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Obrigado gozaimasu

The popular idea that "arigato" derives from "obrigado" has been repeatedly debunked. However, every debunking I have seen is unsatisfactory. It is pointed out that the Japanese word from which "arigato" is derived long predates the Portuguese arrival in Japan. And that's it. But that's clearly unsatisfactory. A satisfactory debunking would claim, and demonstrate, that the word itself, in that specific use, predated the Portuguese arrival. Without this, it remains possible that the following happened:

1) "arigatai" meaning "difficult" long predated the Portuguese arrival, but the use of "arigato" to mean "thank you" did not predate the Portuguese arrival.

2) Observation of the Portuguese saying "obrigado" to mean "thank you" caused the Japanese to say "arigato" to mean "thank you".

I do not have specific examples, but I do believe I have seen genuine examples of this sort of thing happening with other words in other languages - that is, that one language has indeed affected another language by altering the second language's use of its own native words.

Nothing I have read anywhere specifically excludes this possibility. Talk is always about the word "arigatai" meaning "difficult" predating the Portuguese. In my experience (and I have looked into this multiple times over the years) no one ever offers any samples of Japanese writing "arigato" to mean "thank you", or even claims that they did so before the Portuguese arrived.

So, no one seems to have ever debunked this possibility. If this is what happening, then it is simply overstating the case to claim that:

"Superficial appearances notwithstanding, there is absolutely no linguistic relationship to the Portuguese word obrigado of the same meaning."

If the Portuguese use of "obrigado" shaped the Japanese use of "arigato" then that is a linguistic relationship.

I would be happy if either:

1) Someone finally specifically showed that "arigato" was used to mean "thank you" before the Portuguese arrived, or

2) People stopped overstating the case against the relationship between "obrigado" and "arigato".


Three meanings of "empathy"

This is a comment on Brandon Berg's recent entry. Empathy is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for this

This is a fundamental component of human cognition (and one might even say perception). For example both the ability to imitate and the contagiousness of emotion are obviously, observably present in small infants. Implying that someone does not have it or does not use it is an insult on the order of calling a person blind or retarded. People do, of course, call each other blind and retarded when they disagree. People, then, are in the habit of claiming, falsely, that the people they disagree with are missing fundamental components of human perception or cognition.

To accuse another person of blindness, stupidity, or a lack of empathy is an expression of contempt. It is almost always false; if someone is actually blind, literally sightless, we don't nastily accuse them of it. If a person is actually stupid, we are careful to avoid rubbing it in. If a person actually lacks empathy, which is surely possible (Oliver Sacks writes about similar people), then they are suffering from a neurological deficit.

The only reason we are talking about empathy is that Obama used the word. But we know that Obama has contempt for his opponents. He has used expressions of contempt throughout his time in office, thinly disguised. It is one of his favorite things to do.

Obama used both "compassion" and "empathy". Similar points could be raised about compassion. This is one of the problems that I have with "compassionate conservatism". It implies the lie that conservatism, plain conservatism, is uncaring. This is a lie that liberals tell about conservatives. It is also a lie that anti-capitalists tell about supporters of capitalism, and liberals tell the same lie about conservatives for the same reason: because conservatives support the free market and oppose forced redistribution (this is a matter of degree: they do it to a greater degree than do liberals). "Compassion" is code for "liberalism" - i.e., economic interventionism and tax and spend redistribution.

Meanwhile recall the ideal that justice is blind, and that a justice must be dispassionate. What can this mean? It doesn't actually mean all the things that it might mean. It doesn't mean that the judge has to literally be blind or literally uncaring. It means something specific. It is if you like code for something specific (maybe not exactly code in the sense that the meaning is buried deep - but code in the sense that it is a very specific meaning and should not be understood in just any old way). It is code for impartiality. So is the requirement that justices be dispassionate. So it is not a great stretch to read a demand for empathy and compassion as a demand for partiality.

So, take your pick. Maybe Obama is expressing contempt, maybe he's repeating the commonplace liberal lie about conservatism (which many pseudoconservatives, such as the Bushes, ultimately bought into, possibly leading to the current state of Washington conservatism from which free market advocacy has been surgically removed), maybe he's demanding judicial favoritism.

Personally, I think it's all three.


Miminum wage hikes and the unseen

I left a monster comment over at Econlog and, rather than hiding it in shame, here I am displaying it for all to see. My behavior reminds me of the time when I wanted to drag a parent to the toilet to show off my tremendous poop. I believe the parent wisely declined and took my word for it but my memory is unclear.

I am responding to someone who argues (perhaps for good reason; I was not able to find empirical evidence either confirming or refuting his claim) that the empirical evidence is in and the effect of the minimum wage hike is net good (the increase in bottom wage outweighs the loss in employment). Here is my tremendous (in word count) reply:

Tom - it may be that economists (and libertarians) sometimes ask the argument to carry more weight than it really can. The basic argument is simply the point that there's a trade-off: if you raise the minimum wage, theory predicts that while the wage of some will be lifted, there will also be a countervailing tendency to increase unemployment. But this point (a) does not supply you with actual numbers (those, after all, depend on things which need to be empirically determined such as people's actual preferences, elasticity etc.), and (b) does not prove that the one effect (the increase in unemployment) "outbalances" the other effect (the rise in wages). Whether one outbalances the other is a judgment, not merely a prediction. Even if we could predict to the last penny what happens, in the end the assessment of which effect was the more important would be a judgment. You can, of course, try to mechanize the judgment by applying certain efficiency criteria, but the decision to treat the outcome of that calculation as the one to go by is itself a judgment.

However on the whole I am inclined to defend the argument against the minimum wage as far as it really does go.

However, I will say that those who support it *have* to be outside mainstream economic reasoning because mainstream economic reasoning doesn't match the actual experience of minimum wage laws (that the job loss is minimal or non-measurable).

That doesn't tell me very much because causality is very hard to measure in something like an economy. You can't do controlled experiments etc. So your claim that the job loss is non-measurable does not tell me that it is minimal.

Feel free to present me with some paper or somebody mentioning work that does the very, very hard work of trying to figure out the causality. But we remain ignorant of causality even in cases where the whole country hangs in the balance, for example the causes and therefore the cure of the current recession. I'm seeing a lot of strong opinions but I'm seeing a lot of conflicting opinions and nothing is really coming out of this as genuine knowledge. The wildly false prediction about the rise in unemployment and the apparently wildly false prediction about the effect of the stimulus do nothing to boost my confidence in our empirical tools for unraveling the causal factors in the economy. It's on point that one could argue that the stimulus may have indeed had a good effect because unemployment might have been even higher otherwise. That simply underlines the difficulty of empirically determining what the causality is.

Generally speaking, I predict that people will reliably make the error that Bastiat and Hazlitt both pointed out: people tend to see only part of the picture, in this case the easily visible boost that a minimum wage hike will have on those who are employed at minimum wage both before and after. This is the problem of the seen versus the unseen. See either Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson or Bastiat's What is Seen and What is Unseen. Since this is a reliable bias (in favor of the seen), I am not at all surprised that the widespread experience of wage control will be strongly biased in favor of noticing the benefit while missing the cost. Theory is useful in making us keenly aware of the potential for a perverse side-effect. And a moment's thought should make us realize that this perverse side-effect is by its very nature hard to see. It is hard to see what would have been. Causality needs counterfactuals. It is hard to see individuals who would have been hired but who are not now hired. It is hard to see individuals who have given up trying to find a job specifically because of the wage hike. We try to see these things by gathering enough data that we can infer, from the numbers, what must have happened in countless individual cases, but it is hard to disentangle these things even with lots of numbers at our disposal. For instance I recall reading that the unemployment statistic compares those getting to those seeking a job, but such a statistic by its very design happens to miss those who have stopped looking out of despair at ever finding a job - those who have given up. Those too are harmed but they are not counted in a figure that excludes them by design. (Wikipedia says: "Unemployment occurs when a person is available to work and seeking work but currently without work.")

Look, all I am saying is that minimum wage arguments are a classical case of economists with physics envy. The theory is nice and beautiful, and those messy humans are fouling it up with their non-conforming behaviour.

Some people may be using the arguments that way, but there's another way to use them, and that is to overcome the above-mentioned bias in favor of the seen over the unseen. It is to let people understand precisely how a wage hike (and price controls generally) could have a perverse incentive. People's knee-jerk, un-tutored intuition completely misses the perverse effects on supply and demand of price controls. Okay, so maybe it's theory, but people come at the world already armed with a folk theory that just simply ignores effects on supply and demand. Thus, people don't come equipped with the mental tools to realize how it is that (to shift to another common example) when you tax one party of the transaction, this changes his supply curve which, in effect, causes both parties to the transaction to share the cost of the tax, and that the proportion shared by each depends on their supply and demand curves. Okay, granted, this is "merely" theory, but it's superior to the folk "theory of the stupid" which simply takes product availability for granted. "Huh, government introduced price controls on bread and gas and now the shelves are bare and there are these long lines at the gas pump, gee, who could have predicted that", or even worse, "the suppliers are evil, just look at how they're maliciously reacting to the new laws by deliberately refusing to sell products with a price ceiling, these are wreckers, let's string them up."

This means that they end up defending what much of the populace knows is 'wrong', where wrong can encompass a great deal from the simple facts to the failure to take into account human factors such as fear, status games, disgust, etc.

Much of the population "knows" it is wrong often because much of the population suffers from biases such as the tendency to be completely oblivious to that which is unseen, allowing the populace to fall for such things as the broken window fallacy.

Sorry for going off topic, but I find this tendency in economics quite distressing as it causes the general populace to devalue economics far more than they should. After all, if it's so obviously wrong about what they can see, why should they think it is right about what they can't?

I seriously question the judgment of any individual who thinks it is trivial to see such things as the full effects of a minimum wage hike. A person might go around, see people working at a new higher minimum wage, and conclude, "wow, it worked". He is not equipped to measure the less easily seen effects.


Cap and Trade

The destruction continues. I'm too bleak to write anything, so instead I'll listen to this a few times. No, it has nothing to do with it, it's just something to listen to.


There is no distinction between law and morality.

Google law morality. The first hit is this page, and the first line on the page is:

At first there seems to be no distinction between law and morality.

The rest of the page is an argument against this naive impression. The argument fails and the naive impression holds. Here is the summary and my comments.

(1) The existence of unjust laws (such as those enforcing slavery) proves that morality and law are not identical and do not coincide.

An alternative interpretation of the same facts is that there are two distinct systems of law, one here being called "law" and the other being called "morality". We should not be surprised if two systems of law are not identical.

(2) The existence of laws that serve to defend basic values--such as laws against murder, rape, malicious defamation of character, fraud, bribery, etc. --prove that the two can work together.

This does not argue for a distinction.

(3) Laws can state what overt offenses count as wrong and therefore punishable. Although law courts do not always ignore a person's intention or state of mind, the law cannot normally govern, at least not in a direct way, what is in your heart (your desires). Because often morality passes judgment on a person's intentions and character, it has a different scope than the law.

A difference in scope may distinguish two legal systems from each other. Aside from this, it is unclear whether there is any real distinction. The author admits that law does not always ignore intention.

(4) Laws govern conduct at least partly through fear of punishment. Morality, when it is internalized, when it has become habit-like or second nature, governs conduct without compulsion. The virtuous person does the appropriate thing because it is the fine or noble thing to do.

Law can be internalized. When we drive we automatically move to the appropriate side of the road, and generally obey the rules of the road, without (direct) compulsion. On the other side, while we develop a moral conscience which then governs us, observation of children makes it hard to deny that compulsion plays a role in the development of a conscience.

(5) Morality can influence the law in the sense that it can provide the reason for making whole groups of immoral actions illegal.

This does not argue for a distinction.

(6) Law can be a public expression of morality which codifies in a public way the basic principles of conduct which a society accepts. In that way it can guide the educators of the next generation by giving them a clear outline of the values society wants taught to its children.

This does not argue for a distinction.

Morality is not enforced by the state (except insofar as it coincides with the state's laws). It is a system of law that is characterized by non-state enforcement, generally social exclusion (including, for example, being fired) but also, on occasion, violence. It fits Webster's first definition of law:

a binding custom or practice of a community

There is, however, one commonly alleged distinction which never got mentioned, and that is that laws can change, but morality is unchanging. For example, it is immoral to keep slaves now, and (so people think) it always was immoral, even though no one realized it. But it was once legal, and is now illegal. There's your difference.

There are two concepts of morality in play now. Stanford explains the difference:

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,
1a. some other group, such as a religion, or
1b. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

I've been talking about morality in sense (1), and "unchanging" morality is sense (2), though I think as written (2) is much too specific about the required characteristics of unchanging morality.

Of course, like morality, law also comes in two varieties - natural law is unchanging. So the important distinction isn't really between morality and law. It's between the changeable varieties and the unchangeable varieties.


What's Wrong With Empathy

What's wrong with empathy?

It does not take all that much imagination to answer that question. Here's a simple answer: people tend to feel greater or less empathy for other people for a variety of reasons but largely because of who and what they are, i.e., their identity - their ethnicity, their class, their gender, their physical attractiveness.

A judgment based on empathy will consequently tend to be biased in favor of certain parties on the basis of their identity.

Granted, it is probably unrealistic to expect a judge not to be influenced by empathy for some of the parties. But that doesn't mean it should be advocated!

And also granted, a mention of "empathy" in relationship to judging could mean any number of things. For example, it might mean placing oneself in another's shoes - an act which does not necessarily involve any consideration of their identity, but may involve merely a consideration of their situation in the case being judged regardless of who or what they are. But considering the current political climate (in which, for example, people who complain about the actions of the Obama administration are called racists - a charge which has nothing to do with the specific complaint and everything to do with the identity of the president), the interpretation I offer is hardly a stretch.

Will Wilkinson's interpretation of Obama's statement construes the president as speaking in code (which is the very thing he complains of in others). On Will Wilkinson's interpretation, Obama isn't looking for empathy (as opposed to lack of empathy), but rather, Obama is looking for a redistribution of empathy. To defend Obama's remark, Wilkinson writes:

But holding ideology fixed, I think there’s a strong reason to prefer a well-qualified woman to a well-qualified man. And I think another woman would likely increase the scope of empathy on the court in a pretty straightforward and desirable sense.

Will Wilkinson isn't talking about increasing the amount of empathy, but increasing the scope. Wilkinson is not claiming, or implying, that a female judge would have more total empathy than a male judge. He is implying that a female judge's empathy would be better attuned to a different group of people than a male judge's empathy, and thus increasing the proportion of female judges would redistribute some of the court's empathy to that group.

But that is not actually what Obama said. Obama was talking about empathy versus lack of empathy, not about empathy for one group versus empathy for another group. Will Wilkinson complains about conservatives' interpreting Obama's talk about empathy as "code" for "judicial activism", but Wilkinson himself is interpreting Obama's talk non-literally - i.e., as "code" for something he is not actually saying. It is, moreover, perfectly defensible to interpret anything Obama says non-literally, as the right does, as Wilkinson just did, indeed as Obama's left-wing supporters do. Obama's supporters trust him because he lies.

Notice, however, that Wilkinson's interpretation agrees with mine on the important point of linking empathy with identity. Wilkinson's argument assumes the truth of my claim, which is that judges don't have the same amount of empathy for everyone, that identity is a key factor in who gets a judge's empathy, and finally that this fact is Obama's reason for talking about empathy.

By the way, here is one of Obama's explanations of his talk about empathy:

[Lilly Ledbetter] didn't know that she was getting paid less, when she discovered it, she immediately filed suit to get back pay and the suggestion was somehow that she should have filed suite earlier.

Well, I think anybody who has ever worked in a job like that understands that they might not know that they were being discriminated against it. It doesn't make sense for their rights to be foreclosed.

That's the kind of case, where I want a judge not only to be applying the law in front of them, but also to understand that as a practical matter. A lot of times people have weak bargaining power.

Obama is advocating that the judge ignore the law in a case like this. His reason for making the exception: Ledbetter's "weak bargaining power." Why does she have weak bargaining power? She is presumed to have weak bargaining power and he gives no reason, but we can guess: she is an employee and she is a woman.

So, one reasonable interpretation of what Obama is saying is: the law should be bent in favor of employees and women. (And coincidentally, a majority of voters are employees and a majority of voters, a majority of Democratic voters, and a majority of those who voted for Obama, are women [or so my googling tells me].)

Obama is careful to say:

Now, in some ways it might cut the other way. I want a judge who has a sense of how regulations might affect the businesses in a practical way.

With the obvious intent to give the impression of evenhandedness.

But first, this is not at all obviously a case of it cutting the other way, because this is not described as a dispute between an employer and a female employee, but as a dispute between an employer and a regulator.

Second, if he were really for evenhandedness, he wouldn't advocate bending the law in the first place to favor women and employees (which is what he appears to advocate).

Would Obama really advocate tilting some cases in favor of women and employees and others in favor of men and employers? But Obama hasn't given any specific reason why Ledbetter as opposed to a random woman or employee has "weak bargaining power". What about Ledbetter makes her deserving of special favor from the court other than being a woman and employee? And if these are enough, then it follows that women and employees generally, always, deserve special favor from the court. Every woman is a woman, every employee is an employee, so if Ledbetter's only claim to special favor is that she is a woman and an employee, then necessarily anyone else with the same properties has that claim.

This has been a long entry so to summarize it, Obama advocates bending the law to favor people who voted for Obama. And this is what he means by "empathy".

All of which illustrates the tie that both Wilkinson and I see between empathy and identity.


Why Would FDA Approval Cause a Stock to Increase Ten-Fold?

In the news:

Vanda Pharmaceuticals won U.S. approval for its first product, a drug to treat schizophrenia, the Food and Drug Administration said. ... Vanda, which closed at $1.08 in regular trading yesterday, soared to $9.98 in extended Nasdaq trading.

It would appear, going by the jump in price, that prior to the FDA's decision, investors gave the drug at most a 1 in 10 chance of being approved. If Vanda's case is typical, then, even moments before the actual decision is made, it is hard to predict what drugs the FDA will approve.

I can understand it being difficult to predict whether a new chemical will turn out to be a useful drug when all the testing is done five or ten years down the road. But once the testing has been done, at the very least the results of those tests are fully known. There is no uncertainty about the results that have already been observed. And the FDA decision is, necessarily, based entirely on the results available at the time the decision is made.

If the FDA's decisionmaking process is

a) not arbitrary, and
b) based on the available results,

then the FDA's decision should be highly replicable, and therefore highly predictable, by any independent entity with access to the same results. And yet the FDA's decision is, apparently, hard to predict. Two possible alternative explanations are:

1) The results that the FDA bases its decision on are extremely well-guarded right up until the very moment that the FDA makes its decision. I doubt this is possible.
2) The FDA's decisionmaking process is highly arbitrary. This is my tentative conclusion.

A few anticipated objections and responses.

Objection: Vanda's case is not typical.

Answer: Could be. However, this seems not all that atypical. When I read the story it didn't really stand out as atypical.

Objection: The typical investor doesn't know how to interpret the data, doesn't know what the data is, etc.

Answer: This is true of most investors in most publicly traded companies. If it were a significant problem the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) would be not only wrong, but wildly wrong, all the time, and Vanda's case would provide a model for disproving the EMH.

Objection: Pharmaceutical companies really keep a tight lid on their results.

Answer: I have a hard time believing that. A tremendous number of people are involved in any study that gets to this stage. Even partial information should give a sense of how well a drug is working and what its side-effects are.

Objection: The cause of the unpredictability isn't that the FDA is arbitrary, but that the drug is borderline useful, and even the most predictable decisionmaking process will be unpredictable when it comes to borderline cases.

Answer: But surely the typical drug is not borderline.

Objection: The FDA can hardly be blamed because it is fundamentally hard to judge whether a drug is useful or not. It is unclear and/or subjective whether a given drug is useful or not.

Answer: Then why is the FDA making a decision for all of us?


People Don't Care about Global Warming or the Environment

The New York Times reports:

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling

and

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. ... In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

The article implies that the ideas are fine but the words are not fine, and that new words should be used to relabel the same ideas - that the old wine should be sold in a new bottle. I think that's wrong as a true diagnosis though the suggested cure may work as a temporary palliative. People are not rejecting the words. They are rejecting the ideas.

Language does, of course, affect people's perceptions. Call a bill a "stimulus bill" and that will tend to make people think it is a stimulus bill. But the size of that effect depends on ignorance, and over time ignorance fades. Call enough wasteful legislation "stimulus", and over time the word will acquire a bad aroma. The fix - a temporary fix - is to find a new word, one which has not built up valid associations from long experience and therefore one which wipes the slate clean and pulls the wool back over people's eyes.

The terms "global warming" and "the environment" used to be fine and are fine, by themselves. What made the terms become radioactive was the ideas behind them. The words "global warming" call to mind economic sacrifice because that's what activists have been demanding. If they switch to new words, they may buy themselves a few years by the temporary confusion caused in people's minds, but eventually - if the activists don't stop demanding economic sacrifice - people will realize that the new words mean the same thing as the old words, the new words will become radioactive, and activists will have to find even newer words. Changing the words is a short-term fix. The long-term fix is changing the ideas behind the words.

A short term fix, of course, may confuse people for long enough to ram through the legislation that the activists want.


Ron Paul on Secession

Rambles a bit, but it's refreshing good sense on secession. I've posted this to experiment with the colored border option.


Reliance on consensus

By consensus I mean extreme majority but not necessarily universal view within some group - as this seems to be its meaning as it is commonly used today.

Someone competent in a field does not have much use for consensus. A mathematician can examine a proof and discover for himself whether it is valid or invalid, without relying on the opinion of other mathematicians. A scientist who doubts a result can reproduce the experiment for himself, without relying on the opinion of other scientists. This is not to say that scientists do not benefit from communication with other scientists, that they do not benefit from a sanity check provided by other scientists. But consensus can be built up in many different ways, many of them more likely to reinforce error than to discover truth, only some of them an improvement on independent thinking. So consensus - be it general, scientific, field-specific, or what have you, is not by itself very good evidence of truth. As was pointed out in the book by that title, to get the "Wisdom of Crowds" phenomenon it's important that people give their independent opinions, thus avoiding an information cascade - a condition that is not all that often fulfilled.

If you rely on consensus you are making yourself into part of the above-mentioned information cascade. We might hope, therefore, that people who rely on the consensus in a field are themselves all outside that field. That is not certain to be the case, which poses a problem for those who would like to rely on consensus.

If you wish to rely on the consensus of the group of people competent to individually judge claims in a given topic for themselves, you also have the problem of defining that group. If you are not yourself competent to judge, how do you know who is competent to judge? If you rely on someone else's definition of that group, how do you know that they are competent to judge? Ultimately you cannot avoid making a decision for yourself - you cannot avoid choosing who to rely on, and therefore you cannot, in the end, avoid relying on your own competence to make the decision. (I happen to think that many people are not competent, and that consequently they rely on false authority - they are the blind led by the blind. So this ultimate reliance on one's own competence is a real problem and not just of academic interest.)

There are some ways for the competent to identify others to delegate judgment to. For example, if you spot check someone's work, and all that you've checked is flawless, then it is reasonable to rely on the rest of his work without checking on it, treating him as an authority. This, however, presupposes your own competence - your own authority. It does not work for the incompetent.

You don't have to have the same kind of competence as the person whose competence you are testing. I don't know many words of Chinese (Mandarin or other dialect) but I can identify authorities on Chinese. There are ways to "bootstrap" competence. But these employ a certain kind of competence. For instance, you need to have the competence to distinguish the cases where a specific kind of bootstrapping succeeds from the cases where it fails. (So the thoroughly incompetent are thoroughly screwed. The competent may, of course, guide them, but so may anyone else.) I happen to think that many people accept authorities without the benefit of proper "bootstrapping" - possibly as a result of tragically mistaken "bootstrapping" based on false signs of competence.

Once you have identified a group of authorities, then relying on consensus, rather than relying on (say) the judgment of selected individuals from this group, may serve the limited function of checking your own tendency to cherry-pick authorities whose judgments coincide with what you want to be true. And it might, additionally, confer a Wisdom of Crowds benefit. But if there is dissent within your identified group of authorities, that is a significant fact. And of course, relying on consensus (as opposed to relying on one specific authority) is only meaningful (will only even potentially give you a different conclusion than relying on a single authority) if there is dissent. So the very occasions on which reliance on consensus might even possibly confer some benefit, are precisely those occasions where the significant fact of the existence of dissent may give you pause.

Thus, the useful function of reliance on consensus is restricted (it checks your own tendency to cherry-pick), and its value is dubious (since what it amounts to is ignoring the existence of dissent among your chosen authorities). Furthermore it completely fails to distinguish convergence by independent experience and thought from convergence by groupthink, which you should be keenly interested in distinguishing.

There is some evidence that the average ______ is incompetent. The linked evidence (the rate of correct answers was worse than random guessing) is for economics but why should this not be generally true? I suspect it is (based in part on my own experiences here and there). So as a rule of thumb, between eighty and 100 percent of accredited members of a field are incompetent and should not be trusted.

Good luck relying on the consensus within a field (as defined by accreditation) if that's the case!

Underlying the popular habit of relying on consensus may lie the consensus theory of truth. Certain philosophical notions are these days deeply embedded in popular thought, and the consensus theory of truth may be one of them.


Another reason politicians cannot be believed

Via Instapundit:

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Rep. John Murtha cannot be sued for accusing U.S. Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood," remarks that sparked outrage among conservative commentators.

Not that I paid much attention to politicians in the first place, but this immunity is yet another reason to disregard anything they say.


Liberal Emotion

From David Henderson:

Interestingly, the difference between the liberals and the libertarians was less on the economic analysis and even the bottom-line policy conclusions than it was on our feelings about the bottom line. The libertarians--Anderson, Zycher, and I--loved it when the answer was that free markets work; and that was usually the answer. The liberals, Krugman more than Summers, seemed often upset when that was the answer; they seemed to want a big role for government.

It had been puzzling me why economic literacy so often does little more for a liberal than to make him an even more effective advocate of big government. The above observation helps to explain it.


The International

Movie PosterI decided to go see The International, simply because it had a gun battle in the Guggenheim. What could be cooler than that? The movie's poster makes sure that you remember that this is the movie with the gun battle in the Guggenheim, so evidently the advertisers knew what they were doing.

Funny thing, though. What popped into my head each time I saw the title was the Communist anthem. The association didn't make sense to me, so I didn't think much about it.

Then I saw the movie. Minor spoilers. The antagonist of the movie is not only an international bank, but entirely untouchable within the law because it has the major governments in its pocket. The bank has tremendous reach. As the poster says:They control you "They control your money. They control your government. They control your life." The bank can get away with anything and everything, and its power is almost magical - it reminds one of the machines of The Matrix, only this is not an over-the-top technofantasy but is intended to be a depiction of present-day reality. We learn that one of the characters was a hard-line communist, and this is treated within the movie as a Very Good Thing. I do not recall even the slightest hint given during this revelation or at any other point in the movie that being a hard-line communist might be anything less than admirable; on the contrary, to have left the fold is treated as a disgrace.

This is not intended to be a movie review. I only wanted to mention this aspect of the movie. If you want my assessment, it had a substantial gun battle in the Guggenheim, which is what I came to see, so I did not leave the theater feeling cheated.

UPDATE: I've been trying to find someone who understood the signs the same way I did, and sure enough, somebody did.


A for effort?

Via Vox Populi:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade. Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

While we might want to acknowledge effort in some way, giving an A for effort implies that effort is as good as accomplishment. And of course, it isn't.

Where else do we see manifested the notion that effort is as good as accomplishment? Some expressions:

  • "It's the thought that counts."
  • "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."
  • "Everyone's a winner."

Not to deny that there is at least some truth in the first two, but we say these things to console losers. We ought to be very suspicious of the things we say to console ourselves or other people. Some other manifestations of this notion:

  • Participation in political demonstrations. While demonstrations can sometimes accomplish things, I believe that for the most part participation in demonstrations is about visibly making an effort without regard for its effectiveness.
  • Recycling and other environmental-conscious activity. A lot of it does not withstand close scrutiny, and yet it persists, which suggests that it is primarily about making an effort.
  • Political discussion. Via Econlog, John Nash made the point:

    Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

    I think there's a lot of truth to that.

  • The Transportation Security Administration. This is a highly visible effort whose dubious effectiveness has not dented it.

Waste, or The Survival of Nonsense

Why are corrective management books like this necessary? How is it that managers have the freedom to waste precious company resources pursuing management fads that don't work? In principle, one might expect wasteful management fads to be weeded out by the pressure of market competition.

Some possible explanations:

  1. It's not actually all that wasteful. (I doubt this.)
  2. The actual market is nowhere near a competitive equilibrium. (I consider this probable but I think it can be broken down into many contributing factors.)
  3. The market conditions are changing all the time, keeping the market from reaching equilibrium.
  4. Companies differ from other companies by many factors, and management stupidity at one company may in effect be subsidized by excellence in some other aspect of the company. It can take a long time separate out the producers within a company from the parasites and saboteurs.
  5. Government favor may be permanently impeding competition, permanently subsidizing management stupidity in favored companies.
  6. Perfect alignment of selfish interests and company interests is never possible, and the pursuit of management fads may be a permanent cost of doing business even in equilibrium much as theft of office supplies is a permanent cost of doing business. Management fads may tend to benefit their instigators at the expense of everyone else.
  7. Management fads may be a corporate form of ritual and superstition, so the explanations of ritual and superstition may be transferrable to management fads.