Monday, December 30, 2013

History rising

"One could almost say, to give an idea of the impact Rome had on European intellectual life that had begun with Socratic philosophy, that for the first time history, historical knowledge, became, by its grasp of truth, the equal of philosophy." -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, p. 182

Cato the Elder: Proto-Hayek?

"Rome is exemplary -- new and exemplary --in that it shows the limits of individual virtues. According to Scipio's report, Cato explained that there was never a genius so vast that he could miss nothing, nor could all the geniuses brought together in one place at one time foresee all the contingencies without the practical experience afforded by the passage of time.

"Thus one must ascribe to Cato the Elder one of the first formulations of the theory of spontaneous order and of Hayek's idea that the functioning of the social order rests on an immense amount of information that could not be mastered by any individual or group of individuals, however zealous and capable one might imagine them to be." -- Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City, p. 190

I must admit, finding Hayek popping up 190 pages into this book was as surprising as it would be to discover, say, that my landlord in Brooklyn was married to my high school prom date.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The historical character of the individual

"One can see that the most delicate questions of morality, and even the most difficult questions of ontology (such as the status of individuality) are linked to the question of political form. The human as pure moral agent and the human as pure particularity, pure individuality, two phenomena that appear to us to be given, that is, as determined in themselves or by themselves, are shown to be in fact derivative phenomena, if we judge by the Roman experience." -- Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City, p. 142

I remember my grammar school teachers with great fondness

For language arts, we had Miss Communication.

Mathematics was taught by Miss Calculation.

In art we had a modernist, Miss Representation.

Miss Placed taught us about the great rivers of each continent, such as the Nile, draining Antartica.

Our lab work was carefully supervised by Miss Estimate.

But my favorite of all was dance, where Miss Step taught us classics like the fox shuffle and the electric swing.

The nature of Rome

"Rome is not so much a city to be compared to Athens or Sparta as the dynamic process of human consociation, a process that unceasingly pushes and in the end abolishes the limits of the city form." -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, p. 137

This quote comes after Manent discusses the legends of Rome's founding as a city composed of refugees and outcasts. What other polity was formed by refugees and outcasts and took on a universalizing mission?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Life of Brian

There is an amusing scene in the movie where Brian tells the crowd that they're all individuals. In unison, they repeat after him "We are all individuals."

The sheeple are so stupid! They parrot as a group the idea that they are each individuals!

But, of course, the movie itself, with its trite observations about religion and individualism, while funny, is an instance of utterly commonplace groupthink: probably 80% of the Pythons' fellow students at Oxford and Cambridge would have held essentially the same views.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Abstract Nature of Modern Political Science

"the inaugural act of modern political science [was] eliminating all real communities as so many insubstantial appearances, [and fixing] it's gaze on a purely abstract being, the individual out of which -- out of whose rights and power -- a political order that at last is rational can be constructed." -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, p. 22

The human being is conditioned by society and history. (Not to say that society and history are not conditioned by human beings.) The individual of methodological individualism is, in fact, himself a socio-historical creation, called into being by the very sciences that supposedly take him as a natural object.

For Brad DeLong, Knowledge about a Topic...

Is just not necessary for spouting off authoritatively about it:

"After all, Ptolemy had microfoundations: Mercury moved more rapidly than Saturn because the Angel of Mercury left his wings more rapidly than the Angel of Saturn and because Mercury was lighter than Saturn..."

As far as I can tell, this is 100% made up. Angels were not a part of Greek belief, and the idea that angels had something to do with the planetary orbits does not seem to arise until the Middle Ages. Now, if you want an example of someone who did think angels moved the planets, Kepler would work: but then things get awkward, as he was a hero of the Scientific Revolution, which is supposed to be all about jettisoning such beliefs.

Merry Christmas from Carroll Gardens!

Mutual Offense Pact

This is really unbelievable: "The bomb is an AIPAC-sponsored bill that commits the United States to stop Iran from enriching any uranium at all, and also requires the United States to 'stand with Israel' in the event Netanyahu decides, for reasons of 'self-defense,' to start a war with Iran."

Of course, if Netanyahu begins a war with Iran, he will naturally say it was a matter of 'self-defense.' So these three senators basically aim to put the Israeli prime minister in direct charge of a portion of our foreign policy: he will determine whether we go to war with Iran or not, not our elected representatives.

The city and human action

"Tragedy tells what cannot be told, the passage from what precedes action to properly human action. It tells of the passage to the city, the coming to be of the city. For the city enables one to act. The city is that ordering of the human world that makes action possible and meaningful." -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, p. 4

Manent on political correctness

"This divorce between action and word contributes to explaining the novel role of 'political correctness.' Political correctness is a particularly significant aspect of the contemporary emancipation of speech. One over longer expects that speech will be linked to a possible action; thus is taken seriously as though it was itself an action. Not being linked to a possible and plausible action that measures its purport, speech is willingly considered, if it is unpleasant, as the equivalent of the worst action unimaginable. Thus one tracks those infamous words that are designated as 'phobias' in clinical language. The progress of freedom in the West consisted of measuring words by the yardstick of visible actions. 'Political correctness' consists of measuring words by the yardstick of invisible intentions." -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, p. 11

Monday, December 23, 2013

I am entitled to a good grade

I just got an email from a student. His average in my class was 79, but his participation was pretty good, he is cheerful, and he tried decently hard. So I bumped him up to a B.

His note to me was to complain that he had only gotten a B. Sigh.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Do We Own Ourselves?

Of course not, writes John M├ędaille:
We cannot own ourselves for the simple reason that we cannot create ourselves; we cannot seize control of our origins or be present at our beginnings. Rather, all of us are called into being through an act of love into the ready-made community of the family. From this little society, we receive certain gifts. The gift of being itself, in the first instance, and a sufficiency of material gifts—food, clothing, shelter—or else we would not have survived. But beyond these material gifts, we are graced with other kinds of gifts: language, culture, our first ideas of right and wrong, our first experience of love and beauty.
Of course, Locke was anything but consistent, however, it seems pretty clear to me that if he followed through on his homesteading principle, it would be our parents who own us. After all, they are the ones who "mixed their labor" to create us. But Locke was just throwing together whatever ideas seemed to recommend the policies he wanted, without worrying about their consistency.

Lenin, Neo-Thomist

"A specular theory of truth is one that is adaequatio rei et intellectus, as if our mind were a mirror that, provided it works properly and is not distorted or misted, must truly reflect things as they are. Is a theory supported, for example, by Thomas Aquinas, but also by Lenin in Materialism and Emperio-criticism (1909), and since Aquinas could not have been a Leninist, it ought to follow that Lenin was a neo-Thomist--without, of course, realizing it." -- Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy, p. 29

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Is Real Capitalism?

Reading David Simon (see previous post) got me thinking about the meaning of "capitalism."

Typically, when someone of the right hears our current woes blamed on capitalism, what they say is, "But we don't have real capitalism, what we have here is crony capitalism."

But by "real capitalism," what these people mean is a social system which has never existed anywhere. Any actually existing capitalism has looked to some degree or another like what we have today: Government intervenes in the economy for the benefit of capitalists. (Note: this is certainly what Marx meant by capitalism.)

It is as though a group of villagers are complaining they have a problem with tigers, since tigers are eating their children. However, there are "tigertarians" who tell them they have nothing to fear from tigers: "You see, those are not real tigers. Real tigers are the theoretical tigers described in our books, and those real tigers would never hurt anyone!"

Meanwhile, the actual tigers of our world would fund think tanks employing tigertarians, and use tigertarian literature as propaganda to ensure they can keep preying on the villagers.

David Simon, Creator of The Wire

"[We are at] the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It's astonishing to me. But it is."

Friday, December 20, 2013

You've heard of the mean, the median, and the mode

But there are other averages, of which you might not be aware.

For instance, today in the news, the newscaster reported: "it will be 52° today, which is 10° above the average that were used to."

There is also "the average that were not used to," and "the average that never occurs at all."

Botanical experiment

Can you overwinter peppers and tomatoes from the garden by potting them and bringing them inside? So far, they are limping through.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Down the slippery slope

Libertarians usually claim that anything that is consensual ought to be permitted by law.

But some of them go beyond that, and claim that anything that is consensual is moral. That, I think, is an obvious mistake. In a Facebook discussion, I just offered the following example: A drunk who is killing himself with liquor and his enabler may, fully consensually, have the enabler supplying the drunk with oodles of liquor. While I would not want this made illegal, I have no problem declaring it immoral.

Another Critic of Anarchism

13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Smilla's Sense of Snow

I don't know if I have ever watched a more moronic movie in my life. Every single line spoken is drenched in "Look at me: I am artistic!"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poor Mises

Mises always stressed that the pure market economy was an imaginary construction. (I provided a link a couple of posts back: you can look there if you want to read more.) It was a tool to aid economic thinking, not something that would ever occur in the real world.

Imagine his surprise when one of his students turned this imaginary construction into a political platform! Mises must have felt as though someone had formed the Evenly Rotating Economy Party.

UPDATE: Based on Bob's complaint in the comments, I spent some time reading, trying to figure out if it is true that by calling the pure market economy an "imaginary construction," Mises meant it was merely imaginary, incapable of realization.

And I can't find evidence that he meant that. (I also can't find evidence that he didn't mean that.) So I withdraw my contention in this post, pending further study.

The man with power over snow and sleet

Every fall I face a decision: do I wrap my Alberta spruces near the road with burlap, to protect them from salt, or not?

If I do wrap them, it will not snow that winter, and the state will not have to salt the highway.

If I don't wrap them:

Surprising science facts

What is the universe made of?

The library!

Bob Murphy Notes that Anarcho-capitalism Will Break Down...

in the presence of any large gangs:

"In particular, there is an enormous 'gang'–the biggest in society–of men with guns (and tanks, bombers, and missiles if push comes to shove) who will throw businesspeople in a cage, or possibly even execute them, for engaging in what otherwise would have been peaceful commerce. This aspect of drug prohibition obviously represents a move away from Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism."

That sounds exactly right: under pressure from violent gangs, even anarcho-capitalist defense agencies that wanted to act in a Rothbardian fashion will find themselves either wiped out, or coming to engage in the same sort of violence as their foes. Of course there is an equilibrium here, and the Mafia in 19th-century Sicily (which had essentially fallen into a state of anarchy with the abolition of feudalism) shows us with this equilibrium looks like.

Desperate is as desperate does...

Let us walk through Bob Murphy's attempt to refute a post of mine from last week. Early on, Bob writes:

"There are all sorts of historical and current examples of industries and merchants not protected by government, yet they aren’t riddled with violent thugs. For example, poor Chinese immigrants operating a dry cleaning service or restaurant in an inner city probably won’t get much help from the police if they are robbed."

Yes, certainly no Chinese restaurant that is robbed could ever expect any help from the police. But the real notable thing about this claim is the level of research involved. Note the word "probably." Apparently the way to do anarchist "research" is to recline in an armchair making guesses as to what the facts are: just make sure those guesses support anarchist conclusions, and you are fine.

Of course, it is true that poor immigrants do not get the level of police support they deserve, and that when they are robbed it is not going to get the attention that a robbery at a five-star Michelin restaurant would get. And what happens in the absence of adequate police protection? Hmm, I wonder.

But let's go on:

"So they do things like set up bulletproof glass and take other procedures to ensure the (relative) safety of their workers. The relative absence of police and court protection doesn’t cause them to start shooting other dry cleaners."

"In contrast, cocaine dealers in the United States can do no such thing."

Yes, cocaine dealers cannot use bulletproof glass because... because... well, government! that's why. But... in fact, drug dealers do use bulletproof glass, apparently a lot!

Bob continues: "It would be quite easy to ensure that major drug deals never led to a shootout, if only the government would stay out of it."

"For example, the representatives could go to a third party building, owned by someone with  reputation for integrity."

"Personnel and metal detectors at the doors would ensure that nobody were bringing AK-47s into the deal."

"Each group could even put a large bond up with the third party, to guarantee performance and the quality of the product."

"But none of that is possible today, because the government actively interferes with the drug trade."

I have not been able to research this as thoroughly as I would like, but I have talked to a contact on a major-city police force, and he tells me that all of these things that are not even "possible" are, in fact, regular occurrences! However, they are not as effective in the underground market as in the "above-ground" market, of course, because there is no agency standing above the third-party guarantor, ensuring his performance. (Of course, I realize that there is no such agency standing above the state: that is why we try elections, and constitutions, and so forth. And yes, I realize they don't work perfectly: I just wrote a book about that fact.)

"The reason reputable, peace-loving, use-force-as-a-last-resort defense agencies don’t arise is that the government would shut them down immediately."

Yes, and the reason the cocaine trade doesn't exist is that the government would shut it down immediately. Oh, but wait a second: the cocaine trade does exist! The government has not been able to shut it down. Why in the world why they do better at shutting down an industry of peace-loving defense agencies? Of course, sometimes they would shut some of them down, just like they do with cocaine dealers.

We hear from opponents of the war on drugs (such as me, for instance, or Bob) that the government fights this war so inefficiently the drugs are ubiquitous even in its own prisons. But apparently, the government can fight the "war on peace-loving defense agencies" with 100% efficiency, so that we don't even see a single one of them in existence.

"If you want academic support, Ed Stringham has written several peer-reviewed articles (and edited an entire book volume) that showcase historical examples of merchants and customers interacting with each other peacefully, even relying on sophisticated financial contracts, back in the days when there was no single political authority to enforce their agreements."

I am very familiar with Ed's work on early financial markets. It is careful historical research, with very few guesses as to what "probably" happened, as I recall. And it demonstrates that for certain products for which governments would not enforce contracts, such a short sales, traders were able to work out their own rules, and they were generally followed. But it is crucial to note here that they still had a background of government-enforced law, so if they were having trouble reaching an agreement, they knew there would be a penalty if one of them shot the other. So, within the context of government-provided law, private actors often can do a good job of setting up subdomains of rules: the NFL would be a good example.

And note that I certainly don't claim that without government provided law, private actors can't get anywhere in having rules and enforcing them. The Mafia generally does provide order in areas where it is in control, and different Mafia families often have been able to reach agreements to cooperate, agreements which might hold up for some considerable length of time. Private defense agencies are certainly possible. The question is how are they likely to operate? We have good historical evidence for answering this question, and a rather obvious commonsense observation: if we are to have anything worth calling "law," then someone has to be making a final resolution on a dispute that called the law into play. Now, either they have the power to enforce that decision, or they don't. In the former case, then they have power, and it can and sometimes will be abused. In the latter case, it is not really right to call their decision the "final" decision after all.

Bob concludes with this flourish: "to point at organized drug gangs as examples of 'the free market in protection services' is as nonsensical as pointing to them as 'the free market in cocaine production.'"

Well, as Bob may recall, the "pure" free market is an imaginary construction. But in terms of approaching that imaginary construction, the cocaine trade is in most respects far closer than, say the legal pain killer trade. Recall that for anarchists, the government is only a very large gang. To the cocaine industry could be seen as an industry operating almost entirely according to the imaginary construction of the pure market, except that it is constantly harassed by a powerful gang. Meanwhile, aspirin vendors are subject to a myriad of restrictions and regulations the cocaine dealers do not face: minimum wage laws, health insurance provisions, product safety requirements, labeling requirements, taxes, occupational safety laws, and so on.

Of course, all of the above analysis changes considerably if we admit that markets work best with an arbitrator of last resort for disputes. And once we do that, we see what the rather obvious problem with the cocaine trade is.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

There Are Limits...

For instance, to how open one can be.

I know a nice libertarian-socialist fellow named Mophery Rurbt. He has a household, let us imagine, consisting of three wives (well, he is a Mormon, and the Supreme Court has legalized polygamy), and four children.

One day at his door he finds a small Bangladeshi child, looking hungry, and saying he is come all the way across the world from Bangladesh, and has no place to stay. Mophery's family all consult together, and decide they can take him in. The little Bangladeshi child is overjoyed and becomes part of the Rurbt household.

One thing he does after joining that household is Facebook message all his friends back in Bangladesh, and tell them about this generous American who will take people in. Well, they Facebook message their friends, and so on, and about a week later...

Mophery wakes up in the morning to find Bangladeshis on his lawn. And beyond his lawn. In fact, as far as the eye can see (and this is pretty far, since Mophery lives on a tall hill) darn Bangladeshis struggling to advance towards his home. He learns that every single one of them expects him to take them in.

He locks his door, and shouts out the window that he will call the police if the horde tries to force its way in.

All, but now his fellow libertarian socialists hate him. "You're telling these people where they can go at the point of a gun."

The problem is that they don't see private property as legitimate, and thus don't see Mophery's efforts to stop his home from being overwhelmed and destroyed as a useful dwelling as legitimate. But Mophery has had a sudden awakening, and realizes that his household, to be a functioning unit, has to be able to control who may or may not join. If those who are not invited to join try to force their way in anyhow, the initial quote aggression" is on their part, not on his household's.

Nation-states, too, are functioning social units. If they are to remain functioning social units, they have to be able to regulate the influx of new members. It takes an ideology to occlude this rather obvious point, and make it look as though a group declining to invite someone in is somehow threatening them "at gunpoint."

The Nature of "Movements"

Daniel Kuehn recently asked about the "libertarian movement."

Here is a way to understand "movements":
"Shit" for [Milan] Kundera represents both literally and symbolically our categorical disagreement with being. Its denial produces kitsch, a sappy and sentimental view of the world that is responsible for tacky art, like garden gnomes or paintings of cute furry kittens.

Kitsch is present in politics, too. Kundera saw in the leftist politics of his homeland the same mawkishness, a parallel propensity to assume the "Grand March" toward socialist equality and freedom was just a rally away. The Grand March for Kundera is a fantasy premised on the denial of the real. It is the political equivalent of a porcelain kewpie doll, and like all expressions of kitsch, in denying shit – in this case, by denying that certain forces might forever prevent the realization of the socialist ideal – kitsch veers toward totalitarianism.

Learning to think like a researcher

At some point along the way, with some very important help from R.G. Collingwood and others, I learned to think like a researcher. When presented with a newspaper story, a "fact" from a friend, or a seemingly plausible argument, I learned to treat it like a witness to be interrogated*, instead of a truth revealed.

As I was walking to the store tonight, an example struck me. I just saw an envelope on the floor from Con Edison bearing the inscription, "I used to be a tree." (I think there was something urging customers to switch to online billing involved.)

I then recalled an argument from, I think, P.J. O'Rourke, one that seemed quite convincing to me for many years. O'Rourke said something to the effect, "It is ridiculous to try to save trees by conserving paper, since the trees that are used to make paper were grown for that use, and would not have been grown otherwise."

The plausibility of this argument arises from this: yes, the particular trees and particular forest that were used to make the Con Edison envelope might not have been grown if the demand for paper were less. But lumbering operations are usually not located on prime real estate: they exist on land that is often not in demand for much besides hosting a forest. If the demand for paper fell, it is true that the lumber company would probably cease planting as many trees as it does today and would need less land. What is not necessarily true is that that land would no longer host a forest: it might be bought by a hunting club, or used as the site for a number of vacation homes in the woods, or be bought by the Nature Conservancy. (And any of those uses would likely result in a healthier forest than one used for a lumbering.)

How often would lumber lands remain forested if our demand for wood products dropped? To answer that question, you would need to do a bunch of research (and some educated guessing afterwards), and not merely make wisecracks that will draw chuckles from a right wing audience.

* At least if I am wearing my researcher hat: if I am, say, in a casual conversation at the dinner party, I have also learned to let many things that have the whiff of nonsense about them pass by without remark.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Doctor, Are You Pro-Eating More or Anti-Eating More?

Isn't the question itself a bit ridiculous? A decent doctor will say, "Neither: it depends upon the circumstances. Someone can eat too little or too much. I would need to examine the particular case."

But people do not seem to want to think like that on immigration. A society can have too few immigrants, or too many. With none the society tends to stagnate. But with too many civil society itself can be overwhelmed. This seems like it should hardly be controversial, and yet the voices we hear in this debate seem to usually be "all" or "none" voices.

Jonathan Finegold claims: "Generally, people think that immigrants are a burden to the nation they migrate to, but the truth is the exact opposite: they help improve our standard of living."

But isn't the actual truth "It depends"? Let us say so many immigrants had come to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, from socialist-leaning countries, that they were able to vote in a socialist government, wouldn't that have wrecked our standard of living rather than improving it? Or what if they had come in a wave of looters?

Pope Benedict Defends Pope Francis...

Thirty years before the fact.

This brings home the point that even if you didn't like Pope Francis's statement, there is just nothing radically new about it: it is just standard Catholic social teaching.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The truth behind Pete Leeson's assertion

At FEE one day, I heard Pete say something to the effect that, "If all states were like Switzerland, I would not consider anarchy as an option."

I think that is a sound way to look at this. But we should consider the reverse, too: If no states were like Switzerland, I certainly would be an anarchist.

Is certainly true in some states are really awful. And Pete's insight means that we shouldn't force the state on, for instance, the people of Somalia: the state they would get is likely to be a lot worse than the clan-based governance they enjoy at present.

But the reverse is true as well: If you live in Switzerland, be thankful for what you've got. Governance doesn't get much better than that, and certainly stateless governance has shown no evidence that it can achieve such a happy civil condition. Do not give up an actual bird in the hand for a brighter colored, but purely theoretical, bird in the bush.

(And no, I don't think Switzerland is heaven on earth: we live in the city of man, and should not expect to find the city of God on earth.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

At least our students…

Are learning the important stuff:

Not Reassuring

Two Metronorth train engineers chatting over the intercomm:

ONE: You had the brake test already?
TWO [vaguely]: I think so...

World War II: Not Quite Over

The Italian government declared war on Japan on July 14, 1945, in the hopes of getting invited to the San Francisco Peace Conference. But their hopes were dashed, and so they were not able to sign a peace treaty with Japan.

Nor have they ever done so since. So, formally speaking, Italy and Japan are still "fighting" each other in World War II.

In restless dreams I walked alone

"People who live in residential towers, for example, consistently tell psychologist that they feel lonely and crowded by other people at the very same time." -- Happy City, p. 126

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence -- Simon and Garfunkel

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Moving to the Suburbs to Give Your Kids a Better Life?

Not so fast:

"teens [from the suburbs] were much more anxious and depressed than teens from inner-city neighborhoods who were faced with all manner of environmental and social ills. The privileged suburban teens smoked more, drank more, and used more hard drugs than inner-city teens..." -- Happy City, p. 60

Did you know...

In Saratoga Springs, New York, it is illegal for a child to walk or bike to school?! (At least in the school district where Adam Kaddo Marino biked to school in 2009.) (Source: Happy City, p. 296)

Who Got Hit in the Housing Crash?

"the farther house was from a vibrant city center, more likely it was to experience foreclosure during the crash, the deeper its price collapsed, the less likely that price bounced back since, and the less analysts now expected to be worth in the future." Charles Montgomery, Happy City, p. 49

Jiro Dreams of Suchi

A very interesting movie, and it bears on rationalism.

It takes a ten-year apprenticeship with a sushi master to even reach the point where one might head out on one's own. As one of the apprentices said, "There is a lot you can't learn from words."

Anarchist at work?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I Like that Benedict Guy!

Here: "Artificial intelligence, in fact, is obviously an intelligence transmitted by conscious subjects, an intelligence placed in equipment. It has a clear origin, in fact, in the intelligence of the human creators of such equipment.

This point is always seems rather obvious to me: there is intelligence in a rabbit trap... put there by the trapper who built it. And there is intelligence in a chess-playing computer... put there by the programmers and designers who built it.

You want your private defense agencies?

We have them, and we can see exactly how they operate: they are called drug cartels, and the picture isn't very pretty.

People buying and selling illegal drugs (or sex, or alcohol during Prohibition) are operating in an environment in which they cannot turn to a state to enforce contracts, property rights, and so on. Thus, they must enforce these things on their own. And how do they operate? Largely as lawless gangs.

Look, there is nothing stopping them from following a book by Murray Rothbard in terms of how they behave. There is nothing stopping them from forming agreements with each other as to how to peacefully arbitrate disputes. (Well, except the fact they don't have a state to turn to to enforce those contracts, but that point isn't going to help anarchists very much!)

But we can see how they actually behave instead. That is your competing defense agencies, folks. You've got it, live and in the real world, right in front of your eyes. You just have to have the moral courage to look.

Of course, the anarchist answer to my pointing out the obvious here is going to be "the state," since that is the cause of every social problem. For instance, in analyzing why the Mafia, which is after all he network of private defense agencies, took on the nature it did, Bob Murphy, with all the desperation of a Marxist demonstrating that the USSR was not "true communism," offers the absurd answer "there was still a state!" Even if it were true that it was illegal to set up a private defense agency in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the early 19 century, an assertion for which Murphy offers absolutely no evidence, so what? How in the world did this force different Mafia families to behave violently towards each other? Why, it is almost as if they needed a final arbitrator to whom to take their disputes!

We sell quilts at discount price...

Living in a libertarian paradise:

"So the Bitcoin experience gives us a glimpse of Libertarian paradise: What life would be like with as little government interference as possible, in a market free of burdensome laws and taxes.

"Unfortunately, that experience looks like a total nightmare. It's characterized by radical instability, chaos, the rise of a boss-class of criminals who assassinate people they don't like, and a mass handover of wealth to a minority even smaller than the 1% that currently lauds it in the United States."

Who could imagine that assassins and other criminals would rise to the top in a stateless zone? Well, pretty much anyone not engaged in complete fantasy that calls something being placed beyond the realm of the state regulation "government intervention."

It doesn't fit the narrative

On Facebook I saw a semi-famous conservative author post that while George Zimmerman's ex-girlfriend recanted her charge that Zimmerman threatened her with a gun, the media had "naturally" buried the story. A number of people with similar views entered this echo chamber and posted "Of course the media won't cover this!" and so on.

A few hours later, the story played on the CBS nighttime news, I believe as the third feature of the night. The next morning, I checked my CNN phone app, and saw it was headline news on CNN as well. I asked on Facebook if anyone was going to change their mind as to how "Of course the media won't cover this" based on the pretty plain evidence that the media gave it quite prominent coverage.


This is the way an ideology works. Everything in the world continually confirms the ideology because the ideology is a filter: it only lets in confirmations! If you are an anarchist, you will only see police brutality, and the millions of times a year police help and save people will be invisible to you. If you are a Marxist, only stories of corporate corruption and exploitation make it through the filter, and stories of generous business owners are invisible. And if you are a "conservative" convinced that there is a monolith called the MSM that won't cover this George Zimmerman story, their actual prominent coverage of it doesn't exist.

Karl Smith Understands That Bubbles Are a Sort of Prisoner's Dilemma


"If a lender tries to play it safe then she will still get screwed by the fact that any loan she makes will be to a buyer who is paying market price, which is bubble inflated. Yet, she will be doubly screwed by the fact that she is losing market share and thus not even making a lot of money on the upside of the bubble.

"So she is pushed to lower standards as well.

"This is amplified by the fact that the actual consequences she faces as a decision maker will be harsher the more atypical her choices are. If she goes with the flow she probably will not be punished when everything goes bad. If she refuses to go along with the flow then she will be punished for making low returns while everyone else is profiting from the bubble."

Monday, December 09, 2013

One of the most remarkable video sequences I have seen

In a documentary called Wild China, I watched two guys use a grasshopper as bait so that they could tie a feather to a live hornet. I kid you not: while the hornet was busy eating the grasshopper, these two guys tied a feather to its waist.

Why would they bother doing that? The feather acted as a tracking device, allowing the two men to follow the horn back to its nest high in a tree. Once there, they smoked all of the adult hornets out of the nest, brought it down to the ground, and proceeded to eat all the grubs inside of it.

But here was what really got me: the hornets seemed to know that the feather was a problem. As soon as the tagged hornet reached the nest, other hornets began chewing through the string that attached the feather to its body, eventually cutting the feather away.

It was called the Middle Ages...

And it sucked?

My current frontrunner for worst attempt at a pithy saying this year is from Steve Horwitz, who posted on Facebook one day (I quote from memory):

"We tried localism. It was called the Middle Ages, and it sucked."

What I loved about this is how many bad ideas are packed into a dozen short words.

First off, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly "trying" localism. There had been a terrible demographic collapse, leading to the near disappearance of cities, the decay of transportation infrastructure, and the lessening of the division of labor. Furthermore, trade with the east was sometimes difficult after the rise of Islam. Localism was pretty much forced upon Western Europe, not tried out as an experiment.

And that, of course, makes a big difference if one is going to do comparative political economy. For a people who were already relatively poor compared to those in the West today to have extreme localism forced upon them by their circumstances is a very different thing from someone in Brooklyn, with the Internet, jet planes, oceanliners, and transcontinental railroads available to them, choosing to shop at the local farmers market. Why can't we tilt our shopping towards buying more goods locally while still taking advantage of long-distance trade when those goods are either nonexistent or very scarce nearby without going back to the level of wealth present in the Middle Ages?

The final point the point Steven ahead of the pack here: the idea that the Middle Ages "sucked." Certainly, people in the Middle Ages were less prosperous than people are today. But having spent time in medieval cities, it certainly does not look to me like these people have lives that "sucked": they seemed filled with a sense of beauty that is often missing from people's lives today. Yes, they did not have 84-inch plasma screen TVs. But they did build this.

UPDATE: Oh, and I forgot my last point. If Steve thinks the Middle Ages "sucked," why pick on localism? Why not, "We tried a polycentric legal system. It was called the Middle Ages, and it sucked"?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

What do you call...

a punter for the Oakland NFL team, if suddenly his punts stop soaring high in the air, and instead become line drives?

Another review hits the "shelves"

There is good and bad in everyone...

The worst problem with anarcho-capitalism, or Marxism, and other such ideological solutions to the problem of human existence, is that they mistakenly assign the blame for evil in the world to an institution, rather than to the human heart. If only we got rid of "the state" or "the capitalists," everything would be fine. (If one were Christian, one might say they ignore that fact that we are fallen creatures: this same insight can easily be stated in another metaphysical framework if one prefers.)

When I brought up the example of the British East India Company to illustrate how badly a "private security agency" could behave, my anarchist friends of course popped blood vessels in their foreheads, noting (quite correctly) that they were a trading monopoly. But familiarize yourself with the history of the relationship between the British Crown and the British East India Company: you will find that the British East India Company was frequently being held in check by the Crown. In other words, the evidence is that they would've been behaving far worse if they hadn't had a government watching over them! Or contemplate this: at the same time that "private enterprise" was greedily engaged in the slave trade, the British government, to its own disadvantage, was banning it, and for decades spent money enforcing that ban. ("Stolen money!" my anarchist friends will shout. OK, but even if we grant that, it had already been stolen, and could have been spent on lavish government parties instead.)

Of course I don't make the mistake of thinking that there is no evil in government, and no good in private enterprise. That would just be the anarcho-capitalist mistake in reverse, wouldn't it? To quote Paul and Stevie, "There is good and bad in everyone."

UPDATE: I should note that, of course, not every person who is an anarcho-capitalist fits the above mistake. But as soon as you see someone talking about the "evil" state, and repeatedly noting every bad thing a cop does while never noting any good thing a cop does, you can be pretty sure they have made it.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

If You Want to Really Do MI Disaggregation, You Can't Stop with "the Government"

David Henderson writes: "One participant mentioned that after the Japanese government (he actually said "the Japanese") bombed Pearl Harbor, it was obvious that the U.S. government (he said "we") had to go to war with Japan."

But really, if you want to be a good methodological individualist, stopping at "the government" is intolerable. Henderson should be satisfied with nothing less than naming a particular individuals in the Japanese and US governments who decided to go to war.

I don't know and am not going to look up what government departments Japan had in 1941, but certainly it was not the Parks Department that went to war, right? Or the Department of Education? Or the minister in charge of fisheries?

Hmm, I wonder why he stopped at "the government" level? I wonder...

The Worst Sort of Book to Review

Reviewing a great book is always a pleasure. Reviewing a very bad one can be fun as well, as you get to pan it. The most interesting reviews are probably of a mixed books: they contain some great material one can praise, and some bad parts one can critique.

But the worst type of book to review? Competent but dull. Reviewing books like that is always a slog.

The Catholic Church Does Not Hold Truck with Methodological Individualism

CCC 1910: "Each human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such; it is in the political community that its most complete realization is found. It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies."

Friday, December 06, 2013

Jason Brennan, Who, By the Way, IS an AnarchoCapitalist...

Demonstrates the exact thing I've been saying for the past couple of years on this site: the NAP by itself "isn’t a good argument at all" for libertarianism. And he demonstrates that he is not going after a strawman by citing the people saying it is.

Brennan notes that if one can show the state is a valuable social institution, then:
  1. The state (of the right sort) should exist.
  2. The state has the right to collect taxes (within certain limits as implied by ToJ) in order to promote justice.
  3. When the state collects the taxes needed to promote justice, it isn’t stealing your goddamn money or aggressing against innocent people. Instead, the money rightfully belongs to the state, not to the taxpayer. When the state taxes you (so long as it does so in accordance with ToJ), it actually takes what is rightfully its, not what is rightfully yours. If you were to withhold your taxes or resist paying, that would be equivalent to theft.
Yep. "Taxation is theft" is only true if you already have shown the state is illegitimate. It is nonsense to use it as a way of showing the state is illegitimate.


"If you want to defend anarchist libertarianism, what you need to do is show that none of the arguments for the state work. You have to take them down one by one."

And finally:

"Many libertarians think they have powerful knock-down argument for anarchist libertarianism, but, on the contrary, that argument is completely impotent. A sophisticated non-libertarian can just shrug the argument off–it doesn’t even merit a response."

OK, this is a very good philosopher, who happens to be an anarcho-capitalist, telling you that this argument is no good at all: it doesn't even merit a response. Now do you believe me? 

The Power Problem...

and how anarchocapitalism doesn't eliminate it.

Some anarchists of my acquaintance were worked up over this video, and, of course, saw it as an indictment of The State. (By the way, my judgment on the incident was that the police were completely in the right and Farrell completely in the wrong until the cops lost it and began pounding on her van and trying to shoot out her tires. In fact, you can see the first cop was in fact very, very patient with her for quite a while.)

But it is odd, because it is not apparent how creating Ancapistan tomorrow would do anything to lower the probability of something like this happening the day after tomorrow. Consider the following points:

1) There would be speeding laws in Ancapistan. We can easily see this by looking at private communities, which happen to surround me in Pennsylvania. Every one of them that I have been in (and that is quite a few, as my daughter has had swim meets in many of them) has posted speed limits, and usually lower speed limits than would similar public roads.

2) There would be people to enforce those laws. Again, there is always private security in these communities. And although today they are not often armed, that is because they can call armed backup when they need it.

3) The security force would have procedures for how to comply when its personnel stop you. (For instance. their policy might be, "Pay up this minute," a harsher policy than the New Mexico police follow.)

4) When you flout those procedures, they would get angry.

And note that these competing defense agencies will have different philosophies on how to deal with these problems.

In Murphyland, the defense agents would apparently just talk nicely to you and let you be on your way if you refused to cooperate.

But in Rothbardville, recall, they are allowed to torture you to get you to confess. And in Blockland, they can kill you just for stepping onto their property without permission.

So there is a good chance Oriana Farrell might have been much worse off if she had been stopped speeding somewhere in Ancapistan and behaved as she did.

The problem is that people with power might abuse it. And that doesn't go away by pretending there could be a world in which power doesn't exist.

Jane Jacobs on Ideology

"Virtually all ideologues, of any variety, are fearful and insecure, which is why they are drawn to ideologies that promise prefabricated answers for all circumstances." (Wikiquote)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Another Very Nice Post

This one from Gavin Kennedy. For instance:

"Ideologues on both sides of today’s divide between 'collectivist', no markets, in large states (of course managed by a large-class of collectivists), versus 'laissez-faire' giant corporations competing (and colluding!) in global markets across the planet (of course managed by a large-class of managers for their owners). Both are congenitally totalitarian in their outlook and practises.

Yep. If anarcho-capitalists ever succeeded in their goal of eliminating states, the result would not be the sort of society envisioned by Rothbard, Friedman, or Murphy. The result would be rule by corporations. To substitute wishful thinking (the dreamworld of the anarchist utopia) for prudent foresight (seeing the reality of what would occur) is not just bad thinking, it is immoral.

The Catholic Church Says the Exact Same Thing for Over 100 Years...

and just this week, the right explodes in fury over it!

Why this sudden surge of interest?

(And do read Patrick Deneen's great article on this topic.)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Can You Believe These People Who Have to Insert Themselves into Everything?

This guy in the background is threatening to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, and this woman is so caught up in herself that she turns it into a selfie op!

Each Person Is the Best Judge of What Will Make Him Happy?

"[The] finding [of Frey and Stutzer] was seemingly straightforward: the longer the [commuting] drive the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this is numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. So their discovery was not the commuting hurt. It was that people were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. They simply were not balancing the hardship of a long commute with pleasures in other areas of their lives -- not through higher incomes nor through lower costs or greater enjoyment of their homes." -- Charles Montgomery, Happy City, pp. 82-83

John Locke, Primitivist

Rush Limbaugh, Pure Ignoramus

Limbaugh's whole commentary on Pope Francis's Evangelii is pathetic. For instance, given that not once in the document does the Pope mention socialism, how does Limbaugh divine that he doesn't know what he is talking about when it comes to socialism?

"It's sad because this pope makes it very clear he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism and so forth."

And, of course, his claim that the Pope's views are "pure Marxism" just shows he doesn't know what Marxism is: Did the Pope call for the abolition of private property? No. Espouse a dialectical materialist view of history? No. Promise that all class conflict would cease in the coming utopia? No. Argue that religion is the opiate of the masses? No. Argue for a proletarian revolution in which the workers would seize the means of production? No.

What Limbaugh means by "pure Marxism" is "some concern over economic justice."

But the topper is that when Francis delivers what has been standard Catholic social teaching for centuries, Limbaugh's reaction is:

'"I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago," Limbaugh continued.'

Ed Feser Notes That Really, If You Want to Talk about "God" as a Philosophical Concept...

it is kind of necessary to grapple with the the God of classical theism, and not just "God" as conceived by some cable-TV preacher:

"We classical theists have Plato, Aristotle, Philo of Alexandria, Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, Scotus, and about a gazillion other Scholastics, Neo-Platonists, and Aristotelians. Not to mention a lot of early Protestants, and not a few later ones."

And having studied Eastern religions a fair amount, and having taught them, I can say that philosophical Hinduism, Taoism (it is not an accident that Christian missionaries to China translated "I am the way" as "I am the Tao"), and even Buddhism, understood properly, are also on the side of the "classical theists" in their conception of divinity.

Thus the frequent atheist taunt of "You reject belief in all gods but your own particular god; I just go the one, logical step further and reject belief in all gods" is shown to be absurd: in fact, a myriad of brilliant thinkers from diverse cultures have arrived at remarkably similar conceptions of the divine. Of course, there are important differences in the details, but if, as all these thinkers assert, the divine is ultimately beyond human comprehension and ultimately indescribable, should we be surprised that our limited attempts at describing it diverge and take on colorings of our particular cultures?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Is This Happening?

In the comments section of a particularly outrageous, over-the-top-PC article, someone suggested that the periodical in question was deliberately publishing articles it knew were ridiculous in order to attract outraged attention from the "other side," driving up hits and thus ad revenue. It would be a sort of reverse trolling.

Do you think that journals are actually doing this?

Umbrellas Don't Cause Rain...

and as Nick Rowe explains, pushing on the speedometer won't make you go faster. (Rowe does the best metaphors, doesn't he?)

And in his back-and-forth with Rowe, Stephen Williamson lets the cat out of the bag on what drives a lot of the mathematization of economics:

"...we're doing economics, and we want to be treated seriously by other scientists."

Yep. I am not anti-math, but too often math is introduced not because the subject demands it, but in order to not feel inferior when the physicists show up at a faculty meeting.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The free market wasn't even in the state that day!

And besides, it acted in self-defense.

I was reminded of this gag about an attorney trying to exonerate his client along several fronts while listening to libertarians both:

1) Attribute everything good that has happened in history to the free market; and
2) Deflecting all attacks on the market for creating monopolies, inequality, pollution, and so on by noting that a true free market has never existed.

So which is it, folks?

The free market

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness

The phrase comes from the work of the brilliant Alfred North Whitehead. And it is on display here, where Noah Smith asks economists:

"To determine whether QE's failure to cause inflation is caused by a Williamson model..."

Yes, economists' models of real-world phenomena might be the cause of such phenomena!

Perverse incentives? Conflict of interest?

I just received a request to referee a paper. I accepted (electronically) because the editors of the journal in question are good friends, and I want to help them whenever I can.

But after accepting, I got access to the paper, and I found that the author cited me.

In our brave new world in which one's value as a scholar is judged by "metrics," I now have a strong motivation to approve publication of this paper, since the value of one's own publications is often judged by how often they are cited. I hope I can avoid evaluating the paper based on the fact that "Hey, here is someone who cites me: they should be published!" But can I really do so? I don't know.

And note: I was asked to referee in this case precisely because I was cited in the paper in question: since I was cited, I must know something about the topic being discussed.

I only bring this all up to point out that the peer-reviewed system is far from perfect.
I have no better suggestions as to what other system could be put in its place, but we really ought to stop worshiping at the altar of "peer review."

The spiritual breakdown of a civilization is not among the problems that can be solved by a piece of philosophical speculation

Eric Voegelin explains:
We must recognize the full seriousness of the problem: Locke was justified in his intention even when he erred in the solution. When the institutions of spiritual authority have broken down, and when the members of the schismatic rival organizations are diligently engaged in cutting each others’ throats for the advancement of the realm of Christ, certainly those who are appalled by the insanity of the procedure have reason to be concerned about the restoration of authority.

Nevertheless, while we must recognize Locke’s right to be concerned, we must also recognize that the spiritual breakdown of a civilization is not among the problems that can be solved by a piece of philosophical speculation. A man who undertakes such a task in full seriousness is guilty of the very insanity that aroused his concern. He will not solve the problem that he set himself to solve. Instead he runs the risk of setting a pattern of conduct that will create even worse disorder than the disorder he wishes to heal. And that is what happened to Locke.

In his role as an ecclesiastical statesman, he decides that Christianity is identical with what he personally thinks and can understand. Christianity has nothing to say but what he, the man of reason (for he does not reckon himself among the dairymaids and spinsters), knows for truth by his own intuitive knowledge. What he is lacking is not insight but authority. The solution for the spiritual breakdown of Western civilization is found: the church must back with the authority of Christ the reason of Locke.

The reader should not be shocked too much by the apparent megalomania of the conception. He should rather be touched by its engaging modesty, because Locke at least claims only insight and not yet authority. Less modest men will come after him; they will add authority to their insight and become the founders of the totalitarian state churches. The bonds of sentiment are still strong enough to hold Locke with the shadow of tradition, and only the shadow of the future falls on his solution.

When is Beane Ball going to hit the NBA?

Tonight the sportscasters were saying, "Despite the fact the Carmelo Anthony has missed 14 of his last 15 shots in the final minute [I think that was the stat, but it was definitely 1-15 in clutch situations], coach Mike Woodson says, 'There is no one who you would rather have take those clutch shots than last years NBA scoring champion.'"

Well, yes, if you had to designate one person on your team who is always going to take shots at the end of the game, then Carmelo Anthony wouldn't be a bad choice. But what about playing the way you do the rest of the game, where the other team doesn't know who is going to take each shot? What would your team's shooting percentage be if every single time down the court you told the other team which player would shoot the ball? Well, maybe about .067%, like Anthony's apparently has been at the end of games?

I believe that ever since Scottie Pippen refused to go back on the court when Phil Jackson called the final play for someone else, NBA coaches have been terrified that if they do anything but call play for their star, he will quit on them.

And then there is some sort of "hog bias": despite the fact that Kobe Bryant shoots 25% on game winning-or-tying shots, versus Lebron James's 50%, NBA players pick him over Lebron for taking the last shot. And Lebron gets knocked for often passing (to an open teammate) in those situations. Um, isn't it kind of obvious: Kobe shoots 25% in such situations because every single person in the arena knows he will take the shot no matter what and will never pass, so the defense can totally focus on him, while Lebron's willingness to share the ball with teammates leaves the defense guessing. Lebron's approach is obviously far superior, and yet he gets knocked for it, while Kobe is seen as a "mensch" because he is such an egomaniac.

If it's comprehensible, it ain't art

Overheard on the bus:

Woman art major: Yeah, all of my teachers were like, "What's this? I don't get it."
Male art major: No, no, that's when you know you nailed it: no one can understand it.
Woman art major: [Sounding uncertain.] But, like, shouldn't other artists at least have some idea what you're doing?
Male art major: No way!

The Lord of the Banks

Meditating on the future of finance:


One bank to rule them all
One bank to find them
One bank to bring them all
And in the debt chains bind them

Three rings for Swiss financiers under the sky
Seven for the South African merchants in their halls of stone
Nine for savings and loans doomed to die
One for the dark CEO on his dark throne

One bank to rule them all
One bank to find them
One bank to bring them all
And in the debt chains bind them

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Must social explanations involve human meaning?

Pete Boettke describes Lachmann's argument for methodological individualism here:

"Austrian economists, Lachmann insisted, are methodological individualist because it is only at the level of the individual that we can attribute meaning to human action."

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Lachmann is correct about the level of the individual and meaning. (I don't think he is, but I don't wish to argue that point here.) Does methodological individualism follow from the fact that "only at the level of the individual that we can attribute meaning to human action"?

I can't see why it would. Why must all social explanations be related to the meaning of human actions?

Schelling offers the following example that I believe shows they don't: Let us say human beings gain fine-tuned control over the height of their offspring, due to advances in genetic engineering. Most people are not that concerned with the height of their children, we will assume, but no one wants their child to be a "runt." So everyone asks there friendly genetic engineer to make sure their child is not the bottom 10% of the height distribution.

What will happen? The human race will get taller. Because of course, there must be a bottom 10% of the height distribution, because of what a distribution is. So that 10% will just keep moving upwards, along with the average height. And note that this benefits no one: the amount of food necessary to feed this population will go up as well.

We have a classic collective action problem. No one meant to raise the average height of the human race, but their actions did so anyway. And although they gave a reason for why they were acting that way, that reason is not an important part of our story. If the same process happened as the result of a bug in a genetic programming computer, we would get the same result.

So Lachmann's assertion that meaning exists only at the level of the individual does not get us to methodological individualism: there is just no reason that all social analysis must occur at the level of meaning.

Concrete experience, not argumentation, is the source of philosophical truth

I have said this before: If someone, by some train of argument, seems to prove that the tree right in front of you is not really there, you do not necessarily need to become entangled in this fallacious, complicated argument: the best answer is often, "But there it is!"

Eric Voegelin makes what I understand to be the same point here:

"We should also note the change of meaning in the term Revelation: from the irruption of transcendental reality in religious experience and its expression in symbols (of which the meaning must be regained through faith concretely by every believer) into a body of propo­sitions of which the meaning is not to be recovered by faith but to be examined critically by Reason.

"In brief: with this change we are in the jungle of enlightenment jargon in which discussion becomes impossible because the terms are no longer rooted in the concreteness of experience."

Yes, there have been a lot of "typos" lately

And I want to both apologize and explain.

Three points are relevant:

1) I have carpal tunnel syndrome.
2) At this point, I have 474 draft posts waiting to be put up at this blog. In other words, I have far more ideas than I am able to write up properly.
3) I often find myself with free time while sitting on a bus, train, or subway. Last week, my 30-mile ride to White Plains took me three hours on Metro-North. (Someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of a train ahead of mine.) Today, my five-mile bus ride to the White Plains train station took 50 minutes. (Holiday traffic.)

The combination of the above three factors has been leading me to often try to use Siri to catch up on my posting. And Siri generates a whole lotta errors. I do my best to catch them, but if I am, say, on the bus, I am reviewing the post on a tiny cell phone screen while starting to feel motion sickness from looking at it.

So, I am sorry. I have to up my efforts to catch these problems. But now you know why they are occurring.

Ask the home and garden answer man

Dear home and garden answer man,
Is the alcohol content of wine high enough that, if I forget I put a bottle in the freezer to "chill quickly," it will be just fine?
Concerned in Brooklyn

Dear Concerned in Brooklyn,
No it isn't.
Gene "Gotta get back to cleaning the sticky mess outta the freezer" Callahan

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My map is better than your map, my map is better than yours!

My understanding of methodological pluralism: on the table in front of us we have a globe, a street map of New York City, a subway map of New York City, a topographical map of New York City, and aerial photograph of New York City, hey zoning map of New York City, a 3-D model of New York City, and so on. Everyone in the room is arguing that the particular model they brought into the room is the "correct one" and should be used exclusively in order to understand New York City.

What I say is that these are all just models, therefore abstract and incomplete, but all are fine as long as we remember that each is an incomplete abstraction. And anyone who is claiming their model is the only possible model doesn't really understand models.

Of course, some models are rubbish: A "map" that shows Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn as neighborhoods on Staten Island might be a useful part of an alternate-universe story, but it is not useful for understanding the real NYC.

The Connexity of Prices

Mises talked about the connexity of prices, meaning that most or all markets in the world influence each other.

Of course, that is "more or less influence each other." The corn market in the United States influences the pork market quite a bit, but the market for Tibetan religious ornaments much less so.

But forces can act to increase the connexity of markets that were hitherto more loosely joined. For instance, the risk of mortgage-backed securities was seen as low, since they pooled mortgages from all over the country, and there had almost never been a nation-wide downturn in real estate prices: different area's real estate markets were only loosely connected. But, in the very act of pooling these mortgages, bankers were coupling these markets more tightly. So by dismissing the possibility of a nation-wide collapse in housing prices, the securitizers created conditions conducive to a nation-wide collapse in housing prices.

Annoyance of up to 80% or more

Is guaranteed by the above way of stating figures. I just saw it in a student paper, and I see it frequently in ads. "Prices lowered by up to 50% or more."

Well, "up to 50%" states a ceiling: 50% is the most by which prices have been lowered. If there is some greater discount, then 50% is not the ceiling. Perhaps you meant "prices lowered by up to 55%"? Well, say that.

Siri: Setting users up for sexual harassment charges since 2011

I tried to write to a student: "You'd better come see me. I don't want to have to fail you."

What Siri typed: "You'd better come see me. I don't want to have to feel you."

Good thing I caught that one.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Methodological individualism: False or vacuous?

So, I have a friend, Joe Bob, who makes a bundle of money in the stock market. He sells his small Brooklyn apartment, and buys a mansion up the Hudson river, with an extensive "park" around it, of the sort where scattered large trees are set in acres of lawn.

How might I explain this? Well, one thing I might say is, "This has been a goal of Joe Bob for a long time: he always wanted a mansion with some grounds like that, and now that he has the money, he values achieving that goal more than anything else he might do with the cash."

That is a fine explanation. But here is another explanation: people's appreciation of such settings comes from the fact that our ancestors lived on the savannah for many, many, many generations. Therefore, it is in our genes to like such scenes: they make us feel at home.

And here is yet another explanation: European nobility possessed just such manner houses in just such natural settings for hundreds and hundreds of years. Therefore, we are socially conditioned to want to acquire such property as a sign of our prestige and status.

The first explanation is an individualistic one. The other two are not. But all three are, I think, fine social explanations, and any one of the three might be superior, depending upon the context in which one is doing the explaining.

Now, does your version of methodological individualism insist that only explanation one is valid? Then it is false.

Or do you claim, "No, methodological individualism, as I use the term, can encompass all three explanations"? Well, then it is empty: if it doesn't proscribe some sorts of explanations of social phenomena, then it is silly to call it "methodological individualism."

Can You Imagine a Caveman...?

Here is a truly terrible argument for why we shouldn't stretch before a workout:

Dr. William Meller, an internist in Santa Barbara, Calif., believes we can study our ancestors from the Stone Age to figure out what's good for us and what's not. Basking in the sun -- for vitamin D -- and eating red meat -- for protein -- are good, Meller says.

Stretching before rigorous exercise is not.

"Can you imagine a caveman engaging in a program of stretching before heading out to chase down prey?" he asks in his recent book, "Evolution Rx: A Practical Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing."

Well, no, nor can I imagine a caveman working out at all, or going to the dentist, or having an annual physical, or treating a nasty infection with antibiotics. Stretching may not be a good idea, but the above argument against it is absurd.

And by the way, Dr. Meller, here are two other things I cannot imagine a caveman doing:

1) Writing a book about health; or
2) Reading a book about health.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

At JFK high school

On the radio today I hear, "Lessons from the ex-president's life are instilled every day at JFK High School."

I'm picturing, "OK, kids, let's say you have a liaison with a mistress this morning, but you are worn out from having spent last night with a different mistress. Which pill do you want to pop, a barbiturate or an amphetamine?"

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Acting out the babysitter economy

I'm teaching a class in the economics of intervention. Yesterday I was trying to explain Paul Krugman's example of the babysitting co-op, and how a shortage of scrip led the economy into a recession. What I did was actually handout scrip, semi-randomly to different members of the class. Then I told them they each had a desired cash balance. (To keep things simple, I made it the same for everyone in the class.) If their balance was above that, then they would decide to "go out," and would try to hire a babysitter. If their balance was lower, they would "look for work" and accept babysitting jobs, in order to raise it. We went through several "rounds" of this economy, and students saw their cash balance go up and down, and exchanges occurring.

Then I began to withdraw scrip from the economy. After a couple of more rounds, everyone's cash balance was too low, and no further exchanges took place. We had created a Krugmanian recession, right before their eyes. Then I pumped cash back in, and they saw economic activity resume. Now they had witnessed Krugman's solution first hand as well.

This is an exercise I highly recommend. Even if you think Krugman is wrong in his diagnosis of what is troubling an economy in recession, you should want your students to understand his theory.

And next class, I will introduce price flexibility, and show them how reduced wages for babysitting are an alternate solution to pump priming in getting the economy going again.

And then they will understand that the chief dispute between the defenders of Say's Law and the general glut theorists is an empirical one: what predominates in any real economy, quantity adjustments or price adjustments?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Finding one's own replacement

In the second and first centuries BC, Rome brought something like a million-and-a-half slaves back to the Italian peninsula from overseas. Who was doing this bringing? The Roman armies, of course.

And what did the soldiers who had been busy capturing these slaves find when they left military service to return home? The work they had been doing before they had entered service was now being done by the very slaves they had helped to capture. They had been busy finding the replacements that would leave them without employment.

America's state religion

As I've noted, is Americanism. Football plays an interesting role in that religion, including being our national "Sunday service" for a good chunk of the populace.

Jane Jacobs critiquing the new urbanists in advance

"My idea, however, is not that we should therefore try to reproduce, routinely and in a surface way, the streets and districts that do display strengths and success as fragments of city life. This would be impossible, and sometimes would be an exercise in architectural antiquarianism." -- The death and life of great American cities, page 140

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Madison: Who should vote?

Madison said that if he thought it would be acceptable to the people when asked to ratify the Constitution, he would favor a freehold requirement [for the right to vote]. "The freeholders of the Country," he held, "would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty." Elaborating on this insight in a characteristically gloomy way, Madison went on: "In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but without any sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case the rights of property & the public liberty, will not be secure in their hands: or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence & ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side." -- Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America, p. 116

NOTE: when I dictated this passage, Siri wrote: "Elaborating on this insight in a Characteristically Gloomy Way..."

I guess she thought that "Characteristically Gloomy Way" was a street address. It is probably right next to "Morose Circle" and "Suicidal Depression Boulevard."

Overheard in New York

Man on cell phone: "I must have called you four or five times... In fact, I called you nine times."

What I suspect is that he just happened to have two numbers handy and realized that if he added them, the resulting number was even more impressive.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When the World Became Material

"By materialization of the external world we mean the misappre­hension that the structure of the external world as it is constituted in the system of mathematized physics is the ontologically real structure of the world.

"The tendency of mistaking the laws of mechanics for the structure of the world makes itself felt strongly even by the middle of the seventeenth century under the influence of Galileo’s discoveries and even more so under the influence of Cartesian physics...

"To a spiri­tually feeble and confused generation, this event transformed the universe into a huge machinery of dead matter, running its course by the inexorable laws of Newton’s mechanics." -- Eric Voegelin

Whose original intent?

"Madison also spoke out against an erroneous method of interpreting the Constitution. Some had committed the 'error' of 'ascribing to the intention of the Convention which formed the Constitution, an undue ascendancy in expounding it.' The authoritative source, he said, was not the Philadelphia Convention but the 'State Conventions which gave it all the validity & authority it possesses.'" -- Kevin Gutzman, James Madison and the making of America, p. 351

A tale of two plumbers

A plumber has the job of connecting all of the routes water can take through a house so that, when a "user" of the house chooses the "menu option," "flush-the-toilet," the toilet flushes. When the user "clicks" on the hot water faucet, hot water comes out of the tap. When the user "reboots" the system, by shutting off any inflow and opening the lowest tap, the system "erases" all its memory (all existing water drains out) and is ready to be restarted.

I really began to get software engineering when I realized that I was a plumber for a very complex system of electronic pipes. My job was to ensure that, based on what faucet the user turned, the desired output flowed out. My "pipes" were electronic pathways, and my "water" was flows of electricity, and my water flowed a hell of a lot faster than the plumber's did, but we were engaged in very similar enterprises.

Having engineered hundreds of such systems, I am no more inclined to attribute intelligence to the circuits I built than is the average plumber to believe that toilets "know" when they need to dump the users' poop down the drain.

Lest you think I am stretching an analogy too far, do you realize that it is entirely possible to create a digital computer using metal pipes and water? For instance, to create an AND gate, one would join two pipes to a valve that would only let water through if water were flowing down both pipes. An OR gate would be implemented by a vale that let water through if water was coming down either of its connecting pipes. An XOR gate would open if water came down one pipe or the other, but not both. One could connect such logic gates in any complex order one wanted, and then, by pouring water into various "input" pipes as one chose, get this system of pipes to "calculate" whatever output one wishes. A series of output buckets at the terminus of the pipes would wind up either filled or not filled, and each bucket could be read off as a binary digit of the answer to the problem one wished to solve.

Why don't we see such "plumbing" digital computers? Well, because the space they would take up would be enormous, the cost of the piping would vastly exceed the cost of etching circuits in a chip, and water moves much, much slower than electrons, so we would wait a lot longer for our answers.

But it would be entirely practical to set up a "plumbing computer" that could, say, add any combinations of the numbers one through four. Let's say we made our pipes transparent, and you could watch how water flowed through them, and how the valves at various junctures handled their "inputs." If you saw a "user" pour water into various input pipes, and then saw these mechanisms operate to produce their output, and then were asked, "So, does this plumbing system know how to add numbers?" I think you would be inclined to say, "What?! No, the pipes and valves  are just mechanically obeying the laws of physics, and it is only the plumber who set them up who knew how to use them to add numbers."

Our current electronic calculators are in essence no different from the plumbing system I described, except in that their pipes are much smaller and their "fluid" circulates much faster. I believe it is only the invisibility of these small pipes and the tremendous velocity at which their "fluid" passes through them that leads some people, people who don't understand that computers are just sophisticated plumbing systems, to postulate that they, e.g., "know" how to play chess.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Why is a phone conversation taking place in the seat behind you more annoying than a conversation between two people both actually in the seat?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Walmart Ad

"Your Thanksgiving turkey will be so juicy, people will swear you just stepped off the Mayflower."

Um, someone who just stepped off the Mayflower would never have seen a turkey before in their life, and would have little clue how to cook one, so does Walmart mean your turkey will be crap?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

QB and Super-QB

This is a guest blog post from Ngo Ay Smith, my wife's illegitimate half-brother. All responsibility for what is written here is his alone.


So, how, like, does Peyton Manning know he’s Peyton Manning?

No dude, I’m serious. Just think about this, cause it's been blowing my mind for the last hour, ever since I fired up and put on that Styx album: Peyton Manning - as described on ESPN - is the most powerful quarterback in the Universe. But how does he know that there isn’t an even more powerful QB - call him “SuperManning” - who has chosen to stay completely hidden up until now, maybe holding out for a better contract, or getting the roids out of his system, or something? Since the hypothetical SuperManning is, hypothetically, even more powerful than Manning, there’s no way for Manning to know that SuperManning does not in fact exist, cause he'd have SuperManning invisibility powers, or that it wasn't, like, really secretly SuperManning who threw that last screen pass.

This is not false whether or not there is not a SuperManning or not! Even if there is not a lack of no absence of SuperManning - even if it is not the case that Manning really is not the most powerful QB in the Universe - Manning will never not know for sure that this is not the case, because maybe John Fox is just messing with his head, or not! And of course if there were a SuperManning, then he also could not be certain that there was not a SuperDuperManning, somewhere even further down the bench from where he has been hiding!

Conclusion: The most powerful QB in the Universe, whoever that happens to be, will never be certain of His (or Her) status as such. And this really proves that Manning should vote for ObamaCare. And so should we all. And so should we all.

One Shouldn't Worry About Sunk Costs, or One CAN'T Worry About Sunk Costs?

Kevin Quinn comments on this post as follows:
I don't see this as a violation of the injunction to ignore sunk costs. If the child is forced to follow through, this is done, as you imagine, for the forward-looking reason that future costs will be lower - the fact that it has already been paid for has no bearing on the decision.

This is an interesting answer to the case I present, defending the notion that sunk costs are, in fact, irrelevant. But I think where this gets us is not to an admonition that we ought to ignore sunk costs, but to an a priori principle that sunk costs logically cannot be part of a decision process. In other words, in every case we can think of, of the sorts that occur in our textbooks, where economists are inclined to say, "That person is foolishly taking sunk costs into account," we could always re-describe the situation so that we can give a forward-looking reason for the decision. Someone says, "I have to go to the ball: I already paid for the tickets," we can say that what the person really is worried about here is the guilty feeling they will experience of having wasted the money, which is a forward-looking reason.

 I don't think this is a crazy way to look at the situation. There is a real sense in which we could say that no one ever does worry about sunk costs, because even when they say they are, what is really worrying them is something like their future feelings of guilt. But if we take that approach, it makes no sense at all to admonish people not to worry about sunk costs. In fact, of necessity, they never do worry about them. In this understanding of sunk costs, such admonitions are like advising people, "Remember to obey the law of gravity when you go out today."

But I have no dogmatic position here. What is going on is that ever since teaching a unit on sunk costs to my micro one class last year, I have felt that there is something not quite copacetic in the standard handling of this subject. I am just trying to see my way through these difficulties.

Cowen Reviewed

My review of Average Is Over is up at The University Bookman.

Rationalism in medicine

My mother told me an interesting story today. When she was young, her brother had tonsil problems. The doctors decided to do a tonsillectomy. They told her parents, "As long as we are doing one of your children, we might as well do both." And so they took out my mother's tonsils, even though she had had no problems with them whatsoever.

Of course, since then it has come to be understood the tonsils are a part of the immune system. But the attitude at the time is instructive: "If we experts do not see a reason for it, it must be useless, and therefore can be eliminated without harm."

This was an obvious violation of the "Chesterton's fence" principle: "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"

Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews