Friday, February 26, 2010

Fantasy Is Not an Adult Policy Option

My article is online at The Freeman.

OK, I Was Annoyed by This Last Year...

And I'm annoyed again! It's the phrase "body of work", or, worse, "overall body of work", as used in talking NCAA basketball, that I'm talking about. Here's an example from Andy katz: "If the Boilermakers keep winning without Hummel, then why wouldn't Purdue get judged on its overall body of work?"

The reason it annoys me is that we had a perfectly good word to use in place of this longer, more pretentious phrase: "season". What Katz is saying could be re-written as, "why wouldn't Purdue get judged on its entire season?" I believe in every use I have ever seen "season" could be used in place of "body of work". Hey, but everyone is saying body of work, so maybe I'd better say it as well.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Weber Scholars? Looking for a Co-Author!

My class on The Great Transformation has been going through The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism the last two weeks, which has led me to think about the work in some depth. One thing that has struck me is that most of the criticisms of the work that I have run across are fairly shallow (I'm not saying deeper ones don't exist, only that there are plenty of shallow ones out there), in that, often, their critiques are things that Weber already addressed in the original book!

There is a good history of thought paper to be written here, with a target journal like the AJES. I'd like to find a co-author who would want to help with the research into popular critiques of Weber's thesis. Get in touch with me in the comments section at my blog, on Facebook, or via e-mail if you are interested.

Marginalism, Anyone?

Providence coach Kemo David on the idea of expanding the NCAA tournament from 65 to 96 teams:

"That's why there has been a lot of discussion about getting more teams in the NCAA tournament. There are a lot of bubble teams that couldn't just win one game but could win a few."

Because, you see, with only 65 teams, there will be some teams just marginally left out of the tournament, who might win a few games, but with 96 teams in... hmm, never mind.

During My Cab Ride This Morning...

I heard a spokesperson for Mt. Airy Resort and Casino claim "It doesn't get any better than this!"

That is the best case for suicide I've ever encountered. If it doesn't get any better than some cheesy, cutrate Pocono resort filled with gambling addicts, I'm out of here.

Wouldn't It Be Easier to Just Get Out of the Closet?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Eric Voegelin on the Judicious Hooker on Puritans

'In order to start a movement moving, there must be in the first place somebody who has a "cause." From the context in Hooker it appears that the term "cause" was a of recent usage in politics and that probably lie the Puritans had invented this formidable weapon of the Gnostic revolutionaries. In order to advance his "cause," the man who has it will, "in the hearing of the multitude," indulge in severe criticisms of social evils in a particular in the conduct of the upper classes. Frequent repetition of the performance will induce the opinion among the hearers that the speakers must be men of singular integrity, zeal, and holiness, for only men who are singularly good can be so deeply offended by evil. The next will be the concentration of popular ill-will on the established government. This task can be psychologically performed by attributing all fault and corruption, as it exists in the world because of human frailty, to the action or inaction of the government. By such imputation of evil to a specific institution the speakers prove their wisdom to the multitude of men who by themselves would never have thought of such a connection; and at the same time they show the point that must be attacked if evil shall be removed from the world. After such preparation, the time will ripe for recommending a new form of government as the "sovereign remedy of all evils." For people who are "possessed with dislike and discontentment at things present" are crazed enough to "imagine that anything (the virtue whereof they hear recommend) would help them; but the most, which they have least tried."' -- The New Science of Politics

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Great Post from Matt Welch

Given that federal regulatory spending vastly increased during the Bush administration, how, exactly, was deregulation the problem causing the "Great Recession"? As Matt wisely notes, this does not mean that certain deregulations were not harmful, but it does make the overall thesis appear very weird.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Idiotic Ancients II

Hey, Gene, I remember your comments on those long ago posts long ago, I do, I do. And I'm not a Beltware libertarian, I am, I am. And what did Toyota understand about its safety issues, and when? And I certainly contest that "the point of the sentence was to 'mock the ideas of pre-Enlightenment thinkers.'" And I'm absolutely unhasitatingly in favor of crystalline polyhedrons and of Johannes Kepler, and of the Dixie Chicks.

So: consider that you are a moron in a mental institution, drooling at an Occupation Therapy table with a clump of modelling clay. You roll the clay into countless tiny balls and drop them into an otherwise empty clam chowder can. When the can is full, you place the top back on the can and patiently press, until all the excess space has been expelled. The once spheres will now have fetched up against each other and thus have become polyhedra. Still drooling, you dump them out of the can, carefully separate them, and count their sides. What will most probably be their average number of sides? And get a second one, absolutely free!

Fat Tuesday to y'all.

Compare and Contrast

"All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference." -- Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

"But though impulse is, as it were, the foundation of all action, the hedonist is wrong in arguing--as in effect he must argue--that economic and moral acts differ in nothing essential from acts of pure impulse. The mere fact that he has to twist these types of action into conformity with his standard shows that hedonism is a dialectical tour de force rather than an unbiased statement of the facts. We may applaud his ingenuity in showing that the sweated labourer and the religious martyr are simply enjoying themselves, but even he is not really convinced by it... the hedonist's efforts to drag economic action into line with impulsive action is parallel to, and cannot succeed better than, the utilitarian's effort to drag moral action into line with economic. " -- R.G. Collingwood, "Economics as a Philosophical Science"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cat + Bag = Out Cat - Bag = Out Bag - Cat = Out

Bryan Caplan lets the cat out of the bag with his post, 'Applied Economics Assumes Selfishness, and Rightly So'. In that post, he writes:

'Yes, I know that textbooks love to claim that economics assumes "optimizing behavior," not "self-interest." But whenever economists do applied work, they quickly slide to self-interest. You know why? Because although people aren't perfectly selfish, they're shockingly close. That's why economics tells us so much about the world.'

And Caplan is absolutely corrrect in the above. The backpedaling economists often engage in when challenged on this, the disclaimer, 'No, no, the martyr fits our models just as well as the hedonist does,' is, as Caplan notes, an abuse of ordinary English.

What Caplan does not see is the larger picture: the ubiquity of such individuals in our midst, whose life is focused on maximizing their own material welfare, is largely itself a product of modern, liberal individualism, and, to a great extent, the product of economics itself. Furthermore, far from being an uncontroversial model of 'rationality', most of the world's population, in most times and places, would have seen such behaviour as an example of a type of lunacy or degeneracy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Do You Know Someone Has "Gone Radical"?

They got a haircut:

'"and police were suspicious that the student's hair was shorter that day than it was in his Pennsylvania driver's license photo. "That," Lt. Louis Liberati said, is "an indication sometimes that somebody may have gone through a radicalization."'

Monday, February 08, 2010

Training in Economics...

provides no basis for wisely choosing political policies: 'To assume the economist who is trained in theory and statistical techniques must be an expert in economic policy is similar to assuming that a chemist must be a good cook.' --David Colander

Sunday, February 07, 2010

OK, So What Have I Been Up to These Last Four Years?

Well, by the end of this week I will be handing in the penultimate draft of my PhD dissertation to my advisor (penultimate in that I will revise it according to his comments before it is submitted to my examination committee). In keeping with his dictum to 'write the introduction last,' I have just completed my introductory synopsis of my work tonight. So, what the heck, let me put this synopsis out here -- I'm not sure what you can make of it, but a lot of my readers are very bright people, and might have something worthwhile to say about whether or not this summary conveys to the reader an initial sense of what the work is about. Comment away!


Chapter I explores Oakeshott’s concept of rationalism, and specifically rationalism in politics, in more depth. In particular, we will trace, in a way that I am not aware of having been done previously, how we can see the idea of rationalism forms a continuous thread running from his earliest book to his latest writings, and show how the idea of the rationalist conceit, while always present in his work, was developed and refined as Oakeshott’s thought matured.

In Chapter II, we will survey a number of criticisms of Oakeshott’s thesis on rationalism, with special emphasis as to how those various critiques present us with questions upon which our later historical analysis may shed some light.

Chapter III was motivated by two different, but interrelated, issues. The first of these is that, in presenting earlier versions of various parts of the present work at conferences, a number of commentators questioned whether Oakeshott’s ideas on rationalism are of contemporary relevance. These commentators’ scepticism about this matter generally was phrased along the following line: ‘True’, they would say, ‘this whole rationalism business was a major issue at the time Oakeshott was writing his chief essays on the topic, in the 1940s and 1950s, in the era of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. But surely today, the whole notion of designing a society from the top down has been discredited to the extent that this is no longer really a live issue, is it?’ So, one impetus behind the inclusion of this chapter is to show that, while rationalism in politics has been taught some modesty by the events of the last few decades, it is far from moribund. The second motive is that it became apparent to the author, while dealing with the historical material offered by the Roman and the American Republics, that a crucial differentia between their approaches to politics, and one of which the American founders were keenly aware, has to do with how efficacious it is to plan out the basic form of a polity in advance—in other words, is there some distinct advantage a polity can gain by declaring the principles upon which it is to operate in written form, and, further, elevating that written statement of those principles to some plane seen as resting above the tumult of day-to-day politics? Because the American founders saw doing so as a prophylactic against the fate that befell the Roman Republic, and because their view is still prevalent in both contemporary political theory and practice (as evidenced by the case of Iraq with which we opened this work), this chapter is somewhat of a lynchpin tying together the previous, more theoretical chapters with the subsequent, more empirical ones.

Chapter IV is chiefly concerned with how justified Oakeshott was in his forwarding of the Roman Republic as an exemplar of the pragmatic style of politics that he opposed to rationalism. It is a fairly short chapter, chiefly because the consensus of historians of the period so overwhelmingly supports Oakeshott’s view. It would be quite possible to continue piling up witness after witness making Oakeshott’s case, but as this work already is hard up against the length limits of what its readers can be expected to endure, I have deemed the material assembled sufficient to the cause at hand.

Chapter V takes up the more controversial topic of the cause of the Roman Republic’s demise and whether or not additional dollops of rationalist design might, as the American founders suspected they might, have buttressed the Republic against the historical forces that were acting towards its dissolution. Here it is important to assert my modesty in examining this material, since several commentators on presentations of this chapter wondered just how it was that the author, who is far from being a professional historian specializing in this period, could be so immodest as to put forward his own explanation of the Republic’s downfall? My response is to protest that my work here has no pretension of historical originality whatsoever; the only claim to originality present, the warrant of which I leave it to my critics to judge, lies in employing the findings of the historians deemed most authoritative on this era as evidence weighing for or against Oakeshott’s thesis on rationalism, as well as for or against the American founders’ notion that the fate of the Roman Republic could have been forestalled by rational design.

Chapter VI surveys the development of republican thought between the classical era and the American Revolution. The intent of this chapter is to show how the American founders, while looking to Rome as their paragon, came to understand the activity of politics so differently than did the participants in their model republic. As such, it sets the stage for Chapter VII, which examines to what extent Oakeshott was on target in seeing the American founding as a salient instance of political rationalism. Chapter VII is, like Chapter IV, fairly brief, and for much the same reason: I find the testimony of the expert historians of this period fairly clear-cut, and, while it would be easy to amass much more evidence supporting my conclusion here, space limitations lead me to believe that any additional words I am granted are better spent elsewhere.

Chapter VIII examines some post-founding American history in light of Oakeshott’s contention that the rationalist can never really proceed as he purports to do. This chapter presents evidence suggesting that the ‘failure to follow the letter of the Constitution’ is not, as some contemporary, ‘strict constructionists’ contend, a peculiarly modern phenomenon, beginning, depending on which strict constructionist to which one is attending, with Lincoln and the American Civil War, with Roosevelt and the New Deal, with the Cold War, or with George W. Bush and the ‘War on Terror’, but is, instead, something that began almost as soon as the U. S. Constitution was adopted, and is not (primarily) a symptom of bad faith, but, rather, an inevitable consequence of the fact that no such rationalist design can ever dictate subsequent practice in the way that it is meant to do.

In our conclusion, besides summarizing the conclusions of the previous chapters, we will also briefly survey a handful of cases that, we suggest, add credence to the notion that rationalist designs can never operate as advertised. Once again, it is worth noting that there is no pretension here of being exhaustive in our survey or of presenting knock-down evidence defeasing any alternative hypothesis. Any work that attempted to achieve either of those goals would have to encompass many volumes and could easily occupy a lifetime and more of labour. Rather, our aim is only to offer evidence that Oakeshott’s thesis has some plausibility, and to suggest avenues for further research. While such a goal is far more modest than attempting to set forth a conclusive theory of politics, or attempting to ‘prove’ that Oakeshott was correct, I hope that it may be worthy in its own right, as well as, perhaps, being more in keeping with Oakeshott’s own programme of research than would be either of the above-mentioned alternatives.

UPDATE: It occurs to me I should note here a profound comment my advisor made to me while we were discussing this dissertation, which was to the effect that, "Oakeshott's thesis isn't really about what we should try to achieve through politics at all, is it? It's really about the limits, whatever we want to achieve, of the extent to which we can design in advance what really will be achieved by our programme, whatever it is."

Friday, February 05, 2010

Saving the Fregean Theory of Propositions?

Gottlob Frege developed a theory of propositions that assert the elements of propositions are concepts, or modes of presentation. (I'm not sure 'concept' really captures 'mode of presentation', but no worries about that for now.) Steven Schiffer offers the following objection to the Fregean theory of proposition, which he attributes to Adam Pautz:

(1) If the Fregean theory is true, then (α) 'Fido' occurs in 'Ralph believes that Fido is a dog' as a singular term whose referent is a concept of Fido.
2) If (α), then the following inference is valid:
________Ralph believes that Fido is a dog
________∴∃x( x is a concept and Ralph believes that x is a dog).
3) But the inference isn't valid; given the truth of the premise, the conclusion is also true only in the unlikely event that Ralph mistakes a concept for a dog.
4) ∴The Fregean theory is not true.
(Source: Shiffer (2003) The Things We Mean, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 27.)

But is the problem here an incomplete shift into the realm of concept talk? Yes, for Fregeans, all propositions are about concepts. But sometimes the concepts are being used translucently, as if we are simply seeing through them to the 'real world,' while at other times we are focusing on them as concepts. 'Fido is a dog' is an instance of the first type of usage. What Pautz seems to have done here, to me, is shift part of the sentence to the second type of usage. And, of course, where we are focusing on the conceptual aspect of the first term, but the real world aspect of the second, the result looks quite odd. If we complete the transition, then what I think we get is something like:

x( x is a concept [named by 'Fido'] and Ralph believes that x is a member of a class of concepts [named by 'dog'])

This new conclusion to our inference makes perfect sense, as far as I can see.

Any comments? Did I go wrong somewhere?

UPDATE: Did Frege's first name derive from his prowess at tennis? ('Man, Frege done got lob!')

Another Tragic Drug Death

As reported by Jacob Sullum.

Rationalism in Architecture

And its spectacular design failures. (Hat tip to Radley Balko.)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Callahan Versus Murphy Throwdown on Counterfeiting

I wrote this to Bob about a recent article of his:


In the case of counterfeiting, this charge against the Fed takes as the essential component of counterfeiting to be using a printing press to produce money, i.e., it is the physical means used to produce an object that are in question. So, if that's the case, let us look at counterfeiting a painting. Hmm, a counterfeiter used brushes, oil paints and a canvas to counterfeit the Mona Lisa... therefore, since Leonardo produced the original in the same way, he was a counterfeiter as well!

Something has gone horribly wrong here, and it was in step one -- the essence of counterfeiting has nothing to do with the physical process used -- in fact, that process will probably be as close to the one used to produce the original as possible. No, the essence of counterfeiting is to take an original item of value, try to copy it as closely as possible, and then fraudulently try to pass off your copy as the original -- and in the case of fiat money, every single piece of this essence is missing. There is no 'original', there is no copying process, and there is no attempt to pass off the end product as something other than it is.


Bob has allowed me to post his response here. His items are numbered and in quotes, and my snappy comebacks follow each numbered point, unquoted:

"1) On the very narrow point, is the Fed (or the US Treasury) a counterfeit operation, no, it's not, because, as Gene points out quite correctly, you could ask, "OK then, what is a $20 bill a counterfeit of?" I have in print disagreed with Walter Block on this very point (when I critiqued his defense of the "heroic" private counterfeiter), so point Callahan."

The crowd cheers!

"(2) OK for the purposes of a pop article in today's environment, I have no problem saying the Fed is a giant counterfeiting operation. And indeed, Jeff Hummel--hardly a wishy-washy guy who is fuzzy on the details--tells that to his students to get them to see the big picture."

Then Jeff is mistaken also. One does not get students to "see the big picture" by feeding them bad metaphors.

"(3) Why? Because when you go through the reasons that a two-bit counterfeiter of money is hurting society, you find that the exact same reasons apply to the Fed's operations."

So Bob wants to call this counterfeiting because of its effects. But this strikes me as a very bad idea. Because, if that is our criterion, then, for instance, in a commodity money world, someone who suddenly finds a huge amount of gold in his backyard is also a "sort of counterfeiter." And someone who skydives out of an airplane, has their chute fail to open, and lands on someone else, killing them, is a "sort of murderer," since they had the same effect as a murderer would have.

"(4) Gene is wrong when he thought I was looking at the physical operations and concluded, 'Hey, counterfeiter!!' The whole point of my article was that the complex open market operations to buy Treasury debt looks nothing like the monarch rolling out the printing press to pay his bills. I was saying that despite the superficial differences in mechanics, these two activities were equivalent economically."

I am glad I was wrong about the physical process being the key to Bob's metaphor.

However, the criterion actually being used is problematic as well, since "counterfeiting" is not an economic category -- it is a legal and moral category. The claim seems to be, "The Fed is morally a counterfeiter, and should legally be seen as one, since its activities have the same economic effects as those of a counterfeiter."

But, first of all, if counterfeiting were legal, its effects would be monstrously worse than the effects of Fed actions, because counterfeiters would simply print money without any restraint whatsoever, so long as the value of a bill was higher than the cost of printing it up, while Bob admits the Fed does not and has a motive not to do so. (The counterfeiters would, of course, put themselves out of business in doing so, but they'd be in a prisoner's dilemma here -- it would be better for all of them if all of them exercised restraint in printing money, but no one could count on anyone else to do so.)

And, secondly, as above, same effects != same action. I can drive up the value of one of Bob's books either by relentlessly promoting it, or by killing him. That would not make killing him a sort of marketing, or marketing a species of murder.

UPDATE: Bob had points 5 and 6, as he notes in a comment. I did not include them because, since I don't concede 2-4, they no longer have any relevance. (They were along the lines of, "So, Gene accepts X (2-4), but still objects Y.")

Protestant Versus Catholic Heaven

Pretty funny:

(Hat tip to mpolzkill.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Why Do Philosophers Do That?

I've been reading a lot of philosophical papers lately. Now, I must say, pretty universally, these folks are very smart people. But modern, analytical philosophers have this weird habit of wanting to express everything in mathematical-looking variables. So the papers I'm reading often begin with something like, "Let us say we have a speaker." But then they stipulate that "a speaker" will henceforth appear as 'S'. OK, and this speaker makes some statements... but henceforth these are to be designated as σ1 to σn. And there are reasons for σ1 to σn, which are truth conditional on ρ1(t) to ρn(t), depending upon circumstances C.

And eventually, you're reading something like "When τ is in the set ρ1(t) to ρn(t), the χ value of the ιth of the μ2 matrix of the NX to the NX + N meaning subset of the n-invariant dominatrices of the set of all philosophers, is, of course, truth invariant."

Now, as someone who was a software engineer for 17 years, I'm pretty much all down with the value of formalism. But statements like the above are not statements in a formal language, they are ordinary English littered with pseudo-formal obscurities.

Why, oh why, philosophers, do you write like that?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

When Camouflage Fails

Do they realize we can see them?

Worst Game by a QB Ever?

My younger son and I were looking at this page, of quarterbacks who have had a passer rating of 0 in a game. Now, it turns out that the NFL artificially caps how low you can go by not letting anything you do count for less than zero, no matter how bad it is. (For instance, part b of the formula is ((yards / attempt) - 3) * .25. Clearly, if you have three yards per attempt, you get a zero -- but even if you have -20 per attempt, you also get a zero.

Well, we didn't do all the calculations to see how low anyone would have gone were the zero floor removed, but here's our candidate:

Versus the Bengals, on 12/12/1976, Joe Namath went 4 for 15 passing, for 20 yards with 4 interceptions, which we figure earned Joe a whopping -848 passer rating for the game, if there was no floor.

Interestingly, the Jets yanked Namath, and his replacement, Richard Todd, also had a zero passer rating that game!

You Learn Something New Everyday!

My kids just told me that Joe Montana

is not actually the father of Hannah Montana

whose real father is Joe's half brother, Billy Ray Cyrus

who changed her name in honor of Joe's retirement.

Open Source Software and Skin In the Game

I have been tinkering in the Haskell programming language recently. Trying to up my game, I have begun reviewing and working on issues in th...