Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mathematical Reality

Steve Landsburg (OK, I can’t help myself - I can’t quit you Steve. He’s frequently wrong but often writes about interesting stuff) is arguing that the universe, and its contents, are mathematical objects.

1. A “mathematical object” consists of abstract entities (that is, “things” with no intrinsic properties) together with some relations among them. For example, the euclidean plane that you studied in high school geometry consists of points, together with certain relations among them (such as “points A, B and C are collinear”). Mathematical objects can be very complicated. Mathematical objects can have “substructures”, which is a fancy name for “parts”. A line in the plane, for example, is a substructure of the plane.

2. Every modern theory of physics says that our universe is a mathematical object, and that we are substructures of that object. Theories differ only with regard to which mathematical object we happen to be a part of. Particles, forces and energy are not just described by equations; they are the equations (together with abstract, purely mathematical relations among those equations).

It’s not a new argument. It goes back at least to Plato and probably to Pythagoras. Lots of physicists continue to make the same argument. Given the central role mathematics in our theories of physics, can we believe otherwise? A weaker position is to argue that mathematics is effective in “describing the universe.” We also use language to describe the Universe, especially in sciences where mathematics has shown limited explanatory power, like biology. Should we also say then that the Universe is a “linguistic object.” It sounds odd, and that’s because it is.

There is an inherent danger, I think, in confusing our descriptions with the presumed reality that underlies them. One important reason is that we need to remember that our descriptions are tentative and subject to revision in the light of further information. Plato’s Universe consisted of fundamental substances made of regular polyhedrons – tetrahedrons, octahedrons, cubes, dodecahedrons, and icosahedrons – very pretty, but it didn’t work out. Kepler liked polyhedra too, but discovered that the orbits of the planets were ellipses – which allowed Newton discover that they weren’t quite ellipses, and Einstein had a further revision. There is every reason to think that our current mathematical description of nature – a world of fields and particles identified with irreducible representations of some groups – is also tentative. If we are lucky, we will find an even more powerful mathematical description in which to embed our next theory.

I like to think that mathematics is an offshoot of language, one that enforces some linguistic rules quite rigidly and disregards some other parts of language. It is a fact that this kind of language has special power to describe physics, a power that may suggest that God is a mathematician, or, more or less equivalently, that the Universe *is* a mathematical object. I prefer to suspend judgment.

Landsburg takes the other road and reaches a number of conclusions which I’m inclined to reject, but I won’t discuss most of them here. He ends with:

Finally: I never cease to be amazed by people who uncritically accept the reality of rocks, geese and butterflies but want to deny the reality of mathematical objects. Science tells us that rocks, geese and butterflies are mathematical objects. What else could they be?

I don’t buy it. They can’t be mathematical objects to my satisfaction unless you can tell me ***what*** mathematical objects they are, in sufficient detail that their properties follow from that mathematical description. Linguistic descriptions, with their inherently vague and incomplete character, capture rocks and geese much better than any specific mathematical description can.

The Universe presumably is some interacting whole, but we can only describes its parts (mathematically or otherwise) when we can sufficiently isolate that part from the rest. For a planetary orbit or an elementary particle interaction we can often do that well enough to come up with a mathematical description, but for geese and butterflies, not so much.

Penny, Penny, Penny

Fans of Kaley Cuoco and The Big Bang Theory were distressed to hear that she suffered a broken leg in an equestrian accident. Our best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery.

Geeks (and maybe short guys) got a vicarious thrill, though, from her announcement that she and co-star Johnny Galecki (Leonard) had secretly dated for two years. She has announced that they remain friends, but that she won't date any more actors.

Geeks of the world (and others) shouted "I'm not an actor!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We Know All the Laws Underlying Everyday Phenomena

....and always have.

Sean Carroll is only responsible for the first part of that claim.

His claim is falsifiable, and he supplies a standard:

What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena.

Some point out that we have heard this story before, in the 1890s, say. Sean has a counter.

A century ago, that would have been incredibly easy to do; the world of Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell’s equations wasn’t able to account for why the Sun shines, or why tables are solid. Now we do understand how to account for those things in terms of known laws of physics.

A century ago yes, but roll the wayback machine for another two or three decades and I say not. Remember, Sean's standard was something providing evidence of new physics beyond what was understood. In 1880, there was no reason to doubt the efficacy of Newton and Maxwell to understand the radiation of the Sun or the stability of matter - those things were not fully understood, but the reasons further explanation was needed were hardly evident.

That said, I'm pretty sure that Sean is right, just not quite so sure as he is.

For sure, there are plenty of things now in everyday life that aren't explicable with Newtonian physics, but that's mostly because everyday has expanded so much, and now includes transistors, gps, and nuclear medicine.

Just in Time

WB reports that the UN has appointed an Ambassador to the Aliens.

Apparently, it is a timely move.

Astronomers say they've found the first planet beyond our solar system that could have the right size and setting to sustain life as we know it, only 20 light-years from Earth.

"My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent," Steven Vogt, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told reporters today. "I have almost no doubt about it."

I was confident that we would be ready. We've done such an excellent job in protecting the planet in other respects.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Everybody Does It

If we make a list of more or less universal human activities, and lop off the obviously primal – eating, sleeping, raising children – a prominent member of the items left is gossip. It’s one of the most common things we use language for. Pretty clearly it plays some important role in our cultural economy. Can we say what that is, exactly?

At one level I suppose we could say that sharing gossip is our version of the grooming behavior engaged in by some of our relative species – a bonding and alliance building activity. I don’t that’s the real point though. I think that the information shared is more fundamental. All gossip is political, in the sense that it is ultimately about power relationships in the society. Most of the content is about who is doing what to/with whom, and hence about how this affects power relationships. If gossip is about politics, in this sense, it also *is* politics, since the communication of information (or misinformation) is not disinterested but can serve political ends, and can build or destroy alliances.

We use speech for a lot of purposes that don’t fit the category of gossip, but it’s amusing to speculate that gossip might have been a significant factor in the development of speech. The most basic purpose of speech seems to me to be orchestration of cooperation, to communicate a warning for example, to signal location, or enforce power relationships. Non-human primates use vocal signals to do all those things. Social insects engage in rather elaborate cooperative activities coordinated by chemical and visual signals, so it’s not terribly hard to imagine humans evolving a simple vocal call meaning “danger, lion” into “I’ll go this way, you go that, and we will cut him off at the pass.” How, though, do we get to the description of interpersonal interactions and motivations?

Men like to think that we gossip less than women, but one of the things that we need wives and girlfriends for is keeping us up to date on the current gossip.

One reason Facebook became such a spectacular success, I suspect, is that it turbocharges our fascination with gossip.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why "Why?"

We humans have a fascination with why questions: why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there air? Why did the chicken cross the road? Why am I writing about an interrogative pronoun?

In this case, the immediate provocation was this by Hawking and Mlodinow via Steve Landsburg:

To understand the universe at the deepest level, we need to know not only how
the universe behaves, but why.
• Why is there something rather than
• Why do we exist?
• Why this particular set of laws and not
some other?
So say Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The
Grand Design, and so say I.

I sympathize with the sentiment, but I also question its propriety. They tell us that one of the fundamental steps in human cognition occurred when we started modeling other’s thought processes. Once we start thinking about what others are thinking, a very fundamental aspect is that of motivation. Why, for example, is Joe-Bob talking to my enemy Duke? Are they plotting against me?

Once we had models of other peoples thinking that were useful predictors, it became natural to try to extend that kind of analysis beyond our fellow humans. Animals too seemed to behave with motivation and purpose – plants too, growing toward water and the Sun. Maybe otherwise inexplicable things like clouds, rivers, and heavenly bodies could be interpreted with similar logic. A whole world populated by spirits and gods resulted.

Science gave us an alternative to this kind of thinking. Weather happened not because the thunder god was unhappy, but because air and moisture followed some discoverable laws. There was an order to the Universe, but motivation and purpose doesn’t seem to come into it. It’s a deeply shocking idea to our brains so carefully crafted to seek and understand motivation, but there is a lot of evidence for it.

That’s why I’m inclined to think that when it comes to the fundamental character of the Universe, ours is not to reason why. What seems to be the best that we can do.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Morning Snooze

On Fox, this morning, they show the clip of the black female Obama supported who said she was exhausted trying to defend him. Give me something, she begged.

Brit Hume said people are angry because of Obama's agenda (true, doubtless for Repubs) and Juan Williams said they are dissappointed because Obama has let the Republicans capture the narrative and won't fight back.

I'm with Williams, of course. Obama is supposed to be smart. Does he really not get that he needs to be a fighter, or is it just to foreign to his nature? He is finally attacking the Republicans plan, but he needs to present an alternative, and not just the sissy stuff he has been doing this summer.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bullied Into Political Correctness

(A response to Arun)

Most of us try to avoid a lot of behaviors that aren't illegal. Many of those behaviors were acceptable in what passed for polite society a generation or three ago. I'm talking here about behaviors related to what we might call "political correctness." The most common examples are from everyday speech. Use of demeaning racial, sexual, and religious language was not long ago routine, even in the press and other media. These terms were insulting, but they were also part of a pattern of discrimination and intimidation. Burning crosses escalated into voter intimidation and lynching.

These behaviors are much less common today, and I would like to think that's because we have become better people, but the fact is that to a large extent we have been "bullied into political correctness", mostly by the disapproval of our fellows. There are at least two kinds of reasons for avoiding an offensive behavior - first, common decency and respect for our fellow man, and second, the possibility that the offensive behavior might provoke retaliation. I like the first better, but the second may be more important.

Why do people choose offensive behaviors, anyway? Why, for example, were offensive racial epithets in such common use some decades ago? Mainly, I think, to intimidate and humiliate. They were a tool to enforce oppression of minorities. Jim Crow took some of its first major hits in the American South when black veterans came back from World War II. They had been in the big war and they were far less able to be intimidated than they had been before.

When a bunch of yahoos gather to burn Korans today, they are following in the footsteps of the cross burning grandparents of a couple of generations ago, and they deserve the same kind of response.

Not every act that offends is offensive in this sense, though. A critical component of democracy is the right to criticize, and especially the right to criticize the politically powerful. Our Constitution gives us very broad rights to free speech, and this right has been interpreted to apply to lots of symbolic actions that are not literally speech or press. If I recall correctly, the issue of cross burning became a contentious issue at the Supreme Court for exactly that reason, and if I remember correctly even further (not especially likely!) it was held that the implicit threat it carried did in fact often make that illegal. Perhaps this is what Justice Breyer had in mind.

Breyer's point, and one I tend to agree with, is that particulars matter. So when is a potentially offensive act morally appropriate? Here are a couple of tests: are those offended being challenged for a specific behavior (like the Catholic Church's record of covering up child molestation), are those offended in power, or are they a disadvantaged minority (burning a Koran in Saudi Arabia is one thing, burning it in South Florida another.)

Robotic Abuse

I wasn't pleased when I learned that Chuck Lorre had a new show about fat people. I was afraid this meant that some of the writers for The Big Bang Theory might be deflected onto the new show. I don't know if this happened or not, but the first episode of the new season of TBBT is out and it doesn't look promising. This one was written on autopilot - Sheldon's first date and one long masturbation joke.

More physics jokes and fewer twelve year old jokes, please.

Ms. Rosenbaum, Again

From Kung Fu Monkey.

-- There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Via Paul Krugman.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

College I: Who Goes and Why?

Some popular reasons:

  • Prepare for a career
  • My parents would kill me if I didn't
  • Experience a wider world
  • Beats working
  • Meet people and find a partner
  • Party!
  • Learn and find my path in life

Anybody have more?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Home Town Hysteria

Republicans in my county are openly stoking racist hysteria. No action is too contemptible for a vote. From KFOXTV:

Plenty of Clues

In retrospect I should have seen it. In the Candidates debates McCain repeately baited him, but Obama kept his cool and played rope-a-dope. I didn't like it, but it did seem to work, and he got elected, with more than a bit of help from the Republican demolition of the economy. As President, it became ever more frustrating when he responded to every provocation by finding yet another cheek to turn.

We thought, maybe, that we had a dog in the fight, but it seems there isn't any fight in the dog.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mikey Likes It!

I'm talking about Peter Woit, and his review of the new book by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. It's available for Kindle, so I will be ordering The Shape of Inner Space

The Suffering Rich

It seems that a certain Chicago law professor is outraged at the sacrifices he might be forced to make if Obama doesn't reduce his taxes like he would like to for the rest of the suffering working stiffs. Mr. Henderson, it seems, is forced to get by on $455,000 per year, and the grinding misery of his poverty is a heavy burden.

Brad DeLong (or DeLing), feels his pain, but thinks he forgot to plan for some things when he voted for GWB.

Paul Krugman looks at the roots of his psychic trauma and find rising inequality at the top.

Respect: A History of Violence

There is a religion whose holy book records its God commanding human sacrifice and large scale genocide. These are hardly isolated incidents but part of a pattern of intolerance and violence. So do we owe the adherents respect and toleration?

Whether we do or not, we have little choice, since this religion with its multiple branches forms the largest community of believers in the World. Although those acting in its name still perpetrate the occasional mass murder, for the most part its worst deeds seem to be behind it, at least for the moment. That said, some of its fringe elements continue to whip up interreligious hatred and violence.

I am referring, of course, to Judaism and its Christian offshoot. Of course some other religions have similarly violent histories and traditions. Notable among them is the "cousin" religion of Islam. Like the JC religions, Islam centers its faith on a Holy book and claims descent from Abraham. Like them, it has a tradition of inter and intra religious violence.

None of these religions has a great history of tolerance, but each of them has had successful episodes of it. In the West, science and democracy have promoted a secular tradition that manages a certain amount of even-handedness in its relations with various religions. That becomes impossible if the partisans of the various religions insist on stirring up anger and the public responds.

We know a lot about how such anger can be stirred. The basic formula could be printed on the religious fanatic's cereal box: Insult or attack the other, wait for retaliation in threat or attack, and respond with outrage, extend the guilt for any act of insult or violence to every member of the associated group, and finally, lie and distort like crazy.

Thus it was that some relatively innocent cartoons by a Danish guy were supplemented by some truly insulting forgeries to still up anger against the cartoonist, and most importantly, everyone in the West. That said, what about the motives of the cartoonist? Was he picking on an oppressed minority, or did he think he had a higher moral purpose.

Most of the Muslim world has found itself dragged rather abruptly from the 12th century into the 21st. Because of their numerical strength and fortuitous control of much of the World's energy supplies, they arrived not as helpless savages on the fringe of civilization but more like the suddenly rich but still ungentrified country cousins. Their 12th century customs frquently seem barbaric to us, but they probably would have looked much less so to our own ancestors.

I'm not arguing that we should tolerate practices that we consider barbaric, but I will argue that we need to adopt the reformers creed: target the behavior, not the people. A singer named Morrissey recently created a scandal by labelling "Chinese people a sub-species" over an animal cruelty scandal. While I object to animal cruelty in all forms, and find the subject cruelty particularly repellent, Morrissey is nuts. In the first place, it's possible to find plenty of animal cruelty closer to home. In the second, Chinese attitudes are changing too, and the route to aligning their attitudes more toward his is through persuasion, not insult. Finally, I don't think sub-species means what he thinks it does.

The supposed point of this long digression is that if we object to some Muslim practices (many of which are not sanctioned by the Koran), protest them. Be outraged that the Iranians stone people to death, that people have their hands cut off, or are murdered for educating women. Burning Korans or publishing cartoons won't help.

I agree with many of the points Prothero and Kristof make in their respective columns.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

God vs. Darwin

(Reading The Origin of Species, Chapter Four):

God has had million s of opportunities since 1859 to prove Darwin wrong. Darwin knew nothing of the mechanism of inheritance and he didn't know the causes of natural variation. Consequently, his speculations of the common descent of all life would all have come tumbling down if the mechanisms of heredity had turned out to be incompatible with common descent. A few little tweaks of the genetic code here and there could have guaranteed that something like special creation had happened.

Darwin had no idea of the manifold ways molecular genetic would confirm his intuitions, but he had already assembled formidable evidence against the idea of special creation. He tellingly notes that cave adapted species on different continents resemble not each other, but their local relatives. Facts like this have an obvious explanation by natural selection but appear arbitrary and pointless in a special creation scenario.

If I were a micro blogger

I would have to sit around trying to raise my pithiness quotient while lowering the lamotronic index.

About Lady Gaga's meat couture: Who let the dogs out?

Christine O'Donnell in 1999: Come on! Didn't every fun loving college kid spend a little time on a Satanic altar?

I don't think many Montanans were surprised. (By snow in September)

B. R. Myers and Tyler Cowens Don't Love "Freedom"

It seems that not quite everyone loves "Freedom."



Now, I suppose, I will have to read it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Virtual Reality

The so-called Standard Model of physics, which culminated in its modern form about three decades ago, represents the triumph of quantum field theory, itself conceived about 80 years ago. Quantum field theory embodies quantum wave particle duality in a mathematically satisfying way, but doesn’t exactly settle the thorny question of interpretation. Quantized fields are the underlying reality, but particles are what we detect.

Most doable calculations in quantum field theory are done by a mathematical technique called perturbation theory, and Feynman and others showed that perturbation theory has an intuitively appealing visualization in terms real and virtual particles – real particles being the ones that show up in our detectors. Interactions between particles are really interactions between quantum fields, but in perturbation theory, those interactions are visualized in terms of the exchange of so-called virtual particles. This visualization is not just a handy mnemonic – the particles and their Feynman diagrams correspond in a mathematically precise way to the terms in the perturbation series. Thus, to lowest order of perturbation theory, the scattering of two charged particles can be conceived as the exchange of a (virtual) photon between them.

One way to read this diagram is to say the electron on the left was moving along and spit out a virtual photon, which was absorbed by the electron on the right. The momentum carried by the photon deflected both electrons, and hence responsible for their change of path. So what’s the difference between exchanging a real photon and a virtual one? Ignoring any subtleties, let’s just say that the virtual photon doesn’t have to obey relativistic energy momentum rules - E is not necessarily equal to pc, or as physicists (at least those of my day) say, it is off the mass shell. Virtual particle's violation of energy-momentum conservation is strictly short term. The vacuum is sort of a central banker to particle world – need some energy or momentum to complete a scattering deal? You can borrow it from the vacuum – interest free – but the rules on quick repayment are very strict (they are governed by the time-energy uncertainty relation). Very small loans can last for a while, but the big ones are super short term. Particles are allowed to “borrow” from the vacuum, but the deal is that all energy accounts must be settled at the end of the transaction – absorption of the virtual particle.

In quantum field theory, virtual particles form a kind of ubiquitous ether in which everything else happens. The virtual particles are constantly winking in and out of existence.

The pass virtual particles get on energy conservation doesn’t apply to charge conservation, so charged particles need to be created in pairs – an electron with a positron, for example. Among other things, this fact creates a path for virtual particles to the citizenship of the real, if circumstances happen to be just right. Suppose a virtual electron-positron pair is created in a very strong electric field. The field will tend to pull the electron one direction and the positron the other, doing work on them and creating energy of separation. If the work done becomes equal to the energy needed to create a real electron positron pair (about 1.022 MeV), the pair can pay off their loan to the vacuum and escape to real existence.

Why doesn’t this happen in every electric field? Well, the field needs to be large, strong, and long lasting enough to create the necessary energy of separation, but it also needs to be able to do it quickly – the vacuum field loan service won’t tolerate long term loans. This process was first described by Schwinger in 1951, but has apparently not yet been tested.

One reason this is important is that there seems to be a relation between the Schwinger effect, the Unruh effect, and the Hawking effect, so quantum gravity could be in the crosshairs too.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Once More Into the Breach

I really do believe there is a justification for privileging investment income - I just don't think that Landsburg's argument is it. Saving and investment are the key to capital accumulation, and capital accumulation drives economic progress. Consequently, it's an activity worth encouraging.

Writing Wrongs

In answer to Lee's comment, let me attempt to clarify my critique of the Landsburg.

It is an essential element of his argument (see previous post) that the calculation of the burden on Bob include hypothetical profits from opportunity forgone. If Bob had paid no taxes and chosen to make the same shrewd investment with his other fifty cents, he would have managed to acquire $2 when his investment paid off. Since he wound up with just 95 cents, SL calculates his tax burden at 1.05/2.00=52.5%.

We can construct a hardly less plausible hypothetical for Alice, who consumed her 50 cents. She might have decided in that consumption to buy herself food, for example, thereby fitting herself to earn another buck while Bob's ship was coming in. Suppose, though, she hadn't had to pay the 50% income tax. Then she might be able to feed her spouse and he could go out and work the next day too. Hence, her (their combined) tax free income would have been $3. Thanks to income tax, though, she got to consume only $1 worth. The net tax burden on her under this scenario is thus 2/3 or 67% - far higher than Bob's 52.5%. In order for the taxman to take as large a percentage of Bob's potential income as he did of Alice's, the capital gain's tax would need to be 67%.

The point is that once you start counting hypothetical income, you have a lot of freedom to make the numbers come out any old way you want.

Stevie boy is a master of this kind of obfuscation. If you want to calculate real tax burdens, a more reliable way is to look at actual income and actual tax paid.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Getting it Wrong

An encounter with a Landsburg.

The New Yorker arrived today, leading off with this letter to the editor about income tax rates:

…The very rich pay at significantly lower rates, because most of their income consists not of compensation for services but of capital gains and dividends, which are capped at a fifteen per cent rate.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and you can’t begin to think clearly about tax policy if you don’t understand why. Even if capital gains taxes were capped at one percent, income subject to those taxes would be taxed at a higher rate than straight compensation. That’s because capital gains taxes (like all other taxes on capital income) are surtaxes, assessed over and above the tax on compensation.

It always pays to think through stylized examples. Alice and Bob each work a day and earn a dollar. Alice spends her dollar right away. Bob invests his dollar, waits for it to double, and then spends the resulting two dollars. Let’s see how the tax code affects them.

First add a wage tax. Alice and Bob each work a day, earn a dollar, pay 50 cents tax and have 50 cents left over. Alice spends her fifty cents right away. Bob invests his fifty cents, waits for it to double, and then spends the resulting one dollar.

What does the wage tax cost Alice? Answer: 50% of her consumption (which is down from a dollar to fifty cents). What does it cost Bob? Answer: 50% of his consumption (which is down from two dollars to one dollar). In the absence of a capital gains tax, Alice and Bob are both being taxed at the same rate.

Now add a 10% capital gains tax. Alice and Bob each work a day, earn a dollar, pay 50 cents tax and have 50 cents left over. Alice spends her fifty cents right away. Bob invests his fifty cents, waits for it to double, pays a 5 cent capital gains tax, and is left with 95 cents to spend.

What does the tax code cost Alice? Answer: 50% of her consumption (which is down from a dollar to fifty cents). What does the tax code cost Bob? Answer: 52.5% of his consumption (which is down from two dollars to 95 cents).

So there you have it: A 50% wage tax, together with a 10% capital gains tax, is equivalent to a 52.5% tax on Bob’s income. In fact, you could have achieved exactly the same result by taxing Bob at a 52.5% rate in the first place: He earns a dollar, you take 52.5% of it, he invests the remaining 47.5 cents, waits for it to double, and spends the resulting 95 cents.

Why is this so terribly hard for so many intelligent people to understand? Here, I think, is why. They see a guy with a million dollar capital gain on his investment, and they forget that in the absence of wage taxes, he’d have invested twice as much and earned a two million dollar capital gain. In that sense, the capital gain is taxed in advance.

Let's review the bidding Alice makes $1, pays $0.50 in taxes and spends the rest. Bob makes $1 in wages and $0.50 in capital gains and pays $0.50 in income taxes and $0.05 in capital gains taxes. That, says Landsburg, is 52.5% of his consumption. Huh? #1 His consumption is $0.95, his total tax bill was $0.55 = 57.9% Not a huge error, but the logic from which it was derived, involving $2 mythical unrelated to the problem is weird. Now lets look at Alice. She consumed $0.50 and paid $0.50 in income taxes, (Huh? #2) so she paid taxes equal to 100% of her consumption, not 50% as Landsburg asserts.

Now I'm entirely too old a man to spend my time correcting the elementary arithmetic and logic errors of some economics prof, but I do feel some obligation to clarify the thinking of the idiots who read him - and yes, I do include myself in the description.

Some further words from the Master:

There’s plenty of room for reasoned debate about who should or should not be paying higher tax rates. But there’s no room for reasoned debate about the actual impact of the tax code. This is a matter of arithmetic: Anyone who pays taxes on capital income is effectively paying at a higher total tax rate than anyone who doesn’t. I’ve explained this before. Don’t make me have to explain it again!

Ok, there is a magic world interpretation in which the above reasoning can sort of make sense - that's a world in which investment automatically generates free money. If Bob had all of his dollar to put in the magic doubler, and Alice had had all of hers to spend, then she would have gained an extra 50 cents and Bob would have gained an extra dollar. It's the presence of free but delayed money that makes the machine work the way Landsburg would want it to.

Suppose Bob's investment is the lottery, and he wins $10. Then, with 10% capital gains tax, he has pays another buck in taxes, for a total tax of $1.50. To use SL math, he winds up losing not $1.50 but $11.50, because Landsberg math assumes that the next lottery ticket he bought would also be a winner. So taxes cost him, in Landoworld, $11.50, even though he only paid $1.50. Once you start using play money, Landsburg style, you can make the effective cost of capital gains taxes anything you like.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Meet The Press FAIL

Meet the Press today had a panel that included Reza Salam and Republican Spokesman Mike Murphy. Salam led off with a thing about how he, as an American Muslim, felt about the kind of demagoguery that demonized American Muslims and equated them with al Quaeda. Others remarked on how Bush and Obama had tried to emphasize that our war was not a war against Islam, that bigotry was running rampant, and some idiot suggested that maybe Obama could go to a mosque (Doh!) and finally Mike Murphy weighs in with some crap about our war with Islamofascism. At that point I would have liked Salam a whole lot better if he had stood up, marched over, and tried to beat Murphy's Christofascist face into a bloody pulp.

David "boy vampire" Gregory would have been more impressive if he had helped, or at least called out the asshole.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Disfunctional Families

A large fraction of the people I know seem to believe they come from disfunctional families. I suspect that art has given us an absurdly strict definition of a functional family.

My definition: a family is probably functional if it produces children who survive to adulthood. Happy families are doubtless rarer.

Modern Fiction Bleg

Every happy family is the same. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way......Leo Tolstoy

Which may explain why unhappy, or as we say now-a-days, disfunctional, families are a more popular subject for novels.

It occurred to me that perhaps I ought to read some contemporary fiction on my Kindle. From the NYT's Michio Kakutani I learned that Jonathan Franzen's new novel - apparently the novel of the Summer - Freedom is "galvanic" and that his prose is both "visceral" and "lapidary." I recollect that Galvani was the guy who first noted that he could get a dead frog's leg muscle to contract by zapping it with some electric current. Viscera, of course, are those hidden internal organs, whereas the lapidary, I seem to recall, is concerned with the polishing of stones.

Now I can understand why a family might get a bit unhappy if someone was conducting galvanic experiments on their viscera in order to polish their stones, but despite my interest in things biological, electrical, and geological, I'm far from sure that it sounds like a good subject for a novel.

Anybody have an opinion? Or should I just re-read - again - HP and the Deathly Hallows.

Gummy Prose

I am perhaps not the only one to notice that my prose tends to get gummed up with pointless interjections - thoughy, one might say. I will, however, try to do better, though, probably, perhaps, if I get around to it, whatever.

Darwinian Economics

Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult - at least I have found it so-- than to constantly bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, I am convinced that the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood..............Chuck D., Orig. of Spec.

Of course Malthus was there first. For man as well as mouse, increases in abundance are quickly consumed and used to increase population. For us as well as for the wild flowers, the bitterest competition in the struggle for existence is the competition against the members of our own species. Hardly any principle of economics is so ancient, so clearly demonstrated, or so widely ignored as this Malthusian trap. Nor does any fact or principle grate so harshly against the idea of a larger ethics.

The ancients mostly recognized this fact and embraced its grim consequences: frequent or incessant war against the other. A few isolated human populations understood and embraced the only alternative - population control. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century did humane and widely available means become available, but can the human race control its population on a volutary basis?

Evidence to date is mixed. Every nation that has reached an advanced economy seems to have seen its fertility rate plummet. The big success story is China, the only place where mandatory controls have been enforced very thoroughly.

Of course the hypothesized end of the struggle for existence has some perils of its own.

Darwin and the Industrial Revolution

Reading Origin of Species, Chapter II.

In this chapter, Darwin, having previously discussed artificial breeding and its results, talks about variation under nature. He more than once uses a locution I found interesting: the manufacture of species. The word manufacture has the literal sense of to make something by hand, but here he has begun to talk about the manufacture of those species by impersonal forces of nature rather than by the hand of man or God. It's interesting, I think, to speculate about the role that the development of organized methods of manufacture at the center of the industrial revolution might have played in freeing the mind from the notions of special creation.

Technology, by placing some distance between the literal hand and the items it created, might play that part. There are lots of other notions borne by the intellectual winds of the time which might claim equal or greater credit, of course.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ruthless Efficiency

I swiped the title from Steve Landsburg. He has an excellent post which, among other thing, outlines a clear alternative to the concept of the "local golden rule" I outlined in a previous post. I sometimes think that I probably really shouldn't have pissed him off so thoroughly - we could have had some good discussions, if we didn't kill each other first. Here he is on his moral conception:

People are dying so that you can read this blog. Your internet access fees could more than double the income of a $400-a-year Ghanaian laborer. People are starving to death, and there you sit, with resources enough to save them (and with reputable charities standing by to effect the transfers), padding your own already luxuriant lifestyle. That’s a choice you made. It’s a choice almost everyone in the First World makes. It might or might not be a horrific choice, but it’s one for which we easily forgive each other. ...

Someday you might find yourself strolling through a desert with a bottle of water and stumble on a man dying of thirst. I bet you’ll offer him some water, and I bet you’d think much less of anyone who didn’t. But there is, as far as I can see, no important moral difference between surfing the web while Africans starve and strolling through the desert while men die in front of you.

Is he being reasonable here?

I said there’s no moral difference, which is not the same as saying there’s no difference at all. We evolved to be callous towards those who are distant (or invisible) and kind toward those who are close.

Even if that's how we think on a personal level, he says, we shouldn't let it affect us on a policy level.

But at the level of policy, where we really ought to care about everyone, it’s just not signficantly more horrible than what we accept all the time.

Supposedly this argument has something to do with efficiency, but he doesn't do a very good job of closing that loop for me. As usual, he has a knack for inflamatory language:

We’ve made the decision to kill people (in Ghana and on winding mountain roads) so you can have faster Internet service.

So how can it be worse to kill one guy so a bunch of others don't have headaches?

Many people, like me, will recoil from this and suspect that this bit of moral nihilism has been slipped in under false pretenses. Indeed it has. If humans were omniscent computers who could see all ends, then perhaps we could make ourselves equally responsible for the dying man, easily rescued, in front of us and the anonymous somebody far away whose lot might or might not be incrementally improved by our individual internet choices. Landsburg thinks that the choice of whether or not to give the dying man a share of our water is a hard choice but it isn't, except maybe for his silly theory of efficiency.

His so-called "Economists Golden Rule," which insists that any moral choice is faulty if it doesn't take into account everybody in the world equally is poisonous for more than one reason, but mainly because it makes moral calculus unsoluble. The only choices consistent with it are a total global collectivism or an abandonment of morality altogether. JC's local rule is better: worry about yourself and your neighbor.

I haven't tried to solve any real world policy questions here, like how society should allocate resources among competing priorities, but then neither has Landsburg.

שנה טובה

And happy birthday to Pink.

Some of my best relatives are Jews, but I really think that I ought to start the New Year off with a few (mostly non-political) provocations:

(e)Is being prestigious really all that good an idea? Doesn't it tend to attract the wrong sort, like the present author and all these people

(d)Isn't this lunar calendar thing a bit on the lame-oh side?

(c)If we have to drink alcoholic Kool Aid, couldn't it at least be carbonated?

(b)Is it really disrespectful to put propellers on our beanies?

(a)Writing and reading backwards: Isn't it really just showing off?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

H is for Humble Pie

It is somewhat humbling to realize that Rae Ann gets about as many hits on her blog site as I do, despite the fact that she has only posted twice in the past year.

Michael Lewis on Greece

Another gem via Tyler Cowen. This Michael Lewis article on the Greek financial mess is a don't miss it if you care at all about such things.

Lewis is the author of The Big Short, The Blind Side (the book upon which the Sandra Bullock movie was based) and a number of other good books. He's a great writer with an instinct for the financial jugular and the human stories behind the money grubbing.

Dr. Michael Burry

Remember Dr. Mike Burry, the one-eyed neurosurgeon turned stock-picker who was the first to figure out the impending collapse of the mortgage backed securities market?
Tyler Cowen posts a link to a this Bloomberg story on him.

He has closed his hedge fund - got fed up with investors - but he talks to Jon Erlichman and Dakin Campbell about what he's putting his own money in these days and what he thinks of the economy.

The story profiles him a bit, but there is much more in Michael Lewis's The Big Short.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Pschohistorian Speaks

I suppose that it became inevitable after the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that corporations, as legal persons, had the First Amendment right to spend whatever they wanted to buy elections. Sooner, or later, they would expect to be allowed to serve as officers of the government. Still, it was a bit of a shock when President Palin tried to appoint Exxon-Mobile to replace the last retiring liberal justice on the Court. As it happened, that effort came to naught when Palin quit after two years to become a panelist on the Fox network's "So You Want to be the American President" reality show. But the die was cast.

WalMart became the Senator from Arkansas in the 2018 election and soon Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley got the New York Senatorial positions. Bloomberg became Mayor of New York after its founder's retirement in 2020. Other banks found themselves scrambling to get out of town to nail down their own States. Some tech startups found themselves in the embarrassing position of being too young to qualify.

By the time President Microsoft congratulated WalMart on becoming the longest serving Senator ever, there weren't any actual humans in the Congress at all...

Tough Times for String Fanboys

I have been a bit of a string fanboy ever since I first heard of them from Murray Gell-Mann several decades ago. There has been good news and bad in the interim, but it's getting harder to keep the faith. The real concern for me is the apparent bullshit being peddled by the practitioners - I can't judge any technical questions, but a lifetime has activated my bullshit detectors.

The latest shot comes from Hawking and Mlodinow's new book. I haven't read it, but Peter Woit has some excerpts, comments, and links to reviews. Can't decide if i want to read it or not.

Cat's and Dog's

Obama complains that special interests treat him like a dog.

A dog or a pussy?


Steve Landsburg has up what I like to think of an as answer to some of my critique of his post on economic efficiency. I don't want to deal with that now, though, because I got distracted by his Consequentialist theory of morality, which he calls the Economist's Golden Rule - see his book on the Big Questions. Briefly stated, he says an action is moral if it leaves the world a "better" place. You might not be too astonished to learn that often enough, this can be interpreted to mean that he who has the gold, rules.

I have a visceral dislike of Consequentialist ethics, and as usual, Landsburg has a gift for stating, and endorsing one of its conclusions in the most offensive way possible. Suppose, says he - I'm working from memory here - that you are in control of a two position toggle switch. If left in the current state, you know that one billion people will get a brief, mild but painful headache. If you flip it, the one billion will be spared, but one innocent person will be murdered. Should you flip the switch?

Yes, says Landsburg, and exhibits his efficient consequentialist gold rules logic, involving something about what one billion people would pay to be spared a headache and what they would pay to be spared the one in a billion chance that one wack economist would off them. Not only that, but he asserts, implausibly, that "every" economist would agree.

Consequentialist arguments often seem to take on this fairy tale quality of situation and logic. Even applied in the real world, the fairy tale narrative governs: is it worth torturing one terror suspect in order to prevent another 9/11? If you try to project these into reality, things become more complex. If you whack some guy to spare some headaches, the victims allies and family will have a well earned right to retaliate against the toggle flipper, and even more so against those who set up the sadistic experiment - especially any guilty economists. If you torture and murder a thousand terror suspects, you might or might not prevent a terror attack or two, but you will surely enrage hundreds of thousands more and incite them to murder.

I prefer a different Golden Rule, articulated by, among others, Jesus Christ: Love thy neighbor as thyself. That golden rule has an attribute missing from Landsburg's: locality. Physicists are familiar with the advantages of locality - the science would be impossible without it. JC's golden rule only involves you and your neighbor, a domain small enough in which to plausibibly make reasonable projections of effects. I wonder if Landsburg would reach the same conclusion if the victims were his hundred closest associates - or his own family? Trying to solve problems globally almost always leads to inextricable complexity.

Of course there really are global problems...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Make Them Fear the Teeth!

Obama complains (David Kurtz).

The President departed from his prepared remarks in Milwaukee to address how he's treated by the powerful interests in DC: "They talk about me like a dog. That's not in my prepared remarks ... but it's true." Video soon.

My suggestion: more snarl and more growl from the POTUS.

Origin of Species

I recently started reading Darwin's Origin of Species, - a Kindle freebee by the way - and it's interesting to see him struggling in the first chapter with the limitations of his knowledge. As he sees clearly, there was an awful that lot he doesn't know, and nothing in his ignorance was more fundamental than the fact that he did not know anything about the mechanism of heredity or the generation of variation. That knowledge was nearly a century away when he wrote, but the instincts of the great scientist are already much in evidence. He knows about the occurrence of "sports" in horticulture and guesses that there is a connection with the details of breeding.

One of the favorite lines of the anti-Darwinist is the claim that Darwin is not predictive or falsifiable. The absurdity of this claim is demonstrated every time a new discovery becomes a piece to set in vast puzzle map Darwin set before us. Thousands and quite likely millions of discoveries since Darwin could have refuted him, but didn't. Instead the whole vast world of biology and biochemistry confirms and reiterates his insight. The discovery of the mechanisms of heredity and variation are the most fundamental confirmations of all. These mechanisms reveal the gears and wheels whereby variation and selection act, and they form a thing of beauty and wonder.

Blind chance, or rather chance guided by selection, do the work of creation and destruction, but what a wonder they have created.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Disappointed

Obama looks set to launch his new economic stimulus plan, and it looks to be anemic, loaded with Republican ideas, and probably dead on arrival. Brad DeLong feels our pain:

To put forward a weak, ineffective, Republican idea for further stimulus that then does not pass seems the worst of all possible worlds.

Will this President never get a clue?

Classics: Stendahl

One advantage of Kindle is that a lot of old classics are available free. I found a list of the 100 greatest books weighted toward older stuff and got a few celebrated oldies. One of the first I read was The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl (an alias of Marie-Henri Behle). For some reason, the title always had a grip on me.

Our hero is a charming and rather feckless younger son of a wealthy Italian noble, who manages to offend his father, elder brother, and the Austrian government by trying to enlist in Napoleon's cause - just barely in time to make it to Waterloo. With the help of his beautiful and talented Aunt, he manages to scramble from scrape to success to more drastic scrape all the while making his way by charm, enthusiasm and general stupidity.

One thing our author is good at, and that is keeping some ironic distance from his characters. Consequently, I think, they are not as real or as engaging as such heroes and heroines as Tom Jones, Pyotr and Natasha, or Jane Eyre.

There is a lot of human nature in this book, and especially of the psychology and politics of a small absolute principality of 200 years ago. The guy does know how to write. I'm afraid he disappointed me with his anti-climatic ending, though, reminiscent of that great shaggy dog story of American literature, Gravity's Rainbow.


Cristianne Amanpour put together a good panel today for ABC's This Week and had some good questions. The dialog was good enough that I had to force myself to pay attention to her bangs today - not bad BTW. Paul Krugman and Tom Freidman, and Friedman made more sense than he has for years - more sense than he has in any of the last 8 FU's. The subjects were the economy, politics, and the Middle East. Friedman pointed out that the Obama Presidency had utterly failed to construct a narrative and that they had proven more inept at getting their message out than any recent presidency.

Obama's recent Oval Office address on the so-called end of combat operations in Iraq was a case in point. It was only the second of his presiency and should therefore have said something momentous. He did not, and the talk was inevitably redolent of "Mission Accomplished."

Obama came to office with a reputation as a communicator. He has failed to live up to that reputation, and that failure is frustrating and surprising. We know he knows how to write and how to speak. Why can't he articulate a plan and sell it? It's tempting to blame the caution and folly of his political advisors, but we need to remember that the monkeys work for the guy in the monkey suit. (or was that something about Tzars and Cossacks?)

ET - Check Your Messages

It's not even April, but via Wolfgang, we learn of Kerala's "red rain" and it's putative content of extraterrestial life. If true, of course, it's the biggest news since Darwin. I've read the Tech Review story, and the original ArXiv article and to me, it reeks of psuedo-scientific optimism. The interesting part for me is not what's there (electron microscopy, replication studies and fluorescence data), but what isn't, namely chemical and biochemical analysis. Also, although the authors show an increase in numbers of "cells," they fail to comment on whether there has been an increase in their mass - that would be far more persuasive.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Big Short: Review

I'v e already mentioned, here how much I liked Michael Lewis's The Big Short while I was reading it. Finishing it only reinforced those positive vibes. The book is mostly the story of the few far-sighted individuals who saw the catastrophe coming and invested in such a way as to bet against the great mortgage securities scam. The featured characters all made big bucks from their bets, but most were somehow scarred by the experience. They had bet against the world, and the world resented it, even, seemingly, the parts of the world that they had made a ton of money for.

The one-eyed neurosurgeon who had been the first to see clearly closed his fund and lost interest in financial markets. The guy who had been in the South tower on September 11, 2001 had a recurrence of the nightmares and symptons of that time.

Perhaps the biggest irony was the way the rain fell on the just and the unjust alike. Those who foresaw the catastrophe made millions (or, in a couple of cases, billions), but the guys who blundered away billions did too. One man made subprime bets for his firm that cost it 9 billion dollars - he walked away with tens of millions. So did hedge fund managers who had bought the garbage for their unlucky customers.

Michael Lewis sees the cardinal problem as being the divergence of the interests of brokers from those of their customers and stockholders. Central to that event was the conversion of the big investmentment banks from partnerships to corporations. Investment banking became a case study for what economists call the "agency problem." Those who were supposedly the agents of their stockholders and investors found it more profitable to fleece them than to tend their interests.

Some of his most scathing language is reserved for Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, and their roles in the cleanup:

...U. S. Treasury Secretary henry Paulson persuaded the U.S. Congress that he need $700 billion to buy subprime mortgage assets from banks. Thus was born TARP...Once handed the money Paulson abandoned his promised strategy and instead essentially began giving away billions of dollars to Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and a few others unaturally selected for survival...

I would put this book up there on my all-time list. It's the kind of book that can transform your world view.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Economic Efficiency

Uwe Reinhart has been explaining what economists mean by efficiency:

Steve Landsburg is quoted and responds:

How do economists judge efficiency? A popular method is the so-called Kaldor-Hicks criterion.

Consider the following scenario due to SL: a rich man likes to play loud music and his poorer neighbor likes his peace and quiet. If the poorer guy would be willing to give up his quiet for $1000 and the rich guy would be willing to pay $10,000 to pollute the world with noise, KH says that an ordinance prohibiting noise is inefficient, and in fact produces a dead-weight loss (a favorite term for SL) of $9000 since the rich guy loses a benefit he values at $10 k and the poor guy only gains something he values at $1 k. More efficient, say the believers, would be letting the rich guy pay the poor guy say $3 k, so that the rich guy gets $10 k of value for $3 k and the poor guy nets $2 k after allowing for the $1 k loss of his quiet.

I have a version that I like to consider more pointed. Suppose there is a supply of nutritious grain which can be made into a nutritious gruel capable of sustaining 10 poor families for a year. They can only afford to pay $1000 each family for the grain. Suppose further, that there is a rich man who can afford $20,000 buy the same grain to keep and feed his herd of truffle hunting pigs that supply the truffles for his Sunday night dinner. There would be a $10 k dead weight loss if we let the grain go to the hungry people, so the efficient thing is for them to starve.