Saturday, July 30, 2011

More on the evolution of cooperation

It's fascinating how fascinating scientists find cooperation these days. A recent article in the Economist explains recent attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for basic human civility and generosity toward strangers:
Evidence from economic games played in the laboratory for real money suggests humans are both trusting of those they have no reason to expect they will ever see again, and surprisingly unwilling to cheat them—and that these phenomena are deeply ingrained in the species’s psychology. Existing theories of the evolution of trust depend either on the participants being relatives (and thus sharing genes) or on their relationship being long-term, with each keeping count to make sure the overall benefits of collaboration exceed the costs. Neither applies in the case of passing strangers, and that has led to speculation that something extraordinary, such as a need for extreme collaboration prompted by the emergence of warfare that uses weapons, has happened in recent human evolution to promote the emergence of an instinct for unconditional generosity.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two doyens of the field, who work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, do not agree. They see no need for extraordinary mechanisms and the latest study to come from their group (the actual work was done by Andrew Delton and Max Krasnow, who have just published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests they are right. It also shows the value of applying common sense to psychological analyses—but then of backing that common sense with some solid mathematical modelling. [emphasis added]
The conclusion that Cosmides and Tooby come to is explained in these words:
For most plausible sets of costs, benefits and chances of future encounters the simulation found that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated. Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Previous attempts to study the evolution of trust using games have been arranged to make it clear to the participants whether their encounter was a one-off, and drawn their conclusions accordingly. That, though, is hardly realistic. In the real world, although you might guess, based on the circumstances, whether or not you will meet someone again, you cannot know for sure. Moreover, in the ancient world of hunter-gatherers, limited movement meant a second encounter would be much more likely than it is in the populous, modern urban world.

No need, then, for special mechanisms to explain generosity. An open hand to the stranger makes evolutionary as well as moral sense. Except, of course, that those two senses are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing. But that would be the subject of a different article.
Here you see the bias on the part of scientists, that our morals must somehow be ingrained in us biologically. I don't see any proof that this is the case. What about the role of traditions? Arguing that morals evolve biologically is like arguing that language is preconditioned in our DNA--which some argue is true, but I believe is false. Our morals, like our language, would not exist without structures that exist on top of our biology, structures created not purely biologically but also socially. In other words, you have to be taught in order to speak a language, and you have to be taught to have morals.

I don't think we should discount the biological account of certain moral traits; perhaps in some sense it could be enlightening. On the other hand, a computer model does not explain everything. Examining the moral development of actual human beings would be more enlightening.

And then, there is this remark: "Except, of course, that those two senses [evolutionary and moral] are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing." This is one modern assumption I just can't buy: that moral questions are all reducible to empirical questions. Even if, as secular thinkers presume, there is no transcendent purpose for our morals other than that they allow the human species to survive and thrive, this is no way guarantees that we will be able to reduce our moral sense to "evolutionary sense"--that is, we cannot necessarily understand what will, in the long run, lead to the survival and thriving of the human species. In the interest of keeping this post relatively short, I'll refrain from addressing all the questions I see looming over this reduction from moral to empirical.

My final question is this: what will be the philosophical and societal implications of these empirical studies? It would be naive to think that these "findings" are playing on ideologically neutral ground. Are these studies going to be used to attack capitalism? Or perhaps bolster it? I could see the arguments going either way. One might say, "Capitalism makes a false empirical assumption that people are naturally self-interested, so it ought to be dismantled." Or one might say, "See? People left to make their own decisions naturally tend to cooperate, so we ought to give them more economic freedom." Personally, I find both interpretations naive, but naive interpretations tend to drive ideological battles. It will be interesting to see what interpretations emerge from the evolutionary study of morals.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Musical Mathematics

Tell me you don't find this beautiful.

One could object that this is just artificially imposing an artistic interpretation on an otherwise abstract sequence of numbers with no inherent aesthetic value. But that is a biased way of putting it. It is not so much an imposition as it is a response; art is possible only because the universe beckons for our interpretation.

That was Pi; here's 2Pi:

Good point

funny facebook fails - The Norwegian Bomber
see more Failbook

An argument for liberty, would you say?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Consumption redistribution

Scott Sumner has a beautifully simple critique of "income redistribution" over at TheMoneyIllusion (a blog which is often technically out of my league). Excerpt:
You can redistribute consumption from the top 1% and give it to average Americans working in a car factory, or a Walmart. But it’s an illusion to think you can redistribute investment from the top 1%, so that average Americans can have a higher living standard. Where do people think the car factory comes from? Or the Walmart building? BTW, this has nothing to do with trickle-down economics, a theory I reject. This is simple accounting. Money put into investment projects isn’t available to boost living standards for the lower classes, unless you don’t do those investment projects.

So what’s available to be redistributed? Basically consumption (including a modest amount of vanity charity.) And that’s it. Now come back to me with the consumption distribution data, and let’s see what that looks like. I predict that consumption inequality is far lower than income inequality. And that consumption inequality is rising at a far slower rate than income inequality. I’m not saying there’s no problem, but it’s way smaller that the progressives imagine, as the data they use is pure nonsense. Consumption inequality is economic inequality. Income inequality is . . . well it’s meaningless gobbletygoop.
I think for a lot of us, it's hard to understand how important capital is to the economy. Most of us probably aren't ever going to own significant amounts of capital. That's probably why it's difficult for us to understand how "income" is any different from "wages." We are inclined to think of income as representing the merit of an employee working faithfully at a steady job. For owners of large amounts of capital, this is not what income is. Income is simply a measure of the productivity of that capital, and it is not meant for mere consumption, but largely for investment in better capital.

It's investment in capital that adds to the wealth of a country. Consumption does not. This is one of the most crucial points which I'm proud to say I actually got from reading Wealth of Nations. I'm not economist, but I know my Adam Smith.

You don't have to read Adam Smith to understand this: If you buy a meal and eat it, you're going to be hungry again; you haven't gained any wealth. If you buy a car, now you have a way of getting to work so you can make more money; you've actually made your life easier, therefore you have more wealth. We are all better off in the long run when people make good investments in capital, because it makes it easier to obtain the things we need to consume.

Once we make this distinction between investment and consumption, then a progressive policy of redistribution can be carried out in a reasonable way. Sumner recommends doing away with all income taxes, both personal and corporate, and moving entirely to a VAT and a progressive payroll tax. We could use that money to support things like school vouchers, catastrophic health insurance, subsidized health savings accounts, and wage subsidies (no minimum wage required, and get rid of occupational licensing!).

If we're going to care for the poor in this country, we need to redistribute some resources; this I take to be a basic moral principle. But this need not come at the cost of hampering long term economic growth, which is in fact essential to improving the circumstances of the poor.

Update: Sumner has a post rigorously explaining why income from capital should not be considered equal to income generally. The link is here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This made my day

Critique of abstractions

As I read through Philosophy in the Flesh, I am constantly reevaluating some old thoughts I've been mulling over for a long time. Lakoff and Johnson have helped to confirm my suspicion that perception and imagination are inextricably linked, that abstract thought is inherent to human perception, and that we often mistakenly assume that our abstract thought really is quite concrete. For instance, when we view a ball flying through the air, our minds immediately conjure up this sense of trajectory. The concrete physical details are unimportant to us; what matters is the continuous trajectory our minds imagine. Similarly, when I see another person's face, my mind immediately recalls who it is, without me having to consciously acknowledge the concrete details of that person's face. It is really the abstraction that I'm interacting with; if I had to notice all the concrete details and consciously reconstruct the person's identity, personal interaction would be next to impossible.

This insight leads me to a question I've been mulling over, due to my experience teaching mathematics: why is "abstract thought" often considered difficult and even terrifying? Mathematics is certainly not the only instance where this fear arises. Philosophy is perhaps even more vilified for its abstractness than mathematics, and really every academic pursuit comes under fire from this sort of complaint. Many people just do not see what any of this theory has to do with real life. And yet these same people, who profess that they prefer the concrete to the abstract, are also affected by the most abstract ideas during a political campaign speech or an advertisement on television. I will not attempt a list of the mindlessly repeated abstract nouns which so easily embed themselves in the public consciousness. The point should be clear: the world simply does not run on concrete understanding alone (although I will have to come back later to qualify this point). Moreover, even the things most people consider common, everyday activities actually depend on the use of abstractions, not concrete details. Thus, most people actually use abstract concepts quite casually, without really noticing it. How, then, can they be afraid of abstract thought?

It occurs to me that people aren't really afraid of abstract concepts. What they are afraid of is instead the critique of abstract concepts. In other words, rarely do people like to question that which comes naturally.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tree of Life

was amazing. Visually stunning, incredibly imaginative storytelling, deeply thought-provoking. I don't know what all the critics are saying, but it's the best movie I've seen in a long time. Not something I could watch often, mind you...

Then again, I don't think I can read the book of Job that often.

Over the debt limit?

Via the Freeman online:
“A closer look at the nation’s balance sheet shows that the United States already is billions of dollars over the current debt limit — a debt that includes bonds that date back to the administration of George Washington. The federal debt ceiling is $14.294 trillion, set to be reached by Aug. 2 if Congress and the president don’t reach a deal to extend it. As of the most recent accounting, however, the United States has $14.343 trillion in debt — $48.9 billion more than the debt limit. That’s because Congress, over the years, has exempted certain kinds of debt from the ceiling.”
There are just all kinds of creative ways to deal with the debt ceiling!

Give Directly

Via Alex Tabarrok:
GiveDirectly takes donations over the web, locates poor households in Kenya using people on the ground, and then transfers money directly to the recipient’s cell phone (even very poor households typically have cell phones but GiveDirectly provides SIM cards for those who do not.) Transactions costs are low, just 10%.
I don't think this is necessarily the best kind of generosity; I'm not sure how high I'd rank it on my list of top ways to be charitable. But my initial thought is that there's something empowering about bypassing all the political corruption which makes third world poverty so tricky in the first place. Thank God for cell phones, right?

Tyler Cowen's principles of charitable giving, which Tabarrok summarizes in the link above, are worth mentioning:
1. Cash is often the best form of aid.

2. Give to those who are not expecting it, and,

3. Don’t require the recipients to do anything costly to get the money.
The first point is surely the insight of an economist. Points two and three, however, are surely the principles of grace, are they not?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fasting tomorrow for Darfur

Who: Sudan activist and organizations around the world
What: Hunger Strike: Fast for Darfur
When: Noon on Friday, July 22nd, to noon on Saturday, July 23rd
Where: Worldwide – participate wherever you are (DC-area invited to rally at the White House, 12pm Saturday)
Why: Show solidarity with all those in Darfur and throughout Sudan at risk of violence

For more details, see

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Magic of Reality

That's the title of an upcoming book by Richard Dawkins. Here's the product description from
The Magic of Reality

Science is our most precise and powerful tool for making sense of the world. Before we developed the scientific method, we created rich mythologies to explain the unknown. The pressing questions that primitive men and women asked are the same ones we ask as children. Who was the first person? What is the sun? The myths that address these questions are beautiful, but in every case their beauty is exceeded by the scientific truth.

With characteristic clarity and verve, Dawkins uses each chapter to answer one of these big questions. Looking first at some of the myths that arose to answer the question, he then, with the help of McKean’s marvelous full-color illustrations, dazzles us with the facts. He looks at the building blocks of matter, the first humans, the sun—explaining the life and death of stars; why there’s a night and a day—ranging from our solar system to the inner workings of our planet; what a rainbow really is—going from the rainbow in your backyard to the age of the universe; and finally, he poses a question that still baffles scientists: When did everything begin? This is a frame-by-frame look at the infinite beauty behind everyday phenomenon.
Anyone who doesn't understand modern atheism as a religion is just kidding himself.

Metaphor and Truth

That's the title of Chapter 8 in Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson. In this chapter they seek to dismantle the traditional theory of metaphor, which they outline as follows:
  1. Metaphor is a matter of words, not thought. Metaphor occurs when a word is applied not to what it normally designates, but to something else.
  2. Metaphorical language is not part of ordinary conventional language. Instead, it is novel and typically arises in poetry, rhetorical attempts at persuasion, and scientific discovery.
  3. Metaphorical language is deviant. In metaphor, words are not used in their proper senses.
  4. Conventional metaphorical expressions in ordinary everyday language are "dead metaphors," that is, expressions that once were metaphorical, but have become frozen into literal expressions.
  5. Metaphors express similarities. That is, there are preexisting similarities between what words normally designate and what they designate when they are used metaphorically.
"This theory," they claim, "is deeply rooted in the Western philosophical tradition and makes intuitive sense to many people, because it fits an extremely common folk theory about language and truth."

When I was studying Paul Churchland's work in college, I found phrases like "folk psychology" being used, just as "folk theory" is used here, as if to indicate that the average "folk" really have such a quaint Aristotelian view of the world. If only we would catch up with the recent discoveries of modern science.

Philosophers ever live under the illusion that any idea which is validated by modern science must therefore be modern. In reality, none of the above points make "intuitive sense" to me or, I suspect, any common person who fully understood what was being said. Of course we all use metaphors, all the time. Lakoff and Johnson have done a fine job in their book of showing just how numerous the examples are which illustrate how many of our concepts are built out of controlling metaphors, such as "life is journey" or "love is a car ride" or "knowing is seeing" or "knowing is grasping." But the fact that these simple, ordinary examples are readily available suggests that it never really did require the amazing advances of modern science to realize how blind the philosophers always were to the vanity of their theories of cognition.

Global warming: an older debate than I thought

Check out this article on the Smithsonian Magazine. Here's an excerpt:
As the tumultuous century was drawing to a close, the conservative Yale grad challenged the sitting vice president’s ideas about global warming. The vice president, a cerebral Southerner, was planning his own run for the presidency, and the fiery Connecticut native was eager to denounce the opposition party.

The date was 1799, not 1999—and the opposing voices in America’s first great debate about the link between human activity and rising temperature readings were not Al Gore and George W. Bush, but Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster.

(Read more:
That's right, dear old Mr. Jefferson believed in global warming, and Noah Webster refuted his ideas. In fact, his detailed studied basically settled the question for at least a century and a half.

How old is the idea that the earth has been warming?
For more than two millennia, people had lamented that deforestation had resulted in rising temperatures. A slew of prominent writers, from the great ancient naturalists Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder to such Enlightenment heavyweights as the Comte de Buffon and David Hume, had alluded to Europe’s warming trend.
The take-home message isn't that global warming isn't happening, or that human activity has nothing to do with it. But it is good to be reminded that there's really nothing new under the sun.

(No pun intended.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A financial thought experiment

So let's say one year I take out a loan for $50,000. I agree to pay it all back in one year, with interest. Only problem is, by the end of the year, I don't have enough money to pay it off. Let's say I still owe the full $50,000, plus, I don't know, 10% interest; so that's $55,000.

I decide I'll just take out another loan to pay off my debt. Only I start to get clever. I take out a loan for $110,000, and agree to pay it all back by the end of the year, again with 10% interest. I take half of it and pay off the $55,000 I owe. Then for the next year I live on my $55,000 which I have left over. By the end of the year, I owe $110,000 plus 10%, or $121,000.

Perhaps you already know what comes next. I take out a loan for $242,000. Half of it pays off the debt I owe, and half of it pays for what by now is a pretty sweet apartment. By the end of the year, I owe around $266,000. So then I take out a new loan for $532,000, and the next year a loan for about $1.2 million, the next year about $2.6 million, and so on.

Each year, not only am I getting rid of all my past debt, I'm actually getting richer. Twice as rich, as you can see. And I'm not even doing any work. Seriously. I'm living like a king on someone else's money, and I don't even have to produce anything.

The thought experiment assumes that there is no limit on the size of the loan for which I can get approved. It does not assume, however, that interest rates have to be reasonable; it doesn't matter whether I'm paying 10% or 50% at the end of the year. All that matters is that each year I can take out a new loan to pay for past debt and give me something to live on for the next year. If I don't want to be so greedy, I can just keep living on $50,000 a year (for instance); the amount I have to borrow each year will still increase, just not so dramatically.

Question: what's wrong with this? In the real world, I'd never get approved, blah blah blah. But let's just think about it in the abstract. Assume I can always get approved for another loan for as high an amount as I need. What's wrong with this scheme? Each lender I deal with is actually making money off me through interest, so he should have nothing to complain about. I may not be producing anything tangible, but I must be doing something right if I'm happy and people are making money off of me. Right?

Oh, well, I did forget one little thing. Eventually I'm dead. And then the last lender who gave me money won't ever get his money back, unless of course my children after me are able to give it to him. But that's not my problem, right? I mean, after I'm dead, I don't have to worry about money any more.

And maybe I can actually avoid that, anyway. Instead of just spending all the money I borrow each year, I'll actually invest some of it. Putting it in the bank would obviously not get me interest fast enough to keep up with my exponentially increasing loans. So I'll invest in the stock market. Who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky enough on the stock market that my investment will outgrow my debt, and when I'm ready to retire from my life of doing nothing but push money around, I'll be able to pay off all my debt entirely and still have a nice little nest egg so I can spend the rest of my days in peace.

So what's wrong with this? Accepting the assumption that I can always get that new loan, is there anything to be said against this scheme?

Other than, you know, morals and everything. But you know, in the long run we're all dead, anyway.

Addendum: Note well that this thought experiment could easily be modified to say that, instead of looking for larger and larger loans, I'll just look for more and more loans, that is, I'll spread the amount over more and more lenders. The scheme would last as long as I could find enough lenders out there to make it work.

What I simply do not understand about how the world works

Simon Johnson says it would be pretty scary if the U.S. government decided not to raise its own debt ceiling, and instead defaulted on its debt:
So this is what a US debt default would look like: the private sector would collapse, unemployment would quickly surpass 20%, and, while the government would shrink, it would remain the employer of last resort.

The House and Senate Republicans who do not want to raise the debt ceiling are playing with fire. They are advocating a policy that would have dire effects, and that would accomplish the opposite of what they claim to want, because a default would immediately make the government more, not less, important.
For all I've read about economics as a layman (but a fairly intelligent one, I'd like to think) here is what I simply don't understand about our financial system: what meaning does this debt ceiling have, anyway? From the looks of things, no one can enforce the debt ceiling on our government except itself. What can it possibly mean for the government to declare that it is now allowing itself to owe more money?

Statements like these are simply incomprehensible to my little brain:
The fundamental benchmark interest rates in modern financial markets are the so-called “risk-free” rates on government bonds. Removing this pillar of the system – or creating a high degree of risk around US Treasuries – would disrupt many private contracts and all kinds of transactions.
In other words, Mr. Economist, you're saying that the entire basis of all of our prosperity is the fact that the US government carries a really big stick, and that as soon as they decide to put down that big stick, everything goes to hell?

What makes anyone give the government a good credit rating in the first place? I could be totally misunderstanding the situation here, but it sounds to me as if the government at this point must borrow more in order to pay off the debt it currently owes. Otherwise, why would there be any need to raise the debt ceiling? If it must always borrow more, doesn't that simply mean it never actually has the money it needs to pay off its debts? What credit rating would you give such an entity? I mean, imagine if I never actually paid a bill with money I had earned. I could just go around borrowing from Bob to pay back Bill, and on and on down the line. I'd have a perfect credit score!

It sounds to me as if we have an entire system based on the fact that at least one borrower out there--Uncle Sam--can just keep borrowing, because no one has the power to turn him down. All the other big players benefit from this, because if they get into trouble, they can just borrow from Uncle Sam, who can borrow from someone else, and it always looks like we're paying our bills on time. And things just keep going. It's like one giant procrastination tool. Oh, not that you and I get these little perks. I guess that only works if you're a millionaire banker.

And how can Uncle Sam possibly have such power, that no one can ever turn him down for a loan? Certainly no mere mortal has such power. I'm not an economist, so I guess I don't know how it works. But it seems to me that when you get right down to it, well, Uncle Sam can take your property, Uncle Sam can drop the bombs, so you better not turn down Uncle Sam.

So please, Republicans, let's just get this charade over with and raise the debt ceiling. Apparently all it takes to stay off a depression is to declare, "Hey, we're allowed to owe more money now." As if the rest of us didn't already know.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

National selection

Stephen Walt thinks that nationalism, "the belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures -- i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths) -- and that those groups ought to have their own state" is the most powerful political force in the world today. He explains:
Nations -- because they operate in a competitive and sometimes dangerous world -- seek to preserve their identities and cultural values. In many cases, the best way for them to do that is to have their own state, because ethnic or national groups that lack their own state are usually more vulnerable to conquest, absorption, and assimilation.

Similarly, modern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity -- in other words, to foster nationalism -- because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations. Taken together, these twin dynamics create a long-term trend in the direction of more and more independent nation-states.
The question is, how many subcultures and "subnarratives" (or alternative narratives) have been obliterated in this competition of nation states? It's a Darwinian battle of natural selection, in which the groups with the right combination of strength of cultural narrative, strength of military power, and luck emerge as stable political entities.

Optimistically, what may emerge in the long run is a peaceful humanism, but even if it did, would we have any idea what had been lost in the process? Realistically, what will probably emerge will be far from peaceful.

In any case, I'll just make the assertion that I think nationalism has no place in a Christian set of morals, nor in any humanist set of morals. The idea that people exist to preserve a particular national identity is an assault in the inherent dignity of humans as individuals. It is made all the worse by the violent manner in which nationalism tends to manifest itself. American nationalism is no exception.

The new Mexican Dream?

Provocative little post over at the undocumented about how immigration from Mexico into the United States may be decreasing due to economic incentives:
Believe it or not, immigration to the US from Mexico has decreased in 2010. Researchers suggest that this is in response not only to a down-turned American economy, but, moreso, to an improving future in Mexico. What was once considered a rite of passage is now extremely dangerous, expensive, and difficult; once gaining entry into the US, life as an undocumented immigrant is uncertain.
If you're like Tyler Cowen, you might have labeled this "Markets in Everything."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Failbook abortion commentary

funny facebook fails - Dead Babies
see more Failbook

A couple of really fascinating things about this. First, as of the time I'm posting this, the post has received 6162 thumbs up versus 480 thumbs down. That means the vast majority of viewers who were willing to actually vote on their opinion thought this was funny and/or clever. Second, it's really jarring to see a subject like this come up in such a detached setting--the whole point of this web site, after all, is to view the world through a thick lens of irony.

So, what to make of this? One could view it as a "pro-life" argument, but I wouldn't. I view it more as a "get off my back" social libertarian argument--if you're going to go kill your babies, don't yell at me for joking about them.

To be honest, I have a feeling this basically says the worst about our culture. We know what we're doing is killing babies, but we're so hopelessly detached from the issue, there's nothing to do but occasionally take jabs at our own inconsistency.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Unselfish Gene?

Today as I was reading an article by Yochai Benkler on the Harvard Business Review entitled, "The Unselfish Gene" (by way of The Browser) I began to get depressed. Not because, as the article forcefully argues, it turns out our selfishness is not the key to understanding all human behavior. This should be rather uplifting, I suppose. Rather, it was because I found it contained so many pernicious errors in reasoning that I began to wonder how our cultural elite can be so blind.

To begin with, let's summarize the major premise. For years now we've been operating under the assumption that humans are fundamentally driven by the selfish desire to advance one's own interests, the so-called "rational actor theory." Thus we have to determine which personal incentives to use in order to drive people toward good behavior. But now, thanks to modern science, we can successfully say that in general, people actually like to cooperate with one another!

My first critique, which is almost my most overarching critique, can be stated as follows: how can we possibly think we needed modern science to figure this out?

The Unselfish Gene?

Today as I was reading an article by Yochai Benkler on the Harvard Business Review entitled, "The Unselfish Gene" (by way of The Browser) I began to get depressed. Not because, as the article forcefully argues, it turns out our selfishness is not the key to understanding all human behavior. This should be rather uplifting, I suppose. Rather, it was because I found it contained so many pernicious errors in reasoning that I began to wonder how our cultural elite can be so blind.

To begin with, let's summarize the major premise. For years now we've been operating under the assumption that humans are fundamentally driven by the selfish desire to advance one's own interests, the so-called "rational actor theory." Thus we have to determine which personal incentives to use in order to drive people toward good behavior. But now, thanks to modern science, we can successfully say that in general, people actually like to cooperate with one another!

My first critique, which is almost my most overarching critique, can be stated as follows: how can we possibly think we needed modern science to figure this out?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reverse economies of scale

HT goes to Alex Tabarrok, since I found this video on his post. But I admit I heard of this several months ago from a friend.

This technology really fits the phrase "marginal revolution."

Give Me Liberty and Give Me Beer

Matt Zwolinski admits that his entire political philosophy is really based on the love of beer:
I am a lover of craft beer, and a homebrewer. And the fact is, freedom makes for good beer. Just look, for example, at the American experience. Prohibition in the 1920s destroyed what had once been a surprisingly successful and diverse American brewing industry, leaving only a few large brewers of cheap, flavorless swill in its wake. It wasn’t until the 1980s that innovative, interesting, flavorful beers began to reappear on the American market, driven in part by Jimmy Carter’s legalization of homebrewing in 1978. Many of today’s most innovative professional brewers got their start as homebrewers – Alesmith’s Peter Zien, X of Rogue’s Jeff Schultz, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, New Belgium’s Jeff Lebesch, and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman, for example.
Read the rest of his article to find out about how government regulations stifle greater diversity and quality in beer selection. Also, in the comments section you can read about how both the beer and wine industry are affected by government favoritism toward certain distributors owned by major corporations.

Which reminds me of a claim Joel Salatin made in Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, that the original Model T could run either on gasoline or alcohol, and that before prohibition things were looking pretty bright for alcohol to be the up and coming fuel source. Even today, alcohol is a fairly significant fuel source, which leads Salatin to speculate about how we might cure ourselves of dependence on foreign oil by deregulating the production and sale of liquor.

It's worth pointing out what the result of a highly regulated alcohol business is. During Prohibition, alcohol production didn't go away; it simply got into the hands of corrupt people willing to do dangerous things--hence the phrase "bootleggers and Baptists." Even in a regulated industry, the production over goes into the hands of giant corporations whose goal is pure profit. As a result, millions of people in this country drink a watered down product. No wonder so many Americans drink so irresponsibly. The stuff they drink is so bad they can't imagine drinking it for anything other than the buzz.

By contrast, a deregulated (or rather a self-regulated) industry would allow more entrepreneurs into the business, and the more people are allowed to try for themselves, the more care and attention is placed into developing unique and tasty products. In the world of microbrews, you have to be known by taste--you certainly can't be known by your Superbowl commercials.

I suspect that Americans would on the whole be more responsible and more sophisticated drinkers if, ironically enough, there weren't so many restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hayek and Ecclesiastes

From "The Common Sense of Progress" in The Constitution of Liberty:
Even in the field where the search for new knowledge is most deliberate, i.e., in science, no man can predict what will be the consequences of his work.... Progress by its very nature cannot be planned. We may perhaps legitimately speak of planning progress in a particular field where we aim at the solution of a specific problem and are already on the track of the answer. But we should soon be at the end of our endeavors if we were to confine ourselves to striving for goals now visible and if new problems did not spring up all the time. It is knowing what we have not known before that makes us wiser men.

But often it also makes us sadder men. Though progress consists in part in achieving things we have been striving for, this does not mean that we shall like all its results or that all will be gainers. And since our wishes and aims are also subject to change in the course of the process, it is questionable whether the statement has a clear meaning that the new state of affairs that progress creates is a better one. Progress is the sense of the cumulative growth of knowledge and power over nature is a term that says little about whether the new state will give us more satisfaction than the old. The pleasure may be solely in achieving what we have been striving for, and the assured possession may give us little satisfaction. The question whether, if we had to stop at our present stage of development, we would in any significant sense be better off or happier than if we had stopped a hundred or a thousand years ago is probably unanswerable.

The answer, however, does not matter. What matters is the successful striving for what at each moment seems attainable.

Cf. Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, 2:14, 2:24-26, 6:7-9, 11:6,8
And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage have the wise over fools? And what do the poor have who know how to conduct themselves before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

In defense of Ecclesiastes

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
James 1:5

And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
Ecclesiastes 1:17-18
At Trinity Pres we're doing a Sunday school (I'm sorry, "education hour") on Ecclesiastes and James. Not much has been written comparing and contrasting James and Ecclesiastes. I think the above quotes should make it clear why not.

Inevitably, there are some in the class who are immediately concerned with whether or not there are contradictions in the Bible. Stalwart defenders of the truth must chime in with their rationalizations of any and all differences between one book and another. It simply will not do to let the tension stand.

One of the most remarkable things about Scripture is that books like Ecclesiastes made it in. Also on my list of favorites for similar reasons are Esther, Job, and Song of Solomon. It really seems like the very middle of the Bible is packed full of stuff to throw people off (the Psalms themselves are often no exception). (Proverbs, I suppose, is not so challenging.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why shouldn't government be big?

Conservatives and libertarians often complain that government is "too big." Part of what they mean by this is that the government is involved in too many things, and this is detrimental to society because the government is less efficient in doing these things than the private sector.

Stated in this way, this mantra is actually an empirical claim which may be false. How do we know the government is less efficient than the private sector in everything that it does? Very often I suspect it is, but sometimes perhaps it isn't. And even if it is less efficient, the underlying principle really has not been addressed: why does the government turn out to be inefficient?

More importantly the real question is, can the solution really be for the government to simply stop doing the things it is doing? This seems like a regressive step, an admission of defeat, a blithe acceptance that maybe some problems just can't be solved. This is the kind of thinking that makes progressives' blood boil.

And rightfully so. The most aggravating thing I've found about conservatives is that often they are in fact conservative in the negative sense: they often want to call "not problems" things that are problems, and rather than optimistically seeking solutions they simply wish to be left alone. I'll be the first to complain about Obama's health care plan, but where were the conservative Republicans when they had a chance to address the problems of health care themselves? Why did they not address immigration reform? And why is it that under their watch no one spotted any of the systemic economic problems that led to the current recession? If the Left has recently had many bad ideas, the Right has simply had no ideas, which is in fact worse during times of crisis, when some idea, even a bad one, will move to fill the vacuum.

So if we're to avoid this kind of "do nothing" attitude, what are we to do about big government? Is it a problem? What exactly is the reason we are so upset by it? How do we fix that?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poland to strengthen its pro-life laws

Steve Ertfelt reports on a recent legislative effort in Poland to strengthen existing protections for the unborn:
Poland lawmakers cast their initial vote on legislation that would ban all abortions in the European nation — supporting a bid to move ahead with legislation that would tighten the nation’s laws already prohibiting most abortions.

The PRO Foundation has organized a grassroots campaign to lobby MPs to support the legislation and the nation’s Catholic bishops have also played an integral role in advancing the legislation. The legislation is the result of a citizen-led initiative drive in which sponsors collected 100,000 signatures over the course of three months but which resulted in collecting 600,000 petitions in just two weeks.

The bill would remove the rape and incest exceptions from the current federal law in Poland and provide protection for pregnant women and unborn children starting at conception. Also, currently, Polish law allows for abortion in cases related to maternal health, if the pregnancy is the result of “illegal activity,” or if the unborn child is disabled.
The historical perspective is a bit intriguing here. Ertfelt points out that abortion became legalized in Poland after the Nazi invasion during WWII, and its abortion laws were most "liberal" (if we must accept the modern misuse of that term) during the reign of communism. Part of this development seems to be Poland's desire to assert itself as a Christian nation, both in reaction to the secularism which once ruled over it and the secularism which now dominates the West.

But what intrigues me the most is the opinion polling done in Poland, which show a surprising degree of uniformity of opinion on this issue among the young.
A survey conducted earlier this month demonstrates a shift in the population’s attitudes about abortion and showed 65% of Poles agree that the law “should unconditionally protect the life of all children since conception,” and 76% of those aged 15 to 24 favor total protection for unborn children. Some 57 percent of those aged 55 to 70 agree that a ban on abortions is appropriate.
It could be that Poland is feeling a resurgence of religious fervor, and that's all that's going on here. But considering the trends in American public opinion, which consistently show increased liberalism on social and religious issues except abortion, I have a small hunch that something else might also be at work.

Where we're going, we don't need roads

I'd heard about this thing a while ago, I think, but now the big news is that it's gotten regularity clearance and is scheduled to be released on the market as soon as next year. Read more here.

There's obviously a long way to go before we're all driving one of these babies around, but I'd say it's a big step in a good direction.

HT: Tyler Cowen.

Christianity and worldviews

Christians are often engaged in the project of "building a biblical worldview." This project more or less entails interpreting all the components of the world around us in light of the narrative of Scripture, specifically the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Particularly among Reformed apologists, the biblical worldview is the only proper "starting point" for knowledge, and other "starting points" (e.g. modernism, postmodernism) are shown to have serious failings. Our presuppositions must be exposed for what they are, and we must understand the gospel to be the only presuppositions which truly make sense of the world. This isn't the only way to put it, and, indeed, there are many evangelicals outside the Reformed camp who have different takes on the nature and importance of a "biblical worldview." But one thing they have in common: it is the truth proclaimed by Scripture which must be the lens through which we view the world.

At first glance, this is a cogent argument against modern rationalism, which puts its faith in autonomous human reason to evaluate truths. On the other hand, I think this approach ignores some important observations as well as recent discoveries about the nature of the human mind.

In particular, most of our thought and reasoning is unconscious. Our "worldview," in any meaningful sense, begins to take shape not when we begin to consciously assess the truth claims of Christianity, but really when our neural circuitry begins to form before birth. This can sound like a characteristically modern statement, using science to trump theology, but I mean to use it quite differently. What we ought to recognize is how vital grace is in the growth of all human knowledge. We can learn absolutely nothing without most of what we know simply given to us. Grace is first present in an individual's life not at the first reading of the Bible, but in the womb.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Media takes Ron Paul seriously: world ends, etc.

When The New Republic has an article viewing Ron Paul in a positive light, you know politics as we know it is forever changed. Well, maybe not forever. But at least we get an interesting conversation out of it. Here's the scoop:
Representative Ron Paul has hit upon a remarkably creative way to deal with the impasse over the debt ceiling: have the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds. While at first blush this idea may seem crazy, on more careful thought it is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis. Furthermore, it provides a way to have lasting savings to the budget.
Tyler Cowen has an analysis here. Unfortunately, I'm not an expert in economics, and I can't readily make a sophisticated assessment. I just find the politics pretty fascinating.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hayek on "Self-Interest"

From "Individualism: True and False" in Individualism and the Economic Order:
To the accepted Christian tradition that man must be free to follow his conscience in moral matters if his actions are to be of any merit, the economists added the further argument that he should be free to make full use of his knowledge and skill, that he must be allowed to be guided by his concern for the particular things of which he knows and for which he cares, if he is to make as great a contribution to the common purposes of society as he is capable of making. Their main problem was how these limited concerns, which did in fact determine people's actions, could be made effective inducements to cause them voluntarily to contribute as much as possible to needs which lay outside the range of their vision. What the economists understood for the first time was that the market as it had grown up was an effective way of making man take part in a process more complex and extended than he could comprehend and that it was through the market that he was made to contribute "to ends which were no part of his purpose."


Another misleading phrase, used to stress an important point, is the famous presumption that each man knows his interests best. In this form the contention is neither plausible nor necessary for the individualist's conclusions. The true basis of his argument is that nobody can know who knows best and that the only way by which we can find out is through a social process in which everybody is allowed to try and see what he can do. The fundamental assumption, here as elsewhere, is the unlimited variety of human gifts and skills and the consequent ignorance of any single individual of most of what is known to all the other members of society taken together. Or, to put this fundamental contention differently, human Reason, with a capital R, does not exist in the singular, as given or available to any particular person, as the rationalist approach seems to assume, but must be conceived as an interpersonal process in which anyone's contribution is tested and corrected by others.
So much, then, for this false accusation that the classical liberal philosophy relies on faith in individual autonomous reason. Much more insulting is that absolutely baseless notion that free market advocates must necessarily advocate an ethic of personal gain.

I can't recommend this essay enough to people wanting to understand some of the fundamental principles of what Hayek calls "true" individualism. I say this particularly to Christians who, I have noticed, are often swept to and fro by the winds of philosophical fads, and often take very reactionary stands on important political ideas. If we care about human flourishing, we need to subscribe to principles which are much more carefully tested than shallow sentiments like, "Oh, I believe in individual freedom," on the one hand or, "I think we owe something to our community," on the other. Shallow as such sentiments might be, they far too often get tossed around as the defining difference between political ideas.

This seems like as good a post as any to write on the eve of Independence Day.

Happy 4th of July.