Uncommon Sense

March 17, 2023

The Natural and Other Sciences

Full Disclosure—I was trained as a chemist, so I am by definition a natural scientist. S

The successes of the natural sciences have led other disciplines to adopt the methods and approaches of those sciences for various reasons.

The first scientists were physicists and chemists and a few biologists who built scientific edifices atop the wealth of knowledge collected by various trades. The physicists studying the stars built upon a vast store of knowledge built up by and for mariners. The chemists built upon quite a store of knowledge built up by dyers, embalmers, painters, etc. The botanists started with quite a store of knowledge built up over millennia by ordinary people, especially herbalist “healers.” I say this out of humility. Science wasn’t begun by scientists, it was continued, with methodological advances, from long traditions of studying their topics.

Today we find all kinds of disciplines adopting scientific methodologies; not just using them for support, like archeologists use carbon-14 dating, mind you, but structuring their studies as if they were actual sciences. We have history, psychology, economics, sociology, politics and more all becoming very sciency. And there are benefits to some of those approaches, but not so much so that they could not have been acquired through other techniques.

The difference between the natural sciences and the “others,” is that the natural sciences have a final arbiter of all disputes: nature. None of the others do. Economists talk a lot about “natural experiments,” which are histories of events in which a certain economic concept was engaged. So, they can “test” out their ideas. One example is studies of the impact of raises in the federal or state minimum wage. Some political entity raises its minimum wage, and right nearby another political entity does not. So, what happens? Do people leave the low wage area to get the higher wages? Do business fold under the higher costs of employing their employees? What happens? The problem is establishing cause and effect. The difference in minimum wage is not the only difference between the two regions. (In the “hard sciences” we spend a great deal of effort “isolating variables,” which means establishing what things are changing and which are not. All to establishing that the only things changing are causes and effects.) As a consequence, there is still a major debate, even after numerous studies and “natural experiments,” over what the impact of a change in the minimum wage will be. It also shows that economics is heavily contaminated by politics. Economists with views  popular with one group of politicians get mentioned, asked to speak for fees, prestigious chairs at certain universities, and grants to do their “research.” That’s a kind of natural experiment, too.

In the natural sciences, as I say, if you get out of line Mother Nature ups and bitch slaps you back into line. We have a direction for our questions: we ask nature and nature replies. Those replies are not always unambiguous, so some questions get answered wrongly, and corrected (or not) later.

Consider one simple aspect of the theory of evolution. That theory early on claimed that evolution occurred over vast amounts of time. A very prominent scientist, Lord Kelvin, calculated that the Earth, had it started from a ball of molten rock, exposed to a vacuum, would only take around 500 million years to cool to its then state. This was not enough time for the scheme in the theory of evolution to have acted. So, the question was: how old is the Earth and the answer was “not old enough.” Later it was discovered that the Earth contained significant amounts of uranium. When the Earth was molten, the more dense materials sank and the less dense materials floated. The uranium, being very dense sank out of sight and the radioactivity of that uranium accounted for the rather much slower rate of cooling that Lord Kelvin had supposed. So, the age of the Earth is now thought to be 4+ billion years, which is quite long enough for evolution to have done its work. (Oh, and the material that floated to the surface of “Molten Earth?” That scum contained all of the elements needed to make us and the rest of the biosphere. Yes, we are the Scum of the Earth.)

It is clear that economists “scienced” up their field to make it appear to be more substantial than it really is. (If you want details, read Yves Smith’s quite brilliant book, “Econned.”) Many economics majors are now required to pass calculus in their math studies whereas the economists who came before barely used high school algebra. Having “higher standards” to qualify as an economist makes the field seem more prestigious.

Economics papers now are larded with higher math, making them quite opaque to the general public. This is not unlike philosophers retreating from address ordinary people to addressing only other philosophers through the use of complicated (and unnecessary) jargon.

When I was young, there was a field called “Social Studies.” Today we have the “Social Sciences.” Has this made for any outward improvement in those studies? Maybe so, but I haven’t noticed it if it has.

Now, you may take this as one of the “natural scientists” all puffed up about his own importance. Instead please accept the fact that I loathe when my fellow citizens receive a shuck and jive as opposed to honest treatment. Can history or politics be turned into sciences? I doubt it. No matter how hard they try (and I am not including using scientific tools to reinforce timelines, etc.) they have no final arbiter and so they may end up with the trappings of science (Hey, gang, try on these cool lab coats and safety glasses!) but not the substance.

March 16, 2023

The SVB Madness

The “collapse” of the Silicon Valley Bank is typical of today’s economic issues: much ado about nothing. The basic story is that the SVB experienced a bank run, which turned into a panic, and federal regulators stepped in and froze the bank’s assets and business.

Ideally, since the “bank run,” aka depositors rushing to remove their funds because they think the bank was in trouble, was based upon gossip, with a little time for things to settle down should have calmed the tribes and allowed normal business to continue.

The “problem” gossiped about was that the SVB had invested in large quantities of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds, long term. Were interest rates to stay at the historic lows that they have been, these would have been good very good, almost no risk investments. Since the Federal Reserve Bank has decided to raise interest rates for no good reason, then those investments are going to realize much smaller gains than predicted. Basically, those bonds will sell, eventually at a profit, just smaller than predicted. The SVB will lose predicted profits, but the question is how much? And could SVB cover those lost gains. We haven’t heard yet, but I suspect that they could.

So, the “depositors,” many of who deposited millions of dollars, knowing full well that the FDIC account insurance only covers deposits up to $250,000, are now clamoring for the federal government to step in and cover their entire deposits.

Too bad, so sad, this is what the Republicans have always referred to as “vagaries of the market.” Do something stupid, and you pay a price. But that attitude was really the attitude of the Republicans of old. Today it is “socialism for the rich, social Darwinism for the non-rich.”

So, if the U.S. government steps up and “insures” the entire bank accounts of all depositors and pays those depositors off, it would then own the SVB. Its assets are not insubstantial and it may get most or all of its money back.

But the motive for guaranteeing those deposits seems to be “to restore confidence in the banking system.” Gosh, all of my friends could be in that position: millions on deposit and not insured—not! What would actually restore confidence would be for the chips to fall where they may and ordinary citizens would see that the government didn’t exist to just bail out the rich. What ordinary citizens think now is that banks are scum sucking, double dealing sons of bitches that will foreclose on your house at the drop of a hat but run for cover the minute rich people are involved.

Confidence in the banking system, my ass. Show me that it works as described and I will gain confidence. Until then, it is the same old shuck and jive from the plutocrats running the government for their benefit and we can go suck eggs, if we could afford them.

March 9, 2023

Systemic Racism? Never Heard of It

Right-wing Republicans (Are there any other kinds any more?) are fond of denying that there are no after affects of black slavery in this country and pooh-pooh that claim that systemic racism even exists.

An article in The Guardian yesterday stated:

“When Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate-Austin had their home assessed by an appraiser in 2020, they learned it was worth $995,000. So the Black couple, who purchased their home in December 2016 and spent thousands in renovation costs over the years, decided to get a second opinion. They “white-washed” their property and had a white friend pose as the homeowner. Weeks later, a different appraiser assessed the house’s value at $1,482,500.

“The couple sued for discrimination.”

We certainly wouldn’t want those black folks to have enough money to buy into another white neighborhood and we want to make it easier for a white couple to replace this black couple . . . wait, WTF?

Anyone doubting the existence of systemic racism is exposing willful ignorance. The federal government has admitted to creating a red-lining program that prevented black and brown people from even securing federal or even private loans on houses in white neighborhoods, for Pete’s sake.

And I assume every denial of systemic racism begins with a prologue starting with “I am not a racist, but . . . “ This should be a clear sign the speaker is a racist, because if you feel you have to deny it, you are about to utter some racist bullshit.

Oh, and the Austins won their case.

And, if you still have doubts The Guardian article went on to state that a pair of researchers “analyzed more than 47m appraisal reports collected from licensed appraisers between 2013 and 2022. The data had been made public for the first time, a decade after Howell and Korver-Glenn (the two researchers SR) first pursued it.

They found the gap between the home values of white homeowners and homeowners of color widened over the last decade. When unpacked by race, the results were staggering: appraisers valued homes in white neighborhoods two and half times more than homes in Black neighborhoods. For homes in Latino neighborhoods, the gap is larger, despite the fact that the value of the Latino residents’ homes were bigger than Black residents’.

Systemic racism doesn’t exist my ass.

February 26, 2023

Red States Secretly “Woke”

The Guardian reports “A new report by Climate Central shows how US capacity to generate renewable energy shot up last year – and surprisingly, red states lead the nation in solar and wind power production.”

Solar and wind power production? Shouldn’t loyal, God-fearing people in Red States be burning coal and oil? Why are they secretly moving ahead with Woke Technology? Is this a sign that Trump’s campaign is in trouble?

February 11, 2023

Take a Deep Breath and Read This

That Was No Ordinary State of the Union — It Was an Historic Moment for America

January 14, 2023

Economic Growth Hinges On Cheap Energy

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Reason,Social Commentary — Steve Ruis @ 9:08 am
Tags: , , ,

I was reading an article on renewable energy sources and I ran across “Economic growth hinges on cheap energy.” I assume this is an economic truism, one of the many that seriously need to be questioned, so . . . I proceed.

Is Economic Growth Necessary? In our recent history, the human population has grown at an ever increasing rate (see graph).

At the right side of the graph we have demonstrated exponential growth characteristics and it is a mathematical truism that a system of finite resources cannot support exponential growth for very long.

It should be obvious, if there are more people there are increased demands for food, shelter, energy and other commodities. So, a call for “economic growth” is supported by population growth.

Is Population Growth Necessary? The first statistic I saw in school for the population of the U.S. was 140 million people. That stat was clearly out-of-date as are all data in school textbooks, but the current population of the U.S. is 332,403,650 (actually a projection for what the population was to be (and now was) on January 1st of this year. So, the US population has doubled in that time and is expected to double again in the next 75 years. The population doubling time is slowing but not fast enough to save us from economic and political collapse scenarios.

Imagine if the number of cars made in the U.S. this last year were made to serve that lower population of my youth. We would have car lots full of cars that couldn’t be and wouldn’t be sold. Our economic output is linked to our population.

At some point, the population of the U.S. must stop expanding. What will happen then? The answer is we do not know but there is what economists call a “natural experiment” running right now: Japan. Japan’s population has been shrinking since 2010, when the population peaked at 128.5 million. The United Nations currently projects that Japan’s population will fall below 100 million around 2050, but the faster-than-expected decline in fertility may mean that Japan reaches that threshold ahead of schedule.

The effects of this transition to some new future population mix is that older Japanese are a greater segment of the population than ever before, with fewer people of working age to support government efforts to provide for the elderly. You can imagine or research more of the problems they are dealing with. Our problem is they haven’t yet come out of their population decline and stabilized, so the “natural experiment” in reducing a country’s population is not yet complete.

So, clearly, continued exponential growth of a country’s population leads to ruin, and seeking a lower population level for the future is fraught with uncertainty.

So, Again Is Economic Growth Necessary? The only answer is maybe yes, maybe no.

Consider the scenario in which a “cheap energy revolution” occurs. This may be something as obvious as an electrical energy storage solution, thus making solar and wind energies more practical (they are already cheaper than fossil fuel generated electricity) or maybe a re-envisioned nuclear power plant, like a thorium reactor or even a fusion energy reactor becomes feasible. And then energy would be cheap, really cheap. If economic growth is only limited by energy costs, we might be in really trouble. The first rule of dealing with runaway freight trains is to stop feeding them fuel. Stoking more fuel in would make our problems worse, not better.

Right now, it may be true that “Economic Growth Hinges On Cheap Energy” but if energy actually became really cheap, another commodity would become the determinant of economic growth. Cars can’t be made without steel and other raw materials. Foods need land to be grown on, and water to make them grow. Meat animals depend upon crops, like we do, even if grass fed.

And if we maintain our commitment to the capitalism we seem addicted to, economic growth is cooked into the system. No politician will get anywhere without a commitment to “growing the economy.”

But, what if for each one percent of population growth we became one percent more efficient in creating and distributing food and energy. Our electric grid is a Frankenstein’s monster of a twentieth century creation that is near collapse. A better system would waste much less and therefore require less energy fed into it. There are people who say we cannot afford to do this. They are stupid in the extreme. Business people know that equipment upgrades are always based upon increases in future returns. An upgraded electric grid would pay for itself in short order.

We also waste a lot of food, a lot. There are savings galore to be had in our food production facilities. But anyone who thinks we can solve our problems through efficiency mongering is fooling themselves.

What we need are fewer human beings. China tried to solve its population problem and now has a near zero population growth rate, so we might learn something from them. And, Japan is doing its thing.

It seems that we need to be doing . . . everything to increase the efficiencies of our economies but our primary focus needs to be on limiting and rolling back human populations.

Of course, our billionaires are looking to colonize Mars. Maybe we should spook them (The IRS is coming for your wealth! Boo!) and get them to all relocate. They cannot take their wealth with them, so we will have that to use more sensibly once they are gone.

November 12, 2022

Contrary to the Evidence

You thought this was going to be about religion, didn’t you?

Actually it is more about economics and other things. The theoretical structure of economics is built mostly out of self-serving bullshit. For example, they refer to the human beings interacting in our economy as a particular kind of human: Homo economicus. Homo economicus is an hypothetical person who behaves in exact accordance with their rational self-interest. Using rational assessments, Homo economicus attempts to maximize utility as a consumer and economic profit as a producer. Ta da. Recent studies show that such beings do not exist and never have. (Think of economic Vulcans.)

Economists also base their theoretical structures on “economic transactions” involving buyers and sellers who both have complete information. Have you ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? If this were ever the case economists would be advising clients that not only is advertising not needed, but that it was a distortion of the economic system and should not be done.

In the U.S. we are obsessed with having a pay-as-you-go culture. Everyone needs to pay for everything as you proceed through life. Anything that is just handed to you is “Socialism!” leading to the destruction of freedom, motherhood, Chevrolets, and apple pie. A consequence of this is that 40% of all jobs are “bullshit jobs.”

A bullshit job is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as a part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend this is not the case.” David Graeber

According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.” David Graeber

What is doubly ironic about this is that the bullshit jobs rarely pay a living wage. Living wages and minimum wages, etc. are Socialism! In order for us to have a pay-as-you-go culture, people have to make enough money to pay for their needs (not necessarily their wants, but food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, etc.). That is what a living wage is. If you are making a living wage, you can “afford” to live; if not you are dying or at a bare minimum spiraling down to an early death. All to maintain the illusion of a “pay-as-you-go culture.”

The cost of everyone receiving a living wage for their labor is that there may be a few fewer billionaires and the billionaires still in existence may have a few less billions of dollars in their money bins. But this cannot be because . . . Capitalism, the only god Americans actually worship.

Even that social troglodyte Henry Ford understood this. He paid his workers almost a dollar more per day than other manufacturers. This caused workers to flock to the Ford plants and those already there worked hard to keep their jobs as they paid so much better than elsewhere. But was that Ford’s reasoning? No, he wanted his workers to make enough money to be able to buy a Ford car. And they did, with money Ford paid them as wages. So, he got “his” money back. If he had starved his workers, like his fellow plutocrats, he wouldn’t have sold near as many cars.

November 10, 2022

If You Aren’t Yet Convinced that Our Enemy is the big Money Corporations and the Uber-rich . . .

Please read this:

Amazon and Apple have an illegal price-fixing conspiracy

November 3, 2022

Grubbing for Respectability

The study of economics has been searching for respectability for many decades. Most recently it has been mathematized in order to make it more sciency and references to the “economic sciences” (sic) abound.

I noticed that today the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences had been awarded, and as a lazy news agencies reported it, it was the Nobel Prize for Economics. There is no Nobel Prize for Economics. This prize was named to imply that it is but it is not. They even announce the “winners” at the same time the real Nobel Prizes are awarded to complete the illusion. Pathetic. Almost as bad as the award shows, like the Oscars, et. al. in which an industry rewards itself.

No matter how much respectability grubbing proponents of the study of economics claim it is, economics is not a science. Yes, math can be used, graduate courses in economics now require Calculus where they did not in the recent past, and money can be calculated to fine precision, but the “laws” governing the topic aren’t scientific laws and, in most cases are little better than conjectures.

Take, for example, the concept of market equilibrium. A market is said to be at equilibrium when supply and demand for a good or service balance each other, and as a result prices become stable. If something changes this situation, once breached, the market opposes these changes, moving back in the direction of equilibrium. It is a nice concept and, as a rule of thumb, is a description of a small part of the behaviors one can observe in economic markets. But it is not a scientific law. There are no natural forces behind it. The major users of economics, businesses, are striving fang and claw to create monopolies for their businesses, so that have complete and total control of their market. There is no “market force” or “economic force” that opposes these attempts at “market domination.” Such “economic laws” (sic) are just crude descriptions of how markets can perform under a small set of circumstances.

The whole idea of free markets was built upon the myth of market correction forces. The myth is that politicians should leave markets alone because markets function best when unregulated. This is a baseless, self-serving claim that is not supported by any facts. Those promoting free markets, that is markets free from government regulation, really want governments not interfering with their market manipulations. They want to be the regulator of their markets, not the representative of all of the people, governments.

There is no such thing as a “free” market, which is a good thing because markets do not work without some regulation. Consider pharmaceuticals. Would you want to have a market for pharmaceuticals that was completely free, meaning that anyone could claim anything as an outcome of taking their medicinals and, well, anything goes? No FDA interference? No requirements for effectiveness interference? We have had a glimpse of what this would be like when in 1994, Congress removed “herbal supplements” from the purview of the FDA. What we got were herbal concoctions claimed to cure everything from the common cold to cancer with no requirement that such claims be proven in clinical or any other studies.

An AsideI have a method of determining when a “herbal supplement” is bogus. If you are temped to try the XYZ herbal supplement, do an Internet search along the lines of “does XYZ really work?” If the first ten websites you find are websites that are bogus, set up by the purveyor of the supplement, you know it is bogus. The practice for such bogus supplements is to put up a dozen or two websites seemingly independently studying your product, but usually just having long lists of testimonials, from people like Tom T. from Philadelphia, or Theresa W. from Portland, Oregon. None of these people can be contacted for verification because not enough information was been supplied, but that would be a waste of your time because they and their commendations are fictional. These website dilute out any honest evaluations of the XYZ supplement.

If you see such sites listed at the top of your search, well, now you know.

Does anyone want “anything goes” markets? I don’t think so. The “free market” bandwagon is just a vehicle to oppose government regulation that protects citizens from phony claims and phony products. Like a dog chasing cars, if it actually caught one it wouldn’t know what to do with it. Any economist who touts the virtues of free markets is a charlatan. Some economists don’t even know they are charlatans. Every course in economics they took in college had the same nonsensical presuppositions built in and then quick raced past to play with more “advanced” topics. Never to the go back and check their original suppositions.

Then they take their suppositions and double down on then, an example of which is Walras’s “law” which says that excess supply in one market must be matched by excess demand in another, so that in the larger picture there will be a general equilibrium. Can any causal connection be made between the demand in one market and the supply in another? I don’t think so. But the concept of “equilibrium” has run away with these person’s common sense. In the physical sciences, a system can only be in a state of equilibrium if it is isolated completely from the rest of the universe, excluding all other matter, energies, forces, etc. As a consequence a system in physical equilibrium is detached from the rest of the universe and has no effect on it or it on the system.

Now, there are systems that are near equilibrium all over the place in nature and those systems show some of the behaviors of equilibrium systems, for one they oppose changes in the distribution of matter and energy in the system, but those near-equilibrium systems are limited in such responses and can always be shoved off of the tracks, so to speak. Economic systems are somewhat like physical near-equilibrium systems but only under very constrained circumstances.

The key point is if you want them to behave as if they were near-equilibrium systems, you would have to regulate the situations they apply to. Certain “market stimulations” would be forbidden, etc. If you want an example of this look at the U.S. stock markets. The “players” in the markets for stocks invent ways to manipulate the markets in their favor on almost a daily basis. The markets, though, are heavily regulated (there are hundreds of pages of regulations adopted by each market) and most of these manipulative practices never get implemented. But every once in a while corrupt players get some control and you end up with high priced worthless “financial instruments” that crash the system, sometimes worldwide, like what happened in 2008. And these morons still preach “regulation is bad!”

I think economists should be required to dress for their profession, witch doctor garb would be appropriate.

October 21, 2022

Government Handouts—Bad?

There are conservatives who believe that all “government handouts” are bad and lead to laziness on the part of ordinary people. They seem to overlook the dwarfing handouts given to American businesses and focus in one the trivial ones given to ordinary citizens. Here is but one example.

Elon Musk, the nation’s richest man, is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. Musk’s net worth is somewhere about $210 billion. Yet he goes where the government money is.

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

“He definitely goes where there is government money,” said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. “That’s a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day.”

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.

(From Diane Ravitch’s blog)

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