When You Trying to Sound Smart

but you ain't, you get yourself in some trouble.

When I saw that one Rob Sheffield wrote an article called "'Blurred Lines': The Worst Song of This or Any Other Year" I clicked on the link, thinking I would like the piece, since I don't like the song. (Yes, I know that's a parody.)

Instead, I found an article I like even less than the song. Robin Thicke is crass and crude and commercial... but at least he doesn't pretend to be something else. Sheffield, however, is going to show off how much smarter he is than the pop stars about whom he writes... by saying things like:

"Also, in terms of geometry, it's impossible for lines to be blurred because lines are straight by definition. If they get blurred, they're not lines anymore. Then they're 'squiggles' or 'blotches' or something. This is just math, Robin Thicke!"

There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it actually represents an amazing compaction of wrongness. First of all, Thicke is not writing a treatise on geometry. Secondly... no! Even in geometry, lines are not "straight by definition": "The [straight or curved] line is the first species of quantity, which has only one dimension, namely length, without any width nor depth, and is nothing else than the flow or run of the point which […] will leave from its imaginary moving some vestige in length, exempt of any width. […] The straight line is that which is equally extended between its points." Thirdly, "blurred" is not the opposite of "straight." And if you want to say that, "in terms of geometry" lines can't be blurred... well, "in terms of geometry," you actually can't see lines at all, since they have no width or depth! In other words, if we are going to talk about lines in the real world, blurred or not, metaphorical or not, we shouldn't expect them to have the properties of geometrical lines. And fourthly, "blurring the lines" is a trope that I heard as a little kid: if Sheffield wants to attack the trope, it is hardly fair to blame Thicke for it.

A little later, Sheffield writes, trying to mock a Vanessa Williams song: "'Sometimes the very thing you're looking for / Is the one thing you can't see' – what does that even mean? Why would you be looking for it if you could see it?"

Well, Rob, I think it means that "the thing" is not hidden, it is right out in the open, but the seeker keeps overlooking it. But really, you don't have to be a genius to figure that out: you just have to not be trying so hard to be smart that you lack all common sense.

Russell Kirk on Government

"Governments are the offspring of religion and morals and philosophy and social experience; governments are not the source of civilization, nor the manufacturers of happiness. As Christianity embraces no especial scheme of politics, so various forms of government are best—under certain circumstances, in certain times and certain nations. And, far from being right to revolt against small imperfections in government, a people are fortunate if their political order maintains a tolerable degree of freedom and justice for the different interests in society. We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom."

Read more here.

"It was a different world then"

On a 2013 episode of Criminal Minds, they dug up a time capsule from 25 years ago and found a severed head in it. How could it have gotten in there? Wasn't the capsule guarded? The sheriff explained, "It was a different world then: no one even locked their doors!"

So this different time, when no one worried about crime, was... 1988! In the middle of the crack years, when crime rates were sky high compared to today!

Children as consumer goods

You can't profit from something everybody knows about!

It is really something how often I see articles proffering "financial advice" that "reveal" some well known fact as a source of "profit." For instance, I recently saw an article (I'm not going to go hunt for it: you can easily find one like it yourself) saying that houses are a good investment "because of the mortgage interest tax deduction."

But the mortgage interest tax deduction has existed for many years, and is hardly a secret. Thus, whatever benefit it creates is already fully accounted for in the price of real estate, so that, on average, real estate will just return the ordinary return on capital invested: real estate costs more than it would have without that deduction, and just enough more to bring its return on investment into line with all other assets. (And I'm not here claiming that markets are always and everywhere in equilibrium: but I do think markets work well enough that no disequilibrium is going to last for decades!)

Let's say that when the ability to deduct mortgage interest payments became law it had been a complete surprise to all real estate buyers and sellers. What we would have seen would be a sudden, one time jump in the price of real estate. If the deduction, on average, made a home worth 10% more than it had been worth, the day the law passed home prices would rise by 10%. And that's that: there is no further profit to be squeezed out of this arrangement.

In order to make a genuine profit, and not merely the average return on capital, you have to see something others have missed, not see something everyone else has seen for years. You could have made a profit if you were the first to correctly guess that a mortgage interest tax deduction would become law; once it is a widely known public law, it is not a source of profit.

And these "rationalists" think that witchcraft is a nutty idea!

When people look back on the history of ideas a thousand years from now, the idea that witches could turn themselves into cats or that wizards could visit other places in their dreams will see like very minor oddities compared to the idea that we are "living in a simulation."

(In fact, in some computer-simulated reality, why shouldn't there be sorcerers or ghosts or teleportation? They exist in World of Warcraft!)

Misreading Oakeshott

Here John Gray does it:

"or a sceptical view of the power of human reason (as in David Hume and Michael Oakeshott), conservatives distrusted any attempt to remake the world according to the dictates of high-minded ideals and abstract models."

This is a common mistake made by people who do not understand Oakeshott was an idealist philosopher. Oakeshott was not "sceptical" about human reason. He did not say that rationalism is good reasoning, but still even the best reasoning comes up short of the mark. To the contrary, what he said was that rationalism is irrational. It is an attempt to replace concrete thinking with reasoning that is abstract, and therefore partial and defective.

An analogy: imagine that some people's image of top notch free throw shooting was formed by watching Andre Drummond. They tell everyone, "The way to shoot free throws is the Andre Drummond way." Now Oakeshott comes along and says, "No, that way is nonsense: he gets terrible results."

And, as a result, the Drummond people reply, "Ah, so Oakeshott is skeptical of human's ability to shoot free throws!"

Sumner channels Collingwood

"While working on this project I have gradually come to the conclusion that modern macroeconomics, macro history, and the history of thought are a seamless whole; it is impossible to really understand any one filed without also having deep knowledge of the other two." -- Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox, p. 357

Chance: the modern witchcraft

"Thus, however 'mystical' the content of Zande witchcraft beliefs may or may not be... they are actually employed by the Zande in a way anything but mysterious -- as an elaboration and defense of the truth claims of colloquial reason. Behind all these reflections upon stubbed toes, botched pots, and sour stomachs lies a tissue of commonsense notions the Zande apparently regarded as being true on their face: that minor cuts normally heal rapidly; that stones render baked clay liable to cracking... that in walking about Zandeland is unwise to daydream, for the place is full of stumps. And it is as part of this tissue of common sense assumptions, not of some primitive metaphysics, that the concept of witchcraft takes on its meaning and has its force... It is when ordinary expectations fail to hold, when the Zande man-in-the-field is confronted with anomalies or contradictions, that the cry of witchcraft goes up. It is, in this respect at least, a kind of dummy variable in the system of commonsense thought. Rather than transcending that thought, it reinforces it by adding to it an all-purpose idea which acts to reassure the Zande that their fund of commonplaces is, momentary appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, dependable and adequate." -- Clifford Geertz, "Common Sense as a Cultural System," Local Knowledge, pp. 78-79

Contemplating this passage, I was struck by how "chance" plays the same role in the common-sense world of someone from the modern West as witchcraft plays for the Zande. We expect people who smoke to come down with lung cancer; when someone who is never smoked in their life does so, what do we say caused it? Chance! We expect Stephen Curry to shoot 46% on his three point attempts; when he goes 1-for-12, what is to blame? Chance! We expect someone who drives skillfully and carefully to avoid accidents; when they have one anyway, it was... Chance that did it.

In fact, "chance" is not an actual cause of anything at all.* It is the name we give our ignorance of the actual cause of an event. Consider a coin toss: the coin will come up heads or tails not by "chance," but due to exactly how it was flipped, how the air influenced its motion, the balance of the coin, and so on. But we lack the ability to follow exactly how all of these factors will influence the outcome; we call our ignorance "chance."

So, just as witchcraft serves as a dummy variable for the Zande in their common-sense world, chance serves as a dummy variable in ours. Other cultures have chosen "the will of God," or "Fate," or "Kismet," as their name for this dummy variable. We prefer chance as our "all-purpose idea" because, given that we can give the notion a mathematical formulation, it allows us to believe that we are still being good scientific rationalists when when we stuff Silly Putty into the cracks in our understanding of the world.

* Yes, I am aware of quantum uncertainty; a discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post, and irrelevant, since our common invocation of chance does not involve matters such as when an electron will fall into a lower orbital!

The classical market for loanable funds and the zero lower bound

Here's a way explain the difference between the "classical" market for loanable funds and the "Keynesian" market for loanable funds, and bring home the important difference between market participants moving along a supply or demand curve and their moving the supply or demand curve.

We start with a supply and demand diagram for loanable funds, with the equilibrium interest rate at 6%:

Now, consumers decide to save more, increasing the supply of loans and dropping the equilibrium interest rate from 6% to 5%:

Well done, market! Equilibrium achieved, end of story, right? Well, if all of our ceteris are paribus, yes, that's it. The market clears at 5% and our tale has ended. And that certainly could be what happens!

But it doesn't have to be what happens. Firms are manned by human actors who themselves interpret, and based on that interpretation react to, events. What if they interpret that rise in savings as an ominous sign: consumers are worried about the near future, and won't spend! Now they will reduce their demand for loans: they don't just slide along the existing demand curve; they move the demand curve:

Now our new equilibrium is 3%, not 5%! And it doesn't have to stop there: when households see that businesses are not borrowing, they believe things are even bleaker than they had imagined: they need to save more!

The equilibrium interest rate is now 1%. One more step and... businesses are now really freaking out: no one is going to buy anything next year! No sense borrowing! And... wait for it...

We have passed the zero lower bound! The equilibrium interest rate is now -1%, and can't be attained. (We have been dealing with nominal rates.) Savings now equals 60, while the desire to borrow for investment equals 40: savings exceeds intended investment. A Keynesian recession is in full bloom!

Now this, of course, is just a model. Does this happen, or does something like it happen, in the real world? That is a matter for empirical investigation. But there is nothing at all incoherent or contrary to economic logic about the story I just told. It has, as Weber would have said, explanatory adequacy, but it may or may not have causal adequacy. (Search our linked paper for those terms if you want to understand what Weber meant.)

What TV Takes for "Smart"

The character Spencer Reid in criminal Minds is supposed to be a super genius. When the writers want to illustrate this, they have him say things off the top of his head (in the context of the search for the identity of a Las Vegas waitress) like, "There are 2538 restaurants in Las Vegas."

Someone who really said that in that context would be, not a genius, but an idiot savant:

1) What in the world is he doing wasting his time and neural capacities memorizing trivial facts like that?

2) What about the ridiculous precision? If he were really smart, he would realize that the day after he read that number, the number changed, and changed again the next day, and the day after.

3) And what about the useless precision? What the team needed to know was that they couldn't afford to try a one-by-one combing of all restaurants: they needed a better strategy. "There are around 2500 restaurants in Las Vegas" would have done the job quite nicely!

All trends can be extrapolated forever!

"We are on track to rid the planet of trees within 600 years." -- Melissa Holbrook Pierson, reviewing Lab Girl in the April 10 Book Review section

I suppose if Ms. Holbrook Pierson heard that her friend's child had increased in weight from 8 pounds to 16 pounds in his first year, she would conclude, "He is on track to weigh 1 quadrillion 125 trillion pounds by the time he is 50!"

Why Can't Immigration Be "Fixed"?

Our immigration system is a mess... apparently. If you want open borders, it is terrible that so many people who could be working legally instead have to be here illegally. If you want tighter controls, it is terrible that so many people our law should have excluded instead are here, with apparently no intention of doing anything about it. So from both sides of the debate, the situation looks terrible...

But what if there is a third side? What if there is a side that wants lots and lots of immigrants in the country, but wants them here with as little legal standing as possible, so they are always fearful of being turned in and deported? So they will work lots of hours for low pay and no benefits and not complain?

When you have an apparent mess on your hands that won't clear up, year after year after year, it is often useful to ask, "Is there someone for whom this is not a mess at all, but the ideal situation?"

Our screwy tax code is another case where this applies.

I favor safe, legal abortion

So long as it is safe for the baby too, and not just the mother.

What Is Religion?

By the way, although it sometimes drives people a little nutty, the way I use "religion" is hardly unique to me. The great anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined religion as "(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

Thus, it is not quite right to say "scientific materialism is a religion." Some people may be scientific materialists in a offhand sort of way, and find their life motivation in some other fashion. What is more correct is to say that "scientific materialism functions as a religion for many people." In particular, when we find someone claiming something like "We must face up to the fact that our lives are the product of random chance, and that we are alone in an alien and uncaring universe," we are in the presence of a religious belief. Note that even if it is true that "everything is made up of material particles alone," there is no way to derive anything from that statement about what we "must" do! One could as easily decide, "Everything is made up of material particles alone, but we must do everything we can to act as if that is not so!" And think about Geertz's fifth characteristic, and how stunned many scientific materialists are when anyone cannot see that their formulations are "uniquely realistic"!

Similarly, it is easy to grasp how Marxism, or progressivism, can be religions in Geertz's sense. And that sense is not arbitrary: it arose from the work of a great anthropologist exploring the role of religion in different cultures.

And lastly: if you haven't read Geertz, you should!

The Polynesians Had a Third Sex!

This is often brought up in discussions of transgendered people, apparently to prompt the reaction, "Well, if those nice Polynesians did, than we should too!"

However, "recognizing a third sex" did not always turn out well for those so recognized:

"The Romans... regarded intersexed infants as supernaturally cursed and put them to death... [Among] the East African tribe, the Pokot... frequently, intersexed children are killed in the offhand way one discards an ill-made pot..." -- Clifford Geertz, "Common Sense as a Cultural System," Local Knowledge, pp. 81-83

Maybe the Polynesians were on to something here, and maybe not. My point is simply that citing what some other people in some other time and place did about some problem we are facing now is interesting, and can suggest avenues for further exploration, but by itself doesn't really decide much!

Drugs are illegal

I saw a character in a TV show chastise another character for having hash oil in her purse by saying, "Drugs are still illegal."

Of course, not all drugs are illegal! Alcohol is not, tobacco is not, and aspirin is not.

If the character speaking had wanted to be precise, she would have said, "Illegal drugs are illegal." But then we have a mere pleonasm! And that formulation might lead us to question why some drugs are legal, and others are not.

A similar situation occurs when someone asserts that a Christian bakery should not be able to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because "discrimination is wrong." Of course, such people are perfectly happy to discriminate among many other possible sorts of weddings, e.g., brother-sister weddings, and child weddings, and polygamous weddings. What they are really claiming is that wrongful discrimination is wrong: which is, of course, true by definition.

But by phrasing this as they do, they are begging the question, because, of course, the Christian bakers do not think that discriminating between opposite-sex and same-sex weddings is not discrimination, they think it is not wrongful discrimination: they think it is a perfectly legitimate form of discrimination, just as their opponents think discriminating between non-brother-sister and brother-sister weddings is not wrong. To simply declare that "discrimination is wrong" as a way to condemn the Christian bakers is an attempt to shut off discussion by illegitimately conflating "wrongful discrimination is wrong" with "any discrimination is wrong," the latter of which they themselves do not believe.

The God of "Productivity"

Adam Ozimek, a disciple of economism, argues that automation is good whenever it raises productivity, by which he means more is produced using fewer resources.

He does not consider the possibility that sometimes, raising productivity might increase human misery, as "more consumption goods at a lower price" does not represent the sum total of human happiness.

The Primacy of the Will, II


"I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a book on why people wind up feeling the way that they do on politics and morality. The most important takeaway is that while people will usually offer elaborate rationales for their moral stances, in reality we start from some core of emotion or instinct, some feeling of revulsion or compassion, and then we justify it with reason. It is very, very rare (possibly to the point of non-existent) for a person to reason their way to a moral stance."

Enlightenment Secularism IS a Culture

Trevor Phillips wants people who immigrate to Britain to drop their "cultural baggage": in the name of diversity, of course!

Now, someone is at least being coherent should they insist that, say, "British culture is superior: anyone who comes here should drop their own culture and adopt ours."

Or, they might be coherent while making a more modest claim: "British culture, whether superior or not, is, in any case, our culture, and if you come to our island, we expect you to adopt it."

These claims are coherent, but quite obviously have nothing to do with "diversity," at least when it comes to diversity within the British Isles.

But Phillips is able to claim he wants everyone to "wear" their "cultural baggage" lightly in his "diverse" Britain because his culture, Enlightenment Secularism, is a culture that denies it is one. Indeed, a central cultural belief of the Enlightenment Secularists (Esses) is that their beliefs do not form a culture at all, but are the pinnacle achievement of universal human reason. "Culture" is baggage that should be tossed away, or at least "worn lightly" -- it is OK to continue to cook curries, wear kente cloth, or play the tin whistle, but not to actual continue to honor any of the values from your original culture! -- as one ascends into the empyrean of Enlightenment Secularism. In other words, the diversity and tolerance of the Esses amounts to this: since all cultures other than Enlightenment Secularism (which isn't a culture, mind you!) are silly, atavistic relics of human childhood, we can tolerate a very diverse range of cultural practices, so long as none of them are taken seriously or get in the way of the hegemony of Enlightenment Secularism.

So, you can keep a commercialized form of your traditional music, or eat a few odd ingredients in your cuisine, sure: the Esses can tolerate that. But if you decide that people with penises should not be in the bathroom with women, well, you are an evil hater, and should be crushed into submission. Unfortunately, bombing North Carolina is probably out of the question, but the people of the state can at least be crushed economically. But overseas, the Esses are happy to bomb the noncompliant into submission -- recall how "women's rights" were invoked to justify wrecking the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan -- but all in the name of "diversity" and "tolerance," of course!

How Times Have Changed

Writing a few decades ago, Robert Nisbet noted:

"In each of these [professions] a man is guaranteed his job so long as he competently fulfils its specification, whether this be installing carburetors, performing an audit, or playing second base, and he is not likely to be dismissed or demoted on grounds extraneous to his competence exzcept for commission of felony or flagrant insurbordination." -- "Permanent Professors: A Modest Proposal"

The social justice warriors were not on the loose yet, were they?

House Hunting with Bob Dylan

I believe this is the basis for a great reality TV show.


Notions like "taxation is theft" rely on atomistic individualism for whatever plausibility they have. Taxation would be theft if:

1) The natural state of human beings was to exist as isolated individuals, somehow in full possession of a bunch of property despite their isolation; and

2) These atomic individuals then entered into a "social contract" in which they agreed to live in a society with other humans, but only on the condition they get to keep all of the property they had when they lived alone.

Of course, both one and two are complete nonsense: human beings would not even be human beings apart from a human social group. Our natural state is to live in a group with a number of other human beings, and the monads of atomic individualism have only existed in history due to terrible mishaps. And they certainly possessed no property!

Furthermore, the natural state of affairs in these groups was to treat resources as the possession of the group. Private property was an innovation (and a very useful one) granting some individuals greater rights in regards to some resource than anyone else. But being granted to an individual by their social group, it is quite naturally subject to revocation by the group and to whatever other conditions the group puts upon its possession. Such as, for instance, "You may have control over this land, and the proceeds you earn from using it, on the condition that you return 10% of those proceeds to the group."

Tax evasion, not taxation, is theft! And you are "coerced" into paying your taxes only if you try to weasel out of your obligation to pay them, just as you are "coerced" into paying for your groceries.

No one is going to try to force priests to perform same-sex marriages!

Oh, wait, yes someone is going to try that.

By "Diversity," I Meant "Uniformity"

The phoniness of contemporary diversity on display:

"“For a long time, I too thought that Europe’s Muslims would become like previous waves of migrants, gradually abandoning their ancestral ways, wearing their religious and cultural baggage lightly, and gradually blending into Britain’s diverse identity landscape."

So Trevor Phillips liked a "diverse" Britain in which people from all around the world could abandon everything that makes them distinct and become exactly like everyone else: Note especially that any culture except Western secularism is just "baggage"!

Teaching the Matrix Method of Solving a System of Linear Equations

I taught this topic to my students per the textbook, and about half the class was really struggling. Now, most of these students were OK on solving these systems using equations with x, y and z. Why were they not getting the matrix method?

I stopped and rethought the whole enterprise, and realized that the textbook introduced a few rules, without really explaining them, and then jumped straight into somewhat complex problems to solve. Why not follow Carl Menger, and break everything down to the simplest possible elements, and build up from there? So I spent half a class walking the students through the following twelve systems, asking them to write the matrix, and solve it if need be. (Some of the systems are already in the solved form, which was part of the point of the exercise.)

1) x = 7

2) 2x = 14

3) x = 7, y = 4

4) 2x = 14, 2y = 8

5) x + y = 7, y = 4

6) x + y = 7, 2x + y = 10

7) x + y = 7, x + 2y = 11

8) x + y = 7, 2x + 4y = 22

9) 2x + 2y = 14, 2x + 4y = 22

10) x = 3, y = 4, z = 2

11) x + 2z = 7, y + z = 6, z = 2

12) x + 2z = 7, 2y + 2z = 6, y + 3z = 10

Every single student got it. A couple of them broke into big smiles at around equation 8 or 9. One told me, "I had studied this several times before, and I thought I'd never understand it."

So why aren't math textbooks written this way? We teach young kids arithmetic in this fashion: start from 1 + 1 = 2, and work systematically up from there. But at a certain point, it seems to me, math textbooks instead take on a "sort the wheat from the chaff" approach: present the material in a very elliptical fashion, and those who can't get it that way, well, they shouldn't keep going in mathematics!

Me, I think every person on earth with a normally functioning brain can grasp any piece of established mathematics as long as it is presented systematically, with every step along the way explained with simple examples. (And of course, having the creative genius to actually advance mathematics is an entirely different matter.)

Distributism Doubleplay

My essay on modern distributism is online at The American Conservative.

And the Henry George School of Social Science has put up a web page for my upcoming talk.

The Law Is Not a Mathematical Treatise

We often find people saying something like, "If Americans can serve in the military at age 18, it is contradictory not to let them drink at 18 as well." (An example of this sort of accusation.) But these complaints rest on a confusion.

When we want to build up a system of mathematics, such as geometry, we state propositions (theorems, axioms, lemmas, etc.) and work out their consequences. We should worry about the consistency of our propositions, because if two of them are contradictory, anything at all can be proven in our system.

But the law does not consist of propositions with logical consequences, from which we try to prove something further. It consists of rules of conduct, with consequences for the breaking thereof, which serve to help guide and improve our practical life. In general, the only important sort of proposition that laws contain is that X is illegal and Y is legal.* Therefore, in general, laws can be contradictory only in declaring X to be both legal and illegal at the same time. And the law is "incoherent" only when it makes the same actions both legal under one statute and illegal under another.

Since law exists to guide and improve our practical life, the justification for a law is not a logical demonstration, but an assertion of its practical efficacy: "Since we've passed the 'Pooper-Scooper' law, the sidewalks are so much cleaner, and we are not tracking dog poop into our apartments nearly as often!"

But, but... what about our rights?! Well, talk of abstract rights apart from a concrete set of social arrangements is a bunch of mularkey (a point even a libertarian icon like Mises agreed with), and the truth behind the assertion of rights is their practical efficacy: we'd all like to live in a society in which we can do what we'd like, in so far as "doing what we like" does not create social chaos. No one wants to have to check with the legal authorities to see if they can go for a walk, and since "going for a walk" does not generally produce social chaos, we generally should have no laws saying people can't go for a walk when they want. Similarly, the "right" to free speech is justified because we enjoy being able to say what we think without legal consequences, and that "right" is properly ignored when it creates social chaos, e.g., falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Consider: why don't Britons have the "right" to drive on the right-hand-side of the road, as Americans do? Or why don't Americans have the "right" to drive on the left-hand-side?

So the accusation that two laws, one of which sets the drinking age at 21, and the other of which allows 18-year-olds to serve in the military, are "contradictory" is:

1) False: there simply is no logical contradiction here, unless one ties several extraneous propositions to the laws, such as: "Anyone who can serve in the military is a legal adult. All legal adults must legally be able to perform the exact same set of actions." (The actual laws, not being propositions at all, do not imply or entail these propositions.)

2) Irrelevant: logical consistency is a virtue of a system of theoretical propositions, and is a notion that simply does not apply to practical life. In the world of practice, what is relevant is means-ends consistency, not logical consistency. We are being inconsistent, in practical life, if we, for instance, discourage our kids from drinking liquor while giving them bottles of vodka for their 13th birthday. And the problem with those two choices is not that they are illogical, in terms of formal logic (because there is no formal contradiction, first of all because these are not propositions), but that they work at counter-purposes.

(And by the way, I think that the drinking age should be lowered, but the reason we should lower it is that the actual outcome of lowering it would be better than the status quo, and not some alleged "contradiction.")

* A lawmaker may write some proposition into a bill, e.g., "Human life is sacred. Therefore, capital punishment will be illegal in Freedonia." The actual law is that "capital punishment will be illegal in Freedonia." The logical implication is a rhetorical flourish that has no legal impact: if someone should "discover" that human life is not sacred, capital punishment will still be illegal until the law is overturned.

"Think for Yourself!"

That's an idea you picked up from somebody else.

The Same Things That Have Done Me In

Things I Hate, Numbers 12 & 35

The use of "hacking" to mean almost any damned thing the writer wants it to mean.

In the above link, "hacking" apparently means "figuring out." Say what?

"Hacking" originally had two meanings:

1) Coding that was done in a rush, without much planning: "I got the invoice system working, but it was just a hack: I'll have to clean the code up tomorrow."

2) Coding designed to break into someone else's computer system: "I hacked into the FBI's fingerprint database."

The connection between the two meanings was that hacking (2) was often done via hacking (1). And it is interesting to note that usage (1) was largely negative: you might have to employ a "hack" if the client needed to see a result the next day, but it was a stopgap measure, to be replaced by sound coding later.

But the term became trendy, and now "hacking" is used just to make any old thing seem trendy and up-to-date: if someone figures out a better way to bake cookies, that is no longer a cooking tip, but a "kitchen hack." If someone suggests that quitting drinking to excess might be a good idea, that is no longer a piece of moral advice, but a "life hack."

Let me suggest a "writing hack": don't mindlessly employ some term just because its use is trendy, but instead write what you really mean to say!

Theoretical History

"in order to understand the October [1929] crash, one needed to explain why it would have been sensible for investors to be highly optimistic in September 1929, and somewhat pessimistic in November 1929." -- Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox, pp. 60-61

Again, Sumner is introducing his conclusions as a criterion for what facts will be acceptable. Of course, no one embarks on an attempt to explain some historical episode with a "blank slate": every effort at understanding is an effort to understand better what is to some extent already understood. There is nothing wrong with Sumner starting with the hypothesis that investors were "sensible" in September 1929, and seeing if it holds up. But here Sumner posits their being sensible, not as a conjecture to be explored, but as a given which any explanation must incorporate. And given that is a pre-condition he has placed on any acceptable explanation of what occurred, it is inevitable that the end result of his inquiry will be that they were, indeed, sensible.

It's Good We Have Editors, Right?

The Washington Post thinks Corinthians is in "the Hebrew Bible":

"[Curry] wears a tattooed ‘A’ on one finger, and a Hebrew Bible verse inside of one wrist: 'Love never fails,' First Corinthians, 13:8."

Given the contempt in which most editors at WP probably hold traditional religions, I'm thinking the writer might have been able to claim that Corinthians is in the "Hindu Bible" and get away with it.

The right to boycott is not a guarantee that every boycott is right!

In online discussions in which I have objected to some boycott, I have on several occasions seen someone respond "Well, your free market worship goes right out the window when it is a boycott you don't like, huh?"

Let us set aside the assumption that I "worship" the free market, something my libertarian readers are likely to find a little ironic. Is a laissez-faire libertarian committed to approving of every boycott?

The reasoning employed by my interlocutors seems to be, "Well, if you like free markets, you must approve of every single thing that goes on in a free market."

But why? If someone approves of free speech, do they have to approve of everything ever said? If someone is in favor of "big government," do they have to approve of the Gulag?

There is nothing hypocritical about approving of markets in general and disapproving of lots and lots of things that go on in the market. For instance, I could be strongly against smoking, and still believe adults have the right to buy and sell cigarettes if they want to. I can think The Big Bang Theory is an abomination and still not want to see it outlawed. (Although in this case, a little censorship might not be so bad...)

And so it is with boycotts. Does the KKK have the right to call for a boycott of all black-owned businesses? My knowledge of civil rights law is minimal, but I'd guess they do. Is it right for them to do so? Certainly not!

And a boycott is a weapon: rather than convince your opponent of your view, you threaten them with economic destruction if they don't submit to it. As such, if a society values political deliberation, it is a weapon that should be reserved for the most serious cases of malfeasance.

Efficient Markets? Part II

"On June 4, 1928, the New York Times (p. 4) reported 'Credit Curb Hinted by Reserve Board.' The market actually rose slightly on June 5, but then, over the following week, the Dow plunged 7 percent. Policy news ought to be incorporated into securities prices almost immediately, and thus, it is unclear whether the Fed's announcement had any impact on the markets." -- Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox, p. 47

This is a funny way to do historical research: one goes in knowing what should happen -- "policy news ought to be incorporated into securities prices almost immediately" -- and then creates the facts -- "it is unclear whether the Fed's announcement had any impact" -- based on the pre-existing theory.

There is a way to determine whether the news about the Fed was what "caused" this drop: detailed examination of the journals, memoirs, letters, newsletters and so on of stock market participants of that time, to see if this was really what was worrying them.

PS -- I am, of course, reviewing Sumner for publication. As I read, I pick out areas of disagreement, but I don't want you to think this is a bad book: it is not.

Efficient Markets?

When the NBA three-pointer was created, only about 3% of shots were from behind the three-point line. It took decades for teams to reach an "efficient" level of three point shooting. (An example: in the 1984-85 season, Larry Bird was hitting 43% of his three-pointers, but only shooting 1.6 of them per game.)

It often takes time for markets -- meaning the human beings who participate in markets -- to digest some news or realize the importance of some innovation. The technology was in place in 1995 to put all of your company's internal information on an "intranet" -- I know, because I was doing it -- but it took a decade for many companies to catch on.

Which brings us to our next post.

Can Computers Think?


Many of my worked-up correspondents are outraged because, they claim, I deny the possibility that computers can think. But I have never denied that possibility, and have explicitly said I don't deny it in the past. In fact, as that post notes, I keep denying it, and yet my critics simply ignore my repeated denials, and accuse me of a bias in favor of "meat machines" over "silicon machines." Let me say it again: Maybe Big Blue actually realizes it is playing chess, and actually knows that it has an opponent. Maybe it actually feels triumphant when it beats a grandmaster!

Can thermostats think?

Maybe. Maybe a thermostat knows when it is cold in the living room, and knows that the furnace must be kicked on.

Can electrons think?

Maybe. Maybe an electron knows it ought to orbit a nucleus in a certain orbital.

What has puzzled me throughout this discussion is why AI enthusiasts want to deny thought to simple physical mechanisms, but at some (seemingly arbitrary point) award the moniker "thinking" to more complex physical mechanisms. Why is a simple circuit like a thermostat or an NOR gate not thinking, but some built up complex of them suddenly supposed to be thinking?! This is the magical aspect of AI advocacy that I have been critiquing, and the aspect not one of my critics has even tried to address.

The Slave and the Figs

At the beginning of his Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992), Umberto Eco tells the following story:
At the beginning of his Mercury; Or, the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641), John Wilkins tells the following story:
How strange a thing this Art of Writing did seem at its first Invention, we may guess by the late discovered Americans, who were amazed to see Men converse with Books, and could scarce make themselves to believe that a Paper could speak...

There is a pretty Relation to this Purpose, concerning an Indian Slave; who being sent by his Master with a Basket of Figs and a Letter, did by the Way eat up a great Part of his Carriage, conveying the Remainder unto the Person to whom he was directed; who when he had read the Letter, and not finding the Quantity of Figs answerable to what was spoken of, he accuses the Slave of eating them, telling him what the Letter said against him. But the Indian (notwithstanding this Proof) did confidently abjure the Fact, cursing the Paper, as being a false and lying Witness.

After this, being sent again with the like Carriage, and a Letter expressing the just Number of Figs, that were to be delivered, he did again, according to his former Practice, devour a great Part of them by the Way; but before he meddled with any, (to prevent all following Accusations) he first took the Letter, and hid that under a great Stone, assuring himself, that if it did not see him eating the Figs, it could never tell of him; but being now more strongly accused than before, he confesses the Fault, admiring the Divinity of the Paper, and for the future does promise his best Fidelity in every Employment.
The slave's naive belief in "the Divinity of the Paper" bears a rather obvious parallel to the AI enthusiast's belief in "the Divinity of the Logic Gate."

(If AI enthusiasts are consistent, anyone who questioned the slave's belief should be accused of the "Einstein's mother fallacy": attributing the knowledge contained on the paper to the person who wrote on it is exactly like attributing all of Einstein's knowledge to his mother!)

Machine "Learning"

Computer programs are machines. The brilliance of a general-purpose computing machine is that its circuitry can be re-wired on the fly by a program loaded into memory. But we could always create hardware that duplicates any program: we burn the program onto a PROM.*

But let's say we think there is a machine out there that might solve our problem, but that it is very, very complex, and we are not sure how to build it. The brilliance of "machine learning" software is the realization that we can build a machine X that searches the space of possible machines for the machine Y which is the one we really want. We code some criteria for "Getting warmer!" and "Getting colder!" and then set X going, looking for Y.

We can call this "learning" if it makes it easier for the people working on these problems to picture what they are doing. But it is really not different, except in complexity, than a program searching a database for a record that meets certain criteria, and then returning the record when it finds it. If you want to say, "Oh, the computer recognized who the best suspect is!", that is OK with me, just like if you want to say, "Ah, my thermostat recognized that the house was getting cold," or "My rabbit trap recognized that a rabbit had entered it."

* Nerd joke: I asked my friend what he was doing at work. "Burning PROMs," was his answer. "Oh, you're like Carrie!" I noted.

Magical Computers

Arthur C. Clarke once said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." (For those who can't follow its construction, of course.) This explains a lot of the belief in Artificial Intelligence. This magical thinking regarding a piece of technology is on full display in the television show Criminal Minds, where the "search wizard," Garcia, can, with about 10 keystrokes, pull absolutely any combination of pieces of information out of her magical computer. ("Garcia, get me the names of all people released from prison in the last month who are on psychiatric drugs and subscribe to HBO."*)

I just saw on episode in which Garcia was asked to find the location of the mobile phone of the "best friend" of an FBI agent's missing niece. That's all the computer needed: "Find the location of Meghan's best friend's cell phone." About 3 seconds later, a little dot was blinking on a map.

You see, because they can think, and are smarter than us, and know what we want. Magically.

* Of course such a query, given access to law enforcement, pharmaceutical, and cable company databases, is fully possible. But it would probably take days if not weeks of programming to figure out all the complications of joining the differently formatted data in all of these data stores. Not two seconds.

We'll Be Having Fun All Sumner Long

"For instance, Romer argued that the 1929 stock market crash sharply reduced consumer confidence, and that this was a major factor depressing aggregate demand. But the quite similar stock market crash in 1987 seemed to have no impact at all on economic growth, suggesting that the direct impact of stock prices on real output is certainly very small." -- Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox, p. 39

What we have here is an oscillation between an historical mode of explanation and a scientific one. Science deals in generalizations, and has nothing to say about specific events other than citing them as instances of its generalizations. ("The arrow will fall back to earth, as it was shot in the air with less than escape velocity.") History, on the other hand, deals with particulars, and a resort to scientific generalizations is at most a stopgap in an historical explanation, filling in where we lack actual historical knowledge. ("Although we have no evidence for what happened in that battle, the Egyptians probably won, as armies with such a preponderance of force typically do.")

But a stopgap generalization like that above cannot be used to defease an historical narrative based on actual evidence: it is silly to write, "It is unlikely that some obscure Macedonian named Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, as armies facing such an imbalance in force are almost always defeated." Or: "Since there were many assassinations of notable political figures between 1880 and 1920, it is unlikely that a world war broke out in 1914 after one more such assassination." We are dealing with extensive evidence that these things did happen, and we can only reasonably dispute that evidence with historical evidence showing, for instance, a widespread conspiracy to fake the existence of Alexander.

So even if, somehow (based on only two cases!) Sumner has established a scientific generalization that "generally, stock market crashes have very little impact on real output," that says nothing about the actual historical evidence for whether, in the particular case of The Great Depression, one had a large impact. What starts a panic in one crowd in one place on one day may be shrugged off nonchalantly by another crowd in another place on another day; events are what they are interpreted to be by human beings, and human interpretation is not constant.

Geoffrey Hinton on How There Are Never New Religions


" I think that’s what differentiates science from religion. In science, you can say things that seem crazy, but in the long run they can turn out to be right. We can get really good evidence, and in the end the community will come around."

Because it has simply never been the case that someone came along and suggested a new religion and people wound up adopting it.

The Delicacy of Scientific Testing

This article is worthy of careful consideration. Consider these quotes:
Scientists have substantial evidence that dark matter exists and is at least five times as abundant as ordinary matter. But its nature remains a mystery.

“If it’s really dark matter, many other experiments should have seen it already,” says Thomas Schwetz-Mangold, a theoretical physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany—and none has.

“The modulation signal is there,” says Kaixuan Ni at the University of California, San Diego, who works on a dark-matter experiment called XENON1T. “But how to interpret that signal—whether it’s from dark matter or something else—-is not clear.”

The fact that many have tried and failed to repeat DAMA’s experiment shows that it is not easy, says Elisabetta Barberio at the University of Melbourne, who leads the Australian arm of SABRE. “The more one looks into their experiment, the more one realizes that it is very well done.”
So scientists have evidence of a lot of something... they know not what... kicking around the universe. Not knowing what the thing is they are looking for is, it is hard to know how to find it. They have some experiments that indicate the experimenters have found something unknown... but that unknown thing might or might not be the other unknown thing they are looking for. And other experimenters have had a very hard time duplicating those results... which leads them not to believe the original experiments were flawed, but that they were very well done!

I am not making fun of this enterprise! I am offering it as an example illustrating how inadequate any naive theory of falsification must be.

We Have Naive Falsification, and We Have...


"Sir Karl [Popper] is not, of course, a naive falsificationist. He knows all that has just been said and has emphasized it from the beginning of his career...: 'In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and they will disappear with the advance of our understanding.' [But] having barred conclusive disproof, he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification. Though he is not a naive falsificationist, Sir Karl may, I suggest, legitimately be treated as one." -- Thomas Kuhn, "Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research"

So we have two sorts of falsificationists:

1) The naive ones, who think, "Well, an experiment didn't agree with your theory, so chuck it out!" These people are usually not professionals in the history or philosophy of science, but, having got a hold of a single simple idea, think they are now experts in these fields. They show up in debates on trendy topics all the time: "Last winter's temperatures didn't agree with the global warming models, so it's been falsified!" or "Card-Krueger proves that increasing prices won't reduce demand!" (I am not trying to enter into these debates themselves, only to point out that they can't be resolved with a single experiment / study.) Or we have this example.

2) The sophisticated falsificationists, like Popper, who recognize that the naive view is nonsense, and in its place, they put... well, nothing that should be called "falsificationism." What actually fills this role is educated scientific judgment, and it takes into account many factors, such as contrary experimental results, and positive experimental results (which to some extent confirm theories!), and theoretical elegance (an elegant theory may survive a lot of "falsification"!*), and what rival theories that might be adopted in lieu of the one being tested. (As Kuhn notes, scientists never abandon a theory in favor of nothing, but only in favor of another theory.)

* Heliocentrism survived several centuries of failure to detect any stellar parallax.

What Is Ideology?

If someone asks me what my greatest achievement in political philosophy is, I would answer, "Providing a precise, non-question-begging definition of ideology."

I offered this, in Oakeshott on Rome and America, in Aristotelian terms: ideology is the attempt to treat as theoria was is instead a matter of phronesis (practical wisdom).

Let us consider the matter of my getting to work. When I need to get to campus, what I do is consider the current circumstances I face in getting there, and then choose the best means to get there, given what I face. Some days, the G train is a perfectly adequate means. But other days, I find the G train is running slowly, or skipping stops, or I am just running a few minutes late, and I get a cab. But what route should the cab take? Well, I check my phone, and look for traffic jams. In fact, I've taken 5 or 6 different cab routes to get to work.

But the "travel ideologue" will have none of this. There is a single correct way to arrive at some place, and that single correct answer is revealed by a theory. For instance, we may encounter a "geometrical ideology," which insists that the only rational way to move from point A to point B is to move in a straight line between them. The fact that I would have to tunnel through many buildings to get to work via a straight line will not deter this ideologue: those who would let such considerations deter them are "sell outs" or "trimmers," and morally corrupt.

Of course, in travel, we don't encounter much ideology, since the results are so immediately seen as disastrous. But in politics, the situation is different: due to the enormous complexity of political reality, any disasters that arise can easily be blamed on the failure to adhere to the ideology, rather than the attempt to follow it. Thus, we repeatedly see Marxists assigning the disasters that were the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and so on, to the fact that these were not "true Marxist" societies: they simply did not follow the theory rigidly enough!