Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roads to Serfdom

One of the bibles of Libertarianism is Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. It argues, so I read, that state control of the economy and centralized planning lead to the enslavement of the individual.

I should note that I haven't read it, and don't actually plan to. Most of what I know of it comes from Wikipedia, linked above. At any rate, it seems clear to me that as with any religious document, its fans like to oversimplify and distort its message, usually to suit their own economic benefit. In particular, Hayek recognized an important role for government, especially in matters like protection of the environment, one of the favorite targets of many Libertarians.

Hayek's book had many fans, including John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell, but Orwell, in particular, was careful to point out that there was more than one road to serfdom. From the linked Wikipedia article:

George Orwell responded with both praise and criticism, stating, "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of." Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

The real serfdom, we ought to remember, was not servitude to the state, but to the great landowners, and variations on that kind of serfdom have existed for thousands of years. The modern counterpart is a kind of servitude to the corporation. Of course we aren't bound to the corporation in the same way serfs were bound to the land - or are we? Old institutions like the company store may have faded away, but a potent new one is health insurance, which, in the US, is tightly linked employment in one of the sectors of the economy where providing such insurance is common.

Paul Krugman's May 22 column details many of the ways the policies of the so-called liberty loving Republicans have conspired to make American workers less free:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by...

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs...

You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

In case anyone was wondering why I hate Libertarianism. What most Libertarians seem to be looking for is the freedom to enslave others.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart's Don't It?

In what the NYT has labelled an "enormous success" a big genome wide association study is reputed to have found a number of gene variants associated with intelligence:

In a significant advance in the study of mental ability, a team of European and American scientists announced on Monday that they had identified 52 genes linked to intelligence in nearly 80,000 people.

These genes do not determine intelligence, however. Their combined influence is minuscule, the researchers said, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery. Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment.

Still, the findings could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem-solving, experts said. They could even help researchers determine which interventions would be most effective for children struggling to learn.

I'm not too impressed with the story. The second quoted paragraph is misleading - I think it should say that the individual influence of the genes is miniscule (not the combined influence.) I'm also under the impression that the genes are not actually correlated with IQ test results, but with educational attainment, which is taken as a proxy for intelligence.

One of the more interesting bits in the story was this (about height, not intelligence):

But other gene studies have shown that variants in one population can fail to predict what people are like in other populations. Different variants turn out to be important in different groups, and this may well be the case with intelligence.

“If you try to predict height using the genes we’ve identified in Europeans in Africans, you’d predict all Africans are five inches shorter than Europeans, which isn’t true,” Dr. Posthuma said.

It's not obvious to me that much has been learned about the biological roots of differences in intelligence.

Sink Hole

News reports say that a small sinkhole has appeared in front of Mar a Lago, but the one that's going to suck the proprietor down is the one he is making with his own stupidity. The latest revelation is that Trump personally asked intelligence officials to shut down the Russia investigation:

The Washington Post reported, citing unnamed current and former officials, that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny that any evidence of collusion existed.

He made that request after former FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that his bureau was conducting an investigation into whether there was any “coordination” between Russian officials and Trump’s associates during the campaign, according to the Washington Post.

Two unnamed current and two unnamed former officials cited in the report said that Coats and Rogers deemed Trump’s request inappropriate and refused to do so.

Trump made the request to Rogers in a phone call, according to the Washington Post, and a senior NSA official documented the conversation in an internal memo written at the time.

It's no longer his corruption that shocks, but his total, moronic, stupidity.

One and A Third

George Marshall:

George Marshall, who replaced Byrnes as Secretary of State in January 1947, told a Pentagon audience some years later, “I remember, when I was Secretary of State, I was being pressed constantly, particularly when in Moscow, by radio message after radio message, to give the Russians hell. . . . When I got back I was getting the same appeal in relation to the Far East and China. At that time, my facilities for giving them hell—and I am a soldier and know something about the ability to give hell—was one and a third divisions over the entire United States.1250 That is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 and you have one and a third.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 282). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The drastic US disarmament after World War II left the US at a drastic strategic disadvantage that made professional soldiers very nervous, especially when they looked at Stalin's quite different behavior. Truman probably did this because of his confidence in the nuclear bomb, but in fact, the US nuclear arsenal, and it's means of delivery, were both quite limited at that point.

Air Force General Curtis Lemay:

war. “The same thing happened here as everywhere else,” a disgusted Curtis LeMay would write a friend from Europe the following year. “Everyone dropped their tools and went home when the whistle blew. The property is in terrible shape and we do not have enough people left in the theater to properly take care of it.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 281). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That lack of preparation likely led to the Korean War and the US defeats there.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Big I

We have a thoroughly Republican Congress and they would like to impeach the current Republican President almost as much as they would like to suffer the Mongolian fire torture. Nonetheless, I think that it's pretty likely that the President will not complete his term in office - not so much because of the misdeeds already committed as because of those he has yet to commit. This is a guy burning with resentment with next to no impulse control, an ignorant fellow with no self-awareness, who moreover is showing signs of incipient senility. Essentially all his troubles today are of his own making, caused or at least initiated by his lack of impulse control and terrible judgement.

My guess is that sooner rather than later his own terrible judgement, or perhaps his response to external events, will collapse his remaining support and send the Republican Congress heading him for the exits.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Schadenfreude

I wish I could just enjoy mine at Trump's troubles, but unfortunately he can still destroy the planet, not to mention his capability to harm in a million smaller ways, not least by incompetence.

For actual malice, though, this is a good one (Jordan Weisssman in Slate):

According to Politico, President Trump told his staff this week that he wants to cut off a crucial set of subsidies that are paid to health insurers under Obamacare, a move that could potentially bring about the collapse of the law's coverage marketplaces. ...

Many of Trump's advisor's, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, apparently oppose the plan, because they “worry it will backfire politically if people lose their insurance or see huge premium spikes and blame the White House.” Which is a reasonable fear. Americans tend to blame their president for their personal misfortunes, particularly when they can easily trace them back to the discrete, rash actions of the man in the Oval Office.

Ya think?

On Speed

Seth Myers via the NYT:

“During a press conference this afternoon, President Trump said that his administration is getting things done at a record-setting pace. For example, most presidents take four years to finish a term, and it looks like Trump’s gonna get it done in, like, eight months.” — SETH MEYERS

Derek Hartfield

I learned a lot of what I know about writing from Derek Hartfield. Almost everything, in fact. Unfortunately, as a writer, Hartfield was sterile in the full sense of the word. One has only to read some of his stuff to see that. His prose is mangled, his stories slapdash, his themes juvenile. Yet he was a fighter as few are, a man who used words as weapons. In my opinion, when it comes to sheer combativeness he should be ranked right up there with the giants of his day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sadly, however, he could never fully grasp exactly what it was he was fighting against. In the final reckoning, I suppose, that’s what being sterile is all about.

Hartfield waged his fruitless battle for eight years and two months, and then he died. In June 1938, on a sunny Sunday morning, he jumped off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left. Few people noticed, though— he was as ignored in death as he had been in life.

Murakami, Haruki. Wind/Pinball: Two novels (pp. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Classic Murakami, from his first novel.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pence

Brad DeLong sees a Machiavellian Mike Pence maneuvering to make himself President:

A Persian Dialogue About Mike Pence and Donald Trump...

Artemisia: I am now on Team Bannon?

Atossa: Why are you now on Team Bannon?

Artemisia: Because Steve Bannon warned Donald Trump that firing James Comey would be big trouble. Also Rince Priebus.

Atossa: But Trump listens to the last people he talked to. Why did he fire Comey then?

Artemisia: Because Jared Kushner and Mike Pence told him it would be no problem.

Atossa: And they got to him later.

Artemisia: But why would Jared Kushner say firing Comey wouldn't be a big problem?

Atossa: Because it was what Trump clearly wanted to hear. And Jared Kushner hasn't spent any time in Washington—he doesn't know much about how politics works.

Artemisia: But Mike Pence knows a lot about how politics works!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Mike Pence knew it would be big trouble!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Why would Mike Pence do something like that?

Atossa: What happens if Trump falls?

Artemisia: You mean?

Atossa: Yup! Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump:

I did not have sexual financial relations with that man, Mr. Putin.

Depending on what the meaning of is is.

Or something like that.

I notice that Sean Spicer has taken to phrasing his denials in the form "The President denies..."

Another Cheery Thought

Shepard Smith on Fox News observed that the last time Trump got a bump in the polls was when he bombed Syria.

Psst!

From the Washington Post, the comments by Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from not quite a year ago:

KIEV —A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.

Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the U.S. Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.

News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.

Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”

Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks...This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.

There is no new factual material about Trump's links to Russia here, but the fact that this conversation has come to light now sure looks like a sign that the rats are looking for a way to bail from a sinking ship. Republicans have bitten their tongues about the dark suspicions they have had of Trump, but they seem to be loosening up now. Either that, or somebody has planted a hoax that fooled the WaPo.

Reign of Trump

Trump is pretty miserable as President. He hates the press, he dislikes his staff, and he feels like everybody hates him. But he does like the red button on his desk that summons a Diet Coke. Our dreams of impeachment no longer look quite as idle as they did a month ago.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon. I'm mean on a time scale where Trump's probability density for destroying the planet integrates to values greater than 1/2. So, is there any chance that he might quit?

I can dream, can't I.

Not that Pence would be much of an improvement.

Money

Obligatory ABBA link:



Harari argues that money, because of its role in cooperative behavior, is probably the most important human invention since language.  The first money we know of, Mesopotamian barley money from 5000 years ago, is only a relatively small abstraction from pure barter, but it was a giant step in the promotion of commerce.  If you are a scythe maker and need a pair of boots, it can be a huge pain to find a bootmaker who needs a scythe, but once money exists, you only need find anyone with money who wants a scythe and then trade the money to someone who makes boots.  Not for the first time in human history, the symbol became more important than its realization.

Barley money had a number of disadvantages: it is bulky, it rots, and rats eat it.  Another major step to purely symbolic money was silver.  Silver, at least in the Mesopotamian world, had essentially no intrinsic value.  It's too soft to be useful in construction or weapons, so it is only decorative.  But it doesn't rot, rats don't eat it, and it is also somewhat rare.  Silver, gold and other metal coins were probably the first money that had purely symbolic value, and governments increasingly took charge of supervising it.

It's characteristic of the power of myth in human affairs that humans soon convinced themselves of the intrinsic value of gold and silver, and that wars and murders by the hundreds of millions followed.
Gold and silver are useful for money partly because their distinctive appearance, hardness, weight and rarity make them hard to counterfeit, but counterfeiting none the less occurred and rulers took to stamping their images on the genuine articles and visiting gruesome consequences on the perpetrators.

The next step in symbolization was the invention of credit money - agreements to pay between individuals, or between individuals and rulers, usually documented in writing, or today, in electronic records.  Nearly all the money today is credit money including currency, bank accounts, bonds and so forth.  Stocks in corporations are at once a slightly more concrete form of money (because they represent a claim on a specific entity) and a more abstract one (because the corporation itself is an abstraction).

The value of all this money rest entirely in our belief in it, and in the institutions that create it and preserve it's value.  The world still contains lots of nuts who consider this an abomination, and that many of our problems would disappear if we just went back to good old gold, but they are deluded.

The latest type of money is the cryptocurrency.  Like other money, its value depends on what people believe it is - faith in an algorithm, and scarcity based on that algorithm requiring a lot of computation.

I happen to consider the crypto-currencies the most meretricious addition to the monetary stock since shrunken head money.  Aside from giving cover to all sorts of criminal activity, they are very wasteful of resources.  Imagine a sort of Rumpelstiltskin world in which people could manufacture gold by endlessly playing Candy Crush - such that a skilled player could produce say 0.5 grams/hr, equivalent to $20/hr.  Soon the world would be full people playing Candy Crush and getting carpal tunnel syndrome.  Eventually the value of gold would decline due to increasing supply and  people would stop.  Would the world be any better off?

Bitcoin is like that.  Millions of hours of computer time and megawatt hours of electricity are being expended to manufacture this worthless crap.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Trump Tapes

Trump strongly hinted that there were tapes of his dinner conversation with Comey where he allegedly asked for a loyalty pledge. We know that the oval office has taping facilities, so it's at least plausible that the conversation where Comey claims Trump asked him to kill the Flynn investigation was taped. Congress has made it clear that it wants the Comey memos. They should also promptly ask for any relevant tapes.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I bought this book yesterday and just finished all 608 pages of it, so I guess one might call it a page turner. Murakami is masterful at sucking one in.

Toru Okada is an ordinary sort of thirty year old guy, a sort of legal assistant who quits his job at a law firm because it doesn't seem like something he wants to stick with. That's when his troubles start, when first his cat and then his wife go missing. If you've read Murakami before, you probably won't be surprised that this is the start of some strange adventures, not all of them strictly of this world. He soon finds himself involved in the affairs of a number of rather strange women.

The real world is always present in Murakami's version of magical realism, perhaps most grittily in the reminiscences of a couple of characters from the war in Manchuria and the subsequent captivity in a Siberian mining camp of a side character.

There is no doubt in my mind that Murakami is one of the greatest living novelists. He is equally the master of wit, suspense and deep characterization.

Bits and Pieces

The Daily Beast:

White House and administration officials are reeling at reports that President Donald Trump reportedly shared classified information with Russia’s top diplomats during an Oval Office meeting last week.

...

“I doubt he did it to collude [with the Russians]. I think he’s dumb and doesn’t know the difference,” a former FBI official who worked aspects of the Russia investigation told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he’s arranging some business deal except that he’s not.”

“I don’t think he shared the classified intelligence to collude. I think he shared because he thinks he’s playing chess when he’s actually playing checkers. International affairs is not like buying a golf course,” added a second former FBI official.

When asked if the Russians could use the information Trump provided in way that harms the U.S., this official said, “of course.”

The Russians, the source added, “like [Trump’s] mental instability and stupidity. They don’t like his unpredictability.”

Candidate Trump was vehement in his condemnations of the mishandling of classified information, chiefly by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Her use of a private email server to handle such information was a frequent Trump talking point—and the subject of her own FBI investigation. That probe was led by James Comey, the man Trump fired on Tuesday due, administration officials claimed before Trump publicly contradicted them, to his handling of the Clinton investigation.

Credibility Acid

Donald Trump has a kind of universal credibility acid which dissolves the credibility of anybody associated with him. Tillerson and McMaster were supposed to be the adults in the room who would restrain Trump's worst impulses, but both found themselves releasing lawyerly statement denying that Trump discussed "sources and methods" with the Russians, and claiming that that demonstrated that the stories in the Washington Post and elsewhere were therefore false. Today, their credibility lies in tatters, since those stories made no such claim. Instead, they reported that the details released, in the opinion of intelligence professionals, allowed the deduction of sources and methods, implying major clues to the identity of inside informants.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sources and Methods

The Washington Post is reporting today that Trump disclosed highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians in his recent meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.

The president’s disclosures to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in their Oval Office meeting last week jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State — an information-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, current and former U.S. officials said. Trump appeared to be boasting of the “great intel” he receives when he described a looming terror threat, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

This data is so sensitive that it isn;t shared even with some close allies. McMaster and Tillerson are claiming that not sources and methods were disclosed, but intelligence professionals are disagreeing, saying that the revelations are likely to get sources killed.

If that is true, then McMaster and Tillerson have to go, and I predict that Trump will be removed from office before his first year is over.

I Don't Understand

...why ransomware attacks like WannaCry are so hard to trace. They are asking for money, so the money should be traceable, at least by the banks carrying out the transfers. Of course some banks may have an interest in facilitating this kind of crime. How about just nuking them, virtually or actually? The virtual nuke would be just freezing them out of the international banking system and seizing any external assets of the banks and their principals.

I get it that a lot of tax evaders, drug dealers, corrupt officials and the banks that serve them would wanna cry, but is there any actual reason this would be a bad idea?