Friday, 31 August 2012

Mitt Romney: Crypto-Jingoist?

Having heard Mitt Romney's latest Republican nomination speech, I don’t want to sound overblown by making allusions to the fact that Mormons used to be an officially racist cult, nor that at any time before 1978 black people were not permitted to receive the priesthood.  Neither do I want to be crass and say you can take the Mormon out of Utah but you can't always take the racism out of the Mormon, because I do try to see the best in people.

But when I hear words like “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need an American” I cringe at the thought of such a man obtaining any power on the global scale. 

No, when the world needs someone to do really big stuff, it needs someone with intelligence, ingenuity and knowledge of the 'stuff' that needs doing.  The arbitrarily demarcated geographical border isn't relevant to whether the person can do big stuff.  The statement “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need an American,” underlies a feeling that sounds a lot like racism to me.  Substitute the word 'American' with 'White man' and do you think his political career would progress any further?  No, you'd see 'Romney is a Racist' on the front page of every American Newspaper.  There isn't much of a distinction between what Romney said and any of the following:

1) “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need a male"
2) “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need a white person"
3) “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need a young person”
4) “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need a straight person"

There's not really that much difference in the implications related to each of these statements and what Mitt Romney said.  They all have an underlying hint of discrimination. 1 discriminates on the grounds of gender, 2 discriminates on the grounds of skin colour, 3 discriminates on the grounds of age, 4 discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation - and Mitt Romney's quote discriminates on the grounds of the arbitrarily demarcated geographical border discrimination known as jingoistic nationalism.

Romney would sure like you to believe that what he actually means is that he’s committed to the ‘American ideal’ as adumbrated by the sometimes impressive Condoleezza Rice.  Somehow, though, I think the discriminatory tendencies run beneath the surface - and when they rear their head with claims like ‘To do really big stuff, you need an American’ I suspect that what lies beneath that surface is a jingoist at heart.  

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Nick Clegg's 'Tax The Rich' Fallacy

Nothing makes my job easier than when a political party leader I find to be a pompous, incompetent twit brings up a contentious issue and gets it completely wrong.  That’s what Nick Clegg has done today with his ‘Wealth Tax’ nonsense.  Clegg wants to indulge in a bit of quick-fix tax accumulation by going after the rich to ease the current fiscal crisis.  Big mistake!

Assuming the way to boost the economy is exactly as he suggests (it isn’t, but that’s another day’s blogging for yours truly), it is still quite literally impossible to raise revenue by the method of taxation Clegg suggests.  Nick Clegg imagines a very wealthy Mr Pomsonby-Smythe type of chap whom he can help offload some of his millions to stimulate the economy.  It’s quite disconcerting that minds like that have any power in our nation.  Here’s what Nick Clegg misses.  When the Government relieves Mr Pomsonby-Smythe of a chunk of his fortune, a bunch of 1s and 0s get transferred across a few bank computers.  So far nothing about the economy has significantly changed.  The only really significant consequence of taking money from Mr Pomsonby-Smythe and giving it to the Government is that the Government will use it to consume more goods and services.  But if the Government is going to consume more goods and services, then somebody else must consume fewer.

Who might that be? Well it depends on what the Government spends the money on. The first thing that probably will happen is that when Mr Pomsonby-Smythe withdraws his chunk of money from the bank to make his tax payment to the Treasury, the bank makes fewer loans, interest rates rise, and then someone cancels a holiday, or postpones the purchase of a car or caravan, or abandons a business that was getting off the ground.  They are the people who bear the burden of the tax – those who rely on the banks for capital investment.  The tax on Mr Pomsonby-Smythe (who, by the way, most likely consumes no more or fewer resources because of this action) is really a tax in disguise at the borrowers or spenders’ end of the market.

What Nick Clegg is doing is confusing green pieces of paper with real resources. He thinks the Government can somehow acquire real resources just by taking Mr Pomsonby-Smythe’s money.  That doesn’t mean that taxing the rich cannot work – it just means you cannot do it the Clegg-way. What you have to do is do it in a way that encourages (or induces) the rich to consume less or produce more. Taxing Mr Pomsonby-Smythe doesn’t generate any more money for the economy, it merely reduces somebody else’s consumption stream.  I’m sure Mr Clegg has no idea whose consumption stream it will reduce, so he cannot say whether the policy is a net gain on resources or a net loss (if it benefits people richer than Mr Pomsonby-Smythe it will even increase wealth inequality by a bit, although that’s somewhat trivial)

If you transfer n amount from Mr Pomsonby-Smythe to the Treasury Mr Clegg would call it Government revenue.  But it’s important to understand that only one of two things can happen as a consequence. Either a) the Government spends no more than before, in which case nothing of any significance has changed; Or b) the Government decides that because it has more “revenue” it can increase its spending, in which case someone else’s consumption stream will shrink.  That someone else is not Mr Pomsonby-Smythe, because while Mr Pomsonby-Smythe has accumulated his wealth without any intention of ever spending any of this money he has effectively reduced the money supply (what he does spend only hikes up prices).  As a consequence of Mr Pomsonby-Smythe acquiring wealth and hoarding it, everybody else’s pounds have become slightly more valuable, as everybody else can now consume the goods and services that Mr Pomsonby-Smythe has decided not to consume.  If the Government takes the chunk of money from Mr Pomsonby-Smythe and spends it, then the effect is the same as if the Government had printed an additional n equivalent of that chunk and not taxed Mr Pomsonby-Smythe.  Everybody else’s money supply is worth a bit less and everybody else can consume a bit less, as the Government consumes more.

What should be interesting to the Government is not where the money comes from; it’s where the goods and services come from. The Government uses the money either to claim more goods, or to reduce other people’s else’s taxes, allowing someone else to claim more goods. So the question is all about where the goods came from, not the 1s and 0s that make up green pieces of paper.  To focus on the money transfer as Nick Clegg is doing is to miss all the important economics.  Clegg thinks that taxing the money that Mr Pomsonby-Smythe spends on cars and luxury living (or maybe just sitting in the bank drawing interest) then goes to pay for defense spending or hospitals or machinery or something of perceived worth by the Lib Dems. But defense equipment and hospitals and machinery are not made of money, they are made of bricks and steel and glass and plastic and concrete, etc.

If there are idle resources that can be employed at no extra social cost (which seems to be the Lib Dem thing), then you don’t have to tax Mr Pomsonby-Smythe to employ them. The act of taxing Mr Pomsonby-Smythe creates no additional resources above and beyond what is already available.

That was the economics – but only the economics – I haven’t even talked about fairness.  Is it fair to tax the rich more than the poor?  Most people think yes.  I don’t disagree, because it seems necessary that wealthier people bear an extra part of the burden.  But I don’t think it’s an assumption that can just be established as a sine qua non.  Think about this; Jack and Jill are brother and sister – both have the same opportunities and almost identical backgrounds – but Jack plays it safe, leaves school after mucking around, gets himself a factory job and shows no aspiration for climbing the greasy pole.  Jill on the other hand studies hard, goes to university, and ends up as a successful career woman.  20 years later Jill is paying a much higher rate of tax than Jack – she has fallen foul of a system that fosters inequality.  Jill chose to make the most of her talents – Jack chose to muck around and not make the most of his.  Yet with those same opportunities people think they can cry foul on Jack’s behalf at the expense of Jill.  They are probably right in their methodology – but the assumption of entitlement ought not to be made purely on difference of outcome.

There is one other thing to consider; most people don’t realise this but while Mr Pomsonby-Smythe’s money is being kept out of the part of the economy that Clegg wants it in (the goods and services part) the average Jack in this country should be pleased.  This is because the common argument, that extracting some of the rich people’s wealth and putting it back into the economy will make us all better off is almost entirely wrong.  Just the opposite is true – you see, in actual fact,  the mega rich people who hoard their wealth in stocks, bonds and international currency actually make us all financially better off by doing this, not worse off.  I think it is because most people don’t grasp this that they are forever having lustful paroxysms about economic stimulus systems that state they will put more money in our banks and lighten the load of the mega rich. It’s nonsense!

Hang on, I hear you object, if the mega rich man gave some of his wealth to feed the homeless, then that’s good for the economy, because the more the rich man spends the more the hungry have to eat.  You would only now believe that if you hadn’t ingested my point about where value is to be found (i.e. not in green pieces of paper).  Here’s what you are overlooking – the food that feeds the homeless people doesn’t just come out of thin air – it has to affect the economy somewhere.  If he feeds the homeless then the cost of that food is impacted in the rest of the economy – either others eat less or others pay more for other food (the same would be true of all goods and services).  So I’m not saying it is not moral to feed the homeless, or even for the rich to bear a heavier burden – I am simply saying that the argument about spreading the wealth in the economy is mathematically wrong.

When the Government spends well, the world gains – if it is foreign aid then mostly poorer people benefit from water and food (and the British people’s money supply is worth more, not less – a point that those who are opposed to foreign aid always miss), if it is on health the sick benefit, if it is on road maintenance the drivers benefit, and so forth.  But if it is spent poorly, on wars (some wars are injudicious), on profligate enterprises like consultants fees and think-tanks (which are often a waste of money), on injudicious ecological strategies, or on shoddy investments, then everyone suffers, because they usually think they could have spent the money more wisely (and mostly they probably could).

However, they need not necessarily suffer financially.  Poor Government spending can still lead to an overall job growth, because when people’s resources hit a significant loss, borrowing increases, which hikes up interest rates, which dissuades people from holding onto money (remember one other golden rule – money is not an interest-bearing asset), which has the corollary effect of increasing spending, which drives up prices, which either leads to business expansion (creating more jobs), or a concomitant rise in employees’ wages commensurate with the employers’ profit increase, which means workers have more to spend, and so on.

Either way, the Government quite naturally spends its money wisely and poorly – but its control of the overall market is so minimal it is virtually negligible – so there’s no real reason to hope they get more of it at the expense of Mr Pomsonby-Smythe. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Legalisation of Drugs: Yes or No?

It's been a busy few days - but one recent spat that caught my eye was the discussion about drugs between Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens on Newsnight.  Russell Brand said he believed drugs should be legalised, and that we should soften up and treat addiction as an illness. His argument is that we shouldn't be a nation that 'criminalises' drug addicts. Peter Hitchens wants a much tougher approach; punishing offenders and filtrating more intense national disincentive in the hope that nascent drug users won't even start to use them for fear of punitive consequences.  I think both of them are making fundamental mistakes in their reasoning.

Let’s start with Russell Brand; he, and many other pro-legalisers like him, usually base their views on two simple errors.  1) That legalising drugs means we can then begin to tax drug users and improve the economy.  And 2) That legalising drugs will not 'criminalise' people who are beset by addiction.  I might point out first off that laws don't criminalise people - breaking those laws is what criminalises people.  Now I don't know if the Government has its laws on drugs spot on, but I suspect (with ambiguous strength) that it has, because drugs do an awful lot of harm and addiction to them induces a lot of crime, so it seems right that they should be illegal. 

It may be pointed out that alcohol also does a lot of harm and induces a lot of crime (in both cases more than some of the soft drugs) but that's not an argument in favour of legalising drugs, because if minimising harm and crime in society is your main aim then it's more an argument in favour of making alcohol illegal (which virtually no one supports, for good reason).  It is true that some people drink in moderation, and enjoy alcohol recreationally without very much harm to society, so it wouldn't be fair on them to make it illegal.  But that's largely irrelevant; it’s equally true that some people take drugs in moderation and enjoy them recreationally without very much harm to society.  Those people could make the same argument in favour of legalising drugs. 

No, it actually shows something different; it shows that legality and illegality is often part of a historical legacy that either is or is not modified according to the changing climate. This will show what I mean.  Pretend there's never been any such thing as alcohol.  Tomorrow someone combines ethanol with other compounds and proposes to trial on the market this new product call 'alcoholic drinks'.  The Government monitors its effect on society, filming those effects on the first night of public consumption.  Numerous drunken people go out on the town, losing their inhibitions, peeing in doorways, hurling abuse at passes by, having fights, trying to coax staggering drunk girls into bed, and throwing up all over the streets.  Next day a committee looks back at the effects of this new product called 'alcoholic drinks'.  It would never get past the trial stage - they'd stamp it 'illegal' right from the off.  So ‘effects vs. legality’ doesn’t always pertain to prudent practices or sound foresight.

As for the argument that drug legalisation will improve the economy by giving the government tens of millions in tax revenue – well it’s simply not the sort of thing that anyone who understands the costs and benefits of taxation would say.  Given the ubiquity of this ‘Legalisation of drugs = more money for the economy’ argument, I must conclude that this misunderstanding applies to a lot of people.  Tax revenues are not a net gain for the British economy; they are simply money transferred from some people’s pockets to other people’s pockets.  To show how silly this is, imagine if everyone whose surname begins with A to M gave five pounds to everyone whose surname begins with N to Z.  Sure Mr Zimbardo would be better off than Mr Adams in the transaction, but no one sensible would argue that the economy as a whole had grown.  Furthermore, the tax the drug sellers paid through drug purchases when drug dealing became legalised is simply money that the drug sellers would have paid through spending it by some other means when drug dealing was illegal.

Not only is tax revenue neutral with regard to society’s gains or losses, it is equally the case that humans may well spend their own money much more prudently than the Government would spend it.  What the Government spends the tax revenue on may be a net benefit to society, but it may just as likely be a net loss to society.  If the Government spends it on public services, then society has some gain (although not necessarily a net gain).  If it spends it on a disastrous and costly eco project, or a foreign war, or a nuclear missile program then society probably would incur a net loss.

There is one way that legalising drugs yields a societal gain.  Quite simply, there is a cost to society of law enforcement.  This isn’t so much a financial cost, but it costs society in other ways.  It costs police time and court time that could be used making a difference in places and situations that are more deserving of it.  And it costs skills and resources, because everybody who is sent to prison for drug dealing is no longer able to contribute to society.  A prisoner cannot build anything, or clean offices, or fix photocopiers, or be a bus driver, or care for his elderly relatives, or contribute anything that serves society by way of skill and time. 

Now to Peter Hitchens.  Peter Hitchens’ position is overly simplistic, and can thus be dismissed in the same simplistic way. Just ask yourself how we could possibly filter into society a more intense disincentive that would seep throughout Britain. Every solution he offers is not only vastly inadequate to the complexity of the subject, it's a solution that doesn't have the power to influence against the many other predominant factors involved. Terms like 'tougher laws' and 'greater incentives' are examples of meaningless abstractions, serving no real use in the political sphere.  Tougher laws will only do some good for our well-being if we can cope with even more people in prison, and find ways to manage the increased need for rehabilitation.  Simply uttering the phrase 'tougher laws' helps no one.  Having better methods of education and rehabilitation – now that would help.

And ‘greater incentives’ won't do much good unless we can tackle the roots of the problem, which is where the mindfulness of education and rehabilitation comes in; Why are so many people on drugs? How do we alter the conditions that give rise to drug addiction? How do we get people to value their lives in ways that mean they no longer wish to take drugs?  These, and other questions like them, are the other side of the incentives coin.  We’ve made a mistake in eroding away the incentives for good that people used to have, but British culture has evolved so much, with modern generations being too much like chameleons - fading into the colour of post-sixties counter-culturalism. Politicians cannot just reintroduce something into society that has all but eroded away from large parts of the culture.  So while I have sympathy with Peter Hitchens, his arguments are misjudged - not because they are wrong as ideals, but because they are impotent.

I don’t know if we should legalise drugs (I suspect we shouldn’t), but at least (unlike Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens) we ought to show an ambivalence with the correct form of reasoning.  Here is the reason I don’t know if we should.  To get an accurate reflection of society’s perception of the costs and benefits, we would need to ask those against legalisation how much they would be willing to pay to have drugs legalised, and those for legislation how much they’d be prepared to pay to prevent drugs being legalised.  The total of the highest aggregate bid minus the total of the lowest aggregate bid is the total benefit of the winning policy.  And no one can do this, so instead we work with assumptions based on pieces of an incomplete jigsaw – which our patchwork analysis indicates that the majority of people favour the prevention of drugs being legalised.  That is roughly why the drug laws are the way they are.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Haircut Optimisation

Every 3 months I shave off my hair and become a temporary skinhead.  It doesn't last long - but after I've shaved there is usually a reaction (mostly from ladies) along the lines of "Oh we loved your hair as it was - couldn't you have left just a little bit on top?"  Here's what they're missing.  What I am doing in choosing to shave it all off is optimising to achieve maximum efficiency in the transaction.  I don’t do it because I like being a skinhead – I do it because in the intervening time between cuts it grows at an average rate for optimisation.  This kind of transaction applies to many other things too; it could involve money, labour, time or something else that requires a value judgment.  The same basic rule applies, despite our mostly doing this without thinking too hard about why. 

While it is true that for a brief few days the hair is shorter than my optimum length, the gains far outweigh this brief period of shaven-ness.  In the first place, the amount of times I have to shave my head is reduced - and in the second place it is a much simpler and quicker process shaving it all off than trying to obtain consistent lengths over my head surface with, say, a number 1 cut. 

More importantly, my procedure follows a simple rule of having optimum preference for the longest amount of time within two extremes - and this is a model that is easily applicable to other areas of life.  My hair cycle has the period in which it is slightly longer than I'd like and needs cutting, and also a period (as already mentioned) in which it is slightly shorter than I'd like.  But within those two extremities is a large passage of time in which it is within the optimal range for preferred length.

Cleanly shaven all over bzzzzzzzzz!

This is the most sensible approach, and like I said, this kind of transaction is easily applicable to other areas of life.  You follow the same optimising procedure when you fill up your car with fuel or draw money out of the cash point.  You fill the car full (if you can afford to), not because your next immediate trip requires a full tank, but because you want to reduce the frequency of garage trips, and you want to obtain the longest passage of time in which the car has sufficient fuel for almost all of your day to day trips from A to B.  Similarly, when you go to the cash point - when you want to optimise to achieve maximum efficiency in the transaction, you don't just withdraw the cash you want to the next purchase, you draw enough out to keep you replete for several future spending activities. In carrying more than you need at any one time (just like the petrol) you achieve maximum efficiency in the transaction - and this sort of procedure will make your life that little bit better.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Earache Dilemma: The Answer

In the last blog I talked about how probability favours not insuring your domestic goods.  Then I presented the following moral dilemma:

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?

Unsurprisingly, everybody who emailed with an answer 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 asked this same question at a housewarming party recently to a group of about 20 people, and the fairly unanimous consensus was, again, that we should spare the innocent life.  But out of about 20 people it turns out that at least half of them insure their domestic goods, and about half of that group gave a peculiar answer to 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 would choose the certain earache for an hour – which is barmy.  I take it that they are having trouble envisaging just how much 500 million is – I should imagine when they try to picture 500 million they are imagining their numbered ball in a large unlucky dip bag with a few hundred other numbered balls.  No, it’s 500 million – but the mind cannot picture just how large 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. 

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 as I’ve shown – 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. 

Yet when the question is stated in the following way:

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?

We find we are agreed that 500 million should suffer the earache, yet if one of us was the 1 in 500 million, we’d choose to be in that unlucky dip bag rather than having the earache.  It’s a funny old world!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Insurance, Probability and a Moral Dilemma

Last year I had a salesperson from Sky+ phone my house, enquiring whether I wanted to insure my SkyBox for the next 3 years for £190. What I am now going to say is roughly what I said to the salesperson.  When people buy Sky+ Boxes, DVD players, Hi-Fi systems, washing machines, fridges, and things of that nature, it seems fairly obvious that they shouldn't pay an additional fee to get the product insured against damage or malfunction.  I assumed this was commonly realised - but apparently not, because out of curiosity I spoke with a cashier at Hughes to enquire what percentage of people opt for supplementary insurance, and found that it was usually over 50% of buyers.  That surprised me, because I doubt that 50 out of every 100 people regularly set fire to 5% of their wages.

The reason you shouldn't opt for non-compulsory insurance is more or less the same reason you shouldn't set fire to 5% of your wages - the odds are that at some point you're going to find better things to do with your money.  Say you buy a DVD player for £100; you probably will be offered a 3 year insurance plan for an extra £29.99.  If you buy a washing machine for £400, you probably will be offered a 5 year insurance plan for an extra £150.  Expressed like that, particularly by an effusive salesperson, it can seem tempting.  But it would be madness to take him up on his offer.  You are being offered a certain expenditure of £150 for an outside chance that yours is one of the very few washing machines that will be damaged or malfunction.  Having to replace your washing machine means a very slim chance of paying for another product outright.  Having a washing machine with no insurance means a very good chance of having £150 to spend on something else. With these probabilities, it is certainly worth the risk, and foolish to be so circumspect in risk-aversion. 

This is where probability will hold you in good stead; the probability of your being one of the unlucky customers whose product goes wrong is astronomically dwarfed by the probability that you'll be one of the huge majority whose product depreciates within the natural timescale.  Therefore, don't be fooled by the conviction of the salesperson - he (or she) is probably well aware that the offer is designed to extract more money for the company from credulous consumers who think they're getting a good deal.

What I've just said was brought to mind by a philosophy paper I just read that contained an interesting moral dilemma, the author of which I won't disclose, for reasons that will now become clear. I'm interested to know what your answer would be to this dilemma, before I disclose the philosopher's answer.  That's why I will re-write it using a slightly different variation, to avoid people looking for the answer on Google.  Here is my version of the dilemma:

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?

What would your answer be?  As a hint, the issue of optional insurance might be an indicator.  You can post your answer here, or PM me on Facebook - and I will reveal the philosopher's rather interesting conclusion in my next blog. 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Riots and Probabilities

I saw on the news the other night footage of the London rioters attacking a restaurant, a casino and food store.  Finally after one year the perpetrators were given custodial sentences.  That got me thinking – what starts off a riot, and why that date and not some other date?  Which series of precursory events caused the riots to occur at that particular time in those particular places?  Why not one day earlier, or one week earlier, or one month later?  It’s not an easy question to answer, because there are so many antecedent causes and variables.  But I think I do know the answer; it’s the same sort of procedural rule that can be applied to large groups with the same general causes.  I’ll explain what it is.

There’s one thing I think you should know about bad behaviour in large groups of people - it is contingent and contagious.  History certainly has some ugly stains in the shape of bad human groups who have committed bad deeds.  Whether it is Nazi groups, extreme Stalinists, inner city rioters, football hooligans, religious groups that put people to death as witches or heretics, or the Taliban, I think there is a way to define their behaviour - as groups that must be considered in a different way to individual acts. 

Regarding the recent rioters in London (last year) - around the time no one knew what to expect.  Was this soon going to abate, or would it escalate into a kind of Hobbesian collapse of society?  If you think it was always going to abate, you should be reminded that most of the major events in history were entirely unpredictable - and because of which, not predicted - and that history has a habit of throwing up excessive behaviour far above and beyond what could have been reasonably expected beforehand. 

I said ‘bad behaviour’ is contingent and contagious, and I will give you an illustration to show how I think it works.  Picture two gangs of 100 youths; one gang in North London and one in East London.  Both gangs have the intention to riot en masse, but at the close of the day one group, the North Londoners, cause mayhem and are all over the news headlines, and the other group, the East Londoners, are involved in only a few minor disturbances.  What was different?  Well psychologists tell us that when individuals become part of a larger group (street gangs, religious terrorism outfits, football hooligan groups, etc) they are deindividuated; which means they are prone to worse behaviour because of a sense of losing their individuality within a larger body of people. 

Here’s the reason why in my illustration North Londoners rioted and East Londoners caused only a few minor disturbances.  Take the 100 members in each gang – you’ll find that each member of that gang will have a threshold - a tipping point at which he will be prepared to engage in hostile and anti-social behaviour.  In a gang of 100 people, each individual's tipping point will vary in intensity.  If we rate them 1 to 100 on an intensity scale; out of the 100, number 1 will be the individual most likely to be anti-social, number 2 will be the second most likely, and so on, right up to number 100, who will be the least likely.  Now there's no way we could ever accurately rate each of the 100, but that doesn't matter - all that matters is that they could be rated 1 to 100. 

Let’s start with the North London gang – all of which went on to be complicit in a mass 100 man riot.  Number 1 starts it off by lobbing a brick, number 2 soon joins in and breaks a shop window, which prompts 3 and 4 to push two shopping trolleys into a moving car.  Now we have an all-out disturbance – and number 5 is easily prone to adding fuel to these types of fire.  At this early stage of the riot (the soon to be actualised riot) we find that because five men are at it, numbers 6, 7 and 8 are easily persuaded to become deindividuated and join in, which makes it easier for numbers to 9 to 13, and 17 to 20, and so on.  If this contagion continues, a minor disturbance is soon a minor riot with 25 or so people.  Now numbers 30 to 40 and 50 to 75 aren’t the sort of people who would easily riot – and numbers 76 to 100 are even less likely.  But there are already enough people rioting to elicit deindividuation in numbers 30 to 40, so they soon join in, as do numbers 50 to 75.  What was a minor riot consisting of 20 people is now a fairly major riot consisting of about 75 people – and now numbers 76 to 100 find it much easier to get involved themselves.

Bear one thing in mind – all this could happen in a matter of a few minutes; in very quick successions 1 has become anti-social, which has caused 2 to be anti-social, which has caused 3, and so on, right up to 100.  Of course number 87 doesn’t have easy proclivities for mass rioting – but he isn’t often in the company of 86 of his peers who are rioting in front of him.  That’s how 100 young men from North London can soon find themselves deindividuated and in a 100 strong riot – it’s a bit like a domino effect. 

But what about the gang in East London – why was there’s only a minor disturbance that soon abated?  Let’s pretend the same thing happens in East London at first; number 1 starts it off by lobbing a brick, number 2 soon joins in and breaks a shop window, which prompts 3 and 4 to push two shopping trolleys into a moving car.  Now we have an all-out disturbance – but this time while number 5 is easily prone to adding fuel to these types of fire, he is not as prone as the number 5 in the North London gang.  Instead of carrying out an anti-social act, instead number 5 has a sudden burst of culpability and tries to grab 3 and 4 to stop them doing any more damage, after which it is much less probable that 6, 7 and 8 are going to add fuel to an already abating fire.  Even 1 and 2, who are usually the most belligerent, are part of a group that is being calmed down after a minor disturbance.  What follows is a quick disturbance and then things soon calm down.

That is principally the difference between the 100 strong riots in North London and the 4 strong minor disturbances in East London – it is down to fractions – those tiny details that, like the butterfly effect, have bigger consequences henceforward.  I can’t prove that what I’ve said is right – but I’m pretty sure it is right – and this ought to give us some pause for thought when we consider the many extreme groups we feel so comfortable denigrating.  Nazi groups, extreme Stalinists, inner city rioters, religious groups that put people to death as witches or heretics, the Taliban, and other groups of this kind are all sensitive to the same procedural rules as stated above – the occurrence of n increases the probability of n1, which increases the probability of n2, and n3, and n4, and so on.  At the very least, this ought to make us think a bit more about how quick we are to reproach large groups, when perhaps we should be considering what it is like for an individual to be caught up somewhere in that spectrum of probability. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Radical Shake-up of the Political System

What a surprise - the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have fallen out again - this time over The House of Lords reform and Boundary changes.  Particulars aside, I think the more general problem is that MPs are working within a system that does not provide much of an incentive for moral probity or intelligent policy-making.  It's only when professional people are accountable for their actions or words that we lessen the duplicity and complacency.  I doubt we would have seen the MP expenses scandal if we had upstanding MPs who feared the opprobrium (and voting power) of the electorate, and had to conduct themselves with integrity to secure their next vote. 

The main cause of this lack of incentive is that too many MPs are in safe seats in their constituency, and party associations that choose the candidates for constituencies can ensure that those in Ministerial roles get the safest seats. 

What is needed is a whole new system that instils some kind of accountability to MPs, and ideally brings in a better and more scrupulous calibre of candidate*.  I have a rather radical idea of how this could be achieved.  First we need to decimate the notion of votes attached to constituencies according to geographical borders. Instead candidates will stand to represent surnames demarcated into sections of the alphabet, not regions of the country.  We could reduce the exorbitant number of MPs down to about 500 (that'll save on expenses) - and then have a system in which MP 1 represents everyone whose surname begins with Aa-Ad, MP 2 represents everyone whose surname begins with Ae-Ah, and so on. 

Under such conditions, an MP really would have to work hard to forge a good reputation and the prowess for positive influence, because the people he or she represents would be all over the country, and they would make up a body consisting of a diverse range of classes, cultures and ethnicity.  Moreover, it is much easier to have an impact in a specified area than it is to have an impact on tens of thousands of people scattered across the country.  This might mean that MPs will have to think more innovatively about plans, policies, investments and strategies.

We could still retain the constituencies geographically, meaning an MP still holds surgeries, gets involved with local constituents' issues, and conducts business within a localised region - but instead of being motivated by votes, the MP is instead primarily motivated by doing good, honest, decent work for his constituents.  There may be occasions when conflicts of interests occur between a local person and a person he represents alphabetically, but I don't expect them to be too frequent.  And given that in such a system a higher calibre of person is likely to apply as a candidate, there is reason to hope that malfeasance would be less frequent.

Put this system in place and I'll bet we'd see a higher standard of MPs, in a system in which Westminster attracts more candiadates who want to be MPs for the right reasons. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, you know!

* I shouldn't wish this to be a blanket judgement - some MPs are, of course, very honest, hard-working and decent

Sunday, 5 August 2012

How Economics Solves Moral Problems

In the book I’ve written on morality, a common theme throughout is this; the trick in solving moral problems that have lingered for decades or centuries has been to apply logical reasoning by assigning value to things.  However, sometimes problems come unexpectedly and take a little bit more consideration.  Here's an example.  I know a married couple who recently got divorced. Both are wealthy, and have agreed amicably on an equitable settlement regarding their house and possessions.  There is one exception though - the couple were bought a carriage clock for their wedding by a much valued friend who later died of cancer. 

The clock is not valuable in monetary terms, but it has huge sentimental value to both the husband and the wife, and both are insistent they want it.  It seems that there are no facts that give either of them more entitlement than the other, and it appears that neither will cede any ground to the other.  How can it be decided who gets the clock?

At first this is the sort of stalemate that seems unsolvable in any moral terms.  But it isn't unresolvable.  All we need to do is ascertain which of them wants the clock the most.  Quite naturally, the fairest thing to do is give it to the person to whom it would mean most to keep the clock - because fairness (along with justice and equality of opportunity) is a primary keystone of morality.  So how could the couple decide who wants it the most?  That's not too difficult - the person who is willing to pay the most for the clock wants it the most.  That's how we could assign value to a situation and come up with a moral decision. 

The difficulty with having them each bid for it is that personal feelings might become involved, and thus the winning bid after a series of rounds of auctioneering might have been as much about winning as it was about wanting.  Therefore, to find out their true valuation I suggest they do the following; Have each of them place a sealed bid in a box.  The winning bid gets the clock, but the winner has to give the loser half the value between the winning bid and the losing bid.  So if the husband wins the clock with a £200 bid, and his wife loses out with a £100 bid, the husband keeps the clock and gives his wife £50.  Giving the loser half the value between the two bids is the only way I can think of ensuring that genuine bids are submitted, because the concomitant costs ensures that the bidder won't bid unnecessarily high or unnecessarily low.

It's probably best if I don’t mention this to the couple though – these things can be quite sensitive, and often fractious couples don’t like rational interference!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Why Intelligent Design fails as a theory!

The theory of Intelligent Design (ID) is huge, particularly in America, and its proponents have attempted to take over from where the much discredited creationism fell off.  Intelligent Design proponents describe the theory as:

"Evidence that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent Divine creator, not an undirected process such as natural selection”

There are literally tens of thousands of papers, websites, blogs, books and articles in which ID is defended by its proponents and derided by its detractors.  But despite the wealth of material, I have never seen anybody conclusively defend ID or rebut it.  That is to say, as far as I know, nobody has demonstrated that ID is correct and nobody has demonstrated that it is incorrect.  This surprises me greatly, because I think it is possible (and not very difficult) to show why ID is philosophically mistaken. 

The philosophical problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is quite straightforward. With something like burglaries, weather systems, skyscrapers, and so forth, I have the sufficient experience to catalogue the empirical evidence they present to me.  I know the difference between a house that has been burgled and one that hasn't. I know when a building firm has erected a building and when trees have been planted.

This cannot be said of ID, because I have no way of distinguishing between a part of nature that is designed intelligently by God and a part of nature that is brought about by nature's physical laws.  This, of course, is compounded by the fact that God no doubt uses the physical laws to do His creating - so for human beings not privy to the divine blueprint, there really is no way to distinguish between designed and not-designed by God.

This leads me to the seemingly unimpeachable conclusion that trying to look for design from within that nature is a bit like fishes swimming deep in the ocean all their lives looking for a thing called 'wetness'.  

Moreover, this is what really leads me to believe that ID is not genuine in its aims - and is instead an instrument for hubris, coterie-ism and mistaken ideology. My above undoing of ID cannot be refuted, and yet not a single ID proponent has ever even faintly acknowledged this.  As such, they are carrying on in spite of a contra-indicator that shows why what they are doing is mistaken.  So I can only conclude at the heart of ID is not honest scientific enquiry, but politically motivated disingenuousness, where lots of money is at stake, making the admission of error all but impossible for most of its proponents.

Note one thing, ID may be true or it may be false - but that misses the point, which is to say; under the rules and procedures of philosophy on which we have based our epistemology, ID cannot be shown to be either true or false.  Lots of people want to prove or, more realistically, cite evidence for Intelligent Design in the universe, and they spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to build formal credentials in an attempt to fuse theology and science.  We don't need pages of text to show that what they are trying to do is unachievable – we need only what I’m now going to say in the rest of this article to show it is unsound. 

Don’t misunderstand me; there may be conditions under which an individual experience - a miraculous healing, a feeling of prognostication, or something of that kind - goes on to provide the personal conviction of evidence that some people are looking for.  And I have no wish to trivialise or belittle people’s personal convictions.  But it has to be said, although that kind of belief is fine at an individual level, such evidence is only anecdotal - it cannot be universally established. 

Here is the main reason why I think inference of Intelligent Design is wrong, and why it fails the most important philosophical test.  Quite simply, we only have our universe with which to interface; therefore, if the universe is the result of a deliberate design strategy from on high, then it stands to reason that the things which we try to explain are merely self-referential within that realm, just as when we try to describe what the human mind is we are analysing something that is contained within itself.

Some physicists look for design in the fine-tuning argument, and some biologists look for design in the complexity of DNA, but I think they are making a mistake.  The universe and DNA (as we see them, not as they actually are) are human constructions formulated in the human mind to express the mind's interpretation of its own interfacing with external reality. So the recognition of 'design intentionality' would merely be the mental artefact describing its expressions in terms of its own mental artefact, which is entirely self-referential, and thereby fails to qualify as philosophical knowledge. 

In other words, we say the universe looks fine-tuned because our conceptualisation of fine-tuning has been attributed to the patterns we observe in nature.  But don't forget concepts of fine-tuning didn't begin as cosmological observations; they began with concepts related to the adjustment of parameter models within the electromagnetic spectrum, with low-end frequencies of things like radio waves, and the high-end frequencies of gamma rays.  Fine-tuning is a human conception, and to call the universe fine-tuned for life is rather like claiming that our legs are designed for trousers because they fit in so well. 

The same problem arises in our biological examinations - we don't have the wherewithal to identify intentionality (observable design) in nature because, like fine-tuning, intentionality is a human construction that began as a reference to our observed models of human action and causation long before we knew about the constituencies of evolutionary biology.

That in a nutshell is why Intelligent Design cannot be successful, and why belief in God must be taken on a rationally based faith.  However, that doesn't mean the subject is brought to a close.  Perhaps the only recognition we have of Intelligent Design is not in the constituent parts of the universe (physics, chemistry, biology) but in the fundamental truths that underwrite creation – the truths that are intrinsically part of God’s Mind.  Of course, we are not going to qualify that as scientific evidence – but I wouldn’t expect to, because science is only one of those subset edifices on which those truths depend. 

To ask for scientific evidence that those primary tenets of reality exhibit design is a bit like expecting that judiciary systems were instigated to create a thing called justice.  Courts emerged precisely because humans identified a concept called justice, just as science emerged because humans identified that there is a world of mathematics and logic and truth that supports our epistemological endeavours by providing rational consistency in nature.  It might be the case that exhibitions of God are found in exhibitions of that rational consistency that acts as a foundation for faith.  But that must be taken on faith, or not taken at all.

What knocks the ID proponent from under his feet is that humans do not have any way to distinguish between a universe that is designed and one that is natural.  Science is a descriptive tool that facilitates the study of patterns imposed on nature’s mathematical canvas – and those patterns do not give us evidence of design.  As soon as you tell me what you mean by ‘design’ you will be forced into anthropocentric pockets of description that are based on your own conception of human design.  Nature is not amenable to those modes of description, because, as I say, there is no method by which a human being can delineate between a divinely designed mathematical pattern and a naturalistic one.  In order to show evidence of design you would need to demonstrate how humans could know the difference.  And that just cannot be done – which is why Intelligent Design fails as a theory.

Some like to say that because there are genotypic and phenotypic commonalities running through all life, then this is indication of design.  That makes no sense to me. Given that all life is built on the same (bio)chemical substrate this isn't in the least bit surprising.  Hence, it is a mistake to say that 'intelligence' must therefore be running throughout nature.  In fact, often this is only to be guilty of invoking some classification based on human intelligence in designing things.  The human ability to design material artefacts is qualitatively different from any embroidered use of the word in relation to the biological stimulus of movement, reproduction, excretion, nutrition, growth, and respiration.

The Philosophical Test for ID
To use another method of showing where ID falls down, what the ID proponents are trying to tell us is that there are two or more premises that can lead to the conclusion 'Therefore, all life is designed'. I want to say that I do not think there are any examples of two premises that could lead to such a conclusion   The reason I'm so sure of this is because the philosophical trick is not to keep looking for premises in the hope of finding two that logically entail your conclusion - but rather to start with the putative conclusion and work backwards, asking if 'anything' at all could precede the conclusion in the form of logical entailment.  The answer is, no, nothing could qualify.

Here's why; the physical substrate of the universe is a vast object of study that we humans delineate into three conceptual parts - biology, chemistry and physics (actually it's more than three, but I'll keep it at three for simplicity's sake).  This process involves refining objects of study with what's called componential analysis (which is a form of reductionism) where the constituent parts of a biological artefact can be reduced to chemical study, and then reduced further into the simpler proprietary parts of physics. 

I won't even bring to bear the complication that the tem 'life' is a human construct, upon which we have created a descriptive term for the purposes of classification.  The emergence of life is referred to as abiogenesis - which is the point at which the earth's chemistry evolved into a self-replicating system.  The point at which chemistry becomes biology is not an instantaneous moment (and even if it were, it would be an arbitrarily defined human classification).  But let's pretend there is one single point in history when we can say that life began - an A to B event of causation.  The putative conclusion begins with 'Therefore, all life is designed' - and from what I've said it is self-evidentially obvious that there are no philosophical conditions under which one can identify a particular point in history as being the beginning of the design of life.  All one is doing is looking for the transition from chemistry to biology, but they overlap, and they give no exhibition to any kind of process of divine choreography, because they can be reduced to particles that simulate mere possibility as fluctuations in a quantum field. 

Even if God did have to start the process by some kind of intervention that took place as a radical break from chemical normalcy - abiogenesis isn't an object of empirical study for us, and the power of identifying just what the appearance of initial design looks like in the chemical world eludes us further.  That's how I know we can never elicit two premises that will yield the conclusion 'Therefore, all life is designed'.

One more point of clarification, I have not said all this in the hope of showing ID is false.  I don’t know if it is true or false – but neither does anyone else.  What I am saying is, I think ID should be rejected, not because the theories are wrong, but because they cannot be shown to be right – which is rather the point of ID in the first place; to show there is “Evidence that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent Divine creator”.  Ironically that is the one thing it cannot do.