Monday, October 31, 2011

Fatuous Forecasting

Look, economic forecasting is necessary. People need to act now in situations where the best decision depends largely or entirely on future conditions. So, go ahead, make a guess! Publish it if you want, and even ask others to pay for it if they will. But let's not pretend to accuracy we can't possibly achieve:

"Some cities will continue to fade, however. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.'s forecast is for a 9.2% drop through next June and another 6.7% the 12 months after that."

Don't you love that ".7" on the forecast for two years from now? If these folks can get within two or three percent for a two-year-out forecast, they are doing a fantastic job.

Did You Know...

that Neil Young once replaced Rick James in a band?!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh-oh, New England

Rod Dreher asks what you would recommend to someone visiting your area for ten days who wants a sense of what is like. I offer the following tour of New England, starting from the NY border:


1) Drive on 35 into Ridgefield, CT. Park and walk the downtown.

2) Drive down 7 to the Merritt Parkway. Take it east to New Haven. Drive to the top of West Rock and enjoy the view.

3) Drive down Whalley Avenue to the city center. Take a walk around the green and the Yale campus. Get some pizza. Head east out of the city and stay at a B&B in Stony Creek.


4) Take off east again on 1-95. Stop off in Mystic and visit the seaport.

5) Continue to Rhode Island. Tour the mansions in Newport. If it is summer, go for a swim at Horseneck Beach just across the line in Massachusetts. Stay in New Bedford.


6) In the morning visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Then up to Boston. Tour the commons and Beacon Hill. Catch a Celtics or Red Sox game. Stay at a hotel in the city center.


7) Up the coast to Maine. Drive as far as Portland and stay over night there. Eat some lobster.

8) Turn inland and head towards Lake Winipesauke in New Hampshire. Tour the lake shore. Go for a swim if it is summer.


9) Drive up Mt. Washington.

10) Drive west to Hanover. Tour the Dartmouth campus. Stay at a B&B in the Connecticut River Valley.


11) South, down the Connecticut River Valley, to Augustus Saint Gaudens' house and gardens in Cornish.

12) Head northwest to Woodstock, Vermont. Tour downtown. Just outside of town visit the Billings Farm and Museum. If it is May, attend the Sheep Shearing Festival. Stay at the Woodstock Inn.


13) Hike in the Green Mountains.


14) Take Route 7 south into the Berkshires. In Stockbridge, Massachusetts, tour Naumkeag. Stay in Stockbridge.


15) Continue south to the Litchfield Hills in Connecticut. Visit downtown Sharon. Continue south to Kent Falls. Hike to the top of the falls. Stay in Washington at the Mayflower Inn. Enjoy the spa.

DAY 10

16) Back to New York!

A Piece of Detailed Research

You may think, after reading the last few posts, that I derived my understanding of history from Butterfield. But I had actually not laid a finger on any of his writings about history until yesterday morning. So it has been kind of fascinating, in the context of our discussion, to find Butterfield, both a great historian and a great thinker about history, to be saying almost exactly what I have been, if more clearly stated.

In any case, one more quote from the man:
We, after a survey of the Reformation, may seek to deduce from general principles what must have been the reasons for its occurrence; but there is all the difference in the world between this kind of philosophising and a close and concrete examination of how Martin Luther’s great decision came to be made. This accounts for the air of unreality which hangs around much of our general history when it has been compiled with too great impatience of historical research. The result of historical study is precisely the demonstration of the fallacy of our arm-chair logic – the proof of the poverty of all this kind of speculation when compared with the surprise of what actually did take place. And the historian’s passion for manuscripts and sources is not the desire to confirm facts and dates or to correct occasional points of error in the historical story, but the desire to bring himself into genuine relationship with the actual, with all the particularities of chance and chance – the desire to see at first hand how an important decision comes to be made. So the last word of the historian is not some fine firm general statement; it is a piece of detailed research. It is a study of the complexity that underlies any generalization that we can make.
OK, so we can now offer a resolution of the puzzle that started this discussion many posts back: why does it often seem, to intelligent people such as Popper, Taleb, and Ryan Murphy, that history is a flimsy tissue of speculation, of very low reliability? Well, once we see there are two sorts of works going under the name of history, we can easily understand this:

1) There is the real work that professional historians do, the work that gets them tenure and that they discuss at their conferences. This work is highly detailed, highly specialized, and highly reliable. It appears in outlets like The International Journal of Tudor Studies or Ancient Naval Warfare Quarterly. And Popper, Taleb and Murphy are no more likely to have ever read any of it than they are to have read a paper on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

2) Then there is popular, "general" history. At its best, this sort of work is produced by someone intimately familiar with the category 1 literature on a subject, and provides a useful, readable and entertaining summary of it. At its worst -- say, Jared Diamond -- it is produced by someone who has barely looked at works of type 1. When works of type 2 offer "broader more causal explanations" for events they are little more than opinion pieces, or thinly disguised propaganda for the author's hobby horse -- think Victor Davis Hanson using Greek history to argue the case for aggresive American militarism.

So, having read only works of type 2, Popper, Taleb, and Murphy naturally find history to be a sort of proto-social-science with very low standards of evidence. This is an accurate characterization of works of type 2. But this is like deciding that quantum physics is not a rigorous discipline because one finds Deepak Chopra kind of flighty.

More Detail, Please!

"In the last resort the historian's explanation of what has happened is not a general piece of reasoning at all. He explains the French Revolution by discovering exactly what it was that occurred; and if at any point we need further elucidation all that he can do is to take us into greater detail, and make us see in still more definite concreteness what really did take place." -- Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, p. 72.

There is not in history a set of "facts" and a separate explanation for why they occurred: the explanation simply is a more and more detailed view of the facts.

Real Works of Physics

Here is a quick test:
1) Did you find it at Barnes and Noble? Not a real work of physics.
2) Was it in the top 100,000 at Not a real work of physics.
3) Did a professor who is not a physicist assign to you in a class? Not a real work of physics.

1) Did you find it at Barnes and Noble? Not a real work of history.
2) Was it in the top 100,000 at Not a real work of history.
3) Did a professor who is not an historian assign to you in a class? Not a real work of history.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A True Work of Art

That I am sixteen years behind on picking up on:

Why Do I Keep Posting on the Philosophy of History?

I was having a hard time. I would post one thing, and Bob Murphy would agree with it, but Daniel Kuehn would abjure. I'd post another, and Silas would object, but Ryan would agree. Lord Keynes would like one post of mine on property rights, but Tom would hate the very same post. This was all very unsatisfactory.

But now, in my posts on the philosophy of history, I've found something to say about which every single one of my readers universally objects. I am in my milieu.

Actual Historical Research and Abridgements of History

"It is only by undertaking an actual piece of research and looking at some point in history through the microscope that we can really visualize the complicated movements that lie behind any historical change... Perhaps the greatest of all lessons of history is this demonstration of the complexity of human change and the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men; and on the face of it this is a lesson that can only be learned in detail. It is a lesson that is bound to be lost in abridgment, and that is why abridgments of history are sometimes calculated to propagate the very reverse of the truth of history. The historian seeks to explain how the past came to be turned into the present, but there is a very real sense in which the only explanation he can give is to unfold the whole story and reveal the complexity in telling it in detail." -- Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, p. 21-22.

There are a couple of things worth remarking upon in this passage. First of all, note how Butterfield distinguishes an "actual piece of research" from an "abridgment." Let me assure you, my faithful ten blog readers: I bet about zero of you have ever read more than one or two pieces of actual historical research, if that many. (For most of you, the total will be zero.) If I gave you such a work, you would find it "boring" ( as one economist at the NYU Austrian Colloquium described such works to me). What you have read is almost entirely abridgments (A Distant Mirror), or even abridgments of abridgments (Guns, Germs, and Steel). If you judge what historians do, or how "rigorous" historical work is based on such abridgments, you are in the position of someone who tries to judge how rigorous is quantum mechanics by reading The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

In pointing this out, I do not mean to say no one should write such abridgments, or that it is worthless to read them. (I read them all the time!) But these are opinion pieces, and anyone who reads only such pieces will of course conclude that history is a very inexact discipline, and that historians never agree on anything. Well, that's because you are not reading any works of real historical research, but works of opinion about what "timeless lessons" we can draw from actual historical research. (For example, Nicholas Nassim Taleb has clearly read only such abridged works, and his denigration of "historians" is based entirely on such works.)

Secondly, Butterfield notes correctly what a "complete" historical explanation would consist in: not some abstraction that showed certain "correlations" between some events and others, but a exhaustive narrative of the facts. In history, there is no gulf between facts and explanations: an exhaustive narrative of the facts in question is the most complete explanation that could possibly be given for them.

There Are Causes, and There Are Causes

Let's us say we are shooting cannon balls into the East River from Brooklyn. Suddenly, we see one of them soar off and land on the FDR Drive on the Manhattan side of the water. What happened?

"What caused that one ball to cross the East River?" you ask.

There are different possible answers, but they generally should take the form of offering a difference in the mechanical forces acting on that ball.

"Well," I might say, "I doubled the amount of powder I used for that shot," or perhaps "That ball only weighed half of what the others did," or something of the sort.

But let's say you see me driving across the Brooklyn Bridge. You turn to our mutual acquaitance, Sanford, and ask him, "What caused Gene to cross the East River today?"

Sanford answers, "Well, Gene wants to go to Pennsylvania today, and to do so, he must get off of Long Island somehow. He prefers the Brooklyn Bridge as it is toll free and relatively easy to access."

What Sanford offers is a reason, and not a set of mechanical forces. If he had answered, "Oh, you see, he is located inside a vehicle being impelled westward due to the numerous explosions occurring in its engine," you would deem him a wise ass.

The difference is crucial in terms of how one can go about testing one's answer. In the first case, let us call it "cause1," it makes perfect sense to demand the explanation be made more rigorous by repeatedly varying the conditions and seeing what happens. We try shots with lighter cannon balls and heavier, with more charge and less, and so on, and record what happens. If 99% of lighter balls make it across, but only 1% of the heavier balls, then we will endorse the answer, "The shot made it across because I used a lighter ball." (But what if the percentages are 51% and 49%?)

In the second case, for "cause2," such procedures are nonsensical. My decision to take a particular route may never be repeated under any conditions but only occur under precisely those of that moment, and yet the explanation may be as sound, indeed, more sound, than a cause1 explanation. Nor does this sort of explanation involve anything like naive belief in the agent's own statements. If Sanford offers the above explanation, but, as you watch me through binoculars, you see me get off the bridge onto local roads, park, meet a woman, kiss her, and walk arm-in-arm with her into an apartment building, and, after a few hours, come out and drive back to Brooklyn, you will logically conclude that my purported reason was just a cover story, and the real reason is that I am having an affair with someone in Manhattan. You might dig deeper to confirm your suspicion, but note what you don't need: You don't need to do a statistical study of all the times I cross the East River to see what "correlates" with such crossings. Perhaps the woman and I usually meet in Brooklyn, and that was the sole exception. That would not count against this explanation in the least.

The upshot of all this? History is not a statistical science, and would not be improved, but instead changed into a different thing, by enforcing statistical methods upon historians. Whatever worth statistical social science has, it is not a replacement for history, and its existence does not condemn history as "pre-scientific."

Friday, October 28, 2011

History, the Final Frontier

Fascinatingly, social scientists seemed to be trained in a way that makes them unable to recognize that there even is such a discipline as history. When they say to you, "Of course, history exists," what they mean is that events did happen before today. They have no clue that history is a distinct discipline, with its own unique methods and standards of evidence.

I just received a note from a very bright social scientist that exhibits this befuddlement on the topic of history very nicely. I quote it, with permission:

"I assume the following two points

"1. 'Facts' are theory laden."

Right away, he has gone completely off the tracks. He believes that there are historical facts, around which one devises a theory. What counts as a fact depends somewhat on one's theory, but these facts, while being "theory laden," are separble from one's theory, and could, for instance, confirm or refute it.

But that is all nonsense. The historian's theories are theories about what the facts were. As Collingwood put it, the "fact" that after 200 AD (as I recall -- I may have misremembered the date here) the Roman legions were mostly recruited from outside Italy is not a piece of data with which the historian starts his inquiry, and around which he spins a "theory"; rather, it is the conclusion of an historical inquiry. The historian's theory is that "after 200 AD, the legions were chiefly recruited from outside Italy." His facts are not "theory laden." His theories are propositions about what the facts were.

"2. The synthetic a priori either doesn't exist or is EXTREMELY limited in what it can tell us"

But, of course, historians do not rely on the "synthetic a priori" to do their work. They rely on what Mises called verstehen.

"Given that, how do you do history without rigorous empirical testing?"

Well, of course, historians do "rigorous empirical testing." In fact, it is hard to imagine a discipline more empirical or more rigorous. (Certainly economics, a field in which every practitioner is able to hold tight to her theory come what may, is far less rigorous than history, a field in which questions are regularly and routinely settled to the satisfaction of the entire profession. Two examples: 1) Every single historian I have encountered on the topic agrees that, contrary to popular belief, the educated people of the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. And they all agree on this, whether they are Christian, atheist, Muslim, or Taoist; while 2) I don't know of a single economist who rejected her previously held theory of the business cycle based on the evidence of the recent downturn. Every single economist I follow contends that the exact same evidence confirms her own theory! So which profession is more "rigorous"?!) This historical testing consists in assembling every bit of evidence available -- military records, town records, soldiers' diaries, inscriptions on monumental stones, the finds of archaeological digs -- and determining what conclusions are consistent with that evidence. But what my interlocutor desires is that historians should be doing regression analysis, or something of the sort, i.e.: "amongst all empires in their late stages of decay, what percentage of troops were, on average, recruited from outside the core of the empire?" What he wants is for history to abandon its own, extremely rigorous empirical methods, and adopt those of some theoretical social science.

Let us note a couple of things about the method he endorses:

1) To follow it, one must have already done one's historical work: compiled a list of empires, determined what was their core region, and found out from where they recruited their troops. One cannot possibly begin to do statistical analysis without first understanding specific situations, since without understanding specifics, one cannot possibly formulate classes into which one can place events, or know which events should go into which classes!

2) Furthermore, this recommended method, whatever it may yield of interest, is absolutely useless for answering historical questions. As Collingwood noted, the job of the historian is much like that of the detective. The detective's job is not to formulate a "theory of the causes of crime," but to find out who committed this particular crime. What my interlocutor believes is that the detective ought to undertake a regression analysis as to what factors are significantly correlated with crimes of the type he is investigating, and if it turns out that being poor, black, male, and between 15 and 25 are significantly correlated, then the detective ought to arrest all those who fit the criteria, and the prosecutor should dole ought a fraction of the sentence amongst the lot of them. Anything else would exhibit unscientific prejudice! That this is a nonsensical way of proceeding can be seen merely by describing it.

Of course, the detective may come into the case with "ideological priors" -- for instance, he may be inclined to arrest a poor, black teenager, based on a study like the one above. But the cure for that is simply more careful attention to the actual evidence: if the only fingerprints at the crime scene are those of an elderly, white widow, and the murder weapon is in her apartment, then the detective must follow the evidence and arrest her, whatever his "priors" were. It should be obvious that more, or more rigorous, statistical studies would be of no help whatsoever in overcoming those priors and actually figuring out who committed this particular crime.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Metaphor Abuse Detection

Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, tries to make the case the Turkey is a "torn nation," stuck between two civilizations, "the West" and "Islam." I don't wish to dispute Huntington's case here -- for one thing, I just don't know that much about Turkey. But I do wish to dispute a piece of "evidence" he cites for his case. He writes:
President Suleyman Demirel similarly called Turkey "a very significant bridge in a region extending from west to east, that is from Europe to China." A bridge, however, is an artificial creation connecting two solid entities but is part of neither. When Turkey's leaders term their country a bridge, they euphemistically confirm that it is torn.
Eegads, that is awful! First of all, a metaphor is meant to highlight one or a small group of similarities between two different things. It is entirely illegitimate to move from the implied comparison to assert other similarities, unless the property highlighted in the metaphor logically entails the property one wishes to assert. For instance, let's say Bob Murphy writes, "I am as loyal and courageous as a St. Bernard." It would be nonsense for me to write, "By saying this, Bob euphemistically confirms that he is covered in shaggy, smelly fur and eats directly from a bowl sitting on the floor." (Both of those things happen to be true, but it is invalid for me to assert them because of Bob's use of that metaphor.) What the Turks wished to assert is that their country linked European, Arab, and Turkic cultures, not that it is under great strain or about to collapse into the Black Sea. Why not claim that the use of this metaphor confirms that Turkey is divided into well-marked traffic lanes, as are most modern bridges, or that it is probably constructed from steel and concrete?

OK, secondly, "being torn," the property Huntington's wishes to assert because of Turks use of the bridge metaphor, is not even a general property of bridges! I use about twenty or thirty bridges a week, I'd guess, and not one of them is torn. What's more, bridges are not always artificial -- think of the "land bridge" American Indians crossed to enter the New World -- nor are artificial bridges always fragile -- on this point, consider Tyre, which used to be an island, until Alexander the Great, in order to take the city, built a causeway which has seemingly permanently connected the city to the mainland.

So Huntington's argument fails in multiple ways... probably in every way except as a piece of propaganda planting the notion, "Don't trust Turkey!"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Religious Indoctrination in the Public Schools

All three of my children are in public schools. They have also been home-schooled at times, and attended private schools. All-in-all, I don't find the public schools my kids are attending so bad. But once in a while...

Like today, I was looking over my youngest's science homework, and found him being told: "Everything in the universe is made of atoms. You are made of atoms."

This, of course, is eliminative materialism. It means that things like, for instance, ethics and morality do not exist, since they are obviously not made of atoms. And it means that "you" are nothing more than your physical body.

This is not a scientific position. Given its absurdity, it's not even really correct to call it a philosophical position, although it sometimes is able to slip by the unwary as if it were one. And it flat out contradicts the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism... and I bet just about any other religion one can think of. (Except, of course, for the religion called eliminative materialism.)

So much for religious neutrality in public education, huh?

UPDATE: And it would have been trivial to fix the statements so they don't have the problem I mention, and so that they (ought to) offend no one:

"Everything physical in the universe is made of atoms. Your body is made of atoms."

(Of course, even then the first sentence is questionable: Is light not a physical thing? But at least it is no longer staking out a controversial metaphysical position.)

Academic Kindness

I'm filling out an application today where they don't ask for references until you are short-listed and they actually intend to interview you. Everyone should follow such a policy: it is kind on the applicant's referees.

A similar policy more widely followed is: don't ask for formatting changes until you accept a paper! The paper's referees are not going to have a different recommendation based on whether the paper has references inline or as footnotes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

That Unrealistic Dreamer, Jon Stewart...

confronts the steely-eyed realist, Ron Paul.

Robin Koerner knocks Jon Stewart by noting that Stewart is just not dealing with the real world as we actually find it:

"Theoretically, and in an ideal world, no: just because government has failed to do something effectively does not prove that it cannot do it or that it should not be asked to do it. But in the country in which we live, largely yes."

Ron Paul, on the other hand, does not drift off into fantasy in any way whatsoever:

"Corporations in Ron Paul's favored society would not be allowed to violate the property rights of others, pollute their air or water, defraud them, lie to them or hurt them in any way."

Well, let me tell you, in my favored society, we can all float to the moon on gossamer wings and a race of intelligent but naturally servile chimps wipes our bottoms for us after we defecate. So let's set policy based on that!

Missing the Forest for The Trees

Bryan Caplan nitpicks over a mathematical error in Kahneman's new book, and misses the much larger error. Interesting, it seems social scientists, by their training, lose the ability to think about this topic. Here is the quote from Kahneman:
The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true.  It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong.  But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been a female.  Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence.
The problem is that Kahneman is bringing in concepts that are categorically excluded from history. History is about the way things were, not about how they might have been. The concepts of luck and odds do not apply to history at all: they are forward-looking concepts that we use in practical life to deal with ignorance. If we want to know the chance that our forthcoming child will be a girl, before we can do a sonogram, we should be thinking "About half." But once we know, we know, and there are no more odds involved. The right statement, historically speaking, is not "there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been a female" but "there is a one hundred percent chance that the embryo that became Hitler became Hitler."

What is amazing is that these folks believe they are being sophisticated social scientists who alone really get the importance of "luck" (as if "luck" is a scientific concept!), while there actually discourse is like a couple of people discussing what the "odds" are that 2 + 2 was going to equal 4. (Just think of all the other numbers it could have equaled!)

A Song for My Daughter

(You really want headphones for the end bits.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

How to Clean a Dolphin

All you need is a cloth and some all-porpoise cleaner.

That Delicate Internal Combustion Engine

"The time has long gone by when anyone who claims the title of philosopher can think of religion as a superfluity for the educated and an 'opiate for the masses.' It is the only known explosive in the economy of that delicate internal combustion engine, the human mind. Peoples rich in religious energy can overcome all obstacles and attain any height in the scale of civilisation. Peoples that have reached the top of a hill by the wise use of religious energy may then decide to do without it; they can still move, but they can only move downhill, and when they come to the bottom of the hill they stop." -- R.G. Collingwood, "Fascism and Nazism"

There Were Others There Before Me!

Robert Barclay, eminent seventeenth-century Quaker: "Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It's Like They Think It Is Their Country!

Michele Bachmann is very upset the US troops are finally being withdrawn from Iraq; she feels it is outrageous that we are being "kicked out." Furthermore, we ought to get them to pay us... for invading their country and reducing it to chaos and rubble!

I want to make some sort of scathing comment, but words fail me.

Democracy Can Be Confusing

I heard on the radio today that many Tunisians found their ballots too confusing, what with hundreds of parties and candidates listed. They should learn from the pros: Here, we only allow two parties to have a chance at winning, and whichever one wins, they will implement the same policies. It makes voting much simpler.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Aaak. Aaak. Jeffy wanna hold office. Aaak.

Liveblogging The Origins of Political Order

I have previously protested the abuse of the word "statist" by some libertarians. Here is why it is good not to abuse it: when you find someone who genuinely is a statist (in the sense that Mises, say, used the term), you will not have a way to describe his position.

I happen to have come to believe that the state is what we got now, and what we're likely to be stuck with for some time to come, so we'd better make the best of it. But some people really do see the state as a telos (or perhaps the telos) of history. Take our current specimen under examination, Dr. Fukuyama. His first chapter on India is called "The Indian Detour": it is a "detour" because they didn't form a state. A period of small, competing states is termed "another period of political decay" (p. 184). The Muslim empire in India was deficient because "their state too was limited in its ability to shape Indian society" (p. 185). China had a "superior level of political development" to India's, because they had formed a "true" state (p. 182). Southern Indian history around the first century BC is "rather unedifying to study, since it is hard to place into a larger narrative of political development" (p. 183), in other words, there is no sense studying them: they weren't forming states! When discussing the Han formation of what he considers a true, modern state, he writes, "This was a remarkable political achievement, but one that was not, unfortunately, fated to last" (p. 138).

OK, folks, that's a statist.

And Neither Does "Cause," Used in the Scientific Sense, Have a Place in History Proper

Ryan, this one is for you:

"But further, there is another kind of cause which must be rejected in historical explanation because to recognize it involves the destruction of history. A cause in scientific experience is, briefly, the minimum conditions required to account for any example of an observed result. But this, clearly, is a form of explanation foreign to historical experience; and it is possible in science only because the world of scientific experience is a world, not of events but of instances. Were he to adopt it, the historian would be obliged to eliminate all causes save one, of existing effects; and this would resolve history into an infinite regress of abstractions in search of an absolute beginning, or limit its reference to whatever lay immediately behind the given event. And moreover, the historian would find himself obliged to consider (by a kind of ideal experiment) what might have happened as well as what the evidence obliges him to believe did happen; that is, he would find himself becalmed outside the current of historical thought. History must reject not only those causes which are too comprehensive, but also those which are too limited. For example, history has no use for abstractions such as climate, geographical conditions or national character as the sole causes of events. When Lessing ascribes the eminence of Greek art to the climate and the government of Greece, he has quitted altogether the region of historical thought. Or again, to say of an event that it is due solely to ‘economic causes is not bad history; it is not history at all. This is not a question of evidence, not a question to be decided by the historian as such, it is a way of thinking excluded by the presuppositions of his thought. A cause in history must belong to and be consonant with the character of the world of history." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes

The Term "Accident" Has No Place in Historical Understanding

"And lastly, Bury’s theory of contingent events implies that in history there are accidents, surprises, abnormalities. But the notion of the accidental is contradictory of the whole character of the historical world. It is a notion which the historian, when he sits down to write history, must dismiss from his mind. History knows nothing of the fortuitous or the unexpected; in history there is nothing extraordinary, because there is nothing ordinary. The hard winter of 1814 which ruined Napoleon’s expedition to Russia, the storm which dispersed the Armada—these, from the standpoint of the participants, were distressing mischances; all (from that point of view) might so easily have been different. But the attitude of the historian is not that of the eyewitness or the participant. Where they see mischance and accident, he sees fact and event. And he is never called upon to consider what might have happened had circumstances been different. For himself and his friends the death of William I was an accident; for the historian it is no more accidental than if he had died in his bed. To think, as Bury does, of the death of Pericles as in some sense accidental because he died of the plague is to have abandoned history altogether. If we consider Napoleon abstractly, merely as a human being, it was an accident that he was born in Corsica. But when he is considered as the historical Napoleon who (evidence obliges us to believe) was born in Corsica, his birthplace is no more accidental than any other event in the whole range of history. In short, chance or accident is a mask which it is the precise duty of the historian to tear away, it is a way of thinking which he cannot understand. In the historical past there are no accidental events because, in the scientific sense, there are no necessary or inevitable events. Nevertheless, if history has no place for the accidental, it does not replace it with ‘providence’ or a ‘plan’; it replaces accident with the actual course of events which the evidence establishes." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes

Liveblogging The Origins of Political Order

Well, my liveblogging went dead for a bit, as I forgot to bring Fukuyama's book back with me from Pennsylvania to Brooklyn. (I explain because I know how anxious you all must have been for the next installment!) But now I have it again! Here is this post's quote of note:

"The only part of the world where tribalism was fully superseded by more voluntary and individualistic forms of social relationship was Europe, where Christianity played a decisive role in undermining kinship as a basis for social cohesion" (p. 78).

If Fukuyama is correct (and I suspect he is), what does this say about projects like that of The Front Porch Republic and Rod Dreher (see links in the sidebar to the right) that are both Christian and seek to strengthen local, traditional ties? Is the an inherent tension in their efforts between the Christian elements and the localist elements?

UPDATE: Oh, and I might include me in the list of people who ought to think about this apparent tension!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Libertarianism Calls for Bigger Government

Or so a libertarian argument I just ran across implies!

The argument was against supporters of Keynes. I ran across it in private correspondence, so I can't point you to where to find it, but it runs as follows (Argument A):

1) Keynes's supporters say that his policies don't necessarily call for bigger government; instead, Keynes said governments should run surpluses in good times and deficits only in bad times, a recommendation which is entirely size neutral.
2) However, Keynes's advice was unrealistic; knowing public choice theory, we can see that, in fact, governments will love running deficits and hate running surpluses, and so will only pay attention to half of his advice.
3) Therefore, in fact, Keynes's prescription calls for more government.

So, let us apply this to a libertarian policy stance (Argument B):

1) Libertarians say that the market should decide both when a firm should grow large and when it should fail. No one should step in to bail out market losers, no matter how big they are nor how many people they employ.
2) However, their advice is unrealistic; knowing public choice theory, we can see that, in fact, governments will happily allow businesses to make profits and grow large (profits can be taxed and large businesses are great campaign contributors, etc.), but will be very reluctant to allow them to fail.
3) Therefore, in fact, libertarians' prescription calls for larger government.

Folks, it is the exact same argument with closely analogous specifics filled in differently in each. I don't see how anyone can buy A and not also buy B. (Well, except for the fact that they like the conclusion of argument A and don't like the conclusion of argument B!)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

There's Plenty of Blame to Go Around!

I can't get over the fact that people have such a hard time realizing that multiple actors can be to blame for a situation. You see it all the time in the way that people feel that, "You're blaming the victim!" is a knock-down argument. Well, sometimes the victim is to blame! That doesn't mean the perpetrator isn't also to blame, and probably even more to blame.

This came up the other day in reference to a friend's substance abuse problems. Someone said "He tells his ex-girlfriend that she is an enabler, as if he's not to blame."

Well, he probably is trying to shift blame, but that doesn't mean he is wrong in what he says! I saw them together, and she was a terrible enabler:
Up on Cripple Creek, she sends me
If I spring a leak, she mends me
I don't have to speak, as she defends me
A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one
That does not in the least excuse him. She was an enabler, after all, not an enforcer.

You see the same sort of thing when it comes to terrorist attacks: if someone says US military actions are to blame for prompting such attacks, the wingnuts automatically respond, "Oh, so you think the guys flying the planes had nothing to do with it!"



was the single word that split the Eastern and Western Christian churches in two. (Of course it was only the final straw, but still, it was the final straw!)

Hey, I Just Withdrew Some Colorless Red Patches from the Bank

A rather bizarre argument against fractional reserve banking, which I ran into this morning yet again, runs as follows: If I make a contract to sell you a square circle, that contract cannot be enforced, because it is self-contradictory. (Is the contract really self-contradictory?) Well, fractional reserve banking is the same! The fact that people may voluntarily put their money in fractional reserve banks means no more for their legitimacy than does the fact that someone might have agreed to take delivery of a bunch a square circles.

Well, if this analogy worked, what it would prove is that fractional reserve banking can't possibly exist. Contracts for square circles are illegitimate because square circles are impossible. By analogy, contracting into a fractional reserve relationship must be illegitimate because fractional reserve bank notes cannot exist.

Oddly enough, these non-existent entities are also the cause of the business cycle!

Empty yourself of everything.

Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.

Our Knowledge of the Concrete Comes First...

and generalized abstractions only later.

In fact, without first understanding concrete situations, we would be unable to generalize, since we would have no idea what we were generalizing from. Our knowledge of generalizations is secondary and derivative of our knowledge of particulars. But scientific training often leads people to believe just the opposite of the truth here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


When I've worked for a private company they generally haven't cared about making personal phone calls so long as the amount billed didn't become outrageous. But today, I am filling out paperwork on writing a check for the 96 cents worth of calls I have made this semester.

Doesn't it occur to anyone that:
1) printing a statement of my calls;
2) printing a form where I assert their purpose;
3) distributing such forms to my pigeon hole;
4) having me spend time filling the forms out;
5) having me spend time writing a check;
6) having me spend time delivering the forms and check; and
7) processing said forms and check...

Are going to cost a lot, lot more than 96 cents? And that maybe they should set a threshold below which charges are ignored?

Is Buddhism an Atheistic Religion?

No, it has an apophatic theology, which is also found in many strains of Christianity, in Hinduism, in Taoism, in Islam, and in Judaism.

Amusing Graph of the Day

Here. (You may not find what the graph indicates to be amusing. But the graph itself certainly is.)

Voegelin on Gnosticism

I recall that in one blog discussion someone showed up and said, "It's funny that Voegelin is supposed to be such a scholar, but on Gnosticism he had no idea what he was talking about." His "evidence" for this was to link to some fellow leading a modern Gnostic cult who said Voegelin had no idea what he was talking about!

In any case, here is Voegelin 25 years after The New Science of Politics came out:

"nor: More specifically, if I may: would you do anything differently with your third part on Gnosticism as the nature of modernity?

"voegelin: Well, yes. Because in the twenty-five years intervening since the book was published, we know so much more now about the continuous trends in Western intellectual history. Gnosticism is certainly not the only trend."

So, he used a term that, given that state of historical research at the time, seemed apt, but then, as more facts were uncovered, he changed his mind.

You know, the way a scholar should do.

Oh, and the fct that we know so much more than 25 years ago is a good refutation of Ryan Murphy's classification of history as basically little more than hearsay!

Whatever Is Truly Valuable Is Useless

"The original meaning of science and of philosophy, of course, is that each has a purpose in itself and is not a contribution to anything at all. Purposes which are ultimate have no further purpose. They fall into the quite purpose­less activity of exploring the structure of reality." -- Eric Voegelin

It is easy to demonstrate that anything that is truly valuable has no usefulness: Things are useful in that they are used to achieve / acquire something else. Of course that something else must be more valuable than the useful thing, or there would be no net gain (and no reason to act) in employing the useful.

So, is that for which the useful employed itself useful, or not? Sometimes it is: in that case, the thing for which it is useful is yet more valuable. But this chain must clearly come to an end, at which point we have arrived at what is most valuable and utterly useless.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Who Knew

That a fourteen-year-old English kid could sing like an anguished fifty-year-old from the Bayou?

(I don't think that Eric Burdon is really fourteen here, but he sure looks like it.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Was Like, "How Did That Happen?"

That the phrase "was like" replaced "said." You know, I was like, "The latter is like shorter and all."

It Was the Deregulation, Stupid

Rod Dreher on the role de-regulation and non-regulation played in the current meltdown. That anyone can try to deny this was a major factor speaks of their living in a dream reality of their own construction.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


"Relentness necessity, wretchedness, distress, the crushing burden of poverty, and of labor which wears us out, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, disease -- all these constitute divine love." -- Simone Weil

A Puzzle

Why haven't New York taxi drivers learned to check the traffic before they pick a road?

Now Step to the Right, Now Shake It to the Left

I mentioned a while back that I heard some people at a conference were puzzling over my "conservative turn." Well, yesterday at the Oakeshott conference someone approached me and said, "Ah, Gene, it was good to hear your voice from the left during the comments!"

Perhaps I am like a human Rorschach test.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

You Know What Phrase I Hate?

"Our democracy."

Just the Facts Redux

Prateek was skeptical about this post. (But Prateek, aren't you in India? Why weren't you sceptical about it? Is American spellling spreading there?)

Here are Prateek's remarks:

"Are you saying that facts admit of some cause-effect relation by themselves?"

"Cause" and "effect" ideally shouldn't be employed in history at all, because they create confusion. Historical "causes" are understood situations, and historical "effects" are intelligible responses to those situations.

 "Between events A and B, there could be a million reasons for A leading to B. One might cite a plausible reason for A leading to B. But plausibility has little to do with what actually happened."

There could be, Prateek. It is the job of the historian to examine the evidence until she knows what did lead from A to B! If she can't determine that, she doesn't yet know the facts, because, without seeing what led from A to B, she doesn't really know that A and B really happened at all. "The facts" are only facts once they all make sense in a coherent narrative... and that narrative explains the facts, and how one of those facts led to the next.

"Plus, there is the human error, that in trying to understand or rationalize certain events, we may use confirmation bias and narrative fallacy to force our preferred explanation into them."

Of course historians are human beings and may be mistaken. No one would claim otherwise. Critical history is the practice of minimizing the possibility of such errors, but of course they never disappear. But by citing "narrative fallacy" it looks like you are cribbing from Taleb. There is a man who has no clue what history is!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dennis Ritchie Is Dead

Just the Facts, Mam: The Origins of Political Order.

It is often supposed that history collects a bunch of facts, and that these facts then stand in need of explanation by some other subject: perhaps economics, or sociology, or biology, or... something else. Fukuyama often seems to have such a view of what he is doing in The Origins of Political Order.

This view is mistaken, and the person holding it has not yet grasped that history is its own form of understanding. The historian does not gather a number of facts which then stand in need of explanation. When the historians knows what the facts are, he has already arrived at his explanation. That is because the way one settles upon what the facts of some historical episode are is to see what makes sense of the evidence you have at hand. And to have determined what posited past events will make sense of your evidence is to have explained those events in the very same process.

We Discuss Virtue and Liberal Education

Atilla Molnar, Ken McIntyre, me, Kang Chen

Herbert Simon on Maurice Cowling

"He was born middle-aged, dressed erratically, drank like a lord, and was polite only when he could think of nothing suitably offensive to say."

They Weren't Doing History

At the Oakeshott conference, Ken McIntyre just said, "It is wrong to say that pre-modern thinkers were making historical mistakes, because before 200 years ago, no one was doing history."

Just so.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Need Someone to Drive Drunk in Tulsa?

Here's your man:

Where Your Happiness Starts

I'm sitting in LaGuardia Airport. CNN is on. An ad came showing a bunch of smiling people were on the beach, riding jet skis, and doing other fun things.

Then, the only voice or text in the commercial comes on: "Xingdao, China: A livable city where your happiness begins." (I am 100% certain I have the name of the city wrong.)

OK, why is this city advertising its livability on CNN?

A Pizza Guy

Is now up on Ron Paul by 2.5 to 1.

But it would be treasonous to admit there is no chance he can win.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Are All Those Things?

I just set up a new 2TB external drive for backups. Time Machine kicked off, and announced it was about to back up 1,052,466 files!

"I Want You to Be Advised

That the bus to Port Chester is not running today."

Well, one good way to achieve that goal would be for you to advise me of that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In the Free Society of the Future...

rolling one's eyes is an act of treason, no doubt punishable by death at the libertarian Nuremberg trials.

UPDATE: By the way, it's rather amusing that pointing out the obvious -- Ron Paul is not going to win the Republican nomination -- is considered by Block to be an act of treason!

Heliocentrism Meant What?

It's an old, old canard that says that people objected to heliocentrism because it made people feel unimportant on the cosmic scale. I guess the people who said this had never read Job:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
   with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
   I will question you,
   and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
   Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
   Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
   or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
   and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
   when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
   and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
   and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
   here is where your proud waves halt’?
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
   or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
   and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
   its features stand out like those of a garment.
The wicked are denied their light,
   and their upraised arm is broken.
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
   Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
   Tell me, if you know all this.
“What is the way to the abode of light?
   And where does darkness reside?
Can you take them to their places?
   Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
Surely you know, for you were already born!
   You have lived so many years!
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
   or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
   for days of war and battle?
What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
   or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
   and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no one lives,
   an uninhabited desert,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
   and make it sprout with grass?
Does the rain have a father?
   Who fathers the drops of dew?
From whose womb comes the ice?
   Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
   when the surface of the deep is frozen?
 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
   Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
   or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
   Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

Friday, October 07, 2011

If You Don't Pronounce Italian Badly, Like Me, I Will Correct You!

I was just reminded of a scene in Two for the Money where Matthew McConaughey correctly pronounces bruschetta as 'brusketa," and Al Pacino "corrects" him, and says "No, it's 'brusheta'!" I've gotten this in my neighborhood a number of times: "No, it's muhzarell!" or, "No, it's proshoot!"

If you want to pronounce Italian correctly, listen to the way Italian-Americans say a word, and then say something else. At least you'll have a shot at getting it right.

Defending Western Civilization

I had told my 14-year-old that he should be in by dark, even in non-school nights. And as dark has been coming earlier, so should he be getting home earlier.

But then I discovered that three of his friends (who are brothers) are allowed to stay out until eight PM. That wouldn't bother me, except that... these friends are Muslims! I've got to uphold the honor of the decadent, permissive West. I immediately told him he can stay out until eight.

If Muslim kids are allowed to stay out later than my son, the terrorists have already won!

9/11 Obsession

A store clerk reduced the price of a product I was buying today by one cent. The reason? The price, with tax, had come out to $9.11, and it would be unlucky to charge me that amount.

Mind Your Matter Going In!

So, here's how it went down:

Descartes cleaved the world in two. One part, which he called matter, was totally inert, only acted upon, never acting. It could be fully described employing the language of only "shapes, sizes and motions." Consider how Descartes regarded most of our own mental processes:

"I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels." -- Descartes, Treatise on Man

Animals he famously regarded as solely and only machines, with no awareness at all. (He clearly was without pets.) Humans, however, were different: they also were made up of an active component, mind, or spirit. Mind had no size or shape, and was the only active principle in the universe. One great mind, God's, had set all of the inert matter spinning and colliding at the creation, and human minds could (somehow!) intervene in those motions still, but everything else was just mechanisms.

Descartes was therefore called a dualist, since he believed in these two fundamental substances, mind and matter. But many people were unhappy with this scheme, since there was no obvious way for any link between the two realms to be forged. We seemed to have matter ceaselessly jostling around, watched by a ghostly mind that could not possibly affect it, except through some deus ex machina such as Descartes's invocation of the pineal gland as a magical conduit between the two realms.

Those who rejected dualism were monists, of two camps: materialists and idealists. Materialists saw how Descartes had posited that even passion, memory, and imagination were actually mechanical in nature, and even animals were mere machines, and said, "Well, why not take that last step: We humans are just machines as well, and consciousness is, if not an illusion, then surely just some accidental excretion of matter." The idealists picked the other branch of wishbone, and decided that everything was somehow mental in nature. (Now recall the set of terms they were choosing over: matter = inert and mind = active.)

Physics worried little about such distinctions, and simply kept exploring the nature of what it called matter. For a while, those explorations fit in well with the materialist picture of the universe. There were some puzzles, like the "spooky action-at-a-distance" of gravity, and then, in the 19th-century, electromagnetism. But it was assumed a mechanical explanation would come along.

Until quantum mechanics appeared. Physicists had at last penetrated down to the heart of the "inert" matter Descartes had talked about... and discovered it wasn't like Descartes had posited it at all. The stuff didn't really have a size or shape. What had appeared, on the macroscale, to be inert blocks of "stuff" with certain dimensions turned out to be the product of ceaseless activity at the microscale, as all the basic particles... well, if one didn't know better, one might say constantly communicated with each other, swapping back and forth virtual particles by which each told each where it was at and how much space it was claiming. Far from being inert, these little fellows never stopped doing stuff: spontaneously changing into some other bit of stuff, or tunneling through some barrier, or jumping to a different orbital.

In other words, once physics rolled up its sleeves and got down to brass tacks, it discovered that there was nothing fitting the Cartesian description of matter (inert). Instead, everything behaved like Cartesian mind (active). The idealists had won!

Or so they would have done, except for the fact that materialism had hardened into a sort of secular creed by the time these facts came out. So it has taken another eight decades for word to really spread, but at last philosophers are realizing that materialism is a zombie.

Of course, any materialist who doesn't want to admit defeat can just say, "Well, by matter, we now mean this very active stuff you are talking about. And when we say we are materialists, we just mean that everything is matter in that sense." That is a bit like a Yankee fan who today says, "Well, when we said we would win it all this year, what we meant was that we would get into the playoffs." But if it allows them to sleep easier at night, why should we care: we know the universe is alive through and through, and we know who really won it all.

Mind your mind going out!

How to Avoid Dying from Pneumonia

Bob Murphy says a CNBC commentator has implicitly endorsed laissez-faire in writing:

A depression occurs “only once it becomes painfully obvious that the markets and economy are failing to respond to repeated bouts of policy stimulus,” one economist said.

So, Bob concludes, this means the way to avoid depressions is obviously not to engage in monetary stimulus. Similarly, if a doctor wrote:

Death from pneumonia occurs only once it becomes painfully obvious that the patient is failing to respond to repeated bouts of antibiotic therapy.

I imagine that Bob would conclude that one could avoid dying from pneumonia by avoiding antibiotics.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


A guy sets up an anonymous blog, being very careful not to reveal his name. But he forgot one rule of anonymous blogging: don't tell Tyler Cowen your name!

Two "Jokes" That Will Get You Killed


You might also like Strunk and White: a piece of crap. Pullum demonstrates that Strunk and White sometimes go so far as to violate one of their "rules" in the very sentence describing that rule! And, remarkably, three of their four examples of that naughty passive construction are not passive constructions at all.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Were the Gospel Writers Trying to Tell Historically Accurate Stories?

They were not. And how do we know they were not? Because the concept of "historical accuracy" is a modern concept, not available for the gospel writers to adhere to even had that been their goal... which it could not have been, since the concept did not exist yet!

Don't believe me? Consider the two greatest historians of the ancient world, Herodotus and Thucydides, the closest we come to modern historians in that time. Well, both of them were quite happy to simply make up a speech and stuff it into the mouth of one of their characters. They might even invent an entire dramatic meeting without any real evidence that such a meeting took place. Of course, they did not make up just any old speech or scene: they made up a speeches and scenes that they thought would convey the essence of what had gone on. They were worried about the spirit of the matter, and not about the details. They simply did not possess the modern concept of historical accuracy. What they wanted to do was convey a socioogical or moral or political point to the reader by means of stories from the past -- and if making up a speech or scene helped get the point across, then make it up! Herodotus and Thucydides were not lying. They were telling enlightening stories, not badly failing to adhere to a standard of which no one had yet conceived.

How much more would this be so for those spreading the good news of the incarnation? If someone in the audience had started complaining about, "Well, did Mary and Joseph go to Egypt next, or to Jerusalem? Which is it?" the speaker probably would have smacked him upside the head and asked, "Are you paying attention? God became incarnate in Man! This is not a British railroad-timetable murder mystery!"

UPDATE: PSH has convinced me that I have put my point badly. What I should have said was, "Ancient writers did not have modern standards of historical accuracy." Of course, Herodotus cared whether it was the Persians or the Eskimos or the Chinese who had invaded Greece. Of course, when he says a battle was at Salamis, he thought it was at Salamis. But the standards of modern, critical history did not exist until the 19th century. PSH actually backs the point I meant to make in the quote he chooses from Thucydides: "so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said."

Exactly. He is trying to get the general sense of what went on, and is more interested in that than he is the modern "historical accuracy."

Liveblogging The Origins of Political Order

Discussing the same era as mentioned in my previous post, Fukuyama writes, "All of these [casualty] figures are regarded by historians as wildly inflated and unverifiable, but it is still remarkable that the Chinese ones are a full order of magnitude higher than their Western counterparts" (p. 111).

Well, it may be remarkable, but it doesn't tell us anything about the real casualty rate, does it? I mean, if these figures are "wildly inflated and unverifiable," what does it matter if they are a trillion times higher than their Western counterparts? Perhaps the Chinese had thought in terms of larger numbers than Europeans? Perhaps when they exaggerated, they really liked to exaggerate?

If two fisherman who are renowned liars tell you fish tales, and one says his fish that got away was 10-feet long, while the other says 20-feet, you are not justified in saying, "Well, even given that we know they are both liars, it is remarkable how much longer the second fellow's fish was than the first!"

UPDATE: And your are really getting the hang of how to think like an historian when you realize that the fact you can't conclude a two-to-one ratio in the fish tales above does not mean that an historian can't use them because they are not "reliable" accounts. All accounts of an event -- in fact, any remnant of an event at all -- can be used by the historian because they are all evidence. The question is not whether or not certain accounts are reliable, it is of what are those accounts evidence? So, the liar said he had caught a 20-foot fish -- why would he say 20, rather than some other number? Perhaps he is from an area (A) where the fish were generally bigger than in the area (B) from which the guy who said 10 feet was from? Now we have a hypothesis! We can examine the records: hmm, consistently we find that fish tales from A report bigger fish than fish tales from B. Now we have some more evidence for our hypothesis. So we ask the archaeologists about the nets and fishing boats from areas A and B: Those found in A are consistently larger! At this point, we would be justified in saying, "The residents of A, as far as we can tell at the present, fished for larger catch than those of B." Despite the fact our "accounts" are all lies, they still tell us something, if we know how to interrogate them.

Liveblogging The Origins of Political Order

Discussing the period before the rise of states in China (which is why "states" is in scare quotes below), Fukuyama notes: 'One scholar has calculated that in the 294-year duration of the Spring and Autumn period, more than 1,211 wars were fought between and among Chinese "states." Throughout this entire period, there were only 38 years of peace' (p. 111). Far from being the source of warfare, the state arose in response to the constant warring of pre-state societies. (And the more-organized chiefdoms arose in response to the warring of less-organized tribes, and so on.) The death tolls in these wars, especially when population became dense and there was no escaping to empty land nearby, were horrific. If creating the state did not create war, why in the world would someone think that eliminating the state will eliminate war?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Yes, It Really Is Possible...

Hmm, Casoulet!

My pork shoulder has been going in the crock pot for 2 1/2 hours now. Here's the whole recipe:

Put one pound of white beans in a pot of cold water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn off the heat and put the lid on the pot. (The trick here is that by doing it this way, the beans are getting softer, but at a slow rate where you don't have to worry about ruining them, so your attention can be on other things.)

Brown pork shoulder in oil. When done, place in crock pot.

Dump out the oil, then de-glaze the pot with one quart of chicken stock. When the stock has come to a boil, pour it over the shoulder. (I like to heat anything I add to the crock pot first, since the thing takes so long to heat up.) If your stock is low sodium, you might want to add some salt as well.

Add a package of cubed prosciutto to the pot, noting well that there is an 'o' on the end of the word 'prosciutto,' and recalling that there are no silent, final vowels in Italian.

Ideological Commitments

Dan Klein claims: "One’s ideological views – that is, the pattern of positions one tends to take on important public-policy issues – run deep and change little."

Well, Dan is not using the word "ideology" in the same way I do. And that's fine: I can get different definitions than my own. But in my case the claim is simply empirically way off: My views have changed dramatically at least five times in my life: from conservative as an adolescent (I used to watch Firing Line religiously at age 12!), to pretty far left by my mid-twenties, to neoconservative in my mid-thirties, to mild libertarian a few years later, to libertarian anarchist, and finally, to a understanding that holds that ideologies themselves are the main problem with contemporary politics.

I like to believe that this is a result of a willingness to think things all the way through again and again, changing my beliefs as required by such re-thinking. My critics will probably say it is just evidence of some personality disorder. I figure the odds are 50-50 as to who is right.

Constitutional Originalism

Perhaps It Was Just His Neurons...

that made him think this made any sense:

"And he offered what I thought was one of the wisest responses to the debate over the existence of evil (and thus free will):

"What he suggested is that we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil."

So, this "wise response" suggests that we should choose to act as if we are able to make choices. Which, of course, we could only do if we were really able to make choices.

Stop Making Sense

So, Warren Buffet thinks the rich should pay more in taxes. I don't want to discuss here whether that makes sense or not. What I do want to discuss is the dumb response many libertarians have offered: "Why doesn't Buffet just pay more taxes voluntarily if he wants to?"

Well, hmm.. let's think... perhaps because that would be an empty gesture that wouldn't even put a dent in the deficit, while Buffet believes (rightly or wrongly) that raising taxes on all of the rich would help fix the problem. This answer is so obvious that one commentator at Reason noted that thelibertarian objection we're discussing is equivalent to: "If you think the speed limit should be lowered on a given stretch of road, why don't you just drive slower while everybody else whizzes by you?"

Maybe Buffet's idea is good or maybe it's bad. But this line of objection is moronic.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Karl Marx...

John Maynard Keynes, and Friederich Hayek walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says, "What is this, a joke?"

Old-fashioned excuse: "The dog ate my homework."

Modern excuse: "Dual-factor authentication ate my ability to do my homework."