Saturday, September 06, 2014

Onrushing penis

"Never, in the history of humanity, has a man been at risk of a woman leaping out of the bushes and accidentally impaling herself on his onrushing erect penis." -- PZ Myers

Friday, September 05, 2014

The upward market sloping supply curve (part 1)

I've been sitting in on the principles of micro- and macro-economics classes, which has been a lot of fun.

But one thing has been bothering me: the justification seems weak for the assertion that market (and aggregate) supply functions are upward sloping. It makes intuitive sense to just say that if the price of a good (or service) rises, the producers of that good will produce more. But four years of economics has trained me not to trust my naive intuition. Instead, I want to set up a model and see what happens in that model. Then I want to carefully consider the relationship of reality to the model's assumptions.

So, let's start with a simple economy where all producers are in perfect competition, are operating at the maximum efficient scale, and no one is making economic profit. Hence, the supply and demand schedule for every individual firm looks like this:

P=Price, Q=Quantity
MC=Marginal Cost, ATC=Average Total Cost
D=Demand, M=Marginal Revenue

Next, we lower (raise) permanent tax rates so that in general, demand increases (decreases) due to income effects. Not all firms will experience the same effects. Some firms (those making normal goods, which have positive income elasticity) will see demand rise (fall); some firms (those making inferior goods) will see demand fall (rise), and some (those making goods with highly income-inelastic demand) will see little change in demand. Since most goods are normal, with income-elastic demand, we'll focus on the first category. In the short run, these firms experience the following, with D' being the new demand curve with lower tax rates, and D" the new curve with higher rates.


So, yes: quantity supplied increases (decreases) when the price increases (decreases). When prices increase, the firms make a short-run economic profit (labeled EP on the graph); when prices fall, firms experience a short-run economic loss.

Let me take a moment to check my assumptions.
  • Perfect Competition: The same behavior holds for monopoly and monopolistic competition with rising marginal costs (and all but the most rigidly doctrinaire Libertarian economist will admit that monopolies with falling marginal costs should be regulated by the government), so this is a useful simplifying assumption.
  • Maximum Efficient Scale: Not relevant in the short run.
  • No Starting Economic Profit: Usually realistic per se.
  • Mostly Normal Goods: Usually realistic per se.

The only dodgy assumption is the upward-sloping marginal cost curve. Because I'm investigating why market supply curves are upward sloping, assuming that marginal costs curves are upward sloping is to implicitly assume the consequent. I want an independent justification. Given that I'm analyzing the short run, we can increase only one factor of production, and labor is the easiest factor to change. So, firms need to pay their existing workers overtime to produce more (obviously increasing marginal costs), or they need to hire more temporary workers (in the short run, firms do not want to commit to a long-run increase in their permanent workforce). Temporary workers are more expensive and less productive, so marginal costs will increase. So I think this assumption is supportable.

However, economists assert that the upward sloping market supply curve is a long run curve, so we need to figure out what happens not just in the short run, but in the long run. That will be the topic of the next post.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Links August 31, 2014

Political Economy

Reading Hamilton From the Left (Bob Avakian makes a similar case in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy)
Why Conservatives Should Read Marx
This Economy Is Ruined For Everyone: The "obvious" reading of this piece is that if working class people are screwed, so what, but when middle-class people are getting screwed, there's a real problem. That's probably the intention of the article. However, a deeper point can be made: if working-class people are getting screwed, sooner or later middle-class people will feel the fist of capitalist injustice deep in their colons.

Ferguson, MO

White privilege: An insidious virus that’s eating America from within
4 Weird Decisions That Have Made Modern Cops Terrifying
A Question with a 400 Year-Old Answer
What I've Learned from Two Years Collecting Data on Police Killings
7 Important Details Nobody Mentions About Ferguson
Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison
In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power (why a republic is not democratic)
St. Louis Police Killed Kajieme Powell Because They Were Following Insane Rules

Other

Against Empathy

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why I didn't study philosophy

When he's careful, Massimo Pigliucci can write some kick-ass philosophy. Unfortunately, he's often not careful. In his recent article, The return of radical empiricism, Pigliucci tries to attack scientism, a.k.a. "radical empiricism," but instead does nothing more than string together a series of logical and rhetorical fallacies, failing even to define his central term. I started a detailed rebuttal of Pigliucci's article, but it got too depressing. The article is just too arrogantly stupid, and it's incomprehensible that a professional philosopher could write such drivel.

Pigliucci is, unfortunately, not an exception: that's the problem that I saw in philosophy in general. I studied philosophy on my own for about ten years. I don't hold this study as evidence of any particular expertise; I just mean to say that I didn't make a completely uninformed decision. When I finally decided to go to college, I was originally going to study philosophy. But literally every philosopher I interacted with — just the ones I liked — displayed the same sort of arrogant stupidity when his (philosophy is almost thoroughly male-dominated) views were challenged. Sturgeon's Law is one thing, but the fetid stench of insufferable condescension and incompetence of even the best philosophers was simply too much to bear. So I switched to political science and economics. Even when economists are dead wrong, and even when they're doing their best to be mean to their opponents, they don't display the stupidity and ineptitude of a philosopher with a position and no argument.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Links Aug 22, 2014

Political Economy

The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
Why Is It So Controversial to Help Poor Mothers Afford Diapers?
Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War
The Future of College? A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he's right?

Ferguson, Race, and the American Police State

White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson
The time the cops pulled their guns on me
Love Me, Ferguson, I’m a Liberal: How liberals brought an anticommunist slur from America’s past back to life.
The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
The Fire This Time: If poverty and racism persist, it won’t be long before there’s another Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin
Socialism and the Repressive State Apparatus
The Day Ferguson Cops Were Caught in a Bloody Lie: The officers got the wrong man, but charged him anyway—with getting his blood on their uniforms. How the Ferguson PD ran the town where Michael Brown was gunned down.
This Is a Cop. In America. The disturbing trend toward secrecy in American policing
After A Traffic Stop, Teen Was 'Almost Another Dead Black Male'
Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit: The Neoconservative Origins of Our Police Problem
A Militarized Police, a Less Violent Public
Other

Every Insanely Mystifying Paradox in Physics: A Complete List
Where academic philosophy went wrong

Monday, August 11, 2014

Getting the science right on GMOs

Contrary to the saying, all is not fair in love and war, especially when the war isn't literally a war, but a political struggle. There are things we shouldn't do, even if they seem helpful in the short run. Unfortunately, Kamil Ahsan, a PhD candidate in developmental biology at the University of Chicago, doesn't get it. In The New Scientism, Ahsan demands that scientists relax their scientific standards to help in the fight against the evil agricultural-biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms that are using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to exploit farmers in developing nations. Ahsan is wrong on just about every point: scientists and the scientific establishment are, by and large, not part of the problem. The truth has a liberal, even revolutionary, bias, but Ahsan's calumnies risk alienating one of the left's most valuable allies.

Ahsan sensibly worries that the vast amount of money from Big Pharma and ag-biotech firms is corrupting scientific inquiry. He is not alone. Simple Google searches* will reveal that these issues are being discussed inside the scientific community, in the pages of Scientific American as well as papers in PLOS and ISPUB, etc. Google Scholar reports about 1.5 million results (not all of them original papers) just in the scientific literature. Ahsan links to an earlier article, Llewllyn Hinkes-Jones's Bad Science: Free-market academic research policies have unleashed medical quackery and scientific fraud, forcing consumers to pay premiums for discoveries we’ve already funded as taxpayers, which competently and accurately covers both the economic and scientific problems of big money in science. Many of the links Ahsan himself provides show that the scientific community is concerned about this issue. For example, in the Nature article, GM crops: Battlefield, Emily Waltz investigates whether critics of studies suggesting saftey issues with GMOs "fight fair." There is a real problem, and a problem that requires deep public debate, but the scientific establishment is not a monolithic entity on the wrong side of the issue; there is considerable support in the scientific community for resisting the corrupting effects of money on scientific inquiry. Ahsan does not focus on this important issue. Instead he unleashes a barrage of calumny to discredit the scientific community and subordinate science to his own political agenda.

*pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry influence on science

Ahsan asserts that the scientific community absolutely refuses to legitimize criticism: "To [the scientific establishment], any criticism of this historical narrative [of the "march of technological improvement despite the opposition of a supposedly anti-science public"] is tantamount to wholesale opposition to science." But Ahsan does not cite any criticism of this supposed "historical narrative" and does not cite any response to such criticism. Without support, Ahsan is simply poisoning the well. Ahsan follows with a nonsequitur fallacy: "[D]efenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely." The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Furthermore, Ahsan does not provide support for the premise that "defenders of science" really do lump these groups together, and Ahsan makes no mention in his article of the vague category "grassroots environmental activists." Simple assertions without evidence not only fail to persuade, they seriously undermine the author's credibility.

Ahsan seems incapable of an honest reading of anyone he disagrees with. For example, he cites Michael Shermer:
But try telling that to Michael Shermer, who, writing in Scientific American, sees in every critique of corporate behavior an anti-science temper tantrum: "Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs . . . in which the words 'Monsanto' and 'profit' are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. . . . The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection."
Try as I might, bending over backwards to be charitable, tilting my head and squinting, Ahsan's interpretation does not have anything to do with the quotation he interprets. Shermer is not talking about every critique, he is talking about one specific attitude, dropping the words "Monsanto" or "profit" like "syllogistic bombs." Shermer juxtaposes these "syllogistic bombs" with a scientific statement; presumably he intends to mean that those who criticize Monsanto ignore or falsely deny that GMOs are ubiquitous and long-standing, not that Monsanto is a model of corporate social responsibility. There are many other examples where Ahsan labels the legitimate back-and-forth of critical inquiry as arrogant obstinacy. Ahsan clearly cannot engage honestly with disagreement.

Ahsan conflates three distinct issues. The first is scientific: are GMOs safe? Can we eat them? Do they have negative effects on the environments and the ecosystems where they are grown? The second is economic: what are the effects of the business practices of ag-biotech companies that are providing GMOs, especially to low-income farmers in developing nations. The third is an issue of political strategy. As documented in several of the links Ahsan provides (e.g. Nina Fedoroff's Scientific American article, Can We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?), anti-GMO activists claim that GMOs are harmful; scientists consider these claims entirely without scientific merit, indeed anti-science. These issues are obviously interrelated, but they are still distinct.

It is one thing to allege that because of the corrupting influence of ag-biotech money, scientists are getting the science wrong on GMO safety. But this is not Ahsan's focus. Instead, Ahsan asserts that because Monsanto and other ag-biotech corporations exploit developing-world farmers, the scientific establishment should therefore, and for that reason only, not label anti-GMO activists, who are struggling against this corporate exploitation, as anti-science:
A rigid defense of “the science” prevents scientists from recognizing that Monsanto monopolizes seed production, dictates market prices to the exclusive benefit of rich farmers, drives the emergence of superweeds, allows the spread of transgenes to wild crops in other countries, and uses the state to boost its profits.

Acknowledging these facts should produce a thorough rethinking of the politics of GMO research and the ethics of GMOs. It should prompt a response to anti-GMO activists that doesn’t cast them as malevolent and anti-science, or conflate the movement to label GMO foods with celebrities who refuse to vaccinate their children. [boldface added]
This passage is the crux of Ahsan's thesis. If Ahsan really believed the problem was that money is corruption of science, then he himself would be defending "the science"; instead, he attributes problems directly to the defense of "the science." He asserts we should not consider the scientific claims of anti-GMO activists on their scientific merits, but on their political merits. Essentially, Ahsan is not decrying the corruption of science, he is lamenting that the wrong side has corrupted science, and hopes that the correct side will do so, indeed that the scientific establishment has an obligation to corrupt its standards of evidence and analysis in the service of the left.

It is not the scientific establishment but Ahsan himself, with breathtaking hypocrisy, who is arrogant, obdurate, and resistant to criticism. The truth is simply this: scientific criticism should be scientific. Moral, political and economic criticism should be moral, political, and economic. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this point crystal clear:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct.

In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with.
We gain nothing and risk much by distracting the conversation away from the corruption of scientific inquiry, a conversation that can only help the left, towards a insistence on rigid short-term political loyalty. Shame on Ahsan for writing this piece, and shame on Jacobin for publishing it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A real space drive?

If this pans out, and the preliminary results are encouraging, we may actually have a working space drive that will put the whole solar system within reach: Nasa [sic] validates 'impossible' space drive [link fixed].

Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion. . . . British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. . . .

[L]ast year . . . a Chinese team built its own EmDrive [ and confirmed that it produced 720 mN (about 72 grams) of thrust, enough for a practical satellite thruster. . . .

[A] US scientist, Guido Fetta, has built his own propellant-less microwave thruster, and managed to persuade Nasa to test it out. The test results were presented on July 30 at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Astonishingly enough, they are positive. . . .

A working microwave thruster would radically cut the cost of satellites and space stations and extend their working life, drive deep-space missions, and take astronauts to Mars in weeks rather than months.

See also 10 questions about Nasa's 'impossible' space drive answered [link fixed].

Who knows: I might live at least to see people explore the solar system!