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Where oil comes from

I have long believed (and still believe) that oil comes from dead life (hence "fossil fuel"). As explained in Wikipedia:

All oils, with their high carbon and hydrogen content, can be traced back to organic sources. Mineral oils, found in porous rocks underground, are no exception, as they were originally the organic material, such as dead plankton, accumulated on the seafloor in geologically ancient times.

But now here's the latest from Titan:

According to new Cassini data, Saturns largest moon, Titan, has "hundreds" times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the liquid fossil fuel deposits on Earth. This is impressive as Titan's 5150 km diameter is only about 50% larger than Earth's Moon and only a little larger than the planet Mercury. Titan's hydrocarbons cycle into the atmosphere, fall as rain and collect in lakes creating massive lakes and dunes.

Titan is a planet-sized hydrocarbon factory. Instead of water, vast quantities of organic chemicals rain down on the moon's surface, pooling in huge reservoirs of liquid methane and ethane. Solid carbon-based molecules are also present in the dune region around the equator, dwarfing Earth's total coal supplies. Carl Sagan coined the term "tholins" to describe prebiotic chemicals, and the dunes of Titan are expected to be teeming with them.

This may all be entirely what the experts expected, but it does suggest the question: if Titan is full of this stuff and never had life, then is it possible that at least some of Earth's oil and gas are not from dead life after all? As it happens, years ago I came across a theory - evidently not widely accepted to this day, presumably for good reason - that Earth's oils do not, in fact, come from dead life.


Treading water with Instapunk

A good entry over at Instapunk. Some highlights.

... we elected a president ... The show is over, and everyone is dully channel-surfing, looking for something, anything, else that might be on. ...

The post-election Obama seems a mere shadow of the presence he was under the klieg lights. Now he seems withdrawn, leaden, almost inert, like a show prop being stored in a closet. ...

Meanwhile, every other industry in the nation seems to have its hand out. Suddenly no business enterprise can hope to succeed unless it secures a place on the giant new government tit that's been pulled out of the federal corset. ...

It's all just killing time. Treading water. Waiting for the next shoe to drop. A shoe that belongs to Barack Obama, whoever he is ...

So far he hasn't even roused himself enough to sound hopeful about the state of the economy or the prospects for its recovery. Instead, he murmurs bleakly about trillion dollar deficits for years. ...

we're all treading water and the news business has apparently gone out of business, just like the banks, the car companies, the Republican Party, and the U.S. Congress.

When you tread water long enough, fatigue begins to steal over you. As you lose energy, you begin to lose hope. At some point you surrender and drown.


Predetermined lessons

I think the financial meltdown teaches us that government interference in the economy is a very bad thing. Maybe this is a predetermined lesson, but at least I have specific reasons for believing this - such as, that the financial crisis is in large part a consequence of large numbers of people failing to repay loans which were foolishly made to them, and these loans were made at the insistence of politicians such as Barney Frank in order, essentially, to buy votes.

Meanwhile, Thomas Frank draws a different predetermined lesson (via Cafe Hayek). According to him:

The moguls whose exploits we used to follow with such fascination, it now seems, plowed the country into the ground precisely because of the fabulous rewards that were showered on them.

Massive inequality, we have learned, isn't the best way to run an economy after all. And when you think about it, it's also profoundly ugly.

Thomas Frank doesn't offer any reason aside from his own assertion for believing that "massive inequality" caused the financial meltdown. So, deleting the unsupported claims, we are left with:

Massive inequality [is] profoundly ugly.

Inequality, if it is profoundly ugly, has always been profoundly ugly. If Thomas Frank currently thinks that it is profoundly ugly, then he has, presumably, thought this for a long time. This ugliness has nothing to do with the financial meltdown. It appears, in fact, that the financial meltdown that Frank begins his essay with is no more than an excuse for him to write an essay about the supposed ugliness of inequality.

A woman named Alex Kuczynski hired a surrogate mother and then wrote about her own experience. Thomas Frank finds profound ugliness in that essay and uses this as evidence that inequality is profoundly ugly. Mr. Franks's specific examples of ugliness:

Ugliness 1) Ms. Kuczynski was a gossip columnist who eventually married a rich man. That Mr. Frank faults her for this (i.e. both for having been a gossip columnist and for marrying into wealth) is evident in the disdainful way he writes about it:

For years Ms. Kuczynski worked the plutocracy beat for the New York Times ...

Kuczynski's trademark concern for the moneyed ...

Ugliness 2) Ms. Kuczynski hired a surrogate mother. Mr. Frank faults her for this:

The story starts with Ms. Kuczynski's infertility, which is genuinely piteous, but quickly goes wrong, as she and her husband decide to hire a woman to carry their child and review applications from women with available wombs.

Strongly suggesting that it was wrong to hire a surrogate mother. Additionally Mr. Frank writes a long paragraph criticizing surrogate motherhood as immoral, victimizing the surrogate mother. He assigns this criticism to "some believe", but it is evident that he is among those "some". For instance, he offers no counterargument, except as something to jeer at.

Ugliness 3) Ms. Kuczynski is not appalled by the practice of surrogate motherhood, and is not convinced by the arguments against surrogate motherhood that he has outlined:

Ms. Kuczynski is not entirely oblivious to these issues; indeed, she considers them for several poignant paragraphs before inevitably brushing them off.

Ugliness 4) Ms. Kuczynski (with the willing assistance of the surrogate mother) prefers language which minimizes the relationship between the surrogate mother and the baby.

Ugliness 5) Ms. Kuczynski fails to understand that "how our system works" is the reason that college and surrogacy are available to people like Ms. Kuczynski and not to other people. It is also the reason that there is surrogate motherhood:

all this reproduction-for-hire was a product of her billionaire-centric world

Ugliness 6) Ms. Kuczynski lives the life of a rich, non-pregnant woman in the late stages of the surrogate mother's pregnancy.

Ugliness 7) Ms. Kuczynski, the author of the memoir, writes about her own experiences and only peripherally about the point of view of the surrogate mother, whom Mr. Frank calls a "remarkable woman", though he presents no reason for considering her remarkable apart from the fact that she is a surrogate mother. I will quote a short bit, to give a taste of Mr. Frank's disdain:

About Ms. Kuczynski's own feelings and fears and cravings we get paragraph after maudlin paragraph. The one who does the labor is almost completely silent.

Ugliness 8) Ms. Kuczynski is rich and the surrogate mother is not.

I haven't really commented on this from my point of view. Here I'm mostly restricting myself to examining Mr. Frank's point of view.


Bad Egg

I was surprised to learn that OJ had committed another major crime. It confirms the bad egg theory of crime, a theory which I now believe in more strongly than before: the commission of a serious crime either makes you into a bad egg, or else proves that you were a bad egg all along. Criminality is not just a kind of behavior, it's also a character trait.

If you commit a serious crime, you are a bad egg, or are made into a bad egg. If you are a bad egg, you will commit a crime again. If you commit a crime and get away with it, worry not. You will continue to commit crimes and will eventually be caught. Case in point.


Detroit Can't Sell Cars, Tries Theater

Two weeks ago, GM's CEO flew from Detroit to Washington on a corporate jet to ask the nation's lawmakers to rescue his embattled company.

The action provoked a loud Bronx cheer, so yesterday, acting like the ordinary American he is not, the hapless fellow was driven to the nation's capital.

He rode in a black hybrid Chevrolet Malibu, the kind of high-mileage vehicle that critics say Detroit should be concentrating on.

The trip through four states was 500 miles, and Wagoner - no elitist, he - did some of the driving himself. When not driving, he sat in the passenger's seat and made calls on his cellphone, wearing sunglasses to protect him from the glare.

The car ride is a gesture of self-humiliation intended to placate an audience that has been throwing ripe fruit at the stage. GM's latest product is the theatrical self-flagellation of its executives.

It's hard to blame GM. The management is fulfilling its obligation to its owners. Congress has sent out the signal that they are a gathering of gullible dimwits with a tremendous pile of cash and a ready ear for Fortune 500 sob stories. It would be irresponsible to the owners of GM not to act accordingly.

(via The Drudge Report)


If you don't understand, don't tinker

Russ Roberts writes:

How can any economist today argue for say, a stimulus package, with any confidence? Or a further lowering of interest rates by the Fed? ... Doesn't the current situation and the inability of macroeconomists to predict it (or to have any certainty about whether we are going to have a mild recession or a serious Depression) suggest some humility?

Someone could reply that this works both ways. If we really can't predict whether an intervention will help or hurt, then by the same token we can't predict whether failure to intervene will help or hurt. This symmetry can then be used as a license by those who are inclined to intervene.

But the real situation is not symmetrical. A blind intervention is (on average) harmful. We can clearly see this in familiar cases. Blindly hitting keys while editing a document will harm the document. Blindly cutting into a patient will harm the patient. Blindly operating on a car engine will harm the engine. Blindly drinking random chemicals will kill you. Blind activity is harmful.

Blind action is more harmful than no action at all. Russ Roberts is pointing out that interventions are blind. It follows that the expected outcome of these actions is to harm the economy.


A flimsy pretext for naked aggression

Bryan Caplan throws down the gauntlet on immigration.

It's reasonable to insist that people get your permission to come to your home. It's absurd to insist that people get your permission to live in your neighbor's house* - much less than people get your permission to live in a hundred-mile radius of you. That's on par with the schoolyard bully's grievance that "You're breathing my air." We should see it for what it is - a flimsy pretext for naked aggression.

The idea is not especially new - standard libertarian position on immigration - but the expression is stark and concise, and I like the phrase, "a flimsy pretext for naked aggression," which begs to be recycled, possibly as a heading.

Arthur B.! You're breathing my air!


pb > c

In this article, we find a possible justification of bias (yes, justification, not merely explanation). From the article:

whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity. They begin with the formula pb > c, where a belief may be held when the cost (c) of doing so is less than the probability (p) of the benefit (b). For example, believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.

(actually, I believe the above should read: when the cost (c) of doing so is less than the probability (p) times the benefit (b))

This suggests a justification for belief which can differ from person to person, depending on their goals, because their goals affect the costs and benefits. Rationally, we should do whatever maximizes our expected benefit - and this means that in particular we should believe whatever maximizes our expected benefit. This makes sense, I think. We do indeed need to weigh false positives against false negatives. How can we weigh them, except on the basis of maximization of benefit to ourselves?

If Abe favors markets and Ben favors socialism and if Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is false, then the cost to Abe of the false belief that AGW is true is greater than the cost to Ben. This false belief will increase the scope of socialism within the mixed economy, which is a greater cost to Abe than it is to Ben.

And the same with the reverse: if Abe as above favors markets and Ben favors socialism, then if AGW is true, then the cost to Abe of the false belief that AGW is false is less than the cost to Ben of the false belief that AGW is false, because the false belief will increase the scope of capitalism within the mixed economy.

This is just a preliminary look at the idea of pb>c - my particular application here may be half-baked but I think there's something here.

Just to be clear: this analysis does not recommend believing a knowable falsehood. Maybe it potentially could, but to expand on the rustle in the grass example: if the rustle in the grass is wind, then it is better to believe that it is wind than a predator. And if the rustle is a predator, then it is better to believe that it is a predator than the wind. So, whatever the truth happens to be, it is better to believe the truth than to believe a falsehood. But if the only evidence available is the rustle in the grass, which might be a predator and might be the wind, then whether it makes sense to treat it as (and therefore to believe that it is) the wind, or as a predator, or (a third so-far unmentioned option) to suspend judgment, depends on probabilities and costs and benefits.


Without a compass, we walk in circles

Responding to Climate and Bias.

The world continually gives us information that we can use to compensate for our various biases - so that we can go through life without those biases ever manifesting themselves visibly. One reads about the tendency of people to walk in circles (consistently veering off course to the left, or consistently to the right) if they don't have any clues to tell them which way they're going. This tendency does not manifest itself in daily life on familiar ground and might never manifest itself, since few people walk deep into forests without preparation.

And I think that a similar situation exists with claims about the weather and the economy. The difficulty of really testing certain ideas about the weather and the economy is analogous to being lost in a forest without any directional cues. In that situation our biases shape our view much as a left/right bias shapes our walk. And it's not as though we could decide, "okay, now I will be unbiased." We need cues not only in order to correct for our biases, but even in order to tell whether and how much and in what way we are biased. If we're in a forest and we find ourselves walking in circles, we can at least calculate roughly how large the circle is if we happen to recognize a spot that we passed before. But in the case of many ideas about the economy and the weather we may not even have that much to go on.

The "global warming debate" is in any case less about competing specific claims than about the level of certainty that we can rightly claim to have about the world's climate.

Consider two kinds of disagreement. One disagreement is between specific predictions:

a) X will happen.

b) X will not happen.

Another kind of disagreement is about the level of certainty:

c) We can be pretty sure that X will happen.

d) We really don't know whether X will happen (a skeptical position, e.g. global warming skepticism).

When the subject is something like economics or the weather, my view is that the best answer between (c) and (d) is usually (d), with few exceptions. But the answer that is usually given, or at least implied, is (c).

And since (I think) (d) is the correct answer, then the disagreement between (a) and (b) cannot really be resolved. Both (a) and (b) are tenable - but they are not tenable with any certainty.

However, we can step back one level and consider the following two competing claims:

e) We can be pretty sure whether (c) or (d) is correct.

f) We really don't know whether (c) or (d) is correct.

That is, it may (e.g. to the satisfaction of all reasonable onlookers) be hard to decide whether it is hard to decide whether (a) or (b) is correct. The global warming debate is between statements like (c) and (d); the various parties are in agreement about (e), though they disagree about whether it is (c) or (d) which is clearly correct. Someone observing the global warming debate can step back and observe that, evidently, people are disagreeing about (c) and (d), which suggests that (f) may be true.


Libertarian pessimism

Responding to Libertarianism and Positive Psychology

What if it is objectively true (as I think it is) that it is safer for the meek individual to live in a free society than under a socialist state? In that case the individual who feels pessimistic might reasonably and rightly grab onto the market as onto a life vest.

In neither a market nor a socialist economy does the individual truly stand alone. In both cases the typical individual is entirely dependent on the system, without which he would die. The difference is that the support provided by the market is the unintentional byproduct of millions of people who are not, even in the abstract, trying to keep a particular person alive. But in the case of the socialist state, the state can be said to be trying to keep everyone, and therefore (in the abstract) each particular person, alive. For example, when I buy gasoline, I am not trying to feed the gasoline attendant. I am there for my car and for myself, not for the attendant. But I am, nevertheless, indirectly feeding the attendant - without intending to. In contrast, in a fully socialist economy people are not going to survive unless the state tries to keep them alive.

In case that last point is not clear, I'll explain. In a fully socialist economy, wheat is grown because the state directs it. Bread is baked because the state commands it. Everything that happens, happens at the command (the direction) of the state. So if the commands are not given, then the stuff will not be made. So, whatever the state commands, will be made, and what it does not, will not. If the higher-up does not direct his underlings to feed the people, then they in turn will not command that the wheat be grown, the flour be made, the bread be baked. In order for people to survive, then, the state must try to keep them alive. Socialism is precarious in part because it depends on the conscious intention of people at high levels, since they may, after all, forget, or change their minds. This is ironic, because it is this dependence of socialism on conscious intention that makes people think that it is especially safe and secure.

People tend to believe that things will not happen that are not willed. This has different facets. If something happens, people tend to think it was willed to happen (possibly by a witch). And on the other side, in order for something to happen, people think it needs to be willed to happen. And in a market, there is no such will, while in a socialist state there is. So people tend erroneously to think that in markets, things that they are worried about will not happen while in socialist economies they will. And so, erroneously, they favor socialism thinking that it will keep them safe, even though the truth is that socialism endangers them.


Morality and infinity

The simplest moral distinction may be the binary distinction between wrong and right.

But there are important moral distinctions that can be made between different wrong acts. Some acts are worse than others. One distinction that can be made is the punishment merited by the act - no longer a binary distinction.

For each wrong act, then, we might state the punishment that it merits. Having done this, the statement that it is a wrong act is, on the face of it, superfluous, since the wrongness of the act would seem to consist in its meriting a certain punishment. How can an act be wrong if it does not merit any punishment? So instead of classifying acts according to whether they are wrong, we might classify them according to what punishment they merit (and of course most acts merit no punishment at all).

But now we are relying on the idea that a certain punishment is "merited". But what does this mean? It seems to mean something like this: normally it would be wrong to put someone in a cell for a year, but because they committed a certain act (e.g. theft), it is not wrong to do that. So "merit" seems, itself, to be a binary statement about wrong and right - one which, as explained above, fails to make important non-binary distinctions. And since it is a statement about right and wrong, we can perform the same operation on the punishment that we performed on the original act, replacing the binary right/wrong distinction with a non-binary distinction among punishments merited by the act.

Rather than say:

Theft merits the punishment of one year in prison,

we say:

Putting a thief in prison for one year merits no punishment.

We can perform this operation recursively. For example:

Putting someone in prison for putting a thief in prison for one year merits one year in prison.

Putting someone in prison for one year for putting someone in prison for putting a thief in prison for one year merits no punishment.

And so on.

This recursion is, of course, more than the human mind can handle on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it's really there, lurking "behind" moral statements. Events can happen which act out the chain at a deep level. A corrupt official might be imprisoned for a list of crimes, one of which might be to have placed a judge in prison for having placed one of the official's cronies in prison. There is no question that the corrupt official deserves to be in prison and that his jailers do not, for that just act, themselves deserve punishment. But to recognize this is to recognize that:

It would be unjust to jail someone for jailing someone for jailing someone for jailing a thief.

In the specific hypothetical:

It would be unjust to jail the official's jailers for jailing the official for jailing the judge for jailing a thief.

This recursion (I'm not sure it's a recursion - I can't think of a better word) can be carried out arbitrarily far. But not to infinity, because both ends are needed - i.e., there must be an end that contains the punishment that is or is not merited, and there must be an end that contains the initial act which hypothetically gives rise to the contemplated chain of punishments. And since this cannot be carried out to infinity, ultimately we are left with a binary judgment that such-and-such act is wrong or right.


Some economics of invasion and the state

(I am not an economist - these are just some rough ideas.)

If someone overthrows the state, he overthrows it both for himself and his neighbor. So the overthrow of a state is a public good, and the public good is undersupplied. Consequence: states will not be overthrown even if everyone would benefit from their overthrow.

But if someone could, in effect, overthrow the state for himself without overthrowing it for his neighbor, then the overthrow of the state would be a private good, and it would not be undersupplied. Consequence: if everyone benefits from the (piecemeal) overthrow of their state, then states will be overthrown.

Two ways of effectively overthrowing a state for oneself but not for one's neighbor:

1) Emigrating.

2) Hiding one's person, activities and property from the state.

Farmers living near each other are easy targets, because a key asset, land, cannot easily be emigrated or hidden from the state, and the overthrow of the state is a public good if (as is likely) the nearness of the farmers places them into the territory of the same state.

A state which relied on a single farmer would have its own resources limited by that farmer's productivity. But a state which relied on many farmers living in an area would have at its disposal resources taken from all the farmers together, which it could use to put down an uprising by a single farmer. Of course, if all the farmers rose together to overthrow the state then the state would not have a chance. But the overthrow of the state is a public good, and public goods are undersupplied.

But how can a state arise? If farmers are living together, a single invader slightly stronger and more determined than one farmer can defeat the farmer. Having defeated the farmer, the invader can use the farmer's assets to strengthen its power and defeat the next farmer. One by one the farmers fall and the invader's strength snowballs. The farmers could defeat the invader by acting together, but repulsion of an invader is a public good, and public goods are undersupplied.

On the face of it, the economics seems to favor conquest and state, if people's key assets are hard to move, hard to hide, and located near enough each other for a single invader/state to conquer/claim as territory. If any of these three changes, then the economics of the state and of successful invasion, which depends on all of these, changes and possibly reverses.


Consequentialist Fox sacrifices truth to the greater good

Fox News will attempt to maximize global utility.

Ailes responded to the report in the New York Daily News that he instructed FNC to tone down attacks on President-elect Barack Obama. He denied giving specific orders, but said he told staffers "all presidents deserve time to get their team on the ground and get organized."

"We have some obligation in a new presidency not to attempt to destabilize it," he said.

News is to be reported, not on the deontological basis of whether or not it is true, but on the consequentialist basis of whether or not reporting it will destabilize the presidency, thereby threatening global utility.

Of course, we have long known that members of the media see their noble mission not as to inform their audience but as to promote the greater good by manipulating the public. It is too bad for the media that the paying customer remains the audience and not the greater good.


They decide all the elections

A nice illustration of Bryan Caplan's thesis.

Elections are decided by numbers, and the ignorant outnumber the knowledgeable, so the ignorant decide the outcome. This casts an odd light on the lengthy and detailed explanations by the hyper-informed as to why they voted the way they did. A single person only gets one vote, so it is hardly of earth-shattering importance how they voted, let alone why. Sure, a single voter's explanation may be of interest as a microcosm of what tens of millions of people were thinking. Were that only so! Alas, a writer informed enough to give a decent explanation of their vote does not represent the masses who actually decide an election.

But would the knowledgeable actually decide better than the ignorant? Knowledge can magnify error and bad judgment. People can use what they learn to reinforce their prejudices (e.g. confirmation bias).


Watchmen, Heroes, the Wrath of Khan, and the greater good

Major plot spoilers if you haven't seen (or read) one of these.

Linderman - the villain.

Rorschach - the only hero.

Spock - the hero because he sacrificed only himself, not someone else, to the greater good.

Utilitarianism - the moral philosophy of evildoers with god complexes.

Spock, as he died, espoused utilitarianism but applied it in a way that did not truly put it to the test. The nobility of his sacrifice ennobled what he said - but had he murdered someone else - i.e. killed an innocent person against their wishes - using that philosophy as an excuse, then the same philosophy would not have sounded nearly so noble. Spock's statement: "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few ... or the one."