Month: October 2009

Landsburg Is Half-Right

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God does not play dice with the universe. — Albert Einstein

Einstein, stop telling God what to do. — Niels Bohr

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In a post at The Big Questions blog, Steven Landsburg writes:

Richard Dawkins . . . [has] got this God thing all wrong. Here’s some of his latest, from the Wall Street Journal:

Where does [Darwinian evolution] leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must be at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

But Darwinian evolution can’t replace God, because Darwinian evolution (at best) explains life, and explaining life was never the hard part. The Big Question is not: Why is there life? The Big Question is: Why is there anything?

So far, so good. But Landsburg doesn’t quit when he’s ahead:

Ah, says, Dawkins, but there’s no role for God there either:

Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings

That, however, is just wrong. It is not true that all complex things emerge by gradual degrees from simpler beginnings. In fact, the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings. . . .

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t. That allows the natural numbers to exist with no antecedents at all. . . .

What breathtaking displays of arrogance. Dawkins presumes that the only kind of intelligence that can exist is the kind that comes about through evolution. Landsburg wishes us to believe that complex things can exist on their own, without antecedents, which is why there is no God. (He fudges by saying “God is unnecessary” but we know what he really believes, don’t we?)

Landsburg’s “proof” of the non-existence of God is the existence of natural numbers, a “system [that] did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.” Landsburg’s assertion about natural numbers (and the laws of arithmetic) is true only if numbers exist independently of human thought, that is, if they are ideal Platonic forms. But where do ideal Platonic forms come from? And if some complex things don’t require antecedents, how does that rule out the existence of God — who, by definition, embodies all complexity?

Related posts:
Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
Evolution and Religion
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
The Universe . . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery

More about Paternalism

To complement my earlier post, “Beware of Libertarian Paternalists,” I offer the following links:

Pitfalls of Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

Hayek on the Use of Superior Expert Knowledge as a Justification for Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

Little Brother Is Watching You: The New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part I (Glen Whitman, Agoraphilia)

Be sure to read the posts and articles linked therein.

Our Sacred Honor?

In “Sizing Up Obama,” I wrote:

On the one hand, we have FDR II, replete with schemes for managing our lives and fortunes.

On the other hand, we have Carter-Clinton II, ready to: kowtow to those who would bury us, create the illusion that peace will reign perforce, and act on that illusion by slashing the defense budget (thereby giving aid and comfort to our enemies).

I have said a lot more about Obama’s schemes for managing our lives and fortunes. (See this, this, this, this, this, and this.) I also have addressed Obama’s apparent willingness to compromise our sacred honor. But it is clear that I have been preoccupied with Obama’s economic agenda, to the neglect of his foreign follies.

While the war in Iraq winds down to a successful conclusion, and the outcome of the war in Afghanistan depends on Obama’s willingness to buck the surrender lobby (of which Obama is a leading member), there is the problem of Iran:

The price of a pre-emptive attack on Iran might be high, but the price of inaction will be even higher. Legitimate U.S. interests in the Middle East (i.e., access to oil) will be threatened by a regime that has proceeded thus far in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to be fazed by more sanctions. The economic hardships caused by the “oil shocks” of the 1970s will be as nothing compared with the hardships caused by Iranian dominance of the Middle East.

Where will Western Europe, Russia, and China be in our hour of need? Western Europe will be busy emulating Vichy France, in the hope that its obseqiousness toward Iran is rewarded by dribbles of oil. Russia and China will actively support Iran (covertly if not overtly), in the expectation of profiting from higher prices on the oil they sell to Western Europe and the United States. Eventually, Russia and China will exploit the inevitable decline of American military power, as our defense budget disappears into the maw of Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other misbegotten ventures.

What has happened since I wrote those words on September 26? Just about what you would expect. Here is Charles Krauthammer, writing on October 16:

And what’s come from Obama’s single most dramatic foreign-policy stroke — the sudden abrogation of missile-defense arrangements with Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia had virulently opposed? . . .

. . . Surely we got something in return for selling out our friends. Some brilliant secret trade-off to get strong Russian support for stopping Iran from going nuclear before it’s too late? . . .

. . . Well, Clinton went to Moscow this week to nail down the deal. What did she get?

“Russia Not Budging on Iran Sanctions: Clinton Unable to Sway Counterpart.” Such was the Washington Post headline’s succinct summary of the debacle.

Note how thoroughly Clinton was rebuffed. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared that “threats, sanctions, and threats of pressure” are “counterproductive.” Note: It’s not just sanctions that are worse than useless, but even the threat of mere pressure.

It gets worse. Having failed to get any movement from the Russians, Clinton herself moved — to accommodate the Russian position! Sanctions? What sanctions? “We are not at that point yet,” she averred. “That is not a conclusion we have reached. . . . It is our preference that Iran work with the international community.”

But wait a minute. Didn’t Obama say in July that Iran had to show compliance by the G-20 summit in late September? And when that deadline passed, did he not then warn Iran that it would face “sanctions that have bite” and that it would have to take “a new course or face consequences”?

Gone with the wind. It’s the U.S. that’s now retreating from its already flimsy position of just three weeks ago. We’re not doing sanctions now, you see. We’re back to engagement. Just as the Russians suggest.

Henry Kissinger once said that the main job of Anatoly Dobrynin, the perennial Soviet ambassador to Washington, was to tell the Kremlin leadership that whenever they received a proposal from the United States that appeared disadvantageous to the United States, not to assume it was a trick.

No need for a Dobrynin today. The Russian leadership, hardly believing its luck, needs no interpreter to understand that when the Obama team clownishly rushes in bearing gifts and “reset” buttons, there is nothing ulterior, diabolical, clever, or even serious behind it. It is amateurishness, wrapped in naïveté, inside credulity. In short, the very stuff of Nobels.

And so it goes, in the Orwellian world of Obama, where a temporary illusion of peace is attained through accommodation and surrender.

Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It

Congress and Obama will deliver unto us:

  • an entitlement program that promises “free” or “inexpensive” access to drugs and medical services;
  • higher prices for drugs and medical services, fueled by greater demand (thanks to the entitlement program) and shrinking supply (as more providers decline to accept government-set fees and red tape); and, therefore,
  • more expensive, and rationed, medical care.

The unthinkable alternative — and the only workable one — is to stimulate supply by deregulating the medical professions and the pharmaceutical industry.

In short, Obamacare will not work, unless government (a) nationalizes the drug industry and the medical professions and (b) drafts individuals into the medical professions, Soviet-style. Neither event is unimaginable, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which  politicians have embraced the nationalization and regimentation of American financial institutions.

Of course, to suggest that Obamacare could be made to work through nationalization and regimentation is to suggest that nothing works unless it is run from Washington. That is precisely the belief held by Obama, most members of Congress, and far too many Americans.

UPDATE: Nationalization and regimentation will not take place immediately upon the enactment of Obamacare, but in response to its obvious objective: Drive private insurers out of business so that government is “forced” to step in, assume the role of the “single payer,” and effectively ration the delivery of prescription drugs and medical services. For an analysis of the slippery-slope mechanisms by which this will happen, see Mario Rizzo’s “Fast Track to the Single Payer.”

UPDATE 2: The chief actuary of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services confirms that Obamacare will drive costs up, not down.

Related posts:
Fear of the Free Market — Part I
Fear of the Free Market — Part II
Fear of the Free Market — Part III
Rationing and Health Care
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
More about the Perils of Obamacare

Beware the Rare Event

Carl Bialik, “The Numbers Guy” at The Wall Street Journal, notes that

a 1-in-5.2 million shot came through in Bulgaria, as the same six winning numbers turned up in two consecutive drawings. And 18 Bulgarians profited by betting on recent history: They chose the winning combination of numbers from the drawing four days earlier — which hadn’t been selected by anyone the first time around — and split the pot.

The coincidence drew international news coverage and sparked a probe by a government-appointed commission. Bulgarian officials ultimately chalked it up to coincidence. . . .

The general principle . . . is that this would have happened eventually. There are lotteries in dozens of countries, and multiple ones within countries — scores in the U.S. alone. Many of these lotteries have had multiple drawings each week for decades. If there have been, say, a million lottery drawings, then a coincidence as unlikely as this one becomes more of a 1-in-5 yawn. That still means that any one player’s chances of winning the lottery are close to zero.

In short, regardless of less-than-amazing coincidences, it is a rare event to hold the winning number in a lottery.

People are drawn to coincidences of the kind described by Bialik
because the coincidences are rare events, as are celebrity scandals (as opposed to the relatively stable marriages of “ordinary” people), aircraft accidents that take 200 lives (as opposed to myriad uneventful flights), the acts of murderers and other violent criminals (as opposed to the relatively civilized behavior of most people), and so on.

A problem with rare events — “outliers” in the terminology of operations research — is that, despite their rarity, they attract a disproportionate share of public and political attention. They skew our perceptions of normality. A rare but notorious tragedy usually is followed by calls for government to “do something” to prevent future tragedies of similar kinds.

Consider, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). All three agencies were established in 1970-72, in the wave of fear-mongering that followed the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. All three agencies were inspired by the occurrence of relatively rare events. And those occurrences had been in decline long before the establishment of NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC.

I introduce in evidence Figures 1 and 2 of “Safety at Any Price?” by W. Kip Viscusi and Ted Gary (Regulation, Fall 2002, pp. 54-63), which indicate that unintentional injury deaths in the United States had been falling steadily, long before the advent of NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC.* In 1928, the first year treated by the authors, the annual rate of unintentional injury deaths arising from accidents of all kinds was only about 80 per 100,000 persons; that is, about 8/100 of 1 percent of the population died of unintentionally inflicted injuries.  By 1960, the rate was only about 5/100 of 1 percent of the population, and by 1990 it was down to 3.5/100 of 1 percent of the population, where it has leveled off.

In other words, the incidence of fatal accidents declined faster before the establishment of NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC than it has since. NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC have had no demonstrable effect on the incidence of fatal accidents. Why? Because human beings tend to act responsibly, for the sake of self-preservation. When, on rare occasions, they fail to act responsibly — or their machinery fails them — they can be counted on to learn from their misfortunes and the misfortunes of others. And there is nothing new about learning from experience and applying that learning to improve our material possessions. Just ask a caveman.

What, then, is the role of NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC? They are like cheerleaders who claim credit for their team’s victories because they cavort on the sidelines for the entertainment of the crowd. Cheerleaders notwithstanding, the team generally does what it was going to do, anyway, except when a cheerleader gets too close to the action and obstructs it. Sometimes a cheerleader’s obstruction accidentally benefits the cheerleader’s team; other times, it hurts the cheerleader’s team. There are three main differences between NHTSA, OSHA, and CPSC and cheerleaders. Cheerleaders (a) aren’t supposed to interfere with the players (and rarely do); (b) they provide their services relatively cheaply or free of charge; and (c) they are more attractive than most bureaucrats.

The occurrence of a rare event should be an occasion for noting that it is a rare event. It should not be an occasion for the creation of a costly, intrusive, and essentially ineffective regulatory agency or a sheaf of misguided regulations.


* Figure 1 seems to show a general rise in the rate of deaths from motor vehicle accidents between 1945 and 1975. That increase  is explained by the growing use of automobiles. As shown in Figure 2 of the Viscusi-Gayer article, death rates per vehicle and per vehicle-mile had been dropping steadily until 1960, when those rates rose slightly for a few years before continuing to decline. For more about the long-term trend in deaths from motor-vehicle accidents, see this post, which also includes a discussion of the Peltzman effect: “the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation.” There is more evidence for the Peltzman effect in this article.

More about the Perils of Obamacare

This is an addendum to “The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare.”

If you believe that Obamacare is a good idea, read Megan McArdle’s “Controlling Healthcare Costs the American Way: Not Doing It,” Peter Suderman’s “The Lessons of State Health-Care Reforms,” and Mark Perry’s “Cost of Health Care Legislation: $829B? Not Likely.”

If you then still believe in the wisdom of Obamacare, perhaps you would like to buy a piece of land here.

My Nobel Prize

I awoke this morning to the news that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize for the Suppression of Blogospheric Bloviation. Needless to say, the award would not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of the millions of blogospheric bloviators who preceded me.

As for my humble efforts to suppress blogospheric bloviation, the Nobel Committee’s citation reads as follows:

Politics & Prosperity is a blog of some eight months’ standing, with no record of accomplishment in the world of politics. It stands as a feeble symbol of libertarian enlightenment in a blogosphere dominated by the voices of statism. We therefore recognize the author of Politics & Prosperity for his naïve belief that his writings will have the slightest salutary influence on the strident tone of blogospheric discourse.

I have released the following statement to the media:

I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee.  Let me be clear:  I do not view it as a recognition of my accomplishments, which are nil, but rather as an affirmation of my foolish belief in the possibility of suppressing blogospheric bloviation.

I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that all non-bloggers want to build — a world that gives life to the promise of the internet to sweep away ugly reality and replace it with an imaginary world of perfection. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action — a call for all bloggers to cease their partisan bickering and bow to my superior wisdom on subjects of which I have no knowledge.

We cannot tolerate a world in which blogospheric bloviation engulfs the internet and intrudes on healthier occupations, such as watching reality TV and getting blitzed every Saturday night.  And that’s why I’ve begun to take concrete steps to pursue a world without blogospheric bloviation, because all people have the right to think, but not all people have the right to share their thoughts with millions of innocent readers.

We cannot accept the growing threat posed by blogospheric bloviation, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children — sowing conflict and confusion; destroying friendships and emptying minds.  And that’s why all nations must now accept their share of responsibility for transforming the blogosphere.

We bloggers can’t allow our ideological differences to define the way that we see one another, even though those differences often are fundamental. It is our obligation to pretend that we all love and admire one another, even though most bloggers (especially those on the left) are dangerous ignoramuses.

We can’t accept a blogosphere in which some bloggers thrive while others are neglected. That is why I have made it my goal to ensure that all blog readers are programmed to carry only my blog instead of the blogs requested by subscribers. I understand that such a policy would violate deep constitutional principles, but what the hell. When you want something badly, you don’t let such niceties stand in the way.

The challenge confronting us will not be completed during my time as a blogger.  But I know the challenge can be met because, sooner or later, a wise Latina judge will say “screw the Constitution, suppress bloviation.”

And that’s why this award must be shared with everyone who strives for calmness in the blogosphere — all five of you, wherever you  are.

Thank you very much.

P.S. I have asked the International Olympic Committee to reject summarily any application from the city of Austin, Texas, to host games. Austin is vastly over-rated — especially by its smug “leaders,” who believe that progress consists of ugly high-rises, congested roads (which are narrowed by little-used bicycle lanes, and often closed for public extravaganzas), and tax breaks for commercial enterprises at the expense of residential property owners. (Contrary to the party line in Austin, it is not the live music capital of the world.) The last thing the over-taxed, silent majority of Austin needs is another disruptive, expensive tribute to the city’s supposed wonderfulness. Rio’s loss is Chicago’s gain.

(The main portion of the “release” is adapted from Obama’s remarks on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The P.S. is inspired by his chauvinistic advancement of Chicago’s application to host the 2016 summer games. The timing of Obama’s Nobel Prize suggests that it was a consolation prize for Chicago’s “loss” to Rio de Janeiro.)

The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective

The death earlier this year of former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara caused me to reflect on my brief time as a “whiz kid” in McNamara’s Systems Analysis office. SA was run by assistant secretary of defense Alain Enthoven, a quintessential whiz kid who was only 30 when he began his eight-year reign as the Pentagon’s “doubting Thomas.”

My own days as a minor whiz kid ran from July 1967 to March 1969, that is, from late in McNamara’s regime (January 21, 1961 – February 29, 1968), through the interregnum of Clark Clifford (March 1, 1968 – January 20, 1969), and into the early months of Nixon’s appointee, Melvin Laird (January 22, 1969 – January 29, 1973). SA’s influence dwindled sharply upon McNamara’s departure from the Pentagon, but SA had been very powerful until then, for three reasons.

First, of course, SA was a key ingredient of McNamara’s management
“revolution,” which came straight from the playbook of RAND — the Air Force’s influential think-tank. McNamara recruited Charles Hitch from RAND to serve as comptroller of the Department of Defense. Hitch — a leading proponent of the use of planning, programming, and budgeting systems (PPBS) and co-author of the “bible” of systems analysis, The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age — brought with him Alain Enthoven, who began as deputy assistant aecretary of defense for systems analysis in 1961 and was elevated to assistant secretary of defense for SA in 1965. (For a recounting of McNamara’s love affair with RAND-ites and their techniques, see “Early RAND and the McNamara Revolution,” which begins on p. 4 of the RAND Review, Fall 1998. A Time magazine piece from 1962 about McNamara’s “whiz kids” profiles five top McNamara aides, including two RAND-ites, Enthoven and Henry Rowen.)

A second, closely related reason for SA’s power was its central position in McNamara’s decision process. SA exercised its power mainly through the so-called draft presidential memorandum (DPM). DPMs, which originated in SA, took the form of lengthy memos from the secretary of defense to the president, none of which — as far as I know — actually went to the president. DPMs were, in fact, vehicles for obtaining and recording McNamara’s decisions on major program issues. Each DPM treated a broad set of issues (e.g., force structure, force mix, manning levels, major procurement programs) in a particular mission area (e.g., strategic forces; tactical air forces, naval forces, and land forces). For each of the dozen or so issues addressed in a DPM (e.g., the number and mix of amphibious ships), the responsible SA analyst(s) would (in about a page) summarize the sponsoring service’s proposed program and the analytical basis for the service’s position, criticize the service’s analysis (usually by focusing on critical but debatable assumptions and the inevitable uncertainty of cost estimates), briefly discuss alternatives (almost always less ambitious and expensive than the service’s proposal), recommend one of them, and give a tabular comparison of the alternatives, using simple figures of merit chosen for the purpose of making the recommended alternative look good. (We called it “tablesmanship.”) The coup de grace often would be a “clinching” reason for approving SA’s recommended (less-expensive) alternative (e.g., the unlikelihood of another amphibious assault on the scale of the landing at Inchon, given the location of approved planning scenarios). DPMs would be sent to the services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for comment. After some back and forth, decision versions would go up to McNamara, who almost always chose the alternatives recommended by SA.

In sum, we SA civilians played “gotcha.” We did it because we were encouraged to do it, though not in so many words. And we got away with it, not because we were better analysts — most of our work was simplistic stuff — but because we usually had the last word. (Only an impassioned personal intercession by a service chief might persuade McNamara to go against SA — and the key word is “might.”) The irony of the whole process was that McNamara, in effect, substituted “civilian judgment” for oft-scorned “military judgment.” McNamara revealed his preference for “civilian judgment” by elevating Enthoven and SA a level in the hierarchy, 1965, even though (or perhaps because) the services and JCS had been open in their disdain of SA and its snotty young civilians.

A third reason for SA’s power, and its ability to play “gotcha,” was the essential lack of structure in the Department of Defense’s PPBS. For all of the formality and supposed rigor of the system, it lacked an essential ingredient: budget constraints against which the services could submit realistic program proposals. Budget constraints had existed de facto under Eisenhower and were to exist de jure under Nixon. In fact, Melvin Laird introduced a decision process built around fiscal constraints soon after taking office, on the recommendation of a former subordinate of Enthoven’s who stayed on as acting assistant secretary for about a year into Laird’s regime.

In any event, because McNamara didn’t give the services budget targets, the services were effectively encouraged to ask for a lot more than they could get. That incentive was reinforced by the reorientation of the defense program toward “flexible response” in the 1960s. Each service, naturally, sought a piece of the new action, and — lacking fiscal guidance — each of them did the sensible thing by asking for a lot more than it was likely to get. Under such a system, SA was bound to look good, and SA analysts were bound to make the services look bad by playing “gotcha.” It turns out that I didn’t have the stomach for it, which is why I left SA after 20 increasingly depressing months.

And that brings me to the players and their “tone.” What did the SA staff look like?

- There were a lot of youngish civilians, like me, who were bereft of military service and may never have seen a military unit or military equipment, except in a parade. Many of the young civilians had Harvard MBAs, and they were notorious, even within SA, for their brashness and rudeness.

- There was a smaller cadre of lightly less-young civilians, imported from other parts of DoD and the defense industry. Their SA experience lent them a certain cachet that they could trade on for advancement in government and industry.

- There were many junior officers with ROTC commissions who had deferred their active service to pursue graduate degrees. Because of those degrees, they were snatched up by SA instead of being sent to Vietnam. They were really civilians, at heart, who happened to carry military ranks.

- Most of the major components of SA had one or two “service reps” — senior officers nominated by the services. Some of them were dead-enders with nothing to lose (which worked against their sponsoring services). Others (notably the Navy reps) were rising stars who (a) tried to keep SA “honest” and (b) kept their sponsoring services informed of what SA was up to.

- The higher echelons were populated by “seasoned” civilians, with military analysis experience at places like RAND and the aerospace industry. One such senior civilian exemplified the tone of SA. He wrote a white paper in which he discussed (among other things) the role of amphibious forces in defense strategy. In the course of that discussion, he pointedly and sneeringly referred to amphibious forces as “ambiguous forces.”

In my 20 months at the Pentagon, I came to understand the essential difference between Systems Analysis, as it was in McNamara’s day, and outfits like the Operations Evaluation Group, a Navy-sponsored civilian organization. SA, to put it baldly, existed to work against the services. OEG, by contrast, existed (and exists) to work with a service, to help it make the best use of its forces and systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the contributions of OEG were (and are) far more valuable to the nation’s defense than the “contributions” of SA, which may well have harmed it.

Analysis per se is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s like a loaded gun, in that its goodness or badness depends on who wields it and for what purpose.