Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guerrilla Wordfare and Asymmetrical Rhetoric

     There is a rhetorical strategy known as the "Gish Gallop", named for the creationist Duane Gish who uses it in his debates against evolutionists. In a typical public debate, each side is allotted some fixed amount of time for an opening presentation (say, 15 minutes) and then there's time for rebuttals and questions and perhaps some more informal back-and forth. The Gish Gallop is when you use your alloted time to give a very brief summary of a host of superficially plausible individual claims that each seem to support your position. The key is the sheer number of claims (not their actual validity), and the limited time available to the opponent to rebut them. While any one claim (for example, "Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics!") can be addressed and fully rebutted by anyone who actually understands these things, the trouble is that these things are actually pretty complicated subjects (worthy of Nobel prizes), and the full explanation takes a fair bit of time. So even if your opponent does manage to decisively demolish any one claim (no small accomplishment in only 15 minutes), there's little time left to address any of the others, and so they are left standing by default.

     The parallel with asymmetrical warfare is clear. Asymmetrical warfare is so-called because the sides are vastly different in their conventional capabilities; one side is typically a nation-state with a properly trained and equipped military, while its opponent (usually a non-state actor) lacks these assets, and thus resorts to sabotage, assassination, guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and other low-budget approaches. Since they cannot field a proper army to take and hold territory, their objective is rather to make it costly and difficult for their opponent to control the territory it does hold. And instead of standing and fighting in a pitched battle, they launch a raid here, a raid there, and melt away into the hills/jungle/alleyways to go strike somewhere else. The conventional army is then forced to either chase them all over the place, spreading itself thin and never fully securing anywhere, or prioritize the objectives to secure and the objectives to leave undefended.
     Expert knowledge is like a conventional army in the sense that it's very expensive to acquire. It's overwhelmingly powerful at establishing claims in a straight up fight, but not particularly agile; it takes a lot of preparation to bring its arguments to bear in a convincing way. If the expert knowledge is given the time to develop its position, point by point, logical inference by logical inference, the only thing that can have a chance against it is another expert with better evidence and sounder reasoning. And in the end, in a proper battle of experts, the odds are usually pretty good that the Truth (or something closer to it than we started with) will prevail.
     But all of this takes time and effort. That's why the Gish Gallop works so well against it; it does not afford the audience the time to understand all the complexity and nuance in a difficult subject like evolutionary biology, and instead throws out loud and easy-to-digest slogans more aimed at raising doubt than positively convincing anyone.

     Professional obfuscators, like Gish, often rely on these sorts of tactics to prevent ideas they don't like from securing a hold on mental real estate. It is easier to destroy than to create, and it is easier to spread doubt than to explain. The tobacco industry invested heavily in generating a whole lot of noise intended to cast doubt on the idea that cigarettes are addictive and harmful, but they never had much hope of establishing the idea that cigarettes are good for you. It was a holding action, as are the current efforts to cast doubt on climate change or evolution.
     These are professional guerrilla rhetoricians, and they choose these tactics for a reason. But the other thing about asymmetrical rhetoric, just like asymmetrical warfare, is that since it is available to anyone, with or without professional training, you find a lot of ill-trained amateurs using it clumsily because they just don't know any better. Like the pathetic loser who poses for heavily-armed selfies before shooting up a restaurant, or the 2nd Amendment patriot who imagines himself effectively resisting government tyranny with scattered small arms fire, they are overly impressed by their own machismo and firepower and naively expect others to be simply overwhelmed by it. And so, when you argue with them, they will tend to madly fling out every argument they can think of without bothering to consider whether the arguments are consistent with one another, whether they're plausible or well-supported, or even whether they actually support the claim.
     The result is a debate that gets nowhere, especially if it's between two people who argue the same way. He says abortion is murder and causes cancer and encourages irresponsible promiscuity and she fires back with stop trying to control women and what about cases of rape or incest and some other arguments that completely fail to hit their targets because he's moved on to how many people want to adopt newborn babies. It's the equivalent of two rival gangs or religious sects or feuding clans just exchanging retaliatory blow after retaliatory blow; at best they may win by sheer attrition, but they can establish no positive claim to any other objective this way.

     I have been in countless arguments like this, and I've found that the best way to resolve the problem is to pick some point in contention, and focus only on that until it is either resolved or rendered irrelevant. Your opponent will probably keep bringing in other side issues, but you must not chase those yet. If the issue at hand is whether or not abortion is murder, then focus solely on why it is or why it isn't; this may require a discussion of whether or not the fetus should be considered a human being, but if you get distracted by arguments about respect for autonomy of the mother, you'll not be able to secure the question of whether it's murder. If you both end up chasing each other around, claiming temporarily undefended hills and then running to recapture the one your opponent has just left, you'll both be exhausted and frustrated and no closer to resolving the argument. So pick a hill, and either seize it and deny it to the enemy, or abandon it and adopt a strategy that doesn't depend on support from that hill anymore. Leaving it unoccupied just means he can run up it, fire a few harassing potshots at you from it, and run away again.

     Against unskilled amateurs, it's a good way to win arguments. It's a little tougher when you're facing a practiced Gish Gallop in a formal setting. There, what you need to do is make very clear to the audience what the tactic is, and expose its illusory power. Force a decisive pitched battle, instead of chasing guerrillas all over the place.
     "Ladies and Gentlemen, you've just heard a very impressive number of claims intended to make you think the theory of evolution is dangerously flawed. Each of those claims sounds pretty persuasive, if you don't look at it too closely, and that's the trick. All of them together seem overwhelming. But science is not simple. It took very smart people many years of hard work to figure these things out, and if my opponent can whip together 20 or so claims like this in 15 minutes, it's only fair to assume that someone who's been working on the problem for decades might have thought of it, too, and found an answer. And they have. Every single one of my opponent's examples is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of what scientists actually are talking about. I could use up my full 15 minutes here and maybe explain one or two of these points in sufficient detail to convince you. My opponent might even generously concede that, okay, that point was mistaken, but what about all the others? And I'd have no time left to address any of them.
     "I assure you, all of these arguments have been addressed, but I simply do not have time to answer them all here. And so I would like to challenge my opponent to pick the single most powerful, most persuasive one of the many points he's brought up, and I will refute it. If I can do so, I'd suggest to the audience that it is only our limited time here that prevents me from effectively refuting all of the others."

     Throughout history, guerrilla warfare has been good at one thing: making it hard for an invader or government to hold onto territory. By itself, it's pretty bad at seizing and holding territory of its own, because it's all about disrupting rather than establishing order. And in the same way, guerrilla wordfare is just peachy for preventing yourself from being convinced by your opponent. If all you want to do is hold onto the opinion you have unchanged, then that's a fine way to close your mind up to new insights. I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, but you're welcome to try to convince me.

Friday, 2 December 2016

An Object Lesson in Critical Thinking

     We are awash in a sea of ignorant nonsense and insidious propaganda, thanks in no small part to social media and the ease with which we can share any attention-grabbing meme that crosses our path. Pedantic spoilsports like me can try patiently to debunk them, one by one, but in the long run the most important defence will always be the critical thinking capacity of the audience. We need to learn how to read intelligently, so we won't be as easily taken in by ridiculous claims. To that end, I'd like to walk you through a particularly silly chain letter that's come across my feed at least a dozen times over the last few years. I want to show one approach to recognizing its nonsense by drawing on really very basic background knowledge and applying it.

     Here's the specimen:

     I'll type in the text directly, so people googling for it can find it here.

GOOD LUCK EVERYONE !!! This year December has 5 Mondays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This Happens once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So share it and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. The one who does not share, will be without money. Share within 11 minutes of reading. Can't hurt so I did it. JUST FOR FUN.

(Not gonna type in the Facebook URL. If you really want to reward the purveyors of such nonsense, type it in yourself.)

     So, there are a few questions that are good to keep in mind while considering, well, anything anyone tries to tell you, ever.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?

     These questions aren't the only or best ones to ask, but they are helpful. So let's try to apply them to the meme.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
     This is actually a pretty difficult question with memes in general, because the person who shared it with you is rarely the original author, although by sharing it you can assume they're at least endorsing the contents to some extent. But this one in particular is especially tricky, because it is explicitly self-referential. It talks about what will happen if you share it and what will happen if you don't, and specifies how long it will take for the money to arrive and how quickly you must send it out. It even explicitly says "Can't hurt so I did it". Did what? Forwarded the meme you just received? But then the "I" here doesn't refer to the original author, but the most recent forwarder.
     So who is actually making these claims, that there this is based on Chinese Feng Shui or that it only happens every 823 years or that I'll receive money if I share it? Maybe the owner of the Facebook page referred to at the bottom, but probably not even them, given how many such pages repurpose and resend this kind of thing.
     There's no obvious way to track down the original author, but we can consider a couple of likely motives, based on the content.
     Maybe they believe it, and want to send good luck to everyone?
     Maybe they want to compile a list of suckers who respond to chain letters?
     Maybe, as they say, they really are doing it "JUST FOR FUN"? (Personally, I fail to see the fun in it, but I am, after all, a pedantic spoilsport.)

(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
     This is only an issue if you think they believe it and want to send good luck to everyone. As far as the your friend who shared it is concerned, they "know" it only because they received a chain letter telling them all this stuff; in other words, they are in exactly the same epistemic position you are, since you've received the same chain letter. So how do you know this letter is true? You don't, and neither did the person who forwarded it to you, so you cannot rely on your friend's testimony.
     But the problem gets worse as you look deeper. How did the original author know any of this stuff? They're claiming that you'll receive money within four days, if you send it out within 11 minutes. They couldn't know this by experimentation and observation of how long it takes people to reply and which ones ended up rich or penniless, because that data could only have been obtained after they sent out the chain letter, and that would make this a different letter from the first one they sent out. I suppose we could imagine some powerful wizard or psychohistorian, learned in the arcane rules that govern mystical runes of luck magic, might derive a text from some formula and confidently predict that this particular text will produce these effects. If you think that's plausible, then maybe you might want to forward that chain letter promptly, but I think it's reasonable to expect a little more evidence before just inventing such a bizarre claim and assuming it to be true.

(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
     All by itself, it's not obviously self-contradictory, except for the bit where it says, "Can't hurt so I did it." But it also says "The one who does not share, will be without money." And it promises that if you do share, you'll receive money, so clearly it is claiming to have some kind of power to benefit or harm people, depending on whether or not they share it. So which is it? Can it hurt, or not?
     Alternatively, the "Can't hurt" may only refer to how it can't hurt if you comply within 11 minutes, but it can mess you up bad if you ignore it. So it's not necessarily self-contradictory. But it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.

(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?
     Here's where we'll differ; we know different things. But this chain letter is inconsistent with some things that pretty much everybody knows, although it takes a bit of analysis to see this.
     First, a quick look at the calendar will show that, in fact, December 2016 only has four Sundays and four Mondays. The chain letter is simply wrong about "this year", but perhaps it was written for a different year and is just still in circulation. (I googled for the phrase "Saturday, December 1" and quickly learned that there was such a Saturday in 2012.)
     Second, it stands to reason that for a 31 day month like December to have five Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, December 1 must fall on a Saturday. There are only seven days of the week to choose from, so unless there's some complicated math involved, you'd expect a "money bags" December every seven years or so, not every 823 years. But maybe leap years mess it up somehow?
     So let's think about that a bit. There are 7 possible regular years, one starting on each day of the week. And then another 7 for leap years, for a total possible 14 unique calendars. Since a leap year comes every four years, it would take 28 years to cycle through all 7 available leap years, and then that same cycle would repeat exactly, during which time there would be several regular years that also had a "money bags" December.
     Yet the chain letter tells us it happens only once every 823 years? That's just not consistent with what every school kid knows about the Gregorian calendar. Unless I've done my math wrong, it just seems plain flat out wrong, and quite ridiculously so.

     There's more, of course. "Based on Chinese Feng Shui." Really? I am no expert on Feng Shui, but I've got some exposure to Chinese culture, and as I understand it, Feng Shui is a set of principles for arranging furniture and architecture and the like in harmonious ways. Some talk about it as channelling good luck energy, but others say it's just about aesthetics and ergonomics. In any event, I don't see how it relates to calendars, and what's more, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, and doesn't involve 31-day months called "December" at all. I suppose it's possible some Feng Shui specialist applied their theory to our western Gregorian calendar and came up with this "money bags stuff", but it seems more likely to me that some nitwit who knows even less about it than I do decided to lend false authority to their ridiculous chain letter by referencing Mysterious Secrets of the Inscrutable Orient.

     I know the chain letter says "JUST FOR FUN", and I hate to be a spoilsport, but this is getting to be pretty serious. There's a lot of really, really stupid and dangerous stuff circulating right now, and people are making dangerous decisions based on it. Good, independent critical thinking habits must be practiced and cultivated until they become natural and instinctive. Conversely, every time you uncritically click "Share" on something like this, you're actually practicing and reinforcing bad habits of gullibility, and you're encouraging other people to do the same.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

More Anti-vax Illiteracy

Here's another piece of nonsense to take apart, a dire warning of the horrible contents of the flu vaccine.

     For the sake of the search engines, the image lists "Thimerosal (mercury), hydrocortisone, cetyltrimethylammonium bromide, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 80, baculovirus, and cellular DNA, beta propiolactone, gelatin, sodium deoxycholate, canine kidney cell proten and DNA, Triton C-100, egg protein, gentamicin sulfate, formaldehyde, neomycin, and more..."

     Before I get to that list of supposedly terrifying ingredients, I just want to address the last line: "If you wouldn't consume it, why inject it?" Because seriously, that's an incredibly stupid argument. There's a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be swallowed, and a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be injected, because they work in various different ways. Some things need to go directly into the blood stream, because your stomach acids and digestive enzymes will destroy them before they can get where they're supposed to go. (And some things, like flu vaccines, aren't even meant to be injected into the bloodstream directly; they're injected intramuscularly, because your immune system is well-adapted to responding to bad stuff that gets just under your skin through a splinter or other injury.)
     There are things you should eat that you shouldn't inject, and things you should inject that you shouldn't eat. This is just a ridiculous argument, and should make you question the wisdom of the author of the whole thing.

     The main argument isn't much better: it boils down to "You don't know what these chemicals are, so you'd better not consume them in anyway!" Which sounds sensible, except that unless you're a biochemist you probably don't know the names of more than two or three of the thousands of chemical compounds that make up even the healthiest food you eat.
     That's not to say that all of these chemicals are perfectly safe. They're not. But every chemical, even water, can be poisonous if the dosage is high enough. And if the dose is small enough, almost every chemical is harmless. (For a relatively few very very dangerous chemicals, a small enough dose means none at all, but that's not the case for the items on the list of ingredients above. They're included in the flu vaccine for very good reasons, and in tiny enough quantities that you're still probably better off getting the shot and being protected from the virus.)

     Anyway, the meme assumes you probably won't look up most of these chemicals, and will just assume they must be really bad. So let's look at each of them.

Thimerosal, also known as thiomersol and Merthiolate, is used to kill bacteria and fungus that might get into the vaccine. This is really important, because accidentally injecting live Staphylococcus bacteria into your arm can kill you. So a small amount of thimerosal used to be added to vaccines to prevent that. Yeah, there's mercury in it, but it's in a relatively inert form, and in any event is in such tiny quantities as not to pose a realistic danger. In any event, they've phased it out in favour of other equally scary disinfectants, because people were so scared of mercury.

Hydrocortisone is what they call cortisol when it's used as a medicine, and is on the WHO's list of the most important medicines needed in a basic health system. What's cortisol? It's a hormone which is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal gland. So don't think that by avoiding the flu vaccine, you're able to avoid this chemical because there's already some in you right now!

Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is a surfactant used in isolating nanoparticles, like for instance virus components. My guess is it's used in making the vaccine, and isn't actually an ingredient in the final product, but even if any remains, it's again in such a tiny quantity as to be essentially harmless.

Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80 are also surfactants, widely used in many food and cosmetic products. So yeah, you would consume it, because you probably already do.

Baculoviruses do not infect mammals, which is why they're useful in research. I don't know what role they play in flu vaccines, but it seems to me likely whoever created this meme just included anything scary-sounding that might have been used at any point during the development of a vaccine. By the way, you are a mammal.

Cellular DNA? Like, how is this even scary? There are no foods we eat that don't contain DNA!

Beta-propiolactone has been used to sterilize vaccines, but appears to have been phased out for this use. It's mainly used now in the synthesis of other compounds.

Gelatin. Uh, yeah, that's something I'd consume, actually. Gelatin is the protein that makes Jell-o gel, and is used in lots of other delicious edibles. Didn't know it was in vaccines, but I am not in the least bit concerned to learn that it might be.

Sodium deoxycholate is a product of intestinal bacteria. I don't know exactly why it would be used in making vaccines (probably they have a reason, and don't just toss it in for fun), and I probably wouldn't go out of my way to deliberately consume it myself, but I figure if my body can't deal with it, I'm already dead.

Canine kidney cell protein and DNA. Oh. More DNA. Not sure how exactly this got into a vaccine, but okay. Possibly they use cultured dog kidney cells to grow the flu virus particles they use to make the vaccine. In any event, kidneys of various animals are commonly used in cooking various dishes which are cheerfully eaten by people who don't get sick as a result. Might sound gross, but so is anything biological if you look closely enough. Fear not.

Triton X-100: Another surfactant. My guess is that it helps the vaccine get through cell membranes to where it can trigger the immune response against the influenza virus.

Egg protein: Egg protein? Egg protein?! Look, I get that some people are allergic to eggs, and some people just don't like omelets, but seriously, you took the time to list "egg protein" as a scary ingredient that "you wouldn't consume" and a reason not to get vaccinated? This single item should be more than enough to convince any reader that the author of this meme is too breathtakingly ignorant of basic facts of human existence to be taken seriously.

Gentamicin sulfate: Gentamicin is an antibiotic, or if you don't know what that means, it's a chemical that is poisonous to some kinds of bacteria. As I mentioned with the first entry for thimerosal, it's pretty important to ensure that there aren't any infectious bacteria in your vaccines.

Formaldehyde: This is a pretty nasty chemical, I'll admit. You've probably heard of it in the context of dead animals or body parts being preserved in jars of it. But here's the thing: it's a really simple molecule, CH2O. It's what you get when an oxygen atom replaces two of the hydrogen atoms in a molecule of methane. And so, it's everywhere. Astronomers have detected it in clouds of interstellar gas. It's not good for you, but it's also a byproduct of some of your own bodily functions, and your body has ways to metabolize it in ordinary quantities. Obviously you wouldn't want to drink a glass of it, but the microscopically tiny amount in a flu vaccine is less than the amount you'd get eating an apple.

Neomycin: Another antibiotic. In researching this post, I read that it is used topically (rubbed onto the skin) rather than injected, because it's really bad for your kidneys. But it is still used as a preservative in vaccines, probably because the dose is so small. Also, because vaccines are injected intramuscularly instead of into a vein, they stay in the muscle tissue for a while and diffuse out slowly, so the neomycin may be largely broken down before it even gets to the kidneys.

     Look. Medicines aren't magic healing potions. They're complicated mixtures of different chemicals, carefully included to perform all the functions necessary to produce the desired therapeutic effect. They get into your system and press buttons and flip switches and adjust dials and tinker with various settings to try to fix whatever it is that's wrong with you. Most of the time, if you're healthy, you don't want to tinker with any of these settings, so as a general rule the stuff you'll find in any medicine is probably not very good for you. That's to be expected.
     But pharmacologists include these ingredients for a reason, and while they're not perfect, they know more about what they're doing than ignorant meme-makers who want you to be scared of eating eggs. Vaccines are one of the most successful healthcare innovations ever developed. They're why so few people die of infectious disease anymore.
     You may have legitimate doubts about how important it is to have this or that vaccination, based on the risks of actual infection and so on, and you might reasonably decide against the flu shot. (I think that's a mistake, because influenza has killed millions in the past and is not much less dangerous today, and also I think you have a moral responsibility to help with herd immunity so you don't infect more vulnerable people when you decide to brave your way through a minor inconvenience.)
     But do not let this kind of inane nonsense scare you out of taking good, safe medicine that does much more good than harm. Make an informed rational choice, and if you don't know what Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is, admit that you are not informed about it instead of just blindly assuming your family doctor is trying to poison you with it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Speaking Up and Being a Jerk

     In my last year of high school, I was taking a social studies quiz when the teacher happened to leave the room. Across the classroom from me, a fellow got up and stole over to the teacher’s desk, and copied down the answers from the answer key left right there in the open. Disgusted, I rolled my eyes and kept working on the test, as several other students followed the first guy’s lead, and got up to copy the answers. Pathetic, I thought, because the questions were not actually very hard. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew all of them. But none of my business if those guys wanted to cheat, right?
     As it happened, the next time the class met, the teacher had got wind of what had happened, and angrily lectured the entire class, singling out each of us who had got 100%, which in fact I had, though I had done so honestly. (I do not remember for certain if the first guy was ever singled out, though I vaguely recall thinking he had not. I later heard a rumour that he himself had told the teacher on the other students, but I have no way of knowing if this is true.)
     I was young and naive and had not yet sorted out in my head the moral question of snitching, so I kept my mouth shut, as furious as I was about the insult to my integrity and my intelligence. It was bad enough to be accused of cheating, but if I had cheated, I would not have been so foolish as to copy all of the answers; I’d have deliberately missed one, just to allay suspicion. (Indeed, had I been craftier, even not cheating but knowing that others were, I should have deliberately missed one question anyway. And now, thinking back on it, it seems plausible to me that’s exactly what the first cheater did, deliberately missing a question and then turning in everyone else.)
     Of course, the teacher had no way to prove who had cheated and who hadn’t, and the ridiculous omertá of the student body ensured he’d get no help from us, so he just canceled the entire test. 

     I have thought back on this many times, rehearsing in my head what I should have said when the teacher levelled his accusatory gaze at me. I have imagined a dozen different ways I could have redeemed my honour with and without directly naming names. But I now realize that my real should-have-spoken-up moment was when that first cheater started. I should have called him out at that moment, and warned him that he should not rely on the rest of us keeping quiet to protect him from cheating us.
     But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like the jerk. And so I let him, and the others, get away with it. Very much at my own expense. It still makes me angry when I think of that. 

     The lessons I learned, and have to keep learning, are that there's a big difference between looking like the jerk and being the jerk. And that it's very, very important to speak up earlier, rather than later, when someone else is being a jerk. Too often, we keep quiet just to keep the peace, to be "polite", or because we figure something is just not our problem. 

     I often feel like a mansplaining jerk, piping up with "Well, actually..." when some harmfully wrong post comes across my feed. But I feel obliged to do it, because when these things go unanswered, it's like a tacit endorsement that they're okay. And there's a lot of harmfully wrong nonsense circulating around now, becoming the common wisdom because gosh, everyone says so. 
    I don't pipe up because I want to be taken as an authority, correcting falsehoods and dispensing The Truth. I try to get the facts right as best I can, but I know I can be mistaken, and I try to accept it graciously when someone corrects me. No, the reason I try to speak up is much smaller than that. I don't care if people are convinced by what I say; I just want them to know it's okay to disagree. I know it's scary to be the first to speak up when no one else is. 

     But it's scarier when no one speaks up at all.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Strategic Voting and the Lesser Evil

     I just spent an hour or two toiling over a blog post about voting for the lesser evil, always with the feeling that I was somehow repeating myself, and of course, I was. I'd already written this piece last year.
     But I still want to say something about the impending U.S. election. I've been hearing a lot from people who say they cannot bring themselves to vote for either major candidate, and who intend to either stay home, write in someone who's not on the ballot, or vote for one of the third party candidates. Pragmatically, I don't think any of these are good choices.

     Staying home and not voting at all is defensible only if you're truly indifferent as to the outcome. As I argued in the link above, declining to vote is not choosing "none of the above", but "any of the above", and if there's even one candidate you think is ever so slightly better than the others, you should vote for them. Or, if there's one candidate who's significantly worse, then you should vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating them. But you cannot wash your hands of responsibility for who wins by declining to vote.

     Writing in a candidate who's not on the ballot is, I suppose, a way to register one's displeasure with the official candidates, but having worked several elections (albeit in Canada, not the U.S.), I can tell you that the people staying up late to count the ballots by hand are a poor audience for such a gesture. And the candidate who eventually does win is unlikely ever to know of, let alone be moved by your symbolic rebuke. In pragmatic terms, this is equivalent to not voting at all.

     And this leaves us with the third party candidates. The U.S. is essentially a two-party system, which usually makes the choice relatively straightforward: choose the candidate you prefer, and whoever gets the most votes is logically the one preferred by a majority of voters. But in Canada, we have a parliamentary system in which there are usually at least three major parties realistically vying for seats. (At present, there are MPs from the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, the Greens, the Bloc Québécois, and an independent.) This means that we Canadians don't always get to just choose our favorite; sometimes, if there's a candidate we really detest, we may need to vote for whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating them, even if that means not voting for our first choice. We call this "strategic voting".
     Strategic voting is kind of controversial because it unfortunately reinforces the disadvantage faced by less established parties. You can only win an election if enough people vote for you, but if nobody will vote for you until they are confident someone else will, you're stuck. So it's very difficult to break into the game until you've already broken into it.
     I am not fond of strategic voting, which is why I'd like to see Canada adopt a preferential ballot system; I'd like to be able to rank the candidates in my order of preference. But I'm also a realist; I recognize that the very nature of democracy is compromise. None of us gets everything we want, but the democratic process is a way of ensuring that most of us get some of what we want without having to kill each other.
     And so on occasion I have voted strategically, settling for my second choice in order to defeat the party I thought most needed to be defeated. I felt a bit icky about it, but as they say, freedom isn't free. Sometimes you do need to make sacrifices and compromises in order to preserve what's important. By holding out for all of what you want, you risk losing everything, and while there is a glamourous romanticism of that kind of all-or-nothing bravado, it's worth noting that such fanaticism is often exactly what we detest in the other party's supporters. People can be passionately, uncompromisingly, devotedly wrong. Being reasonable starts with recognizing that.

     Whoever is elected President will have to struggle every day with difficult choices between imperfect alternatives. Do I implement this program, knowing that it will put some people out of business, or do I refuse to, knowing that it will leave some people unemployed? Do I authorize this military intervention, knowing innocent civilians may be killed, or do I refuse, knowing that innocent civilians are being killed? Why would anyone expect the decision of whom to entrust with these decisions to leave your hands any cleaner?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

An Invisible Inequality

     Yesterday I wrote and posted an essay about why the economics of bulk discounts provides some justification for progressive income tax rates, and a friend asked about how this seems to be the very opposite of the traditional justification cited, namely that it's less of a burden for a rich person to pay a 10% tax than it is for a poor person to pay 10%. The traditional argument is that a dollar is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person, and so we should prefer our government to take more of its tax dollars out of the pockets of rich people than the poor. So how can my argument, which is that marginal dollars are worth more to the rich, be consistent with this?
     It is confusing, to be sure, so confusing that I felt it necessary to write a whole new blog post to answer it, instead of simply replying to the original comment.

     The source of the confusion, though, is this: Although we naturally treat money and wealth as essentially interchangeable (because, hey, that's what money is for: to exchange for wealth), they are fundamentally different things. Money is ultimately a fiction, or to put it less subversively, a convention. It stands for value, but isn't itself intrinsically valuable; when you get a dollar in exchange for something, what you're really accepting is a promise to be able to exchange that dollar for something else of value later on. And that something of value, whatever it is, is what actual wealth is all about. To put it another way, money is potential wealth, not actual wealth.

     Now, let's look at the traditional argument for progressive income tax my friend was talking about. You can see that it is really about wealth, because it works just as well if we substitute, say, bread for money. For someone with a loaf of bread to give up half a loaf is much more of a burden than for someone with ten loaves to give up five loaves, because of the condition they're in afterwards. The first person will be pretty hungry with only half a loaf to eat, while the guy with five loaves will suffer only for a lack of variety.
     The argument still works pretty well if we talk about dollars instead of bread, because on an every day scale, we tend to think of prices as constant: 1 dollar buys one loaf, 5 dollars buys five loaves. And so on a practical level, this has been a pretty good argument for why progressive income tax is fairer than a flat tax. The error of equating money with wealth here does not create any immediate confusion, and so it goes unnoticed. But it is still an error, and it leads us into trouble when we move too far beyond the everyday scale, to consider the workings of the economy as a whole, which is what we have to do when we talk about tax policy.

     Remember what I said about money being a fiction? That becomes clearer when you look at the bigger picture. Money is a placeholder for credit/debt, a hydraulic fluid for trade. You trade your labour for food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, etc., but money lets you do it indirectly. So what's really happening in an economy is people making stuff (wealth) and trading it with each other. The wonderful thing about the free market is that, by allowing people to make their own decisions about what to buy and sell based on the prices that emerge from voluntary negotiations, we can collectively come up with extremely efficient allocations of resources, much more efficient than we could produce with some super-smart person deciding and directing everyone's efforts. If there isn't enough of some good being produced, the price will rise, and more people will start producing it. If there's too much, the price will drop.
     In theory,  you don't need money for a free market. In a barter economy, people would still be able to see that there's lots of demand for this and very little demand for that, and so people who chose to make something valuable would accumulate more wealth than those who didn't. Money just speeds up the process and makes it much easier to see where the demand lies. But it does something else, too: it introduces some dangerous distortions to the process.

     Thought experiment time. Imagine you have two identical workers, equally skilled and equally productive, and both commanding the same hourly rate for their work. The only difference is that one has worked very little this year, and the other has already earned a hundred thousand dollars. You need to hire one for an hour's work, and since you'll pay the same rate and get the same result whichever one you choose, you should be indifferent as to whom you hire. And that's sensible. Except remember my previous post on the economy of scale and bulk discounts. If you happen to hire the guy who's already earned a lot of money, you won't be paying any more, but he'll be getting a lot more buying power out of the dollars you give him. So, from a society-wide view, all of us collectively will be allocating more chocolate bars, more piano lessons, more whatever, to the already-rich guy than we would be if you gave the same money for the same work to the other guy.  In other words, they may be getting the same amount of money, but the richer worker will receive more wealth.
     Think about that for a moment. I mean, there's only so much wealth to go around at any given time, and as a society, we do want to make sure it's used efficiently. That's why we have a free market system, because it generally encourages people to invest resources in things that create more wealth rather than less. But here, in the thought experiment, the two workers are exactly equal in the amount of wealth they produce for the money they are paid, and yet they receive unequal distributions of wealth when they go to spend that money. That's inefficient, and it's an inefficiency that results entirely from our mistakenly equating money with wealth.

     Now, you as an employer cannot be expected to distinguish between the two workers here, and it's not your responsibility to decide what's best for society; you just need someone to do the work, and you'll pay whatever you are willing to pay whoever is willing to accept that price. You're in no position to figure out what real wealth that pay will buy for each of your prospective job applicants. And yet society does have a legitimate concern here; we want an efficient allocation of resources.
     A properly calibrated progressive income tax, however, can fix this. If we impose a tax that keeps the buying power of each earned dollar constant, then the dollars earned by rich and poor alike will be a more accurate reflection of the wealth that the market should allocate them for whatever it is they contribute.

     In other words, I'm proposing that free market capitalism can be made more efficient at producing wealth if we use taxes to correct for the distortions that money introduces into the system.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Bulk Discounts and Progressive Income Tax

     I've written before in defence of the idea of progressive income tax, and I'll probably be writing more on it in the future. Today I want to advance an argument based on the buying power of money, and how it changes in a non-linear way with the total amount of money you have. In particular, I'm going to make the counterintuitive claim that the millionth dollar you earn is, in a very real way, worth more than the first dollar you earn.
     I realize that sounds crazy. After all, one of the fundamental features of money is that its units are complete fungible: one dollar is exactly equal to every other dollar. If I borrow a twenty from you today, and pay you back with two tens tomorrow, it simply makes no sense to say I didn't pay you back the same dollars; dollars have no independent identity. (Note that I'm talking about the twenty as money, not as a distinct artifact. You can distinguish one twenty dollar bill from another, but you cannot distinguish the dollars they represent.) But bear with me here.
     And I also realize that my claim will sound odd because it seems to be the exact opposite of another argument frequently used to justify progressive income tax, the idea that to a poor person, a 10% tax might be an unbearable burden while it would be scarcely noticeable to a millionaire. A single dollar is more valuable to a person with little money than it is to a millionaire, not less. So what gives?

     Neither of these two points is actually inconsistent with the argument I'll be making here. Yes, one dollar is exactly interchangeable with every other dollar. And yes, one dollar is a much more significant sum to someone with few dollar than it is to someone with many. But my claim is that the buying power per dollar increases the more dollars you have.

     Consider the idea of the volume discount. Say you can buy a chocolate bar for a dollar at the convenience store. If you're just buying one at a time, the price is the same for the rich person as it is for the poor person, and yes, $1 = $1. But if you go to a supermarket, you can probably buy a family-pak of 8 for $6, and if you go to a wholesale club, you can get two dozen for $12. When you buy in bulk, your per-unit price drops, and reciprocally, the number of chocolate bars per dollar spent goes up.
     This doesn't only hold for chocolate bars. It applies to almost all commodities, and even most services, thanks to economies of scale. And even for unique items like rare antiques or works of art or real estate, it is usually cheaper to obtain them if you have a lot of money than if you have just barely enough, because of financing costs; service charges are often waived on bank accounts if you keep above a certain minimum balance.
     Note that whatever the good or service in question, the price of a volume discounted item is always measured in dollars. Carrots become individually less valuable in dollars, the more of them you have, and so do chickens and cell phones and gallons of gasoline. They may do so at different rates, so if you're trading chickens for trucks, you might have to offer more chickens for the second truck than you did for the first. But dollars, as purely a unit of exchange with no intrinsic value, aren't subject to economies of scale and volume discounts, because they're what those volume discounted are measured in.

     So what does this mean for progressive income tax? What I want to suggest here is that in principle, it should be possible to come up with a good estimate of just how much more each marginal dollar of income can buy, and then to set a progressive income tax rate such that the after tax buying power of every dollar earned is equal.

     For example (and I’m just making these numbers up for illustration purposes), suppose one chocolate bar costs $1, 10 chocolate bars cost $9, 100 chocolate bars cost $75, and 1000 chocolate bars cost $500. That means that the average price for a chocolate bar is $1 if you buy one, 90 cents if you buy 10, 75 cents if you buy 100, and 50 cents if you buy a thousand. So, we would set the progressive tax brackets at 10% for income over $8, 25% for income over $74, and 50% for income above $499. Each additional dollar you earn, on this model, is approximately equivalent to one more chocolate bar you can buy.

     Now, in the real world, there are hundreds and hundreds of different things you might need to buy with your income, and the volume discounts for each come in at wildly different rates, so accurately measuring how much your overall buying power increases with income would be fiendishly difficult. I’m certainly not prepared to do the math here, but I hope I have shown that the actual, practical power of a dollar is not a constant; it depends on how many other dollars you have available to use with it, and the more dollars you have, the more powerful each of those dollars is. In practical terms, individual dollars are worth more en masse than they are alone, and I argue that this justifies taxing them at progressively higher rates as income rises. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Call it cowardice

     I don’t know if it’s the worst thing you can call someone, but it’s still pretty darned inflammatory to call someone a racist. It’s so bad that racist comments are typically prefaced with “I’m not racist, but…”
     Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist, and so we come up with all sorts of denial and coping strategies, to allow ourselves to pretend that really, we don’t see race, we don’t care what colour someone is, we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body. And all those little things we do that someone who doesn’t know us might mistake for racist behaviours are really just misunderstood.
     This isn’t completely a bad thing. I mean, overall, I think it’s probably better that everyone recognizes racism as bad in principle, than for people still to be openly adhering to and advocating explicitly racist doctrines. So in a way, it’s progress, I suppose. But it does make it extremely difficult to address one’s own prejudices, if one consistently denies that they exist.

     But you know what? I’m not even going to bother with that right now, except to assert that pretty much all of us have unconscious, maybe even hardwired, presumptions or biases that make some degree of unintentionally racist behavior almost impossible to avoid. This can be measured with cleverly designed testing protocols: see Project Implicit, the results of which show a pretty consistent bias (manifesting as increased processing time to overcome that bias in simple cognitive tasks). I have wondered if the basis of that bias might even be something as tragically simple as contrast; is it just easier for our visual cortex to process and recognize an image as a human face if the eyebrows are darker than the skin? Or are we acculturated to see black as evil and white as good?
     I don’t know, and at this point it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that for some reason, most people of all races have some tendency to see a black person as more threatening than a white person, all other factors being equal. Ideally we wouldn’t, but for some kind of neural flaw or cognitive illusion or learned preference.

     So my point is this: I’m not going to blame a police officer for feeling more afraid when dealing with a black man. Fear has a mind of its own, and doesn’t pay much attention to our rational thoughts. When you’re scared, you’re scared, even if you know you shouldn’t be. Maybe your reasons for being scared are ideologically racist, maybe they’re unavoidable parts of how our brains are wired, maybe they’re reasonable responses to your personal history and experiences. I don’t know why you might be afraid, and I don’t really care. What matters is how you deal with your fear, and you can deny being a racist all you want and we can argue forever about whether or not you’re really deep down a racist, but regardless of why you’re afraid, there is a word we give to people who surrender to fear, and that word is “coward”.
     A coward isn’t necessarily someone who runs away from danger. It’s someone who panics, who is unable or unwilling to act wisely and responsibly in spite of their fear. It’s someone who shoots first, instead of calmly evaluating the reality of the threat. As Frank Herbert memorably put it in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer”. Fear makes you act stupidly.

     Now, I’m not a cop. Apart from a couple of minor fisticuffs in grade school, I’ve never been in a situation where I had reason to think someone was imminently trying to harm me, much less kill me (unless you count that scuffle with colon cancer). So you might well point out that I don’t know what it’s like, and true, I don’t. But what would you be trying to argue with such a point? That fear is powerful, and it’s right to surrender to it? Or just that the level of fear is so great that it cannot reasonably be withstood?
     Look, cops have a dangerous job, I’ll grant that. I mean, that’s actually kind of the whole point: we need our police officers to have exceptional courage, because we need them to remain calm and rational, even when they’re scared and thinking they might be killed in the next few seconds. We need people who will confront potentially dangerous situations and turn them into safe situations. That’s a lot to ask, I know, but if you aren’t able to stay on top of your fear, you really ought not to be in this line of work. A coward with a gun is dangerous and unpredictable, and cowards get people killed: themselves, their colleagues, innocent bystanders.
     I don’t blame the cop who shot Philando Castile the other day for being scared. There’s no arguing with fear. But I do blame him for letting that fear call the shots, because by surrendering to his fear, he not only killed one innocent person, he also contributed to the atmosphere of resentment, distrust and fear in which a sniper in Dallas shot eleven cops, killing five of them. I’m not blaming him for those shootings, for which only the shooter was responsible, but dammit, a cop’s job is to make society safer for everyone, not just for himself in the immediate circumstance regardless of what it means for everyone else.

     There’s another problem with cowardice, a more systemic one, and that is that cowards (being governed by fear) naturally assume that’s what drives everyone else. And so they tend to approach conflicts as contests of fear: they think whoever’s the most scared loses, so they try to pretend that they’re not afraid at all, while they strive to be as terrifying as possible to their enemies. I mean, it’s a natural strategy with a long evolutionary history; even insects do it. But it’s inherently unstable, and degenerates into destructive arms races; every escalation must be met by a greater escalation. And every challenge, every failure to defer to the authority of might-makes-right must be made an example, for fear of showing any sign of “weakness”. And the only place that can end is with everyone being terrified all the time. But that’s fine, I suppose, so long as everyone else is more afraid?

     That’s not what we want from law enforcement. We’re supposed to be less afraid when we have effective police services. Something has gone terribly wrong when they think they must scare people to do their jobs or to stay alive.
     Don’t get me wrong. I think personal and institutional racism in law enforcement is a huge problem. But we can argue until the cows (or chickens) come home about that, because “I’m not racist” is so resilient a belief, and we’ll probably never convince the people who need to be convinced. And in any event, it may turn out to be impossible to fully eradicate the irrational tendency to be more afraid of a black face than a white one. 
     So in the meantime, maybe we should also pay attention to the sheer cowardice driving so many of these shootings, to recognize that part of a police officer’s job is to face dangers so the rest of us can be safer. It’s okay and natural to be afraid, even irrationally (including racistly) afraid. But if you’re so afraid that you cannot do your job without putting other people’s live at greater risk, then what good are you doing anyone?

Friday, 1 July 2016

One Weird Trick to Defeat Phone Scammers

     I kind of enjoy getting calls from telephone scammers. It's fun to play along with them for as long as possible, deliberately keeping them on the line so they can't call someone more vulnerable to their fraud.
     One recent scam that has been making the rounds here in Canada goes like this: you get a call from someone claiming to be with the Canadian Revenue Agency, informing you that a lawsuit has been filed against you and they need to talk to you right away. Most of the time it's a recorded message, but sometimes it's an actual human. Presumably, the idea of being sued by the taxman is terrifying enough that you go ahead and send them the money via some kind of wire transfer or gift card or something that just conveniently happens not to be traceable, because maybe CRA doesn't want to have to declare the income on its own tax return? Um, yeah, I guess that sounds legit.
     The one time I got an actual human calling me on this one, he sounded very polite and professional, and asked if I was going to be represented by a lawyer in this matter. When I said yes, he didn't miss a beat, and asked me for the contact information for that lawyer. Of course, he didn't actually want to contact my lawyer; he was in fact calling my bluff, because I probably hadn't retained counsel for a matter I'd never heard of before this call. And this was a very skillful bit of psychology, because it put me on the defensive, off-balance knowing that I'd been caught out in a lie.
     Or rather, it would have done that, if not for the fact that I am a lawyer. "Well, the problem," I said "is that I haven't actually seen the Statement of Claim yet." Click.
     He hung up on me immediately. Dang. What a disappointment! I was hoping to keep him on for at least a half an hour.

     But these guys are looking for people who don't know very much about the law, and so my mention of a Statement of Claim marked me as someone who'd probably see through their scam, which depends very heavily on making you feel like you have no power, and you must do whatever they say or else. Which is not actually how law works.

     Now, I'm not currently a practicing lawyer, and this must not be construed as legal advice, but there's a very fundamental principle that underlies pretty much all legal procedure, and if you just understand that one thing, you'll be a lot less vulnerable to scammers and schemers of various sorts. And that principle is basically pretty simple: everyone has a right to make their case. Not necessarily to win, of course, but to present their claim against someone else, or to attempt a full and complete answer to any claim made against them. And that means you need adequate notice of a claim against you; in the case of a lawsuit, you must be served with a Statement of Claim that lays out the particulars of that claim.
     See, when you get down to the very core of it, the job of the courts is to resolve disputes.  If everyone agrees about something, it gets done, it doesn't go to court. If the accused pleads guilty, the court doesn't have to hear the evidence. If the defendant agrees that she owes the plaintiff money, she pays it and the court doesn't get involved. Courts are there to decide who's right when there's actually a question to be decided, and if everyone agrees, there's no question.
     But the court wants to make a just and fair decision, based on all of the evidence and all the best arguments available. Ideally there will be lawyers on both sides, and here's the thing about trial lawyers: you hear them addressed as "Counsel", but that's not because they counsel their clients (although they do that, too). It's because their job is to counsel the Court, to ensure that the court considers every favourable argument for their clients' case. Lawyers are called "officers of the court" for this reason, and you might notice that they refer to each other in court as "my friend" and not "my opponent"; they serve the decision-maker together, even if their clients are bitterly opposed. And the lawyers, in order to provide good counsel to the Court, must have access to all the facts, and have enough time to think and research and formulate arguments.

     Which means that Courts hate surprises.

     Surprise witnesses are a staple of TV and movie courtroom dramas, but they are actually very rare, and only allowed in very particular circumstances. The general principle is that both sides to a dispute must be given adequate notice of something in order to be able to respond intelligently. And in particular, this is why we have rules about serving defendants with a Statement of Claim. If I don't know I'm being sued, I (or my lawyer) cannot prepare arguments. If I don't know the charges against me, I can't mount a defense. And if I don't even know I owe CRA money, I can't be expected to pay them, let alone argue why I don't owe them.

     So the upshot of all this is: If someone threatens you with jail or a lawsuit or seizure of assets or any other sort of legal proceeding unless you pay up right away, and they don't give you enough information or time to make a good faith reasonable effort to ascertain if their claim is valid, they're probably trying to scam you. I say probably because it's possible they have a valid claim and just don't know how to proceed with it, but in any event, the best way to defend yourself against scammers and legitimate claimants alike is with good faith insistence on basic procedural fairness. "Really? I'm being sued? This is the first I've heard of it, but if you say so, perhaps it's just been an oversight that I haven't been properly notified. Could you send me something in writing with the particulars, so I can figure out what's going on and give you a proper answer?"
     And remember that good faith is key, here. If you're using this as a stalling tactic, and you know you actually do owe money, that will eventually catch up to you in court. The point to remember is that the Law isn't about winning, but about following a fair and impartial procedure intended to insure that the person in the right wins. If someone manages to prove to you that you are in the wrong, well, pay up and move on. Fair's fair. But if you suspect someone's trying to scam you, polite insistence on procedural fairness will almost always make them hang up and try to scam someone else.

Monday, 20 June 2016

White "Genocide"? Seriously?

     For some time now, I've heard or read the occasional alarmed complaint that multiculturalism and miscegenation amounts to white genocide. "Genocide", of course, is a word that quite rightly provokes moral outrage, but let's set aside that indignation for a moment and analyze it with some technical precision: what exactly does this white genocide mean?

     First of all, let's assume that it is in fact some form of genocide, that it entails the extinction of white people as a race, that someday there will be no more white people. I don't think this is likely to happen anytime soon (unless through some catastrophic event that puts people of every colour in similar danger), but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that intermingling will, in a generation or two, mean the end of the white race. (I'm also granting, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as "the white race".)
     What is the fate of the victims of this genocide? Well, basically, it means we get to marry whoever we want, watch our beautiful children and grandchildren grow up happy and healthy and loving and loved, and eventually see ourselves replaced by these younger generations before we die of natural causes.

     Oh, but yeah, it's totally a genocide, because those younger generations, even though they'll be descended from us and be our own flesh and blood and we might pass down to them all of the culture and language and they might faithfully follow those traditions as well as we ever did, they won't be us because skin colour.

    Nah, you know what? I'm totally cool with this particular form of "genocide".

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Chemtrails and Clouds and Missing the Obvious

     A while ago, I was fortunate enough to be assigned window seat on my return flight from Vancouver. I always love having a window seat, because even in this age of ubiquitous photography and access to images from space and the deep sea and everywhere else, the visceral experience of acceleration and ascent while watching the ground in its human scale recede into the distance somehow puts things into a perspective you just can't get from admiring photographs or even videos. But here's one anyway:

     On this particular flight, it was the clouds that kept my attention. We passed through two distinct layers, and as we climbed above the higher one, I was treated to a spectacular view of a vast rippling expanse of cloud tops. And my mind was filled with wonder at how so much structure could emerge from just water dissolved in air. Look at the way the ripples form as the waves of air flow over the mountains!

     Now, this morning, a friend on Facebook posted a link to a website about chemtrails, which opened with the following paragraph:
When I was a little boy, I used to wonder what those beautiful streaks in the sky were. Why would some of them dissipate immediately, and others stayed in the sky all day?

     The implication, of course, is that something suspicious is going on here. Otherwise, we should expect all vapour trails to behave the same way: they should either all dissipate immediately, or all linger a similar length of time.
     On the one hand, I want to applaud the inquisitiveness that drives such a question. And yes, obviously there should exist some sort of explanation for why some vapour trails last longer than others, and why some are so huge and billowy, and why some never appear at all. But on the other hand, I am kind of disappointed that the inquisitiveness stops there, because it completely fails to consider the equally mysterious question of the huge diversity of normal ordinary clouds themselves.

     What is a cloud, after all? Well, we all know (I hope!) that it's water in the air, a mist of tiny droplets that scatter light so you can't see very far inside one. Fog is just clouds at ground level, and when the weather is chilly, we can see our breath: it's the same stuff.
     But here's the question that always troubled me as a little boy, and which still caused me to marvel at the age of 50 from my window seat over the Rockies: Why do clouds seem to have boundaries at all? Sure, the boundaries are pretty fuzzy when you get close to them, but on a large enough scale, the patterns become stunning: that patch of air is cloud, and that patch is not cloud. And you see these amazing ripples and puffy towers and all sorts of complicated fractal shapes that just scream for an explanation: How is it that this volume of air gets all misty and cloudy, while that volume just over there remains clear?

     It's not at all a simple question, but there are a few basic factors that are simple enough to understand. There's temperature, of course; we all know that sometimes air can be hot and sometimes it can be cold. There's also humidity, which is how much water vapour is actually in it; you won't get clouds at all if there's no water vapour there to condense. There's also pressure, which is related to temperature, but is a different concept; differences in air pressure from one place to another are why we have wind. And wind has a velocity, which as a completely relative quantity might be of little relevance but for the fact that it  leads to turbulence. And then, on top of it all, there's particulate content: dust, smoke, pollen and such, which is important because it provides a surface for water vapour to condense onto; without any particulates, you can have extremely humid air and still no cloud formation. And who knows what difference various local changes in chemical composition might make, if the percentage of nitrogen here is a little higher or oxygen there a little lower.

     Now, I really have no idea how all of these factors combine, but the evidence of my eyes from watching clouds drift by is this: it's really complicated, and the atmospheric conditions that form clouds can vary greatly from place to place and time to time and altitude to altitude, locally and globally. And as a result, we can get an astonishing variety of cloud patterns. I also know, from introductory high school chemistry, that burning hydrocarbons (like jet fuel) produces carbon dioxide and water vapour, so it's to be expected that aircraft exhaust would have water vapour in it. (Also, heat and turbulence and probably particles of soot which would help promote condensation, and some engines burn cleaner or dirtier than others.)

     So when I hear chemtrail conspiracy theorists talk about how suspicious it is that one plane might leave a trail while another one doesn't, I am perplexed. If ordinary, natural weather patterns can generate such a huge variety of cloud forms, why should we expect all aircraft vapour trails to look the same? I honestly do not know the answers, because I do not understand the complex processes of cloud formation well enough to predict what conditions will produce what sort of vapour trail, but it seems to me likely that the same variation in conditions that produce varations in clouds should be capable of producing different sorts of vapour trails, without any need to postulate some diabolical and deliberate chemical-spraying conspiracy.

     What am I missing here?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

More about the obscene lie of "trickle-down" economics

     I've written before about how trickle-down economics is mislabeled, because it mixes metaphors with inconsistent gravitational fields. The term will not die, though; just the other day I found myself in an argument with a business owner who insisted that if only his taxes were lower, he could afford to hire more people and let that wealth trickle on down.
     Inadvertently, he formulated his claim in such a way as to make the absurdity of the theory so clear to me I felt compelled to blog about it here. Think about this: What he's saying is that unemployment happens because rich people don't have enough money to hire anybody.

     Seriously, that is what the whole tax-cuts-for-the-rich, trickle-down ideology really boils down to. If only the rich could get a break on their taxes, they could afford to hire some of those unemployed people and create jobs and wealth for everyone. Our economic ills are, apparently, due to the rich not being rich enough.

     Now, if you have any sympathy for the idea of the rich being job-creators, you'll probably be suspecting at this point that I've unfairly stated the theory in the most absurd way possible, and I'm ignoring the subtle genius of Reagan's brilliant insight. After all, the fellow I was arguing with seemed pretty sure that it was his hefty tax bill that kept him from expanding, and shouldn't he know better than I the details of his own business? Doesn't it make sense that, if the state confiscates too much of the proceeds of productive enterprise, there will be nothing left to finance the further growth of that enterprise?
     Of course it sounds plausible, and all the more so because it has been so enthusiastically promoted as wise economic insight for nearly four decades now. But that plausibility begins to fall apart if you look a little closer at it.

     For example, if you've ever done your own taxes, you're probably aware that you can deduct expenses from your gross income. The basic principle is that if you need to spend money to make money, the money you had to spend is not counted as income when you recover it. Think of it this way: If you buy $100 of materials, and turn them into finished goods which I buy for $120, your income is $20, not $120. So our tax system is set up to tax you on your $20 gain, not the $120 in gross revenue.
     Now, if you run a business in which you hire people to work for you, their wages are classified as an expense for your business. This means they're not taxed (though your employees may have to pay income tax on it, minus their own deductible expenses -- the same rules apply to them). So what this means is that in fact, you can't actually blame taxes on your profits for not leaving you with enough  money to hire more workers; if you just went ahead and hired those workers from your business' pre-tax revenues, you wouldn't pay taxes on the portion of revenue used to pay their wages.

     The point here is that if a business isn't hiring new people, it's simply wrong to blame that on their taxes being too high. And the same is true for capital investment and other forms of expansion: our tax system is carefully designed to have all sorts of exemptions and deductions to encourage growth, which only makes sense, because the more money you make, the more taxes there are to collect. The taxman's interests are actually aligned with yours here. Sure, tax policies can be made smarter, but that's not a synonym for "lower".

     The other thing that's disastrously wrong about trickle-down theory is that it applies an extremely simplistic model of investment. To be fair, it's the model that most of us learn through school and which is reinforced in ordinary household economics and even in games like Minecraft: You need to save up a surplus pool of resources to build stuff. If you haven't punched enough trees or gathered enough vespene gas or saved up enough coins in your piggy bank, you can't start your project.
     This makes good intuitive sense, and it is a prudent way to manage your affairs. But it is almost shockingly naive to assume that entrepreneurs and job-creators are limited to this approach, and all the more so when you consider that the richest of the rich made their fortunes either in or at least in large part with the assistance of the finance industry.
     You see, entrepreneurs do not start out rich, and then decide they finally have enough money to trickle it down to everyone else. They start out by seeing an opportunity to get rich, a way to provide something that people will pay them for. Of course, as mentioned above, it often takes money to make money, so they have to come up with the capital to get started, to build a factory and to buy materials and hire and train staff, and in so doing they create jobs and growth. But here's the thing: they don't need to have all the resources to do that themselves up front.  They can get a business loan from a bank. They can incorporate a corporation and sell shares. This is why we even have a finance industry: to raise the capital to finance the exploitation of profitable opportunities!

     (It's true today, of course, that a large amount of entrepreneurial activity is dependent on billionaire investors, but that's largely because we have concentrated so much wealth in the hands of billionaires; the institutions of finance and banking would work just as well with millions of small investors as they do with a few huge ones. Indeed, billionaire investors are the old-fashioned, pre-finance way of doing things. Back in the day, you had to go to the king or some other extremely wealthy noble to get your bright idea funded, and there was little incentive to do so since His Majesty would own it all. Also, he only had so much time to divide among all the clever people pitching ideas, and would probably rather be hunting anyway. This is why the emergence of financial markets, publicly traded companies, credit and other innovations in the Renaissance led to such unprecedented economic growth as we've seen in the last few centuries. It's also, I submit, why that growth is slowing down as we concentrate the money again in the hands of a few billionaires.)

    So this is why I say that trickle down theory is so preposterously backwards. Despite its superficially plausible rhetoric, it really does boil down to the claim that our economic malaise is due to rich people not being rich enough, and that if only they had all the money, we would all be much better off. And that is an obscene lie.