Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ein volk, Ein Reich, Ayn Rand

The Bitch is Back:
2009's most influential author is a mirthless Russian-American who loves money, hates God, and swings a gigantic dick. She died in 1982, but her spawn soldier on. And the Great Recession is all their fault
Some juicy quotes:

"From almost any page...[' says Whittaker Chambers who reviewed Atlas Shrugged for the National Review, ']a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber—go!"'"

"One day you've got a bright young kid dutifully connecting the dots of his liberal-arts education; the next, he's got Roark and Galt in the marrow and has become... an insufferable asshole."

"[N]one of us can escape the shadow of the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building tumescing in the distance."

"'As a fiction writer, she's absurd,' says author and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who is arguably the most opinionated Homo sapiens since Rand herself. 'But if you're young and not particularly wanted and not particularly brilliant, reading Atlas Shrugged provides all the feelings of compensation one might need for any period of terrifying inadequacy.'"

"'No matter what you think of Rand,[' says Nick Gillespie, ']there's no denying that the woman just swings a really big dick.'"

Two lines of argument against capitalism

There are two main lines of argument against capitalism:
  1. Even if it were working "correctly" on its own terms (i.e. the way apologists justify capitalism to the people) capitalism would still suck for a large number of people.
  2. Capitalism does not actually work correctly on its own terms.
The problem, of course, is that with two lines of arguments, apologists can hop from one foot to the other. The arguments against "ideal" capitalism are abstract and hypothetical; we don't actually know how ideal capitalism would actually work, since in practice, capitalism isn't working. On the other hand, a reasonable rebuttal to the argument that capitalism isn't actually working in a practical sense is that we're not actually doing capitalism correctly.

Sensible liberals

Sensible liberals know that
Either we politely overlook [Obama's] record on habeus corpus, rendition, troop escalation, predator drone strikes, wiretapping and whatever else these [radical left-wing] whiners are complaining about* —

— Or Sarah Palin wins in 2012 — guaranteed!

*e.g. bank bailouts, a half-assed stimulus, not extending unemployment insurance, 15 million Americans unemployed, etc. ad nauseam

Economics and thermodynamics

As I read about economics, I keep hearing the word "equilibrium", which makes me immediately think about thermodynamics. The parallels between economics and thermodynamics seem interesting and strong. Both are fundamentally statistical sciences: thermodynamics is statistical mechanics applied to kinetics, and macroeconomics is thermodynamics as applied to microeconomics. At the micro level, there seems to be some parallels: individual molecules and individual economic actors are doing their individual things based on local information, and their individual behavior is in a sense "random".

Thermodynamics and economics are random in different senses: the randomness of individual molecules is statistical: we know precisely what two individual molecules will do when they meet; the randomness is in that we don't know the actual properties of individual molecules. In economics, we're dealing only with a few million or billion human beings (rather than a few trillion trillion molecules) so it's actually possible to get direct information about individual properties in economics; we don't, however, know how to predict detailed individual economic choices from those properties. Still, randomness is randomness, and there should be some similarities.

One interesting aspect of the parallels is that thermodynamics does not — apparently unlike some economic theories — simply stop at the conclusion that in the long run everything will be in thermodynamic equilibrium. Thermodynamics gives us important tools to manipulate thermodynamic systems to create nifty things like steam engines and jet planes. To what extent have economic theorists drawn on the physics of thermodynamics to understand economic behavior? If not (yet) to any great extent, then I'm extremely curious about what serious, detailed study of the parallels could achieve in economics.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The 24 types of Libertarian

(click thumbnail for larger image)

Note: I've heard that leftycartoons has some malware scripts. The original source for the image is here, but don't click the link unless your shields are up.

(via PZ Myers)

These types map pretty directly, some identically, to left-anarchists as well.

Is macroeconomics hard?

Is macroeconomics hard? Not really, according to Brad.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Purity and skepticism

PZ Myers usually gets it 100% right. Every now and again, though, I have to nitpick. His latest essay, Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations? is 99% correct, but he's vague and imprecise about what I consider to be an important point. Myers notes that Christian astronomer and skeptic Pamela Gay is
not a skeptic in all things, though: she's also a Christian. This is not a problem, because there is no such thing as a 'pure' skeptic who applies critical thinking to every single aspect of their lives, so of course she can be a member in good standing of the skeptical community — but let's not pretend that she's applying skeptical values consistently. Again, this is not a problem for her, shouldn't be a problem for us, but it does become a huge problem when people start demanding special exemptions from criticism for religious thought.
Myers mentions again his discomfort with purity, wanting a middle ground between "demand[ing] perfect purity from all skeptics, or shut[ing] up about the foolishness of religious belief."

I suspect that Myers is aiming at the idea that skeptics should give each other (and everyone else) a certain degree of social permission to be wrong. No one is always right, of course, and many honest and sincere skeptics have beliefs that are not just controversial or mistaken, but positively delusional: I myself once believed that it was a matter of settled truth that capitalist representative democracy was The One True Way. On the other hand, Myers correctly insists that skepticism entails that all beliefs, including religion, be subject to scrutiny, criticism and, more importantly, mockery and praise as appropriate.

Myers, however, is not very clear about what he's praising and what he's mocking. He says, for example, that it's "not a problem" that Gay is "not a skeptic in all things," because "there is no such thing as a 'pure' skeptic who applies critical thinking to every single aspect of their lives." But what precisely is "not a problem"? Is it not a problem that Gay holds what many skeptics consider a delusional belief? Or is it not a problem that Gay refuses to apply skeptical thinking to her religious beliefs? I would agree that the first shouldn't be a problem: we should all be free to hold and argue incorrect beliefs, because we should be convinced that an idea is incorrect only after open and honest argument.

But Myers' language forces the second interpretation. Everyone refuses to apply skepticism to something, therefore Gay's own refusal to apply skepticism specifically to her religious beliefs is not a problem. But if her refusal is not a problem, then why should that refusal deserve mockery?

I'm reminded of my time in the Kerista commune. The commune had a fanatical devotion to "purity", which the leader used to manipulate the members. A common tactic was to label advocates of the losing side of a debate as "impure" because they did not hold the adopted position innately; had they held the correct position innately, they never would have argued against it. Once labeled as impure, you had to submit to public humiliation or leave the commune. Of course, one was therefore very careful to always advocate the winning side of a debate (i.e. the side the leader was on). Insistence on purity of specific ideas actually destroyed consistency of method.

Skeptics should insist on purity of method: we should apply skepticism and critical thought to all of our ideas, without exception. We should not consider it impure to have or advocate an incorrect or even delusional idea, but we should consider it impure to continue to affirm the belief once it has decisively been demonstrated false.

It's also important to understand what skepticism is and is not. Skepticism is not a method for generating ideas, it's a method for filtering out bad ideas. A pure skeptic is not and cannot be, therefore, someone who holds all and only those beliefs generated by the skeptical method.

Furthermore, even as a filter for bad ideas, skeptical criticism is expensive in thought and time. Similarly, a pure skeptic cannot be someone who has subjected each and every one of her beliefs to full scientific scrutiny; there isn't enough computing power and time in the universe to do so. Good enough is usually good enough, and just that some belief has not yet been obviously contradicted by the facts is usually good enough.

But it's possible and desirable to be completely committed to the the skeptical filter. When someone has applied the filter and critically examined some idea, and that idea has been found wanting, it is the ethical obligation of every skeptic to at the very least profess agnosticism about the idea pending the examination of further evidence. And there is a point when an idea has been found so decisively incorrect that even holding agnosticism becomes perverse.

Indeed it is precisely the free adoption of the ethical obligation to always follow the skeptical filter that defines a skeptic.

In much the same sense, you break the law unintentionally or accidentally and still call yourself law-abiding. You might be skating on thin ice, but you could even break the law intentionally (perhaps in a moment of weakness, or as an act of civil disobedience) and still call yourself law-abiding. But you absolutely could not call yourself law-abiding and stand up in court and say, "this law should not apply to me." Even if you comply with ten thousand laws, to explicitly argue that even one law — a law you recognize as valid and that you admit to breaking — should not apply to you would make a mockery of the label "law-abiding".

Friday, June 25, 2010

The long run

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

— John Maynard Keynes

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The United States is a fascist police-state

The United States is a fascist police-state.
[Y]esterday’s Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decision of the Supreme Court, coupled with last week’s Arar v. Ashcroft denial of certiorari, [made] the case for claiming that the U.S. is a fascist police-state... a whole lot stronger. ...

The U.S. government can decide unilaterally who is a terrorist organization and who is not. Anyone speaking to such a designated terrorist group is “providing material support” to the terrorists—and is therefore subject to prosecution at the discretion of the U.S. government. And if, in the end, it turns out that one definitely was not involved in terrorist activities, there is no way to receive redress by the state.

Sounds like a fascist police-state to me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A bad feeling

"I’m getting a very bad feeling about the world’s economic prospects."

Paul Krugman

"What I do know is that economic policy around the world has taken a major wrong turn, and that the odds of a prolonged slump are rising by the day. "

Paul Krugman

Politics and economics is a very close second to religion for magical thinking. And, sadly, the problem isn't limited capitalist politicians and economists; magical thinking is almost as bad (and perhaps just as bad) on the progressive and radical left.

Labor and labor power

Marx divided labor economics into labor and labor power. Labor is the actual amount of work a person performs: If you work 8 hours, you are performing 8 hours of labor. Labor power is the ability to perform 8 hours. Labor power has a cost: how many hours of labor (usually other people's) is required to feed, clothe, house, entertain the worker (and possibly allow the worker to raise children and maintain the next generation of the labor force). The difference between the cost of labor power and and labor actually generated is the surplus value of labor.

Suppose it requires 6 hours per day to grow the food, manufacture the clothes, build the houses, etc. to allow a worker to use 8 hours of labor. The cost of labor power, then, is 6 hours, and a day's work generates 2 hours of surplus value.

The federal minimum wage — $7.25 — gives us a rough idea as to the cost of labor power. It's not quite correct, though. First, you can't actually live on 8 hours per day at the minimum wage; you have to work about about 60 hours per week at the minimum wage to survive. On the other hand, even a minimum wage worker contributes a surplus to the capitalist class; if he did not, the capitalist class would not employ him. Splitting the difference gives us $7.25 * 10 +/- $7.25 * 2 = $72.50 +/- $14.50 as the cost of one day's labor power. We'll call it $50/day, 7 days a week.

The Gross Domestic Product is $14.2 trillion. This number actually is generated using (more or less) a 5 day x 8 hour week. The working age population of the US is a little over 200,000,000, but about 10% are unemployed and another 10% under-employed; we'll split the difference and call it ~15% unemployed. So the GDP represents the value of 200,000,000 * 0.85 * 52 * 5 = 44,200,000,000 days of actual labor, for an average value of $316.74 for a day's labor.

Therefore, the average surplus value of labor is $316.74 - $72.50 = $244.24 per day. In terms of hours, the cost of a day's labor is 1.83 hours, and an average worker generates 8 - 1.83 = 6.17 hours of surplus value per day; the average worker's economic efficiency is 77%: she must consume at least 23% of each hour worked to survive.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How are we going to pay for it?

Let's assume we want to do something "expensive". The first question is: how are we going to pay for it?

It's simple (simple does not necessarily mean easy). Just off the cuff, the population of the US is about 300,000,000. I'm guessing the working age population is about 200,000,000. The unemployment rate is about 10% and the under-employment rate is about 20%. So let's figure that's about equivalent to an overall 15% virtual unemployment rate (i.e. 2 people 50% employed is about equivalent to 1 person 100% unemployed). That's 30,000,000 people unemployed. A person can work a scosh more than 2,000 hours per year, and an hour of unskilled labor is worth about $10. So 30,000,000 * 2,000 * $10 = 600,000,000,000 = six hundred billion dollars a year we're wasting, money we're simply leaving on the table. (And that doesn't count the accumulated training and experience of unemployed skilled labor that's also being wasted.)

It's a little harder to estimate the surplus value ratio, the amount of productivity an individual creates over and above what's necessary to sustain a civilized, dignified life, and which is captured by the rentier classes. there are 170,000,000 people working, which generates 170,000,000 * 2,000 * $10 = $3.4 trillion dollars*. If the surplus value ratio were only 10% (which feels low, but could be completely wrong: consult a professional economist), that's another 340 billion dollars a year that's doing nothing right now but sitting in the pockets of the ruling class to finance their internecine conflicts.

*The nominal US GDP is $14.2 trillion. Obviously, this number is not being calculated on a labor basis; there's probably a lot of inflation in this number. It's very difficult to figure out how much actual productive labor a dollar represents.

How much consumption do we waste? Wasted consumption is consumption for its own sake, not to satisfy any actual desire for the good or service or what it provides. For example, "planned obsolescence", where a product is designed to wear out quickly so the consumer must purchase another, thereby keeping those producing the product in business, is (to a certain extent, there are some good reasons for planned obsolescence) wasted consumption. Again, if we guess that wasted consumption is about 10% (that number comes, of course, straight from my ass) that's another $340 billion.

If we could capture half of the productivity we're wasting, we could use more than $600-700 billion every year. That's close to the entire annual budget of the Pentagon (which also arguably entails a lot of wasted productivity). Capitalism is the most efficient economic system possible? Yeah, right!

What could we do with $600,000,000,000 per year? Shit! What couldn't we do? We could go to the stars with that kind of money.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Failure of aggregate demand

Why the Main Street Economy Isn’t Getting Any Better:
The reason so many Americans went into such deep debt was because their wages didn’t keep up. The median wage (adjusted for inflation) dropped between 2001 and 2007, the last so-called economic expansion. So the only way typical Americans could keep spending at the rate necessary to keep themselves — and the economy — going was to borrow, especially against the value of their homes. But that borrowing ended when the housing bubble burst.

So now Americans have no choice but to pare back their debt. That’s bad news because consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. It helps explain why we so few jobs are being created, and why we can’t escape the gravitational pull of the Great Recession without far more government spending.
I suspect Bob Reich will be joining the revolution soon.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali favors proselytizing Christianity to Muslims. Colbert is of course a comedian, but Ali seems serious. Her motivation is not (thank the Lord) that Christianity is all that and a bag of chips. (The AEI has not corrupted her that much, at least not yet.) Rather, she wants people to get in the habit of judging, especially judging whether one religion is better than another.

I like Ali, but this sounds like a half-assed, naive suggestion to me. Of course, I'll look immediately askance at anything that might even indirectly cause more idiots to show up at my door spouting nonsense.

More importantly, while I suppose in some sense Christianity is "better" than Islam (it's hard to get much worse than Islam without shaving your head and wearing a swastika), that's not really the point. The point is not whether we judge (we do that all the time), but on what basis we should judge. And once you've accepted the premise that there's a legitimate basis to judge the difference between competing brands of delusional theological bullshit, you're implicitly denying that we should judge based on rationality and humanism. One might as well debate whether it's better to believe that you're Napoleon rather than Jesus Christ.

The one and only reason that Christianity is "better" than Islam is that in the West Christianity has been for a few centuries under savage and continuous assault from rationalist, secularist, humanist (and to some extent capitalist*) philosophers, intellectuals and politicians. Historically, theologically and ideologically, Christianity without the moderating influence of secularism is just as much a gigantic hellhole of sadistic evil as is modern Islam.

*Capitalism's early struggle in the West was against feudalism, which relied heavily on the divine right of Kings as a propaganda theme; secularism was an effective counter to that theme. Of course, so was a dour, humorless and sometimes sadistic Protestant religious justification. While useful in the struggle against feudalism, rationalism, secularism and humanism leads inevitably to communism, which is why the capitalist ruling class has vastly increased its financial and ideological support for fundamentalist Christianity.

Even her additional goal of wanting people to judge whether one culture is better than another misses the mark. At least culture is real, but the problem is that "culture" is far too broad and complicated to simply compare one against another; there are far too many irrelevant, accidental details about every culture to make such a simplistic comparison interesting. Which is better: Christmas or Eid? Baseball or soccer? Front porches or courtyards? And which is better: Economic imperialism or theocracy? Wars of aggression or terrorism? Bombing abortion clinics or female genital mutilation? Mindless consumerism or mindless religiosity?

The point is that our task is not to judge between delusional systems of theological bullshit or cultures as monolithic entities. Our task is not even to learn that it's somehow "ok" to make judgments. Our task is to learn how to judge rationally, sensibly and humanely. It might have made sense a couple of hundred years ago, but it's pointless today to encourage religious believers or almost equally delusional cultural and national exceptionalists to accept the basic validity of delusional thinking and argue the details of their delusions.

(via toomanytribbles).

The failure of capitalism

As a communist I believe that capitalism is inherently immoral, in several different ways. But that's not the point today.

The point today is that:
  1. We know both theoretically and empirically that there is a relative optimum for how a capitalist economic system operates
  2. We know that the entire Western capitalist system is operating nowhere near its theoretical and empirical optimum
  3. We know why it's nowhere near its optimum; indeed we've known for many years how to keep it near its optimum
  4. We know how to return the capitalist system as it is right now to its optimum in less than a year
There's a lot of interesting and informative debate about how to fine-tune this knowledge, but there's no actual scientific, rational debate among relatively honest economists that we have the basic fundamental knowledge about how to both prevent catastrophic financial collapse and recover once the financial system has actually collapsed. The "debate" about fundamentals essentially mirrors the evolution/creationism debate: one side with all the facts and all the science; the other side with nothing but lies and bullshit.

One does not need Marx at all to come to this conclusion; all that's required (other than intellectual honesty) is a basic understanding of capitalist economics and recent (19th and 20th century) history. One does not even need to read Keynes (although it doesn't hurt): his conclusions are plain to see. (Keynes was a true genius, making the subtle obvious.)

I want to emphasize this point: We know exactly what it means to have a well-functioning capitalist system, we know how to make a capitalist system function well, and we know how to fix a broken capitalist system. And yet 20 months after the beginning of the collapse of the entire Western financial system — a collapse that was foreseeable and preventable — the capitalist system is not just a little sub-optimal, it is two or three orders of magnitude away from practical optimality; the collapse is still getting worse, not better.

In much the same sense, I think there are good arguments that the Microsoft Windows operating system can never be a fundamentally "good" operating system. Regardless of this conclusion, we know how to build a computer that will run Windows relatively well. We are presently in the absurd position of having a Windows computer that takes 10 minutes to bring up Notepad, we know that the reason it's running unacceptably slowly is that most of the memory is corrupt, and we have a faction of economists arguing that while Windows is the best and only operating system, it is somehow irrelevant, impractical, or actually immoral to replace the memory... because the system is running so slowly.

The only honest way to philosophically justify the "obstructionist" faction is to argue that whatever the capitalist ruling class does is good by definition, that there is no coherent independent measure whatsoever of how well the capitalist system is actually functioning. (In much the same sense, there is no independent measure of what the laws of physics "ought" to be, they just are what they are.) The obstructionist faction dares not make this argument, hence their reliance on lies and bullshit.

The progressive capitalist economists (especially Krugman and DeLong) have an honest and reasonably accurate understanding of capitalist economics, and know what we have to do economically to fix the capitalist system. Their failure, such as it is, is to implicitly attribute the failure to the outbreak of actual schizophrenia in half the population. Brad DeLong in particular is fond of asking why we can't have a better press corps, and why the Republican party is allowed to survive. He loves to ask the questions, and provides tons of evidence why the questions are perspicacious and relevant, but he never answers the questions.

No good scientist should ever blithely accept the hypothesis of mass insanity (nor should she blithely accept massive conspiracy).

The 20,000 foot answer to both the questions is: We have the press corps we have and the Republican party we have — as well as the incompetent, ineffectual and spineless Democratic party as well as the systemic financial collapse — because the alternatives have been selected against by the social selection pressures inherent in and essential to the capitalist system, i.e. the selection pressures created by the private ownership of the means of production.

First, we need complicated and expensive physical and technological means of production to maintain a standard of living above bare survival. Second, these means of production must be physically concentrated to some degree* to be maximally efficient at generating use-value. Once we had discovered the ideas (originally efficient steam power and cheap energy) that allowed us to accumulate surplus labor into efficient means of production, it was inevitable that any social system that did not accumulate and physically concentrate the means of production would be selected against**. There are theoretically many different systems that could have survived this selection pressure; for a lot of reasons, many historical and purely accidental, capitalism — which does in fact create and physically concentrate the physical and technological means of production — is the one that survived.

*Which is not to say that concentration is good in and of itself, or that more concentration is always better than less. There are diminishing returns to both excess concentration and excess distribution.

**Technically, the concrete selection pressures were more basic; the selection pressure against failure to accumulate capital is relatively abstract. Going deeper would be interesting scientifically, but we know empirically that these more fundamental physical selection pressures must result in the abstract selection pressure favoring the development and concentration of the means of production. Since it's an abstract selection pressure, it's relatively benign to discuss it as selection for, rather than strictly as selection

We have to ask these questions: What were the essential features of capitalism that allowed it to survive the early economic environment with selection pressure favoring development and concentration of capital? Between the origins of capitalism and today, how has the environment changed? How do the essential features of capitalism relate to the modern environment?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Religion is good

Religion is polarizing and ludicrous, but despite what angsty atheists say, it does more good than harm. Look at the numbers: For every firebombed abortion clinic, there are 126 young Catholic boys getting all the sex they want.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The vast and endless sea

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

— Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry
(via Jeff Atwood)