Friday, 28 September 2018

The Greed & The Green Confusion

Jeremy Corbyn wants to put an end to the "greed-is-good" culture while at the same time "kick-start a green jobs revolution". These are nice ideas - but like all Corbyn's nice ideas, they are horrendous, and only serve to create a fool's errand.

The 'greed is good' problem
Let's start with greed. The paradox of greed is that at an individual level it is bad for those who are severely afflicted by it, but yet at a collective level it is greed - by which we often don't really mean greed, but aspiration, and the need to live - that drives economic growth and increased prosperity. Given that Corbyn's policies will, without fail, hamper economic growth and retard prosperity, it is a sure thing that any policies he implements to tackle greed will make things worse not better.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that by 2030 we will be working 15-hour weeks. He was on the right lines - leisure time has hugely increased since 1930, but he was a bit too ambitious, as there are no indicators that our current 40 hour working week will drop by that many hours. But why were Keynes' calculations off? There are a few obvious reasons; namely we work 40 hour weeks because we need that amount of work to live, and because many of us enjoy our jobs, and because many people would struggle to fill an additional 25 hours of leisure time per week.

While all that is true, my guess is that there's an even bigger driver of our work patterns - the mongering of status. Sadly, one of the main drivers of our work hours is the need to out-earn and outspend one another. It should be noted that by 'outspend' we don't just mean consumable goods, we mean quality of education, place to live, health care and so on. And of course if you are trying to keep up with the Joneses, and the Joneses are working hard to stay ahead, you are going to have to work as hard to keep up with them - if you care about that sort of thing.

The 'kick-start the green revolution' problem
The problem with this idea is that there aren't really any viable 'green' jobs you can just create that add value because of their creation. Some jobs make things greener, some make things less green, but a state project that tries to artificially create green jobs is effectively subsidising green technology while ignoring all the opportunity costs, and that is a bad idea. Subsidising green jobs is going to have a negative knock-on effect on competition, which will stifle innovation as producers will actually have less of an incentive to innovate and create more environmentally efficient businesses. Moreover, subsidising green technology would simply impose a burden on taxpayers that goes against the grain of market signals and consumer choices.

The best way to kick-start a green revolution is to do as little as possible to interfere in the competitive process that producers are already trying to maximise in the production of new, more efficient 'green' energy technologies as quickly as possible. People don't need much help to do this - it is already written into our DNA, and nature's too (see here for more on this).

Monday, 10 September 2018

Writer's Update: Rubbish Blogger

Hey, I know I've been rubbish at getting blogs out recently, but then at times recently it feels like I've been rubbish at quite a lot of things in my private life too. I'm getting there: and if I owe you an email, a phone call, an invitation round, an Ask The Philosophical Muser reply, or a meet up elsewhere, apologies, I'll get to it.

As for the writing, well that's been highly unproductive of late. If you have a lot on your mind, it's easy to get little done by way of writing. Sometimes I sit there thinking about things and I look up and 2 hours have passed in a flash. I shout to the clock "You must be lying!!" (I don't really, I'm not a madman!!).
But there have been glimmers of progress. What I'm principally working on is tweaking a couple of the knobs on my mathematical bias theory (specifically the ones associated with gravity, entropy and mathematical disorder), and in doing so trying to come up with some analogies that help explain the highly complex stuff in terms that people can relate to more easily. Analogies, as always, don't convey the whole truth - but they serve as beneficial echoes of melodies we are trying to hear.

I've also been adding bits and bobs to my book on love - and it's an extraordinary time to be doing that, as I've arrived at a strange paradox, in that I currently feel I know less about love than at any time in my life previously, yet at the same time, by some weird contradistinction, I feel like I've never understood love better.

If that sounds oddly unlikely, don't be so sure: it's possible that both could be simultaneously true, rather like how Niels Bohr observed that “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” We know repeated instances of this: "My yoke is easy and my burden light, but you must pick up your cross to follow me"; "Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves"; "The more things change the more they stay the same" - you know the kind of thing.

There's a great line by William Somerset Maughan in his short story The Judgement Seat - he says: "I sometimes think that the stars never shine more brightly than when reflected in the muddy waters of a wayside ditch." What he means, I think, is that when the decorative trappings of the good things in life are blocked out, we get to see something profound and deep about reality even more clearly - that, rather like with Emerson in his "In the woods, we return to reason and faith" sentiment, leads us outside of ourselves into something beyond this world.

I'm also trying to capture in the book on love the intimations in John 12:24, about how a thing doesn't truly live until it dies. Bound up in this is this notion of things changing by staying the same. Watch a river flow, or snow falling, or a fire burning, and you'll notice that very little appears to be changing, while at the same time, the whole experience is nested in continuous changing states. So that will be the next chapter in the book on love - the more things change the more they stay the same.

Right, on that note, I must crack on.  

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Simpson's Paradox: When Things Seem Like Unfair Bias But Are Actually Not.

I remember once reading about a supposed bias in the University of California, Berkeley where they were sued for bias against women who had applied for admission to graduate schools there. The admission figures showed that men applying were more likely than women to be admitted, and the difference was thought to be large enough to infer unfair discrimination:

Applicants  Admitted   

Men       8442  44%  

Women  4321  35%  

But the strange part about it was that when examining the individual departments, it transpired that no department was significantly biased against women - in fact, most departments had a small but statistically significant bias in favour of women. Here is the data from the six largest departments:

Department           Men                                Women

                Applicants  Admitted      Applicants  Admitted   

A                         825   62%                         108   82%  

B                         560   63%                          25    68%  

C                         325   37%                          593   34%  

D                         417   33%                          375   35%  

E                         191   28%                          393   24%  

F                          373   6%                           341   7%   

Given the foregoing statistics, how can it be the case that women tended to do better than men in individual cases but worse overall? What was discovered was that women tended to apply to competitive departments with low rates of admission even among qualified applicants, whereas men tended to apply to less-competitive departments with high rates of admission among the qualified applicants. This can skew the overall picture to look like discrimination when, in fact, it is nothing of the sort.

This is what is referred to in economics as Simpson’s Paradox (which isn’t really a paradox, as I’ll show), after the statistician Edward H. Simpson. What it’s actually to do with is misleading impressions based on percentages and ratios, which can confound expectations. Suppose Jack and Jill are applying for courses at a college over a two week period. In the first week Jill gets accepted into 0 of 3 colleges and Jack gets accepted into 1 of 7. In the second week Jill gets accepted into 5 of the 7 colleges and Jack gets accepted into 3 of 3. Here are their results:

        Week 1      Week 2      Total

Jill       0/3               5/7         5/10 

Jack    1/7               3/3         4/10 

Both times Jack brought about a higher percentage of college acceptances than Jill, but the actual number of colleges into which each was accepted was not the same each week. From an equal sample size, Jill’s ratio is higher and, therefore, so is her overall percentage. It only appears like a paradox when the percentage is provided in isolation from the percentage and the ratio. Based only on percentages, Jack’s is higher than Jill’s on both weeks (14.2% and 100% compared with Jill’s 0% and 71%) even though over 2 weeks Jill’s proportion of college successes is higher. The fact that Jack can be better in each week but worse over 2 weeks is a good underlying principle that’s often repeated in many of the bogus claims of unfair discrimination we see - especially when important causal relations are omitted.