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Continuing in Walden, this brought a sad chuckle:

We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers ever carried a peck of corn to mill

Walden University

Among the delights in rereading Walden is this gem (he’s writing in 1854):

 I cannot but think that if we had more true wisdom in these respects, not only less education would be needed, because, forsooth, more would already have been acquired, but the pecuniary expense of getting an education would in a great measure vanish. Those conveniences which the student requires at Cambridge or elsewhere cost him or somebody else ten times as great a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made. The mode of founding a college is, commonly, to get up a subscription of dollars and cents, and then, following blindly the principles of a division of labor to its extreme- a principle which should never be followed but with circumspection- to call in a contractor who makes this a subject of speculation, and he employs Irishmen or other operatives actually to lay the foundations, while the students that are to be are said to be fitting themselves for it; and for these oversights successive generations have to pay. I think that it would be better than this, for the students, or those who desire to be benefited by it, even to lay the foundation themselves. The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. “But,” says one, “you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?” I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life;- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?… To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!- why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it. Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.

This after his documenting that it cost him about $28 to build his cabin on his own near the pond, which was about one year’s rent of for a typical resident of Concord.

In thinking about arguments that I have heard made against the NSA’s PRISM program (this program is basically the limitless power the NSA seems to be exercising in collecting an ungodly amount of information, without warrant, from all Americans’ use of the internet), a little conundrum came to mind. One of the things the NSA is doing is building a data storage facility in Utah to maintain the Brobdignagian mountain of information on all of us American citizens.

Aside from the utter unconstitutionality of this (after all, this sort of thing is what really gave the American Revolution it’s fuel), one of the good arguments I have heard against it is that the NSA is collecting SO MUCH information that it has basically been rendered too unwieldy and hence useless in the fight to prevent terrorism in real time. In other words, even with the world’s largest data storage facility and access to state of the art algorithms and supercomputers, we can’t “plan” domestic terrorist defense well. I’ve heard this argument from people of both the left and the right.

Now think about that.

We can’t even process this data to plan one single aspect of our lives. Yet, even after making these sorts of comments and observations, those on the right continue to disavow all other basic laws of economics (deficits don’t matter! unless Dems are in power) and those on the left proudly proclaim themselves socialists, propose all manner of additional labor market interventions, dream of a Green New Deal program, and so on.

So, the NSA program is obviously awful – but so, too, are those arguments from folks who claim there is “too much data” … it is not that those arguments are wrong, they are not – but that they are just merely conveniently cherry picked and used for political convenience.

It has been said, and I totally agree, that “Clarity is Courage.” So many people are so deeply intellectually bankrupt today that it is nearly impossible to listen to any garbage spewing from their mouths. Until and unless those in the punditry and the permanent political class follow their thoughts to their logical conclusions, and admit them honestly, you are best served to totally discount what you are hearing, even if you like what it sounds like.

 

Indulge the simple thought exercise. There are a goodly number of people (mostly on “the right”) who argue (correctly?) that the science of climate change is extremely uncertain, vastly underidentified, requires measurement that we are not up to yet, etc. …

… so, they argue that the science is not settled and as such we should take alarmism with a grain of salt.

What do you think the reaction would be if a series of papers came out in reputable outlets that, using the same scientific methods, seemed to indicate that climate change was reversing, or caused by aliens or some such thing?

What does this have to do with *G*od? At the risk of getting myself socially ostracized, if you think about the argument made by some that science is irrelevant in matters of religion (such as in whether it can be used to examine the existence of God), what if biologists and geneticists and archaelogists managed to locate the body of Jesus, or some biological remnant that he left behind, and were able to test the DNA? And what if in that DNA test we were able to conclude both that he lived and died as we learned, but also that he actually did not have any biological fathers – that he indeed only had a mother’s DNA.

Would the community who thinks science is not relevant for discussing and examining the existence of God use this news in any way, shape or form? And if so, how?

OK, back into my hovel.

Timeless Wokeness

THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES

 

CHAPTER 1

All is Vanity

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom
concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.

14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I? 26 For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

CHAPTER 6

Limited Worth of Enjoyment

1 There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: 2 A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease. 3 If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. 4 For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. 5 Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other. 6 Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place?

7 All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled. 8 For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.

10 That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he. 11 Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? 12 For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?

CHAPTER 7

On the Day of Adversity

On Justice and Wickedness

15 All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.

CHAPTER 9

1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them. 2 All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. 3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. … 11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 12 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

(wintercow interlude: … so, what to do? let’s give the mike to the supposed Solomon (it is not) one last time, or to sound a bit like Dave Matthews’ Tripping Billies)

15 Then I commended mirth,

because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry:

for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun

Conscientiousness

I’ve received a ton of correspondence about the role computers may play in the future of central planning. My responses are generally of the following nature:

(1) If computing power and complexity improved to the extent that we COULD in principle do central planning, we would NOT NEED them to do central planning.

(2) I suspect that our problems would get worse, not better.

Here is a nice discussion of the computing challenges:

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision7 or through other institutional arrangements8. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

Given the myriad ways that our “elite” colleges and universities massage and manipulate admissions data, financial aid data, yield data, alumni giving data, who teaches classes, and so on (often in order to increase their “profits”, often in order to stay high up in the rankings, etc.), how can we take seriously the idea that they are the active promoters of the public good? If, at the very core, our universities and colleges are manipulating and deceiving students, families, taxpayers and onlookers about how selective they really are, about how their finances are really working, about what it takes to be admitted to a college and so on, what gives us any confidence that the rest of the enterprise is operating the “way we think” it should be running?

 

I just finished reading Peter Brannen’s interesting book on the five previous major mass extinctions that have struck planet Earth. It is, of course, a book that is very much intended to warn us that we are on our way to the sixth if we do not keep carbon dioxide levels low (CO2 ramp ups and downs are a major factor in all previous extinctions). I am not here to debate that or provide some context, instead, I just wanted to demonstrate what is not going to get people of goodwill to take arguments seriously, especially us economists who are trying to get a better handle on these sorts of things. Here he is on Page 259 (and there is plenty more of this throughout the book, if less direct):

The fate of the world, then, becomes an easily calculable cost-benefit analysis, one amenable to smug op-eds by economists. The corn belt will shift north by so and so degrees latitude, the GDP of certain countries will respond in mind, and it’s all very orderly and predictable.

As many readers know, this has almost become the default view of economists. Simply calling the tool of cost-benefit analysis a pejorative name like “economisticy” of course doesn’t actually count as a serious argument. What is funny about the above quote is that many serious economists are very much wedded to the idea of epistemic humility and modestly in the name of highly uncertain complex processes. So as we apply a health dose of skepticism to very closely model out complex interactions in a crazy global ecological “system” we, too, are skeptical of being able to model out how humans may or may not respond in a very complex social world. But, the argument above is taking the planning economists among us, who may not be very skeptical of our ability to model these things out, and having them “speak” for the profession. Furthermore, the skepticism of we economists about our ability to really understand a highly causal density social world seems to meld nicely with a humble approach to climate and extinctions. I have no idea how the climate will respond going forward, and how likely various tipping points will be in the global ecological niches out there. That doesn’t mean we ignore them, it doesn’t mean we downgrade them or upgrade them, it means we have an open mind to the possibility that we just don’t know, in either direction, what might go on, and think hard about how to navigate a world where this kind of uncertainty pervades.

I wonder if authors take the time to seriously read and think about the ideas of the folks they condemn. We obviously can’t expect everyone to read everything – does the author really think the typical economist who studies ecological questions really things the world is very orderly and predictable? Even if said economists are using models as a way to get a grip on what ways we can connect cause and effect, does that mean economists think the world works that way? Would the author take a similarly skeptical view of the guys doing climate modeling? After all, the GCMs don’t seem to be able to include tipping points in them, they have all kinds of linearities built into them, they include fudge factors to calibrate them, they can’t possibly model the interactions between all of the importance ecosystems impacted by changes in forcings, etc. Yet there is not a shred of evidence in the book that the author is concerned about the quality of the results from climate models So in one hand he holds the idea that if humans keep doing so and so to the planet, then X will happen, and on the other hand, he rejects the economists who may be doing the same thing.

In any case, the book is a fun read, so long as you can get past the every other page insinuation that carbon dioxide is going to kill everything again (he rolls it back at the end, a bit) and is helpful in thinking about how the end times end up happening.

Next up: Chris Thomas’ Inheritors of the Earth. I’m curious how it compares to Emma Maris’ Rambunctious Garden, which I recommend. Of course, Thomas’ book is really popular, here is an Amazon review:

on December 19, 2017
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book but I just read his interview in Vox. This man is completely insane. He considers breeds of dogs and other domesticated animals to be new species (complete hogwash). He somehow equates invasive species to be indicative of biodiversity when they have a completely inverse relationship. He is a disgrace to the field of conservation biology, if that’s what he is claiming he represents.
Or how about this one:
Lots more too:

Very true. The word “cherrypick” provides a perfect description for the examples the author uses to hide his bizarre agenda under the guise of “science”. Of course some piece of nature will thrive after any extinction. Bulldoze a rainforest and there will be at least one species that benefits from the ecological vacuum you’ve created–a third grader could tell you that. The author seems to think his cherrypicked examples justify a hands-off approach to invasive species and other biodiversity disasters.

In the field of conservation, so many people are looking to save themselves from the heartache of watching constant biodiversity loss. Sadly, the opiate-like effects of pretending there’s not a problem are so appetizing that many environmentalists eagerly swallow these ideas whole. But there are plenty of reasons for hope in conservation! I’ll choose to be optimistic and strive for further conservation success, long before I numb my conscience by pretending humanity’s obliteration of other life is simply the new norm.

One of my son’s favorite books at the moment is the Book of General Ignorance. In today’s lesson, he informs me that none of kilts, bagpipes, haggis, porridge, whisky and tartan that we so readily identify as authentically Scottish actually emanates from Scotland.

While kilts seem to have been invented by the Irish (who are closely related to the Scots, as a Celtic tribe from Ireland were the first settlers in what is now Scotland), the term is Danish. Bagpipes? Central Asia – and likely carried to Europe by the Romans. Haggis? Greek. Oak porridge? Found in bog bodies of 5,000 year old neolithic northern Europeans. Whisky? As with most awesome stuff … China. Tartans? Largely made up in 19th century, at least insofar as its relevance to clans.

 

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