Harris on Hoarding

Sam Harris thinks some people are too rich. Elliot Temple has already criticised this essay, but I want to pick up on one issue. Harris writes stuff like this:

Happily, not all billionaires are content to hoard their money in silence.

and this:

But even in the ideal case, where obvious value has been created, how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep? A trillion dollars? Ten trillion? (Fifty trillion is the current GDP of Earth.) Granted, there will be some limit to how fully wealth can concentrate in any society, for the richest possible person must still spend money on something, thereby spreading wealth to others. But there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China.

Let’s suppose that a person chooses to keep a very large amount of cash. Why does that matter? Let’s say this person takes $1 billion, buries it in his backyard in a locked chest and then flushes the key down the toilet. What will happen? There will be less money. Since there is less money consumers may decide to spend less on goods and services. The people providing those goods and services will then have to charge less, but the price of other stuff will fall too. The composition of the goods being bought will change too since the hoarder is buying less stuff. So there will be fewer orders for the items the hoarder would buy and this may have consequences for how much of that item gets made. But this is all business as usual – if customers don’t want X then don’t make it.

The amount of money in circulation isn’t important. What matters for your life isn’t having money per se. What you actually want is command over the resources you can buy with the money. What makes people better off is more stuff.

In reality, rich people don’t bury a load of money in their backyards cuz they’re not idiots. Rather, they invest money and keep some cash on hand in case they should need it. Under some circumstances, a person may choose to keep more cash. For example, if a person thinks the government may start coming after him for more taxes, he may keep more cash so he can spend it quickly on items that won’t be taxed. Harris advocates taxing rich people heavily. So Harris’s writings on rich people may help bring about the problem he fears.

Harris doesn’t mention any of these problems with his position because he doesn’t know about them. Would he start talking smack about quantum mechanics without knowing anything about it? No. He would think that’s stupid. But somehow he decided it wasn’t necessary to learn economics. Don’t act irrationally like Sam Harris, learn something about how markets work before you say stuff about economics.

Capitalism by George Reisman

The theory of money and credit by Ludwig von Mises

Political solutions and freedom of speech

Recently several controversial commentators have been barred from social media or from funding platforms, e.g. – Alex Jones and Robert Spencer. Some people are now claiming that big tech has a monopoly on communication and the government should regulate them.

The conduct of social media and funding platforms is a serious problem and it has been a serious problem for a while. Last year Patreon decided to add guidelines against adult content. I could probably find other examples. In general it looks to me like platforms are worried about satisfying an increasingly narrow standard of respectability. This standard is slanted somewhat to the left in politics because the left currently totally dominates political and moral discussions. This standard is also opposed to adult content cuz people think sex is yucky.

Respectability is a vague standard so attempting to enforce it results in decisions that look inconsistent. The standard is vague enough that it’s easy to fool yourself that your banning decisions are consistent with it even if you are biased. Many people don’t care about this issue or see it as a feature of the respectability standard rather than a bug. Also, there are a lot of posts on social media, so the idea that a platform can actually screen them according to any complicated standard is silly.

The idea that the government will come in and fix social media or payment platforms to make them behave fairly is dumb. Most government officials are ordinary people who have their own vague standards of respectability and will go along with those standards. I think it also possible that behind the scenes pressure from government is one reason for the problems with these platforms. If that is the case, then asking the government to regulate those platforms is like giving the fox the key to the hen house.

The only solution to the current problems with social media and payment platforms is to change their standards or start your own platform with better standards. What standards should you adopt? People should be able to say anything short of incitement to violence, or engaging other criminal activity like child pr0n. This is a clear and objective standard that can be enforced consistently.

There should be ways for people to tag content so that people can seek a particular topic out or avoid it. Banning isn’t necessary for users to avoid seeing content they dislike.

It would be nice if social media had decent threading and other facilities that enable serious discussion rather than attacking it. Facebook and Twitter are both terrible for serious discussion.

The 40 hour work week

One problem with this sort of tweet is that it’s difficult to tell what the poster means by the word “capitalism”. Does he mean the current system of political economy? The current system is a mix of free markets and statism. So to understand the issue properly you would need an explanation of what specific features of the current system lead to a 40 hour work week. Perhaps the poster means that any system of political economy with free markets would require a 40 hour work week. We don’t know cuz he doesn’t explain or link to an explanation. This tweet is an example of overreaching – the author can’t explain what he’s talking about but he posts it anyway.

I’m going to take capitalism to mean free markets, including markets in capital goods, i.e. – goods used to make other goods. Under capitalism, goods are only exchanged as a result of agreements that people enter into without being threatened with force or having force used against them. This definition of capitalism stands for a specific set of principles so it can be discussed. This definition of capitalism is also opposed to policies that people often identify as tempering alleged problems with capitalism, such as Obamacare and the NHS.

Why do many people work 40 hours per week?

Some people might like their work a lot and want to work 40 hours per week or more. That is not a problem, so let’s just concentrate on people who don’t like working 40 hours per week or more.

A person may be paid a low hourly rate so that he has to work 40 hours or more to get enough to support his chosen lifestyle. If he wanted to work less then he would have to either negotiate a higher rate or live a more frugal lifestyle. Negotiating a higher rate may require learning more skills so that his work is worth the higher rate. He may prefer to work 40 hours per week to negotiating, gaining more skills or cutting back.

Some people might blame low pay on capitalism, but employers pay more or less what they think employees are worth. Blaming capitalism for low pay is like blaming your thermometer for the temperature. Under socialism, government control of the means of production, two things would change. First, it would be more difficult to tell what value you’re contributing to production since prices would be heavily distorted or absent. Second, you’d be getting a lot less for your work because without markets capital goods can’t be valued and so can’t be assigned to their highest value uses. This means lots of potential output is wasted or destroyed and makes everybody a lot poorer.

Working full time in the US gives people access to government programs that they wouldn’t have otherwise. An employer may offer 40 hours per week of work because people want those benefits. This is a distortion introduced by a government program, so it’s not a free market problem.

People are also kinda used to something resembling the 40 hour week as a result of compulsory schooling. They have to be at school for something like 6-8 hours each day on pain of punishment. People may get used to that and feel uncomfortable about having more free time. Compulsory schooling involves using force and threats to make a child go to school, which involves initiating the use of force, so it is an anti-capitalist institution.

Some people say things like work gives people purpose. I think this is true for many people. Many people have no interests and couldn’t fill their time with interesting activities without the 40 hour work week. They don’t like work but they’d be lost without it. This is partly due to compulsory schooling and coercive parenting. Schools require that you should change what you think about at the ring of a bell, which makes deep interests difficult. Also, both parents and schools use activities children like as means of punishment. If the child doesn’t obey then he will be denied the activity he likes. So showing interest in anything leads to pain. Schools and parents are skilled at destroying people. Again, these punishments involve initiating the use of force so they are not a result of the free market. This also helps explain why so many people lack skills and hate learning so they have difficulty gaining more skills.

So capitalism is not responsible for people working longer than they want to work.

Overreaching example – psychopaths

Brett Hall made a YouTube video about a Twitter discussion about psychopathy being heritable. In the Twitter thread Claire Lehmann, who edits a magazine called Quillette sez that a twin study shows that psychopathy is heritable. David Deutsch points out that bad behaviour is partly a result of the institutions of the society in which a person is raised.

Brett Hall then made a video criticising Lehmann in a slightly different way. He sez that behaviour is caused by beliefs. He sez we can change our beliefs by conjecture and criticism, that all knowledge is created this way and that genetic beliefs are no exception to this rule. Brett also mentions anti-rational memes without explaining what they are.

Brett’s video is bad. I can work out Brett’s point cuz I know the correct version of his position already, but I think most of the people watching the video will get lost. Brett doesn’t even refer the watcher to a source where he could get a good explanation of memes and genes, e.g. – The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

This is related to another problem. Who is the video’s intended audience? That material is too advanced for most YouTube viewers. And for people who understand enough of the video to follow along it doesn’t deliver any value as a result of many mistakes made in the video. For example, beliefs don’t cause behaviour. A person chooses behaviour and he may take his beliefs into account when making that choice. Saying the behaviour is caused by belief imports a lower level concept, causation, into a situation where higher level concepts like choices are relevant. In addition, animals don’t have beliefs since they can’t understand explanations but they exhibit behaviours. So some behaviours arise despite the absence of beliefs.

Brett’s video is an example of overreaching. Overreaching is where a person takes on a project that is far too hard for his current abilities. Since the project is far too hard the person makes a lot of mistakes. He makes so many mistakes that he can’t correct them all. In Brett’s case, he’s trying to think through all of the issues I listed above while making a video with technology he doesn’t understand very well.

This is a wider problem than Brett Hall. Most political and moral discussion online is conducted by people who are overreaching. Brett’s video is not the worst example I have seen this week. What is the solution to this kind of problem? One solution is to refrain from overreaching yourself. I saw Brett’s video and started making slides to reply. Then I realised that a correct account of the issue Brett brought up would take several videos and that Brett was overreaching. I decided it was better to explain overreaching than to respond to somebody overreaching and possibly do it myself.

A correct account of the issues brought up by Claire Lehmann’s tweets with no major omissions would require a very long series of videos, which would include issues like epistemology, philosophy of science, mental illness and political economy as well as material on memes. Most political commentators don’t make such long series of videos or long discussions because they’re too busy reacting to the immediate issue to learn about the issue properly. Political commentators overestimate how much attention people actually pay to their work. Most readers are also overreaching and will at most get a distorted gist of what you write.

If people want to have productive political discussions then they need to start by learning how to discuss properly instead of overreaching.

Virtue signalling about plastics

Asda in the UK are apparently fighting plastics. This is not a joke. They actually wrote this.

Plastics are good. The fact that we have a material that can be used to make bags, coffee cups etc. so cheap we can afford to throw them away is good. Being able to throw stuff away rather than having to use the same item repeatedly is good. Not having to keep the same item and wash it or put up with it being dirty is good.

They write:

Introducing a zero profit re-usable coffee cup to give customers a great value alternative to single use cups.

Trying to make stuff that’s “zero profit” is bad. A company is supposed to make a profit. If you’re not making a profit that means people are not willing to pay you more than the cost of the stuff you’re using. So by not making a profit you’re making you and your customers worse off.

Phase out 5p ‘single use’ carrier bags from its shops by the end of 2018 and introduce a donation to good causes from the sale of its “bags for life” so that charities don’t lose out.

I prefer 5p disposable bags since I can use them as rubbish bags. So Asda want to charge me more for bags that are worse by my lights. Also I don’t really trust Asda’s judgement about what causes are worth supporting, so all this crap about charity doesn’t impress me.

Asda’s President and Chief Executive, Roger Burnley said:

“I want Asda’s customers to know that they can trust us to take the lead on the issues that really matter to them. So we have challenged ourselves to look at what more we can do to reduce the amount of plastic in our business, and within our industry as a whole.”

Roger apparently doesn’t care about the issue of being me being able to carry my shopping home. That’s my number one issue. Asda are pissing off a customer so they can virtue signal by attacking a great product of industrial civilisation.

Suicide contagion is bunk

Some celebrities have killed themselves and now “mental health experts” say that this may lead to suicide contagion:

Suicide contagion is a process in which the suicide of one person or multiple people can contribute to a rise in suicidal behaviors among others, especially those who already have suicidal thoughts or a known risk factor for suicide.

“If they’re already struggling with thoughts of depression or risk of suicide, they’re already trying to get information about how other people are experiencing it,” said John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Wanting to kill yourself is a moral issue, not a medical issue. Terms like suicide contagion exist to cover up the discomfort people feel at discussing suicide. A worthwhile discussion of a suicide would involve considering a person’s values, what choices that person had or thought he had and that sort of thing. Instead we make up stories about diseases causing suicide:

Moreover, suicide can be preventable — death should not be an acceptable outcome of depression, said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
To whom is the death unacceptable? If a person chooses to kill himself he finds his death not acceptable. If this professor is so squeamish that he won’t admit that, then what use is he?
“When you have heart disease or when you have certain forms of cancer, there’s a profile or a calculator of risk factors that’s done. So with heart disease it’s obesity, smoking, exercise, cholesterol, family history, and age. Same thing for suicide,” Lieberman said.

Heart disease is a fault in a person’s body. Suicide is an action a person takes. An action doesn’t have risk factors. A person takes an action because he has some motive for doing so. If you’re not talking about that motive, you’re distracting people from real problems, not solving them.

The article continues:

The statement noted that many people in the US do not have access to mental health services when needed.
A lot of people have access to “mental health services” they don’t want, i.e. – people who have been involuntarily committed or drugged, or threatened with commitment or drugging. For example, in the UK in 2015/16 the government reported that it involuntarily committed 63,622 people. Every time somebody consults a psychiatrist the psychiatrist has the option of using force against his patient. So the only people willing to consult psychiatrists are either ignorant people who know nothing about psychiatry or people who are willing to put up with being coerced.
If you want to actually help people who want to kill themselves, you should oppose this crap. If you want to punish them with imprisonment without trial, then you should at least admit that and then we can have a discussion about the morality of your position.

Contempt of court act 1981

In 1981, the British government passed a law called the Contempt of Court Act allowing courts to forbid publication of facts about a current court case, Chapter 49, 4(2) reads:

In any such proceedings the court may, where it appears to be necessary for avoiding a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those proceedings, or in any other proceedings pending or imminent, order that the publication of any report of the proceedings, or any part of the proceedings, be postponed for such period as the court thinks necessary for that purpose.

This is a bad law.
One problem with this law is that facts don’t imply any particular conclusion.
Let’s say Peter was accused of raping Mary. A suitable set of facts may be used in a criticism of the idea that Peter didn’t rape Mary. For example, if Peter’s sperm was found in Mary’s vagina, then John had may have had sex with Mary and he may have raped her. John might hear those facts and think that Peter raped Mary.
There might be some other relevant facts that are not consistent with Peter raping Mary. For example, Mary had not been raped at midnight and John left Mary’s location at 11pm and didn’t return. If John heard those other facts and a suitable explanation John might decide Peter is not guilty.
So publishing facts doesn’t force people to reach a particular conclusion. Their conclusion will depend on other facts and the explanations that people present for those facts.
But suppose that John has some bias against Peter. Then perhaps John is eager that Peter should be convicted of rape even if Peter isn’t guilty. Perhaps if John hears a report that Peter was accused he will divide Peter must be harmed regardless of the court’s findings. Or perhaps John will try to get on the jury to get Peter punished. In that case, the reporter isn’t responsible for John’s conduct, so why should the reporter be punished?
Another problem is that this law is open to abuse.
Some particular case may be controversial because it is perceived as being part of a wider problem. People will want to discuss such a case and it may be difficult to find people who are neutral about the issue. But in such cases there is some problem with how the cases are being handled or understood. That problem should be addressed directly by critical discussion. The government may be tempted to suppress such discussion because it has unpopular policies on a particular policy issue. But that is precisely why such a law is bad, the government should have to deal with these issues. The government shouldn’t be forcing an unpopular policy on people because the policy might be bad and even if it is good it hasn’t been properly explained. Trying to suppress such discussion because of a particular trial is dealing with the symptom is not an adequate substitute for dealing with the broader problem.
Another problem is that the government may be corrupt on some issue. Government officials are fallible and some of them are bad people. Some government officials like hurting people. Some government officials like getting money or other goods from people by abusing the law. Some government officials hate particular non-violent ideologies and want to destroy those ideologies and people who hold them. Some government officials make bad decisions in particular cases and want to prevent their mistakes from being revealed. Some government officials take an irrational dislike to a particular person and want to destroy him.
The sections of this law forbidding people to publish material that isn’t a direct incitement to violence should be repealed. Those sections can’t be used in a legitimate way. Any party that wants my vote can have it if they make a credible campaign promise to repeal this law and other laws that are being used to destroy freedom of speech in the UK.
This law is being used by government officials to prevent commentary on particular cases now. It is not a dead letter. I won’t mention the particular cases, but anyone who is interested will know what cases I’m referring to anyway.