A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hey, Remember When I Used To Do Regular Links Posts? Neither Do I!

In the spirit of cleaning out my "links" folder, a dump of things I found interesting at the time and hopefully you will too:

Perhaps you have plenty of time to get where you want to go, but are tired of dull and ugly routes. Look no further than this tool for identifying not the quickest, but the most beautiful route between two places! The only catch: it's for Yahoo rather than Google, so no-one will ever use it.

An 88-year-old man has found the ultimate trick for getting to sleep with young women under hegemonic capitalism: market yourself as a commodity! "Grandfather Busted For Prostituting Himself To Young Women".

An article about one of my favourite albums of recent years, The Lyre Ensemble's The Flood. The Flood is an attempt at recreating, or at least composing in the spirit of, ancient Babylonian music; more about the album can be found here and the album is on iTunes, my personal favourite songs are "Enkidu Curses the Harlot" and "Ishtar's Descent".

Staying on the topic of music, "Towards a 21st century orchestral music canon". Various enthusiasts chip in with their thoughts on modenr long-from orchestral music and why there's relatively little of it.

The collection of Wellcome Library, Euston Road, includes an impressive selection of calling cards for London prostitutes. Fascinating both because sex and as a reflection of the social history of London. "Until the mid-190s, the typical tart was of apparently English stock. From around 1994 onwards, we see Oriental beauties, busty Amazons and Jamaican Dominatrices. Raunchy photographs become common at this point, but are often cribbed from magazines and bear little resemblance to the goods on offer. The production values improve as well. One lady poses next to an inset that shows her recent endorsement by the News of the World."

Another library I'd have been interested to visit: that of the IRA prisoners. People are often surprised at how well-educated and middle-class most terrorists are, but you have to remember that terrorism is a fundamentally political act, which means that it is most popular among the political classes. In this light, the greater surprise is not that the prisoners were so interested in Marxism, but that they were able to establish such a remarkable compendium of works in the tradition.

Only the true Messiah denies his divinity! (via this 2009 Marginal Revolution post)

Stewart Lee defends the German sense of humour. Incidentally, a dirty Hungarian joke I heard last night about Transylvanians, but which could be about many other nationalities too:
A young Transylvanian man is getting married, and asks his father for advice concerning the wedding night. The father tells him: "First, you must pick up your new wife, to show that Transylvanians are strong. Then you throw her on the bed, to show that Transylvanians are masculine. Then you remove your clothes, to show that Transylvanians are beautiful. And I'm sure you can work out what to do from there."
After the newlyweds return from their honeymoon, and the delighted son checks in with his father. "It was just like you said! I picked her up, to show that Transylvanians are strong. I threw her on the bed, to show that we are masculine. I removed our clothes, to show that we are beautiful. And then I stood next to the bed and masturbated, to show that Transylvanians are independent and autonomous!"

Robert Wiblin has one of the most interesting Facebook feeds I know, and this is a particular highlight: a discussion of "What's the strongest argument against a political position you hold dear?"

Everyone likes to joke about homoerotic readings of the relationship between Batman and Robin, but this is an impressively thorough history.

The complaint that English people only know England, and have no idea of how the world works or of how they are perceived beyond their borders, is a familiar one: I hear it all the time from Scots and Northern Irish. If I had any Welsh friends they'd probably say the same thing, the British-but-not-English countries are all basically the same anyway. In any case, an expat skewers this mentality from a more international perspective, with regard to our beloved "athlete" Eddie the Eagle.

Braess' Paradox: adding capacity to a road network can increase congestion, without changing the volume of traffic!

Edward Feser explains a particular view of the nature of heaven and hell, according to which people choose to go to hell. Warning: relies on kooky metaphysics (though nonetheless fascinating if you have an interest in theology).

A defence of Napoleon, portraying him as a great reformer who sought to avoid war, at least following his return to power in the Hundred Days. In a similarly revisionist but less hot-takey, more plausible vein, various instances of private violence being taken over by the government as a way to restrain and control it. "Many southern states tightened "Jim Crow" racial codes between the World Wars as part of an attempt to stop lynchings"!

Since I may have just defended governments, better even it out with a reminder that many of them are literally evil: as famine is declared in two counties of South Sudan, the government increases the fee for work permits for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000.

Some people just hate progress: an argument against colonising Mars. That said, perhaps the problem is that Mars is the wrong target and we should aim for Venus first.

A takedown of certain elite views that war with China is inevitable. Convincing as an explainer, I particularly enjoyed the section suggesting that the same argument imply inevitable war between the US and Europe.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Banter Heuristic Strikes Again!

So Theresa May is bringing the DUP into a governing coalition:

-After campaigning in 2015 on the fact that a Labour government would rely on a purely Scottish party with 5% of the vote, the Tories go into government with a purely Northern Irish party with 0.9% of the vote.
-After calling an election in order to obtain a strong majority, the Tories lose the majority they had.
-After branding Corbyn a friend of terrorists, the Tories bring some actual (former) terrorists into the governing coalition.
-A mass movement of socially liberal youngsters has brought a climate-change-denying anti-abortion anti-LGBT party into the government.
-The DUP can't even govern Northern Ireland due to a corruption scandal, but they're going to be helping to govern the whole of the UK.

Can anything top this bants?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In Condemnation of Enthusiasm

Over the last few days I've tweeted various thoughts about tomorrow's general election. The key points I have made, expanded to take advantage of there being no 140 characters limit and to include explanation I didn't really give at the time:

(1) May and Corbyn are both absolutely awful.

(2) It's very difficult to say who is worse. I suggested, however, that May is probably worse in the long-run. (And ultimately, the long-run is the only thing that matters):

(2a) May is likely to make changes not just to our laws, but to our very society.

(2ai) Firstly, by massively restricting immigration (and quite possibly forcing out foreign citizens who are already present), she will remove many of our most reliably cosmopolitan members. Second, our population is already ageing and immigration is one of the things keeping it from going up faster - both because immigrants themselves are typically relatively young, but also because they raise the fertility of native Brits.

(2aii) Second, May is moving away from entrusting immigration control to a few sociopaths on the border and more to employers and landlords. If they employ or let to unauthorised immigrants, then they will be punished - so they will have to be vigilant to avoid this. Given the way that government enforcement tends to create public acceptance (see chapter 6), I think this is likely to further contribute to negative views of immigration and immigrants.

(2b) As Rory also notes, Corbyn is likely to fail a lot more visibly than May. Perhaps we undergo a few years of stagnation or recession, fine. Hopefully people see this isn't working and after a decade or so of self-inflicted misery, we end up with better policies. (This feels relevant, though I'm not certain how).

(3) But ultimately, this is just a guess. I would put my confidence that May is worse somewhere between 55% and 60%, and would not blame anyone for deciding that either May or Corbyn is the lesser evil.

(4) Anyone who has a reasonable knowledge and understanding of economics ought to realise that both are awful, and enthusiasm for either one indicates that you should views on politics should not, in general, be taken seriously. (This is not intended as a personal slight. There is nothing wrong with knowing nothing about politics, any more than there is with knowing nothing about car maintenance. The problem comes when one attempts to force one's uninformed views on others, rather than leaving politics well enough alone).

(4ai) Donald Trump received just under 63 million votes last year. The overwhelming majority of those were not from out-and-out racists, but rather from people who think that it is more important that the president have an R next to his or her name than that he or she be a sound thinker of calm disposition who adheres to even basic standards of ethical conduct. Party loyalty and partisanship allows people to overlook terrible flaws in their candidate; to be enthusiastic for either May or Corbyn, rather than resigned to whoever one takes to be the less bad candidate, is to place oneself in the same category as those millions who elected the ape currently occupying the White House. If the candidate one supports is less bad than Trump, this has nothing do with one's own virtues and everything to do with the fact that one is fortunate enough to live in a place with less awful candidates than the US.

(4aii) Anyone who genuinely believes in communism ought never to be allowed anywhere near government office, regardless of what they profess in order to get elected (or to be acceptable in polite society). Firstly, this belief displays a severe lack of judgement, and judgement is key to good governance. Second, the communist will attempt to implement communist policies, constrained by what they think they can get away with.
Tony Blair was acceptable is Prime Minister because he demonstrated, in particular by forcing the rewriting of Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, that he was not any kind of communist. He was not someone who wanted communism but would settle for being able to implement liberal policies with a leftist slant; rather, he genuinely accepted the superiority of liberalism over communism. If one is the kind of leftist who ought to be entrusted with power, then one will - as a genuine liberal - be horrified at the prospect of Corbyn getting to implement his policies.

(4b) Both (4ai) and (4aii) are valid criticism of some enthusiastic Labour supporters. However, attributing both to any individual voter is perhaps to make things overdetermined. If one is a full-on socialist, then while one almost certainly despises the Tories this is hardly necessary for one to gather around the Labour flag. Similarly, becoming a loud and enthusiastic Corbynite merely to keep the Tories out has its own problems, but it does not indicate a deficit of judgement in the way that being a genuine Marxist does.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Eugenics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eugenics is the attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Some people might object to the notion that we can talk of "genetic quality", insisting that all people are fundamentally equal and that this rules out the possibility that some genes are better than others. I say this is nonsense. A gene that predisposes you to be unhappy, violent, or stupid, with no other effects, is clearly bad. No parent should want their child to inherit such a gene. If this is contrary to human equality, then so much the worse for human equality.

With that out of the way, I wish to suggest a division of our notion of "eugenics" into three categories: pro-natal eugenics, which aims to increase the number of people being born with preferable genes; anti-natal eugenics, which aims to reduce the number of people being born with less-preferable genes; and improvement eugenics, which aims to improve the genetic quality of people who are going to be born anyway. An example of pro-natal eugenics would be providing financial subsidies for high-IQ couples to have children; an example of anti-natal eugenics would be compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be defective in certain ways; an example of improvement eugenics would be screening embryos for disease among people undergoing IVF treatment.

These different kinds of eugenics ought to be assessed differently. My key thesis here is that improvement eugenics is clearly desirable, pro-natal eugenics is likely to be anti-egalitarian but that the good consequences may well outweigh this, and that confusing these with anti-natal eugenics is responsible for most of our worries about eugenics. (I'm not going to take a strong position on whether anti-natal eugenics might be overall justified, but it seems far more problematic than either of the other kinds).

There is a risk with any of these programs that policy-makers will seek to promote not good traits but traits which they personally like - for example, particular colours of skin. We should acknowledge this danger, should fight against all such misapplications of eugenics, and may find that the risk of abuse is to high to practice any eugenics. But I maintain that these practical issues are irrelevant to the in-principle-acceptability of certain kinds of eugenics.

Improvement Eugenics

When we talk about ways to improve outcomes for people who will exist anyway in ways which don't involve genetics, no-one bats an eyelid. Controls on lead emissions are obviously desirable. Education, insofar as it represents real improvements in people's capabilities rather than just a form of signalling, is similarly desirable. The only question, then, is whether the fact of these changes being genetic rather than through other mechanisms makes a moral difference.

It does introduce some extra reasons to be concerned, to be sure. Genetic changes are rather harder to reverse than many other kinds of change: if it had turned out that we were wrong about lead and that it was in fact vital to children's development, we could start pumping it into the air and would within a few years fix much of the damage caused; if it turned out that an incident of gene editing had significant negative consequences, this would take longer to correct and would require significantly greater resources, if it was even possible. But this does not affect the case, on the level of pure principle, for improvement eugenics.

Some people object that by meddling with genes, we are "playing God". Given that I don't believe in any kind of God, at least in the conventional sense, I'm not inclined to take this kind of argument seriously. Besides which, such arguments seem woefully underspecified. What is that makes fixing people's genes blasphemous, but throwing a ball not blasphemous? Both involve meddling with the world in certain ways which might happen to be either in accordance with or contrary to God's will. I'd be happy to have this discussion with a serious religious thinker willing to supply such a condition, but in the absence of such an interlocutor I feel the attempt would be a waste of time.

Perhaps changing someone's genes involves some kind of interference with their autonomy. OK, but it can also improve their autonomy if it leads to higher intelligence, conscientiousness, or similar. Moreover, it's highly unclear why we should take their natural set of genes as the moral default from which any deviation must be justified.

Ultimately, it's hard to see why we shouldn't edit out things like hereditary diseases from the human genome, unless there are significant side-effects of doing so. Is it right to save life, or to kill?

Pro-natal eugenics

This is more problematic than improvement eugenics. Most obviously, it's likely to involve anti-egalitarian transfers of resources and welfare, since the people we would be attempting to incentivise to have more children would in many cases be those who already have plenty. (Perhaps the solution would be, rather than rewarding high-IQ types for having more children, punishing them for having fewer children? But even if this is judged worthwhile when intelligence we wish to encourage, it becomes rather less palatable when trying to encourage greater procreation by people with genes that lead them to be more pro-social than average, or other things we view as virtuous).

That said, I think in general this ought not to be much more controversial than improvement eugenics. If you accept my arguments that people benefit from existing, and you think that certain people create net positive externalities for the rest of society (and would continue to do so on the margin if there were more of them), then why would you not want more of those people? Yes it has certain inegalitarian aspects, but any good Rawlsian should recognise than in the end we all benefit.

Anti-natal eugenics

This is the bad boy. This is the kind of eugenics responsible for giving eugenics in general a bad name, the kind of eugenics used to justify forced sterilisation of despised minorities.

When considering any kind of anti-natal eugenics aimed at abolishing a condition X, there are two questions to be asked: (1) what does X mean for the quality of life of the person who possesses it? (2) Do people with X tend to make the rest of society worse off?

If the answer to (1) is that X usually makes people's lives not worth living, as with certain medical conditions, then we do not need any kind of eugenic principle to justify preventing people with condition X from coming into existence: we need only a sense of mercy.

If the answer to (2) is no, that they simply end up in a worse condition than the average member of society - so what? Let these people live, let their parents have full reproductive freedom!

The complicated cases come when a person is fully capable of having a life worth living, but would impose costs on society in doing so. Sometimes these costs will be concrete, such as those who are in important ways disabled at a young age and so require another person to act as a full-time carer. Sometimes they will be harder to detect, such as the stuff Garett Jones writes about. My tentative inclination is to think that some anti-natal eugenics may be permissible in such cases, but I cannot claim to have thought this through in any great detail. Moreover, any interests society may have in avoiding these costs must be weighed against various interests - in particular procreative interests and bodily autonomy - of the would-be parents of children with condition X. Paying criminals to be sterilised is probably acceptable, mandatory sterilisation is probably not.


Eugenics gets a bad rap due to the genuinely reprehensible things which it has been used to justify. However, eugenic interventions aimed at improving the genetic quality of people who will be born in any case and/or at increasing the fertility of people with desirable traits are in principle morally acceptable - though we might nevertheless have justified worries about the practicalities of such programs.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

How Serious are Northern Irish Nationalists?

When what is now the Republic of Ireland seceded from Britain in the early 1920s, six of the thirty-two traditional Irish counties remained part of the UK. These six were judged to have more Protestant inhabitants than Catholic, and so to be sustainable for the Empire against the rising tide of generally small-scale but widespread and well-targeted violence that had rendered much of Ireland utterly ungovernable for the British government. 95 years later, the situation remains in the most basic facts the same: Northern Ireland remains a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, with the Protestants holding a slim plurality of the population. The Catholics are still mostly Irish nationalists, wanting the six counties to leave the UK and join the Republic; the Protestants are still mostly unionists, fiercely resistant to this suggestion. In past decades there was significant violence over this issue, resulting in over 3500 deaths; however, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, there has been very little fighting and pressure has been exerted through the controlled violence of electoral politics.

One question we may ask of the Irish nationalists who live in Northern Ireland is: given that they claim to have a strong preference for living in the Republic of Ireland, why don't they? Rather than pushing for Irish unification politically, a cause which is no closer to success than it was 95 years ago, why don't they just move 50 miles south to live in the existing territory of the Republic? I shall consider various reasons they might have for not moving, and ultimately conclude that in general they just don't care that much. The preference of Northern Irish Catholics for Irish unification is not a preference that we should take especially seriously.

It is worth making it clear that I am not arguing that by living in Northern Ireland, Catholics consent to British rule. David Hume savaged consent theory quite comprehensively back in 1748. In any case, the idea that living in a state constitutes consent to that state presupposes that the state already has legitimate ownership of its territory. Nor would I claim that Northern Irish Catholics lack strong feelings about which state ought to possess sovereignty over Northern Ireland. But such feelings are produced by a need for group identity rather than any intellectual case or any experience of being oppressed.

The costs of moving to Eire

Let's be fair: there are substantial costs involved in moving house, especially between countries. But for most people in Northern Ireland, I shall show that this is not a convincing explanation. Most of the costs involved in such a move are small, negative, or inevitable.

Let us divide the costs into four categories: material costs, social costs, legal barriers, and transitional costs. By material costs I mean long-lasting reductions in one's standard of living as a result of moving geographically. An example of a material cost would be moving but being unable to find a job similar to the one you had back home, with the result that one is permanently poorer. These are the kind of costs that explain why people who are still in work do not tend to move from higher-income countries to lower-income countries. For much of the last century, this would have provided a plausible reason for not moving to the south: at the time of partition, Belfast was the only significant industrialised area in the island of Ireland, and most of the Republic was dirt-poor. But since around 1990 Ireland has undergone rapid economic growth, to the point where its GDP per capita is much higher not only than that of Northern Ireland, but of the UK as a whole. Nationalists moving to Ireland nowadays would most likely improve their standard of living.

Social costs are the long-term changes to one's social life that are necessitated by moving. These can exist in both losing old friends, and losing access to activities that one enjoyed but no longer has access to. Such costs can indeed be substantial - but they are not plausibly especially large for most Northern Irish Catholics contemplating a move south. They would not be moving far - Belfast and Dublin are only two hour's drive apart, absolutely fine for regular weekend visits home to see family and friends. The cultural life available to a Northern Irish Catholic is not tremendously different from that available to a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. If people really care, you might well persuade a lot of people to move south with you!

The legal barriers are close to non-existent. UK citizens born in Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, and do not have to give up their British citizenship to acquire it. The border is unguarded, indeed in most places unmarked. Perhaps there might be some problems for former IRA members, given that the Republic was generally quite successful in keeping the IRA out of Ireland. That said, I'd guess that since 1998 with the general amnesty available, this should not have been an issue. In any case, most Northern Irish Catholics were not members of the IRA.

Finally, the transitional costs. There are genuine costs to finding a new house and a new job, even if you are moving into a higher standard of living. But what proportion of Northern Irish Catholics have lived in the same house for all of the last twenty years? Perhaps members of the older generations have significant attachments and no reason to move beyond nationalist sentiment, but for any adult below the age of forty (and probably most above that age) they have surely had an opportunity to move to the Republic of Ireland at no permanent material cost, minimal social cost, with no legal barriers, and no transitional costs beyond those which they would have faced anyway in moving between two houses in Northern Ireland.

In sum, the revealed preference of Northern Irish Catholics is that they don't care all that much about whether they live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland. The overwhelming majority could have moved south at minimal cost, perhaps even at a gain, and have chosen not to do so.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: The Music Man

The Music Man is a fantastically catchy musical set in 1912 Iowa, in which conman "Professor Harold Hill" persuades a town to purchase large numbers of musical instruments and uniforms on the pretense that he will operate a marching band for their children, but his plans to defraud the town go awry when he falls in love with the town's fierce but socially unpopular librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo. It won five Tony Awards in the year of its release including Best Musical, despite having as a competitor the greatest work of music ever written. More pertinently to how I first encountered it, it plays a minor role in the Rorshach's Blot classic Larceny, Lechery, and Luna Lovegood! as the play to which Fred drags Angelina on every one of their dates. eso theatricals were recently putting on a run of the play, and having previously enjoyed their Sweeney Todd, I was eager to see this too.

Again, the performance was clearly that of amateurs rather than professionals. That said, the set and costume design were absolutely fine, the acting and music adequate and the singing good (except for some unfortunately consistent disharmony in the school board barbershop quartet, whose source I was unable to ascertain). The weakest part of the performance was the generally unimaginative choreography, which often was nothing more than characters marching round the stage and raising their arms in synchronisation. To be fair, it is my understanding that someone had to step into the role of choreographer at a late stage, which suggests that they probably didn't have all that much time to rehearse the dancing either, and therefore had to remain on the easier side of things.

There were odd moments - for example, when a very Dutch woman exclaimed of herself and her two children (both played by Hungarians) "Oh, but we are Irish!" But overall, the performance was enjoyable; it did a better job of conveying the energy of the musical than its beauty, but did a quite reasonable job of the latter too.

(Incidentally, a more mainstream reference to The Music Man than Harry Potter fanfiction: Marge vs. the Monorail)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Listening to American Pop Music and Buying Their Blue Jeans

One of my favourite Marginal Revolution posts is "The Baffling Politics of Paid Maternity Leave in India". Alex Tabarrok, currently making use of his sabbatical from GMU to teach in Mumbai, observes that Indians often favour policies which make sense in an American context, but not at all in India. Quoting directly:

When I gave a lecture at a local university, for example, I apparently shocked the students when I said matter-of-factly:
India would be a better country if it were richer and more unequal.
I think India’s extreme poverty makes this obviously true in a utilitarian sense, i.e. better for Indians, but it wasn’t so obvious to the students some-of-whom discussed inequality in terms that could easily have been duplicated at Berkeley. The inequality conversation has jumped the pond in ways that seem to me to be completely inappropriate.
Writing in the Times of India, Rupa Subramanya gives another example, a bill for paid maternity leave that has just passed the Indian parliament (waiting only on the president’s signature). As I pointed out earlier, by far the majority of Indians are self-employed and in the informal sector. The very idea of paid maternity leave, therefore, is bizarre.
I'll stick with the example of inequality. The USA, having one of the highest GDP-per-capita-s on Earth, can afford significant redistribution and may find it appropriate to do so even if this harms growth. (This is a moral mistake, of course, but we'll bracket that for now). India, being around 9 or 10 times poorer than the US, should be concerned with achieving greater wealth first and foremost; if this increases inequality, then so be it. Become rich now and redistribute later is immensely preferabe to redistributing now and never becoming rich. This ought not, one would hope, to be too controversial when presented in its entirety.
(I am of course presuming that there is a trade-off between redistribution and economic growth. This is not a claim to which I am married, we're just taking it for the sake of argument here.)
(Also, note that the UK is distinctly at the lower end of high-income countries. If we were part of the US, we would be the poorest state. Does this mean that, although not to the same extent as India, we ought also to prioritise growth over combating inequality?)
Yet because inequality is an issue in the US, other countries follow the lead. Tabarrok attributes this to a desire for positive PR: these policies are not aimed at combating the objective problems faced by India, but at showing to the west that India is an enlightened, modern and progressive nation. This, I think, attributes too much intelligence and strategic thought to the Indian political class. Is it not simpler to model most people as having a one-size-fits-all view of politics: the policies which suit the US must also be the policies which suit the India, with perhaps an allowance for past history and the dangers of changing too quickly?
I think similar dynamics are at play in the UK: people hear or read things which were true or at least plausible when describing the US, but are simply false on this side of the Atlantic. This seems the most charitable way to understand talk of "rising inequality": by the best measure we have, the Gini coefficient, UK income inequality fell sharply following the crash of 2008, rose ever so slightly for a couple of years, and then went back to falling quickly. Admittedly the data only goes up to 2012, but that which we have is emphatic. Duncan Weldon, no right-winger, has commented that "insisting that UK inequality rose in the last decade is basically the intellectual equivalent of climate change denial". It seems fair to suspect that many people who learn their politics from US sources implicitly assume that US institutions, norms, and indicators must be universal - or at least, fail to explicitly consider different countries separately. This is especially bad in countries such as the UK and India where English is a main language of politics.