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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

No Liberty without Justice

When G.W. Bush gave his second inaugural address, he chose the topic to be the Justice and Freedom conferred by the Constitution, and the lack thereof in other places:

"America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies. Yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators. They are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty."

The problem with Justice requiring Freedom, is that very often Freedom requires Justice too. How do you get to one without the other? Chicken and eggs.

So the short answer to Bret, who asks me "Is Liberty Erupting in Brazil?", is no, it is not, for we have no Justice.

When we last touched the subject here (see also the comments section), Brazil was rocked by the actions of a single judge (Sergio Moro) who started with a case of money laundering in a gas station a few miles from my home (rendering the name of the scandal: Car Wash operation), and end up with multi-billion corruption charges related to PETROBRAS (the Brazilian petroleum company) and our biggest Construction companies, siphoning off money to many politicians and parties.

Afterward, the President back then, Ms. Roussef, was impeached, and the Workers Party (PT) has been in free fall since the 2016 elections. The Vice-President, Michel Temer, did a U-turn on the leftist platform he was elected on, and a naive free-market-oriented external observer may well believe we are now in the right path: an addendum to the Constitution now forbids the growth of spending to exceed inflation rate for the next 20 years; several public programs have been reduced in size and scope (like public health system and public education); the pension system is being reformed as I type; and labor laws are being completely reviewed, with major protests from trade unions. 

Looks like the dream package for liberal reformers, so how come Liberty is not arriving?

The thing is, Brazil is not for amateurs. We have a long tradition of, as we say down here, doing things "para gringo ver" (to show up for foreigners). After all, our Elites were established by a foreign power (Portugal), and since then their business has been to show what they were asked to show - not necessarily doing it. It follows that we got our Independence blood free in the 1800's, but never our Liberty.

Mr. Temer's party (PMDB) has been in power - by giving their political force and support in Congress - since our redemocratization, in 1985, and many of its members were in power before that, during the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985), and yet even before that. It is an Establishment party. And the Establishment never gave us Liberty - why would it do that now?

I once pointed out to Bret that, though Mr. Moro was brave, the end game of his anti-corruption crusade would be our higher court, the analogue of SCOTUS, where eleven judges are appointed to by Presidents for life. Hey, what could go wrong?

I can't openly comment on the judges of this court - after all, this is not a free country - but let me say that it may have (very few) honest members (to the very limited extent of my knowledge -- legal disclaimer: for all purposes, I hereby declare I do not mean any of our judges could possibly be dishonest). Teori Zavascki, the judge assigned to oversee the Car Wash cases that touched politicians with special immunity from lower courts (which are all under present mandates), is one of those honest judges, in my limited opinion. Or he was.

Odebrecht - the biggest of the Brazilian contractors, a multi-billion company with international operations (did you notice they reformed the Miami airport, Erp?) - had its CEO (Mr. Marcelo Odebrecht) under "provisional" arrest since 2015, implicated in the Car Wash operation. It's been calculated they paid away more than one billion dollars in kickbacks throughout the last decade, for every political party and sub-relevant politician down here. In order to negotiate less prison time and fewer fines, he and dozens of executives at Odebrecht have agreed to a guilty plea, detailing all their corruption scheme and beneficiaries. Their confession was being hailed as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) over our political system.

On January 19, the week right before Judge Zavascki was to validate that mighty bomb, an accident happened. He took a private airplane with a rich friend, to visit the friend's beach mansion at Rio de Janeiro's coast, with a highly experienced pilot (who used to teach younger ones how to fly under coastal conditions) in a Hawker Beechcraft King Air C90 aircraft (that's for Skipper) - and, for apparently no reason known, the pilot (or the plane) failed 2 miles before the landing field, while on descent under light rain.

Accidents. They happen, sometimes more often than others. Since the Car Wash operation started, 5 high profile people with possible connections to it (as bribers or bribed) died flying private airplanes. A number of other people committed suicides, under not very clear conditions, to say the least. 

But I digress. Our Supreme Court could not stay with only 10 judges, even more so when they have such a high profile case to judge. So our President, Mr. Temer, got to place a judge by his finger there now. Mr. de Moraes, his Minister of Justice (since the impeachment a few months back) was the man. I can not comment much about him - after all, this is not a free country - but there is good evidence he, among other iffy stuff, had in his CV a few millions earned from dubious companies, and was the lawyer for one of Brazil's most dangerous mafias (the PCC). You guys get Gorsuch, we got Mr. de Moraes. He is now appointed by the President to be one of the judges who will decide on the future of the same President, and his own pals back in his days of politics.

Though Judge Zavascki's death delayed the Odebrecht MOAB for a few months - buying time for President Temer to pass his reforms, and to appoint other judges to other positions where they will lead cases that hang on Mr. Temer's head - that bomb finally came through.

As per Odebrecht's own account (and of his father, the previous CEO), they have been bribing and buying our political system for 30 years. Our 5 last Presidents - which are all since we got elections back - are implicated. As is our President now, which personally coordinated at least two meetings where he asked for Odebrecht's money (of course, in exchange for overpriced public contracts, so in the end *our* money) totalling many dozens of millions.

To be precise, Odebrecht also points his finger to 415 politicians, among them 8 present ministers, 13 governors, 36 senators (24 present ones), many dozens of congressmen (of which 39 are today in Congress, including its higher chairs). Though the Worker's Party, which had the Presidency for the last 13 years, had all its main heads involved, they are easily outnumbered by PMDB and PSDB - the main parties that granted Roussef's impeachment last year, and make up the present Government by Mr. Temer.

What's more, another legal case - aimed to cancel the election of Ms. Roussef and Mr. Temer in 2014, due to the illegal money by Odebrecht and other constructors - under our higher courts has been further stalled since Mr. Temer got the chair. He also got to indicate other judges for this court in the last few months, and though Odebrecht's bomb clearly spell out the illegal money they gave for that election, there is no sign the case will be judged anytime soon.

Though I could go on for a long while, I hope I already gave a hint of why I believe we have no Justice. And will have no Liberty, anytime soon.

But surely the economic gains by those reforms will be a step up, won't it?

I don't know. I can point out a number of holes in each of those reforms, all giving more power to our corrupt political/judiciary system, while taking away resources - some of which were well employed, notwithstanding our many problems - from the public system serving the poorest.

Will they lead to growth only for the upper class, as happened in the 70's, when our economy had two digits growth but the largest formation of favelas ever seen?

Anyway, I much doubt the very same people who made fortunes of our statism and cronyism, will be the ones to lead us, finally, to Liberty.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Importance of Nationalism

Once upon a time, long ago in approximately 1162 AD and faraway in desolate and nearly inhospitable mountains a barbarian boy was born and named Temüjin. The first few decades of Temüjin's life were really miserable, even by the barbarian standards of his environment (which included tribal warfare, thievery, raids, corruption, revenge, and interference from neighboring powers). When he was 9-years-old, his father was poisoned and then his family was completely destitute, living off wild fruit, carrion, and whatever small game he and his brothers could kill. He was caught and enslaved when he was around 15 years old. Bummer!

That was probably the low point of his life. He eventually escaped slavery and things generally got better for him (with some ups and downs) from there. For example, during the the period starting when he was 35-years-old to 80 years later, he and his descendants conquered the world; well, not all of the world, merely the portions shown below.

Not all of the world, but in 1279 it was the largest contiguous empire ever (even to this day), totally dwarfing the Roman Empire, for example. Not all of the world, but he was an uneducated barbarian with the rather shaky start described above. Not all of the world, but he did it with the barely beyond stone-age technology of bows and arrows and horses. Think about conquering the area in the map above with just horses (my bottom hurts just thinking about it)!

Somewhere during his conquests, Temüjin became known as Genghis Khan which is how he is remembered today. Scientists estimate that 1 in 200 people are descendants of Genghis Khan, making him one of the 11 most prolific fathers of all time (9 of the 11 are unknown in history).

The horrors of nationalism and religion have been drilled into me my whole life. I've been told about all those people killed by this or that religious atrocity and this or that nationalistic war. Genghis Khan was neither nationalistic nor religious (there's no Genghisstan, for example). But he was possibly the bloodiest, most murderous person in all of history. For example, after conquering Urgench in central Asia, he slaughtered more than a million people in a mere few days. A million people represented 1 in 400 people on earth at the time. All told, the Mongol conquests killed about 10% of the people on earth. Genghis Khan might be considered directly responsible for the deaths of a larger percentage of the human population than anyone else, ever.

So why was this random barbarian able to conquer such a vast area? The pat answer is that he was a brilliant strategist and politically innovative. And that may well be true.

But I don't think that's the most important part. Genghis Khan didn't conquer any nations, not really. There simply were no nations in his path. At least not nations in the sense that if you attack even a tiny corner of the nation, millions upon millions of people will rush to their defense and drive off the attackers. Instead he just rolled through one city-state after another, none of which had an even remote chance of defending themselves. Even the most populous ones were sitting ducks.

One meme shared by progressives and libertarians is that political borders are at least somewhat immoral; that nationalism is quite immoral and responsible for many of the horrors of the last century; that eliminating nations and national sentiment would be very positive for humankind; that one shouldn't care more about someone from Mississippi than someone from Mozambique; etc. They both make similar critiques about religions.

I don't agree with those assessments. One can argue that Hitler was an insane genocidal maniac who hijacked a whole nation and caused misery nearly beyond comprehension and that if nations didn't exist, Hitler wouldn't've been able to do that. Maybe, but I don't think so.

Because, what about Genghis Khan? He was as simple as simple could be. He was simply a predatory mammal looking to extend his legacy like all (non-domesticated) predatory mammals. And he certainly succeeded. He wasn't insane. He wasn't religious. He was very tolerant of ethnic and cultural diversity:
The Mongol Empire did not emphasize the importance of ethnicity and race in the administrative realm, instead adopting an approach grounded in meritocracy. The exception was the role of Genghis Khan and his family. The Mongol Empire was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, as befitted its size. Many of the empire's nomadic inhabitants considered themselves Mongols in military and civilian life, including Mongols, Turks and others and included many diverse Khans of various ethnicities as part of the Mongol Empire such as Muhammad Khan.
If you crossed him, he would raze your city and murder everyone in it (except for the skilled artisans and the women, of course - how do you think 1/2% of the current day population are his descendants? Hmmm?). Very simple, really. But as long as you surrendered to him and didn't cross him, he was much more interested in your abilities than your religion or ethnicity.

There will always be people like Genghis Khan and Hitler. After all, we are predatory mammals, and some of us will simply be better predators than the rest of us.

The way I see it, nations and nationalism stopped Hitler from taking over the world. England, Russia, the United States, and others had the nationalistic fervor that drove them to stop him. It was awful, but it was stopped.

What Genghis Khan did was awful too.

And there were no nations to stop him. Only the technological limitations of the horse and bow kept him and his descendants from extending their empire even further.

If there were no nations and no nationalism, then we're essentially a bunch of city-states and the next Genghis Khan will take over the world, just like the Mongols created their empire.

Is Liberty Erupting in Brazil?

It sorta seemingly might be according to this article. Here's an excerpt:
Brazil has tried everything else. Now it seems ready to try liberty. Nothing ever goes in a straight line but the chances for real victories – privatization, tax cuts, trade reform, liberalization of health care and education and business enterprise – actually seem possible. And if not immediately, it is also clear that this movement is not going away. It is growing, even exponentially.
If true, this would be an extremely interesting development. Brazil has, after all, the 7th largest economy in the world and it's economy is about the same size as Germany, Japan, and Russia. If Brazil somehow threw off the shackles of corruption, bureaucracy, and centralized control, something big and interesting would happen - hopefully good, possibly not (and there would certainly be losers along with the winners), but big and interesting either way.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Okay, Now What?

The NYT recently published a story on homelessness, Rights Battles Emerge in Cities Where Homelessness Can Be a Crime*

If ever there was a Gordian Knot — save for the part about simply scything through the thing — this is it.

Growing numbers of homeless encampments have led to civic soul-searching in cities around the country, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle. Should cities open up public spaces to their poorest residents, or sweep away camps that city leaders, neighbors and business groups see as islands of drugs and crime?

For those on the streets — who have lost their jobs, have suffered from drug addiction, mental illness or disabilities — crackdowns on homeless camps are seen as tantamount to punishing people for being poor.

Activists and homeless residents like Mr. Russell are waging public campaigns and court fights against local laws that ban “urban camping” — prohibitions that activists say are aimed at the homeless. The right to rest, they say, should be a new civil right for the homeless.

Fair enough, as far as that goes, and anyone with a shred of empathy would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

But that isn't nearly the whole knot.

But camps have become a particularly acute problem in the West, where soaring housing costs and a scarcity of subsidized apartments have pushed homelessness to the fore in booming towns like Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco.

As new clusters of tents and sleeping bags pop up along river banks, on city sidewalks and in parks and gentrifying neighborhoods, they are exposing deep divisions about how cities should strike a balance between accommodation and enforcement.

In Seattle, where violence has flared in a homeless camp known as the Jungle, beneath a freeway, there was a fierce response to a councilman’s proposal to allow the city’s 3,000 unsheltered homeless residents to camp in some parks and on undeveloped public land.

That, right there, is the rest of it. We must have sympathy for the plight of the homeless, yet we must also have sympathy for the users of parks, and those who live near undeveloped public land. After all, park users and homeowners have interests, too. The camps are dangerous their occupants and anyone who lives nearby. They bring with them a plague of trash and feces.

How have we gotten here? The Rue de Rouen. Which doesn't translate as Road to Ruin, but should. Starting in the early 1970s, the US started deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill:

Deinstitutionalization (or deinstitutionalization) is the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with less isolated community mental health services for those diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability. Deinstitutionalization works in two ways: the first focuses on reducing the population size of mental institutions by releasing patients, shortening stays, and reducing both admissions and readmission rates; the second focuses on reforming mental hospitals' institutional processes so as to reduce or eliminate reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness, learned helplessness, and other maladaptive behaviors.[1]

According to psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, deinstitutionalization has been an overall benefit for most psychiatric patients, though many have been left homeless and without care. The deinstitutionalization movement was initiated by three factors:

  • A socio-political movement for community mental health services and open hospitals;
  • The advent of psychotropic drugs able to manage psychotic episodes;
  • Financial imperatives (in the US specifically, to shift costs from state to federal budgets)

Boiling that down to a few words, instead of warehousing the mentally ill, often in horrible conditions, we now do catch and release, often in horrible conditions. Warehousing was a disaster, so is dumping.

And while it might be tempting to point an accusing finger at heartless rightwingers who are continually disappointed at not having nearly enough poor people to step on, Europe is no shining example. There are easily enough beggars and people living rough in Düsseldorf. Not nearly as many as in Honolulu, though, which must have the highest number of addicted and mentally ill of anyplace I've ever been. Besides the congenial climate, it might have something to do with municipalities on the mainland deciding one way airline tickets were far cheaper than every other option on offer.

Instead of warehousing, we have the mentally ill and addicted destroying wherever they congregate. Instead of warehousing, we do warehousing by other means — cycling in and out of jail.

Now what?

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Perhaps not the Whole Story

Tesla Passes Ford in Market Value as Investors Bet on the Future

DETROIT — The record pace of auto sales in the United States is slowing down, leaving investors increasingly bearish on auto stocks.

But there is one exception. Tesla, the electric-vehicle upstart, continues to surge.

On Monday, Tesla surpassed Ford Motor in market value for the first time and moved within striking distance of General Motors, starkly illustrating the growing gap in investors’ optimism over its future versus the prospects for the traditional carmakers from Detroit.

While G.M. and Ford may have strong profits and healthy balance sheets, Tesla offers something Wall Street loves much more: the potential for dramatic growth.

“Investors want something that is going to go up in orders of magnitude in six months to six years, and Tesla is that story,” said Karl Brauer, a senior editor at Kelley Blue Book. “Nobody thinks Ford or G.M. is going to do that.

No need to follow the link, take my word for it. Mystifyingly, this story didn't consume even one syllable about, oh, massive subsidies.

Among other privileges they enjoy, poor people pay rich people $10,000 a whack to drive off in Tesla Model S's.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

But wait, there's more:

New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.

And even more beyond that. Corporatism is just a less frightening word for cancer.

And the NYT is a joke, except not at all funny. One can't help but wonder how those strong profits and healthy balance sheets would look if all the government dosh was to disappear. If they would still be hunky dory, then by all means stop abusing taxpayers on Tesla's behalf. On the other, and undoubtedly much stronger hand, if removing the trough from under Musk's nose was to comprehensively crater those profits and the sheets were suddenly capsizing, then one would think that would be worth knowing.

One would think.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Question, on its Knees, Begging to be Asked

The NYT presents us with another thumb sucker about Islam:

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — Like many Muslims, Ahmed Aboutaleb has been disturbed by the angry tenor of the Dutch election campaign. Far-right candidates have disparaged Islam, often depicting Muslims as outsiders unwilling to integrate into Dutch culture.

It is especially jarring for Mr. Aboutaleb, given that he is the mayor of Rotterdam, a fluent Dutch speaker and one of the country’s most popular politicians. Nor is he alone: The speaker of the Dutch Parliament is Muslim. The Netherlands also has Muslim social workers, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and bankers.

“There’s a feeling that if there are too many cultural influences from other parts of the world, then what does that mean for our Dutch traditions and culture?” said Mr. Aboutaleb, whose city, the Netherland’s second largest, is 15 percent to 20 percent Muslim and home to immigrants from 174 countries.

Or, perhaps, there is is feeling that Dutch traditions and culture are centered upon the Judeo-Christian Enlightenment and, as such, are completely antagonistic to the aspirations, by definition, of pious Muslims. After all, one might think, and be terribly disappointed if having once entertained the thought, that an article in the Newspaper Of Record, would spend even a syllable upon that seemingly intractable problem.

Nope. Its all down to those damn deplorables.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Calling Harrison Bergeron

Because if you can't educate everybody, it's bad to educate anybody:
The University of California, Berkeley, will cut off public access to tens of thousands of video lectures and podcasts in response to a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Saturday Puzzler

Ignore this NYT Op-Ed for the moment*, there is something very striking about the picture accompanying the piece.

(Don't know why I didn't do a screen grab the first time.)

* Aside from reflexive virtue signaling, and a conclusion without an argument, this Op-Ed actually gets perilously close to actual awareness.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Darkness of Light - A Story of Economic Scale

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, it was a dark and stormy night in a small village. Like most small villages of the era, its existence was due to the goods and services its craftsmen provided to the surrounding farmers and to each other. There was a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker and a number of other crafts represented (blacksmith, cobbler, etc.). This trading network of a few hundred people (including farmers) was nearly completely self-sufficient, except for the occasional traveling merchant who brought in some critically important goods as well as some more frivolous and luxury goods. This pre-industrial village, while mostly self-sufficient was also quite poor by modern standards as the small size of this economy couldn't enable sufficient specialization to support modern goods and services, even if all the knowledge of the modern world was readily available and understandable.

Glim, the village candlestick maker was happy with his life. His family had always been the candlestick makers in this village and it was comforting to know his place in life. As he gazed out into the storm, he could see flickers of light emanating from the other homes in the village and he had satisfaction knowing that some of that light was his candlesticks pushing back the darkness and providing comfort to the other villagers.

He had to work hard and was hardly rich, but was prosperous enough to support himself, his wife, and his three daughters. When the traveling merchants came to town, he was able to afford some necessities and even an occasional luxury item like the exotically patterned and very warm rug that sat on the floor of his bedroom. In fact, merchants had just arrived that particular evening and would open their booths to trade their wares the following morning. This was good, because Glim's wife was running short on spices, and they could likely remedy that by trading with the merchants in the morn.

When morning came, Glim and his wife went to trade with the merchants. The merchants had their typical wares available, but to Glim's shock and dismay, the merchants had table after table with numerous varieties of candlesticks, and, after inquiring about the price of the candlesticks, Glim discovered that they were selling for less than half the price of Glim's candlesticks. The merchant explained that a village about 50 leagues away (that had recently been renamed Candleton) had discovered a technique that enabled a few dozen people, working together, to churn out an enormous quantity of candles at very low cost and very high quality. Glim was devastated, because he could not make enough money selling his candles at a competitive price to feed his family and survive. Glim, the candlestick maker, was now out-of-business and had no other skills or ways to earn a livelihood.

So now, dear reader, I'll let you choose the fate of Glim and his family. Perhaps the kind villagers, through a mix of charity and giving Glim odd jobs, kept Glim and his family from becoming destitute. Perhaps Glim tried to farm and maybe he succeeded or maybe his family starved. Perhaps Glim moved his family to Candleton where maybe they needed him but maybe they didn't. Perhaps Glim and his wife fell into the depths of despair and drank themselves to death leaving his daughters to become prostitutes in order to survive. Whatever you choose, dear reader, Glim is probably out-of-luck, and your story for him has been repeated countless times over the ages. Chances are, his level of prosperity is probably going to be lower for the rest of his days than it would've been had the folks at Candleton not invented the new candlestick making process.

But Glim's tough luck is everybody else's good luck. Everybody else gets more candlelight for less. And the villagers in Candleton? They're hugely prosperous, especially at first. After a few years, they split into competing companies which drives their prosperity down a bit but makes candles even cheaper for the surrounding villages.

The benefit of more candlelight turned out to be extraordinary. More people learned to read and that additional knowledge inspired a wave of discoveries and inventions. While more folks like Glim lost their livelihoods, new jobs were created at a rapid pace during this heady time of economic and technological growth. In fact, Glim's grandchildren (perhaps bastards born to his daughters when they turned to prostitution?), opened a printing press and shop and became quite prosperous. Too bad Glim never lived to see it (or perhaps he did, dear reader, in your version of Glim's fate?).

Over the next few generations, electricity was discovered and then harnessed to power a very important invention: the electric light bulb. Which brings us back to Candleton.

Between the time of Glim's misfortune and the invention of the lightbulb, Candleton prospered hugely. A hundred people now worked in the village's three candlestick making factories. Further innovations had increased the number of candlesticks made and lowered the cost. Because of the economies of scales, no other village could compete and Candleton provided the vast majoritiy of candlesticks to all villages for hundreds of leagues in all directions.

But now the electric light bulb, being vastly superior to candles, and lasting months instead of hours, rendered the candlestick making talents of the inhabitants of Candleton useless nearly overnight. Revenue ceased to flow into the village. Unlike the case with Glim, where it was one guy and his family who were directly impacted, and where, at least conceivably Glim's fellow villagers could help sustain him, the residents of Candleton were immediately in extremely dire straits: no revenue, no food, no nothing.

Some of the residents of Candleton left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Some tried to live by hunting. Many, however, became bandits, stealing from travelers and raiding nearby villages. The other villages organized defenses and the clashes with the bandits became increasingly bloody and deadly as all sides became increasingly desperate. After a decade or so, the bandit population dwindled and the area became mostly peaceful once more. Candleton, however, was left in ruins and became a ghost town with the wilderness encroaching on and then devouring the once prosperous village.

That was tough luck for Candleton, it's inhabitants, and the neighboring villages who had to endure the onslaught of desperate bandits, but the surrounding regions were made much better off by the new electric light. The difference between the innovation that hurt Glim and the one that destroyed Candleton is scale. One guy (Glim) losing his livelihood has limited impact. A whole village losing its livelihood is much more catastrophic and much harder for the residents to recover from because there simply aren't the resources from which to build.

With the harnessing of electricity numerous inventions came about and many of these inventions enabled more complex products requiring larger networks of people to create them causing villages to consolidate into towns and towns into cities. In one such city, Carton, thriving automobile and tractor manufacturing companies were created. The tractors made farmers much more productive and the displaced farm workers came to Carton to work in the factories. Jobs were created more rapidly than jobs were destroyed and a large number of jobs required only minimal and/or quickly learned skills. It was a time of great prosperity and economic advancement.

There were over one million inhabitants in Carton, with occupations ranging from miners gathering the raw materials for the cars to school teachers and other supporting professions. People did lose jobs as processes were changed and innovations implemented but such was the prosperity that new endeavors requiring yet more low-skilled workers were being formed all the time, so work was available for all.

In fact, the great prosperity and constant need for labor sowed seeds of problems in the future. The workers realized they could band together and collectively bargain for higher pay, better working conditions, and greater benefits. Management, in return, made the benefits accrue to the future in terms of pensions and health benefits after retirement. The prosperity also enabled management to become lazy and corrupt and they lined their own pockets and did things like hiring incompetent children and nephews.

After a few more decades, the perfect storm hit. Saddled with increasing wages and pension costs from collective bargaining and corruption and incompetence due to human nature, new and distant competitors simultaneously began manufacturing not only cars and tractors, but also steel and other raw inputs. The distant competitors were not saddled with the liabilities of Carton, and ended up having a huge comparative advantage relative to Carton's factories and workers with respect to Carton's products. While this happened over years, Carton and surrounding region was devastated. Hundreds of thousands of people were out of work, poverty and crime skyrocketed, alcoholism and drug abuse decimated the productivity of the potential workforce, and because total revenues declined below subsistence for the population as a whole, and because it was an area for which there was no particular reason for outsiders to invest, people became increasingly desperate.

Along came a leader, Trunald Domp, who realized that while Carton and its people no longer had a comparative advantage in anything productive, they did, like many desperate peoples in the pits of despair who feel they have nothing left to lose, have a yuge comparative advantage in violence. So he organized the people of Carton to produce arms and they attacked the surrounding areas. The bloody war killed tens of thousands of people but eventually Domp and Carton were defeated. The remaining people of Carton fled their collapsing city increasingly desperate to find any means of staving off starvation. The were, of course, met with suspicion and outright hostility, and many were killed on sight. The ones that survived became an underclass and there were frequent violent revolts. Eventually distrust and hatred built to such a fevered pitch that the entire civilization collapsed and everybody died except for a small fraction of the population that fled into the wilderness and formed small groups of farms surrounding small villages. These villages were too small to maintain any sort of advanced economy so they reverted to pre-industrial levels of goods and services.

In one of these villages, a man named Flick was the candlestick maker. It turns out he was a distant descendant of Glim. Flick was proud of his occupation because his candlesticks pushed back the darkness and provided comfort to his fellow villagers.


The bigger the scale of the economic trading networks, the more destabilizing the destructive part of Schumpeter's Creative/Destruction. Tough luck for Glim, but everything was perfectly stable and everybody else was more prosperous. Tougher luck for Candleton and the surrounding areas with the bandits but most people were not only unaffected but also much more prosperous. But toughest luck for all for Carton and the rest of the world, where nobody came out ahead. Once a region is sufficiently devastated, there's little hope for the investment and resources required for recovery. The region itself simply doesn't have the resources and outsiders are unlikely to invest in such an unstable and risky region.

Moral of the story: don't put people in a position where they feel they have nothing left to lose - it won't end well for anybody.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


It's no secret that Trump hates the press (and the press hates him right back). Continuing his adversarial relationship with the press, tonight at his Florida rally, Trump said:
"Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."
Fake news and all that.

Wait! What?

He was quoting Thomas Jefferson written in a correspondence on June 14, 1807!


I guess Presidents and the press have had an adversarial relationship for a really, really long time!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fun With Infinity

Infinity and infinite series and sets are concepts that stretch human intuition to the breaking point and as a result, are kinda fun - for masochists. The particular infinite series I'm gonna look at today is:

S = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + ...

What is the value of S?

The NY Times recently had an article demonstrating that a possible answer is -1/12 (there's a more rigorous proof that shows the answer is indeed -1/12 but is beyond what I can show on a blog). I know that some of you studiously avoid the NY Times and therefore might not have seen it, so I'll duplicate it here with a little more explanation.

There's only one somewhat non-intuitive bit to the proof, so let me address that before I get started. The best illustration of this bit of non-intuition is called Hilbert's Paradox of the Grand Hotel:
Consider a hypothetical hotel with a countably infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied. One might be tempted to think that the hotel would not be able to accommodate any newly arriving guests, as would be the case with a finite number of rooms... 
Suppose a new guest arrives and wishes to be accommodated in the hotel. We can (simultaneously) move the guest currently in room 1 to room 2, the guest currently in room 2 to room 3, and so on, moving every guest from his current room n to room n+1. After this, room 1 is empty and the new guest can be moved into that room.
What this demonstrates is that if I have two infinite sets (such as rooms and guests) with a one-to-one correspondence between each pair of elements in the sets, I can shift over all of the elements of one of the infinite sets, leaving one element without a corresponding element in the other set (room 1 in the example above), yet have all of the other elements of both sets still have a one-to-one correspondence.

Okay, we need to find the values of some infinite series. The first one is:

S1 = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + ...

What is the value of S1? To find an answer, we add it to itself and do the hotel room operation above (in other words, shift over one copy of the series).

2 * S1 = S1 + S1 =  1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + ...
                  +     1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - ...
                  = 1 - 0 + 0 - 0 + 0 - 0 + ...

or, 2 * S1 = 1
therefore, S1 = 1/2

The second series we need is:

S2 = 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 - 6 ...

And we start with the same infinite shift operation that we used on the previous series:

2 * S2 = S2 + S2 =  1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 - 6 + ...
                  +     1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 - ...
                  = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + ...

But that's the same as the 1st series that we already know an answer to:

2 * S2 = S1 = 1/2
therefore, S2 = 1/4

So now let's work on our original series. We'll subtract S2 to help us find an answer:

S - S2 =  1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + ...
        -[1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 - 6 + ... ]
        = 0 + 4 + 0 + 8 + 0 +12 ..
        = 4 * [ 1 + 2 + 3 + ... ]

The right hand side is now 4 * S so rewriting we have:

S - S2 = 4 * S

or (subtracting S from both sides)

- S2 = 3 * S

Since we know S2 = 1/4, we have

- 1/4 = 3 * S


S = -1/12


1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + ... = -1/12

This sort of proof, where the sum of an ever increasing series is a negative fraction, makes some people's heads explode. I hope you're not one of them. It's just a little fun with infinity!

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Bug or Feature?

Congrats to Betsy DeVos, confirmed as the Secretary of Education by literally the narrowest margin possible (Vice-President Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate).

One of the charges leveled against her was that she's completely unqualified to be the Secretary of Education and utterly clueless about what it takes to keep the education bureaucracy afloat.

I can't say I disagree. But is that a bug or a feature?

To me it seems like the entire education edifice is in catastrophically poor condition with kids not being very well educated and/or prepared for life as an adult even though funding has hugely increased over the last few decades. Perhaps a truly incompetent secretary of education will damage the system enough that it simply collapses and then it can be rebuilt from scratch. Especially with online and other tools improving at a rapid rate, catastrophic destruction of the whole thing may be the best way to ultimately improve it.

So, as I say, congrats, but I'm not sure if I wish her good luck or bad luck. A little incompetence coupled with some bad luck may be just what we need right now!

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Hypocrisy on Parade

The NYT runs an intermittent series under the heading of The Stone; it purports to be "a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless."

I have previously (here and here) rubbished articles for grievously offending my logical sensibilities. Unfortunately, the comments threads were of no help in deciding whether the deficiency was mine or some contemporary philosophers and other thinkers.

Once again, it is time to reach for the Rubbisher.

Peter Singer is something of an enfant terrible: his niche in philosophy is to take a seemingly reasonable position, and extrapolate it to where shock and opprobrium is sure to follow.

Here are some examples:

Abortion: In Practical Ethics, Singer argues in favour of abortion rights on the grounds that fetuses are neither rational nor self-aware, and can therefore hold no preferences. As a result, he argues that the preference of a mother to have an abortion automatically takes precedence. In sum, Singer argues that a fetus lacks personhood.

Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood—"rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"—and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living."

Speciesism: Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings.

[On the basis that a being able to think of itself as existing over time], one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.

Altruism: A minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of one's spare resources to make the world a better place.

These positions run the gamut from the apparently awful to the seemingly benign. I think they each rest on at least some flim-flammery, by either ignoring inescapable elements of reality — time, say — question begging, or failing to take an argument to where it demands being taken.

But no matter, that isn't what had me casting about for my Rubbisher.

It has come to some degree of notice that Peter Singer is spending significant resources caring for his Alzheimer's crippled mother. For most of us, more or less unburdened by a surfeit of philosophical posing, uhh, thinking, this is a no brainer. However, for Singer, this is clearly verboten, whether on the grounds of altruism or speciesism, at the very least.

Yet, despite his admonitions to the rest of us, he does so, nonetheless.

The philosopher Peter Singer was once attacked for contradicting himself. Singer advanced an ethical theory in which the most worthwhile thing was complex conscious life and feeling, and did not shy away from the logical consequence that the life of a severely mentally impaired human was worth less than that of a chicken. Journalists then discovered that Singer’s mother had Alzheimer’s and that he chose to spend his money taking care of her rather than helping chickens.

They called Singer a hypocrite and The New Republic even ran a cover with a picture of an addled old woman with a walker and the headline “Other People’s Mothers.”

Failing to notice the answer on offer, the author, by definition an esteemed contemporary philosopher or other thinker on issues both timely and timeless goes straight to missing the screamingly obvious:

So, how bad is contradicting yourself?

In philosophy, since Socrates (a troll before there ever was an internet), the answer has been “very bad.” If you find you believe two inconsistent propositions you need to do something about it. You owe a theory.

No, Eric Kaplan, this isn't contradicting yourself, this is allowing yourself that which you prohibit others. There's a fancy word for it, often improperly used, but not here: hypocrisy. Contradiction, entirely unrelated, involves having taken a position, subsequently taken on board discordant information, then reversing, or significantly changing your position; not just for yourself, but for everyone else, too.

Peter Singer has done nothing of the kind. But let's let that slide, so that Kaplan can have his say:

Part of the reason this mother/chicken puzzle is so hard is it runs up against two contradictory beliefs we have about human beings:

a) Humans are meaningful; the things they do make sense

b) Humans are things with causes like anything else — as meaningless as forest fires.

I could burden you with further pull quotes, but I won't because the chase that needs cutting to is right here. Kaplan, and on his behalf, Singer, have skipped right over a fatal error.

What do you think it is? Hint: it is contained in a single word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is Trump the New FDR?

One thing that caught my eye when thinking about Trump is the following (via Arnold Kling's askblog):
Often he acted not by following any grand design but by sheer instinct, hastily improvising. . .He deliberately fostered disarray among his own people. . .Disorder, delays, and muddle were frequently the watchwords; problems were met principally by improvisation, not long-term strategy.
When I read that, I thought the writer (Jay Winik), was writing about Trump. It turns out, however, that he was writing about FDR. And now that I think about it, FDR and Trump have a lot of similarities in addition to those noted above:

  • Use of Communications Technology: FDR pioneered the effective use  by a President of that cutting edge technology of the day, radio, while Trump pioneered the use of Twitter.
  • Infrastructure Projects: Both were/are big supported of massive government supported projects, FDR via the WPA, Trump, for example, wants to build a massive wall separating Mexico and the United States.
  • Wealth: Both were/are extremely wealthy, yet appealed politically to the common/deplorable man/woman.
  • Great Britain: FDR was allied with Great Britain, Trump wants to form and even tighter alliance with Great Britain.
  • Russia: FDR allied with the communists in Russia to defeat Hitler; Trump was allegedly helped in his campaigning by the Russians.
  • Political Opposition: Both were/are profoundly hated by their political opposition.
Many have noted that Trump is an anomaly by being the first person to win the presidency after never having held political office, not to mention having people of both parties against him as well as the media and being outspent 2 to 1 by his opponent.

But he still, by definition, has to have some past president that he's most similar to. I think that past president is FDR. What do y'all think?

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Boundaries of Morality

One common argument made for an ideology or narrative is that it's the only moral narrative; all others are immoral. That argument pretty much never convinces anybody because almost everybody thinks they're moral. Indeed, even violent criminals (including murderers) think themselves moral:
The reasons behind violence are varied, but a common belief is that criminals act from a breakdown of morals.
But now, researchers in California claim most acts of violence come from a very different impulse - the desire to do the right thing.
The article calls the study "controversial" but it fits very closely with the observations of my lifetime. For example, I've never once yet met anyone who's said, "I'm a totally immoral asshole and I'm cool with that!" Don't get me wrong, I've met plenty of people who I think are totally immoral assholes, but they don't believe that. Nobody ever believes that.

Another article provides more detail:
Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations. [...]
It would be easier to live in a world where perpetrators believe that violence is wrong and engage in it anyway. That is not the world we live in.
It's not that murderers didn't get that "Thou Shalt Not Kill" memo that was delivered to Moses' iPad (or however he got it) all those years ago. Rather it's that the commandments are more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual commandments (to paraphrase Captain Barbosa in Pirates of the Caribbean).

Many things bound the very simple "Thou Shalt Not Kill" commandment. One key boundary is that it only applies to your tribe or nation (group of tribes). There were constant wars during the time that the commandments were developed and a great deal of God's glory in the oldest religious texts comes from all the foes of the tribe that He slew or that He assisted tribe in slaying. For most of man's time on earth, the tribe was the boundary of morality. As long as it didn't hurt the tribe, anything could be done to those outside the tribe. It was shameful to do anything that hurt the tribe but not at all shameful to do things to those outside the tribe - even including murder.

When I was a child roughly a half-century ago, I had the impression that the nation of the United States was what I would now essentially call a gigantic tribe bound together by the Constitution and other ideological constructs. As such, the commandments were to be applied as best possible to everybody in the entire nation/tribe.

Globalism's primary tenet is that everybody in the world should be treated the same and that national boundaries are artificial and contrived and should be weakened and ignored as much as possible. While that sounds ideal, I suspect it is turning out to be disastrous.

Why? Because I believe most people need to part of at least one tribe. What I've observed is that the relentless onslaught of globalization has been accompanied by the fracturing of the citizens of the United States into a group of tribes that are essentially in a cold war with each other and I believe that it's a war that will turn quite hot before this century ends. The tribes are grouped by races and genders and status and geography. The tribes have adopted narratives that are impossible to reconcile yet are very, very strongly believed by members of the tribes.

The narratives are irreconcilable because each tribe believes their narrative to be absolutely moral and that every other narrative is totally evil. I'm now going to repeat one of the quotes above:
Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.
From ISIS to Black Lives Matter to White Extremists to Progressives to Libertarians to Conservatives to Coastal Elites to Heartland Workers, etc., we are reverting to tribalism and we will revert to horrendous violence, not because we are immoral, but because of "perceived moral rights and obligations."

Happy New Year!