Monday, 21 October 2019

On Obeying & Not Obeying Laws

Which laws should we abide by and which should we not? There are three main categories of belief one could have on this matter.

1) We should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it, because we should respect the law, and no one should be above it

2) We should only abide by the laws we agree with, and we should ignore the ones we disagree with (see my blog on rational crimes)

3) We should not abide by any laws at all

I’m going to assume that pretty much everyone claims to fall in either category 1 or 2, and that no one reading this thinks we should not abide by any laws at all. Incidentally, I did once meet a guy at a festival who claimed to be an authority-hating anarchist who thinks everyone should be entirely free to do exactly what they want at all times; but then literally one minute after declaring this he became vociferously annoyed at the sight of some newly-arrived campers pitching their tents in the wrong zone of the campsite. A few moments after I experienced that, I knew I would have a funny story for life.

Anyway, this faux-anarchist festival goer aside, I think if you asked the UK population whether they subscribe to category 1 or 2, most would say they belong in category 1, with a minority claiming to be in category 2. I want to contend that despite what many people claim, I think pretty much everyone actually belongs in category 2, and believes that we should only abide by the laws we agree with, and ignore the ones we disagree with. To argue to the contrary would be to claim that there are no laws that could be invented that we wouldn’t choose to ignore - and I don’t think that is true. Suppose a new law came in banning Bibles on the ground of imposing an Islamic theocracy, I don’t think many people would support it. Or suppose chocolate was outlawed by a nanny state that wanted to smother our every temptation, most would claim that’s a step too far.

The point is not that I think these laws are very likely. It’s that everyone has their limit: so anyone who claims to support number 1 - that we should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it - actually has their limit in where they betray that principle. In other words, no one really believes that we should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it – they simply follow laws they disagree with out of convenience and social pressure, or there aren’t yet any laws they find particularly objectionable enough to disobey. There is also, as Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics, little virtue in obeying laws merely because we are legally compelled to. Real virtue comes from a desire to be virtuous, irrespective of the law.

Given the foregoing, then, which laws could we reasonably disobey? As you may know, the things that the state deems illegal boil down to two distinct categories: malum in se laws (wrong in itself), which are prohibitions (like rape and murder) that are wrong by their very nature; and malum prohibitum laws (wrong because prohibited), which are prohibitions (like regulations and price controls) that are not wrong by their very nature, but are wrong because the state says so.

Politicians, therefore, impose lots of restrictions on us merely on the basis that politicians say they should be prohibited. Malum in se prohibitions like rape and murder are things we all should obey, because we want them to be prohibited, and would choose them as laws ourselves anyway if we were in charge. The malum prohibitum restrictions, on the other hand, are not necessarily prohibitions we would choose for ourselves - they are chosen for us by people that don't know our preferences better than we do (taken to extreme, things like illegality of homosexual practice, fewer black rights, lack of free press against the dictator, illegality of abortion, and many more have been strictures of the state against its citizens).

If there are any laws we should be free to obey, they are likely to be malum prohibitum laws - things that many of us may not think are wrong, but that are deemed wrong merely on the basis that the state says so for no apparent good reason. As any good dictator or authoritarian planner knows, the best way to wield ultimate control over people is to gradually erode away their freedoms until they reach a state of voluntary servility, where they will do pretty much anything you tell them. That is why it's essential to ask yourself which laws you should obey - otherwise you become an intellectual serf, like dead salmon floating down the stream.

But we needn't stop at the observation that pretty much everyone thinks we should only abide by the laws we agree with, and ignore the ones we disagree with - we can observe too that that principle is nested in a higher market-based wisdom that plays out more subtly. If we felt the full costs of many of the malum prohibitum laws, we probably would not support them. It is unlikely that the average Jill would be willing to pay as much to prevent the average Jack from using cannabis as he himself would pay to use it, therefore it is unlikely that a market based system would create an anti-cannabis law. It is unlikely that the total enforcement cost of the speeding laws would be willingly picked up by the citizens of the UK if it was spread evenly throughout the population, therefore it is unlikely that a market based system would create any speeding laws.

Consider an illustration. 500 million people are about to experience a quite discomforting but not too serious earache for the next hour. However if one innocent person is killed the 500 million won't have to go through with the earache for an hour. Should we kill the innocent person or let the 500 million people go through with the earache? I tried out this question on Facebook about seven years ago, and unsurprisingly everybody on my friends list said we should spare the one innocent life for the sake of 500 million earaches. That’s because, presumably, people want to minimise suffering, but yet at the same time they thought that the death of one innocent person was worse than 500 million earaches.

Fair enough, but this only goes to show that humans are weirdly inconsistent. Here’s why. I'll bet most of my Facebook friends insure their domestic goods. Then I asked them the following question:

Would you choose a certain earache for an hour or a 1 in 500 million chance of being the innocent person of dying?

Roughly 50% of people said they would choose the certain earache for an hour – which I found to be absolutely barmy. I take it that they are having trouble envisaging just how much 500 million is. How do I know that most rational people would rather have a 1 in 500 million chance of being the innocent person of dying than a certain earache? It’s not just because the probability is so heavily in their favour of surviving; it’s because in everyday life humans have multiple opportunities to buy all kinds of safety devices for their modes of travel, for their DIY, for their mowing the lawn, for climbing ladders, or whatever, each with a much less than 1 in 500 million chance of death or serious injury, and they prefer to take the chance. That’s how I know: people show me with their revealed preferences. 

When considered with proper rationality, the observation of people’s general day to day behaviour shows that most people would not pay one pound coin to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death, but most people would pay a pound coin to get rid of an earache that was going to go on for another hour. This is why the insurance issue is relevant – we choose an optimal deal because probability is hugely in our favour. We should do the same with the earache conundrum, because given that most people would not pay one pound coin to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death, but most people would pay a pound coin to get rid of an earache that was going to go on for another hour, this means that most people think an earache for an hour is worse that a 1 in 500 million chance of death, even though they claim to believe the opposite when the question was asked more abstractly. We know that rational people will pay £1 to cure an earache, but not to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death - therefore if you approach 500 million earache sufferers and offer to rid them all of their earache at the cost of killing 1 of them through a random draw, their revealed preferences in everyday life indicate that they should thank you.

This is very relevant to many of the malum prohibitum laws we see instituted in our statute. Recently I asked my Facebook friends, apart from speeding, which other current UK law(s) do you feel it's morally ok to break? Some of the answers they gave were streaming, having a wee behind a hedge, parking on yellow lines, drug use, skipping fares and not paying taxes. There is wisdom behind these answers, because what they are expressing is the revealed preference that they don't feel that the cost of those law enforcements are worth the price of having those laws, especially as there are so many deadweight costs associated with taxes, regulations and government spending.  

It's like the old joke about Tom and Pete stumbling upon a bear in the woods. Tom reasons that he doesn't have to run faster than the bear to survive, he only has to run faster than Pete. But the bear has a stake in this too, and wants the most efficient outcome - he doesn't want to waste resources chasing Tom when it would be easier chasing Pete. Most humans act as though they feel that way about most malum prohibitum laws, while at the same time speaking as though they don't.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Four Major Scams Of Humanity: What Our Descendants Will Remember Most About This Generation

There are four major scams that have duped humanity more than any others three long standing ones, and now a new fourth one:

1) Atheism (the Promethean fantasy that God doesn’t exist, and the narrow Dawkins-esque scientism that often accompanies it)

2) False Religions (all the little ones, and the massive ones like Hinduism, and especially Islam, which is the worst of all by a long way)

3) Socialism (the mass economic delusion - until it extends to Communism, when it becomes the mass catastrophic economic delusion)

4) Climate Change Alarmism (the Gaia-worshipping cult of mother earth, and the absurd beliefs that accompany it)

Numbers 1-3 have been standard on my list for most of my post-teenage life; and I’ve always been suspicious of, and sceptical about, environmentalism. But for most of my life the environmentalist movement has been a fringe cult, consisting of a few odd ducks who dress scruffily, ride bicycles and eat root vegetables. But these days things are very different: such is the proliferation in numbers, enhanced capability for widespread communication, and the mass-politicisation of climate change alarmism that I feel even more able to declare it is now deserving of its place in the ignominious list of major scams that have duped humanity.

The delusion, of course, is not most of the science behind the climate change, and the data showing temperature increases over the years; nor is it delusion to accept that climate change has a negative effect on a proportion of the population. The delusion is that the environmentalists currently causing havoc in London, wasting police time and damaging people’s livelihoods actually have the first clue about the right questions, the right answers and their meagre understanding of highly complex phenomena. On that, I’ll not say much more here (you can read more on the scale of delusion in my 30+ articles on this subject, see subject tab on my sidebar)

The main purpose of this article - something on which I do think most readers will agree with me, is this. You know how we look back on the slave trade and on the 19th century periods of industrial slog, smog and poverty with despair, and how we are thankful that we’ve made so many advances. Well, it got me thinking again about what comparable analysis our descendants will have about us; about this generation and the two generations that bookend this one.

A lot of our life will strike them as unfortunate even many of our modern technological advancements will be seen as limited by our descendants. But the big impression I think they will have about this generation is that never before have such a large number of people been so quick to believe so many foolish things and act on those beliefs in such a socially detrimental way, with such a toxic combination of self-confidence and meagre intellectual accountability.

This generation has been unprecedented in its quick rise of technology, material progression, connectivity, capacity for information and rapid exposure to everyone else’s ideas and opinions and they just haven’t been able to handle the requirements associated with such an explosion of thoughts, ideas, gimmicks, spin, memes and tribal identikit ideologies all gushing through in a stormy reservoir of analytical complacency and the insecurity-driven search for meaning and belonging.

It’s been rather like a mass flurry of ten thousand butterflies released into the wild alongside ten million bees it’s all happened so quickly and so chaotically that folk can hardly get to grips with whether the things flying past their eyes are butterflies or bees; and perhaps even worse, they are surrounded by people who confuse them about when to prefer butterflies and when to prefer bees.

There is just too much information, too many competing ideas, too much manipulation, too many charlatans, too much agenda-driven dogma, too much distortion of language and too much virtue signalling and more young people than ever before are struggling to resist the allure or comfort of dodgy, over-simplistic belief systems. And that, I think, will be one of the most historically noteworthy facts about these few generations that our descendants will look back on with incredulity. They won't be able to believe that so many people could be taken in by so much nonsense in such a short space of time.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Why Safe Spaces Don't Really Exist

This week the University of Edinburgh has been criticised for hosting an “anti-racism” event in which white people were due to be banned from asking questions. The conference was organised by the Resisting Whiteness group, which opposes racism and describes itself as a QTPOC (queer and trans people of colour) organisation. There are apparently two “safe spaces” at the event - and for one of which, white people will be barred from entering. The report said "the safe places are meant for those who feel “overwhelmed, overstimulated or uncomfortable”. Their aim is to “amplify the voices of people of colour" by not be giving the microphone to white people during the Q&As.

While the intentions are deeply disturbing, and indicative of a failing culture, I actually think the concept of safe spaces is a dubious one - there are not really any safe spaces, at least not at the intellectual level in universities. A place of sanctuary is a viable safe haven, such as for groups of addicts or women recovering from domestic abuse, but there are no real safe spaces in terms of intellectual ideas.
It's not just that attempted safe spaces stifle thought and erode free expression - the people within the walls of their self-constricted safe spaces are never really protected from what lurks beneath the sub-ducts of their psyche and their despair at being incarcerated in such a constricting mental prison. The walls they have erected to protect them from the outside are full of cracks into which those outside things leak anyway - you are never safe from the dangers of retarding truth, nor from the loss of the liberation gained from discovery and from the exploration of ideas. People who like the sound of intellectual safe spaces should be very careful what they wish for - it's going to feel like hell in the end.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

This Is One Of The Cleverest Memes Of The Year (If Not Ever) - The Reaction It Has Engendered Is Absolutely Priceless

“Islam is Right About Women.” This meme stuck on a signpost in America shows better in five words what it takes some commentators thousands of words to capture - it is a brilliant piece of provocation that so acutely digs in to the current zeitgeist that it's possible to offend groups on opposing sides, bewilder groups on opposing sides, and leave people quite unsure how to respond to it. When words have this much power, social media is rather exhilarating.

“Islam is Right About Women.” - It bewilders people from all ideological groups because it is cleverly vague enough to be devoid of any precise meaning, but clear enough to elicit some kind of negative emotion.

Islam is Right About Women.”  - It has the power to offend the snowflakes, because they are always offended at anything like this, without ever knowing why, or whether they should be.

"Islam is Right About Women.”  - It has the power to offend the feminists, because 'Hello, Islam and women' - this sign can't be right!

“Islam is Right About Women.”  - It has the power to offend misogynists (either Muslim or otherwise) because they would see the sign as an ironic attack on the oppression of women.

"Islam is Right About Women.”  - It has the power to offend the radical left, because they'll see it as both Islamophobic and misogynist, while at the same time being puzzled because they think it ticks a diversity box.

It is a truly brilliant meme: it offends all the right people, yet leaves them unsure about quite why they are offended - which almost perfectly encapsulates the modern bipolarities of extreme snowflakery on the one hand, yet radical, uncompromising, intolerant entitlement on the other.


Monday, 16 September 2019

Children's Futures Are Being Damaged, And There Is Going To Be A Real Price To Pay In Their Adulthood

Parents, be warned! Young children are currently being damaged in two big but insidious ways. The first real damage is the creation of offence culture, where young people are growing up in a world in which many of them will be overly-entitled and ill-equipped to think and speak freely, explore subjects with open rigour, be too lily-livered to cope with proper scrutiny of beliefs and ideas, and demand special intellectual privileges that their opinions and beliefs simply do not deserve (I've written about this before)

In order to say things of importance you have to take risks, you have to be courageous, you have to risk offending, and you have to make challenges to ensure that there is no false security or complacency in consensual opinion. In other words, to be profoundly right, you have to be prepared to be profoundly wrong, a fool, an outcast, even a disgrace sometimes. You have to be free enough to be able to say what others might also be thinking but haven't yet said.

A society that puts people in gilded cages and encourages them to lock the door from the inside is not only fostering an environment that suppresses speech, it is also fostering an environment that suppresses thought, because we do lots of our best thinking from talking and sharing ideas and hearing feedback. A society that makes people craven about speech makes people craven about ideas, because it keeps a lot of our best stuff locked away in the safe space of our cranium - unexpressed, and therefore unfulfilled.

Seek the truth and you will never be afraid to hear anything, because you can't lose: if something offensive or heterodoxical comes along, it is going to be evaluated through your robust truthseeking lens - and if it adds any value by way of a corrective you will modify your view to an improved state, and if it merely reinforces your view stronger, you will have an even more robust opinion, and a better defense of it. You have to be free to explore ideas and express them, because it’s only by expressing ideas and talking about them that we have a full capacity for learning. You have to be free to offend, and free to speculate in bold ways, and your children will pay a big price for attempts to stultify that.

The second real damage is the damage that is being done to children with their understanding of identity and biology. In the news this week we see that the BBC has told teachers who work with children aged 9-12 that there are “100, if not more” gender identities. We even see cases where people are threatened with prosecution if they declare a view that there are only two sexes or two genders. Already, we read that children are seeking in record numbers to change their gender, because they feel they were born in the wrong body - and this is only going to get worse.

Society, like riding a bike, is about balance - and on this issue there needs to be a better balance struck between being empathetic and supportive when people don't fit in to a simple binary categorisation, and not becoming hysterically reactionary with every fad and obscure belief system, some of which seem powerful enough to confuse children about their core identity, and even in some cases their core biology.

Many of society’s socio-political hot potatoes are more to do with rooted human behaviour than they are the issues themselves. You’ll find most people like to operate from within a safe, simplistic framework that rewards them with an easy model for analysing the world, and causes discomfiture when things happen that do not fit into that worldview. 

This, I think, is what is happening with the gender fluidity debate - something upon which I have rarely commented, until now. Over-simplicity from within a safe, uncritical framework does not leave you well equipped to deal with the world competently, but neither does uncritically accepting the most foolish things in common parlance just because they happen to be in vogue. I'll bet the average person on the street does not know very much about the differences between sex and gender, yet they comment in highly politically charged circles as if they do. It is important not to use sex and gender interchangeably. Sex is determined on the basis of biological apparatus (principally genitalia) and gender is to do with the associative socio-personal phenomena in partnership with sexuality. To that end, men and women are different in both categories.

To recap on the genetic differences that constitute sex; men and women both have 46 chromosomes, and 2 sex chromosomes. Women have 2 X chromosomes, and men have 1 X chromosome and 1 Y chromosome. The Y chromosome in dominant, and causes the formation of male biological apparatus. XX and XY differences also engender the variances in hormones (principally oestrogen and testosterone), and these bring out the physiological and biological differences between males and females.

The gender differences, on the other hand, are to do with perceived masculinity and femininity. If you look at male and female personalities in totality, their similarities far outweigh their differences, but there are plenty of differences too, and these play out in their respective relationships, attitudes, careers and priorities (to name but four). Personality differences are significant, but they are not the same as sex differences - hence sex and gender should not be used interchangeably - and the fact that they so often are is not helping the debate, especially for our children.

There are, of course, people who identify as transsexual who feel they have been born in the wrong body. We had a guy like that in our snooker team in the 1990s - born a male, but felt he was a female, and had sex reassignment surgery. These intersex conditions are complex, especially when you consider emotions and psychology. But because of the desire to be either one sex or the other, most intersex people choose to be identified as either a male or a female.

That should not, however, be used to pander to the whim of every attention-seeker who wants to be referred to with fictitious, biologically fantastical gender pronouns - and you are certainly not helping children by being complacent about an insidious environment that makes these crazes commonplace, and gets kids questioning their own biological identity to follow a trend.

When you have situations like the '100 genders' debacle in schools, where facts, feelings, offence, entitlements and perceived rights are sowing so much confusion into the minds of children, and provoking hostility into the minds of teenagers and young adults, you are going to end up with a toxic combination where people don't know truth from falsehood, and are furtive about how free they are to express their views about either. Because these problems are setting in to lives at such a young age, there is a real danger that the generation that follows this one will be more bewildered and maladapted than they can realistically cope with - and that is going to be a big problem.



Monday, 2 September 2019

On Meat Consumption & Climate Alarmism

I’ve been reading a few of the silly scare stories, like this one, that insist we should stop eating meat or else the planet is going to hell in a handcart. Articles like that get just about everything wrong, mostly by failing to measure benefits as well as costs (the perennial sin), but also by paying zero regard to future technological developments that will revolutionise solutions to the problems we currently think we are trying to solve.

But quite apart from that, I had another tangential thought. As a meat eater, I wonder if future generations will look back on our meat-eating habits in the same way that we look back on the human history of slavery and racism, and be utterly disgusted by it. I wonder if, before our very eyes, we are slowly seeing the death of a meat-eating industry that kills billions of chickens, pigs, sheep and cattle each year, towards a point in the next few generations where nobody eats meat.

Think about how things have changed even in the past four or five decades: there are increasing numbers of vegetarians and vegans, and more campaigners against animal cruelty and for animal rights – perhaps that trend will continue with every new generation until no one eats meat anymore. With more vegetarians, there will be a greater demand for vegetarian dishes, and more competition to provide them, which should improve the quality and diversity of vegetarian cuisines (as has happened already in the past couple of decades – I mean, think how many frustrated carnivores have been rescued from the circumscribed veggie-wife/husband’s preferred dining outlet with the wonderful but solely viable option that is halloumi).

What I suspect will also happen is that meat will start to come from the lab rather than the animal, where synthetic meat is grown from stem cells, and will reach a point where the process is cheap enough for us to buy it in supermarkets as part of our weekly shop. In other words, technological innovation will sort out the meat problem, bring cessation to the killing of animals, and have future generations looking back on our meat-eating practices as barbaric.

It's strange how morality evolves in different directions, where some things in the UK that were once seen as acceptable become abhorrent (like slavery), and some things that were once seen as abhorrent become acceptable (like homosexuality). Meat-eating will probably be an example of the former - but when we can grow synthetic meat in the lab and mass-produce it for widespread consumption without killing any animals, our descendants will probably look back on us rather like how we look back on the child labour practiced by our progenitors – that it’s unfortunate, but that back then we didn’t know how much better we could do.  

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

On The Nature Of Free Will & Determinism

In 2011, I wrote a paper on the nature of free will and determinism - dispelling some common myths about the two terms, and hopefully providing a fresh and enlightening perspective on some complex but intriguing matters. Eight years later I decided to touch it up a little. For anyone interested, here is the new version, made up of the following sections.

Part I - Define your terms properly
Part II - Lenses of Determination
Part III - The First and Third Person Self
Part IV - Determinism unpacked
Part V -- What would it be like to know the whole universe?

Read the full paper here.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

This Is My New Favourite Teenager

I've just found a contender for my new favourite teenager. And no, I don’t mean this little madam in the picture above (about whom I’ve been about as critical as I could get away with towards a teenage girl who doesn’t really know much yet) – I mean the teenager called Felix Kirby who wrote this article - Teenage Climate Change Protestors Have No Idea What They’re Protesting - and who gets pretty much everything right about how young climate change activists haven't really got a clue about what the heck they are doing.

Here are three of the article's quotes from the bright young Felix:

1) "Global-warming research is a hugely complex field, and it’s unlikely that any ordinary person—let alone a minor—would have any real grasp of it. Nor would they be able to appreciate the uncertainty that characterizes our understanding of how today’s human activity will affect the future state of the earth’s climate."

2) "As a teenager, I fully understand the mindset of young people. We’re predisposed to leap before we look. This is borne out by neuroscience. Our prefrontal cortices, which regulate (among other things) decision-making, planning, self-awareness and inhibition, do not fully develop until we are in our mid-20s. Until then, we have difficulty analyzing the long-term consequences of our actions. The upshot is that many young people tend toward reckless behaviour. "

3) "Given the inconclusive state of contemporary climate science, we can’t be sure; and, until we absolutely do know the truth, we should hold off on drastic action. Encouraging mobs of young people to join the climate-protest movement only adds a spirit of social panic to an issue that already is extremely tangled."

You should read Felix's whole article - he's precocious and showing lots of promise in a world awash with reactionary, overly-simplistic thinking Greta Thunbergs. It's unsurprising that young climate change activists don't know what they're talking about - the older climate change activists don't know what they're talking about either, and the nonsense is just being passed down. Older green activists (like Rupert Read, George Monbiot and Caroline Lucas) are regularly giving talks and writing articles explaining how we are letting down our youth and leaving them a calamitous future worthy of grave foreboding. Here is what I would say to any young person who happened to be listening.

Dear Young Person,

Contrary to the scaremongering you’re likely to see about future climate damage, and the crippled world you’re going to inherit – I want to tell you how I really think it is. You are so privileged to be alive in a UK like the one you’re in today. You are reading this in one of the top dozen countries that has ever existed, and by virtue of living here, you are among the top 0.01% of the richest people who has ever lived on this planet. It is only because of your extraordinary riches and prodigious standard of living that your life is luxurious enough to consider things like climate change and future generations.

Most humans who have ever lived had no such luxury – they spent most of their time with hardly enough to eat, with debilitating, vomit-inducing diseases, infant mortality, with almost no technology, and almost no comfortable leisure time. Even basic things like electricity, gas, running water, regular food and drink, relative safety, rule of law, property rights and central heating would have been unimaginable to them. You are so blessed to have the luxury to ponder climate change – you can do so only because your recent forebears worked so hard, and shared so many ideas, that you’ve been liberated from most of the harshest, devastating scenarios that plagued our pre-industrial progenitors.

The main reason climate change seems so terrible is because, relative to its problems, so much of the world is so well off, and so many people are so prosperous, that we can hardly believe how rich we are. Living in the UK, you have stable floors, walls and a roof, carpets, heating, running water, a shower, a toilet, a garden, a car, legal rights, food in the cupboard, and almost none of the fungi, bacteria, insects, and rodents that would have once infested your home. Just having access to clean water and a toilet protects you from the numerous sanitary problems that would have been lethal just a short time ago.

In your kitchen you have white goods that enable you to store, refrigerate and freeze food, cook with ease, wash your clothes and dishes. In your bathroom you have the means of keeping clean, and sanitary goods, cleaning products, detergents, and medicines that protect you against things that would have once killed you. Every day you go out with clean clothes, clean teeth, and a relatively clean bill of health. And furthermore, most of the things that do contribute to climate change are the things that have conferred such mass benefits on our species – homes, schools, hospitals, shops, factories, churches, care homes, universities, industrial activity, entertainment industries, leisure, travel, social interaction, cars, trains, planes, boats and digital technology - that it would have been impossible to have progressed to the degree we have without them.

You are being told that all those benefits have contributed to global warming – and that is true – but you are not being asked to think enough about the immense benefits that the concomitant economic growth and technological innovation have brought to bear on our increased standards of living, on human relationships, on increased human knowledge and understanding, on higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality, on lifting people out of poverty, on improving the GDP of developing countries, on healing the sick, and on reducing suffering and misery – you are being told none of this because they are trying to avert your attention from a much bigger and more informative picture that doesn't fit in with their biased, ideological agenda.

Think of it this way: no one sane would look at our industrial history in the past 100 years and assume that the mass lifting people out of poverty, the economic growth, the enhanced technological innovation, the higher life expectancy, and the increased standards of living amounts to an argument that the governments need to ‘do’ something to stop these activities. Therefore no one sane should look at the costs of our industrial activity and assume that the governments need to ‘do’ something. The reason should be obvious: if the government ‘does’ something to help with the latter, it needs to do so without bringing about negative unintended consequence against the former – and that is not going to happen. Not only will the government action certainly impede our economic progress, it will also certainly misallocate resources, provoke numerous opportunity costs and ‘unseen’ lost opportunities, and make decisions blindly that future history will show to have been gross misunderstandings of reality.

To add weight to this, the Heritage Foundation have confirmed that there is a positive relationship between a country's economic freedom and its environmental performance. Fifteen years of rigorous data analysis confirms that the more economic freedom, the greener the country. Economic freedom is good not only for increased prosperity and higher standards of living - it is good for environmental improvement too. The trade-off isn't between market growth and environmental protection, it is between government suppression of freedom and environmental protection. The freer the county, the more economically innovative it is, the more ideas there are exchanged, and the more chance there is to make energy cleaner and more efficient.

Ranking the countries from freest to least free (in quartiles):

Then with this scatter plot we find that for every one point increase in the Index of Economic Freedom, there is a 0.96 point increase in the Environmental Performance Index:
One factor that could mislead the above correlation would be if the countries scoring highest on the Index of Economic Freedom are “exporting” their polluting industries to poorer countries, thereby artificially increasing their score on the Environmental Performance Index. But some further research shows me that that isn't the case either:
Looking at human history in the past 100 years, it ought to be obvious that the benefits of our industrial industry so overwhelmingly outweigh the costs that have come alongside them - the only thing not yet established is by how much? 99.9% benefits for every 0.1% costs; 99% benefits for every 1% costs? I'm not sure - the analysis is really complex with lots of unknowns ,but I'll bet it's something like that, because you have to factor into the equation how much our trade and innovation engenders the routes to solutions that solve problems. But once you undertake as comprehensive an analysis as you can muster - you'd have to be pretty blinkered to fail to see the orders of magnitude by which the benefits of our industrial progress and economic growth far outweigh the costs the living things on the planet have incurred alongside it.
Yours Fraternally,
James Knight (The Philosophical Muser).


Monday, 5 August 2019

Cover Versions That Are Better Than The Originals

Although it’s all subjective opinion (or is it?), most cover versions aren’t a patch on the originals (and that’s even truer when it comes to movie remakes) – but occasionally a cover version bucks the trend and either slightly improves on the original, or in some cases blows it out of the water. There aren’t many, but here is my list of cover versions about which I think that applies – divided into four categories:

Category 1 - The original is ok, but the cover version is better
Soft Cell, "Tainted Love" (Gloria Jones)
Urge Overkill, “Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” (Neil Diamond)

Category 2 – The original is good, but the cover version is even better
Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (Otis Redding)
Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse, "Valerie" (The Zutons)
Matthew’s Southern Comfort, “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell)
Yo La Tengo, “You Can Have It All” (George McRae)
Eva Cassidy, “Over The Rainbow” (Judy Garland)

Category 3 - The original is ok, but the cover version completely blows it out of the water
The Beatles, ‘Twist and Shout’ (The Isley Brothers)
The Animals, ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ (Traditional)
Sinead O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U" (Prince)
Led Zeppelin, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” – (Joan Baez)
Led Zeppelin, “Dazed and Confused” (Jake Holmes)

Category 4 – The original is great, but the cover version completely blows it out of the water
Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan)
The Stranglers, “Walk On By” (Dionne Warwick)
Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen)

Now my top 5
1) The Stranglers, “Walk On By”
2) Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower"
3) Led Zeppelin, “Dazed and Confused”
4) Aretha Franklin, "Respect"
5) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"

Any further contenders that you’re outraged I’ve precluded, do let me know.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

A Great Example Of How Not To Reason

A reader called Cecil Hughes responded to one of my recent climate change articles, calling into question whether I'm really an earthling:

"Dear Mr. Knight, Having read your article on climate change I begin to wonder if we are living on the same planet. You may be interested in this article by Mark Lacey which I have recently discovered."

Here is my response to Mr. Hughes:

Thanks for sharing, Cecil. I’ve read it during my lunch. It’s good that you gave this article as an example of one I need to read, because it’s a perfect case that demonstrates how to get an analysis utterly wrong. Here’s why. Mark Lacey says:

“Alternative energy sources to fossil fuels have been around for many years. Wind, solar and tidal power have all been harnessed to a greater or lesser extent by numerous countries around the world. But we think that the transition to renewable energy is set to pick up speed rapidly - renewables are now competitive with fossil fuels in terms of cost. Consumers are demanding that this happen, and are voting with their feet as demand for electric vehicles (EVs), for example, soars."

I’m deeply sceptical that if a full cost-benefit analysis was undertaken, renewable sources of energy really have now reached all-in cost parity with fossil fuels. But if we take the best-case scenario, that the claim is indeed true, then businesses will voluntarily switch to renewable energy for any new venture, and consumers will follow suit by reaping the benefits of lower prices. In the meantime, if that reduces demand for oil, natural gas and coal, prices for fossil fuels will drop, so that they will either become the more economically efficient source of energy again, or renewables will win out, and the greens will be happy.

Either way, the price system associated with supply and demand will be the driver in consumer activity. Both businesses and consumers have an incentive to operate under the law of parsimony, using the fewest and cheapest resources possible – so if it really is true that renewables are now price competitive with fossil fuels in terms of cost, it doesn’t leave governments with much else to do here. The greens can enjoy a market-led efficiency that favours renewables.

But alas, I suspect that’s not the full story – and this highlights why I’m always going on about requiring a full cost-benefit analysis that factors in *all* considerations. Firstly, the article makes no mention of the cost of all business switching from fossil fuels to renewables – which will almost certainly prove cost-ineffective. If renewables really are now price competitive with fossil fuels in terms of cost, then there is incentive for new businesses and future investments to switch to renewables - but that does not mean businesses whose heavy capital investments are currently in fossil fuels will benefit from switching.

Secondly, I strongly suspect in typical sleight-of-hand manipulation from green commentators that the claim that renewables are now price competitive with fossil fuels is really a false economy, because I’ll wager that this analysis totally ignores all the taxpayers’ costs that have been lost in the renewable energy crony capitalist sector, where rent-seeking, lobbying and misallocation of resources is rife.

For example, we read from Mark Lacey that “since 2013 more than $1 trillion has been invested in renewable energy around the world and the industry now provides nearly 10 million jobs.” – and by ‘invested’ they always really mean a lot of that is taxpayer money that has been taken from the public to fund the costs of the renewable energy sector, which therefore does not demonstrate that it is providing value. Value is not demonstrated when money has to be taken from people in order to pay for things. The author makes an inadvertent back-handed hint at this when he says “Of course, renewables have been around for a while, but they have either lacked government support, or proved too expensive, or consumer demand hasn’t been there.” Quite. The taxpayer money that was pumped into these projects was done so precisely because they lacked support and would otherwise be too expensive.

I remember reading a New York Times story that celebrated the fact the solar industry employs far more Americans than wind or coal: 374,000 in solar compared with 100,000 in wind, 160,000 in coal mining and coal-fired power generation, and narrowly behind natural gas, which employs 398,000 workers (in gas production, electricity generation, and petrochemicals). The article writer was trying to insist that this must be a good thing for solar power, because it demonstrates how important solar power is in creating jobs. Alas, anyone who understands economics would not reason this way - they'd instead reason that solar power presently shows itself to be a pretty unresourceful and inefficient part of the energy industry.

And once you then compare number of workers to energy output as a percentage, things look even worse for solar energy. 398,000 natural gas workers amounts to 33.8% of all electricity generated in the United States and 160,000 coal employees amounts to 30.4%, whereas 374,000 solar workers amounts to just 0.9% of total electricity. If you try to break that down to electricity generated per worker, then coal generates 7,745 megawatt hours of electricity per worker, natural gas is 3,812, and solar is a measly 98 megawatt hours of electricity per worker. That is to say, producing the same amount of electricity requires 1 coal worker, 2 natural gas workers and a whopping 79 solar workers.

To put that into perspective, it would be like having three large supermarket chains across the country, producing the same output, but Supermarket A does so with 300,000 workers, Supermarket B does so with 600,000 workers, and Supermarket C doing so with 23.7 million workers, and the state subsidising Supermarket C because it thinks it provides better value than A and B. Solar energy is, at present*, showing itself to be a wasteful and inefficient method of producing energy, but people won't get why until they understand that jobs are a cost of doing something, because they are the price we pay for people's labour.

Finally, the Mark Lacey shows a chart, claiming that solar and onshore wind energy are now competitive with oil & gas:


As I’ve said, whenever that’s true – great news!! - businesses will voluntarily switch, and the greens will be happy. But the analysis is more complex than the author suggests. Saying “solar and onshore wind energy are now competitive with oil & gas” is just too simplistic – especially if he’s thinking of an energy revolution. Firstly, solar and wind cannot currently compete with fossil fuels as resources that can power all the businesses in the world economy. So they are not competitive with oil and gas with regard to most of the world’s industry. It’s a bit like saying the paddling pool in my back garden is big enough to provide water-based fun for my kids, therefore all the world’s kids can come and use my pool. It’s just not true – there’s a scaling problem – and similarly, solar and wind may be cost effective in a few cases (although that is still unproven at this stage, see above) but it’s a false comparison to say they are more competitive than coal and gas, because they are not yet wholly competitive with coal and gas in terms of resourcing the world’s industries.

On top of that, of course, is the fact that misallocating value-robbing resources into renewables will very likely impede the innovations that lead to the most efficient technological solutions. Subsidising renewables gives a false impression of their viability, and it disincentivises innovators from investing in proper cost-effective solutions. What’s the point of risking capital investment in innovative market-based solutions that will actually provide value when special handouts from the government to artificially valuable renewable alternatives make the race look about even, when really, minus the taxpayer handouts, renewables fall well short? There’s no point risking your investment in a race to make us greener against an opponent with an unfair advantage. You may be a faster cyclist, but your competitor has lobbied for a government hand out to turn his bike into a motor-powered machine, hiding the fact that he is a lot slower and less fit than you are.
That analogy is a bit like what the general public’s impression of the renewables vs. fossil fuel debate – they are seeing a false economy that robs entrepreneurs of as such incentive and motivation to use trade and competition as vehicles for making us markets greener. How ridiculous, not to mention duplicitous, to claim that solar is as efficient as fossil fuels and neglect to mention the massive governmental subsidies/taxpayer surcharges that fund this rentseeking. Is it dishonesty or stupidity? Either way it’s the same result. On the whole, then, your article is a textbook example of how not to reason, and how to wantonly fail in attempting a cost-benefit analysis.
Given that the present day redistributive aim is always to enable the better off to help the worse off, I’ve argued before that the majority of our weight should be put on helping present day poor people, and that we should put very little emphasis on future people who will be a lot better off than we are.  That seems obviously right to me, at least as strongly as the counter-proposition – that we should rob present day poorer people for the future richer people – seems obviously wrong.
Alongside that is the logical corollary: live with the costs that come alongside the much greater benefits of our industrial progression, and allow the freedom of exchanges of ideas to carry on uninhibited in solving the problems we face. There is no system we know of that works better – so accepting global warming and adjusting to the changes through the natural mechanism of the price system seems fairly obviously cheaper, more efficient, safer, less risky and less damaging than impeding innovation and slowing down progress with policies of which we hardly understand the costs.