Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Expensive Doesn't Mean Valuable

More than 8.1 million people worldwide are now employed in the renewable energy industry, according to this report from IRENA. One way to look at it is to say, isn't it wonderful that there's been over 8 million jobs created in that sector? The economist's way to look at it is to say, isn't it hugely costly to pay for all this, therefore does it provide value?

The reason the economic analysis is right and the other analysis wrong is down to the understanding that natural resources are limited, as is human labour, and expenditure on this industry is expenditure that could be going elsewhere. Of course, if the renewable energy industry creates a net value to society then no problem. But does it?

It's unlikely that it does, because to say it does means to say that we are being made as well off as possible by applying those scarce resources in that industry. Think about that for a moment. Prices are not just about signalling the value of resources, they are a coordinated attempt to share by allocating resources most efficiently.

Those who want to use steel for engines must bid against those who want to use it for filing cabinets, ovens and keys. Those who want to use oil for petrol must bid against those who want to use it for weed killer, motorcycle helmets and drinks bottles. Even if the British government created a law to say that petrol, motorcycle helmets and drinks bottles are a basic human right for everyone in the UK, it would not change the fact that resource-allocations are bound by laws of supply and demand.

The market then is not just the billions of mutually beneficial transactions going on everyday across the world; it is the pattern of how people use limited resources that could be used for other things. Because people can make a living providing weed killer, motorcycle helmets, filing cabinets and engines, we know that suppliers have done the bidding for those resources competitively in a way that assents to consumer demand.

This doesn't happen with anything like the same extent with the renewable energy industry - much of the demand was created artificially by government mandates, lobby groups and international protocols. I'm not for one moment saying that the industry doesn't provide things people willingly buy - but it's very likely the case that the 8.1 million jobs and concomitant resources in the renewable energy industry is likely to be quite severe in opportunity costs, where there is significant loss from the potential gain that could have been attained from alternative uses of those resources.

Put it to the test
To show why this probably is the case, you only have to apply the following question to yourself: how often do you voluntarily spend your own money on something in order to make the energy humans use more efficient? The answer, for the vast majority of you, will be - not very often. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure many of you try to buy green-friendly products, and are mindful of recycling. And we all pay green taxes when we consume the world's natural resources.

But the reality is, most people wouldn't voluntarily spend too many extra resources on conjoining themselves to the pursuit of a greener environment. I'm sure many would tell you that's not the case - but economics is more interested in actions than words, and people's buying habits tell you that generally they care more about the consumer surplus attached to their fuel, paper, wood and metal products than they do about investing in renewable energy. To that end, there are bound to be plenty of deadweight losses attached to the renewable energy industry.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

How Humans Astound Me Most

Everyone loves consuming food, and everybody eats. Everyone likes justice, and everybody seeks it in their lives. Like food and justice, everyone loves truth, but unlike food and justice very few people seek the truth, and this is arguably one of the strangest things about being human. 

Whenever truth conflicts with long-held tribal principles, or disagrees with something protected by the false security of consensus, or challenges what is perceived to be (but isn't necessarily) ethical, or rattles the comfort zone, humans very easily disavow their relationship with it.

It has been observed humorously that this generation is the first generation ever to have the entire world's knowledge available to us at the touch of a button, but yet the vast majority of people make very little use of this facility, instead repeatedly looking at people's cat pictures and funny videos.

Now don't get me wrong, there are many interesting and entertaining things on the internet that do not come under the category of learning the world's knowledge. But given that having such easy access to the entire world's knowledge is about the most astounding thing we've ever had, I think it is alarming that so many people do so little with it.

And to take it further, given that logic, reason, truth and facts are so enduringly exhilarating, and rather resemble a map that leads us towards a world of exciting revelation and discovery and learning, it astonishes me how much of the mundane and prosaic stuff take precedence over them.

There is one obvious reason why this is the case, though - the mundane and prosaic stuff is easy and mastering the world's knowledge is hard. It's also the case that many people have never been introduced to those first glimpses of enlightenment that lead the way to the exciting broader and wider pursuits that follow.

Discipline is difficult too of course: even with all the accessible knowledge, every time we log on we are met with countless memes, compelling news stories, and many other amusing, rewarding and intriguing obstacles craving our attention.

But when all is said and done here, I do believe that if somehow the average browser could make inroads into getting a fuller sense of the exhilaration of our generation's potential, combined perhaps with a bit of an understanding of how incredibly fortunate each of us is to be here, they too will find the gap between the human potential and what we actually do on this earth quite astounding.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The So-Called Increasing Population Problem Is Decreasing

China's relaxation of their one child policy - basically a relaxation driven by the need for more workers to narrow the worker/pensioner ratio - has led to some commentators waxing lyrical about overpopulation in general. Hans Rosling's popular BBC2 lectures have gone some way to dispel the overpopulation myth, and I wrote a big article on the subject a few years ago (see this Blog post Why The World Is Not Overpopulated) - but alas, deep concerns about overpopulation linger.

The article I wrote covers (to my satisfaction) the reasons why the overpopulation arguments are fraught, and often just plain wrong, but another thing you might like to consider is that, lack of contraception aside, human history has built its ideas of childhood on how having children benefits the parents. For example, in many cultures (old agrarian, but also many modern developing cultures) having children is based a lot on spawning workers who will look after parents in their older age. Equally, even in the UK most couples who plan to have children have them for the benefits they will bring to their lives (the fact that a new life is created with its own unique life is a great and special factor too).

The fact that the world continues to become more developed and prosperous, coupled with the fact that more and more people are living in big cities, means that many of the factors that make overpopulated areas ill-equipped to deal with it are becoming less and less of a problem. The more it's the case that parents choose to have children on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis, instead of needing children to help survive old age or women not having proper control over their reproductive cycle, the sooner population numbers will begin to more closely resemble science's law of parsimony.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Corbyn: What Integrity?

Jeremy Corbyn is not having a great week. Even if the claims that he walked past empty seats to sit on the floor of the Virgin train are untrue (doubtful, but possible), he has shown himself to be rather too much of a shameful opportunist by making that embarrassing short video. It was a silly pro-nationalisation plug that backfired on him.

But leaving that aside, I want to focus here on a bigger part of the Corbyn picture, because long before Train-Gate, I've been told several times that whatever faults Jeremy Corbyn has (for Americans, read Bernie Sanders) he is a man of strong, principled integrity, and that such a thing is a rare quality in politics. I would say such people are half right: yes, integrity is too rare in politics, but no, Jeremy Corbyn doesn't have it - not in my eyes. Here's why.

The socialistic ideas Corbyn has on the broad range of economic issues are not just naively idealistic, they are hopelessly inimical to logic and reason, and they have been discredited by economic expertise for as long as economics has been a formal subject.

Now for me there are only likely to be two explanations for how a man can get to the age of 66 and still believe all this guff: one is that he knows the full extent of his folly but isn't all that bothered about getting his facts right as there are lots of people in this country who think along the same lines (and perhaps more importantly, can keep him elected), and the other is that he genuinely still harbours an honest ignorance about how counterfactual and damaging his policies would be if they were ever implemented.

To be perfectly honest, I've no idea which it is (maybe a mix of both) because both positions are anathema to me. That is to say, I couldn't bear to be so cognitively dissonant that I could hold views I knew deep down to be wrong just to stay in my job or obtain popularity; and I couldn't bear to exist in a state of mind in which I hadn't thoroughly got to grips with facts and truths central to my vocation.

I suppose the extent to which either of the above is true is something only Corbyn knows. But either way, it ought to scream out at us that whichever it is, the case for Jeremy Corbyn being a man of 'principled integrity' must fall flat on its backside.

For I see no principled integrity in knowing the full extent of one's folly yet not bothering to live with values consistent with the correction of that folly, and I see very little integrity in not properly researching the economic arguments, logic and reasoning that so easily expose his ideas as being harmful to the economy, to growth and to the increased prosperity of others in poorer nations too. The fixed pie fallacy, the free lunch fallacy, the 'seen and unseen' fallacies, the failure to understand the damage of price fixing, excessive taxation - you name it, Corbyn falls for it.

So I'm afraid I cannot go along with the idea that Corbyn, and people like the London mayor Sadiq Khan, and the rest of Corbyn's economically illiterate shadow cabinet are people with principled integrity, because for whatever reason they continue to persist with damaging ideas and foolish views about reality.

It's not all that different to how a biologist might feel about a young earth creationist or an astronomer might feel about an astrologer - they may concede that such people believe they have good intentions, and are often quite likeable personality-wise, but there is very little integrity in being the kind of people forever trying to give credit to long-standing discredited views when it is so easy to pick up a few text books and see the folly for themselves.

And by the way, if you're going to try to tell me that perhaps many of them have already studied this subject and simply arrived at their current conclusions on the basis of that learning, then that doesn't let them off the hook one bit, for me - it merely confirms that they are either incapable of learning the basics, or that they have a personal agenda that overrides the facts and truths in front of them.

And this brings me to my last point. Given that the relatively simple fact that competition and free trade are the biggest drivers of widespread prosperity, there must be one heck of an agenda with the likes of Corbyn as he consistently champions policies that make those things less conducive to fruition. Despite developing a reputation to the contrary as the saintly socialist saviour with real principles and integrity, why is he doing everything he can to implement policies that make the less fortunate even worse off? Is it perhaps that people on the hard left get so much of a buzz championing the underdog that they develop a saviour complex - and perhaps even subconsciously relish keeping the poor in their state because it keeps alive their raison d'etre?

You see, it's no small irony that not only is it the ability to trade that most efficiently lifts people out of poverty and drives improved living conditions for everyone, it's that when people do become more economically prosperous it is then that they are most likely to help others. In other words, free trade doesn't just help Jack and Jill, it helps Jack and Jill help Tom, Dick and Betty too. Someone with barely enough food to survive is less well equipped to help others thrive. On the other hand, the average mother in somewhere wealthy like the UK or USA often has the economic security to help others in the community, particularly when they retire or if they work part time.

And as the nation in question gets wealthier, the narrative of the socialist saviour becomes even more outmoded, to the point that they can only keep up the lie by creating new fatuous subplots, like the rich are making the poor even poorer, that we need a fairer society that works for everyone, and that capitalism is the most justifiable target for all our opprobrium. Part of the reason that Corbynomics is so easily ridiculed in circles of economic competence is that the socialist need to scratch our societal itch is dying out more slowly than the itch itself. 

Or to put it another way, a medicine is being offered to cure a disease that's been cured by another kind of medicine. And to rub salt into the wounds, the medicine being offered by Corbyn is actually a poison that inhibits the potency of the actual cure (the closest real life example of Corbynomics in action at the moment is not in Scandinavia, as some people think, it is in Venezuela, and the results are catastophic).

If you want principled integrity, you can find it far more in people like Deirdre McCloskey, Robert P Murphy and even the IEA's Philip Booth - good honest economists, and also people of faith, who have a proficient enough understanding of the political landscape to speak of what's best for everyone, but who are also not afraid to embrace truth and facts even when they are not part of consensual opinion.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Great Idea! Wish I'd Thought Of It

Rudyard Kipling once said “What do they know of England, who only England know?”, and what he meant was, not only do you not know much of other countries if you only know England, you don't know so much of England either without knowing other countries with which to make comparisons.

Lovers sometimes say that of beloveds too - they love them not just by knowing the beloved and all the qualities she has, but by knowing how the qualities and faults of others give further exhibition to what the beloved has to offer.

I feel this is also very true in debates too; it is important to understand the position of your opponent in order to understand your own position properly too. In the days of debating on forums a few years ago, if I could sense an opponent hadn't got a cognitive purchase on his (or her) argument I would try to persuade him to write a post as though he was arguing passionately and intelligently for the other side.  

From what I recall, no one ever took me up on my advice, but I think they missed out. Because I think in terms of probability, two things hold most of the time. If someone can accurately and comprehensively explain a position with intelligent reasoning but continue to think that position is wrong, there is quite a high probability that it is wrong. And if someone can accurately and comprehensively explain a position with intelligent reasoning and agree with it, there is quite a high probability that it is right.

Now for that good idea I was talking about: I just discovered today that economist Bryan Caplan has combined notions similar to what I just said above with the Turing test, which for those that don't know, is a test whereby a machine is required to convince a neutral judge that it could pass as being indistinguishable from a human. He calls his version of this The Ideological Turing Test.

This test tries to determine whether someone with a particular view or belief adequately understands the arguments of his or her intellectual opponents. The test is that the individual is challenged to write an essay posing as his opposite number, and if neutral judges cannot tell the difference between the partisan's essay and the answers of the opposite number, the candidate is judged to correctly understand the opposing side.

Here's what I think would be an interesting social experiment; put five randomly chosen socialists/atheists/young earth creationists and one libertarian/Christian/evolutionist in a forum and let other socialists/atheists/young earth creationists ask them questions for an hour. At the end of the hour, the socialist/atheist/young earth creationist questioners have to vote on which one they think is a libertarian/Christian/evolutionist.

Then put five randomly chosen libertarians/Christians/evolutionists and one socialist/atheist/young earth creationist in a forum and let other libertarians/Christians/evolutionists ask them questions for an hour. At the end of the hour, the libertarian/Christian/evolutionist questioners have to vote on who they think is a socialist/atheist/young earth creationist. 

After repeated experiments, that could give a good indication of who understands the psychology of the other group best. The same could be tried for any polarised group you like. It won't surprise you to know that in the above scenarios I think the libertarians, Christians and evolutionists would do far better than their opponents, as well as being able to write far more comprehensive essays on their opponents' positions than would be the case the other way round.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Confusion About Efficiency

Earlier on I heard a green bloke on the radio say that the great thing about green innovation is that the more efficient we become at using a resource the less we'll use of that resource, and the better it'll be for the environment. It's a popular opinion, but like many popular opinions, it is often not in the least bit true.

In about 3 seconds I thought of an example of where it's false. We used to have to send letters by post. Now we can email them, which is cheaper and more efficient. But that doesn't mean we communicate less - we actually communicate more.

The same is true with the thing that generates the power to email - electricity. We've become more efficient at lighting our houses - not many people use candles and oil lamps these days. But generating light more cheaply does not necessarily incentivise us to use less of it - quite the contrary, it encourages us to use more of it, thereby increasing demand (this is what is technically known as the Jevons paradox).

Underpinning all this is a potentially revealing fact about the whole system of recycling. As was revealed by a social experiment measuring paper towel usage in toilets: if you use them with the knowledge that the paper is going to be recycled you will use more paper than if you know it won't be.

Coupled with the fact that recycling paper means there are actually fewer trees in the world now, not more, and that cutting down and re-planting trees uses fewer resources than the whole process of recycling paper, it probably is the case that if we actually care about the planet's resources we might have to cut down on our recycling.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Guess Which UK City Is Twice As Homophobic As The Others...

Here's an interesting statistic, which may also prove to be an interesting test of your intuition. A recent-ish YouGov survey asked UK respondents whether they thought in general that homosexuality is ‘morally wrong’. The results showed that in the majority of regions of the UK the people who thought homosexuality ‘morally wrong’ hovered around the 15% mark. 

Before you click on the link to find the answer, what does your intuition tell you the results were in London? What percentage of good ol' diverse, highly populated, cosmopolitan London responded with the view that homosexuality is ‘morally wrong’? Surely somewhere as diverse as London would return results of about 5-10%, wouldn't you think?

No! It turns out not to be the case: the people in London who thought homosexuality ‘morally wrong’ turned out to be 29%, nearly double what it was in most other regions. Why might the figure be nearly double in London? My guess would be that the reason is the same reason that makes London so different from other regions in the UK - it's the diversity. Diversity, for all its qualities (and they are plentiful) probably also means more diversity of opinions that we don't share or like - including many ethnic, cultural and religious groups that don't share our tolerance, love and respect for homosexual men and women. That seems to me the most likely reason for what is a very interesting finding (see the link here). 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Don't Fear The Clusters, They Are Part Of The Natural Process Of Experimentation

There is a lot of talk in our country about how London is so markedly different from every other city in England that it's almost like a little country by itself. Because of which, politicians are always going on about trying to build up other cities to a similar status.

What they may not know is that there is a mathematical power law that explains why this phenomenon is to be expected - it's called Zipf's law, and it states that given a large sample of data, the frequency of any element of that data is at a certain size inversely proportional to its rank in a table that measures frequency, size or some similar measure.

Consider the usage of words in the English language. Zipf's law states that the most frequent word (the word 'the') will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word (the word 'of'), three times as often as the third most frequent word (the word 'and'), and so on. This is called the rank vs. frequency rule.

The same rule also holds for the distribution in rankings of cities by population - meaning if you compare the biggest city with the second biggest, city 2 is half as big as city 1, city 3 has 2/3 the population of city 2, city 50 has 49/50ths the population of city 49, and so on. We find that while it's not an exact law, by a very close approximation it holds pretty much everywhere you look - be it word frequency, city sizes, income distributions or sizes of corporations.

Compared to smaller cities, large cities show an abnormal distribution of sizes, largely because people tend to flock to big cities to improve opportunities, and for a bunch of other reasons I blogged about here.

These power laws are social laws that resemble natural laws (rather like how Kleiber's law of animals' metabolic rate proportional to their size very closely resembles a power law about how cities use resources as populations increase) - and there's no reason to be perturbed by them.

The key thing that people are gradually starting to learn is that things are generally not designed by a central planner, they evolve over time, and although they look spectacularly like they are too sophisticated to have emerged by a long process of trial and error with no end goal in sight, it is not the case.

The primary vehicle for progression is very much trial and error and experimentation, and these clusters - be they city sizes, income gaps, business growth models, or numerous other things that seem to worry the masses - should not elicit contempt or discomfiture in us; they are what occur when people make choices and when those results are measured mathematically.

Once you understand the mathematics that underwrites all those societal choices and complex interactions, you have the tools for understanding pretty much anything in the triune relationship between economics, politics and human behaviour.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Unchain Thyself

When I was a professional gambler I knew many systems, strategies and tricks to which the non-gambler's naked eye was not accustomed. Here's one that's not only a lot of fun, but one to which I can attach a powerful truism. This can be used as a real gambling exercise, an allegory for one of life's truisms, or simply as a party game that will amuse onlookers at the end of the night.  

The game
In auctioning an arbitrary sum of money, you play a game in which you are host to two willing bidders. You show the two bidders a £20 note (you can play this with any amount of money), and get them to enter rounds of bidding on the money by handing you their bids on a piece of paper, with the winning bidder receiving the £20 at the end of the bidding, and both bidders having to pay you their final bid. 

As soon as two people agree to enter the game, not only are you (the host master) almost guaranteed a profit, you'll find that it has the potential to spiral out of the bidders' comfort zones. Say John starts the game and bids £5 for the £20 prize and Pete bids £6. Both John and Pete are soon going to find out that there's not going to be a good time to pull out of the bidding. If John quits on the first round he's just lost £5 straight off, so he might as well bid £7. Similarly if Pete then drops out he loses £6 for nothing, so he might as well bid £8. 

This bidding process carries on, because neither John nor Pete can pull out without giving up £15, £16, £17 etc for nothing. Once John has bid £18 and Pete £19, John can either bid £20 and break even, or he can lose £18 for nothing. Now Pete has to decide between bidding £21 and taking a £1 loss, or pulling out and paying £19 for nothing.

This process just carries on escalating until one of the two bidders runs out of money, or reaches the point at which they want to cut their losses to avoid escalating losses. By then, as host, you've guaranteed yourself a tidy profit. Really smart people are astute enough to work out in a few seconds that this is a futile auction in which to find oneself bidding. Others tend to either chicken out, withdraw dissonantly, or end up skint.

What we can learn from the game
That was just a light-hearted look at a fun gambling game with a twist for the uninitiated. But I think this is a good instructive template for life in general. Don't enter into situations whereby you find yourself heavily invested into something that brings about a too narrow perspective or biased affiliation that impairs your judgement.

This is one reason why I've never had any strong affiliations with a political party, or any dogma-driven allegiance to top-down social management - I'm just too enamoured with individuation, because the healthy collectivism that is sought is only attainable if the minds that make up a collective conglomeration have individuated themselves. To borrow from Thoreau we must "breathe after our own fashion".

While nothing is certain, generally I think it's true to say the more ubiquitous, established and prominent the group, the harder it is to resist its gravitational pull away from your individualism. Of course, sometimes this is a good thing, particularly when the group's influence is positive, and your present internalism negative - but the key to rational discernment is to distil when it is good and bad. 

I think a good rule of thumb for being true to your own convictions is this; don't do or champion anything in the name of a group that you wouldn't do or champion as an individual - for if you do so, you become a chameleon that fades into the colours of group think, and you compromise the autonomy of individuation.

Think of how much of your supposed individualism is moulded by others - you'll find it's much more than is often realised. The subtle ways in which others shape us are plentiful - as we trade off the person inside for the role others wish us to play. The danger is that the role involves putting on a mask - and with time the mask and our own faces can become indistinguishable.

The auction scenario above is a good analogy for large groups that have this kind of sway due to prior emotional, socio-political and financial vested interests. There comes a point - be it on a pre-election party campaign, a cult, a socio-economic affiliation, or things of that kind - where what's been invested in the thrall of the collective overpowers the true quality of investing in individual liberation of mind, intellectual openness, and a relatively unbiased enquiry. 

Take a pre-election party campaign as a good example; once the party has invested so much time and financial resources into its campaign, it becomes incredibly hard to hold a balanced view. Or take the poster boys for new-wave atheism – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (sadly now deceased), PZ Myers, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett – with so much at stake (finance, reputation, career) it is much harder for them to consider their views with as much rigour as a comparably unbiased person. The same is true of creationists, left wing extremists, right wing extremists, scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cult-like groups – they have so much invested in their agendas that a truly open, balanced, and liberated view eludes them. Plus, as Voltaire reminds us above - "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere".

So, my general advice is this: before you even think of becoming immersed in the collective, make sure you become immersed in the liberation of your own individualism. Rescue yourself from seeking refuge in group think, or from being transfixed on the false security of cooperative agendas, and first master the essence of your own individuality. Only then will you really be a valuable part of a collective.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Next Stage In The Evolution Of Politics

Politics has changed a lot over the centuries. The dominant form of politics used to be loosely based on a Christian flavoured notion of human representatives promoting the common good, rather like Thomas Carlyle's version of the great men, but in this case seeking a collective, objective human goal of divinely-inspired improvement.

Then, after the gradual influence of philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Mill and Rousseau, a more liberal approach was fostered, with a more symbiotic relationship between society's rights and freedoms and the state's ability to govern by respecting those qualities.

Then came the devastation of two World Wars, which was followed by the cognitively dissonant simultaneity of believing that on the one hand the wars showed just how dangerous totalitarian extreme politics can be, and on the other the huge requirement of the state in pre-empting such forces again, not to mention the reparation and rebuilding projects that were required.

In the following decades, for all sorts of reasons too involved to go into now, both narratives have become intertwined, whereby some politicians pursue what they think is the common good with top-down prescriptions, and other politicians continually look for ways to promote our freedoms.

Sometimes there is intellectual strain and emotional duress on politicians' goals when, for example, the common good is for everyone's individualism to be allowed to breathe, in cases when what is proclaimed as the moral thing to do is another attempt to infringe on our liberties, and in cases where the more liberty we have the less we should pursue notions of what I call fabricated equality (artificially trying to make positively unequal things equal).

Given that human progress occurs dialectically, it is understandable that wherever possible modern politics is always seeking to synthesise apparent theses and antitheses into a coherent narrative that draws on the best of past political ideas.

That is also why we see the main body of political parties (comprising most elected MPs in the House of Commons) occupying more of the centre ground than ever before, in many ways indistinguishable from each other, making the fringe parties that hang on the periphery (most notably: UKIP, the Green Party, and Corbyn's wing of the Labour Party) appearing somewhat heterodoxical in the modern political context.

The key thing that people are gradually starting to learn is that things are generally not designed by a central planner, they evolve over time, and although they look spectacularly like they are too sophisticated to have emerged by a long process of trial and error with no end goal in sight, it is not the case.

Once it is more widely realised that, just like organisms in biological evolution, bit-by-bit selection is the primary game in town, I think we'll begin to adjust our interpretations of a coherent political narrative towards the next stage of human evolution - the stage at which the system of state meddling is deracinated, and what's planted in its place are the seeds of understanding that human societies thrive and progress in a bottom up manner, not a top down one.

Is This The Most Confused Blogger Around?

It was the name of the blog that first grabbed my attention on a page full of links - it leapt out at me: "Capitalism Creates Poverty" - and I thought, wow, I have to take a look, because no one actually believes that capitalism created poverty, do they? Sure I know many proclaim it, but when pressing them I've never known anyone to really actually definitely believe it.

But having perused one or two of his posts, I can see this guy really does believe it - so much so that his whole raison d'etre appears to be based on the notion that capitalism is this evil, dangerous driver of people's plight.

Alas, all the time this guy's base fallacy endures, he's always going to be peddling the wrong propaganda. What he needs to learn is that capitalism, or the market as we'll call it, is not an overarching sentience, it is an amoral descriptive term that simply describes the aggregation of everybody's wants and needs. The only concern of the market is what humans value, which is discovered by what they demand, who can supply it, and at what price.

If we demand recycled metal, the market will see to it that someone provides it; if we demand machines to draw out cash from our bank accounts, someone will provide it. The free market doesn't do anything to people, it simply provides what people demand.

It is, therefore literally impossible for the free market to make people poor, or cause poverty, as many confused people claim. It is the places in which the free market hasn't yet taken effect that poverty arises - it is the lack of the free market that causes poverty, just as it is the lack of food that causes hunger.

Someone else growing their own food is not the cause of a starving person's hunger in the next village, because that person was hungry beforehand. Of course, a person who shares the food they've grown, or better, teaches his neighbour how to grow his own food has helped alleviate his neighbour's hunger, but he has not caused the hunger, because they were both hungry before they learned to grow food.

The World Bank defines absolute poverty as anyone in the world who lives on less than $1.90 a day. It's true that most people live on more than that, and that unfortunately there are still too many people that currently still haven't escaped absolute poverty, but what you have to remember is that poverty is the natural state of human beings for pretty much all of the past 200,000 years of our existence.

The primary difference between someone in poverty and someone well off is a matter of productivity. It is not a matter of one getting a huge slice of pie and the other getting a tiny proportion, it is that there are two pies and they are different sizes. The free market helps the guy with the smaller pie by enabling him to be more productive, but it requires some co-operation with people that have bigger pies.

Try asking the question in the opposite way
We are constantly hearing columnists and social commentators enquiring about why the poorest people in the world are still poor when so many people have become so prosperous (relatively speaking) in comparison. It's a vital question, and one of which we should be mindful every day.

But an equally interesting question is the opposite one: why, in fact, are so many people so prosperous? You see, prosperity is not the default state of human beings - poverty and hardship is. For most of our history we have been struggling through poverty and hardship.

The story of human history for the past 200,000 years goes roughly like this. For the past 199,800 of those 200,000 years we had low global populations, and humans lived in meagre conditions, with lots of primitivism, low life expectancy and frequent infant mortality.

People’s earnings stayed around the subsistence levels (save for a tiny minority of aristocracy and ruling classes in more recent times) until something came along to change all that in the nineteenth century. What happened was that people started to become more scientific, more empirically minded, richer, and populations began to increase more rapidly (it’s still going on).

What caused this sudden cheetah-like sprint of progression was primarily two things – science and capitalism. This science and capitalist-based progression can be explained by a simple rule of thumb – people innovate, improve and provide answers to problems – and the more people, the more innovation, improvements and problems solved.

The more ideas and the more people to share those ideas with, the more humans prosper, and the quicker they do so, despite some unstable or resource-insufficient areas where high population is proving to be an issue.

Now let’s be clear; science and capitalism haven’t created a materialist utopia (far from it), nor a panacea against moral ills, and they are not without their negative spillover effects – but their prominence has seen an exponentiation effect that has brought more progression in the past 200 years of human history than in the previous 199,800 years. In those 200 years, earnings, health, wealth, knowledge, science, technological capacity, and overall well-being have improved at an astronomical level not seen in any period of time that predated it.

Science and capitalism show themselves to be good vehicles for human progression, beneficial tools for lifting us out of poverty, curing diseases, feeding the impoverished, communicating globally, and generally enhancing our knowledge of the world. Given that out of the last 200,000 years we have only been out of poverty for 0.1% of it, the question we hardly ever hear regarding why so many of us are so prosperous must at least have equal consideration to the widespread, repeated question of why so many are still in poverty.

The answer to that question is, in the simplest terms, that quite naturally in the event of a progression-explosion there were always going to be countries that had the right conditions and personnel to experience these changes in fortune first. Many economists will simply argue that these countries still in poverty need to be opened up more to the global market.

This is true, and they certainly have the natural resources to do so. But I think that's only half the battle - the other side of it is the science. Countries that have resources to trade but with poor scientific potential will probably be the ones to reach prosperity last, particularly given that scientific capabilities involve a lot of investment from government.

As has happened in the past 150 years in the UK and USA, and as had happened more recently in about a fifth of the time in places like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, developing countries get a foot on the ladder of prosperity and begin to become more open to the vital market forces of globalisation that will bring them economic growth and increased prosperity.

Many developing nations haven’t had their progression-explosion yet – and yet even though they have many resources with which to trade, if they lack the political stability, social conditions, capacity for trading more freely (not to mention being beset by religious jingoism), they may carry on lacking the essential scientific acumen that accompanies capitalism, and as a consequence, they may well take a while yet to climb out of the quagmire.

Once upon a time, the kind of hardships seen in India and Bangladesh now were seen in the UK then. We in the UK once used to be an underdeveloped country too. But as we saw the increased growth of capital, the advancements in technology, and the increased opportunity to trade and innovate, we and several other leading countries gradually climbed out of poverty and hardship into greater wealth and prosperity, and are subsequently being joined by many other countries, with many more to come.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Getting The Discrimination Balance Right

Combating racism is one of the most essential things humans do, and like every case of seeking the common good, it is a work in progress. Sadly as the actions of some minorities after the EU referendum result confirmed, we still have a way to go yet.

But that's not what this blog post is about - pretty much everyone knows what I said above, and everyone worth their salt is all for kicking racism out of society.

No, the purpose of this blog post is to say that when it comes to racism and discrimination, and indeed other forms of supposed unfairness in society, progress doesn't just mean weeding these things out of society, it also means not going so far the other way that we become trepid little mice unable to cope with a world in which a lot of our discrimination is good and necessary (a danger that is starting to materialise in many pockets of society).

Take, for example, something that happened a couple of months ago, when the BBC sought to target supposedly “under-represented” parts of Britain with an internship that white people were not permitted to apply for.

In order to “rectify the imbalance of people who do not recruit black and Asian people”, only black, Asian and non-white ethnic minorities could apply for the BBC internship, despite it emerging later that the corporation is already scoring above what is expected of them in that area of diversity.

The way things are going, there is a real danger that the prejudice and unfair discrimination accusers will swing things round 180 degrees and cry foul against people accused of discrimination for not discriminating. Make sense? If not, here's what I mean.

If we carry on like this, I can envisage a time when there is widespread paranoia that unfair discrimination is occurring whenever there is, say, a TV drama show without a certain number of Muslims and homosexuals, or a university without a certain number of black graduates, or when a police force has more than a 50% proportion of white officers, or when there is a Cabinet consisting of more of one sex than the other.  

With some degree of irony, the unfair discrimination cards that we used to nobly play against genuine injustices are starting to make appearances as faux-discrimination cards played by discriminators against those accused of not discriminating enough.

The antidote to this shift is to realise that most discrimination is actually perfectly fine, and actually to be encouraged, because the majority of the time when we discriminate we do so because we understand the trade off better than our accusers.

Don't get me wrong, where there is still genuine unfair discrimination we should help weed it out. But genuine unfair discrimination doesn't occur half as much as most people think - it is simply the result of people making rational choices, like choosing a Cabinet or a work force based on merit, not on sex or skin colour.

Rational discrimination occurs everywhere, and for good reason. At school in wanting to date girls I fancied, I was discriminating against girls I didn't fancy. But that's perfectly okay. When I go to the pub I want to sit and talk with friends I know, and discriminate against strangers by not joining them at their table. But that's perfectly okay too.

Vegetarians want to discriminate against burger bars by not eating in them; lesbians want to discriminate against heterosexual men by not having sex with them; women usually want to discriminate against employers that run garages by not working for them; economic think tanks want to discriminate against not very bright people by having bright people contribute to their research; and the Congolese social group in my city wants to discriminate against non-Congolese people by only wanting fellow Congolese people to attend - and all of those things are perfectly fine.

Not only are the majority of our life's discriminations fine, but even at times when certain patterns appear to be evident people should first check to see if there are other good reasons for this before making accusations of 'unfair discrimination'.

Or in other words, they should adhere to the wisdom of Chesterton's fence. That is, if you see a fence somewhere that you think is doing no good, don't pull it down until you've first understood why someone built it in the first place. Only when you're sure the fence is serving no beneficial purpose should you pull it down.

The same is true of the many cases where there aren't more of a certain type of person in those roles - instead of assuming a system isn't working fairly, you have to instead consider why it doesn't already work in the way you assume it should (something our Prime Minister Theresa May failed to learn when she was Home Secretary) .

Because the thing is, quite often you'll many of those patterns are not cases of unfair discrimination at all - they are simply a reflection of a wide society made up of individual choices bootstrapped by rational assessments of taste and merit.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Ask The Philosophical Muser

Since increasing my readership over the past couple of years, through a growing following, but also in no small part due to high(er) profile writing elsewhere, I've not been short of interesting enquiries in the form of comments, questions well worth answering, or even on occasion requests for advice regarding matters of daily life. Even as we speak, I have one or two interesting enquiries from readers that might make good future blog posts.

With that in mind, I thought I'd mention, dear readers, that if it helps or adds anything to your life in any way, you are quite welcome to ask any questions on any subject you like, or even ask advice, whereby if it's witty, intriguing or intelligent enough for public consumption, I'd be willing to make a blog post on it (with the questioner remaining anonymous if preferred).  

You can either email me (email address at the bottom), or if you prefer message me on Facebook, and excepting a few conditions below, you may well find your question becomes a new blog post.

* Please don't ask me to do homework, coursework or an assignment for you. No reader or blogger is interested in that.

* Before asking something, please check the *Labels* section on the right side-bar, as that topic may well have been covered before on here.
* There's no point asking a question about facts or information that you'd be better off typing in Google.

* Please keep your question short. You have a better chance of getting an answer if your question would comfortably fit on a post-it note.

As always, thanks for reading.


Saturday, 13 August 2016

What Democracy Throws Up

In this morning's papers is the news that an extreme Icelandic party called the Pirate party looks set to form the next government. We Brits have had our own issues with democracy recently after the EU Referendum, as I'm sure will Americans if Donald Trump becomes President, and as have many other people in the Middle East and north Africa in the past few years.

There are lots of issues with democracy, but perhaps the main one is that predominant support means that undesirable things can come to pass if it is desired by enough people to make it democratically viable (stay tuned to the end and we'll ask one or two big philosophical questions about allowing the public to decide important things).

One thing democracy throws up is this. Suppose we have Tom, Dick and Harry and £100. A vote for Tom and Dick to have £50 each and Harry to have nothing could easily be favoured democratically on a 2 to 1 basis. Tom and Dick are happy, and Harry is not.

But now suppose Harry offers an alternative to Tom; Tom gets £60 and Harry gets £40. Dick is unhappy, he gets nothing, but Tom is £10 better off than before, and Harry is £40 better off. Naturally, this second proposal could easily be favoured democratically on a 2 to 1 basis too. In response Dick proposes a fifty-fifty split between him and Harry.

Now Dick is back up to £50, and Harry is now £10 up on the last proposal, which could mean a revised 2 to 1 vote, this time at the expense of Tom. As you can probably gather, this process could go on and on, as it follows the same rule: that predominant support makes situations come to pass democratically.

As the old adage goes, if democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, democracy isn't great for everyone. And as I pointed out in this Blog a while back, in many cases of political policy in the present age the rich are quite often the lambs, and the rest of the population are the wolves with their tablecloths and knives and forks at the ready:

"While a rigorous intellectual enquiry reconciles discordances, democracy merely inflates them with a system of winners and losers. To rub salt in the wounds, politicians know that a huge number of the electorate are pretty ignorant about politics and economics, so they look not to what's good for the country but what is likely to be popular in terms of votes

Because of how our top earners raise the average wage, the majority of people in the UK earn below the average wage, which means they are going to be swayed by redistributionist policies targeted at the rich, and economic policies that hamper progress. Unfortunately, in terms of viable representatives, this means the public do not get what they need; they get what they think they want. Or to use a culinary analogy, instead of getting to choose between a fillet steak, a sirloin steak and a rump steak, the public instead gets to choose between several rump steaks with slightly different flavoured sauces.

Despite the increased human assent to democratic values, there is one key thing that will always provide a resistance; and it is that for all her picturesque backdrops and glorious natural scenery, nature is not very democratic at all. When it comes to health, looks, size, shape, talents, intelligence, sensory apparatus, opportunity and background, nature is far from democratic - there is a notable difference in all of these human qualities in each of us, as their attainment depends on undemocratic things like fortune and pursuit.

Further, there is no democracy in the qualities we try to attain either. Successful romantic love is not democratic: it reveals itself more to the faithful pursuer of monogamy than it does the uncommitted philanderer. Goodness is not democratic: it emerges more in those who seek moral probity than those who pursue selfishly bad ends. Knowledge is not democratic: it is the natural reward of diligence and effort, and absent in lazy-minded slackers. Good health is not democratic: it is contingent on the lifestyle chosen, genetic legacies, and other physiological factors too. And more generally, the achievements, the wisdom, and the fulfilments we secure are not democratic: they are the reward of hard work and an earnest pursuit of things that are good for us.

Our democratic leanings, then, are assented to in spite of nature not because of it. Those leanings are based on a popular view about equality - the view that it is fundamental to a successful society and peaceable co-existence. Our yearning for equality is in one sense a good thing - it is the recognition that we want everyone to make the best of their raw material, irrespective of genes, looks, intelligence and background. But in another sense, and sadly the predominant sense, it is pernicious in its fear of success and advancement. At its worst its proponents hate the thought of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement - they behave like starved organisms desperate to lament the oxygen of others, leading only to envy and resentment.

While the first tenet of equality is noble, the second is ignoble, and we must have no truck with it. Just as an education system that gave everyone the same grades would be unrepresentative, and a 400 metre race in which everyone crossed the line together would be pointless, similarly, a society devoid of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement would be a society in which those richest of human qualities - freedom to pursue talents, rewards for hard work, benefits to innovation, and positives that emerge from moral and intellectual excellence - were rendered meaningless."

Should we always trust the public?
So, to finish - what's been evident is that the Brexit vote has regurgitated issues about democracy that the Greek philosophers used to debate, but which have now taken on a modern context. The following, perfectly reasonable questions now loom large:

1) Are the general public always the best people to ask about big, far-reaching decisions that the majority are probably ill-equipped to understand?

2) When a national referendum is actioned, should democracy always be respected in terms of going with the majority opinion?

3) Under which conditions might we be able to justifiably argue to overturn a democratic decision made by the public?

Regarding question 1, knowing the general public I'd suggest the answer is, not always. However, political intelligence must also involve the mental adroitness to avoid placing the nation in a terribly precarious situation by not having referendums on matters where the 'wrong' outcome would be a disaster.

Regarding 2, I'd answer mostly yes, but I could conceive of occasions when the answer would be no.

Regarding 3, carrying on from 2, where I could conceive of occasions when we could justifiably overturn a democratic decision made by the public would be when the majority opinion was likely to be so harmful and damaging and idiotic that democracy needs a few voices of reason to straighten things out. For example, suppose we ended up with a scenario where the majority of the country voted to make the UK a protectionist nation with no outside trade, or a scenario where the majority of the country voted to ban all immigration into the country, or a scenario where the majority of the country voted for the UK to be governed by an Islamic theocracy - they are cases where even something like the quality of democracy shouldn't have ultimate primacy on the matter.

The upshot of all this, I suppose, is that the key to governments holding referendums is that the ramifications of either result should be intelligently and thoroughly thought through, and therefore referendums should only be offered to the public if one of the possible outcomes was not thought by (presumably) Parliament to be too disastrous for the country (which I admit is a subjective thing in itself).

Friday, 12 August 2016

Introducing The Hyperbolsters

A defining characteristic of quite a few public personalities is that they latch on to partial truths but then take to hyperbole or mental excessiveness to attain their public cachet and court some kind of recognition. You know the sort I mean; you listen to them and can recognise that some of what they say represents a grain of truth, but that the whole quintessence of their rhetoric just makes their overall persona seem somewhat counter-productive in the debate. I call them the 'hyperbolsters'. Examples of the hyperbolster personality would be people like Peter Hitchens, George Galloway, David Starkey. Richard Dawkins, most in the Green Party, a few of the ultra hard feminists and of course, our old friend Jeremy Corbyn.

Hyperbolsters identify smidgens of truth - like, for example, some immigration problems, the need for wealth redistribution, bad foreign policy, parts of the country in slight declension, and bad elements found in religion, to name just a few, but greatly exaggerate the reality of those truths or greatly exaggerate the extent to which their own personal commentary gets to the heart of the matter and accounts for the complexity of the issues.

Even someone like that EDL chap Tommy Robinson picked a crumb of truth - that this government is quite supine when it come to dealing with Islamic fundamentalism - and turned it into something headline-grabbing (albeit quite repugnant and idiotic).

I'd place Nigel Farage in the hyperbolster category, although he’s hyperbolic-lite rather than the full flavour variety. Over the years he's generated lots of support by identifying two key issues (immigration and the EU) that the other parties had always addressed poorly, and he's used them as vehicles for persistently gathering political momentum, as well as picking up support from quite a few protest voters along the way. In Farage's case, of course, all this culminated in achieving the end result (Brexit) that he set out to achieve from about 1993 onwards. 

That is how hyperbolstering grows from individuals to party-size groups, and UKIP and the Green Party are the two most mainstream cases in point. Hyperboslters multiply into parties by adhering to the political art of gauging the societal landscape, by identifying which tenets of domestic life certain sub-sections of the electorate care about but feel isn't addressed well enough by other parties, and then by creating a representative party that can promise such policies, while remaining far enough outside the mainstream to ensure they are unlikely to ever have to deliver them.

While this post is about hyperbolsters in general, not Nigel Farage, I think history will show that Farage's legacy will go down as one of those rare cases when hyperbolstering survived the fringes and embedded itself into the mainstream. As for the majority of hyperbolsters out there, if you happen to be a fan, don't pin too much hope on them.