Categories
Miscellany Philoeconomica

An Economics of False Advertising

The first fundamental theorem of welfare economics states conditions under which any price equilibrium with transfers, and in particular any Walrasian equilibrium, is a Pareto optimum. For competitive market economies, it provides a formal and very general confirmation of Adam Smith’s asserted “invisible hand” property of the market. A single, very weak assumption, the local nonsatiation of preferences . . . , is all that is required for the result. Notably, we need not appeal to any convexity assumption whatsoever.

Andreu Mas-Colell et al., Microeconomic Theory 549 (1995).

Wow. So there is a mathematical proof that a “competitive market economy” is always efficient? And all that is required is “[a] single, very weak assumption, the local nonsatiation of preferences,” which translates into the reasonable assumption that people always tend to want more?

If only.

Page forward 70 pages and you encounter the following proviso:

We have, so far, carried out an extensive analysis of equilibrium equations. A characteristic feature that distinguishes economics from other scientific fields is that, for us, the equations of equilibrium constitute the center of our discipline. Other sciences, such as physics or even ecology, put comparatively more emphasis on the determination of dynamic laws of change. In contrast, we have hardly mentioned dynamics. The reason, informally speaking, is that economists are good (or so we hope) at recognizing a state of equilibrium but are poor at predicting precisely how an economy in disequilibrium will evolve. Certainly, there are intuitive dynamic principles: if demand is larger than supply then the price will increase, if price is larger than marginal cost then production will expand, if industry profits are positive and there are no barriers to entry, then new firm will enter, and so on. The difficulty is in translating these informal principles into precise dynamic laws.

Andreu Mas-Colell et al., Microeconomic Theory 620 (1995).

So, that great proof of the efficiency of competitive markets applies only to an economy in “equilibrium,” but economics has no idea how any economy would actually get into equilibrium?

Yes, that is exactly right.

Economics has shown that if buyers and sellers happen to trade at competitive prices in all markets, then the invisible hand will work great. But economics has never been able to show that buyers and sellers will actually bargain their way to competitive prices, even in “competitive market economies,” and even if they are rational profit-maximizers and all that.

Actually, even this proviso is false advertising. Because economics has actually gone and nearly proved the opposite of the proposition that buyers and sellers will always bargain their way to competitive prices: that buyers and sellers in competitive market economies can bargain their way to almost any set of prices—not just competitive prices—and, moreover, that they can bargain prices in circles forever, never achieving any equilibrium set of prices at all, much less the efficient competitive equilibrium set.

The entire project of free market economic theory is, in other words, a failure, and has been since these results appeared in the 1970s.

But you wouldn’t know it from reading the canonical graduate textbook in economics.

Categories
Miscellany

The Peril of Reasonable Inferences

Cortes goes to Mesoamerica, discovers a great empire, and plunders it.

Pizarro goes to South America, discovers a great empire, and plunders it.

Soto, who was with Pizarro in Peru, infers that there must be a great empire to plunder in North America.

He leads a military expedition through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and probably Arkansas, finds no great empire to plunder, and dies of fever on the banks of the Mississippi.

Postscript:

The Spanish therefore give up on North America, more or less. No native empire had done the hard work of finding and extracting the continent’s gold for them. And no native empire had done the hard work of marshaling the population into labor units that could be exploited from the top by invaders. It seemed obvious that the hemisphere would be most easily dominated from the places at which native civilization was most advanced.

What saved North Americans from the slavery that befell Mesoamericans and South Americans in the 16th century was that they had not been brought under the centralized control of their own native emperor prior to the European invasions. In the language of James C. Scott, they, unlike their Aztec or Inca neighbors, had not yet been domesticated; they were still free. And that made it impossible for the tiny groups of Spaniards who were carrying out the colonial project to dominate them. For those groups operated by killing the native emperor and substituting themselves at the top of a pre-existing power structure.

Categories
Inframarginalism Miscellany Monopolization

Notes on the Frysian Theory of the NFT

My colleague Brian Frye has been busy reducing the non-fungible token to theory. Herein some thoughts inspired by Brian’s work.

But first, a definition. An NFT is a ledger entry in a blockchain that (1) indicates a purchase and (2) describes the subject of the purchase, often just with a url link to a picture of the subject. As an approximate matter, when someone posts a digital photo on the Internet and you purchase the NFT to that photo, you obtain a ledger entry in a blockchain that indicates that you made a purchase and describes that purchase using a url link to the photo.

Now for those thoughts.

  1. As a legal matter, the NFT is nothing special. It can be one of two things. It can either be a legally-valid transfer of title to the underlying subject. Or it can be a legally-valid purchase of the service of updating the blockchain ledger to reflect a “purchase” of the underlying subject (without that purchase being legally valid in any way with respect to the underlying subject).

    In other words, the buyer of an NFT clearly pays for the service of having the blockchain ledger updated to reflect a purchase. If the seller’s act of indicating a purchase can be considered a legally-valid expression of intention to transfer title to the subject, then the NFT buyer also gets title to the subject. Otherwise, the NFT buyer just gets a hollow incantation on the blockchain, and nothing more.

    The NFT is a digital version of Berry taking a piece of paper, going up to Apple, and saying to him: “I’ll indicate on this piece of paper that I’ve sold you my Y, if you pay me X”. Apple pays the money. Berry writes on the paper: “sold to you one Y.” Has Apple purchased the Berry’s service of writing “sold to you one Y” on the piece of paper or has Apple purchased Y?

    As a general matter, a manifestation of a present intention to transfer title will transfer that title (which is why when someone says, “it’s for you,” you can legally keep the gift). But the law imposes all sorts of qualifications on this rule that are designed to make sure that the intention really was there.

    Does the blockchain-equivalent of shouting “sold” and tendering a url link manifest a present intention to transfer title to the link alone (which is generally not owned by the NFT seller, but rather the platform upon which the NFT is sold, in which case there can be no sale)? If the link leads to a digital photo, does shouting “sold” and tendering the link manifest a present intention to transfer title to the thing depicted in the photo? Or does it manifest a present intention to transfer the seller’s intellectual property rights in the photo itself? If so, which rights? Does the buyer get the right to make a copy of the photo, or does the buyer get the entire copyright?

    Judges will decide these questions.

    If the answer is “no” to all of them, then all that we can say is that purchase of an NFT gets you the service of having a ledger entry placed in the blockchain indicating that you have made a purchase and describing the subject of that purchase. But not title to the subject itself, whatever that may be.

    (Technical note: The foregoing considers the simplest possible form of an NFT transaction, one that is not complicated by any advance written agreement between the parties providing further detail about the character of the transaction. The seller simply makes a promise, expressly or implicitly, to indicate, on a blockchain, sale of some description of a subject if the buyer pays a certain price. This is a unilateral contract offer. The buyer then pays the price and the seller is legally bound to carry out his promise to make the ledger entry in the blockchain. The key question is whether the carrying out of that promise manifests a present intention to transfer title to something, or not.)
  2. If it turns out that the NFT does not transfer title to anything, and instead represents the purchase of the mere service of indicating a sale on a digital ledger, then the NFT is rather interesting as a social matter. Because in that case the market for these things—tens of millions have changed hands for individual NFTS—is a market to buy and sell ledger entries, nothing more. It is for this reason that Brian calls the NFT “the ownership of ownership.”

    In this case, we have in the NFT a further step in the familiar human chain by which a practice that starts out as necessary for survival is progressively abstracted until it persists only as ritual or play. First, men hunted to survive. Then they hunted for fun, though they did not need the meat. Then they played paintball, and took home no meat. First men bought and sold things they needed to survive. Then they bought and sold things that served no practical or spiritual purpose (contemporary art). Then they bought and sold NFTs.

    Nietzsche saw this coming, in a way:

Commerce and Nobility.—Buying and selling is now regarded as something ordinary, like the art of reading and writing; everyone is now trained to it even when he is not a tradesman exercising himself daily in the art; precisely as formerly in the period of uncivilised humanity, everyone was a hunter and exercised himself day by day in the art of hunting. Hunting was then something common: but just as this finally became a privilege of the powerful and noble, and thereby lost the character of the commonplace and the ordinary—by ceasing to be necessary and by becoming an affair of fancy and luxury,—so it might become the same some day with buying and selling. Conditions of society are imaginable in which there will be no selling and buying, and in which the necessity for this art will become quite lost; perhaps it may then happen that individuals who are less subjected to the law of the prevailing condition of things will indulge in buying and selling as a luxury of sentiment. It is then only that commerce would acquire nobility, and the noble would then perhaps occupy themselves just as readily with commerce as they have done hitherto with war and politics . . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (Walter Kaufmann trans., 2010).

The same information age powers that have given rise to the NFT—making possible a publicly-accessible and (mostly) immutable global ledger system—are also swiftly rendering markets—buying and selling—obsolete.

One day, perhaps sooner than we think, firms and governments will know enough about what we want in order for firms and governments to be able to make allocation decisions for us that are better than we could obtain by bidding for products in markets. And when that happens, we will enthusiastically embrace central planning and forsake markets.

Where today that last seat on the flight is allocated based on ability to pay—a very imperfect method of determining who places the highest value on the seat—tomorrow the airline (or the government agency regulating the airline) will know, based on reams of data about all those who want the seat and that for which they want to use it, that you (yes, you) actually value the seat the most, even though you wouldn’t be able to bid the highest price for it. And so you will get the seat.

In such a world, most of us will cease to buy and sell as a matter of daily life. But perhaps we will continue to play the buying and selling game, just as some of us continue to hunt.

The NFT will be that game.

(Nietzsche didn’t foresee that America would succeed at democratizing and commercializing all things noble, including the hunt, and so he didn’t foresee, either, that the NFT could be more than just the passtime of an aristocracy.)

  1. Brian argues that the NFT could be a solution to the inefficiency of copyright. It is not completely clear to me how this might be so. But there are some possibilities.

    The problem with copyright is that the only efficient way to sell intellectual property is through personalized pricing. That’s because the marginal cost of copying intellectual property is zero—it costs nothing to make a digital copy of an image, for example—and so there are gains from trade to be realized from distributing copies to everyone who places a non-zero value on the work. If you think it’s worth something, you should get access to it. That doesn’t mean that you should not have to pay for the work, or that the work has no cost of production. It means only that those costs are “overhead costs”—they’re the costs of making the work, not of distributing it—and each purchaser should be charged a price no higher than the purchaser’s willingness to pay, for a higher price would prevent the sale and so destroy potential gains from trade.

    Thus the pricing of intellectual property should always be personalized to ensure that it prices no one out of the market. Everyone who cares should be able to buy Steal This Book, but only those who can afford to pay should be charged a price for it, and that price should be no higher, for each, than what he can afford. But those who actually steal it should go to jail, for otherwise there would be no book to steal.

    The problem with copyright is that copyright holders often do not know what their customers are willing to pay and so they do not personalize the prices they charge to licensees. Instead, they impose one-size-fits all prices that prevent some people who place a non-zero value on the work from getting access to it. The price of the paperback is written on the cover. If you can’t afford it, you go home empty handed. Both you and the copyrightholder would be better off if the holder gave you a discount. But the holder thinks (mistakenly) that you’re lying when you claim you can’t afford the official price, so no deal gets done.

    How can NFTs solve this problem?

    Suppose that purchase of an NFT buys only the right to a ledger entry. The buyer does not obtain a general right to the work, or even a license to use a copy of it. If buyers nevertheless continue to love playing the buying and selling game, they may direct sufficient cash to artists to cover the overhead cost of production of their works, and in so doing eliminate the need for copyright protection. That is, if the NFT craze proves long-lived, and spreads enough cash across the creative industries, then we may no longer need to use copyright to fund the arts. Artists could give copies of their works away for free to anyone who wants them, and make a living selling NFTs to fans of the buying game.

    Of course, it might be the case that NFT buyers have less taste than copyright licensees, in which case this new approach to funding would push the arts in unfortunate directions. But the reverse might be equally true, and we might end up with better art. Or, most likely, there would be no change in quality.

    Suppose instead that the purchase of an NFT buys a license to a particular copy of the work. It buys you access to a copy of the Kaufman translation of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, for example, though not the full copyright to that work. In this case, the NFT format of the sale doesn’t do anything special relative to any other form of digital sale of a copy of a work.

    But the fact that NFT sales are often structured as auctions—buyers bid for the NFT—pushes the pricing of copies in the right direction from the perspective of efficiency. For auction pricing means personalized pricing. If you require no minimum price in your auctions, and keep selling copies ad infinitum, then you will price no buyers out of the market and will end up selling copies at a range of prices personalized to the willingness to pay of buyers.

    Of course, savvy buyers will take advantage of this format to pay you little or nothing (if you know an infinite number of copies are going to be sold, why bid more than zero for any copy?), but we are at least on the right track. (Or not, if you end up getting paid so little that you give up on producing art in future.) The next step would be to use more complex auction structures designed to force buyers to reveal their willingness to pay, or to acquire data on buyers that would enable accurate dictation of personalized prices to them. But none of this, again, requires NFTs. Indeed, one can expect that, regardless whether NFTs persist or not, the information age is going to make it easier for copyright holders to personalize their prices and so much of the inefficiency of copyright will eventually disappear.

    Personalized pricing won’t solve all problems associated with copyright, however, for copyright also creates a distributive problem associated with excessive pricing, and personalized pricing enables owners to extract the maximum possible value from buyers—value that may be far in excess of the cost of producing art. In that case personalized pricing would exacerbate the wealth distributive problem associated with copyright even as it eliminates the efficiency problem. NFTs, in either their fee-for-service guise or their fee-for-license guise can’t solve the distributive problem of copyright, because there’s always a chance that buyers will pay prices for their NFTs that more than cover the cost of producing the arts.

    But that’s a story for another day.
Categories
Miscellany

Libertarianism as Opposition to the Electoral Process

The libertarian says: “when government intervenes in the market, it prevents the people from imposing their preferences on the market. People may claim to hate Facebook, but the fact that they use it belies their words. The people have voted in the market for Facebook, which is why Facebook became so successful. If the government destroys Facebook, it goes against the will of the people.”

The trouble with this line of argument, which the libertarian applies to all government interventions in the market, not just antitrust interventions against Facebook, is that in a democracy the people vote in two ways, not one. They vote in the market. And they vote for their political leaders, who in turn decide whether the government should intervene in the market. So it is not possible for a libertarian in a democracy to say that government intervention in markets goes against the will of the people. For it is the people who will the intervention in markets into existence.

The most that the libertarian can say is that the will of the people as expressed through their purchase decisions is more authentic than the will of the people as expressed through their electoral votes. And so it may be. But I have never heard a libertarian address this question directly, even though it is necessarily the heart of libertarianism, at least in a democracy. Instead, the libertarian tends to rail against government intervention as though every government were a tyranny and all market regulations dictated by some unelected politburo rather than, as happens to be the case in the libertarian ground zero that is the United States, by duly elected representatives of the people.

The libertarian asks, “why should the Federal Trade Commission get to decide whether Facebook is right for you or not?,” as if the Federal Trade Commission were a hereditary aristocracy. If the Federal Trade Commission breaks up Facebook, then it is the people who have broken up Facebook. The natural conclusion to draw is not that the people are oppressed but rather that the people have decided that they no longer wish to have Facebook as an option in their markets.

Why ever would a people decide, electorally, not to have a particular market option? The obvious answer is that people might wish to bind themselves to the mast. It could be the case that people find it easier to make deliberative, non-impulse-prone decisions about which products are good for them in the context of electoral voting rather than market voting through their purchase decisions. They think more carefully about what they really want when they vote for President than when they are logging in to Facebook.

Regulation in a democracy is, then, nothing more than the deliberative faculties restraining the impulsive faculties of the brain. It has nothing at all to do with tyranny, domination, un-freedom, or control, except insofar as it represents self-control.

If this is right, then why do libertarians nevertheless object to regulation? It could be that they reject the notion that the electoral process is more deliberative than the market process. Perhaps they believe the reverse: we choose more deliberatively in the market than in the electoral process. Or perhaps they believe that impulsive decisions better reveal our true preferences than do deliberative decisions, in which case the market, to the extent that it encourages impulsive decisionmaking, does a better job than politics at revealing our true preferences.

Or, more likely—because this libertarians do talk about—they believe that the layers of intermediation associated with representative government—the politicians and bureaucrats who stand between the electoral voter and the regulation—are not in fact responsive to voters, or only minimally so, and so the regulations government imposes reflect neither the deliberative preferences of voters nor their impulsive preferences, or reflect them only very weakly.

Whatever the reason, the libertarian position must be that the electoral process is a flawed voting system relative to the voting system that is the market.

Categories
Civilization Miscellany World

The Danger of Climate Certainty

We know from the study of social insurance that uncertainty—regarding whom a misfortune will strike—is a great spur to social behavior. It is the veil of ignorance that makes the healthy pay for the medical care of the sick. It is only because the healthy pay their premiums before they learn, at the end of life, that they did not in fact need to pay them, that the sick can afford medical care.

By the same token, the great spur to collective global action against climate change, such as it exists (and admittedly it does not much), is the fact that no country knows yet quite what the effects of climate change will be. As with all complex changes, that of climate will make winners as well as losers, at least in the medium term. Some countries will be submerged. Otherwise will thaw, or be the beneficiaries of rains diverted by changing weather patterns. But because no country knows yet into which category it will fall, each has some incentive to pay to insure against climate change, just as each of us has an incentive to pay a heath insurance premium.

But as climate change advances, and the consequences for individual countries become easier to predict, that incentive will lessen, at least for the countries that stand to benefit. If it becomes clear, for example, that the zone of arable land will shift northward into Canada and Siberia, then Canada and Russia—or the countries in the best position to invade or dominate them—may find it more expedient to promote climate change than to ward it off, just as improvements in the use of genetics to predict health outcomes may one day give some people the confidence not to buy health insurance.

Indeed, one can imagine not only Canada and Russia pulling for climate change if the arable zone ends up moving northward, but also China, which teems on Siberia’s southern border and has a historical claim to the territory. As soon as it were to become clear that Siberia would replace America as breadbasket to the world, China would have an immense prize right on her doorstep. It would be in her interest to carry climate change forward, at least long enough to cement her new strategic advantage.

Categories
Civilization Despair Meta Miscellany

The Possibilities of Hierarchy

We can represent the possibilities of hierarchy with a matrix of hierarchy. It looks like this:

Person B
Believes himself to be inferiorBelieves himself to be superior
Person ABelieves himself to be inferiorClassical Equality (each looks up to the other)Domination
Believes himself to be superiorDominationConflict (each believes himself to be better than the other)
The matrix of hierarchy.

In a world of hierarchy, each of us believes himself either to be better or worse than others, but never equal. When two people meet, there are therefore four possible relationships that can appear between them.

Two are relationships of domination, which occur when one believes himself to be better than the other and the other agrees.

One is a relationship of conflict, which occurs when each believes himself to be better than the other.

And the third is a relationship of equality, which occurs when each believes himself to be worse than the other, with the result that each seeks to follow the other and do for the other. I call this a relationship of “classical” equality because it is the only equality known before the modern period.

The matrix of hierarchy explains why domination is so often associated with hierarchical thinking: it is the most common outcome (i.e., you find it in two of the four boxes in the matrix).

It also explains why conflict is often associated with hierarchical thinking.

Finally, the matrix of hierarchy explains why romantic love so flourished in the premodern world, for is romantic love not an example of a relationship characterized by mutual feelings of admiration—of looking up at the beloved?

The new conception of equality that came into being with the modern world can be represented by a box of equality:

Person B
Believes himself to be no better or worse
Person A Believes himself to be no better or worse Modern Equality
The box of equality.

The modern conception of equality eliminates domination and conflict. It also eliminates that sweetest of all relationships, that of mutual admiration, which I have called classical equality. It eliminates love.

Question: Can we have classical equality without domination or conflict? Can we have a world in which each man looks up to every other?

That would be the best of all possible worlds.

It might require only that we change the way we look at others.

Or it might require that we change ourselves.

Categories
Civilization Meta Miscellany

Two Equalities

There is the equality in which one man looks up to another, and the other looks up to him. The first is convinced that he is inferior to the other. And the second is convinced that he is inferior to the first. The first therefore wishes to follow the second. And for the same reason the second wishes to follow the first. In the end, they follow each other. This is an equality bred of hierarchy and hierarchical thinking, of domination and obedience, of excellence and humility, of admiration and connection.

There is another kind of equality in which one man looks straight across at another and says to himself: “he is no better or worse than I.” And the other man looks at the first and says: “he is no better or worse than I.” This is an equality of isolation, mediocrity, resentment, orgeuil.

Give me the first equality. Never the second.

Categories
Miscellany Regulation

Central Planning Over a Distributed Network

Distributed network architectures and distributed political decisionmaking are not the same thing. The Department of Defense may be glad we communicate over a distributed network architecture, but Americans love their centrally-planned communications, thank you very much.

We all know that the Internet was designed to resist nuclear attack by being distributed. The idea was that if you have multiple nodes, and connections between each node and other nearby nodes, and the nodes all relay messages to all of their local nodes, then you end up with lots and lots of pathways from any one node to any other.

And so you would have to do a lot of nuking to eliminate all of the routes from any one node to any other, thereby making it rather difficult to cut off communications.

This is in an important sense a physical system.

It does not imply anything at all about governance of the nodes. A centralized one-party state, indeed, a dictatorship run by one man, can run an internet and enjoy all of its benefits.

So long as the nukes don’t knock the dictator himself out, he can be confident that from whatever node he happens to occupy on the network he will be able to bark orders to his minions on any other part of the network, because, again, will be very difficult for the nukes to wipe out all possible routes through the network from the dictator’s node to any other node.

The notion that the Internet is a politically free place is at best a misunderstanding of the implications of a physically-distributed architecture for how human communities who use that architecture make decisions. Just because you have a lot of nodes that communicate with each other rather than only with a central authority does not in the least imply that the humans who use the nodes need to be free creatures unaccountable to any central authority. Or that they must be free creatures who work together only by consensus.

The early web did in some cases happen to have this free and ungoverned political character. People proposed standards of communication of various kinds—for example, standards for how email should be sent and received—and people voluntarily followed them. And it kind of worked, although some message features were only supported by some message readers, and so on.

But by the 2000s it became clear that much more, and more interesting, kinds of communication could be run over the network if you had a central political authority that dictated the terms of communication. Now, the central political authorities that arose to provide these communications were not the government. They were private corporations (e.g., Facebook). And they didn’t dictate in the sense that everyone on the Internet had to communicate their way as a matter of law. Instead, they dictated market-style, which is to say that they set up systems on the Internet that did it their way and let you join if you wanted to join.

And so many people did want to join that before you knew it, these corporate systems were the only way to communicate (more or less). And so by private means they had achieved centralized political control over the Internet (more or less).

The people in effect voted to give these companies centralized political control when they decided that their products were better, and so used them.

And they were better.

Instead of downloading a software client—like an email reader—you went to a website and you logged in and henceforth, during your stay on that website, you were locked into the rules of communication enforced by the private enterprise that ran that website. Before, you had used Eudora to write email, and hoped that the voluntarily protocols of email were followed by the email reader used by your recipient, and that your recipient wasn’t so awash in spam that he would accidentally delete your email along with the rest, or that his server would crash. Now you logged into Facebook and sent a message there, or made a post, or sent a chat, and it just worked because Facebook controlled everyone’s inboxes and all the code governing communication between them.

Now, it would be a mistake to suppose that because Facebook is, you know, one website, that it cannot benefit from the distributed character of the Internet.

There is no reason why, in a nuclear war, you should be forced to do without Facebook anymore than you might escape Internet communications from a political dictator during nuclear war. The distributed nature of the Internet as a physical matter means that it will be very hard to sever all of the connections between any two points, including all of the connections between you and Facebook. (Nuking Facebook won’t work either, because Facebook isn’t a bunch of computers at a particular geographic location; it is itself a network of data centers all over the world, one that can hop onto the Internet whenever it likes through any surviving Internet node.)

And when you do pull up Facebook in the midst of the nuclear storm, you will nevertheless be subject to Facebook’s central planning, to its central political authority.

The placement of the like button on your screen will still have been decided by Facebook. The chat interface will be Facebook’s. What you can say on the system without getting blocked will still be decided by Facebook.

Is this a good thing? This is really the question whether we want our communications technologies to be decided by consensus based on the promulgation of voluntary protocols, or whether we prefer our communications technologies to be determined by individuals—or individual corporations—and then supplied to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

It seems obvious to me that we prefer the latter. That is what the netizens voted for in the 2000s when they gave up their email readers and went in for Gmail.

That is what they voted for when they gave up their IRC chat clients and RSS readers and went in for Facebook.

By logging in before communicating, they submitted to these centralized political authorities because they felt that they got a better product out of it.

Communication was more reliable and it was richer; more could be shared and more easily, than had been possible with the tools of the old way.

The web voted for central planning; because sometimes planning is better.

Categories
Meta Miscellany

Doubt

Suppose that we happen to live in a universe in which magic is real, but only if everyone believes in it. It would follow that with the birth of the first scientist magic would shut down, and that scientist would be unable to find evidence of magic’s existence, other than in the accounts of those who had once experienced it first hand, which the scientist would of course attribute to delusion or hunger or psychotropic substance.

Of course, the consequences of magic would still exist in the world. If Merlin had indeed levitated that boulder and placed it over there, the boulder would still, of course, be over there. But the scientist would find other plausible explanations for the boulder’s location. The data supporting these other plausible explanations would be subject to omitted variable bias, with the omitted variable being, of course, magic. But the only way to test the influence of that variable on the boulder’s location would be to measure the historical incidence of magic. And that would be impossible because, again, in this universe as soon as even one person stops believing in magic, magic ceases there to be. There would be nothing to measure.

One might, of course, use proxy variables to try to measure historical magic—to measure historical magic by measuring its historical effects—but there would always be some other, non-magic variable that could be used to explain such effects, just as Ptolemaic geocentrism did a tolerably good job of predicting the planets’ positions in the sky despite being wrong. And, unlike magic, that variable would be measurable, and so would be more likely to convince science.

There being no way, therefore, to determine empirically whether we live in a universe in which there never was magic or in a universe in which there was magic but is none anymore, we are free to read the ancients, who tell us over and again about the interventions of the gods, as describing not delusion but a magic that really, actually was.

So, Greg Anderson, we need not merely pretend that what the ancients believed was real in order to understand them, we can also plausibly accept that the ancients were right.

Categories
Miscellany

How Very Magical and Unlike Furniture Are the Dead Building Blocks of Life

What makes it so hard to understand, as an intuitive matter, how life would evolve out of the primordial soup is that the molecular building blocks of life, the organic compounds from which cells form, do not behave at all like the objects we encounter in daily life.

If we take a bunch of junk from our everyday lives—some china, a bike or two, some furniture, some clothes, and so on—and throw it together in a vast cauldron and shake it up, nothing much is going to happen, apart from some shattering, even if we shake it for a very long time.

What makes the molecular building blocks of life different is that they react with each other, they stick and unstick and pass energy through each other and spontaneously fold up or unfold. My bike and my desk don’t do that.

To imagine equivalents of these molecular building blocks in our world, we would need to think of physical objects that, while still dead and mechanistic in their nature, would have fairy-like qualities to them. My bike might normally be inert, for example, except when it comes into contact with styrofoam, in which case the wheel would spin like crazy, shredding the styrofoam to pieces. My desk would need to have a tendency to lose its legs when it comes into contact with my china, after which it would need to have a tendency to stick to any car tires into which it comes into contact, but not before. And so on.

My things would, in other words, need to act a bit like windup toys, bumping around in mechanistic ways, but also managing to get wound and rewound through mechanical encounters with each other and with the environment.

(Of course, the physical things I encounter in my lived experience are just themselves agglomerations of molecules, so in a sense there is not really a difference in kind between the molecular world and the world of my lived experience. But the physical things I encounter in my world are generally great big uniform clumps of certain molecules—they are lots of steel or lots of plastic—rather than mixes of molecules that are likely to react with each other. Indeed, the molecular components of my things are specifically chosen not to react with other things. If my desk were capable of quickly changing its chemical composition when it comes into contact with oxygen, as the molecules involved in life sometimes do, then I wouldn’t consider it a very good desk. And so if we look to these physical things for intuition regarding the inevitability of life, we come up empty.)