Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

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.

Stick That in Your Lexicon!

Saturday, 23 May 2020
bru·to·ri·al /bruːˈtɔːriəl/ adjective & noun
A. noun. An otherwise useless tutorial that one is not permitted to forgo.
B. adjective. Of or pertaining to a brutorial.

Coming Diagnoses of a Failure of Capitalism

Friday, 17 April 2020

The way in which the political left conceptualizes an economy is a variation on how technocrats more generally conceptualize it. The left imagines the economy as possessing a kernel of processes that take inputs and produce outputs based upon purely technologic considerations. What distinguishes these processes as a kernel is that they are jointly self-sustaining; setting aside natural resources, the kernel produces everything necessary to maintain itself. Depending upon technology, the kernel may do nothing more than to sustain itself. The left often imagines an economy that does nothing more as a subsistence economy; but, as a matter of logic, they might imagine an economy as technologically constrained to produce exactly what it does to continue replicating itself, yet providing a fairly high standard of living. In any case, they more often imagine the kernel as producing a surplus, which is to say production above and beyond that necessary to sustain the kernel. Allocation and composition of the surplus is imagined to be determined not just by technologic considerations, but also by social power. This is why the left often does believe and still more frequently seems to believe that economics is a zero-sum game; they believe that for some people to get more, they must either leave less of the surplus for others or, still worse, must reduce the kernel. Because performance of the kernel is imagined to be determined purely by technologic factors, while it may be acknowledged that in our world resources have been priced largely by markets and hence inputs have been determined largely by markets, it is believed that, ultimately, the markets had little real choice; that they had to settle on relative prices that simply conformed to technologic considerations. The imagined kernel is as if an inflexible machine, however complex it may be. It is only pricing of commodities within the surplus that is imagined to be flexible.

The lock-downs that have been the political response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic are variously imagined either as shutting down production outside the kernel, with economic activity labelled as essential continuing, or indeed as going further to shut-down much of the kernel itself. As the lock-downs come to an end, it will be expected by many — including many not on the political left — that the economy will pick-up at about where it was before the lock-downs. If one imagines the proper inputs to each part of the kernel (or of the economy more generally) as technologically determined, then restarting the economy is a simple matter of resuming those proper inputs. If the kernel is believed to have been kept in operation, then what remains is again to allocate the surplus roughly as it was, or (in keeping with left-wing values) with a greater share given to those who are not wealthy.

The economy will not pick-up where it left-off, because the technocratic conception in general and the left-wing conception in particular are so terribly wrong. But the political left will diagnose the failure to restore the economy quickly as a failure of capitalism — either to solve a problem of technologic programming or to produce a socially just or fair division of the surplus. And, so, they will demand that the state become further involved, to take greater command of those industries that they regard as within the kernel, to strengthen worker unions, to establish floors on wages and both floors and ceilings on salaries, and to redistribute income through transfer programmes.

Voigt and Value

Friday, 10 April 2020

In a previous entry, I asserted that Voigt's Zahl und Mass in der Ökonomik contain[s] more error than insight. Here, I'll discuss one of the more egregious errors. In section V, Voight writes

An die Spitze der Erörterung dieses vielberufenen Begriffes sollte gestellt werden, dass es Einheiten des Wertes giebt, dass man also untersuchen kann, wievielmal so gross ein Wert als ein anderer ist und Güter gleichen Wertes durch einander ersetzen kann, dass also der Wert ein eigentliches in einer Kardinalzahl ausdrückbares Mass hat.

which may be translated as

At the forefront of discussion of this much used concept should be placed that there are units of value that one thus can investigate how many time as large a value is as another and can replace goods of the same value with each other, that thus the value has a real measure expressible in a cardinal number.

I'll deal first with the point that it seems that one can investigate how many times as large a value is as another.

Numbers are used in many ways. Depending upon the use, what is revealed by arithmetic may be a great deal or very little. Sometimes numbers are ascribed with so little meaning that we may as well consider them strings of numerals, the characters that we use for numbers, and not numbers at all. Sometimes numbers do nothing but provide an arbitrary order, good for something such as a look-up table but nothing else. Sometimes they provide a meaningful order, but one in which the results of most arithmetic operations are meaningless, as when items produced at irregular intervals are given sequential serial numbers. (The difference between any two such numbers tells one which was produced before the other, but little else.) Sometimes the differences between the differences are meaningful, as when items are produce at regular intervals and given sequential serial numbers. And so forth.

Monetary prices are quantities, but they are more specifically quantities of money; that does not make them quantities of value nor proxies of quantities of value. One would have to show that the results of every arithmetic operation on such a quantity of money said something about value for it to be shown that value were itself a quantity.

The second part of Voigt's claim is that one Güter gleichen Wertes durch einander ersetzen kann [can replace goods of the same value with each other]. But an equivalence between things corresponding to the same numbers doesn't make results of the application of arithmetic to those numbers meaningful. (Consider lots of items produced at irregular intervals, with each item in the lot given the same serial number, unique to the lot but otherwise random.) And we should ask ourselves under just what circumstances we can and cannot ersetzen one set of commodities of a given price with another of the same price.

Nor does somehow combining the use of quantities of money for prices with a property of equivalence imply that value is a quantity.

Voigt is unusual not in making this unwarranted inference, but in so clearly expressing himself as he does. From the observation that prices are usually quantities of something, which quantities increase as value increases, most people, and even most economists blithely infer that value itself behaves as a quantity.


Thursday, 20 February 2020

On 20 February 2020, a year to-the-day after I submitted my paper Formal Qualitiative Probability to The Review of Symbolic Logic and nearly five months after I was notified that a revised version had been accepted, Cambridge University Press published the manuscript on-line.

(I believe that an unchanging DOI 10.1017/S1755020319000480 will be used for whatever is the latest version of the article, as it is type-set for paper publication and eventually assigned to a specific issue.)

This work was badly treated across journals of philosophy. Regardless of whether any of my future work is perhaps best regarded as philosophic, I will henceforth avoid submitting to such journals.

Lost in Translation

Sunday, 9 February 2020

I recently started reading Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, a translation of Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt[e] by Franz Brentano. My copy happens to be of the 1973 Humanities Press edition.

In the translation of the 1874 foreword, I hit a sentence

I was prompted to undertake a rather detailed study of these opinions because at the present time they enjoy an undue popularity and exert a lamentable influence upon a public which, in matters of psychology even less than in other fields, has not yet learned to demand scientific cogency.

This sentence is a muddle, with restrictions and negations working to say something contrary to what Brentano must surely have intended. A scan of the original is available on-line, the German reads

Und was mich dazu trieb, auch auf sie weitläufiger einzugehen, waren nur eine ungebührliche Verbreitung und ein beklagenswerther Einfluss, welche sie gegenwärtig auf ein Publicum gewonnen haben, das in sachen der Psychologie weniger noch als anderwärts auf wissenschaftliche Strenge Anspruch zu machen gelernt hat.

That refers to

a public, who in matters of psychology less still than elsewhere have learned to make a demand for scientific rigor

So the muddle is not in the original, but is an artefact of translation that doesn't strive to be as close to the original as possible while conforming to the conventions of the target language.

I checked a scan of the 1995 second edition of the translation, and found the same muddle as in the 1973 edition.

Naturally, I'm wondering to what extent I can reasonably trust the remainder of the translation. I reälize that passages recognized as crucial will probably have been treated with greater care and received more scrutiny, but there may be passages the importance of which has not been recognized. And even passages whose importance were recognized might be poorly translated. (I certainly saw such cases in translations of the work of Aristoteles.)

Seen to Be Done

Saturday, 1 February 2020

I present this table

Justices of the US Supreme Court in November of 1952
Hugo Lafayette BlackRoosevelt (D)Democrat27 Feb 188618 Aug 1937
Stanley Forman ReedRoosevelt (D)Democrat31 Dec 188427 Jan 1938
Felix FrankfurterRoosevelt (D)Democrat15 Nov 188220 Jan 1939
William Orville DouglasRoosevelt (D)Democrat16 Oct 188617 Apr 1939
Robert Houghwout JacksonRoosevelt (D)Democrat13 Feb 189211 Jul 1941
Harold Hitz BurtonTruman (D)Republican22 Jun 188822 Sep 1945
Frederick Moore VinsonTruman (D)Democrat22 Jan 189021 Jun 1946
Thomas Campbell ClarkTruman (D)Democrat23 Sept 188919 Aug 1949
Sherman MintonTruman (D)Democrat20 Oct 18905 Oct 1949

in advance of polemic that I anticipate over the next five or more years.

The Presidential candidates who might plausibly receive the nomination of the Democratic Party are such that, in the absence of a financial crisis, President Trump is very likely to be reëlected. He has, so far, been able to select two appointees to the US Supreme Court.

Four of the nine Justices now serving are appointees of Democratic Presidents. One of these, Justice Ginsburg, will be 87 years old in March, and has had repeated bouts with cancer. Another, Breyer, will be 82 years old in August; it is very likely that he will leave the Court before 2024. A third, Sotomayor, is in her mid-sixties, but suffers from type 1 diabetes. Whoever is elected to the Presidency in 2020 will surely replace between one and three of these Justices. There may be only one Justice from the Democratic Party in 2024.

Which is why I point to the Court in 1952. It had no Justices other than those appointed by Democratic Presidents, and only one Justice who, prior to appointment, had not been affiliated with the Democratic Party. The Republican Party won the Presidency and a majority in each chamber of Congress. But, if there were any argument that it would be right and proper to increase the number of Justices on the US Supreme Court in order to reëstablish a majority of Republican appointees or somesuch, that argument sank without a trace.