Thursday, 21 March 2019

When The Fantasy Brexit Is Better Than The Real Brexit Options


To me, the Brexit negotiations are a bit like a group of vegetarians and a group of vegans arguing about how to make the best beef burger - they don't really believe in the cause for which they are fighting.

Let's play a pretend game: if we were to take out all the politics, the corruption, the self-serving manoeuvres of bureaucrats, and the perverse incentives to stop other countries also leaving the EU, and pretend that the outcome of Brexit could be solely based on sound economics for the benefit of as many people in the world as possible, then Britain would be better to have a bespoke arrangement to stay in the EU single market (because it’s best to preserve the free movement within the EU of goods, services, labour and capital), and leave the EU customs union while at the same time enjoying a bespoke deal that confers all the trade advantages of being in it, and at the same time all the advantages of not being entirely under its regulatory thrall with regard to the rest of the world.

And once you understand why that is true in this pretend game, you see that it points to a bigger argument in the real world about trade: wherever they are in the world, all countries should trade without tariffs, and as freely as possible without the deadweight losses incurred from excessive political interference.

The EU customs union is a trade bloc agreement to abolish tariffs and quotas between EU member nations, in order to encourage free movement of goods, services, labour and capital, while adopting a common external tarif on non-EU countries. The customs union is based on the problem of having a tariff free trade bloc and a different attitude to those outside it. If Britain had zero tariffs on Japanese cars, but Germany had a 10% tariff, then Japanese cars are better going to Germany via the UK, which adds layers of additional complexity to trade relationships, as does every other likewise situation.

If all tariffs are removed across the world, then there would be a huge gain for every domestic nation - free trade would eliminate billions of pounds of deadweight costs in global trade negotiations, all of which is picked up by taxpayers in countries across the world.

One of the reasons politicians have become so powerful in the global economy is because the project began with conditions under which many countries had different rules on quality control, product safety and environmental standards - meaning there was no common, all-encapsulating set of rules that could govern trade across the world.

If everyone understood that a) global free trade is the most desired economic goal, and b) that that would happen most optimally with a multilateral, fairly common set of standards for quality control, product safety and environmental standards, then every country would have done their best to achieve this much sooner than now. It would have started domestically, whereby effective regulations ensure that businesses meet the standards required for consumers, and would then be applied across the global marketplace, under the assurance that if a business operates within its own domestic laws and regulations, it operates within a globalised system of commerce too.

But alas, in the real world, thanks to the plethora of unnecessary political interferences, this doesn't happen particularly well at all. Coming up against this more economically-friendly model is the reality that countries are governed by self-serving politicians, eager to protect their careers, fatten their wallets, increase their power, and preserve their status at the expense of the people from whom they confiscate earnings.

A global trade environment that worked best for everyone would no longer work best for the bureaucrats that have their ever-wealthier fingers in the pie - it would mean less tax for the state, reduced control over competition, and less special-protection for their domestic businesses. Even though the citizens of their country would be immeasurably better off, the political establishment would not - they would no longer reap the rewards of their crony capitalist agreements with domestic firms who can’t compete with more efficient foreign competition, or personally benefit from the self-serving legislative measures designed to keep money flowing into their country, and from the spoils creamed off from customs taxes that pay for their lifestyle.

One of the near-insuperable laws of economics is that when people who are not creating any wealth are getting paid to impede the progress of those who are, there is something that badly needs addressing.

EDIT TO ADD: I mean, basically, the Establishment never thought for a moment that Remain wouldn't win - they thought that Leavers were just 5 or 6 million older people scattered around coastal towns, nostalgic for the days of 1960s Britain. When they heard the result, they pretty much said something like:

"Crikey, we are in big trouble now, and we can't let this Brexit scenario happen! Here's the plan to thwart it- during the lengthy 2-3 year negotiations, we'll construct countless subsidiary arguments about hard and soft Brexit, different types of hard and soft Brexit within those subsets, etc, and turn everything into a squabbling morass of indecision and ambiguity, until the majority of the population is a tiny bit satisfied with some of it, but mostly unsatisfied with the rest of it. And then we'll make out that it's such a mess that the only way to resolve it is to take it back to the people, by which time, a lot of those old xenophobes in Great Yarmouth and Lincoln will have died, and a lot more young neo-Marxist children will have come to voting age, so we'll be able to stay in the EU by then, and when we get excoriated by the centre-right, we'll be able to refer to the 'will of the British people' in both referendum 1 and referendum 2."

Whether they pull it off remains to be seen - but that was the Establishment's plan - and it was set in place from pretty much the day after the 23rd June 2016.

 
 
 

 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Knight’s Back Of The Envelope Philosophy: The Whole Of Epistemology In 400 Words


Make any statement about reality and it will be incomplete in some way. If it is a statement that you can prove with logic or mathematics then it falls short of describing anything conclusive about any reality outside of mathematics or logic; if it is a statement about physical reality then it falls short of anything that can be conclusively proven to apply in all cases (in the black swan sense); if it is a statement of fact then it cannot be established by logic or by reason prior to initial experience; if it is a logical proposition then its subject/predicate content must be verified outside of the proposition; if it is an allusion to an inner concept then it is not knowledge (justified true belief) of the perceivable world; if it is an allusion to an inner perception of outside reality then it escapes your certainty; and if it is a statement about a metaphysical interpretation then in its proprietary form it is entirely subjective.

Everything is derived from experience (this is the basis of Hume’s fork – everything is classified as either Relations of ideas and Matters of fact), but in distinct ways: a priori is knowable without having to consult experience, except initially to understand the terms (“all bachelors are male”); a posteriori is only knowable by consulting experience (“London has a higher population than Birmingham”); analytic statements (A is A) are true by virtue of the meaning of the terms, synthetic statements (A is B) are true by virtue of meanings in relation to facts; physical statements are in relation to the material world (“the chair has four legs”), metaphysical statements are subjective ideas formed as a result of relation to the objective world (“Love and grace triumphs justice and revenge”); and necessity and contingency are related to whether or not a statement is conditioned by how the world happens to be. 

Relations of ideas and Matters of fact describe everything, including all the notions like a priori and a posteriori, necessity and contingency, the physical and the metaphysical and the analytic and synthetic distinctions – they are part of our matters of fact derived through experience, and our relations of ideas that result from that experience.
 
Every possible distinct description of experience is covered above, because everything is either a fact (an impression) derived from experience, or a relation of ideas based on those impressions from experience.


 


Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Strange Thing About Good & Evil


Good and Evil both exist - in fact, they seem to me to exist in a more concrete way than anything that science measures. The reality of good and evil is so instantiated in truth that a universe in which one of the laws of physics suddenly became radically different would be far less strange to sentient minds than a universe in which good and evil no longer exist. In fact, it seems impossible to have sentience without value judgements - and it seems impossible to have value judgements without the up and running concepts of an extreme upper end (maxima) and an extreme lower end (minima), where one is an ideal we have no chance of attaining, and the other is a nadir from which we should stay as far away as humanly possible. 

But what's really interesting about those concepts, for me, is that the more broader and abstract they become, the more real they appear to be, and the more the propositions about them seem evidently true. When you speak of historical passages of evil, like Nazi Germany or ISIS in the Middle East, the evil attributed to them is an abstraction - it's as though the evil that pervades in those events is a much bigger thing than the narrower particularities of the events. They seem 'possessed' by evil, perhaps rather like how William Burroughs talked about 'genius' as being something we are possessed by, not something inside us implicit in the individual (although in a sense, it's possibly also that, because creativity is heritable).

The more you break those historical catastrophes down to their constituent parts, and the grainier those parts become, the more you diminish the overall intensity of 'evil', to the point that it's very hard to ascribe the notion of evil to any individual person - and even harder still once you drill down into the inner-humanity of that person, and the shared suffering and tragedy that's a central part of the human condition.
 
Even the people thought to be the poster boys of evil - Adolf Hitler, Jozef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ian Brady, Charles Manson - were all damaged by their surroundings, plagued by their insecurities, and corrupted by the seduction of having power over others. Peel off the layers, and you don't find anything as substantial as evil - you find really bad choices, failure, regret, circumscribing defects, psychological torment, and a wounded psyche that hates and fears its surroundings, and turns inwardly towards a parochial rejection of truth and goodness.
 
And here's the other thing: each and every one of the people that the sententious subsections of society deem as 'evil' and 'beyond the pale' can be redeemed - they can love by being loved; they can be liberated from their plight by sorrow and regret; and by being forgiven they can be restored, as though a big blanket of goodness has been thrown onto their fire of torment. Restoration is possible because Good and Evil are bigger things than individual properties of personhood.  

Good and Evil seem to me to be too metaphysically overwhelming to be reducible to mere individual traits or personality properties. Their nature in the reality we know constitutes a fundamental reality in the nature we know - it really is as profound as that. Because of that, we humans are so much more amazing than we realise, and so much worse than we realise - and that is the duality of the human condition, played out sublimely where individual identity is perceived as a weighted average of all our thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions.

Monday, 4 March 2019

How Economics Can Solve The Supernatural Problem


If there’s a problem that’s hard to solve, economics usually provides the best chance of solving it. How would economics help solve the problem of whether the supernatural exists? Here’s a good way to think of the problem. Imagine two alternative realities - a reality in which the supernatural does not exist (Reality 1), and a reality in which the supernatural exists (Reality 2). Think what it would be like to live in each of these two realities, and then think what it’s like to live in the reality of today (Reality Now) that we currently experience. Here are the three realities:

Reality 1 - The supernatural does not exist:

Reality 2 - The supernatural exists:

Reality Now - The reality of today we know:

What we know of today’s reality (Reality Now) is that a huge proportion of all the people who’ve ever lived believe the supernatural does exist. The world is full of claims of supernatural experiences: miracles, healings, communications with God, answers to prayer, ghosts, prognostications, and countless other testimonies of where people report a relationship with God as evidence that goes beyond natural explanation. Not all these claims are credible, but whichever way we cut the cloth, human history is absolutely replete with belief in the supernatural - and people 'really' believe this stuff in a way that radically changes their life like nothing else in creation.

Given the foregoing, how, then, do we try to determine whether Reality Now is consistent with Reality 1 or Reality 2? An economist method would be to imagine what a Reality 1 and a Reality 2 would be like if it did exist, and see which Reality seems most like Reality Now. First off, then, what would a Reality 1 look like if it did exist - a world in which the supernatural does not exist? I do not believe that it would look anything like the Reality Now in which we live. If there was no such thing as the supernatural, I feel fairly sure that we would not live in a world like this, where claims of supernatural experience and insight have been so prominent throughout history that they have this kind of overwhelming impact on our lives.

If Reality 1 is the real reality then it is not self-evident to me that the concept of the supernatural would have been invented at all. Here's why; I know of no other type of human invention that creates a metaphysical reality that isn’t true and then confuses that invention with actual reality. It’s true that humans are immensely creative with the truth when it comes to art and literature and poetry and film, but no one is confusing the reality embedded in those disciplines with an actual reality they think exists but doesn’t really.

It’s also true that people get confused a lot about empirical matters, especially in politics and economics - but we can’t count that as being anything like the same thing, because it merely creates a metaphysical reality that isn’t true and then confuses that invention with actual reality. These errors are actually cases of poor reasoning and being unapprised of facts, and are easily corrected with fewer emotional biases, better arguments and improved reasoning.

Next, what would a Reality 2 look like if it did exist - a world in which the supernatural does exist? I think it would look exactly like the world in which we currently live, where claims of supernatural experience and insight have been so prominent throughout history that they have this kind of overwhelming impact on our lives.

I think it is only by virtue of the supernatural existing that we would have such a world in which it is so prominent. We simply do not make up a new reality that prominent, that influential and that life-changing and confuse it with the truth. There is nothing else in human existence that's even on the same playing field as the significance of the supernatural in our lives.

And if the supernatural is true, you would expect it to consist of an indefinite number of human claims where a small fraction of them are based on the truth, and most of them are either flatly false, or misleading distortions of the truth*. Because that is what Reality Now is like. There are uncountable ways to be wrong, and far fewer ways to be right - but like everything else, the mass falsehoods and the ubiquitous delusions exist, not because everything is false, but because almost everything is false, and the most important things are true.

If Reality 1 was the real reality, there would be no supernatural claims - possibly ever (it may not have ever been invented, although it's possible it might have) - and certainly not anymore, as any claims from the ancients that bore no resemblance at all to the truth would have died out before we ever got to find out they existed. Even with my economist hat on, it is infinitely likely that the supernatural exists.

* Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14
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