Wednesday, 20 September 2017

What's The Answer To Reality's BIG Big Question?

The biggest philosophical question of all is Why is there something rather than nothing? That shouldn't just mean Why does our universe exist at all? - as it so often seems to have been adapted to mean, it should mean something even more profound: Why isn't it the case that absolutely nothing exists at all?

The most rigorous popular attempts to answer this have been put forward by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, both of whom tried to solve the problem by positing highly spurious notions of what 'nothing' actually means and how 'something' can apparently come from this 'nothing' of theirs (I wrote a response to their dodgy hypothesis in this blog post).

The upshot is, even if we accept the highly dubious notion that universes can somehow arise from nothing, this doesn't give us any clue about why the things that supposedly came from nothing couldn't have been vastly different. Why couldn't there have been no laws of physics, or no things at all that are not 'nothing'?

I think what looks to me to be the most reasonable explanation is that every single thing that can be said to have existed - that is, every thing that is a something and not nothing - is at its most primary essence a mathematical object. Anything that is physical or has any kind of physical laws is made of mathematics (in that it has the fundamental property of mathematics). This means that the primary question - Why is there something rather than nothing? - is really a question about why mathematics seems to have a necessary existence - that, in fact, whatever 'nothing' means in terms of physical things that may or may not exist, mathematics seems to not be able to help existing - it cannot do anything but exist.

On a place like the Internet you will find people who insist that mathematics is a mere human invention that we use to explain theories about the physical world. It's a strange view to have, because it appears to be completely wrong. As an example, consider Fermat’s Last Theorem, which states that a, b, and c satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n that equals at least 3. In other words, if you write four positive numbers and n is greater than 2, the equation an + bn = cn  will never be true.

Fermat’s Last Theorem is not self-evidently true - it took nearly four centuries to prove, and is true based on propositions about the property of numbers, not based on anything physical or on anything anyone has invented. It was true long before we came along to think it, and it would be true in any in universe with any physical laws and properties. Consequently, then, it doesn't satisfy the proposition of being a human invention nor something we use to explain theories about the physical world.

Another reason to believe that numbers exist is that we directly perceive numbers, and we tend to believe that the things we perceive do exist in some meaningful sense. The brown table I'm sitting at seems to exist - I am directly perceiving it. But if I got up and stood at each corner, I would observe a slightly different table from different angles each time. The shading of the colour brown changes according to my relative positions in the room, and my perception changes in accordance with where the light is shining in. The smoothness exists, but its texture depends on my reference point of observation. From a distance I see the table as being smooth, but with a powerful microscope I see lots of pits and crevices.

Nobody who stands next to the table denies that it exists, nor my hands that are rested on it. The apparent reality of the physical world conceals much activity, of which our naked eye is largely unaware. My hand is made up of skin and flesh and bone, which are oscillating molecules, which are an arrangement of bonded atoms, which are an aggregation of particles about one-hundred-millionth of a centimetre. Once we zoom in on the atom its solidity becomes hazier and cloud-like until we encounter its empty space. If we look further we would find the atom's nucleus, around which we would find particles called protons and neutrons and electrons - hundreds of thousands of them within one atom.

If we could enlarge a single atom to measure fifty yards in diameter its nucleus would be about the size of a grain of sugar, and its electrons would be like a few specks of dust circling the nucleus at a distance of about twenty-five yards. That tiny grain of sugar-size nucleus amounts to most of the atom's solidity, yet it only occupies a comparatively small fraction of the atom’s total volume (only about one millionth). 

Given that the table is made of atoms, in what way can the table be said to exist? It exists though our sense data, what Kant called 'phenomena', and it gives its appearance relative to the person perceiving it. Do you still think the table exists - and if so, in what way can it be said to exist given that its existence relies so heavily on sensory perception?

Hold that thought. Let's now turn to Kurt Godel - one of the smartest mathematicians ever, and probably the smartest logician. Here's one of his most well known quotes:

"Despite their remoteness from sense experience, we do have something like a perception of the objects of set theory, as is seen from the fact that the axioms force themselves on us as being true. I don’t see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of perception, i.e. in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception."

Godel's position is the right one, I think. If you're going to trust that the reality you perceive is based on things that actually exist, it seems quite a bizarre strategy to believe that objects that change according to sensory perception are the things that really exist, and that numbers, which do not change according to sensory perception, don't really exist. If we're going to believe in the concrete existence of anything, mathematics seems to be the one thing we definitely can believe exists.

Whichever way you cut the cloth, the thing about which we can seemingly be most certain is that the answer to the question Why isn't it the case that absolutely nothing exists at all? is that numbers exist, they always have always will, and they cannot help but exist.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Ask The Philosophical Muser: On Attacking Burglars and Good Gift Buying

Here's my latest Q&A column - if you have any questions for me, you can message me on Facebook, or email them here

Q) What is the economics consideration regarding whether society is better off if house owners can attack burglars that enter their property?

A) Well firstly, I wholeheartedly support a victim's right to defend themselves if a burglar illegally enters their property. I support this on grounds that I think people should be entitled to defend themselves and their family when in danger, and when someone forces their way into your home their incentive not to get caught and arrested is enough to make them a viable threat.

As for the economics, burglary has an immense social cost for the victims (not just having your valuables stolen, but also the sense of being intruded upon), but a relatively low cost for the perpetrators because conviction rates are low, and for many burglars addicted to drugs, life in prison won't be much worse than their current life situation. Therefore, a law that increases the costs for victims and decreases the costs for burglars is a highly questionable one.

The other thing to consider is that the law probably wouldn't do much good anyway. The kind of people that feel sufficiently threatened to the extent that they would use physical force against a burglar are unlikely to be the kind of people that would refrain from doing so because of a law that forbids them from doing so.

Q) What’s good wisdom for mastering the art of great gift buying?

A) You’re asking the wrong person – ask my wife, she’s the best gift buyer I’ve ever met. I, on the other hand, am the world’s worst gift buyer – pretty much every bit of wisdom I’ve picked up I’ve picked up from my wife. She’s so good that she buys me things I didn’t even know I needed, but was chuffed to bits when I received them. That’s the epitome of a good gift.

The other bit of wisdom I’ve distilled is that gifts are well chosen when they are gifts the receiver wants but wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves.

Good gifts do other things too – they make the giver and receiver emotionally closer, and they help create memories (either experiences or objects) that stay with the receiver long after the gift is given. Great gift-buying exhibits a signal that you understand the tastes, wants and needs of the person for whom you’re buying – making the gift as much about the thought behind it as the thing or experience in itself. If you can perfect all that, you’ll be a) a great gift buyer, and b) mastering something I haven’t yet mastered.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Richard Dawkins Gets This Argument Entirely Backwards

I caught Richard Dawkins' appearance on Bill Maher the other night, and alas, nothing much has changed - he still doesn't quite get this whole complexity thing. He's always been stuck on the notion that the cause for why there is something rather than nothing must have been something alarmingly simple, because "complex things had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings"

Not only does Dawkins have this entirely backwards, he doesn't seem to be able to intellectualise the fact that if he turned his proposition around 180 degrees he'd have a much better argument for atheism than his current playpen philosophy. Because it is evidently not true that complex things have to emerge gradually from simple beginnings - the natural numbers are more complex than anything in the physical universe and they don't satisfy the condition of emerging by gradual degrees from simpler beginnings.

Dawkins is desperate to be seen as one of the smartest atheists, yet staring him in the face is the best argument against God he could ever come up with - that the universe doesn't need a creator God because it is the result of mathematics.

Instead of arguing that God does not exist because complex things must begin with simplicity, he would have been better trying to argue that God does not exist because complex things do not have to begin with simplicity, therefore the complexity of mathematics could be behind the universe instead of God. Anyone tempted to argue that numbers don't actually exist can be directed to where I've covered this at least twice before (here and here).

It wouldn't be quite so bad if Dawkins failed at that level of the task - that would be somewhat understandable. But alas Dawkins takes his argument down an even more preposterous cul-de-sac:

"Where does Darwinian evolution leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip."

Oh dear! Biological evolution can't serve God His redundancy notice because biological evolution (at best) explains organisms that evolved with biological properties, and that has never been the ultimate thing that needs explaining. Asserting that biological evolution implies God has nothing to do is as silly as saying that filling a hotel with staff and guests implies that there was nothing for the planners and builders to do in constructing the hotel. 
Biological evolution only explains the relatively easy part - that is, once we have the mathematical underpinnings, the laws of physics, and the informational platform, then biological life, once it gets going, is a relatively straightforward step by step cumulative selection process, certainly in comparison to creating a universe and designing the complex physical laws that act as a canvas for the colours and textures of evolution of life.

The hard part is in explaining why the universe is made of mathematics, why there is any mathematics at all, and why anything so complex exists in the first place. The natural numbers show that Dawkins' underpinning premise is wrong: complexity can not arise only from simplicity. You can use just a fraction of the complexity of the natural numbers to encode the entirety of the genomes of every living thing biochemistry has ever created.

So in my view the best argument for the non-existence of God is that there is already something infinitely complex that could explain the existence of nature - numbers and the laws of arithmetic. This does not prove or disprove God, of course, but it does show that Dawkins has this entirely backwards, and cannot even recognise a better proposition for the cause he wants to champion.

Whichever side of the line you fall on - theist or atheist - the most primary fact you have to begin with is the fact that something infinitely complex exists (the natural numbers), that it has always existed, and that it stands outside of the constituents of evolved nature.

Further reading - The Mathematical Bias Theory: Why There Probably ‘IS’ a God – in 20 Steps

Sunday, 10 September 2017

'Schrodinger's Leftist' Simultaneously Misunderstands Both Schrodinger & Leftism

Schrodinger's leftist: a leftist who is simultaneously a cowardly snowflake and a violent thug.

Popular cultural terms alluding to Schrödinger's cat (like Schrödinger's immigrant) can be quite effective because they take a small liberty to reveal an apparent contradiction, while playing on the nature of a superposition of possibility - something that's easy to grasp if you properly understand Schrodinger's thought experiment.

For those less familiar, the thought experiment called ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ by Erwin Schrödinger proposed a scenario with a cat in a sealed box, with its life or death being dependent on the randomness of radioactive decay breaking a container of poison and killing the cat. With the Copenhagen interpretation*, Schrödinger's conclusion implies that the cat remains both alive and dead because neither possibility has any reality unless it is observed.

That is to say, unless we open the box, the cat remains in a ‘superposition’ state of being both alive and dead, because in the everyday world events are governed by probabilities, and whether through decay a radioactive atom will emit an electron is down to probability

So with something like Schrödinger's immigrant, the point being made is that sections of society as a whole are trying to have their cake and eat it by painting immigrants in a 'superposition' state of being bad for the country because they come here to work and take jobs, and at the same time here to laze around claiming unemployment benefits (which is a contradiction - at best an immigrant can work and have his or her pay topped up with benefits).

Those who have been lauding the Schrodinger's leftist meme are not seeing either picture, as there is no contradiction at all between a leftist being both a cowardly snowflake and a violent thug. Once you remind yourself how easy it is for them to be both, it'll be easy to see the defect in the perceived contradiction.

As we're seeing far too often these days, many on the hard left quite seamlessly fluctuate between the two extremes when the matter suits them. When encountering people that disagree with the views and beliefs they are promoting, they become whiny snowflakes determined to take offence, regularly attempting to censor or shut down opinions they do not like. However, when encountering people promoting views they disagree with, they take to the streets in mobs, often becoming intimidating and aggressive towards people that stand in their way.

There is more than enough cognitive dissonance and internal dissension in the average hard leftist for them to house in their cranium cowardly snowflake traits and violent thug traits, and unleash them in whichever way suits their cause. There need be no contradiction at all.  

* The Copenhagen interpretation says that because we require photons to detect electrons' positions, and this then alters their momentum, the uncertainty principle is actually a failure of our measuring ability, and an artefact of the observer effect/wavefunction collapse. The ‘hidden variable’ interpretation maintains that there is an incompleteness to our ability to work with quantum systems and that in actual fact elements of reality are sufficiently hidden, prohibiting us from identifying a more deterministic system. With the Copenhagen interpretation there are two levels of uncertainty going on; the uncertainty due to the intrinsic disorder of the system but further uncertainty by our disturbing the system by hitting electrons with photons. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Salty Cereal Fallacy

I probably have just about enough faith in humanity to believe that the hardline extremists of either political persuasion (left or right) will never gain enough traction to be highly influential. There is enough contemporary evidence to show that the majority see socialism and extreme nationalism as being fringe crackpot viewpoints comparable to the foolishness of astrology and Scientology.

I'm actually more perturbed by the centrists at the moment - the ones that are surreptitiously promoting a third way that looks to conflate the so-called best parts of socialism and the so-called best parts of capitalism. This is more of a concern because it falls foul of what I call the 'salty cereal fallacy', to which I will now introduce you.

Here's how it works. Those on the side of the market and human prosperity understand that cereal can be positively supplemented with fruit, nuts, raisins, or even a sprinkling of sugar in moderation. Socialists, on the other hand, are under the mistaken impression that adding salt to cereal will make it better - sometimes confusing salt with sugar, and sometimes believing that salt will actually improve the flavour of cereal.

Now it's easy for those on the side of the market and human prosperity to win the salt vs. sugar (fruit, nuts, etc) argument - so as a consequence, some on the left are now trying a centrist compromise. That is, cereal will be improved with a bit of sugar and some fruit, but it will be even tastier if we balance it out with some salt too.

To those who understand the qualities of eating cereal, this is an obvious fallacy. Losing the argument to put nothing but salt on your cereal doesn't mean that you can improve sugary cereal by adding sprinkling just a little salt on it - that's not how it works.

To take the analogy further - salt is, of course, good for many things - it brings out the flavour in savoury foods, and its hypertonic nature helps preserve food by inhibiting bacterial growth and stifling pathogens. In the analogy, cereal represents the financial economy and savoury foods represent the social economy - where the salt of socialism is bad for the former and good for the latter. As long as people get the benefits of sugar and salt right, and apply them to the right meals, things are ok.

I have some practical advice on how this can be achieved - it is built on understanding an important distinction between the market economy and the socio-personal economy. The principal distinction between the two is that the market economy has exchanges that are precisely recorded in terms of cash exchanged or increases/decreases in 1s and 0s on banks' computers, and the socio-personal economy has exchanges that are less-precisely recorded in terms of voluntary transactions for the good of one another.

The difference between their operations is notable too. In the financial economy the demand almost always exceeds the supply (of a limited range of labour, goods and services), because suppliers maintain their status differential (principally income) by increasing their prices or their supplies (or a combination of both), and endeavour to become top of the supplier tree by out-competing their competitors.  

Conversely, in the case of a socio-personal economy, the supply (of a nigh-on unbounded range of actions) almost always exceeds the demand, and suppliers who care enough about others maintain their status differential (primarily their character and reputation) by trying to summon up new ways to be a better citizen in society. Of course, a financial economy has a necessary social economy woven into it, because it’s hard to be successful in business without good character and reputation.

The salt of socialism is well suited to savoury foods, such as those instances in society where humans do nice things for one another in a non-contractual sense (such as inviting friends round for dinner). The sugar of the market economy is well suited to sweet foods, such as those instances where a financial transaction occurs that makes buyer and seller better off.

But interfering in those flavours by using salt or sugar inappropriately makes the meal worse not better. Just as it would be harmful and improper to offer friends financial payment for a meal they'd cooked for you by invitation, it is similarly harmful and improper to interfere with socialist principles in the complex price system that bootstraps our market economy.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Ask The Philosophical Muser: On The Value Of Middle Men

You may recall a while ago that I invited readers to submit any questions they might have to and I would publish some of them in some Ask The Philosophical Muser articles.

I have finally got round to putting some of them together (which was easy as there have only been six or seven thus far), as well as extrapolating some questions/comments/queries I've stored from my time on debating forums.

The questions that appear henceforward in the Ask The Philosophical Muser articles are a heady mix of actual reader questions, varying enquires and feedback that have come my way on social media, and some semi-factual/semi-fictional elaborations where I've taken segments of actual discussions I recall over the years and turned them into fun questions and answers for this Blog. I promise I have taken no liberties that depart from actual questions people have in some way been curious about either in written or spoken conversations.

For the first one, a reader probed me with a very intelligent question that I'd not really thought about in quite this way before. I'm not quoting him verbatim, but the gist of what he asks is this:

Q) If governments are bad when they provide an unnecessary filter between provider and consumer, then why aren't many shops bad when they provide an unnecessary filter between wholesaler and consumer?

A) It's one of those great questions because the logic is pretty robust, it's just that the information needs a little tweak. By which I mean, yes, at face value the logic suggests that any middle men (or middle women, of course) between provider and consumer are going to cream off a share of the value for themselves, because if I want to buy £3000 worth of envelopes from a paper mill via the middle man involvement of a stationery company like Espo, then by the time Espo have taken their cut, I will be paying something closer to £3200 or £3300 for the same product.

But what you don't always get to see about middle men is that they bring to the transaction certain specialities in which they have the comparative advantage, and through which they actually make your transaction with the manufacturer/wholesaler more financially beneficial.

To see why, imagine a baker who is also a pretty good driver with good knowledge of the city in which he bakes. If he wanted to provide a service where he delivered pizzas and cakes around the city, it would obviously not pay him to make the goods and deliver them himself, even if he is a slightly better driver and navigator than the person he hires to do his deliveries.

The reason being; it is more economically efficient for the baker to pay someone else to do the deliveries because what he'd gain in forgone wage costs he'd lose two or threefold in lost opportunity for baking. Suppose in terms of gross profit our baker can make £50 worth of baked good per hour (revenue minus cost of ingredients) and pay someone else £10 per hour to deliver the goods. The baker's profit goes down to £40 per hour, but if the baker spent 3 hours a day doing his own deliveries it would cost him £120 of baking profit to save just £30 of delivery costs.

Similarly, shops are good for consumers and providers alike, because even though the shops have to take their cut as middle men, they have the comparative advantage in things like market research and sourcing information on behalf of consumers. In fact, one can go so far as to say that the fact that the wholesaler chooses the services of retailers shows that the presence of retailers reduce costs by performing actions that would otherwise have to be performed by the wholesalers and the consumers.

As ever, any questions for this Blog can be sent to me and may become part of the series, consistent with the four golden rules:

* Please don't ask me to do homework, coursework or an assignment for you. No reader or blogger is interested in that.

* Before asking something, please check the *Labels* section on the right side-bar, as that topic may well have been covered before on here.

* There's no point asking a question about facts or information that you'd be better off typing in Google.

* Please keep your question short. You have a better chance of getting an answer if your question would comfortably fit on a post-it note.


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Generation Snowflake Gets The Wrong End Of The Stick Again

Let me introduce you to a terribly thought out article in The Guardian by Afua Hirsch, where she tells us how 'alienating and elitist' she finds Oxford and Cambridge Universities because they contain too many white students.

Like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Salma Yaqoob, Mehdi Hasan and Diane Abbott, Afua Hirsch is one of the leading figures in cry-baby politics: a group of half-witted snowflakes who craft a public profile out of looking for things to take offence to, even when, as you'll see below, there is nothing offensive happening at all. 

Because of which, they almost never arrive at the (correct) conclusion that the problem is they haven't thought their arguments through adequately, and instead arrive at the (incorrect) conclusion that the reason so many people are against them is because of their skin colour, religion or ethnicity. The result of this is that all kinds of people and institutions frequently face unfair slurs due to intellectually sub-standard criticisms.

Anyway, personalities aside, let's be generous and just focus on the intellectual weight of Afua Hirsch's argument in the article: that the reason there are so few BME (black minority ethnic) students at Oxford or Cambridge is because those two universities are so horribly 'alienating and elitist'.

Even if we grant Afua Hirsch the so-called fact of Oxford and Cambridge being under-represented by BME students, it's easy to see that it is not to do with institutional racism at our top universities, it is to do with the fact that prospective BME candidates are far outnumbered by white British candidates, which has a lot of complex causes - but none of them are the fault of Oxford or Cambridge.

It is quite easy to be outraged at statistics if you don't understand them, and clearly Ms Hirsch misses the most important statistic in all of this: that there are simply not enough BME people in the country to fulfil her wish. A quick Google search reveals to me that if a top university accepted students in a way that precisely represented the UK demographic, then for every 100 people, there would be 87 whites, 7 Asians, 3 blacks and 3 others. Even on strict egalitarian grounds it is very difficult to justify a selection policy that doesn't see BME people vastly outnumbered by whites.

But, of course, that's only part of the flaw in her reasoning - the other thing wrong with her misunderstanding of statistics is that Oxford and Cambridge are not looking for a representation in terms of ethnicity or skin colour; they are looking for representation in terms of academic ability. The only way they are 'alienating and elitist' is by wanting the best and brightest students.

Cambridge and Oxford universities are the seat of academic excellence in the UK - and if the statistics show that only a small proportion of BME people get into Oxford or Cambridge, and a large majority of students are white, that does not show any institutional unfairness on the part of Oxford or Cambridge. It simply shows that if Oxford and Cambridge are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if by far the greatest proportion of the most academically gifted students in the country are not in the BME demographic, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair.

There is certainly a conversation to be had about all the ways that BME and under-privileged pupils in schools are disadvantaged or coming up against barriers to fulfilling their potential, but that's not an indictment against our two best universities.

The same principle is true when talking about pupils who are not privately educated - they are also not being unfairly discriminated against. The statistics show that only 10% of UK pupils are privately educated yet around 50% of Cambridge and Oxford graduates come from private education. Once again, people who think this exhibits unfairness are confused about what fairness is.

A scholastic system is fair if results match ability, hard work and diligence. Therefore, if Cambridge and Oxford are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if 50% of the most academically gifted students in the country are in private schools, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair on this matter too.
Afua Hirsch's article is a crassly distorted attempt to stir up ill-feeling when none need exist. By failing to understand statistics she has not grasped that Oxford and Cambridge Universities aim to admit the most academically talented students - and that therefore, the fair percentage of BME admissions depends on what proportion of the UK's most academically talented students are BME students.
If it is the number that is currently studying at Oxford and Cambridge then those admissions have the right ratio of BME students. Otherwise, what Afua Hirsch is asking us to believe is that Oxford and Cambridge Universities are deliberately disadvantaging themselves in the academic results tables by discriminating against brighter but unselected BME students. There is no madness to which our nation's leading snowflakes won't subject us if it gives them a chance to play the victim game and divest these topics of rational enquiry and sensible reasoning. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Something (Probably) About 98% Of Americans Are Wrong About!!

Greetings!! Holidaying in America, and ingratiating myself with the locals, as you do, there is one belief that literally every American I've spoken with about this has. Both Trump supporters and Trump haters alike all seem unified on one basic consensus: that America badly needs to get back all those manufacturing jobs it has lost to foreigners.

Allowing for the proportion of the American population that knows why this is an ill-conceived idea - and America is more like a continent than a country, lest we forget - it could be that as many as 98% of the population actually believes this erroneous notion. This isn't unique to the USA, of course - you'd probably find similar ratios in most European countries too.

To see why the notion is wrong, you have to understand why it's so much better for Americans that foreign competition enables them to buy their local goods and services cheaper than if they were produced domestically. For simplicity, suppose you are an American who only eats bangers and mash - and you get all your potatoes from Tom the greengrocer, and all your sausages from Fred the butcher.

Suppose that you buy your potatoes for $2 a pound (it is pounds and ounces in America, not kilos), and your sausages for $5 a pound every week. On a typical weekly shop you buy 30 pounds of sausages and 50 pounds of potatoes.

Then one day you find out about Jack the butcher in the next street, who is selling the same quality sausages for $4 a pound, and because he has a bigger store he also sells potatoes for $1.50 a pound. Suppose, again for simplicity, that in the first 26 weeks of the year you had been shopping with Tom and Fred, and then at the end of week 26 you find out about Jack, and you shop with him for the remaining 26 weeks of the year.

I'm sure even an 8th grader could understand why you are now better off on the deal, as is Jack of course (too often people forget about the benefits to Jack as well). The maths will show you by how much better off you actually are:

Weeks 1-26 shopping with Tom and Fred - total expenditure: $6500 ($100 of potatoes x 26 and $150 of sausages x 26)

Weeks 27-52 shopping with Jack - total expenditure: $5070 ($75 of potatoes x 26 and $120 of sausages x 26)  

Total saving by shopping with Jack: $1430

Your saving money by shopping with more efficient Jack has no important logical difference to shopping with more efficient foreign competitors - in both cases there are significant consumer (and producer) benefits.

It's astonishing that almost all people in the world's most developed nations get this simple piece of logic and fact-finding bang wrong! Domestic producers of steel, aluminium, glass, plastic and timber are far outnumbered by the number of domestic citizens who are consumers, because except for perhaps Amish-type sects, everybody in America is a consumer on an international level.

And yet it seems the vast majority of people in the developed world desire the crafting of policies that benefit a small minority of the population at the expense of the rest of the population. When will people learn what's good for them?

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Why Greens Are Probably Hindering The Green Revolution

You've probably heard the one about being on the camping trip and being faced by a ferocious bear. As illustrated in the above image; to survive, you don't have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than the slowest member of the group.

But what if you cared about the group because it comprises a family unit, where you love each and every member? Then your concern would be that every member of the group could outrun the bear. Again, despite different priorities, the same maxim still holds - the survival of your family in one piece is contingent not on the fastest runners but on the slowest runner.

There's a version of this wisdom in economics - it's called Liebig's law - and it basically says that the growth or success or quality of something is not contingent on its strongest components but its weakest one. It's often stated in the form of "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link", and is applied in economic theory to speak of, for example, a business's growth being potentially retarded by its most significant impediments to development (faulty machinery, inadequate premises, failure to meet government-mandated green targets, to name just three examples).

You may have noticed that out of my three examples, two are within the hands of the business (to the greatest degree) and the third is not. A business can be hamstrung by a government's green targets and that can be the difference between being solvent and going under, or (invisibly to the naked eye) never becoming a business in the first place. You see, most green initiatives don't just impede extant businesses; they impede all those businesses in prospect that never became businesses because of the regulations.

Liebig's law is a fairly reliable rule of thumb, but it doesn't wholly factor in the extent to which adaptability occurs in very dynamical processes. When misapplied it can be as misjudged as the assertion about robots stealing our jobs based only on a short-sighted inability to conceive of the future jobs that are currently not jobs.

So, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link if human development is in any way comparable to a chain full of links - but it isn't. Applying this to Liebig's barrel (see below), human progression is not like having a fixed barrel with staves of unequal length limited by the shortest stave, it is like a barrel that is continually built larger to accommodate the continually increasing volume of liquid contained, where liquid here is comparable to economic growth.
In this paper, Indur Goklany examines the worldwide trends, and shows that deaths resulting from extreme weather conditions like tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and droughts have actually declined by 95% since the 1920s (see graph below) - totally undermining the claim that the frequency of global catastrophes are causally linked with climate change.

The principal cause of this huge century-long diminution of deaths has not been closely ascribable to any Green movement - it has been the solid, consistent process of market-led improvements of technology and stronger economic infrastructures. The computer and the mobile phone have done infinitely more to save the earth's natural habitat than any group of people from Greenpeace ever have or ever will.


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Trying To Solve An Age-Old Puzzle Of Humanity

With Venezuela in chaos, and with the recent calls for Jeremy Corbyn to publically apologise for his insanely short-sighted endorsement of Hugo Chavez, it would seem like an obvious thing for Corbyn to admit he’s been a fool and repudiate his former beliefs. But of course, we know that’s not going to happen: there is about as much chance of that happening as there is of Diane Abbott being asked to present the numbers round on Countdown.

This is, of course, one of the age-old puzzles of humanity - why human beings are so terribly beset by confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace information that supports your beliefs and reject information that contradicts them) and so intransigently irrational even when presented with good reasons that they are wrong about things. I’ve thought about this in the past, and I think the reason is twofold.

The first reason is that our biological evolution has resulted in our being very flawed creatures. Our evolutionary legacies are seen broadly across our behaviour, because they are vestiges of our past. The evolution of the eye has left us with a large blind area in the middle of the retina. Our prurience is the result of our sexual past.  Our long spine and susceptibility to back pains and injuries are the result of our quadruped ancestry. Our wisdom teeth are a result of our once having bigger jaws.

Plus our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps, our reactions to moving objects, our trepidation at wild animals, and our behavioural similarities with other primates closest to us in origin, all of these show that we are a medley of inherited ineptitudes, built for the Savannah. 

The second reason is that our cognition is an evolved phenomenon just like all our other evolved traits, and the kind of reasoning (or lack of) we are complaining about when Corbyn won’t change his mind about Venezuelan socialism is not the kind of cognition that we’ve optimally evolved.

Our biggest selection pressures on survival were much more about group symbiosis and cooperation than trying to solve lateral and complex problems. Things like confirmation bias and other general irrationalities are probably bootstrapped by powerful underlying survival legacies that stretch out across our evolutionary past.

Consequently, although this might seem counterintuitive at first, it’s probably largely true that the kind of habits of human thinking that best helped us survive in tribes with an in-group mentality are also the kind of habits that don’t serve us well when it comes to abstract reasoning and intellectual discourse. To be smart you have to unlearn as well as learn.

One would think that in an evolutionary game of survival, mistaken thoughts would disadvantage us - after all, failure to process facts and truths accurately can cost you your life if a predator is lurking. But maybe that is to uncover the answer - our evolution has primed us for over-simplistic analyses precisely because our brains are designed by natural selection to form patterns of causality that once upon a time aided us in survival. 

This has been demonstrated in studies of brain states, where neurological analyses have shown how our brains naturally become excited when they interface with patterns, harmony, beauty, and symmetry - it seems we are primed to place a higher qualitative value on pattern over non-pattern and beauty over ugliness.

But there is a price to pay. Suppose you're a distant ancestor still making sense of the world - you will gain by false positives, but you are liable to lose a lot if you get it wrong. A rustling in the bushes may be the wind, but it may be a predator. It's more costly to assume it's a predator and find out it's the wind than to assume it's the wind and find out it's a predator.

So over the years we have been primed for false positives - to sense potential danger, patterns and breaks from normalcy, and ascribe them to something causal or deliberate or predatory, even when such things are not there.

As well as that, it has been useful for us to evolve mechanisms for thinking simplistically. Intellection has served us well in rising to great heights as a species, but thinking simplistically means humans too fondly look to pigeon-hole things into black and white, with a primary focus on right or wrong and true or false, without understanding or considering the complex areas of grey in between.

When you combine that with the aforementioned tendency to see patterns when none are there, and the tendency for tribalism and in-group mentality, you can see how susceptible humans are to falling into bad thinking habits.

Once you combine all that with two other effects; the Dunning-Kruger effect (overestimating your own competence in reasoning) and the illusion of explanatory depth (believing you know more of the complex, finer details of a situation than you actually do) it is fairly easy to see why humans are constantly getting so much wrong, and why even when presented with good reason to change their mind, it’s quite unlikely that they will. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Please Excuse Me If I Don't Listen Up!

"And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market." Naomi Klein

This is one of most widely circulated quotes I've seen about the climate change debate since the Internet began, and it is from one of the most vociferous mouthpieces on this subject, Naomi Klein. It's an opinion that's gathered a lot of momentum over the years - that once you admit that man-made climate change is a real thing you are compelled to be on the side of the climate change alarmists and endorse the same political policies they endorse.

The confusion here is in mistaking scientific truths for political truths. They are not the same, and just because we may happen to agree on the scientific truth of a situation does not mean that we have to agree on the politics. Scientifically, you and I may both agree that an electric fence energiser converts electromagnetic power into a high voltage pulse, but that doesn't mean we will agree if you tell me you think the state should pay for every house to have one fitted around everybody's house in the country.

My thinking your nationalised electric fence policy is a bad use of resources wouldn't make me an electricity-denier - and similarly just because we may disagree on your political policies to tackle climate change, it doesn't mean I'm a climate change-denier.

Similarly, just because I think your sugar tax policies and your minimum alcohol pricing policies are oppressive and lazy-minded, that doesn't mean I deny that too much sugar and alcohol are bad for you. It simply means I am very dissatisfied by your attempts to tackle these issues, or I'm unsatisfied that these are even issues that need satisfying by legislation.

This kind of opprobrium was prominent recently when Donald Trump pulled out of the climate agreement - everyone accused him of being irresponsible in not caring about the state of our planet. Perhaps he is, or perhaps he isn't, but either way - pulling out of the Paris agreement is not enough to go on, because anyone can reject it on the basis that they don't think it is trying to solve the problems in the right way, or that in some case their proposed solutions are actually worse than the problems they are trying to solve.

If I were a political leader, I would reject Naomi Klein-isms, the Paris agreement, and all manner of other movements and coalitions that are so evidently failing the tests before them. Because what none of the aforementioned do is get the basics right, regarding things like demonstrating how their policies will have a net positive effect on tackling climate change; predicting the effects of climate change alongside the effects of market progression; demonstrate that the costs of these policies are lower than the costs of climate change; and make any mention of all the opportunity costs associated with their policies and why they are worth sacrificing for this movement.

For all of those reasons and more, they are not giving us even a smidgen of a reason to believe they should be listened to on these matters.

Note: For further reading, my four part series on climate change attempts to address all the questions and answers that the alarmists have failed to address.  

Friday, 28 July 2017

Why Can't More People See The Obvious Distinction Between Banning & Disapproving?

There was mass outrage yesterday in response to a London jazz bar whose job advert specified they wanted 'extremely attractive staff' who 'must be comfortable wearing heels'. Now personally this doesn't seem like a very great place to either work or visit - it seems quite superficially minded, and will probably have a client base that reflects this. Hopefully, if enough people act with their feet, then this jazz club will be hit with lower profits, and may then look to advertise more prudently (because the point is, it's easy to hire good looking females if you want to without having to state that's what you're looking for on the job advert).  

Notice what I did in the above paragraph - I told you about my personal feelings towards the advert and the jazz bar. What I would not do, and nor should anyone else, is say that this advert should be taken down or banned from existing. Because one of the basic principles of being free citizens who enjoy personal liberty is that if you happen to run your own business you should be able to hire whoever you like. 

If you make bad decisions you may suffer loss of profits, and develop a bad reputation - sometimes you may even go out of business - but a society that thinks it can tell you who you can and cannot employ is an oppressive wolf, even if it appears to be dressed in the clothing of protective sheep. C.S Lewis put it well:

The example I've given above pretty well summarises why I write as I do on a broader level. That is to say, people know how to run their lives better than any state, monarchy or government. That's not a blanket truism for every single individual in the world, but it's true for the vast majority of people, and it's true in the majority of ways that relate to how we live our lives by making cost/benefit analyses and exercise freedom of choice.

Governments are always going on about the welfare of its citizens - but the irony they miss is that a lot of what they do compromises the welfare those citizens would otherwise enjoy. Take an obvious and frequent example - the price of alcohol. Every government policy is based on the notion that alcohol is bad for its users. It is, but it is also good for its users, because the people who drink alcohol wilfully choose the pleasures and accept the costs. 

Alcohol drinkers are people for whom the pleasure of social drinking outweighs the risk of death, liver damage, addiction and a shorter life. If they valued better health and longer lives they'd drink less or not at all. If you're in the first group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net gain; if you’re in the second group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net loss.

Because it is impossible for the state to know how much every individual values health, exercise, weight training, smoking, alcohol, casual sex, and so forth, it is impossible for the government to know better than its citizens what is good for them. A good government would understand this, and seek to minimise its involvement in our lives to enhance our welfare and liberty.

But: and here's the important but - there is one important caveat – people’s decisions are affected by the information they have. A lot of people are informed enough to make rational choices about whether they want to drink alcohol. But some people are not. If they’ve lived in a house in which drunkenness was the norm, or in which information about healthy living was scarce, they may not properly understand the benefits or costs. Misinformation increases the likelihood that you’ll either underestimate the costs or underestimate the benefits.

Light regulation is fine
So clearly, for this reason, being a libertarian doesn't mean adopting a 100% erosion of regulatory 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 two people know the details and engage in a mutually beneficial transaction, then state involvement is mostly superfluous. But if Jack is employing Jill and putting her life at risk due to faulty equipment or dodgy wiring, I don't want Jill to be devoid of protection through the law.

Where the law works for me is when it guards people against harms that live outside of anything that could be defined as a mutually beneficial transaction with transparency. But there are lots of ways the government harms mutually beneficial transactions and makes the nation worse off. Here are three examples off the top of my head.

1) A government will impose import tariffs on consumers at prices they wanted to pay, and tell them it's for their own good because they are only better off if they doing more exporting than importing (which even a simpleton ought to know isn't true).

2) A government will use taxpayers' money to bail out or subsidise a failing industry that has simply been outcompeted by other industries abroad or has lost its relevance by ever-changing technology. In doing so they will make their citizens believe they are doing good thing, even though there is a huge net loss, and that a lot of that loss is felt by British consumers and by other British industries that trade with these foreign companies two, three, four or five steps down the line.

3) A government will distort the natural and important information-carrying signal of value by imposing price floors and price ceilings because it follows the lead of the majority of its citizens who are almost wholly ignorant on these matters.

Those are just three examples that first spring to mind - as regular readers of my blog will know, there are dozens of other examples.

I've always said, I'm fine with light government regulation for health and safety standards, protection against nefarious use of asymmetry of information, a stable rule of law, property rights, etc - but the moment the state interferes in the natural mechanism of prices, supply and demand, I want them to relinquish their control.

Pondering our freedoms
All that said, here's where things get a little knottier. Being a libertarian I don't want the state to interfere much in our freedoms - therefore, I don't want them banning things related to what we do to our bodies, like abortion, prostitution and drug-taking. But being a Christian, I do disapprove of those things - not in the sense of being sententious or judgemental against partakers in those activities, but simply in thinking that they are bad for us and harmful to the people involved, and therefore undesirable.  

But quite why so many people think that that means we ought to call for their criminalisation is peculiar to me. There is nothing terribly inconsistent about believing things to be socially undesirable yet still not wanting them criminalised. After all, infidelity is one of the most socially hurtful things, so is unkindness, but no one thinks they should be illegal.

Just because some of us don't want the state telling us how to behave when it comes to abortion, prostitution and drugs, it doesn't mean we need to proclaim those things as wonderful - it is easy to simultaneously value the liberty to do these things and the prudence to advise against them. And this is perhaps the key take home lesson - we must be wise of the difference between banning and disapproving: they are not always natural bedfellows.

Some personal thoughts
I have to confess, while (hopefully) most balanced minds can agree that making abortion illegal would be a terrible thing, I'm not actually very comfortable with the idea of making prostitution legal (by which I mean brothels, as technically it is not illegal to pay someone for sex - what is illegal is soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering), and I'm still very torn on the issue of drug legality.

The main issue I have with laws against prostitution and drugs is that it creates an underground sub-culture, which in itself brings additional criminality. On the one hand, making it legal would eradicate much of the underground sub-culture that puts young women at risk (although not all of it), but on the other hand keeping some things illegal has positive societal influence in that it tries to avoid normalising things that are possibly social undesirable.

It would seem, then, that people who disagree about the (il)legality of activities may disagree on whether an activity is desirable, or they may simply disagree about to what extent the state should interfere in our liberties. For example, I think brothels are socially undesirable from a Christian perspective, but from the libertarian perspective that doesn't necessarily mean I want them to be illegal. I perhaps could argue that the costs of prohibition (underground sub-culture, state suppressing our liberties, home office costs) are not a worthy price to pay, and that allowing this socially undesirable act is the lesser of two costs. Someone else, on the other hand, may disagree that it is socially undesirable, and call for its legality on grounds of social approval as well.

For me, whether an act is socially (un)desirable or not, and whether it should be illegal or not are perhaps two parts of the same question about whether the act harms anyone else in a way that's socially undesirable. I say 'socially undesirable' because almost all acts cause some social inconvenience to others, even buying the last newspaper on the rack, or joining a queue on a busy road, but no one seriously thinks these acts should be illegal.

Is it socially undesirable to have an abortion to the extent that it should be illegal? I'd argue definitely not, because the rights of a woman over her own body always trump the right of the state to force her to keep a baby. But do the rights of a woman over her own body extend to selling her body for sex in a brothel and taking drugs? One could possibly argue a case for selling sex in a brothel - it's her body and if she wants to use it to sell sex she is perfectly entitled to do so. The social harms would be that this kind of transaction becomes more normalised, and it may encourage more married men to pay for sex. But as we've said, affairs harm relationships and the children, but no one is saying they should be illegal. As long as the profession was well regulated to guard against exploitation and, rather like it is in the ordinary workplace, I think I could argue for its legalisation, and for people's freedom to engage in sex for money if they fancied.

Drugs is the most difficult issue for me
This just leaves drugs, and I'm afraid that even as a libertarian, of the three, I find drugs the most difficult, for reasons I'll explain. I was challenged by a friend, who said something along the lines of "I find it odd that you claim to be a libertarian and yet support legislation restricting access to currently illegal drugs. Care to elaborate why this isn't oxymoronic?"

As I indicated, I'm still not 100% sure how I feel about the issue of drugs like cannabis and their legality. I said earlier that where the law works for me is when it guards people against harms that live outside of anything that could be defined as a mutually beneficial transaction with transparency. And I understand the liberalising argument that if Jack wants to smoke weed, and Jill wants to take LSD, and Geoff wants to get drunk, and Mary wants to ride a horse, and so on, that they should be free to do as they wish provided it doesn't harm others.

But heroin does harm to more than just the user - its addiction is behind so much crime - and that wouldn't change if it was legalised, because as far as I can see, for the addict demand for the drug exceeds affordability, so they turn to crime, or in the case of young girls, they get sold into prostitution against their will to feed their habit.

So although small state works well for me in areas in which people have lucid self-determination, I think there are quite a lot of people that do require a strong state that can legislate of their behalf. Maybe that's not an argument against legalising cannabis, but I feel it is an argument against legalising heroin.

I was challenged though by a friend to read some Douglas Husak on this. He makes the point that heroin, and opiates in general, are still lower harm than even alcohol, according to ISCD. And we now know that diamorphine can effectively be "brewed" - very cheaply - the lab that discovered it has put it on hold until someone in government can tell them how to handle it, but the upshot of it is that some sugar water and GM yeast can create it by the vat load like beer.

He also made the challenging point that it is perfectly possible in the right circumstances to maintain a heroin habit. Like alcohol, it will catch up with your good health eventually, but it does not require crime to fund it except that it is controlled so heavily. The illegal supply chain makes it many hundreds of times more expensive than it need be. And some of the worst effects are because people who are desperate for it in that market are lured into other things - the man in the white BMW doesn't care whether he sells you rubbish diamorphine, or crack, and you don't care what you get so long as it does something.

It's also worth mentioning that diamorphine (heroin) is the world’s most powerful painkiller. It and the less powerful morphine are used currently in UK hospitals. So the question is whether various chemical compounds should be classified into 1) freely available, 2) licensed over-the-counter, 3) prescription, 4) hospital controlled and 5) illegal. It’s a big and complex debate.

I think at the moment I'm concerned about legalising heroin outside of the medical profession because it does so much harm to people's lives, and to the countless victims of crime, exploited girls, etc. If we got to a situation where it could be intelligently bought and sold without the criminal/exploitation factor, rather like alcohol is now, I'd be more up for it. I just think that we are not at that stage yet, for all sorts of complex reasons. Take countries like Mexico and Colombia - they certainly don't seem ready yet.

I suppose, finally, there is a quite interesting subtext for me regarding the drugs issue - a kind of meta-analysis - in that I'm quite torn about the legalisation of some of these drugs, but am also not entirely sure why I'm so torn or what it would take to make me adopt a more convinced viewpoint. Would more information change my mind? Is it that the wider issues are too intractable to formulate a solid but philosophically justifiable conviction? Or is it that there is no easy answer and that being able to see merit and demerit from each side means a somewhere-in-between position is the most intellectually tenable? I'm not entirely sure.