Thursday, 29 March 2018

Bless Him - Owen Jones Has Got Himself All Confused Again

Owen Jones' latest gripe about the outrageous injustice of Britain’s wealth inequality is that our MPs, even Labour ones, are lacking the ambition to tackle it to his satisfaction. He thinks that because the rich have a lot more than the poor, this makes this economy 'dysfunctional and rotten', and he is calling for almost all transfers of funds (inheritance, gifts, capital gains) to be treated as money in waiting for the government.

What Owen Jones has never been very good at is understanding causality in these kinds of situation. Rather like how feminist proponents of the spurious gender pay gap don't grasp that when left to their free choices, there will be unequal outcomes as regards men and women's average pay because men and women want and prioritise different things, radical redistributionists rarely seem to grasp that when the results of societal free choices are measured - even in the most equal countries - the lowest two quintiles own next to nothing compared to those in the top quintile.

Alas, Owen Jones is not alone though - errors of causality are highly common. This is because when we ascribe causes to effects we do so by focusing on what seems to be the most primary element of causality at the time. So for example, people will assert that ISIS was caused by (among other things) Blair and Bush's Iraq invasion; that the financial crash of 2008 was caused by (among other things) bankers' recklessness; that the Brexit majority vote was caused by (among other things) a huge anti-immigrant feeling; and that the Trump election was caused by (among other things) a large anti-establishment feeling.

But consider a heart attack by way of an analogy. Your obese neighbour Bob is outside washing his car on a hot July afternoon, when suddenly he keels over and dies of a heart attack. The most primary element of that event, the one on which the local newspaper report would probably focus, would be on the fact that Bob was an obese man over-exerting himself on a boiling hot summer day.

But there are other causes too, multiple causes. For example, Bob's obesity was in part caused by genetics, but also by his eating and drinking habits. Bob drank 40 units of alcohol a week and had a fry-up for breakfast three or four times a week. He also suffered from depression, which drove his excessive drinking. His depression was triggered by multiple past legacies, including being treated badly by his father, and having a mother too scared to protect him.

The upshot of all this is that causes are numerous and complex, and they depend very much on which link on the causal chain is being zoomed in on at the time. Moreover, in the case of Bob's heart attack, all of the causes have some relevance and none of them contradict the others.

The things that are causing all this inequality of outcome are very much not instances of unfairness, they are, by and large, instances of freedom in action, where a society with billions of individual decisions, in aggregation, naturally leads to expected power laws and income disparities. It's all very much to be expected, and probably always will be - it's a natural outcome of societies with diversity and a multitude of options.

And lest we forget, a few other pertinent points, namely:

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Reader Response: Climate Change & Scamming

After reading a recent blog post of mine, a reader asked how I can claim that the climate change industry is a scam:

"How does climate change politics qualify as one of your scams? I hope you're not denying that capitalist industry has greatly affected our planet, and that political steps to combat it are making polluters culpable for their actions."

I've explained the faulty thinking at length before with a whole series of blogs - but the best way to define it as a scam is to elicit a popular term coined by Bruce Yandle called Bootleggers and Baptists, which is about regulations that provide self-interested benefits for both the regulators and for those thought to be victims of the regulations. It is based on the notion that Baptists support Sunday closing hours, but so do Bootleggers, because if local bars and off-licenses are closed, Bootleggers gain too.

Sunday closing hours benefit both Bootleggers and Baptists, while at the same time purporting to serve the public interests - and the green regulations are of a similar nature, as well as being very short-sighted and hugely damaging. Climate change alarmists naturally support heavy green regulations - because it furthers their own agenda, and enables them to cream off crony capitalist subsidies - but so do some of the biggest polluters too because some of the regulations help shut out competition.

As well as the inherent crony capitalist misallocation of resources, the other part of the scam - believed quite ubiquitously, I'm sorry to say - is that this is all very necessary as a regulatory means of reducing emissions down to a state-mandated nominal level. But frankly, this perceived is a rather confused one. As I've said before:

"A carbon tax is not a means of reducing emissions down to a nominal figure; it is supposed to be a tool for maximising utility. That is, carbon taxes help us incorporate negative externalities into the price system of a free market whereby polluters carry the costs of their negative externalities, but also whereby the price reaches equilibrium as the costs of pollution are measured accurately against the benefits.

That way, those negative externalities are compensated for by the fact that they increase utility to a level greater than their costs. For example, a timber factory and a roadside diner on the outskirts of a city add some pollution to the environment, but they make up for those negative externalities by providing goods and services that people want.

Where they are a benefit is when carbon taxes intervene in the price system to ensure that future costs of transactions are thought to be worth paying for present benefits. The rate of carbon tax is roughly commensurate with the future cost of pollution, incorporated into the price system to justify the benefits now – it is a tax that attempts to ascertain the benefits of pollution. Carbon taxes are far from simply being about lowering emissions, although as I argue here, they will likely change future behaviour as businesses innovate to be greener with improved technology."

Friday, 16 March 2018

Greatness is being both a Hedgehog and a Fox

This week Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. Hawking was certainly one of the world's brightest minds in physics - but it's quite apparent that he was susceptible to much mental mediocrity too. So much so that he very publically fell for each one of the 3 biggest scams humanity has ever created. They are:

1) Atheism - the Promethean fantasy that tries to dispense with God

2) Socialism - the central planning fantasy that reveres state hegemony

3) Climate Change alarmism - the Gaia-driven fantasy driven by crony capitalism

Regular readers will be familiar with my antidotes to these scams, so in this post I want to touch on something a bit more specific: how people with highly intelligent minds can be great in some areas and yet so woefully inadequate in others. Perhaps the biggest human failing when it comes to cognition is failing to observe Pascal's piece of wisdom:

"A man does not prove his greatness by standing at an extremity, but by touching both extremities at once and filling all that lies between them."

For me, this is one of the best summaries of how to approach mental excellence - understand each extreme but at the same time occupy enough of the ground between in order to retain a balanced view where you've fully captured both sides of the argument. It takes a certain skill to harvest the uncertainties in the world while at the same time collating a succession of views and observations that you feel will still be the case for the rest of your living days. For this we shall turn towards Isaiah Berlin.  

Isaiah Berlin once wrote an essay called "The Hedgehog and the Fox", which is based on a fairly well known parable from the Greek poet Archilochus - "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". The observation is that the fox has cunningness, fleetness of foot, and the crafty ability to plan its course of attack. The fox does many things really well. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is slower and behaviourally less complex - but he has one big thing to outwit the fox; he can roll into a ball, show his spiky defences and render the fox's crafty planning ineffectual. The hedgehog does one thing really well.

In the essay, Isaiah Berlin wants to define the various thinkers in philosophy and literature into two groups - the hedgehogs and the foxes. The hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining narrative around which all other ideas revolve. Those single defining narratives can be theistic or atheistic convictions, political ideologies, liberalism, and things of that kind.

The foxes view the world as a more complex, scattered, intractable and open-ended narrative; with all ideas feeding into a system that leaves questions unanswered, that has subjective expressions appreciated, and that has multiplicity of subsidiary ideas instead of a single defining narrative. If Pascal's observation about 'filling all that lies between' can help us become excellent, then understanding how the fox and hedgehog mentality can be applied will also be of great use.

Now the Hedgehog and Fox illustration is not perfect (see appendix* below) But it does provide a pretty good signpost to a potentially rewarding treasure chest concerning the pursuit of mental excellence. For I believe that if one is to become master of one’s own reasoning, and find the key to enhanced understanding of reality through the various lenses, then one must seek and find expertise in both kinds of thinking. That is to say, the true genius, if he or she is to reach the highest mental attainment, must be a master fox and a master hedgehog. He must do both things well if he is to 'fill all that lies between'. 

He will need to develop the ability to view the world through the lens of a single defining narrative around which all other ideas revolve. That narrative does not have to be one singular driving force at the exclusion of all the rest – it can be a synthesis of singular ideas in conglomerate form – but the most important thing is that it contains the blueprint to produce a framework of the narrative in simple terms, consistent with how reality is.  

He will also need to develop the ability to view the world through the lens of a more complex, scattered, intractable and open-ended narrative, with the multiplicity of subsidiary ideas complementing his singular framework of simplicity. As a consequence, reality for him will be seen in the right way, as being amenable to lots of statements that convey truths about nature and the concomitant human ideas, and how they can be assembled into some fundamental truths that form a singular narrative.

And also it will be seen as being at the same time complex, incomplete, intractable, highly subjective, and equivocally open to interpretation and speculation as the story unfolds and at times remains beyond our scope. Embracing a reality that is a synthesis of these two things is the first step to the highest mental attainment

Two thinkers I admire greatly – William Blake and Soren Kierkegaard – produced works that wonderfully exemplify the kind of thing I mean when I talk of mastering the hedgehog style of thinking. They each had an individual worldview that tended towards love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, the transcendent, and the metaphysical through the singular excellence of mind and imagination, but in a way that puts the divine at the heart of their narrative. Another thinker I admire greatly is William Shakespeare – but I part company with Isaiah Berlin, in that I think Shakespeare exhibits the fox-type of thinking over a rich body of work.

Like Blake and Kierkegaard, Shakespeare constructed a worldview that explored deeply the subjects of love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness, the transcendent, and the metaphysical through the singular excellence of mind and imagination, but he is not easily pinned down to a hedgehog-type discipline, or singular narrative.

His exploration came more from the measure of man and the human ability to use the mind to piece together scattered fragments of ideas and experiences in spite of a fairly open and inclusive narrative. His pain at the uncertainties revealed through the exploration moved him to confront those fragments through the excellence of mind and imagination, which makes him hard to pin down as a hedgehog. 

How you attain your own mental excellence will vary from individual to individual – but as I've said before, if humans work hard to pursue it with honesty and integrity, we should in theory pretty much agree on most things factual.

One of the key skills in conflating the hedgehog and fox mentality is about mentally arranging a lot of diverse data into succinct concepts, while at the same time understanding the complexity that underlies them. For example, the theory of evolution can be succinctly expressed well in a single essay, but it captures a lengthy and intractable timescale that includes fossil records, natural selection, genetic analysis, comparative morphology and the forming of nested hierarchies through illustrations like a phylogenic tree. 

Whether it is Charles Darwin on evolution, Adam Smith on market economies, John Milton on free expression, Albert Einstein on relativity, Thomas Kuhn on the nature of the paradigm, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the natures of rhizomatic theory, or anything that makes up a succinct summary of complex data, the important thing is that one has a method of developing life goals and wisdom on the singular narrative, but at the same time work hard to refine the complexity of data into more tractable and manageable heuristics. Whether you are in business, psychology, science, politics or the teaching industry, and even if your principal interests are philosophical, theological and literary, you are not going to have a competent worldview if you veer too far into one extreme. 

If you are too much of a fox without recourse to hedgehog considerations, your worldview will lack that structured framework that locks your diverse thinking together into a singular narrative. But equally, if you are too much of a hedgehog without recourse to fox considerations, your worldview will be too oversimplified, and too black and white to capture the real diversity of reality, and the kind of pursuits we need to be making.

Of course Pascal's wisdom about "touching both extremes and filling all that lies between” serves to make a good point even better. Here the two extremes are the fox and hedgehog-type thinking, and filling all that lies between involves mastering both, and capturing the vast spectrum that lies between them.

The fox-type genius has broad vision as he perceives the complex interaction of seemingly scattered, unrelated and even inconsistent ideas. He will be a master if he can transcend the limits of the hedgehog and gather a rich nexus of experiential protocols into a worldview built on mental excellence. The hedgehog-type genius can compress the data of that broad vision into a woven fabric of consistently illuminating visions attached to more singular perspectives. 

If they were two people, the hedgehog would need the fox, and the fox would need the hedgehog. The really great thinker is the one who becomes both those people simultaneously; he is someone who masters the fox-mentality with every area the hedgehog could consider his own speciality. He would understand physics, but also the infelicity of human scams like the ones above. 

In Stephen Hawking's case, though, history will forget this, and rightfully remember him for his tremendous contributions to science, in spite of a debilitating illness that would have beaten lesser humans.

The underlying theme behind Isaiah Berlin's essay was to place Tolstoy as the greatest writer because he most aptly incorporated the skills of the Hedgehog and the Fox into his work. Berlin also wanted to show how other distinguished writers largely fell into one camp or the other:

Foxes: Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust

Hedgehogs: Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin and Joyce

Now personally I don't see much merit in demarcating authors in this way - not just because that selection of people omits a whole canon of thinkers worthy of consideration over and above some of those writers (although that is an issue), but primarily because I don't think one can make those kinds of judgements, or that level of simplistic demarcation, without meeting those writers and thinkers in person and getting a lot better sense of how they think by spending time with them.

In other words, an individual’s writing tends to reveal only a limited sample of the full diversity of that individual’s thinking - and such sparse sampling from people like Isaiah Berlin, born after they have died, doesn't capture anything like enough of the essence of the writers in totality. 

I think that’s the big thing that virtually every classifier misses, and something you'll do well to remember - the majority of minds are too diffuse to be easily categorised. They are a morass of hedgehog and fox-type mentality - a bundle of impressions that give the feeling of being some way between complete and incomplete.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ministers Confusing Themselves With Parents

Sometimes I can't believe what I read: this time about government ministers wanting to regulate how long children spend on the Internet. It is not politicians' job to run the country in loco parentis - so even if it is the case that children are spending too much time on the Internet, this area is one for the parents to regulate, and parents only, not the state. But illiberal nannifying aside, I'm not even sure that this is much of a concern in the first place - in fact, the intention may be rather misplaced.

As it happens, I saw one or two pictures doing the rounds in recent weeks, lamenting the fact that kids have forgotten how to go out and play because they are over-consumed by attention to digital devices. I've no doubt there are conditions under which that's true, but I think the narrative that kids are missing out on playing in the woods because of their iPads may be mistaken.

When I was a boy I played out with friends; on the swings and slides; on skateboards, on bikes, even at being ninjas. If I'd grown up with an iPad, and the entire world's knowledge readily available at the touch of a button, the outdoor activities probably would have been less alluring to me.

Don't get me wrong, it can be fun playing outside when you're young - and no child ought to be at a computer for too many hours a day. But I think it is a misjudgement to assume kids are missing out on enjoyment because they are indoors on digital devices rather than outside playing netball or climbing trees.

And surely, if children found more enjoyment playing outside than on their digital devices, they would spend more time outside. Maybe when we were kids we played outside because that's the best we had - and maybe now there are more options, the outside playing time doesn't satisfy quite so much when compared with the alternatives.

It's equally likely to be true that as material progression occurs, attitudes change relative to expectations. A Christmas stocking filled with 1970s presents would disappoint a contemporary child to about the same extent that it would elate a 1940s child. Older people still find satisfaction in listening to the radio and watching scheduled TV programmes with adverts. Younger people have been accustomed to instant downloads whenever they want something.

I like television; I like films; I like reading books; and I like going out - but I find my juices run out on those things quicker than they run out on being on my computer, with its heady mix of writing, debating, surfing and entertainment - and that is probably true for many younger people too. They don't do many of the things their parents did, because they don't have to. And in all likelihood, their children and grandchildren will have ways of entertaining themselves that will make today's iPads and gaming consoles seem quite prosaic in comparison.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Labour Hits Turbo On The Stupid-O-Meter

I've not held back on my criticisms of Labour's madness over the years - but this latest bout of intellectual and empirical insanity truly has to the worst idea they've ever had the gall to float in the public domain. In fact, in terms of political policy, I'm going out on a limb in saying that, from memory, it is probably the worst idea I've ever heard from politicians - equivalent of wanting to fine unicorns for stealing flowers from the bottom of the garden.

The latest hair-brained idea from Labour is to punish firms for not closing gender pay gaps. Apparently, under a Labour government, and driven by shadow equalities buffoon Dawn Butler, firms will have to prove they are taking action to close the pay gap or face a fine.

They will need lots of luck finding such a thing, because if reality ever does kick in they will discover that there is no gender pay gap. It is illegal to pay women less than men for doing the same job. The Equal Pay Act of 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, and then later the further codified Equality Act of 2010 all protect workers from unfair discrimination if their remits are the same.

What does exist is an earnings gap - which is a statistical weighted average based on the life choices men and women make, and the numerous things that comprise the differences in terms of personalities, aspirations, wants and life choices. An earnings gap is precisely what you'd expect to see when men and women are free to make decisions that suit themselves and their families.  

So this is both a non-existent problem, and worse, a non-existent problem that even if it were a problem would not be the fault of employers, much less something for which they should be penalised. In what is turning into a very long list, this is surely the very worst example of half-witted politicians misdiagnosing a problem, and then positing a truly illiberal, wholly asinine solution to it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Theresa May Can't See The Wood Huts For The Tree-Houses

Young people without family wealth are "right to be angry" at not being able to buy a home, says Theresa May. She is right, but alas, she neglects to tell the whole story - the part where successive governments, including hers, have played a huge part in this problem is the real reason prospective home owners should be angry.

Suppose you actually want to help the buyers of a specific product like housing - the last thing you should do is help make it a sellers' market. A sellers’ market is an economic situation that hands advantages to sellers over buyers, and this is the society to which young people have been accustomed.

House owners hope the housing market will be a sellers’ market when the time comes to sell their house, and house buyers hope the housing market will be a buyers' market when they are ready to get on the property ladder.

Governments who advocate strict planning regulations in effect support the state-mandated creation of a sellers' market, while at the same time they kick many prospective buyers' feet away from the first rung of the property ladder.

Basic economics should inform our politicians that if demand is high but supply is restricted, then prices will rise, making housing unaffordable for more people. So long as politicians do not interfere with prices, they will tend to adjust so that the quantities demanded and quantities supplied are more or less in equilibrium.

Theresa May is not stupid - she is expressing phoney outrage while keeping quiet about the fact that bargaining inequalities in the housing marketplace are creating a shortage. Currently the amount of housing demanded by buyers is greater than the amount supplied by providers; and prices will fall only when restrictions are relaxed so that the amount demanded by buyers is equal to or less than the amount supplied by sellers - when there is more of a buyers' market and less of a sellers' market.

The only thing that might provide a little medicine to people's frustration is the laughter they can express when they see the recent appearance of Green Party leader Caroline Lucas on Channel4 News, stating what a bad job the government is doing on the affordability of housing problem. The Green Party no less - which is rather like the Chief Executive of McDonald's appearing on television saying what a bad job Subway is doing on tackling teenage obesity.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

When Tax Is Like Theft & When It Is Not

A friend asked the following question:

"If you don't pay tax you end up in prison. Therefore is tax theft, or is it the price we pay for a civilised society? If it's the price we pay for a civilised society, then it's not one we ever had a say in. Therefore it's a kind of theft, but one we appear to allow to happen to us?"

The best way to answer questions like this, I find, is to reverse the method of questioning somewhat. In asking whether tax is theft, or synonymous with theft, we are actually looking at the properties of something definitely bad and asking whether the other thing shares some or all those properties.  

On top of that, when we consider what is wrong with something, and enquire as to whether the other thing is comparable in terms of wrongness, it is often useful to compare its fundamental principles to other things in society. I will do both those things in this blog post.

The second one first. If at school you deliberately break little Johnny's mum's window, your parents should compensate them. If you break someone's window as an adult, you should compensate them. This has an analogue with some of the negative externality taxes like pollution.

On the other hand, if the local gangster goes round small businesses and obtains money through a protection racket, or if poor Tom takes some of rich Jack's lunch money in the school playground, this doesn't seem so good, even though it is tenuously analogous to how the state treats its citizens.

Apart from in spirit, the local gangster forcing restaurant owners to fund his own lifestyle is not hugely different to how the state forces me through taxation to invest in services I seldom or never use and policies to which I am wholly opposed.

To that end, I'm afraid the properties of taxation do all too often share some of the fundamental properties of theft. If Jack steals Jill's laptop, then Jill is the victim to about the same extent that Jack is a beneficiary. But the wrongness of theft is the moral wrongness that harms society, plus all the other negative spillover effects that I'll come to in a moment.

The wrongness of taxation is that it forces consumers to spend our money on things like establishment pay, layers of bureaucracy, small business subsidies, bailouts and transportation projects that we otherwise would not. To that end, a lot of taxation is a little like theft in terms of the consequences to the consumer, but it more closely resembles a protection racket (but not wholly, as we'll see in a minute).

The other thing that tax and theft have in common is that they both impose value-robbing opportunity costs on society. When Jack designs a mousetrap, or provides a taxi service, or cooks pizzas, he adds value to society. When he steals Jill's laptop, he inflicts all the costs on society that crime imposes, but he also forgoes the opportunity to do something productive.

Taxation has similar opportunity costs. While taxation transfers funds from one place to another, and in a costly way, it doesn't produce very much. There is a small sense in which taxation sustains parts of society (defence, rule of law, and other public goods) that enables others to produce, but there are enormous opportunity costs to taxation that misallocate resources by being out of kilter with supply and demand, and as a consequence rob society of a lot of value.

Taxation and theft also rob society of value by diminishing the number of mutually beneficial transactions that occur, because they both increase the cost of trade, and therefore increase the prices that businesses have to charge. The opportunity costs of taxation and theft are the aggregation of all the forgone opportunities for trade - the mousetraps that don't get made, the taxi rides that never happen, and the pizzas that never get cooked.

Some people struggle with this notion, but it's easy to see its truth by imagining a more extreme example: a country ruled by a greedy dictator who taxes the life out his citizens and allows lawlessness to occur. The costs to the citizens are not just the taxes and the crime - the more acute costs are all the lost productivity and prospective innovations that never materialise because of the taxes and lawlessness.

In summary, then, taxation and theft share many of the same properties - but theft is a bit worse because theft always engenders net costs on society, whereas tax mostly does, but not in every instance.

Every instance where tax goes towards providing something that could, and should, be provided privately, taxation has similar properties to theft. Every instance where tax goes towards providing something, like a public good (defence, rule of law) that is more valuable to society than the cost of the tax gathered, taxation is a lot less like theft - it is more like a compulsory insurance policy that provides societal benefits that would otherwise be more difficult to obtain because of the free rider problem.