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


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

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!

Saturday, August 09, 2014

More religious bafflegab

I don't have much to say about this article: Sam Harris: You Are My Data, because Matt Sheedy, a PhD candidate in religious, spends 1700+ words saying nothing but that religion is complicated. Duh. This is probably the one thing that really irritates me most about religious studies majors and theologians. They literally do nothing else but use thousands (or tens or hundred of thousands) of words to say nothing more than that religion is complicated, and that people who aren't (soi-disant) experts in religion just should just STFU and GBTW. I'm sorry, but the role of experts isn't to shut up the laity; their job is to educate. Don't tell me what religion isn't; tell me what it is, and back up your assertions with real scholarship and science, not empty bafflegab.

I rarely agree with Sam Harris, but at least the man tells us what he thinks and why he thinks it, something I've never seen, heard, or read any religious person — expert or layman — do in any honest, sincere way.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Thoughts on rent control

miller does not find the article I recently linked to, Rent, Rent Control, and Economic Rents, especially convincing. He has two criticisms. First, showing that rents rise when rent control is relaxed does not prove that rent control does not disprove economists' claim that rent control increases rents. Secondly, he cites his personal experience that rent control does cause problems, notably causing voters to erect barriers to entry to protect their housing values. Both of these are legitimate criticism that deserve answers.

I want to start by noting, as mentioned in the article, that economists do not consider rent control as just an example of an undesirable price ceiling, but as a canonical example. There are many other potential examples, such as gas prices in the 1970s, or Nixon's wage and price ceilings, but economists haved picked rent control as the example as the best teaching tool to show that price ceilings are socially undesirable. Thus, we can look at the article first as criticizing this pedagogical choice. If removing rent control in typical, real-world situations does not typically result in increasing social welfare, but merely transfers surplus from consumers to suppliers, then it is a poor pedagogical tool, akin to trying to teach gravity by having students think about the behavior of airplanes (which do not, of course, fall when you drop them). In this regard, I think the authors succeed.

But I want to take a closer look at price ceilings in general. In general, economists talk about consumer and producer surplus. For consumers, this surplus is getting some good or service for less than they would have paid. I really love beer, for example. I would spend \$5 on the first beer of the day, but all my beer costs \$0.50. For my first beer, I'm getting \$4.50 of "surplus." For producers, the surplus is the difference between the marginal cost and the price. The brewery can make some of its beers for only \$0.45, so they're getting \$0.05 of surplus on those beers. (They sell a lot more beer than I drink, so that the \$0.05 adds up quickly.) We show this concept like this:

The shaded areas represent "surplus", a.k.a. "welfare", benefits that the consumers and producers get "for free". It is generally accepted that, absent externalities (people who gain or lose who are neither producers nor consumers of the good) and transaction costs (costs paid by the consumer that do not benefit the producer), the point where the (marginal) supply and demand curves meet, the market price, represents the price and quantity that maximize total welfare (consumer surplus + producer surplus).

Rent control is commonly modeled as a price ceiling, where the government arbitrarily sets a price for a good below the market price.

The canonical model of a price ceiling looks like this:

Here, the government has set a price ceiling, Pc. Because we don't force firms to produce at a loss, firms produce a smaller quantity if they can sell only at the price ceiling. Some of the welfare is redistributed from producers to consumers, but more importantly, some trade is just lost; welfare just vanishes. This lost welfare is labeled "Deadweight Loss" is the graph. At higher prices, producers are willing to produce goods, and consumers are willing to buy them, but the price ceiling prevents these welfare-generating trades. Economists see this loss of welfare as a Bad Thing, and thus argue against price ceilings.

Note too that at the restricted quantities, enough consumers are willing to pay a lot more, the "black market price" (Pb), than even the market price. This willingness can lead to illegality and corruption. Also, at the price ceiling, a lot more consumers are willing to buy (Qb) but cannot. Price ceilings can lead to a lot of problems all around.

But, like all economic graphs, the graphs above lie: specifically, they make assumptions about the supply and demand curves that are not always (indeed rarely) true, notably that they have a slope of about +/-1. I argue that in many cases, in the short term, the absolute value of slope of the supply and demand curves for rental housing is much larger than one, i.e. both are relatively inelastic.* The reason is that in the short term, i.e. holding the level of capital constant, we cannot build new buildings (since new buildings represent new capital). Thus, when there is increased demand, all we can do is use labor, a lot of labor, to rehabilitate the few older buildings back into economic use. Furthermore, there are cities, such as New York or San Francisco, where people will pay a lot to live there, especially at the margin (i.e. a new person coming to the city will pay a lot to move there). Hence, a small shift in the demand curve, such as when Google decides to add a thousand new engineers, whom they can pay enough to cover any rent increases, can have a dramatic impact on the market.

*Note that unless we're using a log scale, the slopes of curves do not directly represent elasticity, which is percentage change in the dependent variable per percentage change in the independent variable, which depends not only on the slope but the level. But slope is a pretty good proxy for elasticity.

I look at rental markets like this:

(Note that my graph is too small to show the short run quantity, which is between Qe and Qlr.)

Here, a small shift in the demand curve, from D to D' causes a large increase in the short run market price. I'm obviously oversimplifying here: e.g. not all rental housing is alike, but I think the graph gets the basic point across.

There is a perfectly good neoclassical economic argument that the government should do something here; the market, by itself, is insufficient to achieve the socially optimal outcome. The story includes the enormous transaction costs associated with moving, especially to a different city. The story goes like this: Google hires a thousand engineers, causing a shift in the demand curve. Rent goes to Psr, pricing a lot of people out of the rental market, people who could afford to pay the long run rent, Plr, and the city fills up with people who can afford to pay the short run rent. In the long run, rent decreases to the long run level, but people who could have paid that rent are long gone. Hence we incur wasteful transaction costs because of the short- and long-run disparity in rent. The government could prevent these wasteful transaction costs by imposing a price ceiling on existing rents (where no additional cost is necessary to bring the property into service), letting them rise to the long-run level, but not to the short-run level. New residents, who can afford it, pay the short run price in the short run, but eventually pay the long-run rent. This is, essentially, what most rent control regimes actually do.

Second, there's a political economy argument. We do not live in a laissez faire political economy; we live in a capitalist political economy, where people who own capital have political control. Furthermore, residential real estate is fundamentally different from an ordinary firm. The present value of any business is the discounted expected income stream of the business. For example, if my business runs a profit of \$100000 per year, and I discount future income at 2.5% per year, then the value of the business is $100000*∑↙{n=0}↖∞ (1-0.025)^n = $\$4 million. A normal business (like a sandwich shop or automobile manufacturer) has to actually be operating to have an expected income stream; the expected income of a closed sandwich shop is 0. However, real estate does not have to operate to have an expected income stream. An occupied and an unoccupied building have about the same value. A building owner can realize the value of his building just by borrowing against it (and paying minimal maintenance costs) rather than letting nasty tenants poop in the toilets. In a depressed economy, buying a building and leaving it empty is a viable investment scheme, as long as few enough people actually do it.

Building owners, then, have a double incentive to enact supply limits (shortages), both market-based and just by taking property off the market, to essentially make the long-run supply curve match the short-run supply curve, essentially creating a quota (which works the same as a price ceiling, except the producers expropriate surplus from the consumers).

Again, rent control can mitigate this market failure both by limiting the incentive to create shortages and by forcing buildings to be occupied to be valuable.

So... that, I think, is why rent control is a bad illustration of a quota, and why rent control is a Good Thing when both demand and supply are highly inelastic in a particular market.