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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Well That Sure was Fun. Now What?

I generally avoid reviewing reviews of things I haven't seen or read; it would be hard to imagine a means of forming opinions more baseless. However, I have a couple reasons for making an exception here.

First, Krugman writes an entire column that isn't guilty of ranting under the influence of naval gazing. More importantly, though, the book he reviewed, Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth raises enough ideas that can be debated without having to have read the book first.

Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.

It is hard to argue with this. For someone living in 1880, 1950 would be completely unimaginable. The gulf from 1950 to 2020 (absent something completely unforeseeable) is tiny by comparison.

The Great Inventions — electricity, flush toilets, cars, airplanes, and the like — transformed life in ways that subsequent inventions haven't and can't. Their spread was the cause of the nearly a century's worth of rapid economic growth; that all the Great Inventions have been invented and fully adopted means that the growth we have become used to is already a thing of the past.

I think that conclusion is very difficult to argue against. Even if you add IT to the list of Great Inventions (Gordon apparently does not), computers haven't transformed our lives in the way the Great Inventions have — and won't so long as artificial intelligence, which still makes a cricket look brilliant, perpetually remains five years in the future.

As for the Great Inventions themselves, they have all followed identical horizontal-S performance curves. Slow at first, then a phase of rapid improvement, followed by near stagnation. Indoor plumbing has already improved our lives as much as it ever will. Airplanes will never go faster than they do now. Space flight will always be extraordinarily difficult and limited.

Does that mean everything has been invented? Of course not. Graphene, for just one likely example, is "about 100 times stronger than strongest steel with hypothetical thickness of 3.35Å which is equal to the thickness of graphene sheet. It conducts heat and electricity efficiently and is nearly transparent.[4] Researchers have identified the bipolar transistor effect, ballistic transport of charges and large quantum oscillations in the material."

Just the first property alone could make featherweight airplanes, trains, cars, and rockets.

All of which would still be subject to the same barriers they do now: the speed of sound, wind resistance, and reaction mass. They would do what exactly what they do now, but more cheaply. The payload fraction of a space launch would go up, but it wouldn't get anywhere significantly more quickly.

In short, we may be reaching an economic and existential "end of history".

Krugman, true to form, bangs the inequality drum, without noticing his own review has taken away the sticks:

So what does this say about the future? Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.

It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.

Even though there are no more Great Inventions* — and this should be glaringly obvious to even the most casual observer of reality — stagnant incomes do not mean stagnant living standards. All the minor inventions surrounding the Great Inventions have flattened consumption. Everyone has smart phones, garbage disposals, flush toilets, air conditioning, ad nearly infinitum. The rich undoubtedly have fancier of all those things, but there is scarcely anything the rich have that the rest of us do not.

Cars are a perfect example, perhaps one I have overused. The average new car today could not have been bought for any amount of money 20 years ago. The average four year old car today is so much better than even the best new car of 40 years ago as to make meaningful price comparisons impossible. Yet the time it takes an average worker to earn the money required to buy an average new car today is identical to what it was in the mid-1970s: 23 weeks.**

Stagnant income means stagnant living standards? Wanna trade your Focus for a Pinto? The question answers itself. And cars are by far from the only example.

The point here isn't that growing inequality*** doesn't exist, but rather that it leaves one wondering how important it is. Yes, perhaps, probably, even, there are no game changing innovations left. To me, the more interesting question is what it might be like for civilization itself to have reached the right side of that horizontal-S curve. If that is indeed the case, then humanity is looking at an indefinite future that has the same aspect as the indefinite past before the industrial age: incremental, scarcely noticeable change.

Hard to conceive of, given what we have lived through in my lifetime.

* Genetic engineering notwithstanding

** No, I am not going to track down the source for that one. You will just have to trust me.

*** Clearly inequality is growing, but progressives, for whom this is the latest new religion omit, or confuse, a great many things: free agency, composition vs. characteristic, and correlation of class with divorce, among other things. No matter, the concept fluffs their looting fetish, so we are stuck with it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

John Barleycorn (must die)

The author of the zman blog observes that we are living during a crisis of liberal democracy:
What we are witnessing in the West is the great test of liberal democracy. On the one side, all over the West we see recalcitrant mainstream parties digging in their heels on polices that benefit the global elite at the expense of the local populations. On the other side you have local populations trying to force change on their government through the liberal democratic processes. The theory says the politicians, as a matter of survival, will yield.
So far, that has not been the way to bet. Instead the main parties find new ways to subvert the will of the voters. In Greece the Germans laid siege to the country until they broke the will of the people. Closer to home, the German government is unleashing a wave of Muslim terrorism on their people, presumably as a form of intimidation. In France, the main parties have teamed up to block the third party from winning.

You don’t have to be a seer to see what’s coming. If through the accepted democratic process the will of the people is thwarted, then the people will lose respect for those processes. If the people in charge already look upon these processes with contempt, there’s no one left to support the status quo and the whole things falls to pieces. Perhaps the post-democratic world imagined by the global elite is what emerges, but 100 years ago all the smart people had similar thoughts.

Richard Fernandez has his own take on the coming collision :
There remains the belief that Western leaders can still fix this problem with a little tweaking.  But the time for easy action has passed.  The Golden Hour in which to prevent irreversible damage has lapsed, neglected by a Washington too sure of its own fantasies to act decisively.  Now the storm has broken and  Merkel is downstream of a dam opened by the policy of "leading from behind".  The valve with which Obama had hoped to shut down the Islamic civil war has been turned the wrong way to full open.  Worse, the wheel has broken off in his hand and he is staring at the snapped spindle.

That human tide of misery will combine with the denial which this generation of Western leaders are capable of to produce a separate catastrophe, still in the future, itself foreseeable, which can still be avoided.  If only ... if only... those who missed the chance the first time now wake up to act this second time.

Yet as Friedrich Hegel once observed what history teaches is that humanity learns nothing from history.  Our Tower of Babel is helpless to save itself.  Ironically if Europe survives it will be on account of the ghosts: in the remnants of the culture the left has come close to killing;  the providence of a God they no longer believe in;  the stirrings of memory of a nation they have doomed to oblivion; the struggles of a half-remembered honor we are told to disown.

The fact is, for West to survive, it must become something other than what our PC leaders have tried to make it.  For it is written that "the stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone."  It's poetic justice to be sure but we have to accept the justice if we are to save what's left of the poetry.
A search of this blog for political correctness  shows some interesting posts including discussions of Cultural Marxism.  This attempt to undermine a free society includes ideas such as multiculturalism and political correctness.  The constraining of speech is meant to also control thought and generate conformity with the desires of those in power.  It is an attempt to avoid the competition of ideas in the public arena.

John Fund makes the point that authorities are in denial and continue to take a do nothing approach to the matter:
See something, say something.” We’ve all seen ads from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that ask people not to turn a blind eye to suspicious activity. But all too often the reality, both in the U.S. and even more so in Europe, is that neighbors, politicized police departments, and the mainstream media act as if the slogan should be “See Something, Do Nothing.”
Ostrich-like behavior that puts political correctness ahead of security concerns is even more prevalent in Europe.
For Americans, the more pertinent question is this: Are we allowing political correctness to destroy the very values of individual responsibility and truth-telling that have helped immigrants assimilate successfully throughout our history? Or, under the thumb of PC, are we increasing the risk of terrorist violence? If the answer to both is yes, the unhappy political conditions might be such that Americans would feel tempted to rip up the welcome mat for foreigners.

We used to do a decent job of  assimilating immigrants:

Today, our elites are far too “sophisticated” to promote Americanization. As immigrants, refugees, assylees and others come and settle here, they are actually taught that this is a racist, Islamophobic country and that they are victims. In fact, much about how they live—from social standing to actual tangible benefits—will depend on their status as members of an aggrieved, protected group.
 Discussion of this issue has nearly become taboo, because the Left pounces on anyone who will take it up. One can surmise, of course, that the Left pounces as hard as it does because it realizes that an internally riven society is an essential ingredient of regime change—or “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” as some call it.
 The word “assimilation” itself was used by President Washington and embraced by all the Founders on down to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Ronald Reagan. Most importantly, the report calls for presidential candidates of both parties to debate this existential matter.

This is a debate we haven’t really had. Elites in the academy and the arts, the bureaucracy and politics, decided on their own to stop assimilating newcomers and move to the multi-group model.

Undoing the damage of multiculturalism, affirmative action, and the entire culture of victimhood won’t be easy, and working only toward cultural and economic integration will not be enough. After all, 2013 Boston bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev and last year’s San Bernardino’s Syed Farook were “culturally integrated.” Patriotic assimilation is key. But first, we need to be able to talk about it—without being shouted down.

Assimilation can help but it will not be enough to deter the strongest believers in Islamic supremacism.

In order to decide how we should deal with this matter and many other important matters we need to have serious discussion about competing approaches.  The imposition of political correctness makes this nearly impossible.

Some of our  supposed betters are discouraging people from bucking political correctness, power hungry statists that they are.  PC also contributes to warping behavior to the point of people failing the Turing Test.

There are plenty of people looking to get free from this form of control:
GOP candidates in the single digits might take a hint from Trump -- show the American public that you can speak awkward truths in the face of hysterical PC criticism. You are probably going to lose anyhow, but if you are going to sacrifice millions in futile campaign spending and endless rubber chicken banquets, die for a good cause, and, given our current political landscape overflowing with dishonesty, what could be a more noble cause than killing the beast of PC
 Then we have the leftist intellectuals on campus today:
Political correctness – the academic aping of the class struggle — has increasingly generated campus hijinks unintentionally redolent of the cartoonist Al Capp’s 1960s depiction of S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything). Recently, referring to the plague of campus hoaxes regarding rape and race, capped off by the ruckus at Oberlin College because of the cultural “disrespect” shown by serving General Tso’s Chicken with steamed instead of fried rice, I was asked by a well-educated friend, “how did academia come to this sorry pass?”
 “The postmodern campus aggrievement industry,” notes Arthur Milikh, writing in City Journal, aims to introduce a new standard of wisdom: judging the highest achievements of human knowledge by the unreasoned, spontaneous feelings of uncultivated minds.

We may finally be approaching the point where the PC chickens  are coming home to roost.
But the big new development in 2015 is that the left’s culture war came back to attack the very institutions that hatched it.
It is on campus that the left has created a quasi-totalitarian system of social conformity — as the base from which they have tried to impose those rules on everyone.
But the universities can’t escape having the same quasi-totalitarian system imposed on themselves, and that’s what came to a head this fall at the University of Missouri, Yale, and Claremont McKenna College — with many other campus activists itching to get in on the revolution. The universities, those utopias of multicultural tolerance, have found themselves accused of being shot through with “systemic racism,” and protesters have demanded the firing of administrators, all the way up to the presidents of universities, for such crimes as daring to question the Halloween Costume Inquisition.
There are two centuries of chickens coming home to roost, because that’s how long ago academic intellectuals began toying with the idea that ideas don’t matter and everything is just a raw power struggle.

But while the new political correctness may seem irresistibly strong — at least when it is employed against soft targets like university administrators — that masks an underlying weakness, what I called the Paradox of Dogma: “If you try to shut down public debate, is this a way of ensuring that you win — or an admission that you have already lost?”
A swing back to the right, I concluded, is not at all inevitable. Rather, the fragility of the left’s dominance presents us with an opportunity. And given the number of people who thought their moderate liberalism made them safe from political correctness but who are now discovering how foolish that was, there is plenty of fuel for a backlash.

Anyone who values a free society should realize that this battle needs to be fought.

John Barleycorn This PC thing must die!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unclear on the Concept

I reluctantly subscribe to the NYT. The reason I do so is so that I don't confine myself to information sources that flatter my world view.

The reason I am reluctant is that it seems, particularly lately, that the NYT either cannot comprehend constitutional government, or it can and is actively hostile to the entire enterprise.

A case the Supreme Court will hear on Monday morning threatens to undermine a four-decade-old ruling that upheld a key source of funding for public-sector unions, the last major bastion of unionized workers in America.

In the 1977 decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the justices ruled that public unions may charge all employees — members and nonmembers alike — for the costs of collective bargaining related to their employment. For nonmembers, these are known as “fair-share fees.” But nonmembers may not be compelled to pay for the union’s political or ideological activities.

There are many problems with that second paragraph, from the concept that the government may compel individuals to support private organizations, to what should be, but aren't in this case, scare quotes around "fair share". According to whom?

That's bad enough, but par for an Op-Ed section so at war with evidence and reason, not surprising.

It gets worse.

The Abood ruling was a sensible compromise between the state’s interest in labor peace and productivity and the individual worker’s interest in his or her freedom of speech and association.

No, NYT. Wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong. Let me help:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech …

Just as with Citizens United, which part of "no" do you not get?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Richard Dawkins Shills for Christianity!

Well, "shills" is maybe a little too strong, but still, that's a headline I never thought I'd be able to write. From Breitbart:
In a text that is coursing about on social media, professional God-slayer Richard Dawkins begrudgingly admitted that Christianity may actually be our best defense against aberrant forms of religion that threaten the world. 
“There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings,” Dawkins said. “I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.” 
In a rare moment of candor, Dawkins reluctantly accepted that the teachings of Jesus Christ do not lead to a world of terror, whereas followers of radical Islam perpetrate the very atrocities that he laments.
Because of this realization, Dawkins wondered aloud whether Christianity might indeed offer an antidote to protect western civilization against jihad.
 The world's most vociferous and rabid atheist, the man who calls those who don't "believe in" Evolution "ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked ...)," the person who's spent decades railing against religion of any form, suddenly wonders if maybe Christianity might have a use after all? Wow! My jaw dropped open so fast it dislocated - ouch!

Of course his logic is a bit like my tongue-in-cheek Religion is Like the Pox post that I wrote over ten years ago, but I'm glad he finally sees the light.

One for the Ages

Last night, as we were getting ready for our arrival, the Paris-CDG Automated Terminal Information Service produced this:

Aviation communication is very narrowly scripted, which makes this nice touch stand out even more.

In case you care, here is the translation: ACARS Information Bravo, time 2115Z, transmitted to aircraft 915FD on 11 Jan 16 at 21:24Z. Expect Instrument Landing System approaches to runways 27R and 26L (i.e., landing to the west on the outboard runways), departures 27L and 26R (the inboard runways), Standard Instrument Departures 1A, 1B and 1Z. The runway is wet. Transition level (changing from standard to local altimeter on descent) is 6,000 feet on standard. Make sure to hold short of the departure runway after clearing the landing runway. ATC has recently decided to reduce radio congestion by no longer reading the frequencies of Tower and Departure control on handoff.

The weather: winds out of the west at 17 kts, visibility greater than 10 kilometers, scattered cloud at 1600 feet, broken cloud at 2000 feet. Temperature 7C, dewpoint 4C, local altimeter setting 991 hectopascals.

And yes, aviation chaotically mixes metric and English units.

Property Wrongs

The NYT Op-Ed section runs a series called The Stone, "a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless." I have rubbished previous articles in the Stone, for failing to understand the structure of certain problems, and another mistaking self reference for paradox.

The most recent offering deepens the pile.

In This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It? Prof. McBrayer tries to demonstrate that the whole concept of private property is — what's the in term these days? Oh, right — problematic. At some level, of course, private property is problematic. It is, after all a human concept,* and one would be hard pressed to find any human concept that isn't problematic in some regard.

Unfortunately, Prof McBrayer goons up basic concepts so badly as to have hit the rocks long before getting anywhere worthwhile.

Since last weekend, armed men have been in control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Incensed by the sentencing of local ranchers to jail time for burning public lands†, the protesters want the federal government out of the land business. Their stated goal is to return the refuge to the locals so that “people can reclaim their resources.” But this raises an important question: Why does justice demand that the land and resources belong to the locals instead of the commons? What makes property private?

This is not a question germane only to a standoff in Oregon. It’s a question that applies to each and every one of us. If you’re reading this, you probably own a smartphone. You think you justly own your phone and that it’s wrong for the government or anyone else to take it from you. But why is your phone your private property? You might say that you are entitled to it because the law says that you are entitled to it. But that’s a bad answer.

Whereupon the good professor presents the paramount example of legal but unjust private property: slaves. When the 13th Amendment passed, a whole category of private property was eliminated with the stroke of a pen. So, following the easy, hence overused, philosophical chain of reasoning, he poses another example to show how our thinking isn't on firm ground. We all presume to own our cellphones (or any other item we call "our own", like, say, guns), because we paid for them with our own money. Clearly, the government could, just as with slavery, outlaw phones, or, if the NYT, Obama and Harry were to have their way, guns.

So far, so good. However, here is where the train of thought starts to leave the rails.

First, he flattens a straw man: "An idea common among conservatives — and surely an assumption of the protesters in Oregon — is that the past fully explains private property."

I've never heard of anyone thinking that. Now, that could be my ignorance rearing once again its ugly, unshaven head, but tossing the word "fully" in there almost guarantees the impending sacrifice of another straw man. Almost nothing, ever, fully explains anything. Which is why I'll bet that a search for said conservatives would yield a null result.

There's another sure sign of a strawman being put to the torch: the effortless refutation of the presumed assertion:

But is that true? Suppose I steal your car and sell it to my friend Dugald. Is Dugald entitled to the car because he paid for it? You probably want to say “no.” Buying something doesn’t give you entitlement unless the seller was entitled to the thing first. So a transfer of property from one person to another is rendered illegitimate if the seller got the property through unjust means.

Well, duh.

But wait, there's more.

But now think back to your smartphone. What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none.

Clearly, Prof McBrayer is completely unclear on one of the two concepts fundamental to his argument. Money is not property in the sense that cellphones, guns, or land are. Money is a universal medium of exchange; money is dimensionless and timeless, all its units are identical, and, anymore, is rarely exchanged in its physical manifestation. To be quite blunt, the concept of tracking numbers back through history is so ridiculous as to make quite certain that the requirements to become a philosophy professor (or the editor the NYT Op-Ed page) do not include any particular grounding in reality.

Sure, one can steal a quantity of cash, or, through identity theft, units of money. But it is the means which taints the quantity gained, not the units themselves.

It is with the other fundamental concept that he demonstrates the need for extensive idea safety training, because it is here where he metaphorically blows his other logical foot off at the hip:

And, as the situation in Oregon makes clear, deciphering the boundaries of private property for real estate is even more troubled. Eastern Oregon was once populated by the Northern Paiute tribe. Like the history of your smartphone, the shift of property from the Paiutes to the white settlers is surely marred with various injustices. And if injustices render a transfer of private property illegitimate, then the protesters in Oregon have little to complain about.

If memory serves, this step, or rather, stumble, is an example of reductio ad absurdum: mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable.

Unfortunately, Prof MCBrayer is one reductio shy of fully absurd. Yes, the Northern Paiute Tribe once populated Eastern Oregon. But why them, and not another tribe? Indeed, it is as certain as it can be that there was yet another group before them, and the Paiute's themselves obtained, and held, Eastern Oregon by force. Indeed, all ownership of all land is irrevocably tainted. No, wait, he has hurdled that reductio:

And if our property isn’t legitimately private, it’s hard to see how it’s unjust for the government or anyone else to take it from us.

No, professor, that isn't at all hard to see: it makes slaves of us all — remember that unjust property you mentioned above? — and leads directly to parades of horribles so bloody and awful that one would think that any philosophising that ends up here is its own indictment.

Either the ranchers, and all the rest of us, aren't entitled to our titles, or at some point the past is, indeed, past, and ownership is established by a significantly lengthy string of legal transfers.

"… if history explains private property, how does anyone come to be entitled to previously unowned stuff in the first place?"

Really, Scarlett, who gives a damn?

And, I beg to differ, it isn't a hard question to answer. The first person to be able to exert sufficient force to exclude all other claimants was the one entitled to own the stuff in the first place. This is where that asterisk above comes in. Prof McBrayer is missing another clue. Private property is not just a human concept. Almost all animals at some level aim to exert a sole claim to some resource or another, whether it is territory, the female of the species, or a recent kill. And they do it the same way private property is acquired and its ownership maintained: through the threat of force, or if that fails, the real thing.

So, contra Prof McBrayer, we don't need some holy grail of a theory of private property that makes sense. We already have one: reality.

Obviously, such a red in tooth and claw explanation for private property is an exercise in self-justification. It doesn't begin to touch on how in many countries, Brazil, for instance, the initial establishment of ownership led to concentrating so much land in so few hands as to create a situation that should at least disturb the morally sentient, even while causing despair for finding a solution.

In addition to dragging whatever fell to hand in pursuit of pre-conceived conclusion, Prof McBrayer is also extraordinarily economical with the facts.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

An Interesting Tidbit

Religion may have economic benefits. From a recently given paper (hat tip: Marginal Revolution):
Our results suggest that living in a state with a an extra clergy member for each 1,000 habitants increases the earnings of black workers by 1.7 to 3.6 percentage points relative to white workers.. In addition we show that this relationship is robust to different measures of exposure to religious density, and that these estimates increase to 7.6 percentage points when the change on religious density is defined exclusively increasing an extra black religious workers for each 1,000 habitants. Finally, we estimate a series of robustness tests that suggest that these results are not due to spatial sorting across states, nor to secular time trends associated with changes in labor market outcomes for black American workers.
Though it may just be that religion hinders whites more than blacks? Or the paper is totally bogus?