Showing posts from February, 2016

The Crux of the Problem

Talking with Bob at lunch on Saturday, I realized that our differences on matters political can be boiled down to a single question: "If one is morally certain that a collective action problem exists but can be solved if someone is granted the power to enforce a solution, is it moral to enforce that solution?"

For instance, if there were an asteroid heading towards a destructive collision with the earth, would it be moral to tax people to blow it up?

I say the answer is clearly "yes": someone resisting paying such a tax is acting immorally. And coercing someone to prevent them from acting immorally is moral.  Put another way: no one has a right to act immorally. (Nevertheless, it may not always be right to prevent them: I am not in favor of coercing people to be polite, for various reasons, but if it could be done in a way that would actually make them genuinely polite, it would not be immoral.)

Social Physics

My review of Alex Pentland's Social Physics is now available online.

Favoring the big

Listening to Daniel Kuehn talking about Georgia's job-creation tax-break program, I noted that in the wealthiest 25% of Georgia counties, the break is only only available to firms that create at least 25 jobs. So if I employ 5 people, I need to increase my payroll by 500% to get the subsidy, while if I employ 2500, a mere 1% increase will do.

And of course there are thousands of other laws that similarly favor large concentrations of capital.

How clichés and catchphrases can make you stupid

They have a used, of course, but be careful, or you wind up writing something like:

"Rodriguez was coming off a season-long ban last year for his links to performance enhancing drugs. Now, not so much." -- The Star-Ledger, Feb. 26, 2016

He's "not so much" coming off a season-long ban? How about "not at all"?

David Brooks isn't real

Could he have written a more embarrassing column than this? But it is funny that none of these "pundits" is ever dismissed for their terrible punditry.

Manners, manners!

"Manners and decorum differ from culture to culture, but in their highest aim they manifest the same recognition that human beings should act with dignity, elegance, and courtesy." -- Claes G. Ryn, A Common Human Ground, p. 24

Manners are excellent domain for illustrating the point I have been stressing concerning the relationship between the universal and the particular. Much of our society falls into one of two camps on this topic, each of which, in its own way, misunderstands that relationship.

On one hand, we have those who recognize the universal element in, for instance, morality. But they miss the particularity of the way their own culture embodies the universal, and misunderstand their genuine insight as meaning that what is right for one person or one culture in one time and place must be right for all people or all cultures in all times and all places. The result is an imperious rigidity and a closure to knowledge one might glean from cultures other than one's…

State actors are not needed because they are "smarter" than everyone else...

but because they are empowered to solve collective action problems.

How Libertarians Could Eliminate Government Tax Coercion Overnight

Pay your taxes voluntarily. Alright?

An institution

A pattern of actions that has been formalized to some degree and is repeated at predictable times and places.

Rationalism in Management

Theodore Dalrymple is feeling listless: "T.S. Eliot said that some people dream of a society so perfect that nobody would have to be good. Likewise, some people (managers mostly) dream of processes or forms so comprehensive that no one will have to think."

My hands are statistically tied

We often see a news piece on a poll showing that Frip is ahead of Frap, 48% to 46%, followed by a declaration that Frip and Frap are "statistically tied."

This phrase is nonsense. If the poll above was conducted properly, the odds are pretty good that Frip really is ahead, just perhaps not with "95% confidence."

And the 95% confidence level is itself arbitrary: there is no real reason to prefer it to 93% confidence, or 97% confidence. And the magical power granted to passing the 95% threshold is completely unwarranted: if a poll one week shows Frip ahead with 94.9% confidence, it will be reported that Frip and Frap are in a "statistical tie," but if, the next week, Frip is ahead with 95.1% confidence, it will be reported that he has a "decisive lead." But if we applied statistical reasoning to the difference between the two polls themselves, we would surely find that their predictions were "statistically tied," and far more "tied…

Scientism: Peak Enstupidation

An a priori proof that Hoppe is a silly ninny

I recall reading Hans-Hermann Hoppe's a priori "proof" that all government services must get worse over time. Even when I was a libertarian, I found his argument to be ridiculous.

For instance, sitting in my apartment, in Brooklyn, at seven in the evening, I just renewed my Pennsylvania driver's license in about 30 seconds. Twenty years ago this would have involved a trip to the DMV two hours away, during their business hours, and then a 20 minute wait in a line. You may feel the government should not be in the business of licensing drivers: fine, but that is a completely separate point. The fact of the matter is that the process of interacting with the government on matters like this has vastly improved over the last couple of decades. Another example: I can now walk out to catch a New York City bus and see, on my phone, exactly where the bus is at that very moment.

Collingwood on the problem of pain

"the practical problem of pain is not how to avoid it but how to lift it to a heroic level; and the presence of pain in the world is not a contradiction or an abatement of the world's value and perfection. Pain may make the world difficult to live in; but do we really want an easier world? And if we sometimes think we do, do we not recognise that the wish is unworthy?

"At any rate, the wish is useless. I do not think it serves any purpose to imagine hypothetical worlds in which this or that element of the real would be absent. And it does seem to me that pain is such an element. Whether or no it is always due to our own imperfection or sin or the sin or imperfection of others, it cannot ever be eliminated, simply because a perfection of the type required can surely never exist in a world of free agents; because even if no one did wrong, the effort of doing right would still be difficult and painful just so long as the practical problems offered by the world were worth s…

Collingwood on the vacuity of "evolutionary ethics"

"The last theory we shall examine defines evil by reference to the conception of evolution. Our sins,
according to this theory, are the habits proper to a past stage in the evolutionary process, lingering on like rudimentary organs into our present life. Here again there is a fact at the bottom of the theory. It is true that the particular way in which we go wrong is often explicable by reference to past habits of which we have never entirely got rid. But the question still remains unanswered why we should go wrong at all. Nor is the theory fully true even so far as it goes ; for atavism is not a crime, and just so far as our " crimes " are really cases of atavism they are not culpable; unless indeed it is supposed that our evolution is entirely in our own hands. But if that is so, morality must be called in to account for evolution, not vice versa.

"It is a striking fact that the biological conception of evolution has never yet produced anything but confusion whe…

Phil Magness to Libertarians: Don't Bother Trying

Phil Magness tries to debunkWill Wilkinson's argument that perhaps libertarians should support Bernie Sanders by claiming:

“Such a sweeping and systemic move, if attempted in the U.S., would immediately encounter several deeply entrenched political interests that simply make it an untenable proposition. And if, by some miracle, it were ever able to overcome those already entrenched interests, it would then succumb to new political appropriation by further interest group capture, leading to the perversion of its original stated goals.”

As Magness is a libertarian, he has a problem here: this same argument completely undermines any policy suggestion for trying to put libertarianism into practice: however good the idea may be in theory, if Magness is right, attempting such a "sweeping and systematic move" will guarantee that what gets implemented instead will be a completely perverted version of what libertarians want.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson is just saying that on the margi…

The truth in progressivism

We can find a core of truth in any "successful" ideology, without which it would be too implausible to gain any traction. For progressivism, that core is the dramatic advances we have made in science and engineering over the last four centuries. They give credence to the idea that we are "more advanced" than Shakespeare or Dante, that being "modern" is better than being "Medieval," and that next year we will be even more advanced than this year. Sin, in progressivism, is being on "the wrong side of history," since tomorrow is always better than today. (Except, of course, when it isn't, which is when the "reactionaries" have temporarily reversed the march of progress.)

But consider running into a friend you have not seen for a year. He was a bit pudgy the last time you saw him, but now he is rippling with muscles.

"What happened to you?" you ask him.

"I've been going to the gym: I am a lot more advanced…

What the contextual nature of morality does and doesn't mean

We typically fine people occupying one of two extremes on the issue of moral relativism. Some people wish to impose rigid rules across all of time and space, regardless of circumstances: e.g., "The ancient Israelites were wicked because they practiced animal sacrifice." Others sense the (partially) historical character of right and wrong and leap from that genuine insight to the unwarranted conclusion that right and wrong are subjective, or whatever any particular society happens to deem them to be.

In Religion and Society, Collingwood explains why both extreme views are wrong:
"What is right for one society," we are told, "is wrong for another. It would be sadly narrow-minded to wish that every portion of the human race could live under the same kind of social organisation. On the contrary, to confer the blessings of civilisation upon the savage often means nothing but to force him into a mould for which he is quite unfitted and in which he can never be eith…

Baptists, bootleggers... and libertarians

Many libertarians like to point out that it is an alliance of "Bootleggers and Baptists" that drives legislation like Prohibition.

But that is just a two-legged and stool, and it won't stand without its third leg: libertarians! By presenting complete license as the only alternative to full prohibition, the libertarians serve to drive people into the camp of the bootleggers and the Baptists: if the only alternative to having prostitution publicly marketed to one's children is a complete ban, then a lot of people will opt for the ban.

We used to have more sensible options on the table: prostitution was permitted, but in a defined red-light district, and certainly couldn't be widely marketed. But we live today in an age of extremes.

My macro excel models

Are up online at the website for the textbook I use.

How to promote inclusion and diversity

Is by excluding those who are different:

'"(Rutgers groups) should not be inviting anyone like (Yiannopoulos) because what we stand for is inclusion and diversity," Nyuma Waggeh said, according to the Daily Targum.'

My new bibliography engine

is still under development, but is online here.

Source code is here. To-do list for enhancements is here.

The idea is that everyone can have there own publications up in searchable form.

Anyone with lots of publications want to try building their own searchable bibliography? (Murphy, ahem, Murphy.)

Between a rock and a hard place

An important review of Pierre Manent here.


An interesting piece from Roger Scruton about music. My readers will recognize the themes of the concrete and the abstract in the essay.

Using evidence in an "unthinking" way

"Evidence-Indices [e.g., smoke as a sign of fire] may always have been used in an unthinking way by people going about their daily business; but to elevate them into being a reliable basis for theoretical knowledge..." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 427

Here we come to the basis of Wootton's extraordinary claims about the Scientific Revolution replacing a world of abysmal ignorance with one that for the first time contains true knowledge: Wootton does not consider what ordinary people do in their day-to-day activities to be thought at all. But this is wrong: To move from an index to what that index signifies is an act of interpretation. In other words, it is thinking. It may not be great thinking, it may not be theorizing, and the move may have become so habitual that the thinker barely notices the thought involved at all. But nevertheless, it is an act of intelligence, and constitutes a genuine form of knowledge, without which the human species would no…

Debugging Web apps

It has been a while since I've done any web application development, but this week I have begun trying to master Django. I have hit an interesting situation along the way: I wrote a query that I think ought to return some records, but does not. In order to understand what is going on, I tried to set up Django logging and log some relevant values at that point in the program. But the logging itself is failing, and failing silently: no log file appears, but neither do any error messages in the pre-existing web server error log. So how does one debug one's silently failing debugging tool?

Any ideas?

Stuck in the "Sauces"

I happened to have been reading an essay mentioning Forrest McDonald's insistence that his students keep looking to primary sources in their work, and a young person's PhD thesis, at the same tim and so I was struck by something extraordinary in the latter.

Let us call the newly minted doctor of philosophy Jones. Jones's work was essentially "Examining the Debate Concerning Great Thinker X." I was perusing his bibliography, and what struck me was that it did not contain a single reference to anything written by X! And this is a book-length work, which I believe has actually been published as a book.

Apparently, Forrest McDonald would actually avoid the secondary literature on a topic he wanted to explore and immerse himself in the primary sources. I don't blame Jones for his very different approach, but his elders, and their obsession with "the literature."