Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

Obscured Tautology and the Persistence of Socialism

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Since sometime in my childhood, I have repeatedly encountered arguments of the form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

For example

If you were smart enough, then you'd be able to fix that widget.

The enough makes this claim a tautology; it really just unpacks to

If X were Y enough to Z, then X would be able to Z.

But the tautology is vacuous and useless in cases in which

Y enough to Z

is not possible, as in

pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem

It is true that

If Madeline were pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem, then Madeline would be able to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

It just isn't true that

Someone could be pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

Outside of pædogogic exercises, when someone makes a declaration of form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

he or she is presuming or insinuating that

At the margin, there is some level of Y that is sufficient to be able to Z.

but this proposition may not be true, and certainly ought to be examined before accepting

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

as part of an argument that

X ought to be more Y

or that

Z can be accomplished.

The reason that I write about this issue of logic now is that is seems to me that a great many people essentially believe that

All that is necessary for socialism to work is for us to take control and to be sufficiently virtuous; thus, when socialism fails it is either because we are not in control or are not sufficiently virtuous; and thus, no matter how much or how often attempts at socialism fail, we must struggle to take control and to be virtuous — perhaps by finding ways to incentivize virtuousness — until socialism succeeds.

Some critics would perhaps want to ask the genuinely important question of to just whom this we and us refer, but for my purpose here they can be left as a variable to be assigned whatever value the political left might want. My objection is that lurking in the argument is

If X were virtuous enough, then X would be able to make socialism work.

And, in this context, even a genuine failure of socialism will not be seen as a reason to quit trying. The socialists can always tell themselves We can succeed next time, or at least fail better.

The typical opponent of socialism argues that socialism will fail because people will not be motivated to expend sufficient effort. Not only can this been seen as a problem of virtue by the political left; it has been seen as a problem of virtue by the political right, who sometimes ascribe the impossibility of well functioning socialism to Original Sin.

But a motivation to work with sufficient intensity is not the deepest practical problem of socialism. The problem of knowing at what to workthe Problem of Economic Calculation — is the deepest problem. We can presume that, somehow, everyone conforms utterly to a left-wing notion of virtue, and still the Problem of Economic Calculation will abide.

At the margin, there is no level of virtue on the part of any us or of any them that is sufficient to be able to make socialism work.

But, hidden behind an obscured and misapplied tautology, the presumption that such a level exists can keep socialists banging their heads against the wall indefinitely and putting other people against the wall indefinitely.

Illuminating a Bit of Urban-Myth Economics

Saturday, 16 January 2021

On YouTube, I encountered a video selling something (I didn't get to whatever it was) based upon a controversial theory, and using economic prejudices to make his case. To make the economic part of his case, he told an old, true story, but left-out an important detail.

There are a few incandescent light-bulbs that have been in continual use for many decades. (He referred to one of these.) They haven't needed to be changed. But that doesn't somehow prove that the manufacturers of light-bulbs have formed a cartel that avoids selling us cost-effective light-bulbs that will last many decades.

The bulbs that last for decades run on DC (direct current) rather than AC (alternating current). AC displaced DC because of issues of generation and of transmission; you'd be paying more for electricity if your power company used direct current. And, that these bulbs are run continuously means that they are never turned-off, and thus have only been turned-on once. It is the strains on the filament from being turned-on repeatedly and from running alternating current that cause our incandescent bulbs to fail more quickly. If you really want your bulbs to last longer, then install rectifiers in your lamps, and either never turn the bulbs off or also install devices that gradually increase the current when the light is turned-on.

Or just accept that you're trading higher bulb costs for lower power costs and lower costs of lamps.

Humpty Dumpty and Commerce

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Fairly inexpensive hair combs made of hard rubber — rubber vulcanized to a state in which it is as about firm as a modern plastic — could be found in most American drugstores at least into the mid-'90s. Now-a-days, they have become something of a premium item. I was looking at listing on Amazon supposedly of hard rubber combs and discovered, to my annoyance, that a careful reading of the descriptions showed that most of the combs explicitly described as hard rubber were made of plastic. To me, the situation seemed to be of pervasive fraud, as it will to many others.

But then I realized that it is more likely to be something else. Fraud, after all, involves deliberate misrepresentation. Whereäs we live in a world in which a great many people believe that no use of a word or phrase is objectively improper — that if they think that hard rubber means a rubbery plastic or a plastic that looks like another substance called hard rubber, then it indeed means just that. (Of course, we cannot trust any verbal explanation from them of these idiosyncratic meanings, as they may be assigning different meanings to any words with which they define other words.)

My defense of linguistic prescriptivism has for the most part been driven by concerns other than those immediate to commercial transactions. And, when I've seen things such on eBay as items described with mint condition for its age or with draped nude, my inclination has been merely to groan or to laugh. But it seems to me that the effects of ignoring or of rejecting linguistic prescription have found their way into commercial transactions beyond the casual.

Well, those who are not prescriptivists are hypocrites if they complain, and they're getting no worse than they deserve.

Judging the Past in the Present

Monday, 28 December 2020

I often hear or read someone objecting to judging an historical person or act by present moral standards. Although there seems to be some element of reasonableness entangled in this objection, it's very problematic.

It is especially problematic as expressed. Technically, we cannot judge anyone or anything at all, except by whatever may be our present standards. If we judge historical people and acts differently from how we do present-day people and acts, it is exactly because our present standards incorporate a recognition of historical context.

I don't see that the real issue is historical context as such, but context more generally. If we are to make allowances for historical person or acts, it is because of what informed them and what did not inform them; and, similarly, acts by persons in some present-day contexts are very differently informed from acts by other persons in other present-day cultures. As L.P. Hartley usefully noted, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cultural relativism, in application to other places or to other times, is sensible when it warns one against presumption that one's own culture is doing things the only right way. (One's culture may be doing things a wrong way, or there may be other ways that are just as good.) But a cultural relativism that instead claims that something is automatically acceptable simply because it prevails in the culture of that place or prevailed in the culture of that time dissolves into nihilism because each person at each time and at each place is him- or herself a subculture.

And I think that some allowances should be made; but I think that too much allowance is often made.

For example, is the case against slavery now available really all that much better than the case that was available in America a few hundred years ago? Inverting that question, was the case against slavery available a few hundred years ago really much worse than the case available now? There is a sound argument, even to-day, for not waging war against slavery in the territories ruled by other states; and there may be a case for making treaties or even forming alliances with such states; but those are different practices from engaging in slavery or actively enabling slavery. Is there really a meaningfully better defense of the slavery of two hundred years ago than there would be of slavery now?

I   don't   think   so.

Nor do I think so for a great deal else that I am told not to judge by modern standards.

Perverted Locusts

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Those who support locking-down in response to SARS-CoV-2 are like weird locusts. Instead of eating the crops; these locusts prevent growth and harvest. That is to say that they prevent economic activity, which is an implicit consumption of an especially perverse sort. In any case, they leave despair and literal starvation in their wake.

Tasers

Sunday, 6 December 2020

State officials should not use tasers as devices to compel positive acts. I have made and explained this point elsewhere, but I believe that I have failed to do so previously in this 'blog.

When tasers were introduced to policing, they were presented to the public as devices to stop attackers, without potentially lethal force. It would take some contrivance to present a situation in which such use of a taser would not be preferable to lethal force.

But tasers also inflict pain. And police officers quickly began using them to hurt people until those people complied, even when compliance was a positive act, such as moving one's body in some way. The pain inflicted by a taser is sufficiently severe that it will cause people to act in ways that will lead to their convictions, as when a taser was used to induce a suspect to produce a urine sample. Used to motivate behavior, a taser is a device of torture. Judges have acquiesced to this use of torture to compel positive acts. Almost no one speaks out against it. The taser has become a socially accepted device of torture.

Science and the Humanities

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Reading a book first published in 1951, I am reminded that, at one time, the definition of humanities included sciences of human behavior within its scope. Now, one seldom encounters that inclusion in contemporary use, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary explicitly excludes the study of social relations (though it says nothing explicit about that part of behavior outside of the social).

In the earlier period, there was a question of whether the study of human behavior were fundamentally different from the study of the properties of other things. Those who insisted upon such a difference would speak and write of science and the humanities as if of two separate things.

But the tools by which the physical, biological, and behavioral science were studied were increasingly shared. The physical and biological sciences took-up probability and statistics; the biological sciences have taken-up chemistry, mechanics, and game theory; the behavioral science have taken-up biological explanation and mathematical modelling. All have been affected by the same philosophic theories of method. A dichotomy of science and the humanities cannot prevail so long as the behavioral sciences are included amongst what are called humanities.

Apparently that dichotomy was so dear to some of those who insisted upon it that they attempted its preservation by implicitly changing what they intended with humanities in order to hold fast to it. Of course, the newer definition doesn't maintain the original dichotomy; but replaces it with a new one.

Lack of Infrastructure

Saturday, 26 September 2020
[panel from Kirakira • Sutadī — Zettai Gokaku Sengen by Hanabana Tsubomi in which three students react with dismay at something given to them by a fourth student.  One dismayed student declares 'What is this…?!  This is absolutely filled with symbols I've never seen before…'  Another cries 'I don't even understand what the questions are asking…!!']
(from KiraKira★Study by Hanabana Tsubomi, v 2 ch 18)

My work and the problems that most interest me are difficult to discuss with friends and even with colleagues because so much infrastructure is unfamiliar to them.

An Exercise in Economic Thinking

Monday, 13 July 2020

Yester-day, I posted a problem to Facebook:

Assume that the market for CEOs of large corporations is very tight, with directors competing ferociously for candidates. How will the burden of a tax on compensation to CEOs be distributed between the CEOs and the stockholders? If a heavily progressive tax is placed on the incomes of CEOs, what will happen to the pre-tax income levels of these CEOs?

So far, for whatever reasons, no one has offered answers, though the answers should be obvious. What makes the exercise interesting is the inversion of the answer to the second question. A great many people who could correctly and quickly answer the question itself it would almost surely miss the inversion if not asked the question.

Making Your Vote (or Non-Vote) Count

Sunday, 14 June 2020

In nearly every election of a state official, even those in which only a few hundred voters participate, the margin of victory is more than one vote. What that means is that, if any one voter had refrained from voting, or if any one abstaining voter had not abstained, the candidate who won would still have won. Some people — even some very intelligent people — conclude that the vote of an individual has no efficacy beyond that of other acts of expression. Those people are missing something.

Indeed, one's vote or refusal to vote has absolutely no effect on the election at hand. There are various things that one can do prior to the election which may help one candidate to achieve a margin of victory, or prevent another from achieving such a margin. But one's own vote isn't going to make any difference in that election.

However, as potential candidates and parties decide what to do with future elections in mind, they look at margins of victory in past elections. Potential candidates decide whether to run and, if they choose to run, how to position themselves, informed by those margins. Parties decide their platforms and whom to nominate, informed by those margins. With large margins in their favor, they feel free to alienate a greater number of potential voters; with small margins or losing margins, they consider what to do differently in order to pull voters who previously voted for another, or who didn't vote at all.

Thus, an individual vote or the decision not to vote has a small effect — but its only effect — on later elections and on behavior of those who are acting with concern for later election.

The least effective thing that a potential voter can do is to vote for a candidate whom he or she dislikes. People in America who have held their noses to vote for the Democratic or Republican nominee in order to stop the nominee of the other party did worse than to throw-away their votes; they have helped to ensure that the next pair of choices would likewise be disagreeable, and that the behavior of officials in the mean time would likewise be disagreeable. It is only if one genuinely thought that one of these candidates were worthwhile that one should have voted for him or for her, and then still only to affect the next election and interim behavior of officials.

The most effective thing that a potential voter as such can do is to vote for a candidate of whom that voter approves, even if that candidate has no chance of winning, or to submit a ballot from which no candidate receives a vote. An increasing number of people are doing the latter, either in expression that no candidate is worthy, or to challenge the legitimacy of the process in a way that makes it difficult for these people to be dismissed as apathetic by apologists for the process.