Special Relativity: Answers and Questions

SEE THE ADDENDUM OF 02/26/17 AT THE END OF THIS POST

The speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second. It is a central tenet of the special theory of relativity (STR) that the speed of light is the same for every observer, regardless of the motion of an observer relative to the source of the light being observed. The meaning of the latter statement is not obvious to a non-physicist (like me). In an effort to understand it, I concocted the following thought experiment (TE), which I will call TE 1:

1. There is a long train car running smoothly on a level track, at a constant speed of 75 miles per hour (mph) relative to an observer who is standing close to the track. One side of the car is one-way mirror, arranged so that the outside observer (Ozzie) can see what is happening inside the car but an observer inside the car cannot see what is happening outside. For all the observer inside the car knows, the train car is stationary with respect to the surface of the Earth. (This is not a special condition; persons standing on the ground do not sense that they are revolving with the Earth at a speed of about 1,000 mph.)

2. The train car is commodious enough for a pitcher (Pete) and catcher (Charlie, the inside observer) to play a game of catch over a distance of 110 feet, from the pitcher’s release point to the catcher’s glove. Pete throws a baseball to Charlie at a speed of 75 mph (110 feet per second, or fps), relative to Charlie, so that the ball reaches his glove 1 second after Pete has released it. This is true regardless of the direction of the car or the positions of Pete and Charlie with respect to the direction of the car.

3. How fast the ball is thrown, relative to Ozzie, does depend on the movement of the car and positions of Pete and Charlie, relative to Ozzie. For example, when the car is moving toward Ozzie, and Pete is throwing in Ozzie’s direction, Ozzie sees the ball moving toward him at 150 mph. To understand why this is so, assume that Pete releases the ball when his release point is 220 feet from Ozzie and, accordingly, Charlie’s glove is 110 feet from Ozzie. The ball traverses the 110 feet between Pete and Charlie in 1 second, during which time the train moves 110 feet toward Ozzie. Therefore, when Charlie catches the ball, his glove is adjacent to Ozzie, and the ball has traveled 220 feet, from Ozzie’s point of view. Thus Ozzie reckons that the ball has traveled 220 feet in 1 second, or at a speed of 150 mph. This result is consistent with the formula of classical physics: To a stationary observer, the apparent speed of an emitted object is the speed of that object (the baseball) plus the speed of whatever emits it (Pete on a moving train car).

*     *     *

So far, so good, from the standpoint of classical physics. Classical physics “works” at low speeds (relative to the speed of light) because relativistic effects are imperceptible at low speeds. (See this post, for example.)

But consider what happens if Pete “throws” light instead of a baseball, according to STR. This is TE 2:

1. The perceived speed of light is not affected by the speed at which an emitting object (e.g., a flashlight) is traveling relative to an observer. Accordingly, if the speed of light were 75 mph and Pete were to “throw” light instead of a baseball, it would take 1 second for the light to reach Charlie’s glove. Charlie would therefore measure the speed of light as 75 mph.

2. As before, Charlie would have moved 110 feet toward Ozzie in that 1 second, so that Charlie’s glove would be abreast of Ozzie at the instant of the arrival of light. It would seem that Ozzie should calculate the speed of light as 150 mph.

3. But this cannot be so if the speed of light is the same for all observers. That is, both Charlie and Ozzie should measure the speed of light as 75 mph.

4. How can Ozzie’s measurement be brought into line with Charlie’s? Generalizing from the relationship between distance (d), time (t), and speed (v):

  • d = tv (i.e., t x v, in case you are unfamiliar with algebraic expressions);
  • therefore, v = d/t;
  • which is satisfied by any feasible combination of d and t that yields v = 110 fps (75 mph).

(Key point: The relevant measurements of t and d are those made by Ozzie, from his perspective as an observer standing by the track while the train car moves toward him. In other words, Ozzie will obtain measures of t and/or d that differ from those made by Charlie.)

5. Thus there are two limiting possibilities that satisfy the condition v = 110 fps (75 mph), which is the fixed speed of light in this example:

A. If t = 2 seconds and d = 220 feet, then v = 110 fps.

B. If t = 1 second and d = 110 ft, then v = 110 fps.

6. Regarding possibility A: t stretches to 2 seconds while d remains 220 feet. The stretching of t is a relativistic phenomenon known as time dilation. From Ozzie’s perspective, the train car slows down. More exactly, a clock mounted in the train car would seem (to Ozzie) to run at half-speed from the moment Pete releases the ball of light.

7. Regarding possibility B: d contracts to 110 feet while t remains 1 second. The contraction of d is a relativistic phenomenon known as length contraction. From Ozzie’s perspective, it appears that the distance from Pete’s release point to Charlie’s catch (which occurs when Charlie is adjacent to Ozzie) shrinks when Pete releases the ball of light, so that Ozzie sees it as 110 feet.

8. There is no reason to favor one phenomenon over the other; therefore, what Ozzie sees is a combination of the two, such that the observed speed of the ball of light is 75 mph.

*     *     *

Here is TE 3, which is a variation on TE 2:

1. The train car is now traveling leftward at 110 fps, as seen by Ozzie. The car  is a caboose, and Pete is standing on the rear platform, whence he throws the baseball rightward (relative to Ozzie) at 110 fps (relative to Pete).

2. Ozzie is directly opposite Pete when Pete releases the ball at t = 0. According to classical physics, Ozzie would perceive the ball as stationary; that is, the sum of the speed of the train car relative to Ozzie (- 110 fps) and the speed of the baseball relative to Pete (110 fps) is zero. In other words, Ozzie should see the ball hanging in mid-air for at least 1 second.

3. Do you really expect the ball to stand still (relative to Ozzie) in mid-air for 1 second? No, you don’t. You really expect, quite reasonably, that the ball will move to Ozzie’s right, just as a light beam would move to Ozzie’s right if switched on at t = 0. (This is analogous to the behavior of a light beam emitted from a flashlight that is switched on at t = 0.)

4. Now suppose that Charlie is stationary relative to Pete, as before. This time, however, Charlie is standing at the front of a train car that is following Pete’s train car at a constant distance of 110 feet. According to the setup of TE 1, Charlie will be directly opposite Pete at t = 1, and Charlie will catch the ball at that instant. How can that be if the ball actually moves to Ozzie’s right, as stipulated in the preceding paragraph?

5. If Pete had thrown a ball of light at t = 0 — a very slow ball that goes only 110 fps — it would hit Charlie’s glove at t = 1, as seen by Charlie. If Ozzie is to see Charlie catch the ball of light, even though it moves to Ozzie’s right, Charlie cannot be directly opposite Ozzie at t = 1, but must be somewhere to Ozzie’s right.

6. As in TE 2, this situation requires Pete and Charlie’s train cars to slow down (as seen by Ozzie), the distance between Pete and Charlie to stretch (as seen by Ozzie), or a combination of the two. Whatever the combination, Ozzie will measure the speed of the ball of light as 110 fps (75 mph). At one extreme, the distance between Pete and Charlie would seem to stretch from 110 feet to 220 feet when Pete releases the ball, so that Ozzie sees Charlie catch the ball 2 seconds after Pete releases it, and 110 feet to Ozzie’s right. At the other extreme (or near it), the distance between Pete and Charlie would seem to stretch from 110 feet to, say, 111 feet when Pete releases the ball, so that Ozzie sees Charlie catch the ball just over 1 second after Pete releases it, and 1 foot to Ozzie’s right. The outcome is slightly different than that of TE 2 because Pete and Charlie are moving to the left instead of the right, while the ball is moving to the right, as before.

7. In the case of a real ball moving at 75 mph, the clocks would slow imperceptibly and/or the distance would shrink imperceptibly, maintaining the illusion that the formula of classical physics is valid — but it is not. It only seems to be because the changes are too small to be detected by ordinary means.

*     *     *

TE 2 and TE 3 are rough expositions of how perceptions of space and time are affected by the relative motion of disparate objects, according to STR. I set the speed of light at the absurdly low figure of 75 mph to simplify the examples, but there is no essential difference between my expositions and what is supposed to happen to Ozzie’s perceptions of time and distance, according to STR.

If Pete and Charlie actually could move at the speed of light, some rather strange things would happen, according to STR, but I won’t go into them here. It is enough to note that STR implies that light has “weird” properties, which lead to “weird” perceptions about the relative speeds and sizes of objects that are moving relative to an observer. (I am borrowing “weird” from pages 23 and 24 of physicist Lewis Carroll Epstein’s Relativity Visualized, an excellent primer on STR, replete with insightful illustrations.)

The purpose of my explanation is not to demonstrate my grasp of STR (which is rudimentary but skeptical), or to venture an explanation of the “weird” nature of light. My purpose is to set the stage for some probing questions about STR. The questions are occasioned by the “fact” that occasioned STR: the postulate that the speed of light is the same in free space for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the light source. If that postulate is true, then the preceding discussion is valid in its essentials; if it is false, much that physicists now claim to know is wrong.

*     *     *

My first question is about the effect of a change in Charlie’s perception of movement:

a. Recall that in TE 1 and TE 2 Charlie (the observer in the train car) is unaware that the car is moving relative to the surface of the Earth. Let us remedy that ignorance by replacing the one-way mirror on the side of the car with clear glass. Charlie then sees that the car is moving, at a speed that he calculates with the aid of a stopwatch and distance markers along the track. Does Charlie’s new perception affect his estimate of the speed of a baseball thrown by Pete?

b. The answer is “yes” and “no.” The “yes” comes from the fact that Charlie now appreciates that the forward speed of the baseball, relative to the ground or a stationary observer next to the track, is not 75 mph but 150 mph. The “no” comes from the fact that the baseball’s speed, relative to Charlie, remains 75 mph. Although this new knowledge gives Charlie information about how others may perceive the speed of a baseball thrown by Pete, it does not change Charlie’s original perception.

c. Charlie may nevertheless ask if there is any way of assigning an absolute value to the speed of the thrown baseball. He understands that such a speed may have no practical relevance (e.g., to a batter who is stationary with respect to Pete and Charlie). But if there is no such thing as absolute speed, because all motion is relative, then how can light be assigned an absolute speed of 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum? I say “absolute” because that is what the speed of light seems to be, for practical purposes.

*     *     *

That leads to my second question:

a. Do the methods of determining the speed of light betray an error in thinking about the how that speed is affected by the speed of objects that emit light?

b. Suppose, for example, that observers (or their electronic equivalent) are positioned along the track at intervals of 44 feet, and that their clocks are synchronized to record the number of seconds after Pete releases a baseball. The first observer, who is abreast of Pete’s release point, records the time of release as 0. The ball leaves Pete’s hand at a speed of 110 fps, relative to Pete, who is moving at a speed of 110 fps, for a combined speed of 220 fps. Accordingly, the baseball will be abreast of the second observer at 0.25 seconds, the third observer at 0.5 seconds, the fourth observer, at 0.75 seconds, and the fifth observer at 1 second. The fifth observer, of course, is Ozzie, who is adjacent to Charlie’s glove when Charlie catches the ball.

c. Change “baseball” to “light” and the result changes as described in TE 2 and TE 3, following the tenets of STR. It changes because the speed of light is supposed to be a limiting speed. But is it? For example, a Wikipedia article about faster-than-light phenomena includes a long section that gives several reasons (advanced by physicists) for doubting that the speed of light is a limiting speed.

d. It is therefore possible that the conduct and interpretation of experiments corroborating the constant nature of the speed of light have been influenced (subconsciously) by the crucial place of STR in physics. For example, an observer may see two objects approach (close with) each other at a combined speed greater than the speed of light. Accordingly, it would be possible for the Ozzie of my thought experiment to measure the velocity of a ball of light thrown by Pete as the sum of the speed of light and the speed of the train car. But that is not the standard way of explaining things in the literature with which I am familiar. Instead, the reader is told (by Epstein and other physicists) that Ozzie cannot simply add the two speeds because the speed of light is a limiting speed.

*     *     *

My rudimentary understanding of STR leaves me in doubt about its tenets, its implications, and the validity of experiments that seem to confirm those tenets and implications. I need to know a lot more about the nature of light and the nature of space-time (as a non-mathematical entity) before before accepting the “scientific consensus” that STR has been verified beyond a reasonable doubt. The more recent rush to “scientific consensus” about “global warming” should be taken as a cautionary tale for retrospective application.

ADDENDUM, 02/26/17:

I’ve just learned of the work of Thomas E. Phipps Jr. (1925-2016), a physicist who happens to have been a member of a World War II operations research unit that evolved into the think-tank where I worked for 30 years. Phipps long challenged the basic tenets of STR. A paper by Robert J. Buenker, “Commentary on the Work of Thomas E. Phipps Jr. (1925-2016)” gives a detailed, technical summary of Phipps’s objections to STR. I will spend some time reviewing Buenker’s paper and a book by Phipps that I’ve ordered. Meanwhile, consider this passage from Buenker’s paper:

[T]he supposed inextricable relationship between space and time is shown to be simply the result of an erroneous (and undeclared) assumption made by Einstein in his original work. Newton was right and Einstein was wrong. Instead, one can return to the ancient principle of the objectivity of measurement. The only reason two observers can legitimately disagree about the value of a measurement is because they base their results on a different set of units…. Galileo’s Relativity Principle needs to be amended to read: The laws of physics are the same in all inertial systems but the units in which their results are expressed can and do vary from one rest frame to another.

Einstein’s train thought-experiment (and its variant) may be wrong.

I have long thought that the Lorentz transformation, which is central to STR, actually undercuts the idea of non-simultaneity because it reconciles the observations of observers in different frames of reference:

[T]he Lorentz transformation … relates the coordinates used by one observer to coordinates used by another in uniform relative motion with respect to the first.

Assume that the first observer uses coordinates labeled t, x, y, and z, while the second observer uses coordinates labeled t’, x’, y’, and z’. Now suppose that the first observer sees the second moving in the x-direction at a velocity v. And suppose that the observers’ coordinate axes are parallel and that they have the same origin. Then the Lorentz transformation expresses how the coordinates are related:

 t'={\frac  {t-{v\,x/c^{2}}}{{\sqrt  {1-v^{2}/c^{2}}}}}\ ,
x'={\frac  {x-v\,t}{{\sqrt  {1-v^{2}/c^{2}}}}}\ ,
y'=y\ ,
z'=z\ ,

where c is the speed of light.

More to come.

The Hypocrisy of “Local Control”

There’s much ado among the big-city Democrats of Texas about bills introduced by Republican legislators to ease the burden of city-imposed regulations. The Democrats like to accuse the Republicans of hypocrisy, saying that Republicans are against the federal government telling the States what to do; therefore (the Democrats say), Republicans should be against the government of Texas telling the cities of Texas what to do.

That’s a superficially appealing argument. But what the Republicans are trying to do is keep the cities of Texas from  telling their citizens and businesses what to do, and what not to do. In Austin, for example:

A property owner must have the city’s permission to remove a tree with a diameter greater than 19 inches. The doom-and-gloom scenario is the preposterous one that homeowners will have their trees cut down, which would — among other things — eventually cause more erosion and flooding. Give me a break. It’s costly to cut down trees, and homeowners appreciate their beauty, shade, and value to prospective buyers. A tree comes down only when it’s diseased or in the way of something essential (e.g., an addition to make room for mother-in-law).

Thin plastic bags and flimsy paper bags have been outlawed (with some exceptions). Why? Because the sight of a relatively small number of loose bags offends the greenies and artsy-craftsy crowd. But damn the inconvenience and expense to consumers, who must now carry their purchases in their hands or buy an approved bag if they leave their own approved bag at home. Picking up loose bags is good therapy for greenies and artsy-craftsy types, and an excellent form of community service for Austin’s ample supply of jailbirds.

The city is the monopoly provider of water and electricity to homes and businesses. It overcharges for utilities in order to subsidize the usual causes deemed “worthy” by the city’s left-wing government. And it doesn’t allow utility customers to shop around and buy gas or electricity from low-cost providers.

The city’s government — populated as it is with true believers in AGW — insists on stringent standards for the energy efficiency of new homes and replacement systems for existing homes (e.g., new windows and doors, new HVAC systems). The city, in other words, isn’t content to let property owners decide between investment and operating costs — the city preempts the decision and makes it for property owners.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Austin, like most other big cities, insists on micro-managing the affairs of the persons and businesses within its jurisdiction. Then, when Republican legislators threaten to deregulate something that the city regulates, local politicians appeal to “local control.”

Well, the ultimate in local control is the freedom to do as one wishes with one’s own property — barring actual criminality, of course. Dictation by Austin’s left-wing city council and the hired hands in the city’s various bureaucracies isn’t that kind of local control — it’s local tyranny.

Republican legislators (or some of them) are seeking to liberate me (and others) from local tyranny. It’s no different in kind than the Thirteenth Amendmentan initiative of the federal government — which voided State laws allowing slavery.

Commentary on the Recent UC Berkeley Riot at Milo Yiannopoulous’ Speaking Event

A guest post by LP

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted but I’d be remiss not comment on the riot at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, on February 1, 2017 which illustrates the consequences of taking justice into one’s own hands. One only needs to reflect on how sense of right and wrong changes with maturity to appreciate the subjective element. And this can be warped by unique brain wiring (e.g., Ted Kaczynski).

Departing from the usual post format, here are videos illustrating up-close details of more personal costs associated with “justice” administration (aside from the reported half-million dollars in damage to infrastructure and surrounding businesses) by the frenzied or not-so-bright. This is a 46-second clip taken by Mixed Martial Artist (MMA) Jake Shields’ girlfriend of his confrontation with Antifa (derived from “Anti-Fascists” and comprised of anarcho-communists as far as I know) after saving a Trump supporter from being beaten to death. If you can’t hear the conversation, as mentioned in the YouTube comment section, these rioters reasoned that Milo Yiannopoulos can’t be Jewish because he’s Greek.

To quote Shields, “I don’t think those people are capable of rationalizing. I think they’ve switched their brains to where if you have a different opinion of them, you’re a Nazi. I hate Nazis, too, but who determines what’s a Nazi?… There were hundreds of people cheering on, ‘Get the Nazi,’ and I went up and started arguing with them. Why’s this guy a Nazi? What did he say to make him a Nazi? No one could say.”

Without provocation, an Antifa member pepper-sprayed a woman wearing a “Make Bitcoin Great Again” hat. Anarcho-Capitalist Stefan Molyneux interviews her about this incident in this 21-minute video:

Meanwhile, as the night’s events unfolded, law enforcement’s capacity to assist others was limited as a would-be Milo Yiannopoulos event attendee described:

After about 2 1/2 hours, an officer told them, “if you guys want to go out of the building, you need to go now.” Walsh asked if officers would escort them. “They said, ‘It’ll make things worse for you,’ ” she said.

Walsh and her female friend made it to their car in a parking garage, where, in a surreal moment, a lurking stranger had mistaken their car as belonging to Yiannapoulos’ entourage and was hoping to see him.

They tried to drive out of the garage but the exit was blocked by barricades and a dumpster, she said. Two maintenance workers said they could not help them but gave them the phone number to the campus police department. She called but was told officers were “a little busy” though they’d try to send someone.

As it happened, Walsh had grabbed some anti-Yiannopoulos printed material (“propaganda literature,” she said) so she put it on the dashboard to fool the protesters – and held onto her pepper spray.

She drove behind another car heading to the exit, where several protesters moved the obstruction aside to let them pass, which took a while.

“They said ‘We’ll help you.’ They let us out,” she said. “That literature saved my life, I’m sure of it. It was insane.”

Styxhexenhammer666 contrasts political protests by the left versus the right and offers conclusions (which aren’t surprising) on where the vast majority of the violence comes from in this 12-minute video:

I can’t attest to the accuracy of his account of history, so corrections and comments are welcome. The narrative that the rioters were outsiders (unaffiliated with UC Berkeley) who took over what was to be a peaceful demonstration makes sense. Some protesters disapprove of Antifa’s methods I’m sure. However, if protesters believe Antifa are right-wing agent provocateurs, they should clarify their disapproval and arrange to ostracize rioters. Plan to be seen shouting them down or leaving to avoid being caught up in it.

Antifa has seemingly been accepted at leftist demonstrations for some time though (e.g. the Occupy movement). Perhaps young, college-aged protesters are too inexperienced and short-sighted about consequences to pursue effective methods for dealing with infiltration as others asserted. However,  I’ll believe their rejection of Antifa when I see it. Most viewers saw what I saw – protesters mostly cheering and celebrating. So, how is it not reasonable to interpret their actions as condoning stupidity and senseless violence? After a cool-down period, granting students’ “thought leaders” time to reflect and come to their senses on how to respond in a way that represents the campus and student community, writers at The Daily Californian (the campus newspaper) defended the rioters:

Neil Lawrence wrote, “Behind those bandanas and black T-shirts were faces of your fellow UC Berkeley and Berkeley City college students, of women, of people of color, of queer and trans people.”

Desmond Meagley wrote, “Condemning protesters same as condoning hate speech… I put my safety and my freedom on the line because letting Yiannopoulos speak was more terrifying to me than potential injury or arrest.”

At this time, the right-wing agent provocateur narrative may also be unraveling. It appears that UC Berkeley students may have been among the Antifa rioters’ ranks that night. However, rioters’ identities are still under FBI investigation.

I seem to recall a time when there was less extremism. Although college students aren’t all like this as they, too, represent different points across the political spectrum, in hindsight, it just seems the penchant for this craziness was not there to this degree. I attended Berkeley in the 1990s and was present for the discontinuation of Affirmative Action. Students’ reactions were uneventful compared to how riled up these protesters became over a visiting speaker they disagreed with. This leaves me wondering if it’ll get worse than this.

The Age of Noise

Aldous Huxley says this in The Perennial Philosophy:

The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio, is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the ear-drums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions – news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ears, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego’s central core of wish and desire.

Mr. Huxley would hate the twenty-first century. The noise is beyond deafening. And it’s everywhere: beeping cell phones; loud one-sided conversations into cell phones; talking automobiles; ear-shattering “music” blasting from nearby automobiles, stadium loudspeakers, computers, TVs, and (yes) radios; screeching MoTown (or whatever it’s now called) blasting away in grocery stores (at the request of employees, I suspect); movie soundtracks worthy of the Siege of Stalingrad; and on and on.

I’m glad that my hearing aids have a “mute” function. When engaged, it takes the sharp edges off the knives of sound that assail me whenever I venture into the outside world.

Sound has become a substitute for the absorption and processing of information, that is, for thought. The decades-long crescendo in the West’s sound track lends support to Richard Lynn’s hypothesis that intelligence is on the decline.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Flow
In Praise of Solitude
There’s Always Solitude
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness

Retrospective Virtue-Signalling

I’ve become fond of “virtue-signalling” — the phrase, that is, not the hypocritical act itself, which is

the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily to enhance [his] standing within a social group.

A minor act of virtue-signalling is the grammatically incorrect use of “their” (a plural pronoun), to avoid the traditional “his” (sexist!) or the also correct but awkward “his or her.” That’s why you see “[his]” in the quotation, which replaces the abominable “their.”

Anyway, virtue-signalling is almost exclusively a left-wing phenomenon. And it often takes more acidic forms than the prissy use of “their” to avoid an imaginary lapse into sexism. For example:

An aging, has-been singer shrieks her fantasy of blowing up the White House. Later, she walks it back, saying she was quoted “out of context,” though her words are perfectly clear….

A multimillionaire actress/talk show host not only pretends to believe that Republicans want to return her race to picking cotton, but now wonders aloud just how different we Trump voters are from the Taliban…..

…These awards shows now look more like Comintern speeches with competition to see which androgynous little wussie-pants can sound more macho encouraging “fighting” in the streets, “punching people in the face,” or “Resistance” to frenzied applause from the gathered trained seals. Remember, guys, in a real fight that’s not choreographed there are no stuntmen.

But perhaps the nastiest attacks of all have been on Trump’s family. There were the horrible Tweets about his blameless young son. There were the charming “rape Melania” banners, so odious I thought for sure they had to be photoshopped. They were not. There is an alleged comedienne I had never heard of named Chelsea Handler who announced apropos of nothing that she won’t have Melania on her talk show because “she can’t speak English well enough to be understood.”…

So this is the genius who won’t interview Melania, who speaks five languages. I hope our elegant First Lady can recover from the snub. None of these Mean Girls of any gender would dream of criticizing a Spanish speaker trying to speak English, or correct a black person who said “axe” for “ask” (something I believe they do just to be annoying…). But a beautiful immigrant woman whose English is not perfect deserves mocking. Because liberals are so nice. Virtuous, even. Not Taliban-y at all.

My strongest scorn is reserved for the hordes that have decided to change the names of streets and buildings, to tear down statues, and to remove paintings from public view because the persons thus named or depicted are heroes of the past who committed acts that leftists must deplore — or risk being targeted by other left-wing virtue-signalers.

Retrospective virtue-signalling has been going on for several years now. I’m not sure, but I think it blossomed into an epidemic in the aftermath of the despicable shooting of blacks at a prayer meeting in a Charleston church. A belated example is the recent 3-2 vote by the city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park.

What can such actions accomplish other than raising the level of smugness of their perpetrators? If they have any effect on racism in the United States, it’s probably to raise its level, too. If I were a racist, I’d be outraged by the cumulative effect of such actions, of which there have been dozens or hundreds in recent years. I’d certainly be a more committed racist than I was before, just as a matter of psychological self-defense.

But such things don’t matter to virtue-signalers. It’s all a matter of reinforcing their feelings of superiority and flaunting their membership in the left-wing goody-two-shoes club — the club that proudly boasts of wanting to “blow up the White House” and “rape Melania.”

And the post-election riots prove that the club has some members who are more than prissy, armchair radicals. They’re the same kind of people who used to wear brown shirts and beat up Jews.

A Pledge I Wouldn’t Take

If I wanted to join the Libertarian Party of the United States (and perhaps many or all State parties), I would have to “certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.” That’s ridiculous. I would approve the initiation of force to achieve many political and social goals; for example:

The overthrow of an oppressive government of the United States, but only under conditions where success is likely. Otherwise, too many lives would be lost in vain.

Stealthy vigilantism where a known murderer or rapist has escaped justice on a legal technicality (e.g., the failure to give him a Miranda warning). Stealthy so that the vigilantes could execute justice without themselves suffering retribution from an unjust government.

A preemptive military attack on a foreign state or organization that is inimical to Americans, is actively developing plans to harm them, and has or is acquiring the means to execute those plans. This could include instances of great economic harm, such as shutting off a major source of oil or a key trade route.

I wouldn’t join the LP for another reason: It probably drains more votes from GOP candidates than from Democrat candidates. The GOP is far from perfect, but it’s better than the Democrat Party on most issues.

 

Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

What is liberty, and why does it depend on the general observance of social norms?

Liberty is not the absence of restraint, whence chaos and depredation flow. Liberty is the presence of mutual restraint based on trust, respect, and forbearance. Where those attributes prevail, a people can coexist peacefully and cooperate beneficially. Cooperation includes not only unremunerated assistance but also the exchange of products and services for mutual benefit, directly or with the use of money.

The state, at best, provides an ambience in which liberty can flourish. It does that by defending citizens from foreign and domestic predators. But the actualization of liberty depends on the institutions of civil society: family, church, community, club, charity, and commercial enterprise. It is those institutions that inculcate social norms, and it the common observance of those norms that creates and sustains mutual trust, respect, and forbearance among a people.

By the same token, a lack of shared norms — especially by outright rejection — fuels mistrust, disrespect, and aggression. How do I know when someone isn’t worthy of my trust, respect, and forbearance? When he habitually signals — by deeds, words, or allegiances — the rejection of social norms.

Here is a rough taxonomy of social norms and their relationship to each other and to liberty:

Taxonomy of social norms

I’ll talk about some of the ways in which leftists undermine and signal their opposition to the norms that enable a functional civil society — one that advances mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. But first I want to make a general point about the power of the state to destroy socializing norms and institutions without overtly abolishing them. Leftists like to portray themselves as anti-authoritarian, but they do so cynically. One of the things that they know (or intuit) is that a vast swath of the populace is morally malleable, so if the state says that something is all right (or verboten) huge numbers of persons will follow suit and say that it’s all right (or verboten). As I once wrote, in a post about same-sex “marriage,”

When the state sends signals about private arrangements, private arrangements tend to align themselves with the signals being sent by the state.

Which is why the left relies heavily on non-electoral means of exerting control, that is, litigation and regulation. There is as much authority in those aspects of governance as there is in the decisions of elected representatives. If five justices of the Supreme Court were to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional, as they have said that homosexual “marriage” should be considered marriage, millions of people will acquiesce, without giving more than a moment’s thought to the broader social implications of either decree.

As the following paragraphs attest, decades-long persistence in such matters has amply rewarded the left’s efforts to transform America fundamentally — for the worse.

Murder. Core norms are widely accepted in America, though inconsistently. Leftists will decry murder and even call for the death penalty when the perpetrator is a white heterosexual and the victims are not. But leftists won’t admit that abortion is murder, that is, the taking of a human life. Moreover, leftists (and not a few misguided conservatives and libertarians) have for more than a century signaled their toleration of murder by opposing capital punishment. A pro-life leftist is someone who believes in sparing criminals and enemy combatants, while killing children in the womb.

Theft. Leftists will say that the prohibition of theft is a core social norm, and that it ought to be observed and enforced by the state. In the next breath, they will defend all manner of state-enforced theft, from Social Security transfer payments to housing subsidies, and then propose more of them (e.g., Universal Basic Income). If you believe that taxation isn’t theft (or worse), consider this. And if you believe that income redistribution at the point of a gun is charity, consider this.

Marriage and divorce. Leftists obviously have no qualms about the destruction of a crucial reinforcing norm: marriage. I have written a detailed defense of traditional marriage as a civilizing and libertarian institution, and a detailed condemnation of same-sex “marriage” as an anti-libertarian innovation. Rather than repeat the arguments of that post, I refer you to it. The bottom line is that the left, in its usual zeal to advance the cause of imaginary victims, has set in motion the destruction of a bulwark of civil society.

The heavy hand of leftism is visible in the adoption of no-fault divorce laws, which work against marital perseverance, which helps to ensure children to be raised by both parents. As Wikipedia puts it, the “Women’s movement effected change in Western society, including … ‘no fault’ divorce.” And where did no-fault divorce first become available? In California, of course.

Sexuality. The LGBTQ movement is a left-wing inspiration, designed mainly to infuriate conservatives and incidentally advance the cause of people whom leftists see as victims. (If the aim of persons who “identify” as LGBT or Q is to be left alone, loud shrillness isn’t the way to go about it.) Left-wing support of such groups — which are really identity groups, not victim groups — serves two purposes. The first is virtue-signaling; the second is goading conservatives into acts that can be portrayed as victim-bashing (e.g., various “bathroom bills”).  More deeply, left-wing support of the LGBTQ movement signals a rejection of civilizing norms, and is meant to erode them further. At the margin, there are many impressionable young persons who will turn their backs on marriage and family and adopt the frivolous, decadent, and too-often-fatal LGBTQ “lifestyle.”

Race. Before the contrived prominence of the LGBTQ “cause,” the left’s favorite victim group was blacks. Early and proper attention to barbarous and unjust practices (e.g., lynchings and denial of voting rights) gave way to the persistent myth that racial inequality is an artifact of slavery and legal segregation. The myth persists because of an obdurate refusal to recognize racial differences in intelligence. In “Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Racial Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility,” for example,  the authors (researchers at the Brookings Institution, which the media usually describe as center-left) document persistent race differences in IQ, admit that “it is unlikely that the racial achievement gap can be explained away by class differences across race,” but end with “race gaps on the SAT hold up a mirror to racial inequities in society as a whole,” as if those inequalities could be eradicated despite the demonstrably ineradicable intelligence gap. Well, they could be reduced — and are reduced, to some extent — but mainly by stealing money, jobs, and university admissions from whites and East Asians.

And so, billions upon billions of dollars have been wasted on early education, job training, public housing, and welfare payments (the conditions of which have destroyed black families and worsened the unemployment rate among blacks). Racial quotas (called “affirmative action” and “diversity programs”) have penalized better-qualified whites and Asians seeking jobs, promotions, and university admissions — and have also penalized blacks by setting them up for failure (see this, this, and this).

Forced “diversity” is in fact socially divisive, as Maverick Philosopher correctly observes. Then there were the divisive eight years of Obama’s presidency, in which he and his so-called Department of Justice defended black thugs and persecuted white cops. Is it any wonder that blacks and whites probably mistrust each other more than they have since the bad old days of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation? Where all of this isn’t directly destructive of social comity, it signals rejection of core and reinforcing norms that make social comity possible.

Drugs. The legalization of marijuana isn’t just an issue for leftists, but they certainly champion legalization as yet another blow for “personal freedom.” The usual response to evidence that marijuana has many undesirable long-term effects is something like “so does alcohol, so why isn’t it illegal?” Well, it’s far too late to prohibit alcohol in the United States (tried and failed), and it’s probably far too late (and futile) to prohibit marijuana.

I’m not a prohibitionist (of alcohol or marijuana), but marijuana should be used knowing the risks associated with its use, just as the risks of alcohol consumption are well known. Instead, the push for “personal freedom” simply dodges the issue of risk by allowing marijuana consumption for medical conditions that apply to only a small fraction of its users.

Leftists will eventually turn on marijuana because it’s used and enjoyed by the unwashed masses (like cigarettes), so they will then campaign to regulate it and curtail its use. Marijuana use, in other words, is just a weapon in the culture war-cum-civil war — another route by which the left attacks and weakens traditional norms and those who stand behind them.

Religion. There’s nothing left to be said about the effort to eradicate religion. The late Justice Scalia called it “freedom from religion” as opposed to “freedom of religion,” which the Constitution guarantees. The ACLU and similar organizations attack expressions of religion at every turn. Those attacks may have the unsought effect of redoubling the devotion of many Americans to liberty-advancing religious principles. But surely, at the margin, the attacks will diminish religious affiliation and the social good that goes with it: true kindness and charity, true tolerance, true forgiveness. (For a discussion of the beneficial effects of religion go here and scroll to “Religion and Liberty.”)

To be against religion is an article of faith for most leftists, who fancy themselves rational and fact-based, despite ample evidence to the contrary. They are, in fact, spoiled children of capitalism engaged in adolescent rebellion. And religion is a favored target of the rebellious adolescent — especially religion of the Judeo-Christian variety, because most leftists were reared in that tradition. Islam, on the other hand, is acceptable because its adherents — who stand against almost everything leftists stand for — are “victims” in the twisted topography of leftist dogma.

Self-reliance. What better way to control people than to make them reliant on you instead of themselves? That’s how drug dealers (at the top of the food chain) make big bucks — until they’re shot or arrested. Dependency on big government is tantamount to dependency on the left, which gratifies a deeply felt need for power. (Fascism is a left-wing phenomenon.) Conservatives treat their children like children, so that those children will become responsible adults. Leftists treat adults like children because it makes them (leftists) feel superior. Though when leftists don’t get their way, they act like children, as they have done since the election of Donald Trump.

The left has devised and implemented many forms of control over the past 80 years. Those forms range from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to food stamps, special deals on housing and mortgages, and rampant regulation of all aspects of the economy. What better way to break the old American habit of self-reliance and personal responsibility — a habit that fosters mutually beneficial cooperation — than to establish government as the go-to arbiter of social and economic relations?

I could relate many personal run-ins with the nanny state, but I will close this discussion by pointing to examples of an especially annoying outrage: “Parents In Trouble Again for Letting Kids Walk Alone” (USA Today, April 13, 2015), “Parents Arrested for Letting their Children Play Outside as America Degenerates into Clinical Insanity” (OffTheGridNews, ca. 2012), and “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Just 4 Generations” (Free-Range Kids, February 1, 2017). Fortunately, as a child I was not cooped up by the state.

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That’s more than enough of that. The left’s crusade against social norms leads to predatory and destructive behavior and suppresses peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. It is the inevitable result of the culture war that the left has waged for decades:

When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society. The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism). That is civil society, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish….

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, and judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda…. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

The culture war, which escalated sharply in the 1960s, is a classic case of barbarism vs. civilization. Arnold Kling describes it in The Three Languages of Politics:

[Leftists] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. [They] view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. [Conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. [They] view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions.

Kling often strains to be even-handed, not only in Three Languages of Politics but in general. (Sample his blog.) Here, I think he is being unduly kind by crediting the left with a concern for the oppressed. That is a superficial interpretation of the left’s championing of “victims,” but the deeper explanation — of which I’ve given many examples — is an attitude of rebellion for rebellion’s sake, coupled with a desire for control. And damn the social and economic consequences, which seem not to occur to (or bother) leftists hell-bent having their way by harnessing the power of the state.

I must therefore revise Kling’s statement of the conservative heuristic, to read as follows: Conservatives view most favorably the voluntary institutions that constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior. And they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions, even if they are doing it unwittingly and for the ostensible objective of helping the “oppressed.”

But leftists will object that the institutions of civil society are often oppressive, or were when they held sway. That objection usually rests on the nirvana fallacy; the institutions do not or did not live up to the left’s idea of perfection. The left’s answer to the “failure” of civil institutions is the enactment of laws, writing of regulations, and promulgation of a judicial decrees. But how often do “reality based” leftists check back to see whether the various government interventions have produced their wanted effects without producing deleterious side effects? I venture to say that the answer is almost never. If leftists were interested in the actual betterment of their fellow Americans, as opposed to controlling them, they would long ago have curbed government spending and regulatory activity, which have stunted economic growth to the detriment of poor and rich alike.

The urge to control is evident in the nascent secessionist movement in California, which has my best wishes for success. Leftists reject constitutional limits on the central government as long as they’re in charge. But confront leftists with a central government that is at least nominally controlled by Republicans (many of whom are actually conservatives) and they want out. (By contrast, my support of secession is meant to restore constitutional limits on the central government by starting over.)

The urge to secede is legitimate, if hypocritical on the part of leftists. Exit, or the threat of it, is an essential element of the evolution of civil society — or would be if it weren’t under the thumb of the state. If you don’t like the policies of an institution to which you belong, you can voice your objections and exit if your objections aren’t met. The smaller the institution, the more likely is voice to be effective. And the smaller the institution, the more likely that there are ready alternatives to it.

Voice and the threat of exit are part of what make voluntary institutions effective. They can and do change gradually through trial-and-error. Even large ones, like the Roman Catholic Church, which has changed over the centuries in ways large and small. And when it changed too much in a “liberal” direction, alternatives arose in the form of various Traditional Catholic organizations.

Leftists evidently lack the disposition toward trial-and-error and compromise that makes for “living” social institutions. They will point to a few extreme examples (e.g., slavery and forced segregation) to make the case for precipitous and overbearing government action. The irony is that slavery and forced segregation were government-backed institutions. Other favorite examples (e.g., child labor and “sweat shops”) usually overlook the voluntary nature of the relationships in question — voluntary because the supposed victims were made better off than they had been before. A modern equivalent is found in the case of Wal-Mart, which doesn’t compensate its employees as well as some other, similar firms (e.g., Costco), but which doesn’t drag people off the street and enslave them. Wal-Mart’s workforce of volunteers is, by definition, better off than it would be in the absence of Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart’s millions of customers are, too.

The drive to force Wal-Mart to pay higher wages will, in the end, have the same result as the drive to dictate a minimum wage. It will lead to unemployment for people who most need employment, and it will end in the adoption of automated systems to replace human labor.

Similarly, the drive to make America “fairer” by privileging various groups favored by the left will be thwarted by the realities of economics and human nature. Employers who strive to make a profit (unlike government and universities), will do as they have always done: pay lip-service to “equality” while finding ways to hire only the best-qualified employees. And too many of those persons who are temporarily lifted up by affirmative action and “diversity programs” will find themselves on the outside looking in when they don’t measure up to the expectations of demanding professors and profit-seeking employers.

It comes down to this: Leftists start with an idealized view of the world as it should be — socially and commercially. As a result, they see harm where there is actually gain. And in their zeal to make the world right — by their lights — they make it worse.

Dr. John J. Ray, as usual, is most perceptive about the left:

As a good academic, I first define my terms: A Leftist is a person who is so dissatisfied with the way things naturally are that he/she is prepared to use force to make people behave in ways that they otherwise would not….

The essential feature of all Leftism is the desire to stop other people from doing various things they want to do and make them do various things that they do not want to do (via taxation, regulation, mass murder etc.)  When (on October 30, 2008) Obama spoke of his intention to “fundamentally transform” America, he was not talking about America’s geography or topography.  He was talking about transforming what American people can and must do.  So that is the first and perhaps the most important thing about Leftism:  It is intrinsically authoritarian.

Leftists are not alone in desiring to regulate others, however, so to complete the definition, we have to look at other things that characterize them.

The first remaining thing to say about them is that Leftism is emotional.  The second is to say that the emotion is negative and the third thing to say is that the negative emotion (usually anger/hate/rage) is directed at the world about the Leftist, at the status quo if you like.  The Leftist is nothing if he is not a critic, though usually a very poorly-informed critic.  And the criticisms tend to be both pervasive and deeply felt.

Orwell of course understood Leftism exceptionally well so it is revealing that in 1943 he wrote an essay called “Can Socialists Be Happy?”  His answer was that they can’t even imagine it….

While defining Leftism in terms of their apparent drives and motivations is undoubterdly true and useful, it doesn’t provide a really sharp differentiation of the Left from others.  And I think we can improve on it.  And to do that I think we have to refer to the natural state of affairs.  “The natural state of affairs”?  What is that?  It is a concept sometimes used in both law and economics but I want to broaden its applicability.  I think it is actually quite easy to define in a generally applicable way.  It means whatever people would do in the absence of external constraints….

So I think we can now make a pretty sharp distinction between the changes Leftists want and the changes that conservatives want. Leftists want change AWAY from the natural state of affairs while conservatives want changes TOWARDS the natural state of affairs — or at least changes that respect the natural state of affairs.

For “natural state of affairs” read “social norms that underlie liberty.”

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Related:Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posted listed there

The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State

John Stuart Mill is the father of modern liberalism, though he is usually thought of as a proponent of classical liberalism. The mistake arises from Mill’s harm principle, enunciated in his long essay On Liberty (1869). It is the sand upon which liberalism (classical and modern) is built:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. [Chapter I, paragraph 9]

This seemingly libertarian principle is in fact anti-libertarian, as I explain at length in “On Liberty.” In that post I focus on harm. As I say there,

the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.

In this post I turn to Mill’s definition of society. Here is Mill again:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. [Chapter I, paragraph 5]

But here’s the rub. Who decides when the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling” is too oppressive? The state.

“State” is nothing more than an impressive-sounding word that really denotes the amalgam of elected and non-elected officials who wield governmental power. There are those who say that the state embodies the nation, which is like saying that the lion-tamer embodies the lion. The state most certainly is not society, but it is has the power to be far more tyrannical than society’s “prevailing opinion and feeling.”

Recourse to the power of the state has become the first resort of individuals and groups who object to prevailing opinion and feeling. And when the state meddles with prevailing opinion and feeling it creates new grievances, which produce resistance and resentments that splinter the nation rather than unite it.

What kinds of prevailing opinion and feeling could be so oppressive that their effects must be undone by the oppressive state? Mill devotes Chapter IV of On Liberty to examples of oppression, but they are examples of state action at the behest of sectarian and moralistic interests. Mill conflates society and state, which is excusable in 19th century England, where nation and society were far more congruous than they are in 21st century America.

At any rate, Mill says that

the likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. [Chapter I, paragraph 7]

And opinion, in Mill’s view, becomes inimical to liberty when it is converted into law and bars such things as music, dancing, drinking, the expression of unpopular views, and free trade. In sum, On Liberty should be read as a warning against statist oppression at the behest of powerful factions. Though, as I show in “On Liberty,” it also — and contradictorily — can be read as a justification for behavior that subverts civilizing norms which underlie liberty.

But no matter, the harm principle lives on in the minds of leftists as a justification for using the power of the state to overturn norms of which they disapprove, while it also serves as a justification for anti-social behavior of which they approve. They are faux-individualists because their penchant for governmental intervention against social norms in the name of liberty actually results in the diminution of liberty.

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Related reading: Theodore Dalrymple, “The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth,” Library of Law and Liberty, July 20, 2015

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Related posts — everything listed at “Social Norms and Liberty,” but especially “On Liberty” and
Anarcho-Authoritarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Facets of Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Romanticizing the State
“We the People” and Big Government
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

Fine-Tuning in a Wacky Wrapper

The Unz Review hosts columnists who hold a wide range of views, including whacko-bizarro-conspiracy-theory-nut-job ones. Case in point: Kevin Barrett, who recently posted a review of David Ray Griffin’s God Exists But Gawd Does Not: From Evil to the New Atheism to Fine Tuning. Some things said by Barrett in the course of his review suggest that Griffin, too, holds whacko-bizarro-conspiracy-theory-nut-job views; for example:

In 2004 he published The New Pearl Harbor — which still stands as the single most important work on 9/11 — and followed it up with more than ten books expanding on his analysis of the false flag obscenity that shaped the 21st century.

Further investigation — a trip to Wikipedia — tells me that Griffin believes there is

a prima facie case for the contention that there must have been complicity from individuals within the United States and joined the 9/11 Truth Movement in calling for an extensive investigation from the United States media, Congress and the 9/11 Commission. At this time, he set about writing his first book on the subject, which he called The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 (2004).

Part One of the book looks at the events of 9/11, discussing each flight in turn and also the behaviour of President George W. Bush and his Secret Service protection. Part Two examines 9/11 in a wider context, in the form of four “disturbing questions.” David Ray Griffin discussed this book and the claims within it in an interview with Nick Welsh, reported under the headline Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts: Theologian Charges White House Complicity in 9/11 Attack….

Griffin’s second book on the subject was a direct critique of the 9/11 Commission Report, called The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions And Distortions (2005). Griffin’s article The 9/11 Commission Report: A 571-page Lie summarizes this book, presenting 115 instances of either omissions or distortions of evidence he claims are in the report, stating that “the entire Report is constructed in support of one big lie: that the official story about 9/11 is true.”

In his next book, Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action (2006), he summarizes some of what he believes is evidence for government complicity and reflects on its implications for Christians. The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, publishers of the book, noted that Griffin is a distinguished theologian and praised the book’s religious content, but said, “The board believes the conspiracy theory is spurious and based on questionable research.”

And on and on and on. The moral of which is this: If you have already “know” the “truth,” it’s easy to weave together factual tidbits that seem to corroborate it. It’s an old game that any number of persons can play; for example: Mrs. Lincoln hired John Wilkes Booth to kill Abe; Woodrow Wilson was behind the sinking of the Lusitania, which “forced” him to ask for a declaration of war against Germany; FDR knew about Japan’s plans to bomb Pearl Harbor but did nothing so that he could then have a roundly applauded excuse to ask for a declaration of war on Japan; LBJ ordered the assassination of JFK; etc. Some of those bizarre plots have been “proved” by recourse to factual tidbits. I’ve no doubt that all of them could be “proved” in that way.

If that is so, you may well ask why I am writing about Barrett’s review of Griffin’s book? Because in the midst of Barrett’s off-kilter observations (e.g., “the Nazi holocaust, while terrible, wasn’t as incomparably horrible as it has been made out to be”) there’s a tantalizing passage:

Griffin’s Chapter 14, “Teleological Order,” provides the strongest stand-alone rational-empirical argument for God’s existence, one that should convince any open-minded person who is willing to invest some time in thinking about it and investigating the cited sources. This argument rests on the observation that at least 26 of the fundamental constants discovered by physicists appear to have been “fine tuned” to produce a universe in which complex, intelligent life forms could exist. A very slight variation in any one of these 26 numbers (including the strong force, electromagnetism, gravity, the mass difference between protons and neutrons, and many others) would produce a vastly less complex, rich, interesting universe, and destroy any possibility of complex life forms or intelligent observers. In short, the universe is indeed a miracle, in the sense of something indescribably wonderful and almost infinitely improbable. The claim that it could arise by chance (as opposed to intelligent design) is ludicrous.

Even the most dogmatic atheists who are familiar with the scientific facts admit this. Their only recourse is to embrace the multiple-universes interpretation of quantum physics, claim that there are almost infinitely many actual universes (virtually all of them uninteresting and unfit for life), and assert that we just happen to have gotten unbelievably lucky by finding ourselves in the one-universe-out-of-infinity-minus-one with all of the constants perfectly fine-tuned for our existence. But, they argue, we should not be grateful for this almost unbelievable luck — which is far more improbable than winning hundreds of multi-million-dollar lottery jackpots in a row. For our existence in an amazingly, improbably-wonderful-for-us universe is just a tautology, since we couldn’t possibly be in any of the vast, vast, vast majority of universes that we couldn’t possibly be in.

Griffin gently and persuasively points out that the multiple-universes defense of atheism is riddled with absurdities and inconsistencies. Occam’s razor definitively indicates that by far the best explanation of the facts is that the universe was created not just by an intelligent designer, but by one that must be considered almost supremely intelligent as well as almost supremely creative: a creative intelligence as far beyond Einstein-times-Leonardo-to-the-Nth-power as those great minds were beyond that of a common slug.

Fine-tuning is not a good argument for God’s existence. Here is a good argument for God’s existence:

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
  3. The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.

Barrett (Griffin?) goes on:

Occam’s razor definitively indicates that by far the best explanation of the facts is that the universe was created not just by an intelligent designer, but by one that must be considered almost supremely intelligent as well as almost supremely creative: a creative intelligence as far beyond Einstein-times-Leonardo-to-the-Nth-power as those great minds were beyond that of a common slug.

Whoa! Occam’s razor indicates nothing of the kind:

Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there may be an extremely large, perhaps even incomprehensible, number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypotheses to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

Barrett’s (Griffin’s?) hypothesis about the nature of the supremely intelligent being is unduly complicated. Not that the existence of God is a testable (falsifiable) hypothesis. It’s just a logical necessity, and should be left at that.

Misunderstanding the Problem

In “How Statistics Lost Their Power — and Why We Should Fear What Comes Next” (The Guardian, January 19, 2017), William Davies asserts that

statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government….

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency….

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

And yada yada yada.

Davies views the world through the lens of the policy-maker, who believes that he can fine-tune the interests of millions of people and arrive at policies that deliver the “greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.” This is nothing more than utilitarianism — the arrogant doling out of other people’s money — which is antithetical to liberty.

Here’s why “populists” are up in arms about statistics: They don’t like to be pushed around, and they can smell b.s. a mile away. Social statistics are malleable things. In the hands of pundits and politicians they are cherry-picked and smoothed and slanted in favor of one-size-fits-all “solutions” to perceived problems. The result usually is that a lot of people get burned by those “solutions.” Take Obamacare, please!

The real solution to most “social” problems isn’t more and better statistics, it’s smaller and less powerful government.

That’s what all the fuss is about, Mr. Davies.

Read on:
The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number?
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Governmental Perversity
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Social Justice vs. Liberty

Scott Adams Understands Probability

A probability expresses the observed frequency of the occurrence of a well-defined event for a large number of repetitions of the event, where each repetition is independent of the others (i.e., random). Thus the probability that a fair coin will come up heads in, say, 100 tosses is approximately 0.5; that is, it will come up heads approximately 50 percent of the time. (In the penultimate paragraph of this post, I explain why I emphasize approximately.)

If a coin is tossed 100 times, what is the probability that it will come up heads on the 101st toss? There is no probability for that event because it hasn’t occurred yet. The coin will come up heads or tails, and that’s all that can be said about it.

Scott Adams, writing about the probability of being killed by an immigrant, puts it this way:

The idea that we can predict the future based on the past is one of our most persistent illusions. It isn’t rational (for the vast majority of situations) and it doesn’t match our observations. But we think it does.

The big problem is that we have lots of history from which to cherry-pick our predictions about the future. The only reason history repeats is because there is so much of it. Everything that happens today is bound to remind us of something that happened before, simply because lots of stuff happened before, and our minds are drawn to analogies.

…If you can rigorously control the variables of your experiment, you can expect the same outcomes almost every time [emphasis added].

You can expect a given outcome (e.g., heads) to occur approximately 50 percent of the time if you toss a coin a lot of times. But you won’t know the actual frequency (probability) until you measure it; that is, after the fact.

Here’s why. The statement that heads has a probability of 50 percent is a mathematical approximation, given that there are only two possible outcomes of a coin toss: heads or tails. While writing this post I used the RANDBETWEEN function of Excel 2016 to simulate ten 100-toss games of heads or tails, with the following results (number of heads per game): 55, 49, 49, 43, 43, 54, 47, 47, 53, 52. Not a single game yielded exactly 50 heads, and heads came up 492 times (not 500) in 1,000 tosses.

What is the point of a probability statement? What is it good for? It lets you know what to expect over the long run, for a large number of repetitions of a strictly defined event. Change the definition of the event, even slightly, and you can “probably” kiss its probability goodbye.

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Related posts:
Fooled by Non-Randomness
Randomness Is Over-Rated
Beware the Rare Event
Some Thoughts about Probability
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming

A Nation of Immigrants, a Nation of Enemies

I’m sick and tired of hearing that the United States is a nation of immigrants. So what if the United States is a nation of immigrants? The real issue is whether immigrants wish to become Americans in spirit, not in name only — loyal to the libertarian principles of the Constitution or cynical abusers of it.

I understand and sympathize with the urge to live among people with whom one shares a religion, a language, and customs. Tribalism is a deeply ingrained trait. It is not necessarily a precursor to aggression, contrary to the not-so-subtle message (aimed at white Americans) of the UN propaganda film that I was subjected to in high school. And the kind of tribalism found in many American locales, from the barrios of Los Angeles to the disappearing German communities of Texas to the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of New York City, is harmless compared with  Reconquista and Sharia.

Proponents of such creeds don’t want to become Americans whose allegiance is to the liberty promised by the Constitution. They are cynical abusers of that liberty, whose insidious rhetoric is evidence against free-speech absolutism.

But they are far from the only abusers of that liberty. It is unnecessary to import enemies when there is an ample supply of them among native-born Americans. Well, they are Americans in name because they were born in the United States and (in most cases) haven’t formally renounced their allegiance to the Constitution. But they are its enemies, no matter how cleverly they twist its meaning to support their anti-libertarian creed.

I am speaking of the left, of course. Lest we forget, the real threat to liberty in America is home-grown. The left’s recent hysterical hypocrisy leads me to renounce my naive vow to be a kinder, gentler critic of the left’s subversive words and deeds.

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Related posts:
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Tolerance
Privilege, Power, and Hypocrisy
Thinkers vs. Doers
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty
My Platform
Polarization and De-facto Partition
How America Has Changed
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
Politics, Personality, and Hope for a New Era

Foolish Inconsistency

A rich man graciously allowed visitors to wander the grounds of his estate. Many years ago, he had failed to be vigilant in screening visitors. And so, when vandals did great damage to some of his valuable plantings, he was called a reckless fool.

Finally, before another group of vandals could do more damage, he locked the gates to his estate until he could devise a way of detecting vandals among the visitors. For that he was called a cruel tyrant.

The name-calling in both cases came from the same people. What they proved wasn’t that the rich man was a reckless fool or a cruel tyrant, but that they were inconsistent fools driven by their hatred of the rich man.

The rich man pointed out that he wasn’t required to allow visitors, and that doing so raised the cost of maintaining his estate. His enemies jeered and called him selfish. Though, in their hypocrisy, they continued to lock their doors and protect their passwords, and the rich among them kept their armed bodyguards.

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Related posts:
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVIII) – third item
Immigration and Crime

Brilliant Crazies

Gregory Cochran avers that “smart people are susceptible to all kinds of ideological craziness.” Cochran’s case in point is Neil Turok, a theoretical physicist from South Africa, currently head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. Back to Cochran:

I mentioned that [Turok] was a smart guy. He’s also crazy. He thinks that sub-Saharan Africans today are analogous to Ashkenazi Jews in 1850 or so – ready to explode into the intellectual world and tear it a new asshole.

Wanna bet? With African math scores at the 5th percentile? With their IQ scores two standard deviations below those of Europeans, three below the Askenazim? That low average tremendously suppresses the fraction above a high threshold. With every event in life its own self consistent with those statistics – not just in Africa, but everywhere in the African diaspora?

And he has no excuse [other than his commie family history]. He grew up in South Africa: there are plenty of things he would have seen if this picture of the world were true, and he’s never seen any of them. Did black kids out-argue him, beat him at chess, win the math competitions even though their parents were poor as synagogue mice? No sirree.

A very smart person like Neil Turok is probably eligible for the Triple-Nine Society (as I was before old age set in). That is, his IQ probably places him at or above the 99.9th percentile of the population: the top 0.1 percent. You’re unlikely to run into one of the 0.1 percenters unless you hang around a university, a research lab, a think tank, or a big professional-services company. They cluster in such places like birds on telephone wires.

Such persons usually do well for themselves. If they aren’t in the top one-percent of the income distribution, it’s because they don’t have the kind of personality (or athletic ability or photogenic qualities) it takes to get there. Wheeling and dealing isn’t for introverts, who are more likely than extroverts to be very smart. But very smart people have the wherewithal to make a good living, especially when the kinds of things they are good at and enjoy (e.g., teaching, writing, conducting research, and crafting legal arguments) are subsidized by taxpayers and bankrolled by wealthy clients and foundations.

Thus very smart persons usually have the luxury of thinking impossible things and dreaming impossible dreams. And when they do, they detach themselves from reality; that is, they become crazy. Like Turok, they often make a good living at it. They’re paid and encouraged to be crazy — to treat reality as an option.

Albert Einstein, for example, held a sinecure at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University for the final 22 years of his life. During that time he added essentially nothing to his monumental work on special relativity, general relativity, and early quantum theory. His career played out in a Quixotic fashion: dreaming the dream (perhaps an impossible one) of a unified field theory and trying in vain to discredit quantum theory as it had developed after his early contributions. But Einstein wasn’t entirely harmless in his dotage. He was a socialist and advocate of world government, and should be dishonored for lending his prestige to those abominable causes.

Cochran is right: High intelligence doesn’t immunize a person from ideological craziness. Nor from nastiness. There’s nothing nastier than an intellectual in attack mode. As a denizen of a Ph.D.-laden think-tank for 30 years, I saw a lot of intellectual savagery at first hand. It was ugly, and I’m ashamed to say that I committed some of it.

High intelligence is highly overrated as a virtue. But if you have it you probably wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars. Well, maybe less than that. I’m open to offers.

Politics, Personality, and Hope for a New Era

“Liberals” are more neurotic than conservatives. That is, “liberals” have a “tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability.” This is consistent with what I have observed of family members, friends, and co-workers over a span of more than 50 years.

Anxious persons are eager to sacrifice better but less certain outcomes — the fruits of liberty — for “safe” ones. Anxious persons project their anxieties onto others, and put their trust in exploitative politicians who play on their anxieties even if they don’t share them. This combination of anxieties and power-lust yields “social safety net” programs and regulations aimed at reducing risks and deterring risk-taking.. At the same time, American “liberals” — being spoiled children of capitalism — have acquired a paradoxical aversion to the very things that would ensure their security: swift and sure domestic justice, potent and demonstrably ready armed forces.

Conservatives tend toward conscientiousness more than liberals do; that is, they “display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations.” (This paper summarizes previous research and arrives at the same conclusion about the positive correlation between conscientiousness and conservatism.) In other words, conservatives (by which I don’t mean yahoos) gather relevant facts, think things through, assess the risks involved in various courses of action, and choose to take risks (or not) accordingly. When conservatives choose to take risks, they do so after providing for the possibility of failure (e.g., through insurance and cash reserves). Confident, self-reliant conservatives are hindered by governmental intrusions imposed at the behest of anxious “liberals.” All that conservatives need from government is protection from domestic and foreign predators. What they get from government is too little protection and too much interference.

Liberty — secured by swift domestic justice and a strong national defense — abets social comity and informed risk-taking, which is the life-blood of prosperity. “Liberalism” has almost extinguished liberty in America, but its feeble pulse has shown signs of strength since January 20, 2017. I can live with the bombast of Trump’s utterances, with higher labor costs, and some restrictions on imports if those things are part of a package deal that includes the reversal of the Supreme Court’s “liberalism,” the emasculation of the EPA, an end to government-sponsored warmist-pandering, significant deregulation, the end of Obamacare, smaller and cheaper government on the domestic front, respect and support for the police who daily put their lives on the line, larger and more potent armed forces, an “America First” foreign policy, and the end of “social justice” as an animating force in government policy.

Prosperity Isn’t Everything

There is no denying that per-capita income rises with specialization and trade; for example:

  • A is a farmer with land that’s good for growing fruit trees; B is a farmer with land that’s good for raising cattle.
  • The total output of both apples and butter will be greater if A specializes in growing apples and B specializes in making butter than if both A and B grew apples and made butter.
  • A and B can then trade apples for butter so that of them is better off than he would have been in the absence of specialization and trade.

Sometimes A and B live in different cities, different States, and different countries. If the raison d’etre of specialization and trade is the maximization of income, it would be foolish to exclude international trade while allowing inter-State and inter-city trade. (Note that the preceding sentence begins with if.)

The combination of specialization, trade, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship has wrought much good. Here’s Megan McArdle’s testimony:

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most  neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them.  With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town  … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prizewinning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

Much of that is true of my parents, who were of the same generation as McArdle’s grandparents. More of it is true of my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1880, wed in 1903, bore and raised ten children, and was widowed at the age of 60. I remember well the years before she reached the age of 70; until then she cooked on a wood-fired range, pumped water from a well in her backyard, and went to the outhouse for calls of nature. And yet, the following things, and much more, came to pass in her lifetime: alternating-current electricity, a telephone in most homes (though my grandmother lacked one until she was in her 70s), automobiles (though she never learned to drive), airplanes (she first flew at the age of 93), movies, radio, movies with sound, television (she never owned one), radar, penicillin, vaccinations against various debilitating diseases, electric typewriters, and early transistorized computers.

Because my dominant memories of my grandmother and her way of life in a small village are boyhood memories, it’s tempting to characterize them as nostalgic and somewhat romanticized. But I know that she was more or less typical of the residents of her village. Though she was far from rich, she wasn’t poor by the standards of the village. She certainly didn’t feel impoverished or resentful about her lack of material goods.

Today, however, relatively poor people in America have far, far more in the way of material goods than my grandmother ever dreamt of owning, yet they are anxious and even miserable, because… Here’s McArdle’s view:

[Not] everything has gotten better in every way, all the time. There are areas in which things have gotten broadly worse….

  • … Substance abuse, and the police response to it, has devastated both urban and rural communities.
  • Divorce broke up millions of families, and while the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages, marriage is collapsing among the majority who do not have a college degree, leaving millions of children in unstable family situations where fathers are often absent from the home, and their attention and financial resources are divided between multiple children with multiple women.
  • Communities are much less cohesive than they used to be, and while the educated elite may have found substitutes online, the rest of the country is “bowling alone” more and more often—which is not merely lonely, but also means they have fewer social supports when they find themselves in trouble.
  • A weekly wage packet may buy more than it did sixty years ago, but the stability of manufacturing jobs is increasingly being replaced by contingent and unreliable shift work that is made doubly and triply difficult by the instability of the families that tend to do these jobs. The inability to plan your life or work in turn makes it hard to form a family, and stressful to keep one together….
  • Widespread credit has democratized large purchases like furniture and cars. It has also enabled many people, particularly financially marginal people, to get into serious trouble.  Debt magnifies your life experience: when things are going relatively well, it gives you more options, but when things are going badly, it can turn a setback into a catastrophe—as many, many families found out in 2008….

This list illustrates why public policy seems to be struggling to come up with a plan of attack against our current insecurities. The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at.

But I think this list illustrates the poverty of trying to measure living standards by staring at median wages. Many of the changes of the last century show up in that statistic, but others, like the time no longer spent plucking chickens, or the joys of banishing lye from the pantry, appear nowhere.  Nor do the changes in job and family structure that have made the lives of people who are indisputably vastly materially richer than my young grandparents were, nonetheless feel much more precarious.

Where did it all go wrong? And I do believe that it went wrong. I say that as a man who has lived more than his three-score and ten years, remains in good health, lives comfortably, has a loving wife of 52 years, has two fine children and twelve joyous grandchildren, and is by nature an optimistic achiever who isn’t easily thrown off course by a setback.

It didn’t go wrong because of globalization, though globalization may have hastened the rot. It didn’t go wrong because of prosperity per se, though it was helped by the fevered pursuit of prosperity. It went wrong because of the fraying of the social ties that bound much of America for so long — even with the Civil War and its decades-long residue of bitterness.

Why did those ties fray? And why are they now weaker than than have been since the eve of the Civil War?

Let’s begin with social norms, which are the basis of social ties. If you and I observe the same social norms, we’re likely to feel bound in some way, even if we’re not friends or relatives. This, of course, is tribalism, which is verboten among those who view all of mankind as brothers, sisters, and whatevers under the skin — all mankind except smarty-pants Americans of East Asian descent, Israeli Jews and American Jews who support Israel, Southerners (remember the Civil War!), and everyone else who is a straight, non-Hispanic white male of European descent. To such people, the only legitimate tribe is the tribe of anti-tribalism.

You may by now understand that I blame leftists for the breakdown of social norms and social ties. But how can that be if, as McArdle says, “the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages”? The college-educated class resides mostly on the left, and affluent leftists do seem to have avoided the rot.

Yes, but they caused it. You could think of it as a non-suicidal act of terror. But it would be kinder and more accurate to call it an act of involuntary manslaughter.  Leftists meant to make the changes that caused the rot; they just didn’t foresee or intend the rot. Nor is it obvious that they care about it, except as an excuse to “solve” social problems from on high by throwing money and behavioral prescriptions at them — which is why there’s social rot in the first place.

The good intentions embedded in governmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have sundered civil society. Walter Williams puts it this way in “Culture and Social Pathology” (creators.com, June 16, 2015):

A civilized society’s first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and moral values. These behavioral norms — mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots, such as thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not cheat. They also include all those courtesies that have traditionally been associated with ladylike and gentlemanly conduct.

The failure to fully transmit these values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” People in this so-called great generation, who lived during the trauma of the Great Depression and fought World War II, not only failed to transmit the moral values of their parents but also are responsible for government programs that will deliver economic chaos….

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the nation’s liberals have waged war on traditional values, customs and morality. Our youths have been counseled that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what’s moral or immoral is a matter of personal opinion. During the 1960s, the education establishment began to challenge and undermine lessons children learned from their parents and Sunday school with fads such as “values clarification.” So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that undermines family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were considered passe and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor parental consent….

If it were only the economic decline threatening our future, there might be hope. It’s the moral decline that spells our doom.

The undoing of traditional mores began in earnest in the 1960s, with a frontal assault on traditional morality and the misguided expansion of the regulatory-welfare state. The unraveling continues to this day. Traditional morality is notable in its neglect; social cohesion is almost non-existent, except where the bonds of religion and ethnicity remain strong. The social fabric that once bound vast swaths of America has rotted — and is almost certainly beyond repair.

The social fabric has frayed precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made dependents of hundreds of millions of Americans. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Now for an ironic twist. Were the central government less profligate and intrusive, Americans would become much more prosperous.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Whiners — Left and Libertarian
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero
Society
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?
How America Has Changed

Liberal Nostrums

Persons who call themselves libertarians or classical liberals are loathe to relinquish their claim to liberalism, even though the word has a acquired a justifiably foul odor because of its long association with leftist statism. What is liberalism, and why should self-styled libertarians and classical liberals want to align themselves with it?

The following discussion, from “Liberalism” at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, shows a decided lack of consensus about the principles of liberalism, even of the so-called classical or libertarian strain:

Liberal political theory … fractures over the conception of liberty. But a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order. For classical liberals — sometimes called the ‘old’ liberalism — liberty and private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live his life — including employing his labor and her capital — as he sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals and libertarians have often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the same thing; it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property; others have maintained that property is itself a form of freedom…. A market order based on private property is thus seen as an embodiment of freedom…. Unless people are free to make contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to save their incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to run enterprises when they have obtained the capital, they are not really free.

Classical liberals employ a second argument connecting liberty and private property. Rather than insisting that the freedom to obtain and employ private property is simply one aspect of people’s liberty, this second argument insists that private property is the only effective means for the protection of liberty. Here the idea is that the dispersion of power that results from a free market economy based on private property protects the liberty of subjects against encroachments by the state. As F.A. Hayek argues, “There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly”….

Although classical liberals agree on the fundamental importance of private property to a free society, the classical liberal tradition itself refracts into a spectrum of views, from near-anarchist to those that attribute a significant role to the state in economic and social policy…. Towards the most extreme ‘libertarian’ end of the classical liberal spectrum are views of justified states as legitimate monopolies that may with justice charge for their necessary rights-protection services: taxation is legitimate so long as it is necessary to protect liberty and property rights. As we go further ‘leftward’ we encounter classical liberal views that allow taxation for (other) public goods and social infrastructure and, moving yet further ‘left’, some classical liberal views allow for a modest social minimum…. Although today classical liberalism is often associated with extreme forms of libertarianism [e.g., anarcho-capitalism], the classical liberal tradition was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class. The aim, as Bentham put it, was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer…. Consequently, classical liberals reject the redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

All of that is more or less opposed to

[w]hat has come to be known as ‘new’, ‘revisionist’, ‘welfare state’, or perhaps best, ‘social justice’, liberalism challenges this intimate connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order…. Three factors help explain the rise of this revisionist theory. First, the new liberalism arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which the ability of a free market to sustain what Lord Beveridge … called a ‘prosperous equilibrium’ was being questioned. Believing that a private property based market tended to be unstable, or could, as Keynes argued … , get stuck in an equilibrium with high unemployment, new liberals came to doubt that it was an adequate foundation for a stable, free society. Here the second factor comes into play: just as the new liberals were losing faith in the market, their faith in government as a means of supervising economic life was increasing. This was partly due to the experiences of the First World War, in which government attempts at economic planning seemed to succeed (Dewey, 1929: 551-60); more importantly, this reevaluation of the state was spurred by the democratization of western states, and the conviction that, for the first time, elected officials could truly be, in J.A. Hobson’s phrase ‘representatives of the community’…. As D.G. Ritchie proclaimed:

be it observed that arguments used against ‘government’ action, where the government is entirely or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or grandmotherly authority — such arguments lose their force just in proportion as the government becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves….

The third factor underlying the development of the new liberalism was probably the most fundamental: a growing conviction that, so far from being ‘the guardian of every other right’ … , property rights generated an unjust inequality of power that led to a less-than-equal liberty (typically, ‘positive liberty’) for the working class. This theme is central to what is usually called ‘liberalism’ in American politics, combining a strong endorsement of civil and personal liberties with, at best, an indifference, and often enough an antipathy, to private ownership. The seeds of this newer liberalism can be found in Mill’s On Liberty….

I won’t rehearse my arguments against On Liberty and the “new” liberalism, which you can find in many posts (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). My concern here is with the limitations of classical liberalism, which is a superficial political philosophy.

Take religion, for example, which remains a vital force in the lives of millions of Americans, but which is overtly attacked by modern liberals (a.k.a. progressives) and subtly attacked by many classical liberals. Here, for example, is Kevin Vallier — a philosopher who seems to take a classical liberal stance — in “A Genuinely Liberal Approach to Religion in Politics” (Cato Unbound, October 6, 2014):

Conservatives regularly attempt to legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that conservatives have both successful (but not indubitable) natural law arguments that explain why heterosexual marriage is the only morally permissible form of conjugal union and successful (but not indubitable) theological arguments that only a man and a woman can count as married in God’s eyes. On the theory I advance, these arguments cannot justify restricting marriage to a man and a woman given that such laws force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them. This is because many people, religious and secular, can reasonably reject even good conservative arguments.

On the other hand, legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith by forcing them to provide benefits to gay couples whose unions they reasonably believe are morally and theologically invalid. Thus, my approach either requires the abolition of government marriage, or as a second best policy, the legalization of gay marriage with extensive religious exemptions. These two policies are the only way to respect the diverse reasoning of all concerned parties.

Classical liberalism, in Vallier’s rendition of it, effectively removes legal standing from religious norms — even long-standing ones, such as the prohibition of murder. But religious norms are just social norms that have been embedded in religious doctrines. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. The prohibition of murder, for example, is a religious norm that is also a widely accepted and almost universally practiced social norm. Or perhaps it was a social norm that was adopted as a religious one. At any rate, it’s fair to call it a social-religious norm of ancient provenance.

Should government allow homosexual “marriage” despite a long-standing social-religious norm that forbids it? If so, why shouldn’t government allow murder despite a long-standing social-religious norm against it? Both norms serve vital social functions, it’s just that the function served by the prohibition of murder is more obvious than the one served by the prohibition of homosexual “marriage.” As I say here,

Marriage — despite its imperfections and the state’s involvement (e.g., licensing, separation proceedings, divorce decrees) — remains a bulwark of civil society, or of the remnants of civil society that have survived usurpation and negation by the state. Therefore, the proponents of state-imposed same-sex “marriage” bear the burden of proving that the expansion of marriage to include homosexual partnerships will redound to the benefit of civil society. Saying that opposition to same-sex marriage amounts to bigotry is no kind of proof.

This leads me to ask  whether (1) state-imposed homosexual “marriage” would be deleterious to civil society in the long run, and (2) if marriage loses its traditional definition, any institution of civil society is immune from the depradations of the state.

On the question of the long-run effects of state-imposed homosexual “marriage,” I turn to Jennifer Roback Morse’s “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” (Policy Review, April & May 2005):

It is clear that a free society needs traditional, heterosexual marriage, which — as Morse explains — is a primary civilizing force. As if in answer to that truth, the proponents of same-sex “marriage” aver that its recognition by the state will not undermine the societal benefits of traditional marriage. They aver, rather, that it will extend those benefits to encompass those homosexuals who choose “marriage,” and their biological or adopted children.

Is there really a “win-win” argument for same-sex “marriage”? The answer, in a word,  is “no.”  The recognition of homosexual “marriage” by the state — though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and liberals — is another step down the slippery slope of societal disintegration. The disintegration began in earnest in the 1930s, when Americans began to place their trust in chimerical, one-size-fits-all “solutions” offered by power-hungry, economically illiterate politicians and their “intellectual” enablers and apologists. In this instance, the state will recognize homosexual “marriage,” then bestow equal  benefits on homosexual “partners,”  and then require private entities (businesses, churches, etc.) to grant equal benefits to homosexual “partnerships.” Individuals and businesses who demur will be brought to heel through the use of affirmative action and hate-crime legislation to penalize those who dare to speak against homosexual “marriage,” the privileges that flow from it, and the economic damage wrought by those privileges.

Vallier suggests two options. The first one is to privatize marriage. It’s a course that I favor, but it’s an unlikely one. Vallier’s second option — his second-best policy — is the legalization of same-sex “marriage” with extensive religious exemptions. But as Roback Morse and I argue, no number of religious exemptions can forestall the social damage that will result from the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage.”

In any event, Vallier’s case for the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” with religious exemptions, rests on the assumption that the failure of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would “force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them.” Private organizations are free to offer benefits to whomever they wish to offer them; they just have to pay for the benefits and try to recoup the costs from customers or donors. But that’s always true; for example, employer-provided health-insurance isn’t “free” to employees, it really comes out of employees’ wages and must be covered by employers’ revenues.

It’s probably true that the refusal of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would mean the denial of spousal benefits to the homosexual partners of government employees. But it’s also true that government budgets are limited — despite massive debt — and government doesn’t provide a lot of benefits that various groups would like to enjoy.

As a taxpayer, I would prefer fewer government benefits, not more. I would argue, for example, that the tax code should be absolutely neutral with respect to marital status and number of dependents; those are personal “lifestyle” choices that shouldn’t be encouraged by government and subsidized by single taxpayers with no dependents.

Further, how would Vallier exempt taxpaying religious objectors from subsidizing the spousal benefits to homosexual partners of government employees? If he cannot find a way to do that — and I don’t see how he can — his “neutral” solution — recognition of same-sex “marriage” with lots of exemptions for objectors — is no solution at all.

Why have I given so much space to the issue of same-sex “marriage” and a classical liberal treatment of it? To illustrate the glibness of the “liberal” worldview. Wordsmiths like Vallier try to weave their way around social norms by resorting to simplistic concepts that seem to promise liberty but cannot deliver it. In that regard, Vallier is in company with J.S. Mill, whose harm principle is an intellectually fraudulent attack on social norms.

For more about Mill, “liberalism,” and liberty, see these posts:

On Liberty
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative

The American League’s Greatest Hitters: III

This post supersedes “The American League’s Greatest Hitters: Part II” and “The American League’s Greatest Hitters.” Here, I build on “Bigger, Stronger, and Faster — but Not Quicker?” which assesses the long-term trend (or lack thereof) in batting skill.

Specifically, I derived ballpark factors (BF) for each AL team for each season from 1901 through 2016. For example, the fabled New York Yankees of 1927 hit 1.03 times as well at home as on the road. Given a schedule evenly divided between home and road games, this means that batting averages for the Yankees of 1927 were inflated by 1.015 relative to batting averages for players on other teams.

The BA of a 1927 Yankee — as adjusted by the method described in “Bigger, Stronger…” — should therefore be multiplied by a BF of 0.985 (1/1.015) to obtain that Yankee’s “true” BA for that season. (This is a player-season-specific adjustment, in addition the long-term trend adjustment applied in “Bigger, Stronger…,” which captures a gradual and general decline in home-park advantage.)

I made those adjustments for 147 players who had at least 5,000 plate appearances in the AL and an official batting average (BA) of at least .285 in those plate appearances. Here are the adjustments, plotted against the middle year of each player’s AL career:

batting-average-analysis-top-147-al-hitters-unadjusted-graph

When all is said and done, there are only 43 qualifying players with an adjusted career BA of .300 or higher:

batting-average-analysis-greatest-hitters-top-43-table

Here’s a graph of the relationship between adjusted career BA and middle-of-career year:

batting-average-analysis-top-43-al-hitters-graph

The curved line approximates the trend, which is downward until about the mid-1970s, then slightly upward. But there’s a lot of variation around that trend, and one player — Ty Cobb at .360 — clearly stands alone as the dominant AL hitter of all time.

Michael Schell, in Baseball’s All-Time Best Hitters, ranks Cobb second behind Tony Gwynn, who spent his career (1982-2001) in the National League (NL), and much closer to Rod Carew, who played only in the AL (1967-1985). Schell’s adjusted BA for Cobb is .340, as opposed to .332 for Carew, an advantage of .008 for Cobb. I have Cobb at .360 and Carew at .338, an advantage of .022 for Cobb. The difference in our relative assessments of Cobb and Carew is typical; Schell’s analysis is biased (intentionally or not) toward recent and contemporary players and against players of the pre-World War II era.

Here’s how Schell’s adjusted BAs stack up against mine, for 32 leading hitters rated by both of us:

batting-average-analysis-schell-vs-pandp

Schell’s bias toward recent and contemporary players is most evident in his standard-deviation (SD) adjustment:

In his book Full House, Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist [who imported his ideological biases into his work]…. Gould imagines [emphasis added] that there is a “wall” of human ability. The best players at the turn of the [20th] century may have been close to the “wall,” many of their peers were not. Over time, progressively better hitters replace the weakest hitters. As a result, the best current hitters do not stand out as much from their peers.

Gould and I believe that the reduction in the standard deviation [of BA within a season] demonstrates that there has been an improvement in the overall quality of major league baseball today compared to nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century play. [pp. 94-95]

Thus Schell’s SD adjustment, which slashes the BA of the better hitters of the early part of the 20th century because the SDs of that era were higher than the SDs after World War II. The SD adjustment is seriously flawed for several reasons:

1. There may be a “wall” of human ability, or it may truly be imaginary. Even if there is such a wall, we have no idea how close Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn, and other great hitters have been to it. That is to say, there’s no a priori reason (contra Schell’s implicit assumption) that Cobb couldn’t have been closer to the wall than Gwynn.

2. It can’t be assumed that reaction time — an important component of human ability, and certainly of hitting ability — has improved with time. In fact, there’s a plausible hypothesis to the contrary, which is stated in “Bigger, Stronger…” and examined there, albeit inconclusively.

3. Schell’s discussion of relative hitting skill implies, wrongly, that one player’s higher BA comes at the expense of other players. Not so. BA is a measure of the ability of a hitter to hit safely given the quality of pitching and other conditions (examined in detail in “Bigger, Stronger…”). It may be the case that weaker hitters were gradually replaced by better ones, but that doesn’t detract from the achievements of the better hitter, like Ty Cobb, who racked up his hits at the expense of opposing pitchers, not other batters.

4. Schell asserts that early AL hitters were inferior to their NL counterparts, thus further justifying an SD adjustment that is especially punitive toward early AL hitters (e.g., Cobb). However, early AL hitters were demonstrably inferior to their NL counterparts only in the first two years of the AL’s existence, and well before the arrival of Cobb, Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, Harry Heilmann, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, and other AL greats of the pre-World War II era. Thus:

batting-average-analysis-single-season-change-in-ba-following-league-switch

There seems to have been a bit of backsliding between 1905 and 1910, but the sample size for those years is too small to be meaningful. On the other hand, after 1910, hitters enjoyed no clear advantage by moving from NL to AL (or vice versa). The data for 1903 through 1940, taken altogether, suggest parity between the two leagues during that span.

One more bit of admittedly sketchy evidence:

  • Cobb hit as well as Heilmann during Cobb’s final nine seasons as a regular player (1919-1927), which span includes the years in which the younger Heilmann won batting titles with average of .394, .403, 398, and .393.
  • In that same span, Heilmann outhit Ruth, who was the same age as Heilmann.
  • Ruth kept pace with the younger Gehrig during 1925-1932.
  • In 1936-1938, Gehrig kept pace with the younger Joe DiMaggio, even though Gehrig’s BA dropped markedly in 1938 with the onset of the disease that was to kill him.
  • The DiMaggio of 1938-1941 was the equal of the younger Ted Williams, even though the final year of the span saw Williams hit .406.
  • Williams’s final three years as a regular, 1956-1958, overlapped some of the prime seasons of Mickey Mantle, who was 13 years Williams’s junior. Williams easily outhit Mantle during those years, and claimed two batting titles to Mantle’s one.

I see nothing in the preceding recitation to suggest that the great hitters of the years 1901-1940 were inferior to the great hitters of the post-WWII era. In fact, it points in the opposite direction. This might be taken as indirect confirmation of the hypothesis that reaction times have slowed. Or it might have something to do with the emergence of football and basketball as “serious” professional sports after WWII, an emergence that could well have led potentially great hitters to forsake baseball for another sport. Yet another possibility is that post-war prosperity and educational opportunities drew some potentially great hitters into non-athletic trades and professions. In other words, unlike Schell, I remain open to the possibility that there may have been a real, if slight, decline in hitting talent after WWII — a decline that was gradually reversed because of the eventual effectiveness of integration (especially of Latin American players) and the explosion of salaries with the onset of free agency.

Finally, in “Bigger, Stronger…” I account for the cross-temporal variation in BA by applying a general algorithm and then accounting for 14 discrete factors, including the ones applied by Schell. As a result, I practically eliminate the effects of the peculiar conditions that cause BA to be inflated in some eras relative to other eras. (See figure 7 of “Bigger, Stronger…” and the accompanying discussion.) Even after taking all of those factors into account, Cobb still stands out as the best AL hitter of all time — by a wide margin.

And given Cobb’s statistical dominance over his contemporaries in the NL, he still stands as the greatest hitter in the history of the major leagues.

Unorthodox Economics: 3. What Is Scientific about Economics?

This is the third entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls
3. What Is Scientific about Economics?
4. A Parable of Political Economy

Perhaps the biggest pitfall that awaits an economist, student of economics, or reader of economic literature is the belief that economics is a science because of its mathematical and statistical content. David S. D’Amato takes a clear-headed view in “Is Economics a Hard Science?” (The American Spectator, January 4, 2017):

[E]conomists and social scientists are gathering and analyzing statistical data constantly. [But] those data are limited by the density of the causal atmosphere of the environment from which they emerge, a rich and variable sea of causes and effects. Isolating one or even a few factors becomes impossible.

As Jim Manzi explains in his book Uncontrolled, “[W]e can never be sure that any experiment actually has controlled for every possible alternative cause of an outcome.” And while this is, of course, true in every field of inquiry, the problem is especially acute within the social sciences, so-called. That’s because, as Manzi observes, “human social organizations have a causal density that dwarfs anything astrophysics considers.”…

For any given observable phenomenon, the scientist must attempt to parse a convoluted web of actual and potential causes. Unable to control the experiment, its environmental inputs, groups, etc., the social scientist is unable to know whether the hypothesis being tested has been confirmed. This causal density means economic data must always be the subject of several competing explanations, informed by ideology and extra-economic social theory…

…The great classical liberal political economist Jean-Baptiste Say foresaw the complacency of today’s economists, their tendency to oversell the power of data and mathematics. Anticipating the praxeology of Ludwig von Mises, Say held the proper foundations for economics are “the rigorous deductions of undeniable general facts,” not “new particular fact[s]” (i.e., statistics), but basic laws of human action….

If empirical data are often too messy, too causally intricate, without the help of a philosophical or interpretative framework, then mathematical models are in a sense too neat to tell us very much about reality; they reduce enormously complex concepts and arguments about economic behavior to sterile formulae. Sometimes this is useful, as in the case of an economic model that explains the relationship between supply and demand. But as economists address their model-building processes to more difficult questions, the serviceability of the models diminishes. And if we are to believe the critics of “mathiness,” whom we can find all over the spectrum of ideas, the preoccupation with practically useless mathematical models has all but completely overtaken the economics profession.

Mathematical models, agglomerations of equations using multivariable calculus, are, it turns out, not a language suited to the task of describing something as dynamic as human behavior. Among the axioms of modern economics is the idea that economic value is something assigned to good and services subjectively by individual buyers and sellers. As Austrian School economists frequently point out, there is an irreducible subjectivity at the heart of all economic action. This explanation of value in terms of subjective preference and marginal utility replaced classical theories that made value a function of the quantities of labor expended during a good’s production. If value subjectivism holds, then, for example, one’s partiality for Chicago-style pizza as opposed to New York-style pizza is simply not the kind of preference that can be quantified. There is, as the saying goes, no accounting for taste.

It’s a simple example, but it points to a much more general and far-reaching truth: Formal logic and mathematics are not a stable foundation for the economist. This has been borne out by the inability of computer models to anticipate the movements of actual markets. For all their complex mathematics and pretensions to rigorousness, these models rely on crude oversimplifications. As New York University economist Mario J. Rizzo notes, “Ceteris paribus prediction is prediction of ‘stylized facts,’” whose connection to the real world is tenuous at best.

Yet, as Arnold Kling explains in “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm” (TCS Daily, March 2, 2005), 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.

Economic models usually are 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. In sum, modeling is not science.

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). The Keynesian multiplier, about which I’ll say more in a later chapter, is not a scientific theory. It is 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.)

A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has thus far been confirmed by observation, and which has not yet been refuted (falsified) by observation.* (The Keynesian multiplier has been falsified.) Every scientific theory rests eventually on axioms: self-evident principles that are accepted as true without proof. Economics, as D’Amato notes, is no exception. It 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 or expedient 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.”

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, just as much of modern physics is inescapably grounded in the principle of uniformity.**

It is important to distinguish between axioms, which are self-evidently true, and biases that stem from normative views of what ought to be. Behavioral economists, for example, see 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 not as many as in the past — are obsessed by 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 the benefit 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. As George Orwell put it in Animal Farm, “all [people] are equal, but some [people] are more equal than others.”

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, at least.)

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 earn slave wages. 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 breeding ground 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 reveals itself in a penchant for deciding what’s best for others, even beyond the arrogance of behavioral “nudgers.”

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 preceding chapter, in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

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 pensioners and the many “disadvantaged” groups with which “compassionate” politicians have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

Enough said, for now. Some economics is science. Too much of it is nothing more than special pleading cloaked in the jargon of economics, and pseudo-scientific theorizing overlaid with a veneer of mathematics or statistics.

Caveat lector.
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* This is from Karl Popper‘s classic statement of the scientific method. Richard Feynman, a physicist (and real scientist), had a different view. 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?

** The principle of uniformity is a fundamental axiom of modern physics, most notably of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. According to the principle of uniformity, 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. This statement holds only if A and B can’t see another object. But suppose, for example, there’s an object C that’s visible to A, and which A perceives as stationary. If A sees that B is moving away from C as well as from A, then A will perceive that B is in motion while A is at rest (relative to C, at least). That aside, A still doesn’t have an absolute velocity or direction of travel. Velocity and direction are always relative to an arbitrary reference point.