Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sentences Written in the Absence of Thought

Will not be understood: I bought a train ticket today and happened to look at the fine print. I was struck by the following: "Fares paid in the absence of a ticket will not be refunded."

I *think* what they mean is, "If you lost your ticket, you can't get no refund." But instead of just saying what they meant, they decided to write in bureaucratese.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Milford in Bloom

John Gray on Utopianism

Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: Ferguson Was Noting Two Mistakes, Not One!

I have had many good things to say about Wood, so it's time for some criticism, directed at Wood's notion of historical causation.

This is expounded upon in the chapter on conspiracy theories. Wood quotes with approval Adam Ferguson noting that "in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate... and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design."

Wood rightly criticizes conspiracy theorizing for ignoring the fact that the emergence of a social outcome certainly does not mean anyone, let alone a whole group of people, designed that outcome. But he oddly ignores the first part of the famous dictum: "As... ideas [such as Ferguson's] evolved, laying the basis for the emergence of modern social science, attributing events to the conscious design of particular individuals became more and more simplistic." Real historians should not look to individual action to explain what occurred, but to the "deterministic process of history" (p. 122).

Wood forgets that while historical events are not (always) the result of human design, they are the result of deliberate human action. And sometimes they are just the plain result of design: When Booth shot Lincoln, that was pretty clearly exactly what he aimed to do. But even the aftermath, which Booth clearly did not intend -- for instance, he obviously did not desireLincoln's subsequent sanctification -- were still the result of his deliberate action, along with the deliberate responses to it on the part of a multitude of others. Wood goes so far as to seem to imply that recognizing the presence of the "deterministic historical forces" means recognizing that no one is really morally responsible for their actions. This is to fall into the exact opposite error of the conspiracy theorists.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The State of Education

These activists can't even be bothered to discover that they could make their case twice as good:

New Translation Site

The European Union has sponsored a new language translation site that boasts of having the best translations yet available in such software, including things like the ability to go from Basque to Slovak or Catalan to Welsh. Interestingly, there does not seem to be any facility from going into or out of any of the Gaelic tongues.

Brightman's Platform of Personalistic Idealism

I am not endorsing this: I note it as an interesting attempt in defining what idealism means:

1. The universe is completely mental in nature.
2. Every mental existent is either a self, or else a part, aspect, phase, or process of a self. The term "person" is used for selves capable of reasoning and ideal valuations.
3. The physical universe may be regarded as the direct experiencing and willing of one cosmic person, or as a system of infra-human selves, or as a system of ideas in the minds of finite persons.
4. The total universe is a system of selves and persons, who may be regarded either as members of one all-inclusive person who individuates them by the diversity of his purposing or as a society of many selves related by common purposes.
5. Every self directly experiences itself.
6. The self knows some other selves indirectly, by inference.
7. Any metaphysical theory (except materialism which denies facts of direct experience) about the quality of reality or the number of ultimately distinct beings is compatible with all scientific observations and with scientific laws conceived either (a) as generalizations of observed sequences or (b) as statistical formulations of average behavior. But philosophy is dependent upon the facts revealed by the sciences for its conception not only of the structure of the universe, but also of its values and purposes.
8. Esthetics and ethics are based on psychological doctrines concerning the valuing consciousness, but go beyond descriptive psychology both in their normative aspects and in their metaphysical implication of beauty and goodness in the universe.
9. Similarly, the science of religion is primarily a psychological and historical discipline; but the object of the religious consciousness, God, may be identified with a metaphysical object -- the cosmic person.

"The Definition of Idealism," The Journal of Philosophy, 1933

Cats: WTF?

So, we're hosting our friend's cat for a week, and it leads me to pose some questions to all of my feline readers: Why you guys all enemies? I mean, what my cat ever done to this new cat, or the new cat to my cat? Nothing! But as soon as they lay eyes on each other, they're enemies.

They each are now stuck on two floors of the apartment, since each one is unwilling to try to pass the other on the flight of steps between them.

Unfortunately, both litter boxes are on the bottom floor. We'll see how that works out!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Insane Talking Point from the Right

Found here, amongst other places:

"Today, according to research by the OECD, income taxes in America are the most progressive among the rich nations of the world; as the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore observed in February, the 'richest 10% of Americans shoulder a higher share of their country's income-tax burden than do the richest 10% in every other industrialized nation, including socialist Sweden.'"

Folks, this is just not what progressive taxation means. If your rich make a high enough percentage of the national income, a flat tax could still leave them paying a higher percentage of the total tax take than anywhere else. That would not suddenly make a flat tax "progressive."

This is at least the third time I've seen this ludicrous claim. Did the Kochtopus send out a memo ordering everyone to start repeating this?

The Definition of Idealism

"If that be true, we may say that idealism historically contains four main propositions: (1) Plato's (value is objective -- its meaning and origin lie beyond the human knower); (2) Berkeley's (reality is mental -- there is no non-mental being); (3) Hegel's (reality is organic -- wholes have properties which their parts do not have); and (4) Lotze's (reality is personal -- only persons or selves are real). Any system is idealistic which affirms one or more of these four propositions, provided Hegel's be included. Thus it may be said that the Hegelian principle yields a minimum idealism, while a "four-point" idealism is personalistic." -- Edgar Sheffield Brightman, "The Definition of Idealism," The Journal of Philosophy, 1933

How Very Marxist Is Rothbardian Analysis

It was very interesting to me to hear the explanation given by a prominent Rothbardian for the persistence of "statist" beliefs: it is because the state pays intellectuals to make the case for its existence, and they then spread those ideas to the populace: Plato and Hobbes were just paid off, or they would have been anarchists.

The funny thing is that, as with the Marxists, this analysis does not apply to them: I'm sure the fellow does not believe that he just holds Rothbardian ideas because he gets paid to do so, despite the fact he does get paid to do so.

Is This Obscene?

"We may comment that the sciences were in the asymmetric position of swallowing to philosophy." -- Edgar Sheffield Brightman, "Modern Idealism," The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method

What Is Idealism?

Working on my paper on Berkeley, I have come up with the following list of different meanings with which the word "idealism" has been used:

• A focus on ideals as opposed to pragmatic interests. It is used this way in common speech, but also sometimes by political theorists: noble idealism. (Harrington)
• The belief that in history, the ideas of agents are the true driving force: personal historical idealism. (Weber, Protestant Ethic)
• The belief that in history, ideas writ-large are the true driving force: impersonal historical idealism. (Hegel: the cunning of reason)
• The notion that the world is entirely made up of thinking / experiencing entities: pan-psychism. (Peirce, Whitehead)
• The idea that the structure of our reality is determined by our (human) minds: transcendental idealism. (Kant)
• The notion that the physical world is, in some sense, an illusion. (Vasubandhu: Yogacara)
• The belief that what we think we know about the physical world is really only our own ideas. (Rorty)
• The belief that the physical world is, in fact, made up of ideas. (Berkeley)

Does anyone know of any other uses

UPDATE: Found one more already:

• Ideal values have a real existence as archetypes. (Plato)

Your Data Is No Good

Dumb Atheist Argument

Yes, the title is a pleonasm. But this one is particularly bad:

"Oh, so you believe in God. So which God do you believe in? The Jewish one, or the Muslim one, or the Christian one, or the Hindu?"

All of these religions describe a single source of all being, and ascribe to that source things like divine simplicity, eternal existence, divine conservation, and so on. They also all contain the idea that this ultimate source of being exceeds our powers of description.

Then, when these traditions do try to go any further, and they wind up with somewhat different images of God, the atheist making the above argument claims, "Ha! I got you: different Gods!"

This fellow ought also to think the following are true:

If Ptolemy says the sun goes around the earth, and Copernicus says the earth goes around the sun, then they must be talking about different suns.

If an ancient writer described a whale as a fish, he must be talking about a different animal than a modern writer speaking of a whale.

If Paul Krugman says the American economy benefited from the stimulus packages, and Bob Murphy says it didn't, they are talking about two different American economies.

Hey! I Know the Name of That Alliance!

"The success of a society depends on traditions that politicians can hardly change but easily harm. That has happened. The Right tended to win the economic arguments, and the Left tended to win the social arguments, even though they ran against established traditions. Indeed, there seems to be an unholy alliance between international greed and Leftist ideas about personal fulfillment and liberation." -- Charles Moore (Hat tip Rod Dreher.)

And it is called...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Classical Republicanism Versus Perfectionism

Previously I sought a label for my political views: people seem to like labels. Perhaps a good one would be that I am a "classical republican": I think the best constitution is a mixed one, that balances the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements, and checks the parochial tendency of localism while also checking the totalitarian tendencies of centralization.

Often, it is perfectionism, or "politics as the crow flies," as Michael Oakeshott liked to put it, that is the greatest enemy of republicanism. It is often apparent that some immediate good can be achieved by disrupting the republican balance. Perhaps if only the president could simply unilaterally impose some virtuous policy, or the federal government ignore state's rights, we can achieve some true political good faster than otherwise imaginable. The Gracchi brothers threw Roman republican institutions into turmoil by trying to short-circuit them to achieve admirable policy aims in terms of land reform.

The problem is that, once we begin to accept that achieving a particular policy aim overrides the importance of republican political forms, it won't be long before someone, such as Sulla, employs the precedents set to do much more nefarious things, such as proscriptions. And pretty soon you have Marc Antony and Octavius murdering Cicero.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Most Useless, Common Sentence in Academic Papers

"In the last section, I conclude."

Oh, really? Right there at the end, in the section titled "Conclusion," that's where you're going to conclude? What a remarkable innovation!

Against Rationalism in Religion

"Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs - especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world's traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten." -- John Gray

Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: What to Punish?

"With all social relationships in a free state presumably dependent on mutual trust, it is not surprising that the courts of eighteenth-century Massachuseyys treated instances of cheating and deception far more severely than overt acts of violence." (p. 107)

This is an interesting contrast with Rothbard's theory of crime in The Ethics of Liberty.

There Was No Historical Jesus?

The atheists over at Bob Murphy's blog have made the case that there never was any such historical personage named "Jesus of Nazareth."

I think they have a point: I suspect that the doctrines we today call Christianity were actually developed by a fellow named "Rusty of Zurishaddai." But the gospellers knew they could never get people to follow a guy named "Rusty," so they claimed these doctrines were originated by Jesus.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is This Move Rational?

In college basketball, when a star player gets his fourth foul, coaches usually sit him for a long time, to save him for the end of the game. I've often wondered if this makes any sense. Here is my case for doubting that it does:

1) You don't know how long it will be before foul five, so you run a high risk of benching a player for too long. For instance, perhaps he would have gone ten minutes before getting foul five, but the coach holds him out until only five minutes are left in the game: five minutes were "wasted" playing without the fellow.

2) The usual response to this would be, I think, "But we need to make sure he is on the floor at the end of the game"

Why? Baskets in the first minute of a game count for exactly the same number of points as those in the last minute. Let's say the star who was held out brings his team from ten down to win by one in the last five minutes. The coach will claim vindication: "See, he saved the game for us at the end!"

But, if the star did that, why shouldn't we think that, if he had been in the game earlier, his time would have built up a twelve-point lead, which would be reduced to one after the star got his fifth foul?

I suspect there is an irrational illusion at work here: Because it is the score when the buzzer sounds that matters, somehow the last few minutes seem more important than any others.

I Think This Is How "Irony" Is Defined

BATS Global Markets is a computerized stock exchange that was going to do an IPO yesterday. But when they put their own stock up for trading on their own stock exchange, a bug in their own software caused their own stock to plunge from $16 a share to fractions of a cent.

The IPO was off.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Econophysics Diagnosed

American Exceptionalism

Mark Mitchell gets it right:

"Consider the following analogy: I love my children. In fact I wouldn’t trade them for any other children in the whole wide world. Yet what if I peppered my discussion of my children with claims that they are the best children in the history of the world? What if I did this when they were around as well as when they weren’t? What if I belligerently insisted on making this claim and was offended if you disagreed? Wouldn’t that give them a strange view of the reality? Wouldn’t you find it annoying? In truth, my love for my children and commitment to them does not depend on my belief that they are the best humans the world has ever seen. True, I am delighted by them (usually) and desire the best for them. Nevertheless, my love does not depend on some notion of exceptionalism even though they are infinitely precious to me."

Walker Percy, Prophet

"Our Catholic church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.

"The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin mass and plays The Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation." -- Love in the Ruins

Aside from  The Star-Spangled Banner bit, he has here predicted the existence of fully 25 years in advance.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can You Believe This?

Some nut job over at Think Markets purports to be working on "a general theory of the social cycle"!

What hubris.

Isn't It Time to Admit...

the mainstream media was exactly right: Ron Paul is and has always been a fringe candidate in the GOP nominating process? Here are the popular vote totals at present:

Romney: 4,068,009
Santorum: 2,756,427
Gingrich: 2,181,655
Paul: 1,067,740

Paul is losing to the next-worst candidate 2-to-1. He's not even close to the guy who is getting crushed. And far from his "delegate strategy" working out, he is doing even more poorly in delegate count:

Romney 560 34.9%
Santorum 246 29.5%
Gingrich 141 14.4%
Paul 66 6.50%

Yes, I know, in super-secret private delegate counts, "Ron Paul is racking up delegates under the radar," and "it is far more likely that Ron Paul has almost as many real delegates as Romney nationally, if not more," but one crazy idea (the media is off by about a factor of ten in their delegate count) really cannot be used to support another one (Ron Paul has a good chance of winning the GOP nomination).

UPDATE: Real Clear Politics, the source of my figures, miscalculated Paul's percentage of delegates -- I have now corrected that.

Is This Really Possible?

My latest mind candy has been Midsomer Murders, which I get from Netflix. These aren't particularly great mysteries, but the detective, Barnaby, reminds me of my father, so perhaps that is why I have been watching them.

In any case, Barnaby's wife, Joyce, loves cooking. She cooks all the time, studies up on the subject, and yet... a running joke is that her cooking is awful. So awful that when she goes away and leaves Barnaby and his daughter a casserole to eat, they opt for Indian takeout instead, which itself is generally pretty damned mediocre food.

I have never seen anything like this. I think if someone wants to learn to cook, and keeps plugging away at it, they will learn to cook, so long as they have an IQ above 60 or 70. (And Joyce is not portrayed as being mildly retarded!)

Has anyone ever encountered something like this: a person of normal intelligence who applies herself to cooking but simply cannot master it at all?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Problem with American Politics

It's THEM.

Hey, Dude! You're Like, Bogusly Forcing Your Morality on Me!

Well, as Eugene Volokh notes, that is what law does:

"But most of the coercive laws that we hotly debate involve the forcing of a majority’s views on the minority. That’s true of laws protecting endangered species, antislavery laws, antidiscrimination laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental laws, intellectual property laws — or for that matter bans on infanticide, child sexual abuse, or more generally murder, rape, or theft. Some of these laws may be sound on the merits, and others unsound. But the fact that they force one group’s views on another doesn’t make them wrong."

Praise for Mussolini: Everyone Was Doing That Rag

Some people have attempted to make a major issue of Mises's (limited) praise for fascism. Besides the fact that Mises immediately continued on with stern warnings not to trust in fascism, such criticism ignores the historical reality: fascism was really popular with a whole lot of people in the 1920s. This does not mean that all of these people were closet authoritarians; in most cases, it merely means that they were mistaken. Here is a sampling that took me about 20 minutes to collect; as you can see below, entire academic papers have been devoted to all of the praise Mussolini received. (And note: the smear implying that Keynes was a closet Nazi is as bad as this one thrown at Mises.)

"[Mussolini has] rendered a service to the whole world"; "[a] Roman genius... the greatest lawgiver among men." -- Winston Churchill

"Mussolini, without any of Napoleon's prestige, has done for Italy what Napoleon did for France..." -- George Bernard Shaw

"[Mussolini is notable for his] service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about a coordination between Capital and ­Labour, his passionate love for his people." -- Mahatma Gandhi

"a man of providence" -- Pope Pius XI

"[Fascism is] beyond question an amazing experiment... an experiment in reconciling individualism and socialism, politics and technology.... This is far from the frozen dictatorship of Russian Tsardom.... It is more like the American checks and balance system; and it may work out in a new democratic direction...." -- Charles Beard, The New Republic, 1929

"In a period when all politicians are either dull or unwilling to break away from routine – 'tradition'; when it seems that in every Western nation the spring of imagination is dried up, Mussolini gives the impression of an ever-welling source. One may object to any for of dictatorship, but one cannot help being stimulated by the phenomenal vitality of this man..." -- New York Times Magazine, March 19, 1933

"The spectrum of American apologists for Fascism included the countless businessmen who waxed rhapsodic over II Duce as the proper antidote to Bolshevism; the poet Ezra Pound who wrote paeans to the Italian strongman for crushing the creatures of capitalism and their "usurocratic conspiracy"; the managerial idealists who extolled Mussolini as the ideal industrial executive who "cuts through"and gets things done; the "Southern Agrarian" Stark Young who romanticized Mussolini's regime as a noble effort to preserve historic Italy from the evils of modern technology and the efficiency ethic; the philosopher George Santayana who interpreted the Fascist principle of gerarchia as an expression of his own vision of a social hierarchy based on order, inequality, and aristocracy…" -- John P. Diggins, "Flirtation with Fascism: American Pragmatic Liberals and Mussolini's Italy," The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Jan. 1966), pp. 487-506

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dear Fishies

As we intend to keep eating you -- indeed, if we follow most popular diets, we plan on eating more of you in the future that we do at present -- could you give a thought to evolving some nice thick bones, and fewer of them, along the lines of say a cow or a chicken? Would be wonderfully considerate of you, deeply appreciated and all.

Ta for now,
The human species

A Bad Argument for Gay Marriage

I saw this on Facebook today: "Claiming that someone else's marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone for eating a doughnut because you're on a diet."

Well, not really, the difference being that few doughnut eaters ask for public recognition and approval of their doughnut eating by acquiring a license that gives them certain special privileges as doughnut eaters. Now, this is no argument against gay marriage: rather, it is an argument against the silly idea that it is none of the public's business who will be allowed marriage certificates. The right way to argue for gay marriage is to say, "Well, this is one sort of relationship that we ought to be publicly acknowledging." (Libertarians, of course, have a coherent argument for simply getting government out of the marriage business altogether, which solves this problem in a quite different fashion.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: It's a Conspiracy!

"More than any other period of English history, the century or so following the Restoration was the great era of conspiratorial fears and imagined intrigues... Pretense and hypocrisy were everywhere, and nothing seemed as it really was. Politics, especially in the decades from the Restoration to the Hanoverian accession, appeared to be little more than one intrigue and deception after another. It had to be a "horrid plot," said Scrub in George Farquhar's The Beaux Stratagem of 1707. "First, it must be a plot because there's a woman in't. Secondly, it must be a plot because there's a priest in't. Thirdly, it must be a plot because there's French gold in't. And fourthly, it must be a plot because I don't know what to make on't." With so many like Scrub wanting to know but with so little revealed, inferences if hidden designs and conspiracies flourished... Everywhere people senses designs within designs, cabals within cabals; there were court conspiracies, backstairs conspiracies, ministerial conspiracies, factional conspiracies, aristocratic conspiracies, and by the last half of the eighteenth century even conspiracies of gigantic secret societies that cut across national boundaries and spanned the Atlantic." (p. 87-88)

Seen in Brooklyn Today

A guy picking through garbage for bottles to recycle paused, reached into his pocket, pulled out an iPhone, and began scrolling through some list on the phone.

Soooo Cute!

It's the Nassau County Children's Safety Town. A cute little play area, surrounded by barbed wire fencing. It's as though the kids have their own little concentration camp!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Very Good Marketing or Very Bad Marketing?

I was reading an article the other day, and suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by the fact that the ad in the left-hand column was pitching me... Oakeshott on Rome and America, by me!

On the one hand, this is sort of impressive... Amazon no doubt had noticed that I had bought many books on Oakeshott, Rome, and America, and decided this sort of thing might be right up my alley.

On the other hand, they had failed to notice that I am me, and was unlikely to need to buy a copy of my own book. I already know how it all comes out. (It was Iris Murdoch, in the pantry, with a fish.)

Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: The Vision of the Founders

Many politicians campaign based on getting back to "the America of the Founders": that America, of course, interpreted through the lens of their own political position. But the thing is, there never was any "America of the Founders," except in their minds: the actual polity immediately began diverging from their vision:
The American leaders may have begun their Revolution trying to recover an idealized and vanished Roman republic, but they soon realized that they had unleashed forces that were carrying them and their society much further than they had anticipated. Instead of becoming a new and grand incarnation of ancient Rome, a land of virtuous and contented farmers, America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed. (p. 75)
The world you imagine your revolution will bring about is never the world it actually brings about!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What If Airplane Had Starred Liam Neeson?

I asked someone for a light today. He replied, "Surely."

I said, "Please don't call me Shirley."

He said, "Sorry, sure."

"No, no, I'm just making an Airplane joke!"

"Oh, Airplane, with Liam Neeson!"

Which immediately led me to think, what if Airplane had really starred Liam Neeson instead of Leslie Nielsen? We would have dialogue like:

Neeson: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital

Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?

Neeson: Ah, it's a big feckin' building with lots of sick people. It's awful, innit, all the sick and dying in the world? But what are we to do, hey, just soldier on then, right?"

Would have been a bit of a different movie, I suspect.

The Best Person I Know

The other day, one of my kids -- who can tell them all apart, anyway? -- asked me, "Dad, who is the best person you know?"

Interestingly, it took me about half a second to answer, "Israel Kirzner."

(I think they meant "objectively best." Otherwise, the answer would have been tougher: "Hmm, well in the Nazi-socially-constructed morality, Hitler was pretty cool, and..." Just windin' ya up, Kuehn!)

In other news, my iPhone bogging app (BlogPress) must be a cyber Hegel with its own Marx: it has just flipped itself upside down. When I hold my phone in the normal orientation, the keyboard, prompts, etc are all upside down. I have to flip the phone to use the app.

It Seems I Misunderstood

When I walked into the dentist's office today, she said, "Gene, I haven't seen you in two years."

"Nonsense," I responded. "How about that day when I was outside PJ Hanley's having a smoke, and you and your husband walked by?"

But apparently, in terms of "Seeing the dentist regularly," this sort of thing doesn't count! Who knew?

Did You Know?

At the time of Italy's unification, roughly one person in forty in the country spoke Italian.

It's Very Difficult to Actually Master a Subject

In my recent diet post, a number of commentators accused me of posting on something I knew nothing about. But that is the very point... I know nothing about nutrition science. But I know I don't know anything about it, so I listen to the experts. Sure they may be wrong, but they are my best bet.

The problem the people commenting have is that they don't know anything about nutrition science either, but they think they do, because they have read a couple of diet books. The people they are challenging, on the other hand, have spent decades researching this stuff full time. Compared to them, the fact that you've read six books on the paleo diet is so close to nothing that calling it nothing is fairly accurate.

And this applies to about any subject, say, canon law. Here is a nice quote from Professor Peters:

"A professional knows the limits of his knowledge. An amateur does not know the limits of his knowledge. A dilettante does not know that there are any limits to his knowledge."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just Give Me That Old-Time, Socially Constructed Morality

The NY Daily News today has an op-ed claiming that the poll showing New Yorkers do not object to their police force spying on Muslims in New Jersey demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with the practice! And since 8 out 10 think that cops have been effective in fighting terror, that makes it "indisputable" that they have been!

Can Someone Explain to Me...

what it is with Tyler Cowen and bad grammar? He's a smart guy, so I'm sure he can write properly, but he seems to be in love with writing things like:

"Markets in everything Brazil update."

Or today's example:

"Everyone is talking about the Goldman guy who quit, he wrote this (reactions here):"

Two sentences separated by a comma. Yuck.

(If you have an explanation, great, but really I'm just venting.)

Why (Many) Abortion Foes Do Not Shun Pro-Choicers

I would not have someone over for dinner who thought raising children for food is OK. But I do, in fact, have people whom I know are "pro-choice" over for dinner. Why the difference?

I think it is because one has a different attitude when what one sees as an error in moral reasoning is widespread. Let's say you lived in the South in 1830. You might think black slavery was wrong, but you'd pretty much expect most people you met to disagree. You'd still sit down and have dinner with these people. You would tell yourself something like, "Well, I think these people are wrong, but on most issues, most of us are products of our time and place... so it's understandable they think this way."

On the other hand, today, you'd probably find someone advocating black slavery to be really creepy, and you'd want nothing to do with that person.

A Recovering Rothbardian

Kevin Vallier demonstrates the contraception mandate to be illiberal. And along the way, he shows why taxation is not theft!

Moral Realism and Tolerance

Hereabouts I have caught wind of the opinion that belief in an objective moral reality can make people intolerant. (Note: that would not prove there is no objective morality. It might argue for hushing up its existence, however.)

Here are some reasons why this need not be the case. (You will note some overlap here with the recent abortion post: I was thinking about these things together, in fact.)

1) Good people often make bad decisions: we are all sinners! If I want my sins forgiven, I ought to show similar tolerance for others.

2) The fact that one believes that there is an objective moral reality does not mean one thinks one has unique, infallible access to that reality. I suspect that what some people who get upset about an assertion of moral realism are really upset about is the idea that if someone thinks there is a moral reality, and that s / he has it perfectly mapped out, that person can become extremely intolerant. But one can be a moral realist while being humble about one's own understanding of that reality.

3) Using force to compel moral behavior can, at times, produce even worse results than the original immorality. That is why, contrary to what you might have guessed, although I am anti-abortion, I don't think it should be outlawed, given the current climate of opinion.

A Bad Argument Against Anti-Abortionists

"If you really thought abortion was murder, you'd be out bombing abortion clinics."

This ignores several things:

1) Prudence is a moral virtue. If an action is likely to make a bad situation worse, it is not moral.

2) As an aspect of the above, respect for the existing law is also a moral virtue. Our role model here should be Socrates: Despite thinking that the verdict in his trial was unjust, he decided that obeying the law was the right thing to do, even at the cost of his own life.

3) We are all sinners. I think abortion is evil, but that doesn't mean everyone who has had one is evil. Good people do bad things sometimes.


They've installed asymmetrical benches here on campus. I think I will have to find a new job.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From the News

When I drive out to Pennsylvania, I spend part of my ride listening to news radio. (Today I alternated that with listening to lectures on the reign of Henry VIII, and to an Italian language CD.) I like hearing the news, because it always feeds me curiosities I can share with you. For instance, today I learned that:

* 60% of New Yorkers think the NYPD has just the right policy towards Muslims, in, you know, treating them all as potential terrorists merely on the basis of their religion. This must be the "socially constructed morality" I've been hearing about: if a majority of ill-informed and biased people think a policy is moral, then it is!

* In a "public service" announcement, I learned that if someone is riding the subway while wearing a backpack and "looking around," that is an excellent reason for reporting him to the police. I mean, really, what kind of sicko takes their eyes off of the floor or the book in their hand while riding the subway?!

Your Crackpot Diet May Be Killing You

A 28-year long study of 121,000 middle-aged men and women shows eating too much red meat significantly shortens your lifespan. On the other hand, things like whole grains contain "hundreds of thousands of protective substance."

Of course, what are massive scientific studies compared to a few testimonials, which, we all know, is the way real science gets done!

Oh My God!

The wingnuts have come out in force to congratulate the American soldier who murdered all of those Afghanis. Read the comments here, but only if you have a strong stomach. They are disgusting. I might even go so far as to say they are objectively disgusting.

Stat Analysis

Two things stand out for me when I look at the Blogger page that analyzes where the hits for this blog come from:

1) Firefox produces 25% of the hits, Chrome 24%, Safari 11%, mobile devices 11%, and IE only 10%. The evil hold of IE on the browser market has been broken!

2) Ukraine ranks fifth amongst countries that send surfers my way, well ahead of, say, Russia, which doesn't even appear in the top ten. Why?

"They loved us in Ukraine, and we've always loved them for that." (What rock-and-roll quote I'm I paraphrasing here?)

Why Ancapistan Won't Be Free of Politics: An Example

From Euronews, I learn that:

"Dalla Russia alla Cina cresce la fronda che si oppone alla carbon tax imposta a gennaio dall’Unione Europea, sulle emissioni di gas serra da parte delle compagnie aeree che attraversano i cieli del Vecchio continente."

So, the EU has imposed a carbon tax on flights over EU airspace, and China and Russia are refusing to pay. In fact, later in the article, you will find that China has forbidden any Chinese companies from paying the tax.

Yes, I know, these are all states fighting this out. But free your mind from its statist constraints, and imagine that Europe and Asia have gone completely ancap. Is there any reason to imagine that the same dispute could not arise? The ancap... insurance companies? private defense associations?... of Europe, believing global warming to be a serious threat, have voted to charge planes flying through "their" airspace for their carbon emissions. (And don't even try saying that voting itself is "statist": private entities vote all the time: corporate boards of directors, condo associations, NBA owners, chess federations, etc.) Meanwhile, the ancap associations in Russia and China believe that economic growth is much more important than obviating whatever threat global warming may pose, and reject this tax, and insist that the European ancaps do not really own the air above their property at all.

There are two possibilities for resolving this dispute: politics or war.

QED, either ancapistan will have frequent wars, or it will have politics.

NOTE: I am amused that Europeans consider where they live to be the "Vecchio continente," the "old continent," as if the land where Americans or Chinese live had simply popped into existence a few years ago.

Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: Rome Was the Model

If any one cultural source lay behind the republican revolutions of the eighteenth century, it was ancient Rome -- republican Rome -- and the values that flowed from its history. It was ancient Rome's legacy that helped to make the late eighteenth century's apparently sudden transition to republicanism possible...

If the Enlightenment was to discover the sources of a flourishing society and human happiness, it was important to learn what lay behind the ascendency of republican Rome and its eventual decline and fall. The French and American revolutionaries' view of the past was therefore very selective, focusing on the moral and social basis of politics and on social degeneracy and corruption. Since the eighteenth century believed "similar causes will forever operate like effects in the political, moral, and physical world," the history of the ancient world inevitably became a kind of laboratory in which autopsies of the dead republics, especially Rome, would lead to a science of political sickness and health... matching the medical science of the natural world. (p. 59)
Hmm, maybe someone should write a comparative book on the different foundations given to the Roman and American republics?

On second thought, naah, it would never work.

Note: If you want to read some real historians, rather than popularizers, who are nevertheless lively and engaging writers, one could hardly do better than Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, the two great historians of the American revolutionary period.

What the Hell Is This?

I was looking up my new book on Amazon tonight to send a friend the link, and ran across this:

Whatever it is, it costs $40. Down in little letters in the bottom left, you'll note it is "High quality content by Wikipedia articles."

So apparently, AI has gotten to the point where Wikipedia articles are now able to write books themselves.

But really, please tell me that someone is not printing out the four paragraphs on me at Wikipedia and then charging people $40 for the printout. Because that would be really slimy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Moral Realism and Religious Freedom

My post the other day drew all sorts of ire from feminists who said I was "equating" women's sexual freedom with serial killing. This, of course, was nonsense: when you execute a reductio, you are not "equating" the absurd thing with your opponent's case at all. But what's more, my post had nothing to do with feminism or sexual freedom. Rather, I was struck by Carmon's claim that we each get to define our own morality. I thought this was a terrible mistake, and that there was, in fact, a much better way for her to put her own feminist claims.

While I was sipping my cappuccino today, I was thinking about all the distraction the feminist issue caused from what I was actually discussing, which was moral realism. So let's look at this issue again, and take up freedom of religion, instead.

Consider infant circumcision, something that is a standard practice in Judaism. Here are a range of things one might think about this:

1) The practice is, or at least for Jews is, morally required: it is commanded by the Torah, or by tradition, or something like that.
2) The practice, while not morally required, is morally permitted: no one has to be circumcised, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the practice.
3) The practice is morally wrong, but nevertheless, it is does not rise to the level or moral wrong that would require it to be outlawed.
4) The practice is morally wrong, and ought to be outlawed.
5) The goodness or badness of the practice is simply a matter of one's own, or one's groups, decision as to how one (or one's group) wants to "define" its own morality. Therefore, Jews should be able to perform circumcisions, just so long as they don't try to require them for anyone else.

My point has been that number five is not really a tenable choice, at least unless one wants to embrace moral nihilism. Here is the problem to which it leaves one open: The Aztecs thought it was a vital part of their religious practices that human sacrifices be performed regularly, using captured peoples and others as victims. What can the holder of view five say about this practice?

"Hey, you're forcing your morality on others"? Well, first of all, no the Aztecs weren't: they didn't require the victim to believe these sacrifices were good! And secondly, who is to say one cannot force one's morality on others? That would imply some sort of objective moral rule forbidding that.

"OK, fine, but practices like this thwart peaceful cooperation between people with different moral views." Fair enough: but who is to say that such cooperation is good? You're not trying to claim that their is something objectively better about cooperation than warfare and slaughter, are you? And if your point is merely that you prefer it, so what? The Aztecs did not. You like vanilla, they like chocolate.

No, I think most people want to say human sacrifice is wrong; not just they believe it is wrong, or it is wrong for us today, or wrong if you want cooperation. Just plain wrong.

See, the whole issue has nothing to do with feminism or women's rights at all. And note this: Bringing in the Aztec example had nothing to do with equating circumcision and human sacrifice. No, it was showing that a certain view of circumcision would imply that the same view be taken of human sacrifice, and you don't want that now, do you?

There Is No Valid Route from "It Evolved" to "It Is Good"

One response from some commentators who want to reject moral realism but still hold that, say, the view "slavery is A-OK" is wrong and our current view is correct is to say something like, "Well, this is part of an evolutionary process."

If what they mean by this is, "This shift is part of a spiritual learning process by which humanity comes closer to understanding objective moral reality," well, that concedes my point.

On the other hand, if they are thinking in terms of Darwinian evolution, the argument goes nowhere. It embodies the vulgar Darwinism that equates "evolution" with "progress," a mapping Darwinism properly understood forbids. It recalls that Darwinian evolution involves "survival of the fittest," but forgets that it also involves "wiping out of the not fittest."

The species living on earth today represent perhaps .1% of all species that have ever existed. So, 99.9% of what evolved "failed"! For every one evolutionary "progression" that survives today, a thousand didn't make it... and that doesn't even count all of the random mutations that never produced a distinct species. 99.9% of species turned out to be evolutionary dead ends.

If one takes a "naturalistic" view of evolution, it is completely invalid to move from "Y evolved from X" to "therefore, Y represents progress over X." The tyrannical, late Roman Empire "evolved" from the Roman Republic, after all: do these naive believers in progress wish to insist that it was therefore better?

And note: most often, the entire idea of "progressive" politics relies on this nonsensical conflation of evolution and progress.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I Don't Get Conspiracy Theorists

See this. (Hat tip Dreher.)

This guy is suggesting both that:

1) The US government has built top-secret bunkers under the Denver Airport; and
2) The US government is doing everything it can to tip us off to the existence of these "top-secret" bunkers by advertising their presence in all of the art it chose for the airport.

If I had built top-secret bunkers that I wanted to keep top-secret, my inclination would be to STFU.

Why Caplan Doesn't Care About How Many Illegal Immigrants Enter the Country

He explains it:
Indeed, I've wanted to live in a Bubble for as long as I can remember. Since childhood, I've struggled to psychologically and socially wall myself off from "my" society. At 40, I can fairly say, "Mission accomplished."

Why put so much distance between myself and the outside world? Because despite my legendary optimism, I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked.
 Of course, if the society you live in is "dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked," then what the hell? If it is taken over by Klingons, it can't get any worse, and it just might get better.

Daniel Kuehn Diagnoses the Disaster of the Modern Social Sciences

Except he likes the disaster:
Thinking like an economist simply means that you scientifically approach human social behavior - which means that you approach them like any other species of animal. Nobody judges animals when they behave in ways that we would consider horrendous in other humans. They're just... animals. And that's what you really need for good social science. You need to look at your fellow humans as "just animals."
When we had real social scientists, such as Aristotle, they knew that man is the "rational animal," and as such, distinctly different from other animals, and so in need of special analysis, such as political science.

If you can't tell the difference between a dandelion and a redwood tree, you are going to make an awful botanist, and we have awful social sciences because the practitioners can't tell the difference between a human being and a tapeworm.

Some Things That Moral Realism Does Not Imply

Moral realism means that one thinks moral questions have real answers to them, not just answers we make up, and that it is either true or false to say "X is wrong," and not merely a statement of one's own preferences.

Before they get muddled by philosophy, almost everyone is a moral realist. And in practice, even after having had their common sense stunted in Ethics 101, most people continue to be moral realists: if their kid punches another kid in the head on the playground, they don't say, "Now Johnny, in my personally defined moral code, that was wrong." No, they say "That was wrong."

Now, there are a couple of things moral realism doesn't imply, but that, given the comments I have received, people seem to believe it does imply.

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks one infallibly knows right from wrong. I believe the physical world is objectively real, and not just a matter of what I define it to be, but that certainly does not mean I think I know everything there is to know about the physical world!

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks our understanding of morality never evolves. Again, think of the physical world: the fact we once thought the earth stood on the back of a turtle but now think it is a sphere spinning through space does not mean that there is no objective truth about the way the world is!

* Being a moral realist does not mean that one thinks moral issues are all easy. There is a truth about whether neutrinos can move faster than light, although that truth may be difficult to determine. Similarly, there is a fact of the matter about whether or not abortion is wrong, although that truth may be difficult for us to determine.

Most Moral Subjectivists Aren't Serious

Nihilism is really the right conclusion to draw from moral irrealism. But if you push most moral subjectivists, you will find that they don't really believe what they claim.

For instance, test someone who says, "We each define our own morality" by saying, "OK, then it would be fine for me, if I could get the votes, to pass a law making any non-procreative sex a capital crime?"

"WHAT?! You don't get to enforce your morality on me!"

"Why not? In the morality I defined for myself, it is perfectly OK for me to do so."

"But, but..."

What they really meant is that they think some things traditionally morally prescribed (such as, say, pre-marital sex) aren't really morally wrong at all. But since they have failed to convince everyone of this, they say, "Hey, you get your morality, and I get mine."

But they clearly think it is objectively wrong for someone to outlaw the sexual practices they enjoy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Moral Subjectivism Isn't the Droid You're Looking for

When Irin Carmon declares that we each have the right to define our own moral boundaries, she will prove a point that is quite opposite to the one she wishes to prove.

Here is what I suggest she really wanted to say:

1) There is nothing objectively morally wrong about adults having whatever forms of consensual sex with each other that they wish to have; and
2) It is objectively wrong for anyone else to try to control those sexual activities through force, including legally mandated force.

By instead claiming that we each get to define our own morality, she permits, of course, Rick Santorum to define his own morality as well. And in his self-defined morality, both 1) and 2) are false. So if Santorum can get a law passed outlawing homosexual activity, what can the moral-subjectivist Carmon say to him? "I think that is wrong!" Santorum merely replies, "I don't! And right now, I've got the votes."

Surely, Carmon thinks that Santorum would be wrong to get such a law passed, whether or not he thinks he is wrong.

So I suggest Carmon really ought to endorse moral realism, since moral subjectivism is not the droid she is looking for.

UPDATE: One way I sometimes see this formulated is, "Well, we each have the right to define our own morality, but you don't get to impose yours on me!"

That falls to the simple response, "Says who?"

Perhaps in the speaker's personal morality, no one gets to force their moral code on anyone else... but of course, that's just the speaker's own, personal moral code. If I don't agree, and think it's absolutely fine to force my morality on everyone, what can he say?

Aah! A Twitterstorm of Fools!

Matt Yglesias has twittered the following: "Woman who have sex are the new serial killers, apparently: "

This has sent a flood of people my way who are all taunting me for thinking consensual sex is the same as serial killing.

Well, I don't know Yglesias's writings well, but hopefully he wrote this while on the verge of passing out drunk in some Adams Morgan dive bar at three AM, because it is written by someone seemingly oblivious to the use of reductio ad absurdum. The person I was critiquing had claimed that "Everyone gets to define their own morality." She likes this idea when it comes to consensual sex. What I sought to do was show her that, if she applied this idea consistently, she really wouldn't like all of the consequences. So I deliberately sought out a case that was quite unlike consensual sex, but one where, if she applied her principle consistently, she would be repulsed by the consequences.

The point is this: as I see it, if Carmon wants to defend the right of women to freely choose sexual partners when, how, why, where they want to do, she should claim, "It is objectively, morally correct that women should be able to do this."

But her claim that "Each person has a right to define their own morality" has disastrous consequences, which she herself won't like, as I have shown.

Get it, Matt?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Authority and Rebellion: Shakespeare

(At this point, I am collecting material, not endorsing a view!)

Bates makes the case for active obedience, as opposed, say, to Berkeley's case for passive obedience:

KING HENRY V: I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men's minds: methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

WILLIAMS: That's more than we know.

BATES: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

(UPDATE: Whoa, sorry about the crappy formatting before! When one edited in HTML mode, Blogger used to respect your newlines and so forth: now, in an "improvement," it shows you the newlines on the editing screen, but then wipes them out when you publish!)

John Cleese Isolates the God Gene

And others as well:

Thursday, March 08, 2012

My Favorite Paper Title of the Past Year

"False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant"

(Hat tip to Mark Liberman.)

I Can't Tell a Stop Sign...

from a gun, and I can't tell a green card from a "No Negroes Wanted" sign.

Or so says Bryan Caplan. Bryan asks, "What is the moral difference between Jim Crow and immigration restrictions?" He doubts that anyone can point to anything of substance.

Well, try this out for starters, Bryan: Let's say I have a house. My family lives in it, as well as a couple of invited guests. If I declared that the one guy who lived with us who happened to be black had to do all of the crap jobs in the house just because he is black, I think we can all agree that would be pretty bogus. Similarly, if I tell him that he is the only person who can't go in the living room, just because he is black, my bad!

But now ten people show up, uninvited, and slip into the house. I find them in the living room having a party. I tell them they not only can't be in the living room, but they can't, in fact, be in the house at all. This is most decidedly not bogus. You see, the thing is, these people are not members of my household. They are uninvited trespassers. I am not discriminating against them based on some fact about themselves that they can't control, but because they busted in uninvited, something they certainly could control.

But Bryan has an answer: "Another possibility: You could say that the treatment illegal immigrants receive is an appropriate punishment for their law-breaking.  This position would be plausible if legal immigration were easy. But for the typical low-skilled immigrant, legal immigration is virtually impossible."

Ah, now I see where Bryan is going! Let's imagine the possibility of the average Princeton-graduating, GMU econ professor sleeping with Angelina Jolie by invitation. That ain't just virtually impossible: it's like dividing by zero or something of the sort. Therefore, there should be no problem with such a person sleeping with her without an invitation, since his chances otherwise are nil.

Or, since Jolie is not a group, let us consider the New York Knicks. I'd really like to go have a shoot-around with them. You know, I'd be happy to do it by invitation, but getting drafted by the Knicks ain't easy. Therefore, it's perfectly OK for me to sneak into their practice and challenge Jeremy Lin to a little one-on-one... and if they kick me out? Well, that would be just like... no, even worse, than... making blacks sit on the back of buses in the pre-1960 South.

The fact of the matter is, if you're going to have a group, there must be some criteria for who gets in and who is kept out. If the Knicks simply let anyone who wanted to do so wander out on the court at any moment and join in the fun, there would simply be no New York Knicks, but merely an on-court free-for-all. If GMU let anyone who chose to do so simply show up on campus, walk into any classroom at any time, and begin lecturing, there would no longer be any GMU.

And that, I suspect, is what Caplan is actually after: as an anarchist, he doesn't believe there should be any entity such as the United States, and, as such, he wishes to wipe out any boundaries between being an American and not being an American. And that is an interesting (although I believe flawed) position. But then, Caplan should be more upfront here: we should have no immigration laws because he would like to see the United States cease to exist as a definable group. But that position, obviously, has nothing to do with equating Jim Crow laws with immigration restrictions.

Footnote: I am quite sympathetic to arguments saying that we currently have immigration laws that are perverse and/or too restrictive. And I am quite sympathetic to treating illegal immigrants gently. But Caplan's argument is not a case for moderation, but for the complete elimination of any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants: a case for nullifying the ability of the United States to make laws within its own jurisdiction, and, as such, a plea for the dissolution of the US as a political entity.

Did They Act Immorally?

The situation (which I just saw on a TV show): two elderly women have their nephew move in with them. He terrifies them, bullies them, and turns them into his servants... or slaves, I guess, since he doesn't pay them.

Then, one day, he is hit by a car. He doesn't want official attention drawn to what happened (for reasons irrelevant to our discussion), so when he arrives home, he asks his aunts not to call a doctor. He goes up to bed. One of his aunts tends to him, and sees he is very seriously injured. She suspects, in fact, that without medical attention he will die in his sleep. But she does nothing; in the morning he is, indeed, dead.

Are the sisters morally culpable for not calling a doctor? Does the fact he has abused their hospitality weigh for or against the sisters? Does the fact the he explicitly declined help aid their case? Should they have taken into account the fact that he might be delirious, and not in the right mind to make a sound decision on needing a doctor?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Liveblogging Gordon Wood's The Idea of America

Sometimes, it might appear that there is a gulf separating the way pro-Paul and anti-Paul people judge the Texas congressman.

The pro-Paul people say, "Ron Paul is a man in the mold of this nation's founders, a true defender of the views that formed this Republic!"

The anti-forces say, "Are you kidding? Ron Paul is a nut job, a person who believes completely absurd things about there being massive, dark conspiracies to rob us of our liberty."

Well, folks, if I am one thing, it is a uniter not a fighter, so I'm here to say, you can both be right, because... the founders also generally believed completely absurd things about there being massive, dark conspiracies to rob them of their liberty! Although I don't think this will get into the high school history books anytime soon, I do believe this is now generally recognized by the experts in the field, people like Pocock, Bailyn, and Wood.

Here is Wood:
[The rebels thought that] the Tories were all "wretched hirelings, and execrable parricides"; George III, the "tyrant of the earth," a "monster in human form"; the British soldiers, "a mercenary, licentious rabble of banditti," intending to "tear the bowels and vitals of their brave but peacable fellow subjects, and to wash the ground with a profusion of innocent blood." (p. 31)
And Bailyn:
the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world -- a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part -- lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement. (quoted in Wood, p. 36)
So, next time someone tells you Ron Paul is a nutty conspiracy theorist, reply "As were the founding fathers!"

Peter Klein Doesn't Grasp the History of Science

Klein is trying to knock Krugman by rejecting the idea that we can have a science of higher-level phenomena before understanding the lower levels that make the higher level up:

"Methodological individualists don’t deny that there are interesting macro-level regularities that should be recorded and studied, only that claims about them don’t reach the status of science until we understand the underlying causal mechanisms."

And that denial is nonsense. Kepler certainly was doing science, and good science, when he developed his laws of planetary motion, without having any idea what underlay those laws. And so was Newton, when he developed his law of universal gravitation, without the least notion of what underlying casual mechanisms were behind this regularity -- something he freely admitted himself. And both physics and chemistry would have been stopped in their tracks by trying to be Kleinian "sciences": they progressed for centuries before it was even clear that atoms existed.

Peter has to go so far as to claim that Darwin's theory of evolution, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments ever, was not a scientific theory at all!

Well, when you try to spit into the headwind of the obvious (which is that you can have perfectly sound, completely scientific macro theories way, way before you know any microfoundations whatsoever), it will tend to come back at you!

To Klein's credit, when someone in the comments noted similar things to what I point out here, Peter backed off. But not far enough to admit the truth, which is that Krugman was right in the first place, and did not deserve Peter's "ugh" or accusation of "scientism."

Authority and Rebellion

This is a theme I am start to look at seriously, to see the development of these ideas. Here's round one:

'If Locke had said what he meant–that the feeling of oppression in an individual’s mind justifies resistance against authority–he would not have found support from classical sources. Socrates, most prominently, participated willingly in his own execution when it was ordered by a decision he believed to be unjust though lawfully rendered by the civil authorities. Plato insisted in The Republic that "faction is a wicked thing and members of neither side are lovers of their city."

'Aquinas, too, suggests that the long term communal stability of a society is better defended by tolerating small or occasional bouts of tyranny: "it is more expedient to tolerate milder tyranny for a while than, by acting against the tyrant, to become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself."' -- Scott Robinson

Daniel: Investigative Journalism Opportunity

Wow! Arlington County is sponsoring a special event on how hipsters can get housing subsidies! And you don't even have to be poor: today, if everything you want isn't subsidized by someone else, after all, your rights are being repressed.

Daniel, don't you live around there? Can you investigate? And while your there, find out about "Tenured-Chair Subsidies for Older-but-Recently-Graduated PhDs," will you?

That Doesn't Meme What You Think It Memes

"Meme" apparently now means "Cute saying on a poster."

Aren't These Twenties Lying on 34th Street?

The Knicks have two highly efficient shooters on the team: Steve Novak hits 48% of his threes, while Tyson Chandler hits 69% of his shots. The gives them adjusted field goal percentages of 67% and 69% respectively. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony has an AFG% of 43%.

Yet Anthony shoots nearly twice as many shots per game as... Chandler? Novak? No, he shoots nearly twice as many shots per game as the two of them combined. So the Knicks offense is continually passing up a 7 in 10 shot at a bucket for a 4 in 10 shot.

Am I the only one who sees something wrong here?

It's No Fluke

Because someone doesn't pay for my supply of X, that doesn't mean they are "denying me the right to X":

"Cost aside, the essence of Fluke's argument is that reproductive freedom requires free birth control. By the same logic, religious freedom requires kosher food subsidies, freedom of speech requires taxpayer-funded computers, and the right to keep and bear arms requires government-supplied guns."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

I was a cocksure SOB, and Murphy warned me about it after Iowa

Although only 12% of the vote is in, it is obvious Ron Paul will be well over 30% in Virginia when all the ballots are counted. And I am a man of my word. Paul is still going to lose by quite a bit, but I am truly surprised to see him doing this well.

Even Alex Pareene Must Know He Is Babbling Nonsense, Right?

Regarding allowing religious institutions to opt out of having to pay for contraceptives, he says:

"[Murkowski] had no idea she was signing on to a hugely unpopular and politically suicidal campaign to restrict the rights of women!"

Hey, I'd like a six pack tonight! I think if my employer refuses to pay for it, I will whinge that it is restricting my rights.

Pareene then piles the rubbish heap yet higher:

"She is pro-choice. She is obviously pro-contraception. She just voted against those two principles because..."

So, if I am pro-book, but vote against forcing employers to buy their employees books, then I am voting against my principles?

These are just rhetorical ploys, right? He can't actually believe these arguments make any sense.

Moral Reality: It's Whatever I Want It to Be!

Irin Carmon says we get to just make up whatever moral rules please us:

"The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad."

Hey, and let's have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It's hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn't fit her definition.

The Ron Paul Juggernaut Rolls On

In the most recent polls from the state's having primaries today, Paul is:

Last in Georgia, with 8% of the vote.
Third in Massachusetts, with 7%.
Last in Ohio, with 11%.
Last in Oklahoma, with 7%.
Third in Vermont, with 11%.

(I did not cherry-pick the states in which he is doing the worst: the above is every state for which RealClearPolitics has a poll.)

Here's a question you should now ask yourself, if you once thought Paul had a "good chance" of winning the GOP nomination: "How did my views wind up so out of line with reality?" One fact about Paul's candidacy has always been glaringly obvious: he is a strongly anti-war candidate in a strongly pro-war party. That is all one ever needed to know to realize he has never had a chance of getting the nomination.

Look, I love my daughter, and am happy she is now in her second year of competitive swimming. But if she comes to me today and tells me, "Dad, I'm going to win a gold medal at this year's Summer Olympic games," I will respond, "I'm sorry, my dear, you don't have a chance of even making the Olympics this year. Maybe, if you work very hard, in a decade you might win a medal. But to think you'll win this summer is delusional." Telling her that is honest and helpful, and not an attempt to "sabotage" her swimming career. But some people become so invested in their delusions that to question them is considered treason.

And what about the people who knew all of the above but were selling others the delusion?

Monday, March 05, 2012

It's Conspiracies All the Way Down!

Tyler Cowen notes research showing that belief in completely contradictory conspiracy theories is positively correlated.

Grist for this mill: how about a web site that holds both that:
1) The theory of evolution is a bunch of rubbish being pawned off on us by our statist masters?
2) The paleo diet is a vital breakthrough, based on the theory of evolution, being hidden from us by our statist masters?

I bet you can find one if you google for a minute or two.

How to Decide if Health Trend X Is Quackery

I assure you, you and I have neither the skills nor the time to test each new exercise plan, form of alternative medicine, diet, etc. for ourselves. And let me further assure you that the fact that the founder of a fad is anti-state is a terrible way to determine your diet.

So, what to do? Let the market do it for you. Especially the market most vitally concerned with the maintaining really top-notch health in people: professional sports. For pro sports teams with millions of dollars on the line, it is vital to stay on top of breaking research into health and fitness. They have great resources to put into evaluating these new ideas, and tremendous motivation to use anything that works, whether it is "anti-state" or not!

Is chiropractic care quackery? The fact that 31 of 32 NFL teams employ chiropractors is a pretty good sign the answer is "no."

Are paleo diet and exercise quackery? Well, on a web site promoting things paleo, we find: "NFL veteran John Welbourn preaches the paleo diet to his former teammates on the New England Patriots. Endurance gurus like Joe Friel, who, along with Cordain, co-authored The Paleo Diet for Athletes, urge triathletes to try it."

So, in all of pro sports, there are a couple of guys promoting this stuff? Well, I'm a Kirzernerian, not a neoclassical, when it comes to microeconomics: equilibrium is an ideal construct, not a description of reality, and there are missed profit opportunities all the time, e.g., sabermetrics wasn't picked up on in baseball for quite a while after its invention.*

But me, not being a medical researcher or anything, I'm going to wait. When I hear 31 out of 32 NFL teams are serving paleo food at their training tables, I'm in.

* I have a student working on this issue now, by the way. Oh, and yes, Daniel, I realize that there are neoclassicals and there are neoclassicals, and that the really good ones have always recognized that these things are just models.

I'm No Donald Rumsfeld Fan, But...

when people chortle about his "unknown unknowns," the laugh is on them:
DAVID DUNNING:  That's absolutely right.  It's knowing that there are things you don't know that you don't know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about "unknown unknowns."  It goes something like this: "There are things we know we know about terrorism.  There are things we know we don't know.  And there are things that are unknown unknowns.  We don't know that we don’t know."  He got a lot of grief for that.  And I thought, "That's the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year."
 This is basically just the point people like Knight and Kirzner make on the difference between risk and uncertainty. It is why Kirzner notes that merely including search costs doesn't really fold Hayek into the mainstream: you can only evaluate search costs in any meaningful sense when you both know just what it is for which you are searching, and know with some exactitude the limits of where it might be found. But in cases where a true innovation is sought, we don't know either of those things.

Samuelson on Subsistence Wages

"And, by the age of Mill and Marx indeed, even in Ricardo's time and Malthus's later editions -- the level of the subsistence wage rate was freed from physiological dimensions and became a dummy variable shot through with conventional standards of life hankered after by (some) workers. At this stage a meaningful false theory had been replaced by a meaningless nontheory that could never be vindicated or rejected by any pattern of historical facts." -- Paul Samuelson, "Modes of Thought in Economics and Biology," American Economics Review

Where Were US Presidents Born?

See here. The one from my home state?

W! Aah!

And seven from Ohio. That's weird.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Libertarian Founding Fathers?

"Although emphasizing the importance of economic liberty, the American founders were not property rights absolutists. The framers would have been dumbstruck by the idea, common among later libertarians, that property must never be impinged, regulated, or taxed by the government in any way. Instead, the framers thought the government could intervene in the economic sphere for a variety of social purposes." -- John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness, p. 14

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Your Religion Is Fine with Me...

so long as you don't take it seriously. Or at least that seems to be Andrew Sullivan's position.

The issue is Mormons' practice of posthumously baptizing those of other faiths. Now, if Mormons seriously believe this will help the souls of the departed, and it is little trouble for them, then it would seem to be morally obligatory for them to continue this practice. But Sullivan will have none of that:

"It's deeply disrespectful to and invasive of other faiths to be posthumously co-opted in this fashion."

Respecting other faiths (so long as they are kept in the private sphere) and non-invasiveness of such private spheres are values that sustain the liberal polity: they are key tenets of the liberal faith. To be a good liberal, you can have a secondary faith, but all of its tenets must be potentially trumped by the central tenets of liberalism. If you are more worried about, say, the eternal salvation of others' souls than you are about their privacy or their right to "my own damned opinion," then you will not be tolerated.

Liberalism is very tolerant. Of other liberals.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Take That, Hume*!


"But Locke failed to fully disclose the transformative nature of his conception of rebellion. Instead, he attempted to make his idea of rebellion appear to be consistent with traditional thought. This manipulative use of language in order to make a new idea appear traditional is Locke's way of concealing from his readers the novelty and ideological nature of his political writings."

And from page 2 of the same article, here is a Voegelin quote on Locke I hadn't encountered:

'Voegelin was indeed quite critical of Locke on those occasions when he wrote about him, labeling Locke among "the most repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of humanity" because Voegelin saw Locke as "an ideological constructor, who brutally destroys every philosophical problem in order to justify the political status quo."'

I don't think Voegelin liked Locke very much

* I mean my angry commentator, Hume, of course.


Since Brad DelLong mentioned them today, I will give you my method for generating hard-to-crack but easy-to-remember passwords.

First, pick six or so events, the dates of which you know you will never forget. To help illustrate, I will choose one myself: the execution of Charles I of England in 1649.

Now, take the first four letters of a phrase or word describing the event. We will use "Charles," giving us:


Now, we are going to interleave these with the date. You should generate your own method of doing this, and then use that method with all of your events. Here, we will go 2-2-2-2, like this:


Now, at the same place each time you need a new password, insert a punctuation mark of your choice--here, let's say you decide to always insert a # character, in the second place, like this:


Now, pick on letter to capitalize. Again, you will capitalize the same letter each time you use an event to get a new password. So now we have:


I submit to you that that password will be pretty hard to crack, and the password strength analyzers agree. (It scores 100% here.) But once you practice this method just a little bit, the password will be easy for you to remember. You only need to recall which event from your list you used, and your rules for how to interleave the numbers and letters, where to capitalize, and where to insert a punctuation mark.

Now, you can also vary from this (now published) method in simple ways that amplify the difficulty in cracking your password, even for someone who has read this post. You could use five, or six letters from the event name, instead of four. You could peel off letters back-to-fron instead of front-to-back. You could use all caps except for one lower case. You could add the month in to get more numbers. You could use two punctuation marks. You could use the date in reverse. And so on.

Once you have done a couple of personal modifications like that, I submit that no one will be able to crack your password in any reasonable number of guesses even if they were sitting at your computer, you had written down the events, and they had the list in hand. Think of all the permutations: they have to guess which of your events you are using at present, how many letters and numbers you use from each, how you interleave them, how you mix upper and lower case, in what order you peel off letters and digits, which punctuation marks you use, and where you place them in your password. I quickly count 32 available punctuation marks on my keyboard, times 2 choices for how many to use, times 3 choices for how many letters to use, times 3 choices for how many digits to use, times 9! or 362,880 ways to interleave them (if you chose 4 and 4 and 1 punctuation mark as we did above)... well, that is already over 200 million possibilities.

But these are all simple rules. You just memorize them once, practice them half-a-dozen times, and you are good to go: you will never have to choose between using a trivial to crack password like your name or birthday and writing down your difficult password -- one of the worst security breaches of all! -- again.

Hey, But Didn't They Think the Earth Was Flat?

"Tutte le stelle giĆ  dell' altro polo
Vedea la notte, e il nostro tanto basso
Che non surgeva fuor del marin suolo." -- Dante, La Divina Commedia, Canto XXVI  

So, in the early 1300s, Dante not only knew the earth was a sphere, he also realized that this meant that someone sailing south would see new stars, and the the North Pole Star would become lower and lower in the sky.

The Querist

In Berkeley's 1735 book, we find:

The quantity theory of money:

"22. Whether, therefore, less money swiftly circulating, be not, in effect, equivalent to more money slowly circulating? Or, whether, if the circulation be reciprocally as the quantity of coin, the
nation can be a loser?"

Price determination by supply and demand:

"24. Whether the value or price of things be not a compounded proportion, directly as the demand, and reciprocally as the plenty"

The importance of money for economic calculation:

"25. Whether the terms crown, livre, pound sterling, etc., are not to be considered as exponents or denominations of such proportion? And whether gold, silver, and paper are not tickets or counters for reckoning, recording, and transferring thereof?"

The falsity of mercantilism:

"108. Whether, although the prepossessions about gold and silver have taken deep root, yet the example of our Colonies in America doth not make it as plain as day-light that they are not so necessary to the wealth of a nation as the vulgar of all ranks imagine?

"109. Whether it be not evident that we may maintain a much greater inward and outward commerce, and be five times richer than we are, nay, and our bills abroad be of far greater credit, though we had not one ounce of gold or silver in the whole island."

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Keynes on Berkeley

"Bishop Berkeley wrote some of the shrewdest essays on [economic] subjects available in his time." -- Letter to Archbishop Temple

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...