not inappropriately, of saying how, from being a savage, man rose to be a Scotchman." -- Walter Bagehot

Environmental irrelevancy

I don't doubt that in arid and semi-arid areas, humans are doing things such as using up groundwater faster than it can be replenished. But surely what the people of Utah are doing with their groundwater is irrelevant to the conservation decisions of the citizen of North Carolina. There are no plans that I know of to replenish Utah groundwater with rain falling in North Carolina. For those of us who live on the rainy East Coast, the only question I would think matters is, "Are we using up our local fresh water faster than it is being replaced?" And clearly we are not, given the huge amounts of it I see flowing by unused whenever it rains.

And of course, the argument for taking short hot showers is untouched by the above considerations: We might want to take brief showers on the East Coast in order to lower our carbon footprint.

Why worry about this at all? Well, attention is not costless. When we direct people's attention towards fixing non-problems, they have less attention to direct fixing real ones.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Sarah Duke Gardens

A bug-free yard

Or so an ad for some insecticide promised.

What a twisted goal! Insects and their kin are a natural, teeming part of our world. To create an entire yard free of them means creating a wildly toxic environment... that you yourself are going to live in.

How can people become so disconnected from their own world?

Why did Hume formulate the specie-flow mechanism?

The context in which the theory was developed was a desire to stop continue warring between the nations of Europe. The problem that had to be handled was this: Instead of trying to achieve dominance through war, in Hume's commercial society, would not one nation eventually simply crush all the others through trade, so that it wound up with all the wealth in the world, leaving nothing for other nations?

The development of the specie flow mechanism was an attempt to address that concern, showing that as a nation began to accumulate specie the price of its goods would rise and they would become less competitive, thereby reversing the flow of specie.

This point is from a lecture today by Carl Wennerlind.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The solution to the problem that plagued ancient metaphysics

I believe it was for so years ago when I read R.G. Collingwood writing that the doctrine of the Trinity was a brilliant solution to the problem that had plagued ancient metaphysics. I am beginning to get the hang of what he was talking about.

Different strands of ancient thought had stressed different aspects of reality: the Platonists had stressed ideas, Aristotle and his followers the realized expressions of the ideas, the mystery religions the experience produced by the first two.

Which ever of the above was stressed, the other two aspects of reality tended to be neglected, at least to an extent. It was as though the ancients had a hold of a three-legged stool but everyone was trying to sit on it with only one leg on the ground.

The doctrine of the Trinity placed all three legs on terra firma. The idea (the Father), its realization (the Son), and the experience that "proceedeth" from the idea and its realization (the Holy Spirit) are separate but equal persons, all "one in being."

Mount Rainier from above

The hottest celebrity summer diets

The cover of People magazine held the headline "The hottest celebrity summer diets." Those are the shadows that our puppet-masters cast on the cave walls!

But surprisingly there is one celebrity diet they left off the list: surprising because this diet is so pain-free that not only is it easy to get started on it, but once you get going you're going to find you'll never want to quit!

So let us turn to...

The Lindsey Lohan diet:

1 grapefruit
1/2 gram cocaine
3 vodka and tonics with a twist of lime

Handful macadamia nuts
1/2 gram cocaine
3 vodka and tonics with a twist of lime

Alaska smoked salmon, avocado and arugula with lemon-chipotle mayonaisse on a sprouted-grain ciabatta roll
1 gram cocaine
5 vodka and tonics with a twist of lime
1 ambien

Now, go out for a drive, wake up parked in some godforsaken rest stop or back alley, drive home, and repeat!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Trinitarian meditations

Someone was discussing innovation at the conference today. The pattern they outlined it's Dorothy Sayers's reflections on the meaning of the Trinity perfectly:

First is the idea (logos): The Father

Next, the idea must be implemented (the idea made flesh): The Son

But that doesn't end the process. The idea made real rebounds and generates a new idea: The Holy Spirit

Drug laws originated as race laws

Canada's first drug law was passed to stop white guys from rioting because white women were hanging out with Chinese men:

"King was sent to investigate damages claims resulting from a riot when the Asiatic Exclusion League led a rampage through Chinatown and Japantown. Two of the claimants were opium manufacturers, and after further investigation, King found that white women were reportedly frequenting opium dens as well as Chinese men. A federal law banning the manufacture, sale, and importation of opium for non-medicinal purposes was soon passed based on these revelations."

Vancouver City Motto

Vancouver: where all of the squirrels are black, even if none of the people are.


"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb