Author: Thomas

Is a Theory of Everything Necessary?

I begin with Wikipedia:

A theory of everything (ToE), final theory, ultimate theory, or master theory is a hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe. Finding a ToE is one of the major unsolved problems in physics. Over the past few centuries, two theoretical frameworks have been developed that, as a whole, most closely resemble a ToE. These two theories upon which all modern physics rests are general relativity (GR) and quantum field theory (QFT).

Michael Brooks, in “Has This Physicist Found the Key to Reality?” (The New Statesman, October 21, 2016), puts it this way:

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”. . .

He continues

. . . and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.


The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics [the core of QFT], which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As [Carlo] Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But . . .

. . . here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works.

All of this is well-known and has been for a long time. I repeat it only to set the stage for my amateur view of the problem.

As is my wont, I turn to baseball for a metaphor. A pitcher who throws a fastball relies in part on gravity to make the pitch hard to hit. Whatever else the ball does because of the release velocity, angle of release, and spin imparted to the ball at the point of release, it also drops a bit from its apparent trajectory because of gravity.

What’s going on inside the ball as it makes it way to home plate? Nothing obvious. The rubber-and-cork core (the “pill”) and the various yarns that aare wound around it remain stationary relative to each other, thanks to the tightness of the cover, the tightness of the winding, and the adhesives that are used on the pill and the top layer of wound yarn. (See this video for a complete explanation of how a baseball is manufactured.)

But that’s only part of the story. The cover and the things inside it are composed of molecules, atoms, and various subatomic particles. The subatomic particles, if not the atoms and molecules, are in constant motion throughout the flight of the ball. Yet that motion is so weak that it has no effect on the motion of the ball as it moves toward the plate. (If there’s a physicist in the house, he will correct me if I’m wrong.)

In sum: The trajectory of the baseball (due in part to gravity) is independent of the quantum mechanical effects simultaneously at work inside the baseball. Perhaps the the universe is like that. Perhaps there’s no need for a theory of everything. In fact, such a theory may be a will-o-the-wisp — the unicorn of physics.


Election 2016 – Breaking

See the latest edition of “Election 2016” for more recent polling data and trend analyses. The news keeps getting better (for now, at least).

UPDATED 10/25/16 – 4:30 PM CT

Just after I spotted an interesting twist in the statistics underlying my post “Election 2016,” I noted a spate of related items; for example:

Scott Adams, “The Bully Party,” Scott Adams’ Blog, October 25, 2016

Arnold Cusmarlu, “Trump ‘87% Certain’ to Win in November,” American Thinker, October 25, 2016

Jonathan Easley, “War Over Polls Intensifies” (URL tag: are-the-polls-skewed-against-trump), The Hill, October 25, 2016

Steven Hayward, “Michael Moore Voting for Trump?Power Line, October 25, 2016

Jeffrey Lord, “Hillary: Queen of Corruption,” The American Spectator, October 25, 2016

Greg Richards, “Rigging the Election: James O’Keefe’s Third Video,” American Thinker, October 25, 2016

Andrew Grant White, “November 8: Trump +5,” American Thinker, October 25, 2016

It all adds up to this: There’s a good possibility that between now and election day — when most votes are cast despite early voting — growing realization of the corrupt, thuggish, big-spending, authoritarian, and anti-American character of a Clinton regime will turn the tide and lead to a victory by Donald Trump.

As I’ve said many times, the only thing worse than a Trump victory would be a Clinton victory.

Now for the twist that I spotted. There’s a glimmer of hope in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) “poll of polls,” which I adjust so that the various polling results are dated properly. Since October 9, the date of the second Trump-Clinton debate, there’s been a noticeable trend away from Clinton; thus:


The trend line points to a slight edge for Trump by election day, November 8. It’s too soon to take this forecast to the bank, but I’ll update it frequently — and keep my fingers crossed.


Here’s what’s happening with some other indicators that I’m tracking. (You can read about them at “Election 2016.”)


The Reuters poll has been moving toward Trump, while the USC/LA Times has been moving toward Clinton, producing a slight trend toward Trump in the average of the two polls. The RCP 4-way poll has been moving toward Trump since October 14, while the IBD/TIPP poll has begun to move toward Clinton. All in all, it looks like a tightening of the poll results as election day approaches, with a pro-Trump undercurrent, as shown in the first graph.

My Platform

A voting guide published in my local newspaper asks seven questions of the presidential candidates. I list them below, with the answers that I would give were I a candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Question 1: What is your personal statement?

I am sick and tired of the nanny state, which is centered in Washington DC and extends into almost every city, town, and village in America.

Question 2: What are your top three goals?

Economic and social liberty for all Americans; protection of the lives, liberty, and property of innocent Americans; defense of Americans’ legitimate overseas interests.

Question 3: What will you do to support a vibrant economy across the U.S.?

I will send legislative proposals to Congress that will deregulate the economy; eliminate the death tax and corporate income taxes; reduce the central government to its essential and legitimate functions (mainly national defense), and cut taxes accordingly; and phase out all unconstitutional federal programs (which is most of them), beginning with Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. I will revoke all executive-branch policies that are contrary to the program spelled out in the preceding sentence.

Question 4: What, if any, actions will you support to create a pathway to citizenship?

I will ask Congress to deter illegal immigration by eliminating welfare programs that attract it; to provide the manpower and technical means to prevent, detect, and prosecute illegal immigration; and to establish more stringent citizenship requirements, including demonstrated proficiency in English. I will revoke all executive-branch policies that are contrary to the program spelled out in the preceding sentence.

Question 5: What should government do to provide an equitable, quality public education for all children pre-K through grade 12?

The central government should have no role in the funding of education or in the making of policies related to it. I will make one exception, for liberty’s sake, which is to propose an amendment to the Constitution that would require every State (and therefore the subordinate jurisdictions in every State) to allow parents to choose the schools to which they send their children, and to give vouchers to parents who choose private schools. The value of each State’s voucher would be the average cost of educating a child in grades K-12 in that State. (It would be up to each State to decide how to recover the shares owed by local jurisdictions.)

Question 6: What actions would you support the U.S. undertake to protect its interests abroad?

In view of the rising Russian and Chinese threats to Americans’ overseas interests — and the persistent threat posed by terrorist organizations — I will ask Congress to rebuild the nation’s armed forces, at least to the levels attained as a result of President Reagan’s buildup; to provide for the acquisition of superior, all-source intelligence capabilities; to support a robust research and development program for defense and intelligence systems; and to provide the funding needed to fully man our armed forces with well-trained personnel, and to keep the forces in a high state of readiness for sustained combat operations.

Regarding the use of armed forces, I will act immediately and vigorously to defend Americans’ legitimate overseas interests, which include international commerce around the globe, and to protect resources that directly affect international commerce (e.g., oil-rich regions on land and at sea). As necessary, I will seek the authorization of Congress to conduct sustained combat operations for those purposes.

I will not otherwise use or seek the approval of Congress to use the armed forces of the United States, which are maintained at great cost to Americans for the benefit of Americans. Those forces are not maintained for the purpose of defending countries that refuse to spend enough money to defend themselves, nor to “build nations” or engage in humanitarian operations that have no direct bearing on the safety of Americans or their interests. By the same token, America’s armed forces should be used to help defend nations that attempt to defend themselves and whose defeat would destabilize regions of strategic value to Americans’ interests.

Finally, I will not enter into treaties or agreements of any kind with the leaders of nations whose aim is clearly to undermine Americans’ legitimate economic interests. To that end, I will renounce Barack Obama’s agreement with Iran, his endorsement of the Paris agreement regarding so-called anthropogenic global warming, and all other agreements detrimental to the interests of Americans.

I will further ask to Congress to direct by law that the United States withdraw from the United Nations, which serves mainly as a showplace for regimes hostile to Americans’ constitutional ideals and interests. The U.N. will be given two years in which to remove all of its offices and personnel from the United States. I expect the U.N. to become overtly hostile to the United States when this country has withdrawn from it, but those member states who provoke and finance hostile acts on the part of the U.N. will be held to account, and will not be able to hide behind the false front of the United Nations.

Question 7: What kinds of policies will you pursue to promote social and racial justice for all Americans?

I will nominate judges and executive-branch officials who are demonstrably faithful to the Constitution of the United States, as its various portions were understood when they were ratified or modified through Article V amendments. This will mean the reversal of many judicial and executive actions that are contrary to the moral traditions that underlie the greatness of America, and which have been contravened arbitrarily to serve narrow interests and misguided ideologies. I am especially eager to defend life against those who seek to destroy and defile it, and to see that there is truly “equal protection of the law” by restoring freedom of speech and association where they have been suppressed in the name of equal protection.

Social and moral issues such as same-sex marriage should be decided by the States, and preferably by the people themselves, through the peaceful and voluntary evolution and operation of social norms. Such issues are outside the constitutional purview of the central government.

A Lesson in Election-Rigging

UPDATED 10/27/16

A leading story on yesterday’s NBC evening news broadcast trumpeted an ABC News poll showing Hillary with a 12-point lead over The Donald. It could have been a story about polls in which NBC News participates: The latest NBC News/SM poll gives Clinton an 8-point edge, and the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Clinton up by 10 points. Or it could have been about the latest CBS News poll, which has Clinton leading by 11 points.

Why single out a poll that’s not representative of the world of polling? Why not trumpet the the overall average computed by FiveThirtyEight, a reputable outfit spawned by The New York Times? The answer is that FiveThiryEight‘s consensus forecast gives Clinton only a 6-point edge. (As do I.)

Why do you suppose FiveThirtyEight reports “only” a 6-point edge for Clinton? Because it adjusts for the bias inherent in polls like those conducted by ABC, CBS, and NBC.

And why do you suppose that the three networks conduct and report polls biased in Clinton’s direction, just as they routinely conduct and report polls biased toward Democrats? To ask the question is to answer it.

What better way to rally Clinton voters (and Democrats generally) while discouraging Trump voters (and Republicans generally) than to make a Clinton victory (or any Democrat victory) seem inevitable?

If presidential elections in America are in any sense “rigged,” they’re rigged by the pro-Democrat bias of the mainstream media, which comes through loud and clear on ABC, CBS, and NBC (and others). The bias shows up not only in what stories those networks choose to run and how they report those stories; it also shows up in the polls that they conduct and their reporting on those polls.


Related reading:

Aaron Ball, “How and Why Election 2016 Is Rigged,” American Thinker, October 27, 2016

Leslie Eastman, “#Election2016 Reporting through the Haze of ‘Gaslight’,” Legal Insurrection, October 27, 2016

A Drought Endeth

Tonight the Chicago Cubs beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to become champions of the National League for 2016. The Cubs thus ended the longest pennant drought of the 16 old-line franchises in the National and American Leagues, having last made a World Series appearance 71 years ago in 1945. The Cubs last won the World Series 108 years ago in 1908, another ignominious record for an old-line team.

Here are the most recent league championships and World Series wins by the other old-line National League teams: Atlanta (formerly Boston and Milwaukee) Braves — 1999, 1995; Cincinnati Reds — 1990, 1990; Los Angeles (formerly Brooklyn) Dodgers — 1988, 1988; Philadelphia Phillies — 2009, 2008; Pittsburgh Pirates — 1979, 1979; San Francisco (formerly New York) Giants — 2014, 2014; and St. Louis Cardinals — 2013, 2011.

The American League lineup looks like this: Baltimore Orioles (formerly Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Browns) — 1983, 1983; Boston Red Sox — 2013, 2013; Chicago White Sox — 2005, 2005; Cleveland Indians — 2016 (previously 1997), 1948; Detroit Tigers — 2012, 1984; Minnesota Twins (formerly Washington Senators) — 1991, 1991; New York Yankees — 2009, 2009; and Oakland (formerly Philadelphia and Kansas City) Athletics — 1990, 1989.

Economic Modeling: A Case of Unrewarded Complexity

This is the fifth entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. Previous entries are here, here, here, and here.

I wrote “About Economic Forecasting” twelve years ago. Here are some highlights:

In the the previous post I disparaged the ability of economists to estimate the employment effects of the minimum wage. I’m skeptical because economists are notoriously bad at constructing models that adequately predict near-term changes in GDP. That task should be easier than sorting out the microeconomic complexities of the labor market.

Take Professor Ray Fair, for example. Prof. Fair teaches macroeconomic theory, econometrics, and macroeconometric models at Yale University. He has been plying his trade since 1968, first at Princeton, then at M.I.T., and (since 1974) at Yale. Those are big-name schools, so I assume that Prof. Fair is a big name in his field.

Well, since 1983, Prof. Fair has been forecasting changes in real GDP over the next four quarters. He has made 80 such forecasts based on a model that he has undoubtedly tweaked over the years. The current model is here. His forecasting track record is here. How has he done? Here’s how:

1. The median absolute error of his forecasts is 30 percent.

2. The mean absolute error of his forecasts is 70 percent.

3. His forecasts are rather systematically biased: too high when real, four-quarter GDP growth is less than 4 percent; too low when real, four-quarter GDP growth is greater than 4 percent.

4. His forecasts have grown generally worse — not better — with time.

Prof. Fair is still at it. And his forecasts continue to grow worse with time:

This and later graphs pertaining to Prof. Fair’s forecasts were derived from The Forecasting Record of the U.S. Model, Table 4: Predicted and Actual Values for Four-Quarter Real Growth, at Prof. Fair’s website. The vertical axis of this graph is truncated for ease of viewing; 8 percent of the errors exceed 200 percent.

You might think that Fair’s record reflects the persistent use of a model that’s too simple to capture the dynamics of a multi-trillion-dollar economy. But you’d be wrong. The model changes quarterly. This page lists changes only since late 2009; there are links to archives of earlier versions, but those are password-protected.

As for simplicity, the model is anything but simple. For example, go to Appendix A: The U.S. Model: July 29, 2016, and you’ll find a six-sector model comprising 188 equations and hundreds of variables.

And what does that get you? A weak predictive model:


It fails the most important test; that is, it doesn’t reflect the downward trend in economic growth:


Could I do better? Well, I’ve done better — without knowing it until now — with the simple model that I devised to estimate the Rahn Curve. It’s described in “The Rahn Curve Revisited.” The following quotations and discussion draw on the October 20, 2016, version of that post:

The theory behind the Rahn Curve is simple — but not simplistic. A relatively small government with powers limited mainly to the protection of citizens and their property is worth more than its cost to taxpayers because it fosters productive economic activity (not to mention liberty). But additional government spending hinders productive activity in many ways, which are discussed in Daniel Mitchell’s paper, “The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth.” (I would add to Mitchell’s list the burden of regulatory activity, which grows even when government does not.)

Rahn curve (2)

. . . .

In an earlier post, I ventured an estimate of the Rahn curve that spanned most of the history of the United States. I came up with this relationship (terms modified for simplicity:

G = 0.054 -0.066F

To be precise, it’s the annualized rate of growth over the most recent 10-year span (G), as a function of F (fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels) in the preceding 10 years. The relationship is lagged because it takes time for government spending (and related regulatory activities) to wreak their counterproductive effects on economic activity. Also, I include transfer payments (e.g., Social Security) in my measure of F because there’s no essential difference between transfer payments and many other kinds of government spending. They all take money from those who produce and give it to those who don’t (e.g., government employees engaged in paper-shuffling, unproductive social-engineering schemes, and counterproductive regulatory activities).

When F is greater than the amount needed for national defense and domestic justice — no more than 0.1 (10 percent of GDP) — it discourages productive, growth-producing, job-creating activity. And because government spending weighs most heavily on taxpayers with above-average incomes, higher rates of F also discourage saving, which finances growth-producing investments in new businesses, business expansion, and capital (i.e., new and more productive business assets, both physical and intellectual).

I’ve taken a closer look at the post-World War II numbers because of the marked decline in the rate of growth since the end of the war:

Real GDP 1947q1-2016q2

Here’s the revised result (with cosmetic changes in terminology):

G = 0.0275 -0.347F + 0.0769A – 0.000327R – 0.135P


G = real rate of GDP growth in a 10-year span (annualized)

F = fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels during the preceding 10 years

A = the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years

R = average number of Federal Register pages, in thousands, for the preceding 10-year period

P = growth in the CPI-U during the preceding 10 years (annualized).

The r-squared of the equation is 0.73 and the F-value is 2.00E-12. The p-values of the intercept and coefficients are 0.099, 1.75E-07, 1.96E-08, 8.24E-05, and 0.0096. The standard error of the estimate is 0.0051, that is, about half a percentage point. (Except for the p-value on the coefficient, the other statistics are improved from the previous version, which omitted CPI).

Here’s how the equations with and without P stack up against actual changes in 10-year rates of real GDP growth:


The equation with P captures the “bump” in 2000, and is generally (though not always) closer to the mark than the equation without P.

What does the new equation portend for the next 10 years? Based on the values of F, A, R, and P for the most recent 10-year period (2006-2015), the real rate of growth for the next 10 years will be about 1.9 percent. (It was 1.4 percent for the version of the equation without P.) The earlier equation (discussed above) yields an estimate of 2.9 percent. The new equation wins the reality test, as you can tell by the blue line in the second graph above.

In fact the year-over-year rates of real growth for the past four quarters (2015Q3 through 2016Q2) are 2.2 percent, 1.9 percent, 1.6 percent, and 1.3 percent. So an estimate of 1.9 percent for the next 10 years may be optimistic.

I took the data set that I used to estimate the new equation and made a series of out-of-sample estimates of growth over the next 10 years. I began with the data for 1946-1964 to estimate the growth for 1965-1974. I continued by taking the data for 1946-1965 to estimate the growth for 1966-1975, and so on, until I had estimated the growth for every 10-year period from 1965-1974 through 2006-2015. In other words, like Prof. Fair I updated my model to reflect new data, and I estimated the rate of economic growth in the future. How did I do? Here’s a first look:


The errors get larger with time, but they are far smaller than the errors in Fair’s model (see figure 1).

Not only that, but there’s a much better fit. Compare the following graph with figure 2:


Why do the errors in Fair’s model and mine increase with time? Probably of the erratic downward trend in economic growth, which Fair doesn’t capture in his estimates (see figure 3), but which is matched more closely by my estimates:


The moral of the story: It’s futile to build complex models of the economy. They can’t begin to capture the economy’s real complexity, and they’re likely to obscure the important variables — the ones that will determine the future course of economic growth.

A final note: In earlier posts I’ve disparaged economic aggregates, of which GDP is the apotheosis. And yet I’ve built this post around estimates of GDP. Am I contradicting myself?

Not really. There’s a rough consistency in measures of GDP across time, and I’m not pretending that GDP represents anything but an estimate of the monetary value of those products and services to which monetary values can be ascribed.

As a practical matter, then, if you’re a person who wants to know the likely future direction and value of GDP, stick with simple estimation techniques like the one I’ve demonstrated here. Don’t get bogged down in the inconclusive minutiae of a model like Prof. Fair’s.

Mathematical Economics

This is the fourth entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. Previous entries are here, here, and here.

Economics is a study of human behavior, not an exercise in mathematical modeling or statistical analysis, though both endeavors may augment an understanding of human behavior. Economics is about four things:

  • wants, as they are perceived by the persons who have those wants
  • how people try to satisfy their wants through mutually beneficial, cooperative action, which includes but is far from limited to market-based exchanges
  • how exogenous forces, including government interventions, enable or thwart the satisfaction of wants
  • the relationships between private action, government interventions, and changes in the composition, rate, and direction of economic activity

In sum, economics is about the behavior of human beings, which is why it’s called a social science. Well, economics used to be called a social science, but it’s been a long time (perhaps fifty years) since I’ve heard or read an economist refer to it as a social science. The term is too reminiscent of “soft and fuzzy” disciplines such as history, social psychology, sociology, political science, and civics or social studies (names for the amalgam of sociology and government that was taught in high schools way back when). No “soft and fuzzy” stuff for physics-envying economists.

However, the behavior of human beings — their thoughts and emotions, how those things affect their actions, and how they interact — is fuzzy, to say the least. Which explains why mathematical economics is largely an exercise in mental masturbation.

In my disdain for mathematical economics, I am in league with Arnold Kling, who is the most insightful economist I have yet encountered in more than fifty years of studying and reading about economics. I especially recommend Kling’s Specialization and Trade: A Reintroduction to Economics. It’s a short book, but chock-full of wisdom and straight thinking about what makes the economy tick. Here’s the blurb from

Since the end of the second World War, economics professors and classroom textbooks have been telling us that the economy is one big machine that can be effectively regulated by economic experts and tuned by government agencies like the Federal Reserve Board. It turns out they were wrong. Their equations do not hold up. Their policies have not produced the promised results. Their interpretations of economic events — as reported by the media — are often of-the-mark, and unconvincing.

A key alternative to the one big machine mindset is to recognize how the economy is instead an evolutionary system, with constantly-changing patterns of specialization and trade. This book introduces you to this powerful approach for understanding economic performance. By putting specialization at the center of economic analysis, Arnold Kling provides you with new ways to think about issues like sustainability, financial instability, job creation, and inflation. In short, he removes stiff, narrow perspectives and instead provides a full, multi-dimensional perspective on a continually evolving system.

And he does, without using a single graph. He uses only a few simple equations to illustrate the bankruptcy of macroeconomic theory.

Those economists who rely heavily on mathematics like to say (and perhaps even believe) that mathematical expression is more precise than mere words. But, as Kling points out in “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm,” mathematical economics is a language of “faux precision,” which is useful only when applied to well defined, narrow problems. It can’t address the big issues — such as economic growth — which depend on variables such as the rule of law and social norms which defy mathematical expression and quantification.

I would go a step further and argue that mathematical economics borders on obscurantism. It’s a cult whose followers speak an arcane language not only to communicate among themselves but to obscure the essentially bankrupt nature of their craft from others. Mathematical expression actually hides the assumptions that underlie it. It’s far easier to identify and challenge the assumptions of “literary” economics than it is to identify and challenge the assumptions of mathematical economics.

I daresay that this is true even for persons who are conversant in mathematics. They may be able to manipulate easily the equations of mathematical economics, but they are able to do so without grasping the deeper meanings — the assumptions and complexities — hidden by those equations. In fact, the ease of manipulating the equations gives them a false sense of mastery of the underlying, real concepts.

Much of the economics profession is nevertheless dedicated to the protection and preservation of the essential incompetence of mathematical economists. This is from “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm”:

One of the best incumbent-protection rackets going today is for mathematical theorists in economics departments. The top departments will not certify someone as being qualified to have an advanced degree without first subjecting the student to the most rigorous mathematical economic theory. The rationale for this is reminiscent of fraternity hazing. “We went through it, so should they.”

Mathematical hazing persists even though there are signs that the prestige of math is on the decline within the profession. The important Clark Medal, awarded to the most accomplished American economist under the age of 40, has not gone to a mathematical theorist since 1989.

These hazing rituals can have real consequences. In medicine, the controversial tradition of long work hours for medical residents has come under scrutiny over the last few years. In economics, mathematical hazing is not causing immediate harm to medical patients. But it probably is working to the long-term detriment of the profession.

The hazing ritual in economics has as least two real and damaging consequences. First, it discourages entry into the economics profession by persons who aren’t high-IQ freaks, and who, like Kling, can discuss economic behavior without resorting to the sterile language of mathematics. Second, it leads to economics that’s irrelevant to the real world — and dead wrong.

Reaching back into my archives, I found a good example of irrelevance and wrongness in Thomas Schelling‘s game-theoretic analysis of segregation. Eleven years ago, Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution), who was mentored by Schelling at Harvard, praised Schelling’s Nobel prize by noting, among other things, Schelling’s analysis of the economics of segregation:

Tom showed how communities can end up segregated even when no single individual cares to live in a segregated neighborhood. Under the right conditions, it only need be the case that the person does not want to live as a minority in the neighborhood, and will move to a neighborhood where the family can be in the majority. Try playing this game with white and black chess pieces, I bet you will get to segregation pretty quickly.

Like many game-theoretic tricks, Schelling’s segregation gambit omits much important detail. It’s artificial to treat segregation as a game in which all whites are willing to live with black neighbors as long as they (the whites) aren’t in the minority. Most whites (including most liberals) do not want to live anywhere near any “black rednecks” if they can help it. Living in relatively safe, quiet, and attractive surroundings comes far ahead of whatever value there might be in “diversity.”

“Diversity” for its own sake is nevertheless a “good thing” in the liberal lexicon. The Houston Chronicle noted Schelling’s Nobel by saying that Schelling’s work

helps explain why housing segregation continues to be a problem, even in areas where residents say they have no extreme prejudice to another group.

Segregation isn’t a “problem,” it’s the solution to a potential problem. Segregation today is mainly a social phenomenon, not a legal one. It reflects a rational aversion on the part of whites to having neighbors whose culture breeds crime and other types of undesirable behavior.

As for what people say about their racial attitudes: Believe what they do, not what they say. Most well-to-do liberals — including black one like the Obamas — choose to segregate themselves and their children from black rednecks. That kind of voluntary segregation, aside from demonstrating liberal hypocrisy about black redneck culture, also demonstrates the rationality of choosing to live in safer and more decorous surroundings.

Dave Patterson of the defunct Order from Chaos put it this way:

[G]ame theory has one major flaw inherent in it: The arbitrary assignment of expected outcomes and the assumption that the values of both parties are equally reflected in these external outcomes. By this I mean a matrix is filled out by [a conductor, and] it is up to that conductor’s discretion to assign outcome values to that grid. This means that there is an inherent bias towards the expected outcomes of conductor.

Or: Garbage in, garbage out.

Game theory points to the essential flaw in mathematical economics, which is reductionism: “An attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts, entities, phenomena, or structures by another, simpler set.”

Reductionism is invaluable in many settings. To take an example from everyday life, children are warned — in appropriate stern language — not to touch a hot stove or poke a metal object into an electrical outlet. The reasons given are simple ones: “You’ll burn yourself” and “You’ll get a shock and it will hurt you.” It would be futile (in almost all cases) to try to explain to a small child the physical and physiological bases for the warnings. The child wouldn’t understand the explanations, and the barrage of words might cause him to forget the warnings.

The details matter in economics. It’s easy enough to say, for example, that a market equilibrium exists where the relevant supply and demand curves cross (in a graphical representation) or where the supply and demand functions yield equal values of price and quantity (in a mathematical representation). But those are gross abstractions from reality, as any economist knows — or should know. Expressing economic relationships in mathematical terms lends them an unwarranted air of precision.

Further, all mathematical expressions, no matter how complex, can be expressed in plain language, though it may be hard to do so when the words become too many and their relationships too convoluted. But until one tries to do so, one is at the mercy of the mathematical economist whose equation has no counterpart in the real world of economic activity. In other words, an equation represents nothing more than the manipulation of mathematical relationships until it’s brought to earth by plain language and empirical testing. Short of that, it’s as meaningful as Urdu is to a Cockney.

Finally, mathematical economics lends aid and comfort to proponents of economic control. Whether or not they understand the mathematics or the economics, the expression of congenial ideas in mathematical form lends unearned — and dangerous — credibility to the controller’s agenda. The relatively simple multiplier is a case in point. As I explain in “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,”

the Keynesian investment/government-spending multiplier simply tells us that if ∆Y = $5 trillion, and if b = 0.8, then it is a matter of mathematical necessity that ∆C = $4 trillion and ∆I + ∆G = $1 trillion. In other words, a rise in I + G of $1 trillion doesn’t cause a rise in Y of $5 trillion; rather, Y must rise by $5 trillion for C to rise by $4 trillion and I + G to rise by $1 trillion. If there’s a causal relationship between ∆G and ∆Y, the multiplier doesn’t portray it.

I followed that post with “The True Multiplier“:

Math trickery aside, there is evidence that the Keynesian multiplier is less than 1. Robert J. Barro of Harvard University opens an article in The Wall Street Journal with the statement that “economists have not come up with explanations … for multipliers above one.”

Barro continues:

A much more plausible starting point is a multiplier of zero. In this case, the GDP is given, and a rise in government purchases requires an equal fall in the total of other parts of GDP — consumption, investment and net export. . . .

What do the data show about multipliers? Because it is not easy to separate movements in government purchases from overall business fluctuations, the best evidence comes from large changes in military purchases that are driven by shifts in war and peace. A particularly good experiment is the massive expansion of U.S. defense expenditures during World War II. The usual Keynesian view is that the World War II fiscal expansion provided the stimulus that finally got us out of the Great Depression. Thus, I think that most macroeconomists would regard this case as a fair one for seeing whether a large multiplier ever exists.

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8 (430/540). The other way to put this is that the war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports — personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier. . . .

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. [“Government Spending Is No Free Lunch,” The Wall Street Journal (, January 22, 2009]

This is from Valerie A. Ramsey of  the University of California-San Diego and the National Bureau of Economic Research:

. . . [I]t appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5. [“Government Spending and Private Activity,” January 2012]

In fact,

for the period 1947-2012 I estimated the year-over-year percentage change in GDP (denoted as Y%) as a function of G/GDP (denoted as G/Y):

Y% = 0.09 – 0.17(G/Y)

Solving for Y% = 0 yields G/Y = 0.53; that is, Y% will drop to zero if G/Y rises to 0.53 (or thereabouts). At the present level of G/Y (about 0.4), Y% will hover just above 2 percent, as it has done in recent years. (See the graph immediately above.)

If G/Y had remained at 0.234, its value in 1947:

  • Real growth would have been about 5 percent a year, instead of 3.2 percent (the actual value for 1947-2012).
  • The total value of Y for 1947-2012 would have been higher by $500 trillion (98 percent).
  • The total value of G would have been lower by $61 trillion (34 percent).

The last two points, taken together, imply a cumulative government-spending multiplier (K) for 1947-2012 of about -8. That is, aggregate output in 1947-2012 declined by 8 dollars for every dollar of government spending above the amount represented by G/Y = 0.234.

But -8 is only an average value for 1947-2012. It gets worse. The reduction in Y is cumulative; that is, every extra dollar of G reduces the amount of Y that is available for growth-producing investment, which leads to a further reduction in Y, which leads to a further reduction in growth-producing investment, and on and on. (Think of the phenomenon as negative compounding; take a dollar from your savings account today, and the value of the savings account years from now will be lower than it would have been by a multiple of that dollar: [1 + interest rate] raised to nth power, where n = number of years.) Because of this cumulative effect, the effective value of K in 2012 was about -14.

The multiplier is a seductive and easy-to-grasp mathematical construct. But in the hands of politicians and their economist-enablers, it has been an instrument of economic destruction.

Perhaps “higher” mathematical economics is potentially less destructive because it’s inside game played by economists for the benefit of economists. I devoutly hope that’s true.

Economists As Scientists

This is the third entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. The first entry is here and the second entry is here. (Related posts by me are noted parenthetically throughout this one.)

Science is something that some people “do” some of the time. There are full-time human beings and part-time scientists. And the part-timers are truly scientists only when they think and act in accordance with the scientific method.*

Acting in accordance with the scientific method is a matter of attitude and application. The proper attitude is one of indifference about the correctness of a hypothesis or theory. The proper application rejects a hypothesis if it can’t be tested, and rejects a theory if it’s refuted (falsified) by relevant and reliable observations.

Regarding attitude, I turn to the most famous person who was sometimes a scientist: Albert Einstein. This is from the Wikipedia article about the Bohr-Einstein debate:

The quantum revolution of the mid-1920s occurred under the direction of both Einstein and [Niels] Bohr, and their post-revolutionary debates were about making sense of the change. The shocks for Einstein began in 1925 when Werner Heisenberg introduced matrix equations that removed the Newtonian elements of space and time from any underlying reality. The next shock came in 1926 when Max Born proposed that mechanics were to be understood as a probability without any causal explanation.

Einstein rejected this interpretation. In a 1926 letter to Max Born, Einstein wrote: “I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” [Apparently, Einstein also used the line in Bohr’s presence, and Bohr replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” — TEA]

At the Fifth Solvay Conference held in October 1927 Heisenberg and Born concluded that the revolution was over and nothing further was needed. It was at that last stage that Einstein’s skepticism turned to dismay. He believed that much had been accomplished, but the reasons for the mechanics still needed to be understood.

Einstein’s refusal to accept the revolution as complete reflected his desire to see developed a model for the underlying causes from which these apparent random statistical methods resulted. He did not reject the idea that positions in space-time could never be completely known but did not want to allow the uncertainty principle to necessitate a seemingly random, non-deterministic mechanism by which the laws of physics operated.

It’s true that quantum mechanics was inchoate in the mid-1920s, and that it took a couple of decades to mature into quantum field theory. But there’s more than a trace of “attitude” in Einstein’s refusal to accept quantum mechanics, to stay abreast of developments in the theory, and to search quixotically for his own theory of everything, which he hoped would obviate the need for a non-deterministic explanation of quantum phenomena.

Improper application of the scientific method is rife. See, for example the Wikipedia article about the replication crisis, John Ioannidis’s article, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” (See also “Ty Cobb and the State of Science” and “Is Science Self-Correcting?“) For a thorough analysis of the roots of the crisis, read Michael Hart’s book, Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.

A bad attitude and improper application are both found among the so-called scientists who declare that the “science” of global warming is “settled,” and that human-generated CO2 emissions are the primary cause of the apparent rise in global temperatures during the last quarter of the 20th century. The bad attitude is the declaration of “settled science.” In “The Science Is Never Settled” I give many prominent examples of the folly of declaring it to be “settled.”

The improper application of the scientific method with respect to global warming began with the hypothesis that the “culprit” is CO2 emissions generated by the activities of human beings — thus anthropogenic global warming (AGW). There’s no end of evidence to the contrary, some of which is summarized in these posts and many of the links found therein. There’s enough evidence, in my view, to have rejected the CO2 hypothesis many times over. But there’s a great deal of money and peer-approval at stake, so the rush to judgment became a stampede. And attitude rears its ugly head when pro-AGW “scientists” shun the real scientists who are properly skeptical about the CO2 hypothesis, or at least about the degree to which CO2 supposedly influences temperatures. (For a depressingly thorough account of the AGW scam, read Michael Hart’s Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.)

I turn now to economists, as I have come to know them in more than fifty years of being taught by them, working with them, and reading their works. Scratch an economist and you’re likely to find a moralist or reformer just beneath a thin veneer of rationality. Economists like to believe that they’re objective. But they aren’t; no one is. Everyone brings to the table a large serving of biases that are incubated in temperament, upbringing, education, and culture.

Economists bring to the table a heaping helping of tunnel vision. “Hard scientists” do, too, but their tunnel vision is generally a good thing, because it’s actually aimed at a deeper understanding of the inanimate and subhuman world rather than the advancement of a social or economic agenda. (I make a large exception for “hard scientists” who contribute to global-warming hysteria, as discussed above.)

Some economists, especially behavioralists, view the world through the lens of wealth-and-utility-maximization. Their great crusade is to force everyone to make rational decisions (by their lights), through “nudging.” It almost goes without saying that government should be the nudger-in-chief. (See “The Perpetual Nudger” and the many posts linked to therein.)

Other economists — though far fewer than in the past — have a thing about monopoly and oligopoly (the domination of a market by one or a few sellers). They’re heirs to the trust-busting of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement led by non-economists who sought to blame the woes of working-class Americans on the “plutocrats” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, etc.) who had merely made life better and more affordable for Americans, while also creating jobs for millions of them and reaping rewards for the great financial risks that they took. (See “Monopoly and the General Welfare” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public.”) As it turns out, the biggest and most destructive monopoly of all is the federal government, so beloved and trusted by trust-busters — and too many others. (See “The Rahn Curve Revisited.”)

Nowadays, a lot of economists are preoccupied by income inequality, as if it were something evil and not mainly an artifact of differences in intelligence, ambition, and education, etc. And inequality — the prospect of earning rather grand sums of money — is what drives a lot of economic endeavor, to good of workers and consumers. (See “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes” and the many posts linked to therein.) Remove inequality and what do you get? The Soviet Union and Communist China, in which everyone is equal except party operatives and their families, friends, and favorites.

When the inequality-preoccupied economists are confronted by the facts of life, they usually turn their attention from inequality as a general problem to the (inescapable) fact that an income distribution has a top one-percent and top one-tenth of one-percent — as if there were something especially loathsome about people in those categories. (Paul Krugman shifted his focus to the top one-tenth of one percent when he realized that he’s in the top one percent, so perhaps he knows that’s he’s loathsome and wishes to deny it, to himself.)

Crony capitalism is trotted out as a major cause of very high incomes. But that’s hardly a universal cause, given that a lot of very high incomes are earned by athletes and film stars beside whom most investment bankers and CEOs are making peanuts. Moreover, as I’ve said on several occasions, crony capitalists are bright and driven enough to be in the stratosphere of any income distribution. Further, the fertile soil of crony capitalism is the regulatory power of government that makes it possible.

Many economists became such, it would seem, in order to promote big government and its supposed good works — income redistribution being one of them. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are two leading exemplars of what I call the New Deal school of economic thought, which amounts to throwing government and taxpayers’ money at every perceived problem, that is, every economic outcome that is deemed unacceptable by accountants of the soul. (See “Accountants of the Soul.”)

Stiglitz and Krugman — both Nobel laureates in economics — are typical “public intellectuals” whose intelligence breeds in them a kind of arrogance. (See “Intellectuals and Society: A Review.”) It’s the kind of arrogance that I mentioned in the preceding post in this series: a penchant for deciding what’s best for others.

New Deal economists like Stiglitz and Krugman carry it a few steps further. They ascribe to government an impeccable character, an intelligence to match their own, and a monolithic will. They then assume that this infallible and wise automaton can and will do precisely what they would do: Create the best of all possible worlds. (See the many posts in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

New Deal economists, in other words, live their intellectual lives  in a dream-world populated by the likes of Jiminy Cricket (“When You Wish Upon a Star”), Dorothy (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), and Mary Jane of a long-forgotten comic book (“First I shut my eyes real tight, then I wish with all my might! Magic words of poof, poof, piffles, make me just as small as [my mouse] Sniffles!”).

I could go on, but you should by now have grasped the point: What too many economists want to do is change human nature, channel it in directions deemed “good” (by the economist), or simply impose their view of “good” on everyone. To do such things, they must rely on government.

It’s true that government can order people about, but it can’t change human nature, which has an uncanny knack for thwarting Utopian schemes. (Obamacare, whose chief architect was economist Jonathan Gruber, is exhibit A this year.) And government (inconveniently for Utopians) really consists of fallible, often unwise, contentious human beings. So government is likely to march off in a direction unsought by Utopian economists.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to thwart the tax collector. The regulator can and does make things so hard for business that if one gets off the ground it can’t create as much prosperity and as many jobs as it would in the absence of regulation. And the redistributor only makes things worse by penalizing success. Tax, regulate, and redistribute should have been the mantra of the New Deal and most presidential “deals” since.

I hold economists of the New Deal stripe partly responsible for the swamp of stagnation into which the nation’s economy has descended. (See “Economic Growth Since World War II.”) Largely responsible, of course, are opportunistic if not economically illiterate politicians who pander to rent-seeking, economically illiterate constituencies. (Yes, I’m thinking of old folks and the various “disadvantaged” groups with which they have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

The distinction between normative economics and positive economics is of no particular use in sorting economists between advocates and scientists. A lot of normative economics masquerades as positive economics. The work of Thomas Piketty and his comrades-in-arms comes to mind, for example. (See “McCloskey on Piketty.”) Almost everything done to quantify and defend the Keynesian multiplier counts as normative economics, inasmuch as the work is intended (wittingly or not) to defend an intellectual scam of 80 years’ standing. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,” “The True Multiplier,” and “Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier.”)

Enough said. If you want to see scientific economics in action, read Regulation. Not every article in it exemplifies scientific inquiry, but a good many of them do. It’s replete with articles about microeconomics, in which the authors uses real-world statistics to validate and quantify the many axioms of economics.

A final thought is sparked by Arnold Kling’s post, “Ed Glaeser on Science and Economics.” Kling writes:

I think that the public has a sort of binary classification. If it’s “science,” then an expert knows more than the average Joe. If it’s not a science, then anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. I strongly favor an in-between category, called a discipline. Think of economics as a discipline, where it is possible for avid students to know more than ordinary individuals, but without the full use of the scientific method.

On this rare occasion I disagree with Kling. The accumulation of knowledge about economic variables, or pseudo-knowledge such as estimates of GDP (see “Macroeconomics and Microeconomics“), either leads to well-tested, verified, and reproducible theories of economic behavior or it leads to conjectures, of which there are so many opposing ones that it’s “take your pick.” If that’s what makes a discipline, give me the binary choice between science and story-telling. Most of economics seems to be story-telling. “Discipline” is just a fancy word for it.

Collecting baseball cards and memorizing the statistics printed on them is a discipline. Most of economics is less useful than collecting baseball cards — and a lot more destructive.

Here’s my hypothesis about economists: There are proportionally as many of them who act like scientists as there are baseball players who have career batting averages of at least .300.
* Richard Feynman, a physicist and real scientist, had a different view of the scientific method than Karl Popper’s standard taxonomy. I see Feynman’s view as complementary to Popper’s, not at odds with it. What is “constructive skepticism” (Feynman’s term) but a gentler way of saying that a hypothesis or theory might be falsified and that the act of falsification may point to a better hypothesis or theory?

Economics and Science

This is the second entry in what I expect to be a series of loosely connected posts on economics. The first entry is here.

Science is unnecessarily daunting to the uninitiated, which is to say, the vast majority of the populace. Because scientific illiteracy is rampant, advocates of policy positions — scientists and non-scientists alike — are able to invoke “science” wantonly, thus lending unwarranted authority to their positions.

Here I will dissect science, then turn to economics and begin a discussion of its scientific and non-scientific aspects. It has both, though at least one non-scientific aspect (the Keynesian multiplier) draws an inordinate amount of attention, and has many true believers within the profession.

Science is knowledge, but not all knowledge is science. A scientific body of knowledge is systematic; that is, the granular facts or phenomena which comprise the body of knowledge must be connected in patterned ways. The purported facts or phenomena of a science must represent reality, things that can be observed and measured in some way. Scientists may hypothesize the existence of an unobserved thing (e.g., the ether, dark matter), in an effort to explain observed phenomena. But the unobserved thing stands outside scientific knowledge until its existence is confirmed by observation, or because it remains standing as the only plausible explanation of observable phenomena. Hypothesized things may remain outside the realm of scientific knowledge for a very long time, if not forever. The Higgs boson, for example, was hypothesized in 1964 and has been tentatively (but not conclusively) confirmed since its “discovery” in 2011.

Science has other key characteristics. Facts and patterns must be capable of validation and replication by persons other than those who claim to have found them initially. Patterns should have predictive power; thus, for example, if the sun fails to rise in the east, the model of Earth’s movements which says that it will rise in the east is presumably invalid and must be rejected or modified so that it correctly predicts future sunrises or the lack thereof. Creating a model or tweaking an existing model just to account for a past event (e.g., the failure of the Sun to rise, the apparent increase in global temperatures from the 1970s to the 1990s) proves nothing other than an ability to “predict” the past with accuracy.

Models are usually clothed in the language of mathematics and statistics. But those aren’t scientific disciplines in themselves; they are tools of science. Expressing a theory in mathematical terms may lend the theory a scientific aura, but a theory couched in mathematical terms is not a scientific one unless (a) it can be tested against facts yet to be ascertained and events yet to occur, and (b) it is found to accord with those facts and events consistently, by rigorous statistical tests.

A science may be descriptive rather than mathematical. In a descriptive science (e.g., plant taxonomy), particular phenomena sometimes are described numerically (e.g., the number of leaves on the stem of a species), but the relations among various phenomena are not reducible to mathematics. Nevertheless, a predominantly descriptive discipline will be scientific if the phenomena within its compass are connected in patterned ways, can be validated, and are applicable to newly discovered entities.

Non-scientific disciplines can be useful, whereas some purportedly scientific disciplines verge on charlatanism. Thus, for example:

  • History, by my reckoning, is not a science because its account of events and their relationships is inescapably subjective and incomplete. But a knowledge of history is valuable, nevertheless, for the insights it offers into the influence of human nature on the outcomes of economic and political processes.
  • Physics is a science in most of its sub-disciplines, but there are some (e.g., cosmology) where it descends into the realm of speculation. It is informed, fascinating speculation to be sure, but speculation all the same. The idea of multiverses, for example, can’t be tested, inasmuch as human beings and their tools are bound to the known universe.
  • Economics is a science only to the extent that it yields empirically valid insights about  specific economic phenomena (e.g., the effects of laws and regulations on the prices and outputs of specific goods and services). Then there are concepts like the Keynesian multiplier, about which I’ll say more in this series. It’s a hypothesis that rests on a simplistic, hydraulic view of the economic system. (Other examples of pseudo-scientific economic theories are the labor theory of value and historical determinism.)

In sum, there is no such thing as “science,” writ large; that is, no one may appeal, legitimately, to “science” in the abstract. A particular discipline may be a science, but it is a science only to the extent that it comprises a factual and replicable body of patterned knowledge. Patterned knowledge includes theories with predictive power.

A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has thus far been confirmed by observation. Every scientific theory rests eventually on axioms: self-evident principles that are accepted as true without proof. The principle of uniformity (which can be traced to Galileo) is an example of such an axiom:

Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe. It refers to invariance in the metaphysical principles underpinning science, such as the constancy of causal structure throughout space-time, but has also been used to describe spatiotemporal invariance of physical laws. Though an unprovable postulate that cannot be verified using the scientific method, uniformitarianism has been a key first principle of virtually all fields of science

Thus, for example, if observer B is moving away from observer A at a certain speed, observer A will perceive that he is moving away from observer B at that speed. It follows that an observer cannot determine either his absolute velocity or direction of travel in space. The principle of uniformity is a fundamental axiom of modern physics, most notably of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity.

There’s a fine line between an axiom and a theory. Was the idea of a geocentric universe an axiom or a theory? If it was taken as axiomatic — as it surely was by many scientists for about 2,000 years — then it’s fair to say that an axiom can give way under the pressure of observational evidence. (Such an event is what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift.) But no matter how far scientists push the boundaries of knowledge, they must at some point rely on untestable axioms, such as the principle of uniformity. There are simply deep and (probably) unsolvable mysteries that science is unlikely to fathom.

This brings me to economics, which — in my view — rests on these self-evident axioms:

1. Each person strives to maximize his or her sense of satisfaction, which may also be called well-being, happiness, or utility (an ugly word favored by economists). Striving isn’t the same as achieving, of course, because of lack of information, emotional decision-making, buyer’s remorse, etc

2. Happiness can and often does include an empathic concern for the well-being of others; that is, one’s happiness may be served by what is usually labelled altruism or self-sacrifice.

3. Happiness can be and often is served by the attainment of non-material ends. Not all persons (perhaps not even most of them) are interested in the maximization of wealth, that is, claims on the output of goods and services. In sum, not everyone is a wealth maximizer. (But see axiom number 12.)

4. The feeling of satisfaction that an individual derives from a particular product or service is situational — unique to the individual and to the time and place in which the individual undertakes to acquire or enjoy the product or service. Generally, however, there is a (situationally unique) point at which the acquisition or enjoyment of additional units of a particular product or service during a given period of time tends to offer less satisfaction than would the acquisition or enjoyment of units of other products or services that could be obtained at the same cost.

5. The value that a person places on a product or service is subjective. Products and services don’t have intrinsic values that apply to all persons at a given time or period of time.

6. The ability of a person to acquire products and services, and to accumulate wealth, depends (in the absence of third-party interventions) on the valuation of the products and services that are produced in part or whole by the person’s labor (mental or physical), or by the assets that he owns (e.g., a factory building, a software patent). That valuation is partly subjective (e.g., consumers’ valuation of the products and services, an employer’s qualitative evaluation of the person’s contributions to output) and partly objective (e.g., an employer’s knowledge of the price commanded by a product or service, an employer’s measurement of an employees’ contribution to the quantity of output).

7. The persons and firms from which products and services flow are motivated by the acquisition of income, with which they can acquire other products and services, and accumulate wealth for personal purposes (e.g., to pass to heirs) or business purposes (e.g., to expand the business and earn more income). So-called profit maximization (seeking to maximize the difference between the cost of production and revenue from sales) is a key determinant of business decisions but far from the only one. Others include, but aren’t limited to, being a “good neighbor,” providing employment opportunities for local residents, and underwriting philanthropic efforts.

8. The cost of production necessarily influences the price at which a good or and service will be offered for sale, but doesn’t solely determine the price at which it will be sold. Selling price depends on the subjective valuation of the products or service, prospective buyers’ incomes, and the prices of other products and services, including those that are direct or close substitutes and those to which users may switch, depending on relative prices.

9. The feeling of satisfaction that a person derives from the acquisition and enjoyment of the “basket” of products and services that he is able to buy, given his income, etc., doesn’t necessarily diminish, as long as the person has access to a great variety of products and services. (This axiom and axiom 12 put paid to the myth of diminishing marginal utility of income.)

10. Work may be a source of satisfaction in itself or it may simply be a means of acquiring and enjoying products and services, or acquiring claims to them by accumulating wealth. Even when work is satisfying in itself, it is subject to the “law” of diminishing marginal satisfaction.

11. Work, for many (but not all) persons, is no longer be worth the effort if they become able to subsist comfortably enough by virtue of the wealth that they have accumulated, the availability of redistributive schemes (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), or both. In such cases the accumulation of wealth often ceases and reverses course, as it is “cashed in” to defray the cost of subsistence (which may be far more than minimal).

12. However, there are not a few persons whose “work” is such a great source of satisfaction that they continue doing it until they are no longer capable of doing so. And there are some persons whose “work” is the accumulation of wealth, without limit. Such persons may want to accumulate wealth in order to “do good” or to leave their heirs well off or simply for the satisfaction of running up the score. The justification matters not. There is no theoretical limit to the satisfaction that a particular person may derive from the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, many of the persons (discussed in axiom 11) who aren’t able to accumulate wealth endlessly would do so if they had the ability and the means to take the required risks.

13. Individual degrees of satisfaction (happiness, etc.) are ephemeral, nonquantifiable, and incommensurable. There is no such thing as a social welfare function that a third party (e.g., government) can maximize by taking from A to give to B. If there were such a thing, its value would increase if, for example, A were to punch B in the nose and derive a degree of pleasure that somehow more than offsets the degree of pain incurred by B. (The absurdity of a social-welfare function that allows As to punch Bs in their noses ought to be enough shame inveterate social engineers into quietude — but it won’t. They derive great satisfaction from meddling.) Moreover, one of the primary excuses for meddling is that income (and thus wealth) has a  diminishing marginal utility, so it makes sense to redistribute from those with higher incomes (or more wealth) to those who have less of either. Marginal utility is, however, unknowable (see axioms 4 and 5), and may not always be negative (see axioms 9 and 12).

14. Whenever a third party (government, do-gooders, etc.) intervene in the affairs of others, that third party is merely imposing its preferences on those others. The third party sometimes claims to know what’s best for “society as a whole,” etc., but no third party can know such a thing. (See axiom 13.)

15. It follows from axiom 13 that the welfare of “society as a whole” can’t be aggregated or measured. An estimate of the monetary value of the economic output of a nation’s economy (Gross Domestic Product) is by no means an estimate of the welfare of “society as a whole.” (Again, see axiom 13.)

That may seem like a lot of axioms, which might give you pause about my claim that some aspects of economics are scientific. But economics is inescapably grounded in axioms such as the ones that I propound. This aligns me (mainly) with the Austrian economists, whose leading light was Ludwig von Mises. Gene Callahan writes about him at the website of the Ludwig von Mises Institute:

As I understand [Mises], by categorizing the fundamental principles of economics as a priori truths and not contingent facts open to empirical discovery or refutation, Mises was not claiming that economic law is revealed to us by divine action, like the ten commandments were to Moses. Nor was he proposing that economic principles are hard-wired into our brains by evolution, nor even that we could articulate or comprehend them prior to gaining familiarity with economic behavior through participating in and observing it in our own lives. In fact, it is quite possible for someone to have had a good deal of real experience with economic activity and yet never to have wondered about what basic principles, if any, it exhibits.

Nevertheless, Mises was justified in describing those principles as a priori, because they are logically prior to any empirical study of economic phenomena. Without them it is impossible even to recognize that there is a distinct class of events amenable to economic explanation. It is only by pre-supposing that concepts like intention, purpose, means, ends, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction are characteristic of a certain kind of happening in the world that we can conceive of a subject matter for economics to investigate. Those concepts are the logical prerequisites for distinguishing a domain of economic events from all of the non-economic aspects of our experience, such as the weather, the course of a planet across the night sky, the growth of plants, the breaking of waves on the shore, animal digestion, volcanoes, earthquakes, and so on.

Unless we first postulate that people deliberately undertake previously planned activities with the goal of making their situations, as they subjectively see them, better than they otherwise would be, there would be no grounds for differentiating the exchange that takes place in human society from the exchange of molecules that occurs between two liquids separated by a permeable membrane. And the features which characterize the members of the class of phenomena singled out as the subject matter of a special science must have an axiomatic status for practitioners of that science, for if they reject them then they also reject the rationale for that science’s existence.

Economics is not unique in requiring the adoption of certain assumptions as a pre-condition for using the mode of understanding it offers. Every science is founded on propositions that form the basis rather than the outcome of its investigations. For example, physics takes for granted the reality of the physical world it examines. Any piece of physical evidence it might offer has weight only if it is already assumed that the physical world is real. Nor can physicists demonstrate their assumption that the members of a sequence of similar physical measurements will bear some meaningful and consistent relationship to each other. Any test of a particular type of measurement must pre-suppose the validity of some other way of measuring against which the form under examination is to be judged.

Why do we accept that when we place a yardstick alongside one object, finding that the object stretches across half the length of the yardstick, and then place it alongside another object, which only stretches to a quarter its length, that this means the first object is longer than the second? Certainly not by empirical testing, for any such tests would be meaningless unless we already grant the principle in question. In mathematics we don’t come to know that 2 + 2 always equals 4 by repeatedly grouping two items with two others and counting the resulting collection. That would only show that our answer was correct in the instances we examined — given the assumption that counting works! — but we believe it is universally true. [And it is universally true by the conventions of mathematics. If what we call “5” were instead called “4,” 2 + 2 would always equal 5. — TEA] Biology pre-supposes that there is a significant difference between living things and inert matter, and if it denied that difference it would also be denying its own validity as a special science. . . .

The great fecundity from such analysis in economics is due to the fact that, as acting humans ourselves, we have a direct understanding of human action, something we lack in pondering the behavior of electrons or stars. The contemplative mode of theorizing is made even more important in economics because the creative nature of human choice inherently fails to exhibit the quantitative, empirical regularities, the discovery of which characterizes the modern, physical sciences. (Biology presents us with an interesting intermediate case, as many of its findings are qualitative.) . . .

[A] person can be presented with scores of experiments supporting a particular scientific theory is sound, but no possible experiment ever can demonstrate to him that experimentation is a reasonable means by which to evaluate a scientific theory. Only his intuitive grasp of its plausibility can bring him to accept that proposition. (Unless, of course, he simply adopts it on the authority of others.) He can be led through hundreds of rigorous proofs for various mathematical theorems and be taught the criteria by which they are judged to be sound, but there can be no such proof for the validity of the method itself. (Kurt Gödel famously demonstrated that a formal system of mathematical deduction that is complex enough to model even so basic a topic as arithmetic might avoid either incompleteness or inconsistency, but always must suffer at least one of those flaws.) . . .

This ultimate, inescapable reliance on judgment is illustrated by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass. He has Alice tell Humpty Dumpty that 365 minus one is 364. Humpty is skeptical, and asks to see the problem done on paper. Alice dutifully writes down:

365 – 1 = 364

Humpty Dumpty studies her work for a moment before declaring that it seems to be right. The serious moral of Carroll’s comic vignette is that formal tools of thinking are useless in convincing someone of their conclusions if he hasn’t already intuitively grasped the basic principles on which they are built.

All of our knowledge ultimately is grounded on our intuitive recognition of the truth when we see it. There is nothing magical or mysterious about the a priori foundations of economics, or at least nothing any more magical or mysterious than there is about our ability to comprehend any other aspect of reality.

(Callahan has more to say here. For a technical discussion of the science of human action, or praxeology, read this. Some glosses on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem are here.)

I omitted an important passage from the preceding quotation, in order to single it out. Callahan says also that

Mises’s protégé F.A. Hayek, while agreeing with his mentor on the a priori nature of the “logic of action” and its foundational status in economics, still came to regard investigating the empirical issues that the logic of action leaves open as a more important undertaking than further examination of that logic itself.

I agree with Hayek. It’s one thing to know axiomatically that the speed of light is constant; it is quite another (and useful) thing to know experimentally that the speed of light (in empty space) is about 671 million miles an hour. Similarly, it is one thing to deduce from the axioms of economics that demand curves generally slope downward; it is quite another (and useful) thing to estimate specific demand functions.

But one must always be mindful of the limitations of quantitative methods in economics. As James Sheehan writes at the website of the Mises Institute,

economists are prone to error when they ascribe excessive precision to advanced statistical techniques. They assume, falsely, that a voluminous amount of historical observations (sample data) can help them to make inferences about the future. They presume that probability distributions follow a bell-shaped pattern. They make no provision for the possibility that past correlations between economic variables and data were coincidences.

Nor do they account for the possibility, as economist Robert Lucas demonstrated, that people will incorporate predictable patterns into their expectations, thus canceling out the predictive value of such patterns. . . .

As [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb points out [in Fooled by Randomness], the popular Monte Carlo simulation “is more a way of thinking than a computational method.” Employing this way of thinking can enhance one’s understanding only if its weaknesses are properly understood and accounted for. . . .

Taleb’s critique of econometrics is quite compatible with Austrian economics, which holds that dynamic human actions are too subjective and variegated to be accurately modeled and predicted.

In some parts of Fooled by Randomness, Taleb almost sounds Austrian in his criticisms of economists who worship “the efficient market religion.” Such economists are misguided, he argues, because they begin with the flawed hypothesis that human beings act rationally and do what is mathematically “optimal.” . . .

As opposed to a Utopian Vision, in which human beings are rational and perfectible (by state action), Taleb adopts what he calls a Tragic Vision: “We are faulty and there is no need to bother trying to correct our flaws.” It is refreshing to see a highly successful practitioner of statistics and finance adopt a contrarian viewpoint towards economics.

Yet, as Arnold Kling explains, many (perhaps most) economists have lost sight of the axioms of economics in their misplaced zeal to emulate the methods of the physical sciences:

The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson’s (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus.

Today, the “theory sequence” at most top-tier graduate schools in economics is controlled by math bigots. As a result, it is impossible to survive as an economics graduate student with a math background that is less than that of an undergraduate math major. In fact, I have heard that at this year’s American Economic Association meetings, at a seminar on graduate education one professor quite proudly said that he ignored prospective students’ grades in economics courses, because their math proficiency was the key predictor of their ability to pass the coursework required to obtain an advanced degree.

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.

. . . The basic question of What Causes Prosperity? is not a question of how trading opportunities play out among a given array of goods. Instead, it is a question of how innovation takes place or does not take place in the context of institutional factors that are still poorly understood.

Mathematics, as I have said, is a tool of science, it’s not science in itself. Dressing hypothetical relationships in the garb of mathematics doesn’t validate them.

Where, then, is the science in economics? And where is the nonsense? I’ve given you some hints (and more than hints). There’s more to come.

The Essence of Economics

This is the first entry in what I expect to be a series of loosely connected posts on economics.

Market-based voluntary exchange is an important if not dominant method of satisfying wants. To grasp that point, think of your day: You sleep and awaken in a house or apartment that you didn’t build yourself, but which is “yours” by dint of payments that you make from income you earn by doing things of value to other persons.* During your days at home, in a workplace, or in a vacation spot you spend many hours using products and services that you buy from others — everything from toilet paper, soap, and shampoo to clothing, food, transportation, entertainment, internet access, etc.

It is not that the things that you do for yourself and in direct cooperation with others are unimportant or valueless. Economists acknowledge the psychic value of self-sufficiency and the economic value of non-market cooperation, but they can’t measure the value of those things. Economists typically focus on market-based exchange because it involves transactions with measurable monetary values.

Another thing that economists can’t deal with, because it’s beyond the ken of economics, is the essence of life itself: one’s total sense of well-being, especially as it is influenced by the things done for oneself, solitary joys (reading, listening to music), and the happiness (or sadness) shared with friends and loved ones.

In sum, despite the pervasiveness of voluntary exchange, economics really treats only the marginalia of life — the rate at which a person would exchange a unit of X for a unit of Y, not how X or Y stacks up in the grand scheme of living.

That is the essence of economics, as a discipline. There is much more to it than that, of course; for example, how supply meets demand, how exogenous factors affect economic behavior, how activity at the level of the person or firm sends ripples across the economy, and why those ripples can’t be aggregated meaningfully.

More to come.
* Obviously, a lot of people derive their income from transfer payments (Social Security, food stamps, etc.), which I’ll address in future posts.

The Trump Tape

You know the one I mean, and you know what Trump says on it. So I won’t link to it or quote it. What I will do is ask (and try to answer) the crucial question: What happens now?

Specifically, is Trump a goner? Well, there’s evidence that he was already a goner. So what happens now is that a lot of people who were planning to vote for Trump, or who might have voted for him, will switch to Clinton, Johnson, Stein, or “other” — or they simply won’t bother to vote. As a result, there’ll be a lot fewer down-ballot votes for Republicans in other races. Perhaps not enough to give Democrats control of the House, but perhaps enough to give Democrats control of the Senate.

And therein lies the really bad news. If the Dems can muster 50 senators, they will control the Senate because the VP will be a Democrat. And even if the election ends with, say, 52 Republicans in the Senate, it won’t be hard for the Democrats to entice two RINOs to move across the aisle.

You know what will happen to the Supreme Court with Hillary in the White House and her party in control of the Senate. That’s the really bad news.

Would it matter if Trump were to withdraw from the race? As I understand the States’ laws about putting names on ballots, Trump’s name would remain at the top of the GOP ticket. But the party could heavily advertise the idea that the electors from each State nominally won by Trump would instead vote for Pence. (The electors couldn’t be forced to do so, but as party loyalists, I expect that most of them would do so.)

Would that stratagem prevent a lot of voters from switching their votes away from Trump or sitting it out? I doubt it. It’s just too damn sophisticated and uncertain And a lot of voters simply won’t want to associate themselves in any way with Trump. It’s psychological thing. And it will weigh heavily, even in the secrecy of the voting booth.

Bottom line: Trump is toast. Hillary wins (unless there’s a bigger counter-scandal in the wings). Democrats have a good shot at taking control of the Senate. The Supreme Court may then continue to violate the Constitution and march Americans more rapidly down the road to serfdom.

Election 2016

REVISED 10/27/16

A lot has happened since the previous revision of this post three days ago. In a word: convergence.

I’ll get to that. But for those of you who may be new to my fearless forecast of the coming election, here’s what I do: I begin with the popular vote, then use statistical relationships that I’ve derived from past elections to translate the popular vote split into electoral votes and changes in the numbers of House and Senate seats held by Republicans.

Today’s edition goes beyond the usual forecast, however, and points to a hopeful trend. Hopeful, that is, if you join my view that the only thing worse than the election of Donald Trump would be the election of Hillary Clinton.

The usual forecast still portends a victory by Clinton. I start by averaging the current split between Trump and Clinton in the following sources:

  • the Reuters poll, which is heavily skewed toward Clinton, but which I’ve adjusted to the  account for the likely direction of respondents who now say that they’ll vote for Johnson, Stein, or “other,” or who respond “wouldn’t vote” or “don’t know”
  • the two-way (Clinton vs. Trump “poll of polls” at RealClearPolitics (RCP), which I’ve adjusted as discussed in this post
  • RCP’s 4-way poll (Clinton, Trump, Johnson, Stein), similarly adjusted to account for likely defections from Johnson and Stein
  • and, for balance, the IBD/TIPP poll, which has a good track record, a high rating from FiveThirtyEight, and is somewhat of an outlier in that it’s less favorable to Clinton than the preceding polls. (I’ve also adjusted this poll to account for the likely direction of respondents who say that they’ll vote for Johnson, Stein, or “other,” or who respond “not sure.”)

Averaging the current popular-vote projections of the five polls (as adjusted), I get a 52-48 split in Clinton’s favor. Thus my forecast:

  • Clinton takes 52 or 53 percent of the two-party popular vote, as against 47 or 48 percent for Trump.
  • Clinton takes 305-341 electoral votes to Trump’s 197-233.
  • Given the Trump-Clinton split (which isn’t yet a given), the GOP will lose no more than 6 House seats, retaining a solid majority of at least 241-194, though a loss of as many as 18 seats (for a 229-206 split) isn’t out of the question.
  • And given the same Trump-Clinton split, the GOP might lose only 1 Senate seat, leaving that chamber with 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats (counting the so-called independents as Democrats). However, a 3-seat loss is strong possibility (in this scenario). That would leave the GOP with 51 seats to retain a nominal majority. But the defection of 1 RINO would leave the Senate tied at 50-50. And if Killer Kaine becomes vice president, his tie-breaking vote would hand control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Now, for the convergence. Which shows up in the following graph. It covers the Reuters poll, RCP polls, the IBD/TIPP poll, and two other indicators that I’m tracking. The indicators that have been favorable to Clinton are moving in Trump’s direction, and the indicators that have been favorable to Trump are moving (though less rapidly) in Clinton’s direction:


The key events represented by vertical black lines are the first Trump-debate on September 26, the release of the infamous “Trump tape” on October 7, the second debate on October 9, and the third debate on October 19.

The scale for polling results is on the left axis. In addition to the Reuters, RCP, and IBD/TIPP polls, the graph includes the USC/LA Times poll, which is another Trump-leaning one.

I plot all of the values against the dates on which polling was conducted, not the dates on which results were released. And in the case of multi-day polling, I use the central date of the polling period. Almost all of the indicators are slightly out-of-date, a fact that one should consider when interpreting the indicators — especially if the race continues to tighten.

These additional indicators are measured on the right axis:

  • the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) Winner-Take-All (WTA) market, where the IEM WTA line represents the percentage-point spread between the percentage of money bet on Clinton and Trump
  • Rasmussen’s approval index for Obama (percentage of respondents strongly approving of his performance minus the percentage strongly disapproving), which I report because perceptions of Obama’s performance are likely to rub off on Clinton.

In summary: Clinton’s comeback began in mid-September, well before the first debate. She got a boost from the first debate, and probably from the Trump tape. And then things started to turn south for her, though the timing varies from poll to poll.

Note, also, the sharp downward turn in Clinton’s IEM WTA odds, and the leveling off of Obama’s rating after a sudden jump. Surely, that has something to do with the rise in Obamacare premiums and the emerging details of Obama’s complicity in Clinton illegal e-mail lashup.

Just how far south (for Clinton) will things turn? To get a handle on that question I took a closer look at the two most comprehensive indicators: the RCP polls. There’s some overlap between them, but they also cover different polls, and they cover a lot of them.

Here’s a close look at the 5-day averages for the two polls since October 9, the date of the second Trump-Clinton debate:


First, observe the trend lines, which fit all the points from October 9 through the most recent dates for which I have results. They’re pointing toward a slight edge for Trump on election day, perhaps a 2-point edge, which would mean a two-party vote split of 51-49 in Trump’s favor.

Better yet, the trends since the recent peaks in Clinton’s favor (October 16 for the 2-way poll, October 18 for the 4-way poll) yield the numbers plotted on October 8: a 2-point or 6-point win by Trump.

I don’t want to spoil things by forecasting the GOP gains in the House and Senate that would go along with a big win by Trump. But I will smile inwardly at the thought of a safely Republican Senate that confirms Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, whom I can’t imagine would be as bad as Clinton’s.

Human Rights and Animal Rights

I’ve said plenty about my view of rights, as you’ll see if you follow the links to the posts listed at the bottom of this one. In summary, rights are

  • duties toward other persons, not innate essences (whether spiritual or evolutionary)
  • social constructs, derived from eons of social intercourse
  • roughly similar across many cultures (especially Western ones) because of the innate similarity of human beings and the continuity of acculturation.

To be clear, I’m referring to fundamental, negative rights about which there is broad social (if not legal) agreement. Negative rights include the right not to be

  • murdered or physically injured on purpose — as opposed to being punished for a crime; killed or harmed by a person who is defending others, himself, or his property; self-defense, or killed or injured in a war
  • psychologically taunted in a way that is meant to be harmful — as opposed to being challenged by “uncomfortable” ideas or put in a stressful situation that is meant to test one’s mettle or build one’s character
  • forced into servitude or its functional equivalent (e.g., imprisonment), except as punishment for a crime
  • victimized by theft or fraud
  • libeled or slandered.

Positive rights (e.g., the “right” to tax-funded subsidies of various kinds, the “right” to preferment in hiring and university admissions) are rights in name only because they lack the voluntary provenance of a negative right. Positive rights are fiat rights, imposed by executive, legislative, or judicial action. That there is considerable support for some positive rights doesn’t negate their non-voluntary nature. It’s true that in some close-knit groups there are voluntary positive rights, such as the right to charity. But such rights usually don’t extend to persons outside the close-knit group in the way that negative rights do.

Positive rights can’t be conferred without the imposition of involuntary costs (taxes, preferential treatment) on large portions of the populace. In other words, positive rights are privileges accorded some persons (at the expense of others). Negative rights, by contrast, are reciprocal and do not impose costs on anyone. (It’s true that in a large polity the defense of negative rights requires the maintenance of police, courts, and armed forces. But that seems to be a consequence of the size of the polity and not the nature of negative rights.)

I could refer to negative rights as “natural rights” because they arise naturally from the coexistence of human beings in socially and culturally bound groups. But I have long rejected the term “natural rights” because it carries the connotation that such rights are of mysterious origin, perhaps even a supernatural one. So I will call them customary rights.

What about animals? They don’t have rights — other than legally manufactured ones — because they’re not participants in the social and cultural milieu from which customary rights arise. Rights, as I’ve explained, represent a bargain (usually tacit) among human beings about the conditions of their coexistence. Animals — even those closest to human beings in their intellectual prowess — simply aren’t part of that bargain and (I believe) are incapable of being part of it.

To the extent that animals have rights, they are manufactured by human beings and then conferred on animals, much as the positive right to an income subsidy is conferred on those who receive it. This isn’t to say that some animal rights aren’t widely and voluntarily recognized. Freedom from torture is one such right. But the animals who are spared from torture aren’t parties to the social tradition from which the right arose.

This leads to the following questions: What fiat rights, if any, should animals have? Who should devise and enforce such rights? How should violators be treated?

I won’t address those questions here. I’ll simply note that aside from a few points on which empathic persons (that is, almost everyone) will agree (e.g., animals shouldn’t be tortured), there’s a wide range of views about the proper treatment of animals. For example, the most humane treatment is (generally) accorded those animals that are most like human beings (i.e., the other great apes) or which are most often kept as pets. The treatment accorded other animals depends on their perceived utility to human beings and their perceived degree of sentience. (Bugs are low on the totem-pole of rights.)

Only a relatively small number of extremists will insist on according animals something like the customary rights of human beings. Take the right not to be killed. Should that right apply even to a poisonous snake or a pesky and potentially pestilential insect? An extremist who answers yes is probably the kind of person who says that it’s always wrong to kill another human being, even in self-defense, but who also favors abortion on demand. The cause of “animal rights” is a mania — impervious to facts and logic — much like the cause of combating so-called anthropogenic global warming (see this post and the many readings and posts listed at the bottom).

In any event, animals don’t have customary rights that arise naturally among (most) groupings of human beings. Animals enjoy fiat rights, to the extent that they enjoy any rights at all. “Animal rights” zealots aren’t the kind of people who should have a say in the scope and application of those rights.

Related posts:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty

Does Liberty Still Have a Fighting Chance?

Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, uses FEE’s website to argue that “Liberty Still Has a Fighting Chance“:

So here we are now, decades into the very egalitarian welfare state Tocqueville warned would be the death of American exceptionalism. It threatens to make us like all the other forgettable welfare states that languish in history’s dustbins, Greece included. Should we just assume it’s inevitable and go along for the ride? Or should we muster the character that built a nation and that Tocqueville identified as quintessentially American?

If you’re pessimistic, then you’re no longer part of the solution. You’ve become part of the problem. What chance does liberty have if its supposed friends desert it in its hour of need or speak ill of its prospects?

Ask yourselves, What good purpose could a defeatist attitude possibly promote? Will it make me work harder for the causes I know are right? Is there anything about liberty that an election or events in Congress disprove? If I exude a pessimistic demeanor, will it help attract newcomers to the ideas I believe in? Is this the first time in history that believers in liberty have lost some battles? If we simply throw in the towel, will that enhance the prospects for future victories? Do we turn back just because the hill we have to climb got a little steeper?

This is not the time to abandon time-honored principles. I can’t speak for you, but someday, I want to go to my reward and be able to look back and say, “I never gave up. I never became part of the problem I tried to solve. I never gave the other side the luxury of winning anything without a rigorous, intellectual contest. I never missed an opportunity to do my best for what I believed in, and it never mattered what the odds or the obstacles were. I did my part.”

Remember that we stand on the shoulders of many people who came before us and who persevered through far darker times. The American patriots who shed their blood and suffered through unspeakable hardships as they took on the world’s most powerful nation in 1776 are certainly among them. But I am also thinking of the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain who resisted the greatest tyranny of the modern age and won. I think of those like Hayek and Mises who kept the flame of liberty flickering in the 1940s. I think of the heroes like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson who fought to end slavery and literally changed the conscience and character of Britain in the face of the most daunting of disadvantages. And I think of the Scots who, 456 years before the Declaration of Independence, put their lives on the line to repel English invaders with these thrilling words: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

As I think about what some of those great men and women faced, the obstacles before us today seem rather puny.

This is a moment when our true character, the stuff we’re really made of, will show itself. If we retreat, that would tell me we were never really worthy of the battle in the first place. But if we resolve to let these challenging times build our character and rally our dispirited friends to new levels of dedication, we will look back on this occasion someday with pride at how we handled it. Have you called a friend yet today to explain to him or her why liberty should be a top priority?

Nobody ever promised that liberty would be easy to attain or simple to keep. The world has always been full of greedy thieves and thugs, narcissistic power seekers, snake-oil charlatans, unprincipled ne’er-do-wells, and arrogant busybodies. No true friend of liberty should just roll over and play dead for any of them.

Take an inventory every day of what you’re doing for liberty. Get more involved in the fight. There are plenty of things you can do. If your state isn’t a right-to-work state, work to make it so. Support people and organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education that are teaching young people about the importance of liberty and character. Get behind the Compact for America and its plan for a balanced federal budget and an end to reckless spending and debt. Work for school choice in your state to help break the government monopoly on education. And be the very best example for liberty and character that you can possibly be in everything you do.

Whatever you do, don’t give up no matter what. Remember these words of the great US Supreme Court justice George Sutherland: “The saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.”

Can Tocqueville’s American exceptionalism be restored? Can it last? You bet it can. The American Dream still lives, in the hearts of those who love liberty and refuse to meekly surrender it. So let’s wipe the frowns off our faces and get to work. Our future, our children’s future — liberty’s future — all depend on us.

This is nothing more than a platitudinous pep talk, delivered to a team that’s trailing by 12 touchdowns at half-time. Reed offers no actionable advice that will truly make a difference. Joining and supporting fringe groups won’t dim the promise of big government, which is to deliver seemingly free benefits to a broad, interlocking coalition of well-financed, media-backed, vote-rich interest groups. Reed is whistling in the dark.

I’m not being a defeatist. I’m being a realist. Liberty can be restored only when liberty-lovers get realistic about what it will take to restore it — and then act accordingly. What will it take? See “Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead.”

What about the kinds of resistance counseled by Reed? Well, they might slow or even temporarily halt America’s descent into grim, impoverished, regimented statism. But they won’t prevent it. Only drastic action will do that.

Related, realistic posts about the state of America:
The Interest-Group Paradox
Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”
Well-Founded Pessimism
America: Past, Present, and Future
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
O Tempora O Mores!
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?

Should You Vote for a Third-Party Candidate?

Inspired by Brandon Morse’s simple-minded posts at RedState.

If you live in a State where there’s little or no doubt as to which candidate will prevail, your vote doesn’t matter. Your vote for a third-party candidate may make you feel good, but it almost certainly won’t affect the outcome of the election. In fact, a lot of such votes probably won’t affect the outcome of the election. So cast that third-party vote and make your day.

But if you live in a State where the race is likely to be tight, it may matter — especially if there are enough voters who choose to withhold their votes from Trump or Clinton. It mattered in 2000, for example, when the votes cast in for Nader in Florida would have given that State to Gore, who was probably the second choice of most pro-Nader voters.

Consider a voter with a plausible set preferences who lives in a “battleground” State:

  1. You’re a fiscal and social conservative, and you usually vote Republican but can’t stand Trump. Protest votes for a third-party candidate (probably Gary Johnson) will mean fewer votes for Trump, and therefore a boost for Clinton. So protest votes for Johnson (vice Trump) will help Clinton, who cannot possibly be more conservative than Trump on fiscal or social issues.
  2. You’re a fiscal and social liberal, and you usually vote Democrat but can’t stand Clinton. Protest votes for a third-party candidate (probably Jill Stein) will mean fewer votes for Clinton, and therefore a boost for Trump. So protest votes for Stein (vice Clinton) will help Trump, who cannot possibly be more liberal than Clinton on fiscal or social issues.
  3. You’re a middle-of-the-roader who usually votes for the Republican or Democrat who most appeals to you, but you can’t stand Trump or Clinton. Regardless of your distaste for Trump and Clinton, you probably consider one of them to be the lesser of two evils on issues of most importance to you. Protest votes for third-party candidates will help the greater of two evils by reducing the vote count of the lesser of two evils.


  1. Only Trump or Clinton will win the election. No one else has a chance of winning.
  2. If you’re truly indifferent between Trump and Clinton, it doesn’t matter what you do. You can flip a coin to choose between them; you can flip a coin (or two) and choose among the third-party candidates; or you can abstain from voting for a presidential candidate.
  3. But if you’re not truly indifferent between them, if one of them is merely the lesser of two evils, then your vote for someone else (Johnson, Stein, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy) means one less vote for the lesser of two evils. In which case, you’re voting against your own interest because you’re giving an edge to the greater of two evils.

Enough said.

Related post: Economists and Voting

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVIII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Charles Murray opines about “America Against Itself“:

With the publication in 2012 of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, political scientist Charles Murray – celebrated and denigrated in equal measure for his earlier works, Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994) – produced a searing, searching analysis of a nation cleaving along the lines of class, a nation, as he put it, ‘coming apart at the seams’. On the one side of this conflicted society, as Murray sees it, there is the intellectual or ‘cognitive’ elite, graduates of America’s leading universities, bound together through marriage and work, and clustered together in the same exclusive zipcodes, places such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Boston. In these communities of the likeminded, which Murray gives the fictional title of ‘Belmont’, the inhabitants share the same values, the same moral outlook, the same distinct sense of themselves as superior. And on the other side, there is the ‘new lower class’, the white Americans who left education with no more than a high-school diploma, who increasingly divorce among themselves, endure unemployment together, and are gathered in neighbourhoods that Murray gives the title of ‘Fishtown’ – inspired by an actual white, blue-collar neighbourhood of the same name in Philadelphia.

It is in Fishtown that the trends Murray identifies as the most damaging over the past 50 years – family breakdown, loss of employment, crime and a loss of social capital – are felt and experienced. Its inhabitants have a set of values (albeit threadbare ones), an outlook and a way of life that are entirely at odds with those from Belmont. And it is between these two almost entirely distinct moral communities, that the new Culture Wars now appear to be being fought….

Collins: I was thinking about how, in Coming Apart, you explore how the elites seek to distance themselves from the working class. They eat so-called healthier foods, they have different child-rearing practices, and so on. Then, from afar, they preach their preferred ways to the working class, as if they know better. The elites may no longer preach traditional civic virtues, as you note in Coming Apart, but they are still preaching, in a way. Only now they’re preaching about health, parenting and other things.

Murray: They are preaching. They are legislating. They are creating policies. The elites (on both the right and the left) do not get excited about low-skill immigration. Let’s face it, if you are members of the elite, immigration provides you with cheap nannies, cheap lawn care, and so on. There are a variety of ways in which it is a case of ‘hey, it’s no skin off my back’ to have all of these new workers. The elites are promulgating policies for which they do not pay the price. That’s true of immigration, that’s true of education. When they support the teachers’ unions in all sorts of practices that are terrible for kids, they don’t pay that price. Either they send their kids to private schools, or they send their kids to schools in affluent suburbs in which they, the parents, really do have a lot of de facto influence over how the school is run.

So they don’t pay the price for policy after policy. Perhaps the most irritating to me – and here we are talking about preaching – is how they are constantly criticising the working class for being racist, for seeking to live in neighbourhoods in which whites are the majority. The elites live in zipcodes that are overwhelmingly white, with very few blacks and Latinos. The only significant minorities in elite zipcodes are East and South Asians. And, as the American sociologist Andrew Hacker has said, Asians are ‘honorary whites’. The integration that you have in elite neighbourhoods is only for the model minority, not for other minorities. That’s a kind of hypocrisy, to call working-class whites ‘racist’ for doing exactly the same thing that the elites do. It’s terrible.

The elites live in a bubble, which Murray explains in Coming Apart, and which I discuss in “Are You in the Bubble?” — I’m not — and “Bubbling Along.”

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Meanwhile, in the climate war, there’s an interesting piece about scientists who got it right, but whose article was pulled because they used pseudonyms. In “Scientists Published Climate Research Under Fake Names. Then They Were Caught” we learn that

they had constructed a model, a mathematical argument, for calculating the average surface temperature of a rocky planet. Using just two factors — electromagnetic radiation beamed by the sun into the atmosphere and the atmospheric pressure at a planet’s surface — the scientists could predict a planet’s temperature. The physical principle, they said, was similar to the way that high-pressure air ignites fuel in a diesel engine.

If proved to be the case on Earth, the model would have dramatic implications: Our planet is warming, but the solar radiation and our atmosphere would be to blame, not us.

It seems to me that their real sin was contradicting the “settled science” of climatology.

Well, Francis Menton — author of “The ‘Science’ Underlying Climate Alarmism Turns Up Missing” — has something to say about that “settled science”:

In the list of President Obama’s favorite things to do, using government power to save the world from human-caused “climate change” has to rank at the top.  From the time of his nomination acceptance speech in June 2008 (“this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . .”), through all of his State of the Union addresses, and right up to the present, he has never missed an opportunity to lecture us on how atmospheric warming from our sinful “greenhouse gas” emissions is the greatest crisis facing humanity….

But is there actually any scientific basis for this?  Supposedly, it’s to be found in a document uttered by EPA back in December 2009, known as the “Endangerment Finding.”  In said document, the geniuses at EPA purport to find that the emissions of “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere are causing a danger to human health and welfare through the greenhouse warming mechanism.  But, you ask, is there any actual proof of that?  EPA’s answer (found in the Endangerment Finding) is the “Three Lines of Evidence”….

The news is that a major new work of research, from a large group of top scientists and mathematicians, asserts that EPA’s “lines of evidence,” and thus its Endangerment Finding, have been scientifically invalidated….

So the authors of this Report, operating without government or industry funding, compiled the best available atmospheric temperature time series from 13 independent sources (satellites, balloons, buoys, and surface records), and then backed out only ENSO (i.e., El Nino/La Nina) effects.  And with that data and that sole adjustment they found: no evidence of the so-called Tropical Hot Spot that is the key to EPA’s claimed “basic physical understanding” of the claimed atmospheric greenhouse warming model, plus no statistically significant atmospheric warming at all to be explained.

What an amazing non-coincidence. That’s exactly what I found when I looked at the temperature record for Austin, Texas, since the late 1960s, when AGW was supposedly making life miserable for the planet. See “AGW in Austin? (II)” and the list of related readings and posts at the bottom. See also “Is Science Self Correcting?” (answer: no).

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Ten years ago, I posted “An Immigration Roundup,” a collection of 13 posts dated March 29 through September 22, 2006. The bottom line: to encourage and allow rampant illegal immigration borders on social and economic suicide. I later softened my views (see this and this). But I am swinging back toward the hard line because of Steven Camarota’s “So What Is the Fiscal and Economic Impact of Immigration?“:

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have just released what can fairly be described as the most comprehensive look at the economic and fiscal impact of immigration on the United States. It represents an update of sorts of a similar NAS study released in 1997, in the middle of an earlier immigration debate. Overall the report is quite balanced, with a lot of interesting findings….
The most straightforward part of the study is its assemblage of estimates of the current fiscal impact of immigrants. The study shows that immigrants (legal and illegal) do not come close to paying enough in taxes to cover their consumption of public services at the present time. The NAS present eight different scenarios based on different assumptions about the current fiscal impact of immigrants and their dependent children — and every scenario is negative. No matter what assumption the NAS makes, immigrants use more in public services than they pay in taxes. The largest net drain they report is $299 billion a year. It should be pointed out that native-born American are also shown to be a net fiscal drain, mainly because of the federal budget deficit — Washington gives out a lot more than it takes in. But the fiscal drain created by immigrants is disproportionately large relative to the size of their population. Equally important, a fiscal drain caused by natives may be unavoidable. Adding more immigrants who create a fiscal drain, on the other hand, can be avoided with a different immigration policy….
With regard to economics — jobs and wages — the results in the NAS study, based on the standard economic model, show that immigration does make the U.S economy larger by adding workers and population. But a larger economy is not necessarily a benefit to natives. The report estimates that the actual benefit to the native-born could be $54.2 billion a year — referred to as the “immigrant surplus.” This is the benefit that accrues to American businesses because immigration increases the supply of workers and reduces American wages. Several points need to be made about this estimate. First, to generate this surplus, immigration has to create a very large redistribution of income from workers to owners of capital. The model works this way: Immigration reduces the wages of natives in competition with immigrant workers by $493.9 billion annually, but it increases the income of businesses by $548.1 billion, for a net gain of $54.2 billion. Unfortunately, the NAS does not report this large income redistribution, though it provides all the information necessary to calculate it. A second key point about this economic gain is that, relative to the income of natives, the benefit is very small, representing a “0.31 percent overall increase in income” for native-born Americans.
Third, the report also summarizes empirical studies that have tried to measure directly the impact of immigration on the wages of natives (the analysis above being based on economic theory rather than direct measurement). The size of the wage impact in those empirical studies is similar to that shown above. The NAS report cites over a dozen studies indicating that immigration does reduce wages primarily for the least-educated and poorest Americans. It must be pointed out, however, that there remains some debate among economists about immigration’s wage impact. The fourth and perhaps most important point about the “immigrant surplus” is that it is eaten up by the drain on the public fisc. For example, the average of all eight fiscal scenarios is a net drain (taxes minus services) of $83 billion a year at the present time, a good deal larger than the $54.2 billion immigrant surplus.

There’s much more, but that’s enough for me. Build that wall!

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It’s also time to revisit the question of crime. Heather Mac Donald says “Yes, the Ferguson Effect Is Real,” and Paul Mirengoff shows that “Violent Crime Jumped in 2015.” I got to the root of the problem in “Crime Revisited,” to which I’ve added “Amen to That” and “Double Amen.”

What’s the root of the problem? A certain, violence-prone racial minority, of course, and also under-incarceration. Follow all of the links in the preceding paragraph, and read and weep.

Brandeis’s Ignorance

Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941; Supreme Court justice, 1916-1939) penned many snappy aphorisms. Here’s one that “progressives” are especially fond of: “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” Here it is in larger context:

Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance. Re-discover the foundation of truth and the purpose and causes of dispute immediately disappear.

Spoken like the true technocrat that Brandeis was. The “truth” was his to know, and to enforce through government action, beginning long before his ascent to the Supreme Court.

There are fundamental and irreconcilable differences that Brandeis’s “truth” cannot bridge. Brandeis and his intellectual kin would never admit that, of course, so bent were (and are) they on imposing their “truth” on all Americans.

Is it ignorant to value liberty over the promise of economic security, especially when it’s obtained at the expense of liberty?

Is it ignorant to treat terrorism as a risk that’s categorically different than a traffic accident or lightning strike?

Is it ignorant to defend traditional values and their civilizing influence against the depradations of one’s cultural and physical enemies?

Is is ignorant to fear that America’s police and armed forces will become less able to defend peaceful citizens when those forces are weakened in the name of “sexual equality”?

Is it ignorant to oppose the subversion of the institution of marriage, which is the bedrock of civil society, in the name of “marriage equality”?

“Progressives” will answer “yes” to all the questions. Thus proving the ignorance of “progressives” and the wisdom of opposing “progressivism.”

Related posts:
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation
The Culture War
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
The Pretence of Knowledge
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Ruminations on the Left in America
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
The Real Burden of Government
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
A Dose of Reality
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
God-Like Minds
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness
Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It
From Each According to His Ability…
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Unsurprising News about Health-Care Costs
Further Pretensions of Knowledge
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Wages of Simplistic Economics
Is Science Self-Correcting?

“Feelings, nothing more than feelings”

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Daniel Stoljar, “Physicialism” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
first published February 13, 2001, substantively revised March 9, 2015)

Robin Hanson, an economics professor and former physicist, takes the physicalist position in “All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply“:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides….

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth….

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies.


what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Of course the “feeling stuff” interacts strongly and reliably with the familiar parts of the world — unless you’re a Robin Hanson, who seems to have no “feeling stuff.” Has he never been insulted, cut off by a rude lane-changer, been in love, held a baby in his arms, and so on unto infinity?

Hanson continues:

If this type of [strong] interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

Which is just a stupid thing to say. Physicists haven’t measured the interactions — and probably never will — because they’re not the kinds of phenomena that physicists study. Psychologists, yes; physicists, no.

Not being satisfied with obtuseness and stupidity, Hanson concedes the existence of “feelings,” but jumps to a conclusion in order to dismiss them:

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist….

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

How does Hanson — the erstwhile physicist — know any of this? I submit that he doesn’t know. He’s just arguing circularly, as an already-committed physicalist.

First, Hanson assumes that feelings aren’t “real” because physicists haven’t measured their effects. But that failure has been for lack of trying.

Then Hanson assumes that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Specifically, because there’s no evidence (as he defines it) for the existence of “feelings,” their existence (if real) is merely coincidental with claims of their existence.

And then Hanson the Obtuse ignores strong interactions of “feeling stuff” with “ordinary stuff.” Which suggests that he has never experienced love, desire, or hate (for starters).

It would be reasonable for Hanson to suggest that feelings are real, in a physical sense, in that they represent chemical states of the central nervous system. He could then claim that feelings don’t exist apart from such states; that is, “feeling stuff” is nothing more than a physical phenomenon. Hanson makes that claim, but in a roundabout way:

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

However, he gets there by assuming an answer to the question whether “feelings” are something real and apart from physical existence. He hasn’t proven anything, one way or the other.

Hanson’s blog is called Overcoming Bias. It’s an apt title: Hanson has a lot of bias to overcome.

Related posts:
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Blackmail, Anyone?
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

Is Science Self-Correcting?

A long-time colleague, in response to a provocative article about the sins of scientists, characterized it as “garbage” and asserted that science is self-correcting.

I should note here that my colleague abhors “extreme” views, and would cross the street to avoid a controversy. As a quondam scientist, he thinks of a challenge to the integrity of science as “extreme.” Which strikes me as an unscientific attitude.

Science is only self-correcting on a time scale of decades, and even centuries. Wrong-headed theories can persist for a very long time. And it has become worse in the past six decades.

What has changed in the past six decades? Sputnik spurred a (relatively) massive increase in government-funded research. This created a new and compelling incentive: produce research that comports with the party line. The party line isn’t necessarily the line of the party then in power, but the line favored by the bureaucrats in charge of doling out money.

On top of that, politically incorrect research is generally frowned upon. And when it surfaces it is attacked en masse by academicians who are eager to prove their political correctness.

Thus it is that the mere coincidence of a rise in CO2 emissions and a rise in temperatures in the latter part of the 20th century became the basis for kludgey models which “prove” AGW — preferably of the “catastrophic” kind — while essentially ignoring eons of evidence to the contrary. Skeptics (i.e., scientists doing what scientists should do) are attacked viciously when they aren’t simply ignored. The attackers are, all too often, people who call themselves scientists.

And thus it is that research into the connection between race and intelligence has been discouraged and even suppressed at universities. This despite truckloads of evidence that there is such a connection.

Those two examples don’t represent all of science, to be sure, but they’re a sad commentary on the state of science — in some fields, at least.

There are many more examples in Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policy-Making, edited by Michael Gough. I haven’t read the book, but I’m familiar with most of the cases documented by the contributors. The cases are about scientists behaving badly, and about non-scientists misusing science and advocating policies that lack firm scientific backing.

Scientists have been behaved badly since the dawn of science, though — as discussed above — there are now more (or different) incentives to behave badly than there were in the past. But non-scientists (especially politicians) will behave badly regardless of and contrary to scientific knowledge. So I won’t blame science or scientists for that behavior, except to the extent that scientists are actively abetting the bad behavior of non-scientists.

Which brings me to the matter of science being self-correcting. I am an avid (perhaps rabid) anti-reificationist. So I must say here that there is no such thing as “science.” There’s only what scientists “do” and claim to know.

It’s possible, though not certain, that future scientists will correct the errors of their predecessors — whether those errors arose from honest mistakes or bias. But, in the meantime, the errors persist and are used to abet policies that have costly, harmful, and even fatal consequences for multitudes of people. And most of that damage can’t be undone.

So, in this age of weaponized science, I take no solace in the idea that the errors of its practitioners and abusers might, someday, be recognized. The errors of knowledge might be corrected, but the errors of application are (mostly) beyond remedy.

Here’s an analogy: The errors of the builders, owners, captain, and crew of RMS Titanic seem to have been corrected, in that there hasn’t been a repetition of the conditions and events that led to the ship’s sinking. But that doesn’t make up for the loss of 1,514 lives, the physical and emotional suffering of the 710 survivors, the loss of a majestic ship, the loss of much valuable property, or the grief of the families and friends of those who were lost.

In sum, the claim that science is self-correcting amounts to a fatuous excuse for the irreparable damage that is often done in the name of science.

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Related posts:

Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Pinker Commits Scientism
AGW: The Death Knell (with many links to related readings and earlier posts)
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XIV) (second item)
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
The Technocratic Illusion
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Further Pretensions of Knowledge
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
AGW in Austin? (II)