Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Reason to believe that we do not see reality as it really is

Even leaving aside the philosophical reasons and the 'we're all in the Matrix' reason, there is the argument from evolution. I won't summarise it for you, but it's a cracker.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Is there a reasoned case for supporting Donald Trump?

This (with follow-ups first here and here) is an apparently widely-circulated piece setting out reasons for American conservatives to support Donald Trump.

As a taster, I will give you a questions he asks in his original piece rather than the answer he gives: "Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent. And yet the Left and the junta are at one with the house-broken conservatives in their determination—desperation—not merely to defeat Trump but to destroy him. What gives?"

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A handful of links

No connecting theme, but all recommended.

1. Don't believe the good economic news about Brexit, says Tyler Cowen. It might end up costing £5,625 per person (in total wealth, not annual income). Value for money, says Aaron Banks. Or, to put it another way, what would you say the chance that your children would be doing their EU National Service and ordered by (say) an Italian general to fight a border war against Russia in the Ukraine (a) was before Brexit and (b) is now. And how much would you pay to avoid that possibility? (Of course, your children, being good Europeans, will volunteer anyway.)

2. On the topic of Russia, here is Peter Hitchens (more interesting than you might think). "My country boasts that it has not been invaded for one thousand years. The U.S. has not really been invaded at all, unless you count Britain’s 1814 rampage through Washington, DC (almost exactly two years after Napoleon Bonaparte had made a far more destructive and less provoked attack upon Moscow). But Russia is invaded all the time—by the Tatars, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Swedes, the French, us British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Germans again: They keep coming. Nor are these invasions remote history. On the main airport road into Moscow, at Khimki, stands a row of steel dragon-teeth anti-tank barriers, commemorating the arrival there, before Christmas 1941, of Hitler’s armies."

3. The Bank of America thinks there is a 20-50% chance that we are living inside the Matrix, although "The investment implications remain unclear" (Hilary Putnam had something to say about that, as I recall ...). You don't get to vote for Matrexit, by the way.

4. "As for aromatic plants, one speaks of the narcissus of Jurjān, 
the roses of Jūr, the water lilies of al-Sīrawān, the gillyflowers of 
Baghdad, the saffron of Qom, and the sweet basil of Samarqand." London is having a hot spell at the moment and, while walking the streets after sunset in warm darkness, I feel I will come across the sweet basil of Samarqand round every next corner. I never do.

5. Yuja Wang. (Trigger warning - encores, not the main performance.)

Monday, 12 September 2016

Hillary Clinton

Rod Dreher, who is not an idiot, has comments on Clinton's apparent illness here, including from a doctor who says of Trump's doctor: "I am not sure what is wrong with that guy – but something clearly ails him." I am not qualified to comment.

Friday, 9 September 2016

How to revitalise the British Left

This piece in the Guardian by John Harris is pretty good as diagnosis. You'll have guessed a lot of what he has to say before he says it, but he says it well and with good details. For example, after reminding us that the Labour Party was always thought to be the 'party of the working man', he tells us this:

"In Plymouth, I watched a woman answer the door to a Labour canvasser with the words: “I’m a grafter – you ain’t doing nothing for me.” I spoke to a man in the north-eastern steeltown of Redcar who told me he would never vote Labour “because I work”. In the bellwether seat of Nuneaton, two women told me that Ed Miliband would probably win the election because “all the people on benefits” were going to vote for him. As these people saw it, Labour was no longer the “party of work”."

It seems that a great aim of the Cameron/Osborne government has been achieved, namely to paint Labour as the party of people on benefits (and their noblesse oblige-motivated rich supporters). 

But Harris' prescriptions are rubbish. I've got much better ones below.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Britain's (probably) illegal wars

When you get advice from a barrister you will not be told that you will definitely win or lose. Instead, you are likely to be given advice framed in some other some form of words. Sometimes people don't quite understand what those words means. Let me explain.

Let's say that X comes to a barrister and asks whether he has a claim against Y. Broadly speaking, the barrister can come to one of 4 views of the matters: (a) X has a good strong case and it would be a big surprise if Y won; (b) X is more likely to win than to lose, but it would not be that surprising if Y won; (c) X is more likely to lose than win, but it would not be that surprising if X won; and (d) Y is probably going to win and it would be a big surprise if X won. (There is also (e) - X's case is so bad that the barrister cannot even advance it given his professional obligations - but take it from me, there is never a case at the other extreme, i.e. where you are 100% likely to win.) It's pretty hard to make finer distinctions than that 4-point scale. You might add in the truly 50-50 case or the almost-entirely hopeless argument, but you are unlikely to get to more than a 6 to 8-point scale.

Sometimes barristers are asked to put numbers on these prospects of success. You might see a 70% chance of success (rarely more than that) for the top category, 50-60% for the second and so on. More often, you see various well-worn phrases. It is important to understand that unless these phrases include "strong", "overwhelming" or something like that, they probably mean that the barrister thinks you are going to lose. So, for example, if you are told that your case is "reasonably arguable", that means it is in the third category: you will probably lose, but you've got a chance.

And that brings us to the UK and its wars. The Chilcott Inquiry tells us this about the advice that Lord Goldsmith gave the Government about the legality of the Iraq War:

"557. Lord Goldsmith wrote: “In reaching my conclusions, I have taken account of the fact that on a number of previous occasions, including in relation to Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 and Kosovo in 1999, UK forces have participated in military action on the basis of advice from my predecessors that the legality of the action under international law was no more than reasonably arguable. “But a ‘reasonable case’ does not mean that if the matter ever came before a court I would be confident that the court would agree with this view. I judge that, having regard to the arguments on both sides, and considering the resolution as a whole in the light of the statements made on adoption and subsequently, a court might well conclude that OPs 4 and 12 do require a further Council decision in order to revive the authorisation in resolution 678. But equally I consider that the counter view can reasonably be maintained." (My emphasis.)

What Lord Goldsmith is saying here is that the practice of the UK Government has been to participate in military action where the legal case for doing so, in the view of the Government's legal advisers, is in the third category: i.e., where the chances are that if the matter were ever came to a final determination before a competent Court, the UK would probably lose the case. In short, it is good enough for the troops if the military action is probably illegal, but just not utterly and clearly illegal.

One moral from this is that you should be careful about expressing your opposition to a war based on the fact that it is 'illegal'. You may find that some other wars you did support were every bit as 'illegal' too.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Men must be very horrible

I say because, so the evidence shows, if a (heterosexual) man is to get married and stay married he has to offer a lot of money to the woman.

So, you're probably familiar with the fact that in the high-income strata of society, traditional marriage and child-rearing patterns have largely been maintained, while lower down the social ladder we find more single parent families, divorced or never married parents and so on. You might have treated this as a fact about upper middle-class 'values' or deferment of gratification or what have you. But this is a more simple explanation:

"the distribution of the share of income earned by the wife exhibits a sharp drop to the right of 1, where the wife’s income exceeds the husband’s income. We argue that this pattern is best explained by gender identity norms, which induce an aversion to a situation where the wife earns more than her husband. We present evidence that this aversion also impacts marriage formation, the wife’s labor force participation, the wife’s income conditional on working, marriage satisfaction, likelihood of divorce, and the division of home production. Within marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline. In couples where the wife’s potential income is likely to exceed the husband’s, the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work. In couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the wife spends more time on household chores; moreover, those couples are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce. These patterns hold both cross-sectionally and within couples over time."

(That "gender identity norm" is just the norm that a woman won't put up with a man unless he's bringing more money than her to the party: i.e. it's just another way of saying that men must be pretty horrible.)

Now, when you take into account the fact that the difference between men and women’s earnings is much larger at higher household incomes than at lower incomes, you can see why poor men don't get married: unlike rich men, they just don't have the massive advantage of earning power over women which is necessary to persuade women to stick with them. (All at the link above.)

This fact about the inherently off-putting nature of men explains divorce as well: women are more likely to instigate divorce proceedings (it's about 70/30), even though they are likely to end up worse off as a result (average 30% drop in income).

You might want to think about Scandinavian countries in this context as well, famed as they are for sexual equality, low marriage rates and high divorce rates.  "The equalising of income which has occurred among social classes and between the sexes in the 20th century has contributed to making divorce a viable alternative, not just for the elite," says Glenn Sandström of the University of Umeå. Yup, even those lovely Scandinavian men are horrible really.

What does this mean in the long run? Now that women are entering the highest earning professions at rates similar to men (basically the same for the Bar, for example) or even ahead of men (over 60% of trainee solicitors and new solicitors are women, and already most GPs are women), something has to give: all of these female professionals are going to have to abdicate larger and larger shares of their earning potential, or marriage rates are going to come down, or the fact that men are horrible is going to have to change. Let's assume that men won't change. What next?

Of course, the normal way in which a woman sacrifices a large proportion of her earning potential is as a result of having children. But across the world, and particularly in rich countries, people aren't having as many children as they would like to have, principally because of money worries and the cost of housing, as well as the infertility of older women.

And in the very long run? "Russians regard 2.3 children as ideal; Spaniards favour 2.4; Greeks think 2.6 best. In all three, people reckon that they will end up with 1.7 children on average. Because the replacement fertility rate is about 2.1, the difference between the ideal and expected number of children in these countries is the difference between healthy natural population growth and natural decline." In the very long run, we are all dead. And I mean all. Still, that will solve the problem of what to do with those horrible men.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

A variety of interesting links

Not about Brexit, you will be pleased to hear.

1. The slowest athletes in the Olympics: "He was ready to participate at the Olympic games. It would be the fifth race of his life." This answers a lot of questions you might have had about who gets to be in the Olympics, and why the 100m final is not completely full of Jamaicans.

2.  Trust and more trust. The Economist is, as ever, optimistic: "New technologies that encourage co-operation in some spheres of life contribute to social capital rather than weaken it." Tim Harford, by contrast, has this story from high-trust Bavaria: "While browsing for shades in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I warned my young son not to play with the merchandise: a sign forbade children to touch the sunglasses. // The shopkeeper bustled over and reassured me that the rule did not apply to my son. “It’s for the Arab kids,” she told me, beaming. “They just drop the sunglasses on the floor.”"

3. This is a frightening photograph.

4. The influence of Tolkein on rock music.

5. Very weird insects.

6. Sam Kriss on the multiverse. I'm pleased to see that Kriss has, at least in this universe, gained transatlantic appeal.

7. Finally, here's a story that should have a moral - but what? This is how the story goes. If you play basketball, you will have a subjective experience of a 'hot hand': from time to time, it seems that every shot goes in, and you just know that the next one will do too. (I think we all get that feeling with physical skills, such as sporting ones, that are not entirely under conscious control - the feeling that you're in the groove, or something has just clicked.) But some researchers did some maths and proved that there was no such thing. That became famous: a great story about how statistics can show that something you just know to be true is not true. So far so good. But then some other researchers came along and showed that the maths was wrong. In fact - there is a hot hand. A famous 'fallacy' is not a fallacy at all. So what's the moral? There are things you can know that maths can't prove - or if maths seems to disprove it, doubt the maths? OK, that deals with subprime mortgages: don't trust the computer models, trust your instinct. But what about global warming - just go with your gut on that one? Or is it a moral about when scientific research and intuition clash: we know we should be suspicious about scientific findings that we instinctively like - but should be more suspicious about those we dislike? If the next set of science papers say that there is no hot hand again, who will be listening?