Friday, 29 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 3: The Alleged Imperialist Ideology

When Scrooge, Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie travel away from Duckburg, they encounter foreigners of different characters, some peaceful, others bellicose; some enlightened, others lazy and stupid. The book by literary critic Ariel Dorfman and sociologist Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, which I mentioned in my preceding instalment on the topic of the Political Economy of Duckburg, argues that the Ducks spread a market ideology to the Third World or really anyone outside of the Bourgeois sphere, a world of witches, villains, and uncivilized foreigners.
In the action-packed classic 'The Treasure of Marco Polo' (Uncle $crooge 64), there is arguably some material for this sort of skewed reading. In this story, Scrooge is eagerly anticipating a jade elephant from the country of Unsteadystan, a somewhat unruly country, as its incredibly well-crafted name suggests, which I presume is to be found somewhere in Asia. There is a problem with the shipment and only the elephant's tail arrives, so Scrooge and nephews have to travel to Unsteadystan to retrieve the remainder of the valuable mammal made of jade. Upon reaching their destination, they are shot at and when trying to get to Duckburg's Embassy, a militant Unsteadystani throws a bomb at it which demolishes the building.

In some parts of the world, there is civil war, so although foreigners are not always shown at their best, representing their conflicts is quite accurate. In other parts of the world, people's work habits are not quite in line with the Weberian notion of the Protestant Work Ethic (perhaps due to bad institutions, or who-knows-what), which is the topic of 'Volcano Valley' (Donald Duck Four Color 147), a story in which Donald and his nephews go to the titular nation, whose inhabitants are pathologically lethargic to the point where they are normally found reclining against their low-quality buildings, and stupid to the point where they are unaware of milk.

Other stories feature witch doctors (such as 'The Great Wig Mystery' of Uncle $crooge 52, in which poor natives share but one telephone with a hotline to the World Bank!) and civilized but evil powers like Brutopia (featured, for instance, in 'A Cold Bargain' of Uncle $crooge 17 - its first appearance, I believe, whose coat of arms is a pair of hand-cuffs and a hammer). Yet, it would be in error to accept this picture of foreigners as representative of the Duck Universe created by the great Duck Man Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all of these stories. Stories such as these get a lot of publicity because the foreigners have such a long list of shortcomings, but a representative sample of comics would palpably not show the "capitalist" world centred around Scrooge with such comparable favour. (Not that it would be in error to do so, for the free market system is indeed full of great advantages.)
Scrooge McDuck is often considered the archetypal capitalist-duck and even though he is quite affable and thereby gives a fairly positive impression of wealthy men (or ducks), the moral of a tonne of stories is that he should not overreach in his quest for gold, or he will disrupt a delicate harmony that foreigners often represent. Nowhere is this better illustrated than when Scrooge goes to the land of Tralla-la (Uncle $crooge 6). He does so because he is temporarily sick of money and the natives in the idyllic Himalayan Valley of Plenty offer every piece of evidence that money - and indeed every quest for material wealth - is a cancer. This story is clearly no defence of capitalism or of the Western (Duckburg) Way; while the free market certainly tolerates beatnik types who worship at the Buddhist altar, it also tolerates people's striving to increase upon what they have, a way of life which would nevertheless not be acceptable in Tralla-la.

The Peeweegahs in 'Land of the Pygmy Indians' (Uncle $crooge 18) offer another example of foreigners having reached a better way to live than that of smoggy "capitalist" Duckburg. The tiny Arabs of 'Pipeline to Danger' (Uncle $crooge 30) provide another sympathetic view of non-Duckburgers, as do the Indian-like egg eaters of 'Island in the Sky' (Uncle $crooge 29). At other times, natives appear to be just like people in general, enjoying dance and fun and otherwise working hard, like the Indochinese people of the wonderful story 'City of Golden Roofs' (Uncle $crooge 20). This is also tolerably close to how the people of Plain Awful are depicted in the classic 'Lost in the Andes' (Donald Duck Four Color 223), with differences mainly due to the paucity of almost any natural resources barring the chickens which lay square (or actually cubic) eggs. In all of these stories but the last two, Scrooge, in one way or another, must heed values other than his selfish interest in money. And there are many, many additional examples.

If Scrooge is frequently taught lessons of "social responsibility" in this way, the stories can only teach that "capitalism" is socially most useful when greed is strictly bridled. This is hardly "capitalist imperialism". By contrast, Scrooge's main rival entrepreneur in the Barksian view, Flintheart Glomgold, appears to make his money by lies and deceit. Flintheart's greed is unbridled and is depicted as something bad since he is clearly evil. Moreover, he is not as successful as Scrooge when it comes to making money, losing to him - albeit narrowly - in 'The Second-Richest Duck (Uncle $crooge 15) and in 'The Money Champ' (Uncle $crooge 27). (On the other hand, Scrooge's other main rival, John D. Rockerduck, never does anything really bad in the one story in which Carl Barks used - and invented - him: 'Boat Buster' of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 255.)

Thus, Scrooge's "human-faced capitalism" is frequently quite lenient on the Third World and on natives, who frequently manage to teach "lessons" of better ways to live. Foreigners are sometimes indolent and ignorant, but culturally and spiritually advanced at other times. In light of these facts, it is hard to see any justification for the "imperialist" label.

This is the last blog post of the series on the Political Economy of Duckburg, though I will certainly return to the Ducks in future. Instalment two on the political economy of Duckburg is here; the first instalment is here.

Monday, 25 August 2014

On the Freedom of the Will

Many problems in metaphysics are particularly troubling because their concerns are as close to us as anything can be, yet certainty about their answers might be impossible to obtain. Among these problems we find the issue of identity; is mind no matter, and what is matter (never mind!)? Might our mental faculties be governed by immaterial minds? Experienced things such as the outside world and time are also incredibly difficult problems, though their closeness to us is immediate. The aim with some of my blog posts is just to put some fairly basic thoughts together on this sort of problems of metaphysics or other areas of philosophy. This blog post deals with free will.

I am a keen believer in free will, but whether the doctrine of free will is true or not is quite a tricky question, indeed. Certainly, the disbelievers must carry the burden of proof, because they argue that something does not exist which everyone experiences every day (barring, perhaps, some pathological cases). However, once the idea of causation is taken seriously, one may begin to doubt the actuality of free will, because if every action in physics has a cause in physics, electrical impulses and chemicals in my brain caused me to write this sentence (or caused me to think that I was writing it).

Moreover, there is evidence from neuroscience to suggest that we do not become aware of our intentions to act before the physical signs of how we will act have presented themselves. I think much of this evidence is obtained by presenting a person with some choices and monitoring brain activity. On the other hand, maybe this only says something about the relationship of consciousness and free will. The evidence would certainly be more impressive if choice were predicted, the prediction shown to the choose before his choice, and the chooser then unable to change his choice. It seems beyond incredible that a person in such a situation would be unable to change his decision, though as far as I know this has never been tested.

From my psychologist friends, I have learnt that belief in "free won't" is a big thing in some circles. This view has it that actions are initiated and that such events are beyond our control, but once we become aware that an action has been initiated, we can nevertheless control what we do by vetoing the action. This amounts to a version of free will, since the vetoing may presumably continue indefinitely. The resultant lag in choice of action may be thought of as a slight handicap to free will, however.

There is an interesting link between free will and epistemology. If we have no free will, epistemically good reasons for any belief become tricky. Since we have no choice in whatever we believe, what reason is there to expect beliefs to be well-reasoned? Maybe beliefs satisfy something altogether different from epistemically sound argument. If there is no free will, the door is thus left ajar for solipsism, though perhaps not too much if evolution has weeded out genes which opted for epistemically hard-to-justify beliefs. But how could we really tell that there is any reason to believe in such tendencies or even in evolution if there is no free will? The falseness of solipsism offers some support for the truth of free will.

In my judgement, free will beats determinism on introspection, on epistemology, and on fancy testing, but free will is defeated on causality and naïve testing. On these reasons, I find it easier to believe that there is something special about living things (or at least about humans) that gives them an ability to initiate action independent of physical fact. While this does seem very odd indeed, I find it easier to believe than the alternative which violates basic epistemology, thought experiments about sophisticated tests, and the most common everyday experiences.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Damn! A Blog Post of Calumny

I believe it was in the opening monologue of the hilarious sixth-season episode 'The Big Salad' that Jerry Seinfeld said that "the finger" is too easy a gesture to make to be really insulting. The idea is that an insult should require some additional work. He went on to suggest that "the toe" be the really insulting gesture, particularly if you are in traffic.
Now that messages are being sent much more cheaply with the advent of the Internet and of other great advances in information technology, it seems that the cost of insulting someone should have declined. Online message boards and other discussion fora provide simple ways of informing fellow human beings of their perceived shortcomings. I wonder if this has led people to take insults "on the chin" with much more gusto than before these developments.
An analogy is the case of presents. These are like insults, but with swapped signs. Many people are not impressed with cheap gifts, wanting lots of thought and money to have gone into them, so if cheap presents are no significant cause for happiness, why should similarly cheap insults cause them any discomfort? A few possibilities:
1. People are high-strung. Possible, but unappealing since one ought to be responsive to price changes and so be less sensitive to calumny when one knows that (everybody knows that) it is made so much more easily. However, this seems to be consistent with my observations of people's feeling wronged.
2. People have become more tolerant of (cheap) insults, I just have not seen it. This is more likely, because there is a tonne of things of which I am completely oblivious, and because, according to this explanation, people do respond to price changes.
3. There is a "publicity aspect" when many cheap messages can reach just about anyone, not just the person to whom the message is intended (akin to what may have triggered the recent Dawkins abortion controversy). So even though the insult is cheaply made, its greater reach compensates. Perhaps others will think the insult good and proper for some reason. However, this does not apply to e-mails or PM's and other private messages. This still requires that the audience not infer that the insult may just be thoughtless slander. Jerry Seinfeld made the inference and of course everyone is capable of logical reasoning, so I am not sure this is a good explanation either. But if there is some probability that they believe in the calumny, this can work well in expectation, which relates to the fourth possibility.
4. There is an information problem due to the insulted person's not knowing for certain if there may be a point to the insult. He does not know this because he normally cannot tell for certain whether an insult represents considered opinion or just thoughtless drivel. Who among us is not occasionally a little bit short of perfect self-assuredness?

It seems clear that one should bear in mind the fact that it is a lot easier now than it used to be to thoughtlessly attack someone else, and attach some positive probability that one is indeed in that situation. But there remains a possibility, consistent with explanations (3) and (4), that one is in a different situation. Perhaps cheaper information transmission comes with the disadvantage of a greater propensity for insults after all?

(PS. The title of this blog post is a play on an old book by the great H. L. Mencken.)

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Another Day of Nonsense

I have previously written about special days on which certain interests ask that we please think about them (here and here, for instance). On Tuesday, it was "Earth Overshoot Day" or "Ecological Debt Day", another day of nonsense on which humanity's consumption of resources supposedly exceeds Mother Earth's capacity for regenerating them. This cannot mean that there isn't anything left to consume until New Year's Day of 2015, because when shopping, I have observed several well-stocked shelves since Tuesday. Rather, it must mean that "outtakes" of renewable resources are greater than the amount which the Earth can sustain in the long run, given some trends and estimates of future consumption, and that by-products of humanity's consumption, such as greenhouse gasses, are greater than the Earth can absorb.
Notice that this is about renewable resources, not non-renewable (or, more accurately, resources which regenerate very slowly) ones such as oil. So this particular day of nonsense is one which calls on people to be "aware" or the "problem" of things like deforestation or overfishing. Now there is the well-known tragedy of the commons argument to support some of these fears; if the individual's outtake has no discernible effect on total supply, very many people will take out too much, resulting in depletion. Overfishing, for instance, results from a lack of property rights of the oceans and seas (or of difficulties in introducing them, since fish are mobile creatures and pieces of the ocean are hard to close off). But fish farming, the successful raising of fish in tanks for human consumption, elegantly solves the problem. The fishermen in these cases can secure themselves of a future supply by leaving some of the current fish to reproduce. Not all kinds of fish thrive in such circumstances, but as far as I have been able to understand there is a great deal of progress in this field.
As for deforestation, I do not see any reason for rational fear. Landowners who leave nothing to grow for future cutting will suffer if future prices are expected to be sufficiently high. If landowners expect trees to be in short supply in a couple of decades, they will cut fewer trees and grow more trees now. There is a qualitative similarity here with the treatment of non-renewable resources. If I guess that some resource will near depletion in a couple of years, it would make sense for me to hoard said resource right now (or leave it unharvested), provided the eventual pay-off exceeds what I might expect from putting my money elsewhere. This means, as Harold Hotelling realized, that the price of non-renewable resources rises with the interest rate (actually, they have been fairly constant for many decades as far as I know, which is odd, but consistent with a vast array of explanations such as surprise finds). Renewable ones are not part of Hotelling's treatment. Hardly indicative of approaching doom. Those afraid of the message of the "Earth Overshoot" crowd should ask themselves what reasons there might be for renewable resources to be managed so much less well than are non-renewable ones.
In addition to the aforementioned commons problem, uncertain property rights may be such a reason. If I fear expropriation, I am unlikely to behave in the way described above to help stave off depletion. However, this reason seems a poor one in general; while property rights are insecure in many parts of the world, they should be sufficiently secure in other places so that more is conserved there in response to overzealous usage elsewhere; if supply will be very short in places with insecure property rights soon, it is an added pressure to conserve now. At any rate, this takes the discussion into one about non-renewable resources and so is a digression.
Many renewable resources are well-managed and will be in good supply in future thanks to property rights. Where property rights do not exist or may be impractical there are some reasons to worry, but as shown by the fish farming example there are solutions even there. There is no known solution to all of the commons problems, though. Global warming is the best-known such instance. The obvious solution is to tax emissions of greenhouse gasses, but if this is done, production is likely to shift to low-tax countries, putting a downward pressure on green taxes. Global agreements are therefore likely to fail. Perhaps a better approach is to tax the carbon content of final products, so that if so and so many tonnes of greenhouse gasses went into the production of my Weetabix, just tax the delicious breakfast cereal where it is sold. I can imagine this would impose harsh demands on producers and be tricky to calculate, but carbon taxation, though theoretically attractive, is certainly not going to work.
However, as economist David Friedman has repeatedly argued, in the case of global warming there is really no good reason to expect present temperatures to be optimal. Maybe greenhouse gasses should be subsidized instead? There is also a case to be made that any political solution will be polluted by the - completely rational - idiocy of the average citizen on the issue. For example, in this paper, Chicago Booth's Luigi Zingales Northwestern Kellogg's Paola Sapienza show that among the general public, almost two-thirds prefer car standards - such as CAFE standards - to a carbon tax, as compared to the economists' widespread (92.5 per cent) preference for carbon taxes (though I believe carbon taxes will fail they are certainly better than CAFE standards). At any rate, the worries of "Earth Overshoot Day" are vastly overblown.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Externalities of Citizenship

The gruesome murder of James Foley earlier this week revealed a problem with citizenship: Groups and individuals who have a problem with certain governments will attack citizens sharing a demonym with those governments. As far as I have understood, the executioner said that the deed was done as revenge for an air strike ordered by POTUS on Islamic State-controlled areas. Maybe their behaviour would be just as nasty even in the absence of the air strike, but in the absence of citizenship, vengeance would be far more costly.
The point with citizenship is to grant certain legal rights to their holders which they would not have if were they not in possession of the citizenship. When individuals are picked for punishment or reward on the basis of their citizenship, they experience external costs and benefits from it. I have heard of people getting out of parking tickets because of their car's numberplates. Naturally, an individual will tend to want external benefits, but to achieve that requires him to successfully alter policy in a way which will bring about this result. It is plain that this is beyond the capacity of the common man, perhaps even of the "great men".
Thus, citizens will not do much to boost the value of their citizenship. What happened to James Foley attests to that; there is hardly an American who wanted him killed, but to influence Washington to make perceptions of America more favourable overseas is, for the individual, like trying to make two and two equal five. The elimination of citizenship is of course extremely unlikely to happen. This blog post merely identifies a thinkable solution to the nasty events of late, not a likely one. Perhaps a market for citizenship would be an improvement. Journalists like Mr Foley would sell their American citizenship and buy one which causes less offence in the region where they work. However, the ties to the US government would remain in the form of friends and relatives who are US citizens and will pressure Washington to work to spare the lives of the captureds. The militants respond to the presence of these ties.
I suppose in the absence of citizenship, "nationality" or maybe residency may also serve the same purpose, so what would really solve the problem would be the elimination of government. Of course, not many people would be willing to go that far. But the present association of individuals with governments and the infinitesimal incentives to boost the value of a citizenship nevertheless does a great deal of damage. Acts of violence tend to cause more aggression in retaliation rather than less, probably in some part due to the lack of incentive for the individual to opt for good government. Therefore, the murder of James Foley was likely carried out because more air strikes or other retaliation will whip up support for IS, whose leaders expect it to be worth more than the added risk to their lives.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Why Is There So Little Conversion away from State Religions?

The reason more Americans than Europeans attend church and claim to believe in God is in large part due to the absence of a state church in the USA. Historically this has meant that churches had no guaranteed income from the state, so their preachers would have to do a really good job in order to fill the collection plate - or starve. The same pressure was not present in Europe. Indeed, while Europeans have become less church-going since US independence, Americans, originally rather disinterested in religion, have attended the Lord's House with increasing assiduousness; church membership rates are up from 17 per cent at the time of the Revolution to over 60 per cent today.

These economic forces were noted already by Adam Smith, who wrote the following in The Wealth of Nations:
"[The preachers'] exertion, their zeal and industry, are likely to be much greater [when they depend on the voluntary contributions of their hearers] than [when their subsistence comes from legislated entitlements]. In this respect, the teachers of new religions have always had a considerable advantage in attacking those ancient and established systems of which the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of the faith and devotion in the great body of the people."

Elsewhere, Gary Anderson's article 'Mr Smith and the Preachers' (p. 1077) offers another pertinent quotation by the Great Scot:
"In the church of Rome, the industry and zeal of the inferior clergy is kept more alive by the powerful motive of self-interest, than perhaps in any established Protestant church. The parochial clergy derive, many of them, a very considerable part of their subsistence from the voluntary oblations of the people: a source of revenue which confession gives them many opportunities of improving. The mendicant orders derive their whole subsistence from such oblations."
Anderson also notes how Catholic Bishops were in a good position to grant promotions to the lower orders of clergymen; it is important to preach well, but one must also preach to the right person.
Thus, religious denominations which have to survive on their own do better than do state-supported ones. Which makes it rather puzzling that European non-state churches would have had to do just that. So why have they not thrived in Europe? One would think that assimilation of groups of different religion should open the door for natives to explore other faiths, and since they would do that in churches relying on voluntary contributions, they would be more likely to be swayed.
What could explain the absence of growth in non-state religions? Surely it would seem odd to many secular individuals to attend some new chruch, but all individuals are not the same, and to some of them it would not seem strange at all. This makes the new religion somewhat less strange and so increases its ability to attract new members. Many religions might not believe in collection plates or things producing similar results, but those that do should still have grown. Maybe many other faiths do not meet on weekends or whenever members of state churches can meet, or maybe they meet when competition from secular alternatives is otherwise very strong, but these possibilities are unlikely to fit every case. There should have been some religions meeting the criteria. Suggested explanations are most welcome.
Lastly and relatedly, Anderson's aforementioned article also notes David Hume's approval of an established religion on the grounds that it would mute the fanaticism of independent sects. I am inclined to think that the consequences of more religious belief among people are not generally as bad as that, though maybe one way of countering militant islamism is to make Islam the state religion?

Saturday, 16 August 2014


Commonsense tells me that the Earth is flat, but if I climb to the top of a really high mountain, I will notice that the horizon has a slight curvature. Without straining my legs to climb the mountain, I notice that the stars all move in predictable patterns at night, along with a bunch of "round" elements in the sky hinting that maybe the Earth has a similar shape. In Ancient Egypt, Eratosthenes found that a pole cast no shadow on midday in Syene, south of where he lived, whereas at his home in Alexandria a pole orthogonal to the ground did cast one. On a flat Earth, this could happen if the sun were very close so that its rays did not arrive parallel to one another, but the phenomenon was better explained by hypothesizing a spherical Tellus. The great Eratosthenes used his common sense to figure out that the cosmic shores on which we live are those of a round planet, and even calculated its circumference.
More commonsense makes for interesting insights, which might seem counterintuitive to those using less of it. To me, it is self-evident that logic is the relentless use of commonsense defined in its ordinary sense as the methods of reasoning available to the common man. Trust in observation that is not gainsaid by other observation is also commonsense. Put the two together and commonsense is really all that one needs to learn anything that is learnable. If two propositions appear inconsistent, commonsense suggests that either at least one of them is wrong or that appearances deceive. More commonsense can find out which, just like Eratosthenes could have used his shadow observations to question his belief (had he ever thought so, which I doubt he did) that the Earth was flat.
Then why do people expounding "counterintuitive" results always appear to do it with a great deal of pride? By my reckoning, it must be because they have not grasped that commonsense rightfully occupies the throne in the realm of epistemology. Sure, something might seem counterintuitive, but once commonsense as ordinarily defined has been applied every bit of the way in reaching that "counterintuitive" answer, it will be found that the original "counterintuitive" conclusion was actually pretty intuitive, quite within the reach of commonsense (or it will be found that it was wrong or that one should actually suspend judgement).
If something is counterintuitive, it must mean that it "counters", or somehow opposes, "intuition", but if intuition is what we can grasp by use of commonsense (like the fact that Tellus is spherical), it should be regarded a cardinal sin of epistemology to praise anything that is truly counterintuitive. If a researcher has to describe his theses or results by use of such foul words, my guess is he probably has not practised his intuition as much as he should have. But that is not to criticize, because vanishingly few people practise enough.
The late Gary Becker once told a story about how he met someone on a journey by aeroplane, with whom my hero (i.e. Professor Becker) had a talk about research, among other things. The fellow passenger told Professor Becker that he meant "no offence, but your [Becker's] ideas seem like plain commonsense". Professor Becker told the story to illustrate that he thought great ideas in Economics are in fact commonsensical, and that he of course had taken no offence at all. The important thing to remember is that the world is a place full of intricate relationships and that commonsense cannot get very far if not applied consistently to dig deeper into the complex. Commonsense does not mean that the yokelry know all that can be known, only that they are capable of it.

(This post is an expansion upon my comment on a recent EconLog blog post.)