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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Individual Versus Collective

When I was 16, I was a communist, or at least very impressed by communism (I never signed on to a communist party or organization). I still consider "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" to be the single most powerful non-religious idea of all time and it's very simple and easy to understand as well. Over time, as I observed the world, read more about economics and politics, and interacted with others who had communist leanings, I started to become disillusioned with it. In 1983, I visited Czechoslovakia and Hungary (while still communist), and my disillusionment became complete (the folks in those countries were clearly very, very miserable). Talking to socialists and seeing communism in action were great cures for any affinity I might have maintained for that ideology. It was both the utter lack of opportunity and the completely lack of freedom that I found overwhelmingly problematic. Marxist communism is a very powerful idea, but it turned out to be a powerfully bad idea.

Since then, I've been "libertarian leaning" as libertarianism directly addresses both the opportunity and freedom issues of communism. Over time, interacting with libertarians, for example at Cafe Hayek, my enthusiasm for the libertarian ideology has lessened. I've concluded that I'd probably like all of these ideologies a lot better if they didn't involve people - people just always ruin everything! :-)

Communism is a form of collectivism, where collectivism identifies the collective as the entity of primary importance and the individual having less importance and perhaps way, way, waaaaay less importance.

On the other hand, the libertarian holds the individual sacrosanct and the collective as non-existent other than a simple, but utterly unimportant, grouping of the individuals. Because of this, the State/government are considered to be necessary evils at best and more often as unnecessary evils foist upon the unsuspecting masses by corrupt and power hungry politicians and bureaucrats. From this perspective, most actions of the collective and State are held to be morally wrong. Since the individual is sacrosanct, anything he produces is his so taxation is theft or taxation is slavery. Almost all restrictions on individual behavior, for example trade, are considered abhorrent, leading to slogans like protectionism is robbery.

My flippant response to the libertarian slogans above is that if taxation is theft or slavery and protectionism is robbery, then theft, slavery and robbery must not be inherently immoral so I ought to start engaging in such practices more often. Slightly less flippant is that there's a reason we have separate words like "taxation"; trying to equate them with words whose definitions they possibly have something in common is, to me, an attempt at a sort of Orwellian double-plus-good libertarian Newspeak. I mean, okay, but just trying to redefine words isn't particularly convincing to me.

But it is partly a matter of perspective. If the individual is sacrosanct, then it does seem to lead to slogans like taxation is slavery.  Since such slogans seem absurd to me, I've concluded that the principle of the sacrosanct individual is also absurd.

My 17-year-old daughter is extremely tenderhearted - scarily so some days. For example, if she sees an ant walking across the counter, she'll catch it, bring it outside, and release it. I haven't had the heart to break it to her that an individual ant cannot survive (and certainly has no purpose) without access to its colony and by removing the ant from the ant trail it's on, it has been effectively removed from its colony and is a dead ant walking. I'm afraid if I tell her that, she'll stress out every time she sees an ant inside the house; she doesn't like bugs so she won't want to just let it be and she won't want to cause its death by removing it from its ant trail. Yup, life has many tough dilemmas.

An individual ant can't survive without its colony. Can an individual human survive without a collective? If you were dropped off in a random wilderness area with nothing (perhaps not even clothes) and you weren't allowed to interact with any other people or utilize anything made by anybody else, how long would you survive? Even if you had extensive survival training? How long until you cut yourself and the infection killed you? How long until something you drank or ate made you so sick that you died? How long until a series of storms caused hypothermia? Etc.?

Personally, I'd be dead in short order. I've done enough wilderness camping to know that even with modern gear, it's not trivial surviving for moderate to long periods of time. My guess is that maybe 1% of people could survive a year with training, maybe 1 in 1,000 could survive 10 years. Eventually, one of the many things that could go wrong would catch up to almost everybody. There's safety in numbers and there's support in numbers.

But now let's add the last wrinkle. Not only do you have to survive, but you have to have a mate and have at least two children and have the children survive until adulthood. Without any help from anybody else. Ever. All I can say is "good luck with that!"

In other words, just like an individual ant isn't really something independent, neither is an individual human. Humans evolved while being part of collectives (tribes in primitive times). Humans' ancestors evolved while being part of collectives (tribes and packs). A few humans might be able to survive as completely independent entities but it is, at best, not optimal.

Humans are more complicated than ants, and, as a result, our collectives can be much more flexible and varied than an ant colony. We can have tribes and nations and states and empires and commonwealths and subcultures and all kinds of political and economic structures and structures within structures and each individual can be part of numerous collectives and those collective can be overlapping. The possibilities are endless and dizzying. And fortunately, unlike the ant that can only belong to one specific collective, humans can, to some degree, pick and choose which collectives they wish to belong to.

We're all part of collectives. Within each of our collectives we are bound by loyalty, contract, agreement or something like that to others in the collective to some degree. By definition, we are "bound" by "bonds" and "bondage" is composed of a set of "bonds." Furthermore, "bondage" and "slavery" are very closely associated.

It's not taxation that's slavery, but rather the circumstances of human existence that requires us to be bound to others in what might actually be slavery (slavery/serfdom has been one of the most common forms of human existence for all of history and prehistory) or what in a free(ish) society might be termed co-slavery where we're bound to each other, where I own you (you have obligations to me) and you own me (I have obligations to you) though indirectly through the collective.

To me, this makes the collective primary and the individual secondary. My starting point is that the largest and most powerful collective of which we are part actually does completely own us and has the right to all of our output and the right to control each and every aspect of our behavior and lives. I'll get to why this isn't nearly as abhorrent as it sounds in a bit so please don't freak out quite yet. Well, you can freak out a little, but please keep reading. :-)

With the collective owning us, taxation is neither slavery (we're already owned by the collective) nor is it theft. In fact, what isn't taxed is basically given to us by the beneficence of the collective. Protectionism isn't robbery at all but rather some non-protected trade is allowed due to the kindness and lenience of the collective.

While I'm serious about taxation not being slavery using the logic above, I am kidding about the collective having "kindness" or other positive human attributes. A 300,000,000+ person collective cannot have human attributes such as kindness - at least not in any way that an individual human can understand.

But a collective does have one attribute that is understandable by humans - Will to Power.
Each form of life has a particular constitution, with its instincts having different strengths, such that certain conditions will favour its form of life. This brings different types of life into conflict with each other, as each wants different conditions to prevail: ‘life itself in its essence means appropriating, injuring, overpowering those who are foreign and weaker’ ... though this language suggests that such activity is immoral, when it is simply a function of being alive.
A collective is a life form, though not one comprehensible to the individuals who make up the collective (similar to a brain being incomprehensible to a neuron). Its "instincts" will push it to evolve in order to adapt so that "certain conditions will favour its form" enabling it to succeed at "overpowering those [collectives] who are ... weaker." There are some subtleties, but this is very similar to survival of the fittest applied to collectives instead of lifeforms as described by Nietzsche. In other words, collectives compete and evolve. This has certainly happened throughout history and isn't much of a surprise.

How does a collective succeed in surviving and exerting its Will to Power? How does it manage to fend off and even "overpower" competing collectives? Well, that's the rub. It depends on the collective and the environment within which the collective exists. Evolution doesn't have a direction but is really always co-evolution, with each entity evolving relative to the current state of all other entities. Even worse, except for some very small and very well defined collectives (for example, a company that operates a restaurant), the collective and the environment within which it operates has complexity far, far, far beyond the capability of human understanding.

The collective that we call the United States of America is one result of billions of years of biological evolution and tens of thousands of years of cultural and political evolution of homo sapiens in the context of uncountable events around the world and the context of its North American location. It could not have been designed by people and people could not have and can not, from a blank start, design anything better.

Given that I believe that the collective that is the United States owns us and has absolute power over us, why do we have any freedom at all? One answer is that while the collective owns us, we also own the collective and can therefore influence it. However, I don't think that's the main answer.

The main answer is simply that collectives with free(ish) individuals in today's global environment end up being the most powerful collectives. Across the globe, freedom and power per capita are closely related. Within limits, freeing individuals to do what they think best seems to allow for innovation and productivity and those two things are an important part of the basis of increasing power.

Our prosperity and our rights have evolved to this point primarily for that reason, in my opinion. Not because of some intangible moral arguments about peace and love and non-aggression and what's right and what's good. Not because the individual is sacrosanct or because of god given human rights. While there is feedback (the ideas had to come from interacting individuals) and it is a bit of a virtuous cycle, ultimately we have our rights and freedoms because they brought us power and those opposing collectives who didn't give those rights and freedoms to their members lost in the battle of Will to Power. Are there other factors? Of course, but I think this is a very important one.

For additional power and sustainability, should the collective allow more freedom or less freedom? More regulation or less regulation? More rights or fewer rights? I have my guesses but I don't really know and I think I'll leave those guesses for other posts.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Free Market Morality

In a column for The Stone ("[An NYT] forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless), philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan posed a set of questions for free-market moralists.

She prefaces them by juxtaposing John Rawls A Theory of Justice" against Robert Novick's subsequent Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

At the risk of doing unintentional violence to both arguments, here they are in summary:

Theory of Justice: Hypothesize an original position which requires devising principles of justice from behind a "veil of ignorance". That is, no foreknowledge of one's place in society. Because of that ignorance, subsequent principles anyone derives will be inherently fair, because the veil of ignorance prevent privileging any class of people.

Because there is no way of knowing a priori one's position in society, such principles of justice will recognize the risk of ending up badly on the other side of the veil: each member has an equal claim on societies goods; natural attributes, because they are down to luck, do not change this claim; therefore, the only allowable inequalities are those benefitting the worst-off members of society.

In reaction to Rawls, Novick argued for a minimal state (minarchist libertarianism) limited to protection of private property and mutual individual liberty. Such a state, by definition, could not extend to the sort of redistributionist policies inherent in Rawl's theory. According to Nozick, "[any distribution of wealth] is just if it arises from a prior just distribution by legitimate means". For our purposes, all voluntary exchanges, are, by definition, legitimate.

Consequently there is no a priori pattern (e.g., Marx's "from each according to ability, to each according to need") to which a just distribution will conform; whatever distribution results is just to the extent that it results from voluntary exchanges. Yes, there will be people who inherit wealth they didn't themselves earn, just as there will be those born into penury through no fault of their own, just as some will be born with more talent than others — which is really inheritance in a different form.

Moreover, because talents and motivations vary so much between people, no Rawlsian patterned principle of justice will persist without the state continually interfering in individual decisions.

Now, having walked the tightrope, probably falling off both sides, between tl;dr and summarizing Rawls and Nozick beyond recognition, here is the gist of Srinivasan's article: refuting Nozick through four questions:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

I'm going with yes, yes, yes and yes, her ill-considered hypotheticals — which would be an insult to any serious forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless, although The Stone has never shown any sign of being such — notwithstanding.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Blinded by The Narrative

The NYT recently lamented the plight of Chinese women looking for marriage:

BEIJING — Every evening, Liang Xuemeng goes online to read the latest postings from Ayawawa, one of China’s most popular advice columnists.

Ayawawa is the online name of Yang Bingyang, one of several online advice dispensers who have won celebrity in China by tapping into urban women’s anxieties about finding a man to marry.

Those who do not have a husband by the age of 27 are routinely branded as “leftover women,” with diminishing value in the dating market.

Which is an odd state of affairs, considering the unnatural gender imbalance in China: 12 women for every 10 men.

Here is where the narrative rears its ugly feminist head:

Many of these “leftover women” are well-educated urban professionals in a society where men prefer women who are younger and less successful than themselves.

While also failing to see the inherent contradiction: Wymyns, spirited, fierce and independent, are helpless in the face of men's preferences. Besides, there is the rather glaring spectre of the author flinging herself upon a conclusion. How do she know that it isn't the other way around? China is a society where women prefer men who are older and more successful than themselves. 

You know, like pretty much every society ever anywhere.

Then, within the paragraph, without noticing, she rubbishes her own article:

The surplus of bachelors shows up mostly on the other end of the spectrum, poor rural men, prompting the state-run All-China Women’s Federation to urge women to lower their standards, lest they, too, end up as “leftovers.”

These advice columnists are far more cognizant of evolution than the NYT:

The columnists have their critics, who accuse them of reinforcing gender stereotypes, but the columnists counter that they are simply acknowledging reality.

“Our world has been hijacked by political correctness,” Ms. Yang said. “I’m criticized for telling the truth about the differences between men and women.”

“A man’s [Mate Value]. is determined by his age, height, looks, wealth, I.Q., emotional quotient, sexual capacity and willingness to make a long-term commitment.” The eight elements in a woman’s M.V. are her “age, looks, height, bra cup size, weight, academic degrees, personality and family background.”

It's almost as if evolution didn't stop at the neckline, and that maybe, just maybe, gender isn't a social construct.

Naaahh. Can't be. That isn't The Party Line.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Simple Solution to a Thorny Problem?

First Rule of Dismantling a Nuclear Power Plant brought to mind the problem of nuclear waste:

Waste that is too radioactive for treatment gets sealed for safekeeping, and the containers redefine strength. They must last at least 50 years and be able to survive a drop-test from three stories up. The canisters, made from cast metal or heavy concrete, can cost more than $1 million apiece.

No problem, right? All that stuff will go to Yucca Mountain, which we US taxpayers have spent billions developing.



Perhaps the problem isn't as hard as it is made to be.

Per the quote above, the dismantled radioactive debris is already confined. We could do the same for exhausted fuel rods and the like: vitrification to contain the waste.

Then load the various containers and vitrified waste onto ships, and haul it all to the subduction zone off the Aleutian islands. Once there, lower the waste blocks by cable until they are some distance above the bottom so that when released, they embed themselves in the sea floor sediment.

Already contained, the sediment will provide even more containment. And since the stuff was dropped into a subduction zone, it will ultimately return to the Earth's mantle, it will get recycled.

Over to you, Clovis. Why is that a dumb idea?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tribute to a Fallen Blogger

Howard was a father, a husband, and a friend to Bret and others who met him in life. But to me Howard was, above all, a blogger.

Not knowing him in flesh and bones, nor knowing anything about his life other than what he disclosed in this blog, I get that odd feeling of mourning for someone I did not actually know.

Yet, by the many posts and comments I've read from him, as a regular in this blog for the last 4 years or so, I can't help but feel an empty virtual space.

Other than our shared spacetime interval in this pale blue dot we live in, we also shared this strange habit of spending time in a blog, arguing with people we may never see, exchanging bits and thoughts for the sake of God knows what.

Blogs themselves are dying away, soon to be a relic in the ever changing and growing network of things.

In a few years, all our posts, comments, fights and profound insights in display here will be reduced to a particular state of electrons and molecules, stored in the basements of the NSA and other few memory holes designed to keep track of the activity way back then.

It will be less than tears in rain.

Interesting Quote

It's hard for me to believe anyone could write the following sentence for any reason, but it does indeed exist in a published and apparently much discussed book:
In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton's laws as "Newton's rape manual" as it is to call them "Newton's mechanics"? 
[1] Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 113.

I would find it hysterically funny if it didn't point to what I think is a severe sickness in western culture.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


I've been informed that my good friend and co-blogger Howard committed suicide today. I talked to him last month and while I knew he wasn't in a particularly happy place, I had no idea of just how unhappy a place he must've been in. I regret that I didn't call him more often - maybe it would've made a difference.

I will sorely miss him and I'm sure the rest of his friends and family will as well. He was truly a Great Guy in all senses of those two words.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Perspective on Misstatements

In the comment section of another post, Hey Skipper asked:
...what is the appropriate thing to do with regard to a serial liar like Harry?
Personally, I'm not all that concerned with people making misstatements and lies, intentional or unintentional. I usually either ignore them or point out that the statements seem to be untrue and then move on. I don't know anybody who has never stated something false for whatever reason in their entire life. And if anyone states something that's false, I still appreciate it being pointed out, since I can't possibly keep track of all the statements that could be made about all subjects.

But my strong preference is to leave the record intact. That's worth far more to me than having some "lies" eliminated (which, in fact, has no value at all to me).

One of the reasons I really like this group of commentators is because of your diverse set of opinions which gives me the opportunity to understand why people think what they do. I like everybody's participation, and perhaps especially Harry's. Why? Because his viewpoint is by far the most different than mine and I've learned a lot by studying what he's written - including, and perhaps especially, the false statements. He clearly believes what he writes and if you believe something, you may be mistaken, but you're not really lying, or it's a class of lie I can easily forgive.

I understand his perspective and those like him far better than if he was not a participant. That's one of the main reasons this blog was started and why I've maintained it all of these years. It's certainly NOT because I expect readers to suddenly see things my way.

I realize I've been a bit distracted (by divorce) over the last few months and the debates here have gotten a bit out of hand lately. I wish I could promise to do better in the near future, but unfortunately I can't make that promise (I don't want to lie! :-) and I have to hope than y'all can continue to participate and learn from each other. I will keep writing no matter what and my posting and commenting pace will probably pick up eventually.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Trump Opens Americans' Eyes

As has been noted incessantly, Trump has a number of serious character flaws. Like the vast majority of politicians, he has a narcissistic personality. Like the vast majority of politicians, he's a lying conman. He intensely erratic. And so forth.

Everybody knew all that before the election, yet he still got lots of votes.

And I'm (mostly) glad he did - Trump has wildly exceeded my expectations.


Because Trump has instigated events that have brought crystalline clarity to the fact that the vast majority of the elite, including politicians, bureaucrats, news media, academia, entertainment, athletes, etc. are self-serving, lying, narcissistic, nasty people who'd go to any length to destroy anyone who gets in their way (including Trump).

And vast swaths of American citizens, especially independents and the moderate right and a bit of the moderate left, have had their eyes opened to this corruption for the first time ever and they are astounded, dismayed, and mostly still in shock. But they will recover, and then the political debates, while unfortunately ever more vitriolic and even violent, will also, I think, be more realistic, if not about the topics of debate, but at least about the elite.

And that's a good thing.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The NYT Repeats Itself: First as Silly, Second as Fabulist

Back in 2011, Congresswoman Giffords was shot, along with many others, the NYT and Krugman, to name just a few prominent examples, pinned this on GOP eliminationist rhetoric.

No need for facts when there is a narrative to service, apparently.

That was bad enough the first time around.

From todays NYT, America's Lethal Politics:

Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.

Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right.

Seriously? Are you kidding me? Was it not within the last week that Kathy Griffin held an effigy of Trump's severed head? And that is just the most recent of examples practically beyond numbering.

The source of the NYT's ignorance/difficulties with the truth has a name: David Leonhardt, the NYT's opinion section editor. From today's NYT email summary:

In our highly polarized country, political empathy is too scarce. Whether we’re on the left or the right, we tend to have a hard time seeing the world as the other side sees it.

So on the day of a senseless, politically motivated attempt at mass murder, I went back in time to read a column about an equally senseless, politically motivated attempt at mass murder — but one that evidently came from the other side of the political spectrum.

It was written by my colleague Ross Douthat, whom I consider a friend but with whom (you probably won’t be surprised to hear) I disagree on many issues. The column appeared in 2011, soon after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona. She was attacked by Jared Lee Loughner, who had expressed conspiratorial right-wing views.

Odds of the NYT acknowledging their intellectual decrepitude, nil; of printing my comment objecting to their decrepitude, not much better.

No wonder the NYT has been called Pravda On the Hudson.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Trump Accidentally Coins a New Word

Covfefe: ('Co-VEH-Feh') adj. The state one finds oneself as the Ambien you took 20 minutes ago when you got into bed interacts with the two glasses of wine you had for dinner, resulting in late night half-finished or nonsensical social media postings.

Example: "he was completely covfefe when he wrote that tweet"


Also, an excellent name for a dog.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Horrifically Dogmatic?

Someone asked Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek if he would oppose any sort of free trade by giving the following example:

Don — I wonder about “unconditionally.” Would you make an exception for trade in goods produced by slavery? For example, would you object even to a law barring the import of products manufactured in Soviet- or Nazi-era slave labor camps? 

Don's response?
I would not make that exception. [...] 
Oh sure, I cut the explanation out of why Don wouldn't make an exception, but is there any explanation that could really justify that response?

Not for me (but perhaps I'm the one being dogmatic?).

Perhaps I should seek out some somewhat less dogmatic libertarians to read...

Who wants to live forever?

At my Live at Wembley CD, Freddie Mercury asks the public, right before singing the music of our title above:

Also, I suppose we’re not... We're not bad for four aging queens, are we?

Freddie was to die five years later, by a HIV induced pneumonia.

There are far too many sci-fi books, not to mention more serious literature, reflecting upon what would be a future without death. We look intent on making sci-fi real, as our attempts to cheat death get ever more serious and profitable, as witnessed by those sprawling biotech companies near Bret's home.

De Grey, our bearded main character in this last linked article, looks to believe that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old has already been born:

"Oh absolutely, yeah,” de Grey assures me. “It’s highly likely.”

Or rather, he does not, as the other people working with him assure us:

"I have to tell you Aubrey has two hats,” she says, smiling. “One he wears for the public when he’s raising funds. The other hat is when he talks to a scientist like me, where he doesn’t really believe that anyone will live to 1,000 years old. No.”

Actually, Aubrey had in past raised the eyebrows of significant researchers in the field, who once wrote an article acusing him of selling pseudoscience:

In 2006, the magazine MIT Technology Review published a paper called “Life Extension Pseudoscience and the SENS Plan.” The nine co-authors, all senior gerontologists, took stern issue with de Grey’s position.

But happily we learn they worked it out, for the greater good of science. Or better yet, for the greater good of funding for science:

More than a decade later, Tissenbaum now sees SENS in a more positive light. “Kudos to Aubrey,” she says diplomatically. “The more people talking about aging research, the better. I give him a lot of credit for bringing attention and money to the field. When we wrote that paper, it was just him and his ideas, no research, nothing. But now they are doing a lot of basic, fundamental research, like any other lab.”

It may be that Aubrey was getting skepticism from an older generation of researchers who saw his popular proeminence with a bit of envy.

Or it may be that, as evidenced by Aubrey's alledged two hats, science these days is a lot more about funding than it is about truth. Has Aubrey's lab turned more "like any other lab", or has any other lab turned more like Aubrey's?

That's a good question for that one-thousand year friend of ours to ponder, in his centuries of boredom.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What a Time to be Alive

For the older generations, it may be deja vu.

To me, it is mesmerizing to see those green t-shirts in the streets:

Not too far from my home, yesterday.

In the background, the Congress, a place I often visit to show around for friends coming to Brasilia the first time. It may be the most famous Oscar Niemeyer's work.

In the foreground, not the police.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The American Unfriend

My son has a little pal at his kindergarten whose father is American. The mother works at our Ministry of Foreign Relations, and they married while she was serving in the USA.

It naturally did happen that we made friendship with them. Mr. American looks to be a bit of a loner, but maybe because he did not ever learn fluent Portuguese, he looked happy to chat with people speaking his mother language.

We used to meet for dinner or some weekend program now and then, for almost two years, until last November.

In previous conversations about the American elections, while Trump looked to have no chance at all of winning, I used to jokingly tell Mr. American that I very much wanted him to win. It would make the next four years far too much entertaining, it was my argument. Though I am not quite sure he ever got it as a joke, for he used to answer in negative and serious ways about such a terrible hypothesis.

Then Trump won. And the next first time I met Mr. American at our kids school, I've got the strangest reaction I've ever had from a former friend. He looked at my eyes, a mix of bewilderment and fear in his eyes, and told me to not ever - ever - talk to him again. Just like that.

I was taken aback for a while. Not only because I could not see any reason for that, but because of that look he gave me. It was a very strange experience.

Then I understood: it was about Trump. He thought I was a Trumpite, which ironically, I am very much not.

I tell this little story above to ask my American friends here (friends? I don't know anymore with Americans :-), how is it going up there? The last two weeks of the news cycle have been spinning ever so fast about Trump 'scandals', I wonder how are people of different opinions interacting. Or am I the only one being unfriended?

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Is Technology Hiding Political Decay?

Perhaps most or all of you had seen this, but I had not. From Arnold Kling almost a decade ago:
Mencius Moldbug proposes a thought experiment.
Imagine that there had been no scientific or technical progress at all during the 20th century. That the government of 2008 had to function with the technical base of 1908..

[Conversely, imagine] what would become of 1908 America, if said continent magically popped up in the mid-Atlantic in 2008, and had to modernize and compete in the global economy - tell a different story. I am very confident that Old America would be the world's leading industrial power within the decade, and I suspect it would attract a lot of immigration from New America. 
...if we imagine the 20th century without technical progress, we see an almost pure century of disaster... 
a decaying system of government has been camouflaged and ameliorated by the advance of technology.
That is, today our elderly are affluent, our poor are more likely to be obese than hungry, and so on, in spite of rather than because of changes in the role of government. Obviously, that point of view is debatable. Still, if you had to choose between 21st-century technology alongside 19th-century government institutions vs. 21st-century government institutions alongside 19th-century technology, you would choose the former, no? If nothing else, the delta in technology is more strongly positive than the delta in government institutions, even if you disagree with Moldbug that the delta for the latter is negative.
Moldbug considers himself a reactionary (way farther right than a conservative) so he would certainly consider the non-technological aspects of last century a disaster.

There's no doubt in my mind that if technology hadn't advanced in the last century or so that white males in the United States would have become far, far worse off, so I'm sure than I'm unable to have a unbiased opinion on this. But from my horribly biased perspective, it does look to me like technological advancements have covered up for a net negative for nearly every group in every region of every country. Without those technological advancements, the world would be a really grim place right now for just about everybody.

It also seems that the wealth created by the technological advancement has enabled us to damage the cultural fabrics of the world without suffering the full effects and, as a result, has left the world in an unfortunately fragile state.

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.