Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Cheap Fame

Ask Tom the economist whose favourite three bands are The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead whether he likes manufactured pop music and with his artistic hat on he’ll probably say no. Ask him whether he likes manufactured pop in terms of what’s good for society and with his economist hat on he may well say yes.

What’s the difference between the two evaluations? The answer is that one is a subjective personal argument and the other is an objective economic argument. As a credible music lover, Tom possibly sees the likes of Westlife and Boyzone (or whoever the modern day equivalents are) as lacking musical credibility, complicit in cultural degradation and producing faux-icons that are unworthy of adulation.

As a credible economist, he understands that lots of people are willing to spend money listening to manufactured pop. The economist is generally less bothered about whether someone is right or wrong, wise or unwise to like something – he or she is primarily concerned about market signals that convey information about people’s wants, needs and preferences.

To put it another way, what is being considered is whether the market for fame (like the market for laptops, beds and cars) is succeeding or failing. Save for price controls and government interference, nobody questions whether the market for laptops, beds and cars is failing, because we don’t wonder if we’re getting the wrong kinds of products. Yet with celebrities we do – we find ourselves wondering whether famous music stars are credible songwriters or artificially manufactured bubble gum pop stars, and whether the latter has any artistic validity.

It’s here that economics explains why by and large we have the right number of all kinds of celebrity too, at least in terms of what people perceive to be socially valuable. It’s easy to be critical of people who look at the benefits of the minimum wage, rent controls and import tariffs and stay blind to all the costs. Therefore we should do the same with celebrities; that is, identify the costs, but also realise the benefits too, even if they are not our own personal benefits. Because, you see, a big part of doing economics well is about perceiving the benefits to others that are not immediate to ourselves.

One obvious criticism of the present day celebrity culture is that fame is cheap and that there are a plethora of celebs competing for attention in an excessive pool. But equally, one benefit of fame being cheap is that society has more celebrities and entertainment for less money. For people that like inexpensive and accessible entertainment, the celebrity world is a bit like discovering a bargain bucket that contains some treats you end up liking but didn’t know you would. On top of that, the associative products that are concomitant with the marketing of celebrity – everything from TVs, CD’s, DVDs, audio-visual equipment, websites, fashion, shows, critics, advertisers, promoters and agents - share in the value of celebrity markets.

Another societal benefit that the celebrity culture engenders, as with all kinds of art and expression, is the way it brings people together for topics of conversation, mutual appreciation, and fashion influences. And given that fame brings valuable diversity to society, there is going to be beneficial cooperation from a wide range of people, where if value isn’t created they could no longer earn a living. In other words, if the world of celebrity gives people something they desire more than the money then it shows that consumer surplus is occurring.

What you have to consider is that when you walk into Waterstones, or log on to Amazon, the products competing for your attention are there at the expense of other products that could be competing for your attention. This means that in commercial terms a lot of people think this stuff is worth your while purchasing, which piques our interest to consider that, say, out of all the new books in the ‘out now’ section, there might well be something we’ll like.

The same is true of celebrities paid handsomely to endorse products – it’s a marketing trick to convey the following message: look, we’re sure you’re not convinced that this celebrity really loves the product, but if we’re willing to pay him or her all the money to say they do we must have confidence many of you will like it. On balance, the benefits of cheap fame probably outweigh the costs.


Thursday, 8 December 2016

This Is One Of The Most Bizarre Of All The Human Obsessions

Apart from for reasons of envy and insecurity, the obsession the left have with inequality is truly bizarre. We are more evolutionarily primed to keep up with the Joneses in the same socio-economic group as us than we are the Joneses in socio-economic groups high above us. If you're going for a job at Burger King it's more natural (not to mention sensible) to care about competition from other people going for the same job at Burger King than whether the Chief Executive of Burger King has two or three more cars than you do.

Everyone understands this when the example in question is a nightclub. If you go into a nightclub on the pull, the greater the number of attractive single males there are inside the less chance you have of pulling. Just like in evolutionary biology, men in nightclubs should be concerned about their status in comparison with other men, and women with other women. But they should not be concerned about all men equally, because those concerned about their status should be most concerned with other men in their selectability range - that is, those with pulling power similar to them.

If super handsome Charles increases his pulling power by an extra percentage point after having an even better hairstyle or a few extra sessions at the gym, that will disadvantage his nearest super handsome rivals more than it will disadvantage average Tony, who is more concerned about the pulling prowess of average Andy and average Darren. In the same way, if a low-skilled immigrant comes into the UK and joins the job market, he doesn't disadvantage Alan Sugar or Claude Littner; he disadvantages fellow migrants and low-skilled British people.

Seeing the regularity with which the champagne socialist social justice warriors blather and whinge about inequality, take to the streets with their placards, sit on debating panels and write their confused missives in left wing newspapers - I really do find it one of the most absurdly peculiar obsessions that humans have. The fact that a small proportion of society has made a lot of money by creating value in society for a large proportion of society (something very few people have the skill and ingenuity to do) should not be a reason for masses to get on their hobbyhorses and scoff at the 'horrid injustices' of inequality. The huge wealth gulf is precisely the kind of power law we should expect to see in a society of freely made commercial decisions.

It's an irony missed by so many, but the main way that less well off people ought to care about rich people is in the fact that they are often the investors and job creators who can give them a living (and in many cases lift them out of poverty). Suppose a corporation sets up factories in Mozambique and can afford to employ 3000 workers out of a possible 5000. If you're one of the 5000 in contention, you are going to care more about the other 4999 people in your own city than you are a millionaire in London or New York. But you also care about millionaires in London or New York because if you're one of the unfortunate 2000 that do not get taken on then one of those millionaires might just be the next investor who can put you and the remaining 1999 people to work.

There is an intelligent conversation to be had about possible problems that may occur if power and influence becomes heavily concentrated in the hands of a very few, to the extent that a tiny proportion of people in the world end up controlling the global economy, the media, the laws that govern us, and eventually our freedoms and liberties. But the trouble with that hypothesis is twofold:
Firstly, there is absolutely no evidence that that is happening or will happen, and there are plenty of reasons to think the opposite. And secondly, you really do get the impression that this future dystopia is not really a big factor in many people's thinking - they appear to be just bitter and envious about the rich because they live under a misapprehension that if the higher-skilled workers earned less it would somehow magically mean that lower-skilled workers suddenly earned more - an idea that just isn't based on reality, because wages are conditioned by the marginal product of labour not the fanciful whims of the populists, and because the economy is not a fixed pie, meaning just because someone has lots it does not mean they are taking your share.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Black Is The New Black Is The New Black Lives Matter

I have just finished watching the very interesting Black Is The New Black series on BBC2. It was beautifully shot, with great close-up filming of so many beautiful males and females with awesome skin – something I’m very familiar with as my wife, who is Rwandan-born dual heritage, has absolutely awesome skin. While it was lovely to hear from the contributors about the inspirations and progressions they've enjoyed, it was upsetting to hear of the many cases of racism and prejudice to which they’d been subjected, even in the UK in recent times.

While this country is definitely on an upward trajectory in terms of respect, acceptance and tolerance, the recent Brexit vote reminds us that there are still many nasty elements lurking in the societal sub-ducts. If I were to make a prediction, I think each passing generation will continue to see improvements, and it will probably be about another three generations henceforth before things get much better.

Here's why. When it comes to those who still lag behind in terms of being accepting, tolerant global citizens, there are two main groups in this country. The first and by far the largest group are the older generation of racists, bigots and xenophobes - people who grew up in this country when white indigenous Brits were the overwhelming majority, and who have never been enlightened or educated about the enriching benefits of a diverse, pluralistic society. The second group are the two generations of family that have followed on from the first group; they are almost equally similar in their views and prejudices, but many of the younger ones are far more used to diversity in society than the older folk. 

I'd say by and large in another generation hereafter most of the first group will have died out, leaving many of the second group as the new oldie racists, bigots and xenophobes. But by then Britain will be even more tolerant, accepting and diverse, and the newest group will be born into a society that makes them even less likely to be as bad as their grandparents and great-grandparents' generation. Consequently, I think it will take another couple of generations after that before things get a lot better. In the meantime they will continue to get a little better.

Last point on the programme. Listening to some of the contributors, it was interesting, how one or two said that it’s bad when there isn’t the black representation on TV shows, but there were a couple of complaints about shows that picked a select black person, making it obvious they were filling a quota. At the shorter term level, it’s an interesting duality of opposites, because it’s difficult to satisfy one desire without failing to satisfy the other. If it’s not desired that minority groups are deliberately selected to fill a quota then there is the danger that they will be left out; and if there is not the desire that they are left out, some kind of deliberate selection is likely.

As you've probably worked out by now, I want to live in a world in which programme makers feel absolutely free to make whatever programmes they wish, having any kind of representation they choose without the slightest fear of reprisals.

I also want to live in a world in which faulty arguments and bogus reasoning are exposed as being unhelpful to the people they are trying to help (as cases in point here and here and here demonstrate). To add to those examples, let's talk about an example of where this is happening in the black communities.

What of Black Lives Matter?
You've probably seen all the headlines in 2016 regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. My own view is that black lives matter, sure, but that is because all lives matter. Once we have (hopefully) agreed that all lives matter, I'd now like to you to agree with me that statistics matter too - or at least, they matter when they provide key data about a situation that many are overlooking. Black Lives Matter is described on Wiki as the following:

"Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people. BLM regularly protests police killings of black people and broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system."


The key words above are 'systemic racism'. While we can all agree that if there is systematic racism it should be stamped out, we should also agree, I hope, that when systematic racism is wrongly attributed it should be called out. I don't think there are many who would deny that systematic racism is still present in society, I think the disagreements are about how much systematic racism exists. I don't know the precise answer, but I think I can give an indication of places where it is being mis-attributed.
The fact that black people are getting stopped and searched, arrested, put in prison and murdered more than white people may give indication of strong systematic racism. But it may not. In fact, a little knowledge of some concomitant statistics suggests not. Here is some compelling American data:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, data shows that 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks. Blacks commit violent crimes at 7 to 10 times the rate that whites do. Blacks committed 52 percent of homicides between 1980 and 2008, despite composing just 13 percent of the population.
Across the same timeframe, whites committed 45 percent of homicides while composing 77 percent of the population. In New York City, blacks committed 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, despite only composing 23 percent of the population. Finally, according to a post I read a while ago, blacks are 18.5 times more likely to fatally shoot a cop than vice versa. Evidently, while no one would deny there are huge problems in inner-city America, it's not all about racism as is being made out by some - the higher rates of crime among black Americans are highly likely to be in some way behind the higher rate of incidences for blacks being shot by cops.
Just recently I was reminded of a conversation I had with a chum at school. I remember I wasn't very interested in sport (or very good at it), and I recall the school football team used to play other teams from other schools, and one of the teachers from the home team would be the referee (usually in our case a chap called Mr. Harty).
Far from being biased in our favour, I noticed that Mr Harty seemed to be more likely to favour our opponents. I understood why - if people are keeping an eye on you for biases in favour of your own team, the best way is to overcompensate by being slightly biased against them. I said to a friend that I thought that Mr Harty was showing bias towards the opposition, to which he pointed out that that couldn't be the case because Mr Harty often seemed to call slightly more fouls against the opposition than his own team.
I pointed out that this doesn't prove he's not biased. Here's why. The corollary is that if Mr Harty is more lenient towards the opposition by, say, 15%, then the opposition can afford to be 15% more aggressive when Mr Harty is referee. This shows that it is perfectly possible that Mr Harty could call more fouls against opposition players and yet still be heavily biased in their favour. If the opposition players are 15% more aggressive but only get 5% more fouls called against them then there is a clear bias.
There is an analogy here to the key factor in why the accusations of systematic racism very much depend on the ratio of criminals. If the ratio of black males to black criminals is greater than the white ratio, you would expect more black males to be stopped, arrested and shot by the police. I will illustrate by considering two islands, Island A and Island B. 
Suppose Island A has 50 black criminals and 50 white criminals among the population, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 7 to 3. Under those conditions you could infer probable discrimination. Suppose Island B has 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals among the population, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 7 to 3. Here you could infer a perfectly fair police/judicial policy consistent with the statistics.
Statistics matter, but here is the other important thing. Citizens on Island B, if they were unapprised of the fact that there are 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals on the island, may be protesting on the streets at the supposed 'discrimination' largely because they do not realise the ratio of black crime compared to whites.
Using the above logic, it's even possible for the police to be slightly biased in favour of blacks (perhaps to avoid appearing racist) yet still accused of racism by the black community. For example, if there are 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals on the island, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 6 to 4 or 13 to 8, the ratio of police action against blacks is less than the ratio of black criminals compared to white, yet still, without the vital knowledge of the stats, giving the appearance of unfair discrimination.
Finally, one key subtext, though, which is really an overarching factor, is that murder rates astronomically peak at 18 to 24, and then tail off as young males get older. This also happens to be the period of their lives at which they are competing for mating opportunities - they have a biological legacy of selected attributes that serve the interests of species, and competing is a large part of that.
Obviously there are other concomitant factors, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of murder are young, unmarried men seeking to improve their status against sexual rivals is played out in virtually every region of the USA and Europe. It is a pattern transcendent of cultural determinism.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Irrreducibly Complex Society, Biology & All That Mathematical Jazz

In response to my recent blog on evolutionary emergence and the fecundity of bottom up localised decisions, a friend, and excellent blogger, Tim Reeves, shared his thoughts in the shape of his mathematical spongeom sketch of evolution, and in the shape of a comment in which he claimed that:

"There is no way to distinguish between right and wrong in the trial and error computation which ultimately must make the appropriate selection, except to say that top-down transcendent constraints skew the statistics in favour of certain classes of outcomes."

As Tim rightly says, evolution requires a physical substrate of active information on which to run, and a constraint of the physical laws to do so (this is something I've written about in more depth before). However, I don't think the comparison is the best objection to the social elements I covered in the evolutionary emergence blog. Let me explain.

What’s happening in biological evolution underneath that layer is that there is a huge biochemical morphospace that has a connected structure through which evolution’s reducible complexity can traverse. Take, for example, irreducible complexity and reducible complexity - they refer to the arrangement of stable organic structures in evolution’s ‘morphospace’, but they cannot most primarily be understood at the level of the organism, because morphospace is not an adaptive landscape where we visualise the relationship between genotypes (or phenotypes) and reproductive success, and model fitness on the height of the landscape.

Morphospace is a mathematical model of the form of connectivity between patterns – so a reducibly complex morphospace means that the biological structures that populate the evolutionary landscape form a connected group. The notion of a gigantic sponge made up of very tiny fibrils that connect the evolutionary structure together sits fine with me. If the connection has no broken off parts then the random walk of evolution can move across the whole structure.

In fact, this is a particularly good illustration because sponges are composed entirely of mobile cells which can move about between different layers of tissue and reallocate themselves to take on different tasks. Sponges have totipotency, which as you may know, is the ability of a single cell to divide and produce all the differentiated cells in an organism. This allows any fragment of a sponge to regenerate into a self-sustaining organism.

A good analogy for markets?
I'm afraid though, the analogy of every tiny fibril representing the complete structure of the entire world’s biochemistry causes me problems when we get onto markets. You have to remember, no one is saying markets don't evolve without a top structure. What is being said is that activity at a local level is, just like natural selection, producing complex and sophisticated outcomes that look too well cultivated to have occurred by Smithian localities, and there we find a good analogy to the 'naturalism' of biological evolution.

You’ve probably heard of the term irreducible complexity in relation to the debate about intelligent design. The ID debate uses a fairly rudimentary definition of irreducibly complexity in relation to the evolvability of organisms (as per my definition above). At a deeper level, at the level of computation, if a system can only exhibit the full extent of its output by running it then we can say that system is computationally irreducible. Obviously we humans cannot understand the full implications of this when it comes to the entire universe, but the universe is a nexus of activity which has an underlying story that we may define as being computationally irreducibly complex.

What this means is that to simulate a like for like model of the universe would involve computation of universe-size proportions, just as to simulate the whole history of biological evolution would involve computation of the whole 4.5 billion years of biological evolution.

Extending the analogy to society, consider human history (let's call it H) as the sum total of everything that has happened in the vast search space, just as morphospace is the totality of the search space in the biochemistry that facilitates evolution. If we imagine H to be a computational model representing every piece of data and information linked to humans, then we can say that H is computationally irreducible, because H is locked together by every contingency (that is, all the constituent facts contained within H) so the removal of one fact would change H to something that isn’t H.

I realise that if you're unfamiliar with this kind of talk, notions like computational irreducible complexity are going to be quite conceptually opaque to the mind, so hopefully a simpler illustration will help, in the shape of what's called a magic square. A magic square, if you not familiar with it, is a configuration of numbers that give a beautifully succinct illustration. If you look at the square of numbers below, you'll see that the removal of one number from a global size magic square would change the whole structure. 

 1   35   34   3   32   6
30  8    28   27 11   7
24  23  15   16 14   19
13  17  21  22  20   18
12  26   9   10  29   25
31  2     4   33   5    36

What’s significant about the magic square is that its numerical structure totals 111 when summing columns, rows and the diagonals. When added together each sequence of six will obtain 111 each time. Change any one of the lines and the magic 111 will be thrown out. In other words, altering the configuration will disrupt the overall connectivity of the square. Mathematics has conceptual forms that entail magnificent symmetry, and the removal of any of those proprietary parts means it falls down like a house of cards in a gale force wind. 

Returning to human history (what we called 'H'), obviously H by definition can only be one computational set because the only way to change that set would be to produce an alternative history, and we can’t do that, because we are then talking about some other kind of H. Altering the configuration of the magic square will disrupt the overall connectivity of the structure – and that must be what the human story is like – you cannot change one constituent part without changing the whole. 

Obviously, constituent parts could be changed with seemingly no effect on the whole, but that’s not really happening – it’s only because we see reality through the tiny lens of our first person perspective that we don’t see the change to the whole.  Pretty much every word you speak to others, every decision you make, and every course of action you take has implications far wider than you can imagine. 

Let’s take a fairly extreme example to illustrate. Say you go back to April 20th 1889 and kill baby Adolf Hitler; it is obvious that the whole human story will be inexorably altered from that point onwards.  The 20th century would look unrecognisably different, even if at the time your act didn't appear to have global consequences. Using Hitler is only an extreme way of describing what would apply at smaller levels too.  Suppose you just want to go back in time and stop the little girl who lives down the lane getting run over.  Even that small intervention would have vast ramifications beyond your scope – you’d start a social butterfly effect that impinges on the rest of the human story. 

The H we call human history is irreducible, because the removal one component makes it something other than what it is. History tends to be viewed first off at a local level (one’s own history perhaps) and those local connections are woven into the standard cause and effect relations that make up the bigger picture. 

Just recently a young cyclist was knocked down by a car on the roundabout near where I live. With local introspection it is hard to imagine that this event had any real bearing in China or Brazil, but it would do – not immediately directly of course, but given H it must have an effect somewhere down the line.  Because things are not immediately obviously connected to us, each event in the global structure of H appears local and disconnected, whereas all events are actually woven together in an interconnected whole.  Clearly though not every event has global relevance – if I suddenly scratch my nose for 3 seconds that won’t have any bearing on China or South America will it (butterfly effect notwithstanding). 

I said that reality is seen through its of conceptual layers – well just as overall human history is incompressible, at the individualistic level the history of a person's life is the same – change one bit of it and it is no longer that unique system.  So in that sense even the rubbing of my nose is part of a unique personal history for me.  I am in my 40th year of being alive on earth, so my life's history amounts to around 14,500 days, or 350,000 hours, or 21 million minutes, or just over 1.2 billion seconds and counting. 

Of course we can work with a compression based on how much time I've been asleep in that time, or eating, or driving, but just like with evolution, the history of my life can only be fully analysed with the same 1.2 billion seconds computation time.  In other words, even if such a project were possible, to run a program of my life to see how my thoughts, feelings and emotions had changed and developed from birth to now would involve factoring in every single experience and influence and neuronal processing, and that's what I mean at a wider level by history being incompressible. 

To change one element of it means changing the totality of the whole thing. On a grander scale the world's history of the socio-personal is the same - to set up a computation mapping every event, the influence of those events on people, and the cognita processing those influences would take a timescale of the same length as the world's socio-personal history.

The perceived format of the magic square and the irreducibly complex nature of mathematics, the universe, evolution, human history, and whichever lens we choose to gaze through, provides us with a great metaphor for life – reality appears to us locally, and it can be extended into a much broader multilayered picture of interconnected stories – be they social, historical, biological, physical or mathematical. And what appear at the local level as a collection of separate and somewhat disconnected mini narratives actually weave a global pattern, which is itself embedded in an even bigger mathematical object that we only sparsely sample through this brilliant narrative we call physical reality. 

Now we get to the nitty gritty of Tim's question in relation to the freedom of markets and where it's beneficial for them to be artificially interfered with. As a reminder:

"There is no way to distinguish between right and wrong in the trial and error computation which ultimately must make the appropriate selection, except to say that top-down transcendent constraints skew the statistics in favour of certain classes of outcomes."

What you have to really consider is what in societal terms is the overall transcendental physical regime that constrains possible behaviours/outcomes? Society is constrained by all sorts of overarching authority figures (rule of law, regulations, mandatory exchanges of money, etc) but the question at hand here is not to deny their existence, it is to locate areas where they are excessive and counterproductively interfering in our beneficial transactions and our liberties (as per my recent paper on trade).

So to put it in algorithmic terms, the debate is about whether the algorithmic means by which the seek, find, reject and select computation is carried out in human behaviour better at a local level, or whether it is better imposed by authority figures. Given that local behaviour is concomitant with local knowledge and local incentives, it is fairly evident that there are many areas of society in which the authority figures are constraining the societal value (the consumer surpluses + the producer surpluses) at a level lower than would be the case without their interference.

Society is, of course, subject to physical constraints – most notably, energy, labour and knowledge – that limit the rate of progress and the directions society can take. But as we've covered before, many decisions made locally have knowledge-based and incentive-based advantages that top-down command decisions do not have (see here for example)

As a bonus, if you don't mind ending on a tangent, the whole sponge is computationally irreducible notion also demonstrates what is it that the Intelligent Design school have got wrong about irreducible complexity about irreducible complexity being unevolable in biological morphospace. Using the fairly standard scaffolding example that is often posited as an illustration – once you've removed the scaffolding and the cranes from, say, a Gothic cathedral, and destroyed any knowledge of cranes, cathedral construction becomes irreducibly complex. If we look for examples of this in biology and use a comparison between heavy stones in cathedrals and cells in organs, whereas with the Gothic cathedral the stones are simply too heavy to have been hoisted there, there are similar occurrences in biology where if subsequent mutations remove the antecedents of symbiotic systems there is no way to logically regress the path of a complex evolutionary adaptation.

If one component was removed then it could not function, and this seems to be due to two possibilities: The proteins (or protein complexes) have been modified further since the addition of the hypothetically removed part. If such modification creates dependence on this more recent part then its removal would be detrimental. Secondly, as we’ve said, the structure evolved with 'scaffolding'. It is hypothetically possible that a structure could only be stable when complete, but that it could also be stable if another structure is present.  Remove this second structure, just as scaffolding is removed when building work has finished, and the first structure remains stable. However, remove a single part of the structure and the scaffolding is needed for support again, if it is not there the first structure collapses.  Both of these are ways in which irreducibly complex structures can evolve – but crucially they describe irreducible complexity in the biological patterns of morphospace, not in the computational ‘sponge’ whole. 

The problem with the IDists idea of irreducibly complex systems is that if morphospace does contain lengthy leaps that refute reducible complexity such large leaps taken would never be stumbled upon because they would be too computationally complex. You see, the Intelligent Design school is thinking of Irreducible Complexity in terms of subtraction of functional elements which leads to “instability” in the organism. But if we think back to our pattern of morphospace with the sponge, those concepts of “scaffolding” (and everything else in the biological patterning) will be embedded in such a complex configurational nexus that biological irreducible complexity could only be found in morphospace with a computation of the same length. So the IDists are barking up the wrong tree with their version of irreducible complexity.

N.B: Point of clarity: logical incompressibility is different from morphospace because it is dealing with a different heuristic. Logical incompressibility has to do with equations and algorithms used for data compression, although in mathematical terms it is true that physics effectively defines a set of stable structures in morphospace. The subject we have dealt with is tricky because we are looking at how mathematical patterns are configurations of laws over physical systems, and it is easy to confuse mathematical patterns with the physical systems they support. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

2 Great Tips For Considering Dodgy Opinions

Vegans have a fundamental problem – it is impossible to live strictly according to their principles because the sanctity of living things can never be preserved absolutely. It may be easy to avoid eating pork and beef and fish, but it’s impossible to live a life without being complicit in killing bugs and insects and microorganisms. Every time you clean the kitchen worktops or do some gardening, living things are killed. When your house was built, millions of tiny living things had to die for that to happen. Yet I presume even the most ardent vegan is not opposed to the idea of gardening and housing.

By a similar measure, absolute pacifists have a problem. An absolute pacifist believes that whatever the circumstance it is always wrong to act violently or impose force on another person. But are they seriously telling us that if they went out in the garden and saw their young daughter about to be raped by a sexual predator they would still insist on not using force if the attacker persisted? It seems unlikely, and would be a gross solecism against the daughter’s well-being if a parent did fail to stop this awful act.

The wisdom that can be distilled from the above is basically this. If even the most fervent proponents of a belief wouldn’t see it through to its logical end, there is a high probability that what they believe probably needs serious revision. If even the most conscientious vegans aren’t opposed to killing bugs then it’s very likely alright to kill bugs under the right circumstances. By extension, if for example it’s alright to kill flies to stop them going on your food, it’s probably also alright to kill disease-carrying rats, drink cow’s milk and eat free range eggs.
Similarly, if it’s morally permissible to defend an innocent young girl from a stronger attacker, it is probably morally permissible under some conditions to use force to defend innocent civilians against aggression and maltreatment from neighbouring states or tyrannical leaders.

The above method of thinking will get you quite far in running people’s beliefs through the gamut of rigorous analysis. Here’s another method I think can be useful in the area of assessing people’s beliefs – it’s what I call the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ phenomenon. Here’s how it works. Consider any of the countless dodgy and questionable beliefs out there and you’ll almost certainly find that it’s believed by a large number of people. Now imagine that only one person believed it, and ask whether it is likely that that belief would start to spread around the present population with enthusiasm, or whether the sole person who held that belief would in actual fact be a popular candidate for the funny farm.

Here’s an example: suppose genital mutilation didn‘t exist, and then one day a father came up with the novel idea that upon seeing his new born baby girl the first thing it seemed like a good idea to do is hack her genitals with a knife. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t all rush to make it a national (or even a religious) practice – we’d be rushing to phone first the police and second social services.

There are plenty of other examples; suppose only one person in the world believed that scientology is based on fact, or that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that black people are inferior to white people, or that homosexuality is a perversion of a person's real nature, or that homeopathy is evidence-based science - we'd think them to be absurd. But once upon a time each of those things was thought up by one person, so by definition there was a time (albeit very brief in some cases) in the world when only one person, or a very few people, believed those things.

That there are so many people currently subscribing to these beliefs and views shows how easily absurd ideas are passed on to credulous minds, and how, after a time, multiplicity of belief can act as a protective shield against external scrutiny being employed properly. That is to say, you are less likely to stand out with your absurd belief if thousands (or in some cases millions) of people also share that belief around the world.

Asking if certain acts or beliefs would be socially acceptable if just one person did them or subscribed to them for the first time is largely about creative use of thinking to instil improvements. By getting people to think this way we can strip some of the beliefs of their protective niche and subject them to a more courageous scrutiny.

On the other hand, employing the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ phenomenon the other way: suppose we were a nation of litterbugs, with everyone dropping their litter everywhere they went, completely ignoring the bins (at a huge expense for local councils) - and then some bright spark thought up the idea that every individual should be responsible for putting their own litter in the bin. That would be a good idea that would spread quite fast, and the person who thought of it would be praised.

Everyone alive today exists in an age in which thousands of views, beliefs and ideas are so ingrained in popular cultures that they are pretty much taken to be part of the furniture, often without very much critical and empirical evaluation. There are many we know with ease that they are good, and many we know with ease that they are bad - but there are an awful lot of good and bad views, beliefs and ideas that an awful lot of people think are good when they are actually bad, and bad when they are actually good.

With my above two methods you can subject any view, belief and idea to an interesting method of scrutiny. You can get a good sense of whether people really do apply the extensive logic required to be a vegan, a pacifist, a socialist, an eco warrior, an astrologer, an anti-abortionist, an anti-evolutionist, a Muslim, a Jehovah's Witness or numerous other examples I could proffer. Combine that with the assessment of a view, belief or idea with the ‘What if only one person believed it?’ test and you'll often be surprised how differently you feel about someone's opinion, not just in terms of its veracity, but also in terms of its place in society.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Do 'Baby On Board' Signs Make Much Difference?

Yesterday lunchtime on Radio 2 a couple of men (I didn’t catch their names) were debating whether families are safer in their vehicle if that vehicle is displaying a Baby On Board sign. It was a heated debate with one man asserting that displaying a Baby On Board sign does make those families safer because other drivers are likely to drive more carefully around vehicles with babies in them; and the other man arguing that this is probably wrong because, and I quote “It’s not as though you deliberately try to crash into a car that doesn’t have a Baby On Board sign displayed, do you?”.

Alas, both contributors missed a whole host of economic factors that would have informed their contributions better. For example, from what I recall, economist Sam Peltzman conducted a long study into driver behaviour. One conclusion he reached was that drivers with a Baby On Board sign tend to be involved in fewer accidents than ordinary cars. But that doesn’t tell us as much as we think about whether cars with Baby On Board signs are safer. This is where our first radio contributor went wrong: simply concluding that fewer accidents means safer driving is a model of over-simplicity that just won’t do.

Let’s assume it is safer to be in a Baby On Board car – by how much is it safer? That’s an incredibly difficult question. That Baby On Board cars have been involved in fewer accidents isn’t 100% conclusive, because car drivers cause accidents between two other cars all the time, and drive off unawares (or unwilling to stop). But it’s even more complex than that. It could well be the case that the sort of person who would buy a Baby On Board sign for their car is the sort of person who is already risk-averse and mindful of careless driving – so the odds of those kinds of people being reckless or careless may well have been slimmer anyway. 

Then there is the group of drivers who are reckless by heart, but who have children and then buy a Baby On Board sign. What percentage of those drivers become less careless after the Baby On Board sign and what percentage become more careless? Nobody really knows – and these are important statistics for our overall conclusion. Quite naturally I can conceive of many new mothers being extra cautious and less careless than when they only had themselves to think about. 

But doubtless there will be some who become even more carefree in the presence of a Baby On Board sign because they believe that their sign is inducing more careful driving and increased braking distance from other drivers around them who’ve seen the sign. We know this is likely to be true because we know already that there are many cases in which perceived safety increases reckless behaviour (seatbelts and contraceptives being two examples).

The upshot is, a proper analysis has to factor in not only that there are likely to be results that confound our expectations, but also that the complexities of human behaviour mean that sometimes results that are consistent with our expectations could be this way for reasons that weren’t properly understood or even considered at all.

* As well as having the consideration of safer driving, Baby On Board signs are also, of course, there to alert emergency services that when they arrive at the scene of an accident there could be a child on board. However, the success of this is contingent on parent drivers actually taking the sign out when they are not travelling with children, otherwise emergency services staff can waste valuable minutes looking for a child that isn’t there. A quick Google search indicates that this fact is shockingly absent in many parent drivers’ repertoire of information:

“Only 1 % of parents with Baby On Board signs removed it when they were driving without a child in the back 99% said they didn’t think it mattered, or weren't aware of the real use of the Baby On Board sign”

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Libertarianism & The Possible PR Problem

I saw recently that the Adam Smith Institute, to whose Blog I contribute from time to time, has disassociated itself from the term 'libertarian' in favour of the definition 'neoliberal'. I have sympathy. If you believe a set of things, labels don't often do them justice, and they can frequently give people the wrong end of the stick. As long as you're not someone who seeks comfort and fulfilment in group identification (which I definitely am not), you're probably wise not to get too identified with labels, as they are so often open to all kinds of loose interpretations.

Although I lean heavily towards the pro-market ethos of libertarianism and its concomitant liberal attitude to our freedoms (most associated with the Philosophers John Stuart Mill, John Locke and David Hume - and Adam Smith, of course), I am equally aware that libertarianism, like most groups, has extreme ends of the spectrum where one will find all kinds of radical, immoderate zealots with whom one has little in common. Hereafter, when I use the term libertarian I am defining it in a relatively moderate form that embraces freedom and markets, desires far less interference and regulation by self-serving politicians, but does recognise the role of the state in our lives.

Under that definition, I find libertarianism has the only genuine regard for a system that works for everyone, because it cares about all the people in the world, it understands that trade and competition are the main determiners of what works for human beings, and it is unbound by geographical borders and nationalistic preferences. Almost any sane mind wants a government to interfere in our liberties only when the benefits of their interference outweigh the costs.

To be a libertarian, I find, is simply to show that you understand the economic, logical, empirical and philosophical arguments regarding when it is good for the state to be involved and when it is bad. It is about understanding that there are vital thinking tools that people well-informed in economics have that most other people do not. These tools are roughly translatable as being the following 8 things that need to be understood but frequently are not.

1) Almost every action has tangible and intangible benefits, and tangible and intangible costs, and if you haven't considered all of those factors thoroughly you do not understand enough about what you're doing.

2) Just because there are good intentions and a perceived ethical stance behind a view or an action, this does not mean what you have is a good idea. In fact, quite often good intentions and a perceived ethical stance actually mask the reasons why many ideas are bad ones.

3) Just about everything in life is a trade-off, where something happens at the expense of something else (primarily time, money, and material resources) - and there is rarely anything you can do, or ought to do, that lies outside of this consideration.

4) If there is one thing that should almost never be interfered with it is the mechanism of prices that are dictated by the supply and demand market. Prices are not just sums that tell us the value of something, they are vital information-carrying signals that inform us of the outcome of billions of transactions throughout the world. No politician can know the market clearing price of anything better than the market knows itself.

5) The economic pie is not fixed, nor is it zero sum. If I have a slice of it, this does not mean it leaves less for you, because the economy can keep growing, creating wealth and value for both of us.

6) The principal drivers of human prosperity, increased well-being and economic growth are trade and competition.

7) Just as in the market of goods and services, tax is also something that also ought to be opened up to competitive forces.

(Note on 7: Just as shops and restaurants compete with one another for your custom, so too do governments of nation states in their rates of taxation (they would be able to do this more successfully were it not for the fact that so many people are under the misapprehension that society would be better if the rich were taxed more). Governments are competing with governments of other countries for foreign investment, where attracting more external workers and more capital investment from foreign entrepreneurs benefits the nation. People want to work and invest in nations where they are not taxed too heavily on their income and their investments, which is why sensible politicians will not tax too heavily).

8) To properly understand economics you have to understand incentives. When one person goes out to complete a transaction based on self interest, he (or she) adds a little bit of value not just to his own circumstances, but to every agent involved in the transaction (the seller, the transporter, the manufacturer, those mining for raw materials, and so on). Multiply that one transaction by the billions that have been going on every day in the past century and a half (in particular) and the result is the Smithian invisible hand mechanism that aggregated to all the increased prosperity and well-being the world has seen.

Understanding these 8 points provides the bedrock on which you can build pretty much your entire arsenal of economic understanding, political analysis and societal commentary. Virtually everything you need to speak rationally on any of those three things is bootstrapped by the wisdom of 8 points above. When I associate with the libertarian ethos, it is the above with which I am identifying when I call myself a libertarian.

But as I alluded to a moment ago, and this is where I am of a similar view to the ASI and the IEA, I certainly do recognise the important role that a state plays in society even if, as I covered in this paper, there are an awful lot of ways in which politicians distort and harm trade. Incidentally I do think there are several institutions and services that are currently state-provided that will one day not be, but in many cases the transition will likely be gradual, because it has to occur evolutionarily, not as a sudden change in the status quo.

Not only should it be acknowledged that the state (for now, at least) provides important functions in our lives - we also have to remember that people's decisions are affected by the information they have - and sometimes they need regulatory protocols to ensure they obtain that information about goods and services. So clearly, for this reason, being a libertarian doesn't mean adopting a 100% erosion of state influence.

Many regulatory laws are superfluous, but not all of them are. We need laws that protect factory employees from working in dangerous conditions unbeknown to them. If Jack is employing Jill and surreptitiously putting her life at risk due to faulty equipment or dodgy wiring that she could know about, I don't want Jill to be devoid of protection through the law. Nor do I want Jill to be a victim of trade description issues, or poor quality of product, or banking malfeasance - basically all the things that we as consumers wouldn't wish to be victims of due to asymmetry of information.

There are also some cases in which state regulation protects consumers from monopoly power, and also makes businesses accountable for their negative externalities. But by and large, with the qualities of the free market you are all but guaranteed (through price theory) to facilitate the most rational, incentive-driven allocation of resources possible, as well as minimising inequality, lifting masses of people out of poverty, and maximising the successful co-existence of humankind and the natural world.

The other thing you have to think about is the question of what kind of society you want to live in, and what kind of society is most likely to engender that. We can first ask which elements of daily living are most important, and then ask which political services are most important. So, for example, seeing what people are always saying they value, I would say off the top of my head regarding the question of which elements of daily living are most important, these are the following 8 things:

1) A country in which no one is unfairly discriminated against due to colour, gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

2) A country in which reason, logic, evidence and free enquiry are of primary value.

3) A country in which every citizen has enough food and a place to live.

4) A country where individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives and therefore have inherent freedoms and responsibilities

5) A country in which religious beliefs remained personal, and are largely kept separate from politics and legislation.

6) A country in which every couple can have a formal union with their beloved (either marriage or civil partnership) based on their beliefs and preferences.

7) A country in which free speech is afforded to its citizens, to the extent that (except for very extreme cases) anyone is free to say anything they want to anyone they choose.

8) A country in which the terminally ill have the legal right to assisted suicide (providing stringent legal precedents to avoid manipulation).

As for the political services, a government should largely be focused on doing the following:

1)  Protecting our freedoms and rights through the rule of law.

2)  Administering justice.

3)  Providing a military defence for its citizens

4)  Lightly regulating the economy

5)  Providing all the services the public sector currently provides more effectively than the private sector.

What you may notice about the above is that as things currently stand the 8 qualities are the ones best served by our having a free and open choice-driven society, whereas the 5 that follow them are, for now at least, qualities and services that the majority of us are happy to be looked after by the government.

On that note, one also has to consider present perceptions against future perceptions. For example, as I hinted above, there are some services that the state currently performs in the present that markets will be able to perform better in the future. But naturally in some cases the transition will take time, and some libertarians are fine with the notion there is a time and a season for specific optimum changes.

To finish, I should mention that to the perception of many, libertarianism also comes with a stigma of being ethically questionable, as people are quick to accuse capitalism of being about selfish, uncaring pursuits of individualism, driven primarily by the greedy profit motive. This is both unfair and short-sighted. The truth is somewhat opposite: libertarians understand something that makes the left very uncomfortable - that it is the people themselves, rather like in a democracy, that decide how society progresses - it is bottom up, not top down - and this makes control freaks very uncomfortable. The reality is, there is no proletariat revolutionary class within the bowels of the free market capitalism - mere organs controlled by the body of the bourgeoisie - the people are in charge and always were, as Mises was shrewd enough to pint out in the 1940s...

"The real bosses, in the capitalist system of market economy, are the consumers. They, by their buying and by their abstention from buying, decide who should own the capital and run the plants. They determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality. Their attitudes result either in profit or in loss for the enterpriser. They make poor men rich and rich men poor. They are no easy bosses. They are full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. They do not care a whit for past merit. As soon as something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. With them nothing counts more than their own satisfaction. They bother neither about the vested interests of capitalists nor about the fate of the workers who lose their jobs if as consumers they no longer buy what they used to buy."

The principles of the libertarianism I've described cannot therefore be immoral or uncaring, because its ethos is built on the championing of progress for everyone, not minority groups, which is what its opponents advocate (often without knowing it). We build our more formal ethics on our reasoning, but initially more so on our intuitions about instances that exemplify wrongdoing according to our conscience. These are the pivots around which ethical codifications revolve.

The free market, as regular readers will know by now, is literally the aggregation of all the world's mutually beneficial transactions. That's what it is in a nutshell. And by mutually beneficial transactions, we mean an act when both parties get a surplus from a transaction - that is, the buyer gets consumer surplus from the purchase, and the seller gets producer surplus from the same transaction.

The free market simply couldn't evolve into the complex multi-faceted nexus of connectivity it is now without the underpinning moral and ethical concomitants. However, given the up and running ethical substrate on which trade and competition can occur (the two biggest drivers of human prosperity), one should only desire government involvement in areas where the market doesn't already engender optimal outcomes - and that is the quintessence of my beliefs, however one chooses to label it.