Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Apparently, if I want to get the attention of the Federal government, I should be sure to use the following words:

list3Perhaps I should see how many of these words I can use in a poem.


There's a pork cloud over Mexico
America's it's name.
Watch as China plots to buy our debt
Until we're bust and lame.

Conclusion: probably would make terrible poetry.

I suppose we should not be surprised that there are certain words that government intelligence agencies are on the lookout for. As a word lover, I find the list interesting. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Origin of Wealth

I've been enjoying Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth. If I quoted everything important in it, I would have to cite the whole thing, so far. The section I just finished reading was on the work done by Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell on Sugarscape, where they did agent-based modeling that led to bottom-up creation of a power law distribution of wealth and even the natural emergence of banks. Most notably, trade led to a power law distribution of wealth, but resulted in everyone becoming wealthier. Which one would predict from the theory of scale-free networks.

Beinhocker's book is about how complexity economics is different from traditional economics, the latter of which he argues went down the wrong path by focusing on equilibrium (an argument I have made repeatedly). However, complexity economics is not quite as new as we might think, even if it is being more mathematized now due to the existence of fast computers. He argues that complexity economics also has

a long and rich intellectual history. That history includes figures such as John von Neuman, the inventor of game theory and cellular automata; members of the "Austrian school" such as Friedrich Hayek; behavioral economists such as Herbert Simon and Daniel Kahneman; institutional economists such as Douglass North; evolutionary economists such as Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter; political scientists such as Robert Axelrod and Thomas Sshelling; and computer scientists such as John Holland and Christopher Langton. (96)
I have seen a lot of convergence in these approaches, which is perhaps not surprising. There is still some talk of equilibrium in all of these fields, even though open, dynamic, nonlinear processes such as they describe cannot possibly lead to equilibrium, but rather lead to far-from-equlibrium states, but we can't expect the way things have typically been done to become abandoned all at once. In a recent post, I talked about price theory -- traditional economics tells us to expect an equilibrium price; complexity economics tells us to expect movement around a strange attractor, resulting in a range of prices in which arbitrage is possible. Which sounds more like what happens in the real world? My theory of prices, because it has bipolar feedback and therefore leads to complex dynamics, results in a strange attractor.

I have also complained about how macroeconomics is nonsense. Complexity economics makes "No distinction between micro- and macroeconomics; macro patterns are emergent result of micro-level behaviors and interactions" (97, Table 4-1). This sounds like Steve Horwitz's work on deriving macroeconomics from microfoundations.

Finally, complexity economics is founded on methodological individualism, where the agents have incomplete information, learn and adapt, use induction, and are prone to bias and errors. The Austrian economists have been doing this for a very long time now.

I came to Austrian economics through my interest in complexity, particularly self-organization. It was the school of economics whose understanding of the economy most closely matched how I understood the universe to work. Beinhocker's book -- and his recognition of the Austrian school as a founder of complexity economics, as well as the fact that the current Austrians are integrating much of the work of the other threads mentioned in the above quote -- only confirms my initial instincts about which way of doing economics is the right one.

A Powerful Moral Argument Against High Taxation

A powerful moral argument against high taxation --and much modern governments do -- can be made. And should be made more often. The author is correct that by taking so much money away from us, it makes it more difficult to help others. But it can also make it more difficult to live up to one's obligations as well. It is among the ways governments make men less ethical.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Morality In One Lesson (Ethics and Justice in . . . )

If we take morality to be "of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong" and ethics as "the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.," we have the conditions for a morality that is both constant and evolves. Morality involves rules -- one cannot do X to anyone one considers to be a "person" -- that delineate moral action. The existence of rules, though, does not preclude evolution. With the above stated rule, we have moral action that can evolve as our definition of "person" evolves. And notice that this fits with the definition of ethics given, since it is action within a particular social context. Not murdering your brother would be a moral action that is also an ethical action in every culture (since one's brother is always considered to be a person, regardless of culture). Not murdering your wife would be an ethical action in one culture, while murdering her would not necessarily be unethical in another, because of the differing definitions of "person" in each context. (This does not preclude a metaethical rule by which one can judge the ethics of being able to murder one's wife, though.) The moral rule of "one cannot go X to anyone one considers to be a person" is thus found in every cultural situation (morals), while differing in expression from culture to culture (ethics). What is not universal, and what is in part culturally determined (and can evolve, as cultures evolve) is who gets defined as a "person" and who does not.

Moral truth, then, is the moral rule, around which the ethical expressions orbit/evolve. Now, one can have a moral rule prohibiting murder, where murder is defined as "one should never purposefully kill, except in self-defense, a person" and another rule "every member of the species Homo sapiens is a human being" that would be an ethical rule, that would result in the moral-ethical rule "one should never purposefully kill, except in self-defense, a member of the species Homo sapiens". This is how one gets constancy with change.

But perhaps we should try to generalize the moral rule. Can we reduce it down to one moral rule?

"You may not intentionally harm any person, except to defend against or punish an equal or greater harm against yourself or another person."
 Harm would of course include murder, theft, rape, and "bearing false witness," which is lying to harm another. A person is anyone you can empathize with. This is the variable that leads one to ethics.

This definition of morality would also mean that there would be both a moral ethics (such as involving who is or is not defined as a person) and a nonmoral ethics. What would be included in a nonmoral ethics? It would be things that do not fit the moral rule, yet fits the above definition of ethics. Thus, Jewish and Muslim prohibition on the eating of pork would be an issue of ethics, but not of morals. Such a prohibition comes about in order to help people avoid illness, and is affected by the feeling of disgust.

It also occurs to me that there would also be a moral justice and a nonmoral justice. A moral justice would involve the second half of the above statement, involving defense and punishment. However, there is also a nonmoral justice, as demonstrated by the ultimatum game, in which a person is given money and has to split the money with a second, who can choose whether or not to accept the offer -- with the consequence that if the second turns down the offer, neither get money. The ultimatum game shows people will reject low offers, because they think them to be unfair. This is nonmoral because you cannot harm someone by preventing them from getting what the did not already have, but only by taking from then what is already theirs.

Of course, again, this all requires much more to work.

An Information-Theoretic Primer on Complexity, Self-Organization, and Emergence

An Information-Theoretic Primer on Complexity, Self-Organization, and Emergence

Given my book Diaphysics, how can I not be interested in this? 

The Author and the Narrator

I was looking at a poem I wrote recently and posted on my poetry blog, Too You, Too Me, Too Us, and I began to think about how such a poem could be misinterpreted as being about an episode in the author's life. Since I am the author, I am certainly in a situation to address whether or not this particular poem is about something in my life. It is not. Those who know me have nothing to fear: no such arguments in fact take place between Anna and me.

So why did I write the poem? Well, on one of my recent songs, I made a typo, leaving off the "ng" of young in a line that had "I was too young." A commenter on my poetry blog pointed it out, hoping it was intentional, but suspecting, based on the context, that I had in fact mean "too young." I thought the idea of "too you" was an interesting one, too, and decided to write a poem around that idea.

The outcome was the above poem. A poem or a story has both an author and a narrator. They are not necessarily the same. Very often they are not the same. It is a fallacy to equate the author with the narrator in a creative work like a poem, short story, or novel. Looking to an author's biography can help one to understand his works, but not by confusing the experiences of the author with the characters and/or narrators of his works.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Markets and Morality

Herbert Gintis on markets and morality. I am glad this is a current topic, given my current interests. Which only means I need to step on it if I'm going to strike while the iron's hot. As Gintis points out, markets make one more moral, not less.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Political Ideology, Tribalism, and Morality

Here is an article that confirms my thesis that one only feels empathy -- meaning, one only acts morally -- toward those one considers to be in one's tribe. It turns out that knowing someone's ideology affects whether or not you empathize with them. But what does it say that Republicans are slightly less empathetic (96%) toward other Republicans than Democrats are to Democrats (100%), but more empathetic to Democrats (9.5%) than Democrats are to them (0%)? Indeed, politics makes people mean. But this is really only just a particular example of our tribalism.

The Social Sources of Cultural Creativity

Randall Collins' theory in The Sociology of Philosophies is, essentially, Nietzschean in nature.

He argues that agonal relations are what drive philosophical change. This results in what he calls the "law of small numbers," meaning only a few sets of philosophies can emerge -- too few, and there are splits; too many, and there is synthesis. Agonal relations are what drive both.

But there is more to it than this that makes the idea Nietzschean. Nietzsche argued that societies with strong cultures were small and diverse, but with freedom of movement and cosmopolitan in nature. There had to be both conflict and an ability to move around freely and exchange ideas. But there could not be true uniformity, even if there was enough commonality to allow for the exchange of ideas. Nietzsche's ideals were the independent German states and the ancient Greek city-states.


The substantive contents of philosophy are different in China and Greece; the similarities are at the level of the network structure. In both the law of small numbers was operative early, as multiple factions emerged to fill the new intellectual attention space. In both cases the precipitating conditions involved political pluralism, the cosmopolitanism of commercial development and literacy, and a breakdown of traditional religious practices. (146)

He points out that the same is true of the development of ancient Indian philosophy as well (177).

If you want a vibrant development of philosophical ideas, you need political pluralism, the cosmopolitanism created by free trade and education, and a breakdown of the dominant world view. If you have increasing political unity, trade barriers, a less educated (in a real sense of high levels of learning vs. mere signalling) public, and a dominant world view, you are not going to have a vibrant philosophical community.

Nor are you going to have a vibrant artistic community. Consider the times when the Western arts became most creative: the tragic age of Greece, the Renaissance, and Modernism. Each were times of high political pluralism, free movement of goods and people, an emphasis on more widespread learning, and the breakdown of dominant ideologies. It is no coincidence that Modernism emerged in the aftermath of WWI.

Nietzsche argued that the strength of a culture is inversely proportional to the power of the government within that society. A strong government/political economy means a weak gift economy. The United States is facing a time of stagnant art, literature, and philosophy. It is no coincident that it is coinciding with a time when we are becoming more politically united (vs. the ideal political plurality of the 50 different states), with less economic freedom, where learning is being replaced with schooling-as-signalling, and where the political ideology is identical in the two dominant parties. The fact that we are generally disunited religiously is in fact a point in our favor. But we are practically all united in the religion of politics, where we try to emphasize false differences in order to justify our choice of tribe. We will have to reverse all these trends if we want a culturally vibrant, creative United States.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Toward a Theory of Moral Change and Constancy

A moral action is a right action in the right circumstances for the right reason. It has a narrative structure. Like language, it has a grammar. A subject acts on or in relation to an object. Specifically, a character acts in relation to another person. This is related to the idea of virtue ethics, where one develops one’s character by always aiming at the beautiful/good(to kalon). From this character (ethos), one acts to achieve certain goals. One’s ethos affects what goals one wishes to achieve, but it cannot necessarily tell you how to achieve that goal. That is where the science of praxeology comes in. Praxeology tells us what actions to take to achieve our goals, no matter what our goals may be. One uses one’s character to judge whether the actions are themselves good (the ends do not justify the means). Thus, for there to be a fully moral action, a person of good character must engage in a good action capable of achieving the desired goal, which itself should be good. If you do this, what you have done is good. If you fail to choose the right action, what you have done is bad (we would not tell an architect who built a bad bridge out of ignorance that he was, nevertheless, a good architect because he meant well). If you have a bad goal, and you use the right action to achieve it, then what you did is evil. If you are of bad character, but you engage in good action that results in a good outcome, then what you have done is what was described by Bernard Mandeville in his The Fable of the Bees. It turns out a considerable amount of good can come from this latter structure, but since I am talking about morality in its fullest expression, we will leave that aside. However, if spontaneous orders are beautiful, or at least potentially so, then we have an idea of what virtue should aim at. This will bring us back to the issues of the varieties of economies. As I have pointed out before, moral instincts --> moral spontaneous order --> moral reasoning. That is morality in a nutshell.

The idea of “personhood” is central to my theory of morality. But so is the fact that we have moral instincts, which are part of our repertoire of instincts, or cultural universals.  In the same way that we do not have a choice but to language when we are surrounded by language users, because we have a language instinct, and in the same way the particular language spoken by those around us is what determines what language we use, even if we can learn more languages later in life and, with some of the greatest poets, introduce elements of other languages into the mother language, morality is similarly both universal and learned. That is, we all have a moral instinct much like we have a language instinct. The fact that there is variation of moral expression is no more an argument against the existence of this instinct than is the presence of variation among languages an argument against the existence of an instinct. The fact that we can identify grammatically-structured sounds as a language certainly suggests that there must be some commonality among the languages to make them identifiable as being the same thing. The same would be true of morality. We can identify the moral codes of a given culture. How, unless there were commonalities with other moral codes that make them identifiable as such? Further, there are gene variations that can derail language learning, in much the same way there are gene variations that can derail moral learning.

The bottom line is that there is an inherited moral sense. Or senses. They become developed as they are expressed due to the moral environment in which the person in question is raised. The Westermarck effect, which is expressed more strongly in girls than in boys, and which is expressed toward those with whom one has been raised up to about the age of 6, results in the moral prohibitions against incest. There are variations on this, with cousin marriages prohibited in some places, but not in others, for example. But this prohibition against marrying cousins is a pretty recent development, and is a considerable extension of the incest avoidance principle. There are those who may object that there have been societies that allowed or even outright encouraged incest, such as the tradition of alternate generations of ancient Egyptian rulers marrying their sisters, but if we look closely, we can discover how these are not in fact violations, but demonstrate the variety of ways we define “personhood.”

Egyptian rulers were not considered persons, but were rather considered divine. This divinity was reinforced through the alternating generations of brother-sister marriages, which both reinforced the ruling line and reflected Egyptian mythology, which included stories of divine incest. This is why society did not object, and in fact thought it right. Insofar as brothers and sisters are raised apart, no Westermarck effect can develop. But if they are raised together, we should expect to see less fertility in such unions. Historically, when we see these kinds of incestuous marriages, these are the patterns we see. Incest only “feels wrong” when the Westermarck effect can properly develop. Thus, these so-called “exceptions” are shown to not really be exceptions. Sexual morality evolves, but within clear parameters.

Another example is murder. What is murder? Murder is the purposeful killing of a person. A person is anyone considered to be equal to you insofar as they are a “fellow human being.” Different societies have different definitions of what constitutes a person. In some societies, women, children (especially female children), deformed children, slaves, members of other tribes, members of other religions, people who have the wrong ideology, unborn children, and/or criminals are not considered to be persons. Darwin suggested that our morality increased as our notion of who is in our tribe expanded. You could, over the centuries, go from all male members of the tribe to all members of the tribe to slaves (at which point slavery becomes immoral) to other tribes to other religions to other ideologies. Eventually we come to those who consider all human beings to be persons. And we see a development of the concept of personhood being applied to animals.

However, we see in a variety of cultures rituals that make certain individuals no longer considered to be persons. To perform a human sacrifice of a member of your tribe, you first have to perform a ritual to remove them from the tribe. Jews and Muslims have to kill animals as they do because they have to be as kind to the animals as possible. This suggests a certain concept of animal personhood, since a ritual must be performed to kill the animal for food. And in places with capital punishment, a ritual (court proceedings) is performed that removes the human being on trial from society and strips him of his personhood so that he can be killed. Those who oppose the death penalty essentially disagree that this ritual performs this function. Those who oppose abortion essentially extend personhood back to conception (in the most extreme cases). The disagreements in these areas involve both definitions of personhood and whether or not certain rituals can in fact remove someone’s personhood. And this is also extended to a variety of violent acts we can make toward each other. The more developed our sense of the other’s personhood, the less violence we can justify to ourselves we can do to them. This would expand to rape as well, as this is a violation of an individual’s personhood in denying them a choice in sexual matters.

From our evolved sense of property rights is where our opposition to theft emerges. Out of our instinct for property emerges individualism itself and ritual. Thus, we need to understand our evolutionary relationship to territory/property rights to understand our morality and our artistic expressions, which develop out of ritual. As we have seen, too, ritual performs certain social realities, including whether or not someone is considered a person, or a full person (as adulthood rituals perform into becoming). Ritual then also points to how we may facilitate more people’s inclusion into our societies, encouraging us and them to consider more and more people to be persons.

But there are more subtle morals, manners, etc. Kenrick et al gives us the dynamic mechanism by which even the most subtle variations in morality can emerge from a universal core. I cannot recommend his two articles on this topic. More work needs to be done in this promising area.

If morality is the right action in the right circumstances, then moral action is the right action for and in the right economy. Consider the following:

Gift economy

What makes one a good artist? What makes one a bad artist?
What makes one a good scientist? What makes one a bad scientist?
What makes one a good philanthropist? What makes one a bad philanthropist?
That is, what constitutes good action within the gift economy?

Market economy

What makes one a good entrepreneur? What makes one a bad entrepreneur?
What makes one a good salesman? What makes one a bad salesman?
What makes one a good capitalist? What makes one a bad capitalist?
What makes one a good financier? What makes one a bad financier?
What makes one a good banker? What makes one a bad banker?
That is, what constitutes good action within the market economy?

Political economy

What makes good governance? What makes bad governance?
What makes one a good governor/executive? What makes one a bad governor/executive?
What makes one a good legislator? What makes one a bad legislator?
What makes one a good judge? What makes one a bad judge?
What makes one a good citizen? What makes one a bad citizen?
That is, what constitutes good action in the political economy?

Divine economy

What makes one a good pastor/religious leader? What makes one a bad pastor/religious leader?
What makes one a good believer? What makes one a bad believer?
What makes one good? What makes one bad? What makes one evil?
That is, what constitutes good action in the divine economy?

Each has actions that are good within that economy. However, what is good action in one economy is not good action in another economy.

And I haven't even brought up the issue of justice, which certainly deserves increased development. Since personhood is central to my theory of morality, I will say we must beware of dehumanizing theories of justice.

And then, this is also all connected to the Gravesean theory of  psychosocial evolution.

I feel a complete model of morality coming about.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Moral Actions in the Economies

Ethics is based on character (ethos); morality is based on action. The ethical person aims at the beautiful/good; the actions one takes to achieve those actions are moral actions.

I have written a series of posts on the different kinds of economies, and the actions one takes to participate in those economies. I previously suggested that "it seems to me that when we confuse these orders and the actions appropriate to them, we may in fact be acting unethically." Given my distinctions above, I would now reword it to state that one would be acting immorally. This would make sense if morality is based on action.

The different economies each have different actions associated with them.

Consider the following scenarios.

If you apply market action (mutual exchange) to:

the political economy, you are bribing

the gift economy, you are buying the scientific or artistic outcome you want, regardless of its truth, goodness, or beauty

the divine economy, you are scamming people

If you apply political action (master-slave) to:

the market economy, you are stealing

the gift economy, you are censoring to prevent the discovery of truth, goodness, or beauty

the divine economy, you are imposing your morals/values

If you apply gift action (love of others) to:

the market economy, you actually place your business in danger of losing profit and, thus, of shutting down and losing people their jobs (this is the situation Milton Friedman famously described when asked if corporations should behave altruistically, and he argued that if they did so, they would be acting unethically)

the political economy, you get the welfare state or socialism

the divine economy, you get outright destruction of the divine economy, or nihilism

If you apply divine action (sacrifice) to:

the market economy, you undermine the profits necessary for your business to survive (similarly to if you try to apply the gift economy to the market economy)

the political economy, you get theocracy

the gift economy, you get self-censorship (of science, one's art, etc.) to avoid offense

This list is a first approximation of the moral issues at play in confusing one's actions and one's economies. Note that it is really the misapplication of the gift economy to the others that creates the problems we see today. This is a surprising outcome, unless one realized the gift economy is the latest one to emerge. It may be that, in its birthing process, a new economy gets overapplied in its actions and values to the other economies.

As I said, this is a first approximation. I am certainly open to suggestions, modifications, etc. This is an idea I am thinking through, and revisions are expected and necessary. So please, critique, comment, suggest!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Bipolar Feedback Prices

According to mainstream (neoclassical) economics, price is determined by the negative feedback of  both supply and demand interacting with one another. As the supply of a good goes up relative to demand, the price goes down; as demand for it goes up relative to supply, the price goes down.

Underlying the supply of a given good, there are producer costs affecting how much will be produced. The law of diminishing returns (negative feedback) says that you will get less and less value out of something over time. You can only get so much work out of people, at incrementally lower levels. You can only get so much work out of a machine. Crops can only be grown at a certain 2-D density.

Underlying the demand for a given good, we have the law of diminishing marginal utility (negative feedback), which affects how much demand one has for a given good at a given time. I will likely pay more for the first apple than for the second. I will probably not buy more apples than I can eat before they rot. Thus, my demand for a given good decreases the more of that good I have.

Again, this is traditional, neoclassical economics. From this we get our supply and demand curves, and from their intersection, we get the market clearing price. This is the equilibrium price.

But this is wrong. This is not how prices come about.

The problem is that with only negative feedback, we have only half the equation. What if there is positive feedback? Let us look at what would happen in a positive feedback-only economy.

The positive feedback version of the law of diminishing returns is the law of increasing returns. How can we have increasing returns? If the marginal cost of producing something decreases with each unit created, we would have increasing returns. Software is a good example of this. So would be e-books (paper books abide by the law of diminishing returns). However, there is another example of this outside of knowledge/information-based products, and that is the agglomeration economies of cities. The existence of spillover effects and mass production creates increasing returns (at least for a while, in the latter case). Thus, increasing urbanization and increasing virtualization result in increased positive feedback.

The positive feedback version of the law of diminishing marginal utility is the law of increasing marginal utility. While it is true that individual consumers must necessarily abide by the law of diminishing marginal utility, groups do not. Fads cause more and more product to get purchased. Of course, there are various mechanisms that can drive a fad, from those that drive fashion fads to those that drive things like housing bubbles. The former may be accurately described by things like Keynes' "animal spirits," but the latter likely have underlying mechanisms more accurately described by Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Whatever the case, if you can get a lot of people buying something, you can get positive feedback.

As pointed out above, negative feedback results in equilibrium. Positive feedback, however, results in boom-bust cycles and multiple equilibria. If you had a positive feedback fire, it would get hotter and hotter over time, until it suddenly became too hot and burned itself out. This is the description of a bubble, be it a housing bubble or a fad.

But note that negative feedback models, which give us the equilibrium theory of prices, is based on viewing people as individuals. The individual producer has diminishing returns; the individual consumer has diminishing marginal utility. However, if we view the economy as being a group of people, producers can have increasing returns and consumers have increasing marginal utility. This can cause one to come to the conclusion that a future of abundance is possible (and if an abundance economy is possible, socialism is possible). Such people would have to ignore the fact that increasing returns are not infinite, and in fact result in not just boom, but bust as well. But one can nevertheless see why they would make such an error.

However, if we understand people as being what they in fact are, both individuals and social, we have to consider both negative and positive feedback processes simultaneously.

With both kinds of feedback, supply is determined by both diminishing and increasing returns, demand is determined by both diminishing and increasing marginal utility. Both interact. Thus, the supply of a good cannot reach an equilibrium point, but must always fluctuate in ways that are incalculable and unpredictable. For the same reason, demand cannot reach an equilibrium, but must always fluctuate in ways that are incalculable and unpredictable. Thus, we would not have the smooth curves we see when we draw supply and demand curves, but lines that would instead look more like the graph for a given stock over time. Worse, these two complex processes then have to interact to create the price of that good. Thus, price is inherently incalculable and unpredictable. Without the ability to calculate what the price "should" be, if there is not any such thing as a market clearing price, dreams of even market socialism must fall away.

Bipolar feedback drives a large number of complex, creative processes. The economy is but one kind of such a process. As we can see, we have bipolar feedback (increasing vs. diminishing returns/marginal utility) underlying both supply and demand, which are themselves bipolar feedback processes. This is complex, creative process on top of complex, creative process. The economy thus becomes increasingly incalculable, the more such processes we realize are part of the economy.