The Not-So-Current Year: 2017 In Review

Though the specific demarcation of the passage from one year into another is a rather arbitrary social construct, it does provide a useful annual period for self-examination and remembrance. Now that 2017 has entered the history books, let us take a look back at a year’s worth of essays and review the not-so-current year.

We begin, of course, with last year’s article of the same kind. Some articles in this list are sequels to articles in that list. Aside from that, we may move on.

I began 2017 by addressing a recurring story throughout the 2016 election campaign; that of Russia hacking the DNC and phishing Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email system. I argued that Russia would have been justified in doing not only this, but in actually altering the election to cause Donald Trump to win. I would later use this piece as an example in a guide on how to argue more sharply in order to throw opponents out of their comfort zones. The story lingered on, so I published a sequel detailing the benefits of a Trump-Russia conspiracy. The left’s activities after the election became ridiculous, so I decided to give them some free advice.

My first list of 25 statist propaganda phrases and some concise rebuttals was a major hit, so I started planning a sequel. I had no intention of taking almost two years to compile 25 more statist propaganda phrases to refute, but better late than never, I suppose.

Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, which of course meant that Gary Johnson did not. I explored in detail what was wrong with Johnson’s campaign that made him not only lose, but fail to earn 5 percent of the vote against two of the least popular major-party candidates ever to seek the Presidency. Once Trump was in office, the responses to his trade policies among mainstream analysts led me to explain why many of them are politically autistic.

Book reviews have long been a part of my intellectual output, but I decided to start doing more of them in late 2016. This trend continued throughout 2017, as I read and reviewed The Invention of Russia, The Age of Jihad, In Our Own Image, Come And Take It, Against Empathy, Level Up Your Life, Islamic Exceptionalism, The Science of Selling, Closing The Courthouse Door, Open To Debate, Calculating the Cosmos, The Art of Invisibility, Libertarian Reaction, and The Euro.

Antifa grew from a nuisance that rarely affected anyone other than neo-Nazis into a serious threat to anyone who is politically right of center and/or libertarian who wishes to speak in a public venue. A comprehensive strategy to defeat them was necessary, and I was happy to provide one. Kyle Chapman grew weary of Antifa’s antics and led the effort to take up arms against them, becoming known as Based Stickman. I praised him in song. After the events of February, April, and May Day, I revised the strategy.

The Walking Dead comic series and the television show based on it contain many themes which are of interest to the student of libertarian philosophy. I explored the many ways in which Negan’s group resembles a state apparatus. The first part covers the sixth season of the show, and the second part covers the first half of the seventh season. At least three more parts will come next year.

‘No Particular Order-ism’, or the belief that libertarians should take whatever reduction in the size and scope of government they can get, has become common among the more radical members of the Libertarian Party. I explained why this approach is misguided.

White nationalist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer was present in the bar of the Marriott hotel that hosted the International Students For Liberty conference. This did not go over well with Jeffrey Tucker, who loudly denounced Spencer, after which security removed everyone from the bar. I wrote about the incident and the philosophical underpinnings of it.

Sometimes, the lens of examination is best turned inward to correct one’s own missteps. Such was the case for an article I wrote in 2014 about the nature of fake libertarianism, so I published a revision.

Theories concerning the creation, acquisition, trade, inheritance, and defense of private property form much of libertarian philosophy. The role of conquest in the determination of property rights had gone largely unexplored, so I decided to remedy the situation.

Terrorism struck in London on the anniversary of the Brussels attacks. I wrote a list of observations on the event.

I argued against more amendments to the United States Constitution, namely the Second and the Eleventh.

A chemical weapon attack occurred in Syria, which led to US intervention via a cruise missile strike. I wrote a list of observations on the event.

Keynesians and others who support fiat currency and central banking frequently claim that there is not enough gold in the world to back the quantity of currency in existence, and thus returning to gold would set off a deflationary spiral while destroying several industries that depend on gold. I debunked that claim.

On the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, I applied ethical theories to the event to gain a deeper perspective of what happened and the aftermath of the event.

The primary aim of politically active libertarians is to limit and reduce the size and scope of government, as well as to eliminate as much state power as possible. I made the case that in order to do this, it may be necessary to temporarily do the opposite.

On May 8, Fritz Pendleton published an article at Social Matter in which he argued that liberty is best preserved by authority rather than anarchy. He then proceeded to launch a misguided attack against libertarianism, all while misunderstanding authority, anarchy, liberty, and the nature of a libertarian social order. I rebutted Pendleton’s case on a point-by-point basis.

Fashion trends can be a useful barometer of the health of a society. I explained how the trend of clothing that is designed to mimic the appearance of wear and work for those who think themselves above the sorts of activities that would produce these effects naturally indicates that a revolution may come soon.

Memorial Day provides an opportunity to promote statist propaganda concerning the nature of service and the provision of defense. I decided to do the opposite.

The immediate danger standard says that using force against someone who is not presenting a physical threat at the exact moment that force is used constitutes aggression, and it has become far too commonly advocated in libertarian circles. I explained why it is wrong and why it has gained prevalence.

On June 14, James Hodgkinson opened fire on several Republican members of Congress and their staffers while they were practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. I wrote a list of observations on the event.

The Supreme Court ruled against the stays on Trump’s travel ban, but he missed a greater opportunity by letting them decide rather than ignoring the courts. I explained how and why.

Political rhetoric has grown increasingly heated, with violence erupting as a result. I showed how democracy is the root of this problem and how abolishing democracy is the solution.

The meme of throwing one’s political rivals out of helicopters has become popular among certain right-wing and libertarian groups in recent years. Unfortunately, people from all over the political spectrum tend to misunderstand the historical context of the meme, and thus interpret it incorrectly. I wrote an overview of this context and explained why helicopter rides may not be the best option.

I welcomed Insula Qui, the first additional writer for Zeroth Position, in July. He provided two articles to keep the site going while I was preparing for, participating in, and recovering from the Corax conference in Malta. A piece describing the problems that led to the call for net neutrality and recommending against more state inteference in the Internet came first, followed by a critique of common libertarian strategies to date. Speaking of the Corax conference, a revised version of my talk may be found here, as they own the rights to the original. A topic that came up in the talk that needed further comment is that in the discussion of proper behavior beyond the basics of libertarian theory, right-libertarians in general and libertarian reactionaries in particular will use the term ‘degeneracy,’ but they do not always properly define the term. I attempted to do so.

In the August 2 episode of the Tom Woods Show, he asserted that libertarians and fascists are completely contradictory political perspectives and could never be combined, and that when one embraces fascism, one must have relinquished one’s libertarianism, as there is no other solution that would make sense. Qui countered these assertions and delved deeper into the relationship between libertarianism and fascism than I had previously, which is not as inimical as one might think.

An alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12 turned violent, with three deaths and about 20 injuries. I wrote a list of observations on the events. In response, the large technology companies of Silicon Valley, which have become increasingly hostile to right-wing and libertarian content creators over the past decade, ramped up their censorship efforts. I proposed a novel and radical plan to deal with this problem so as to avoid public utility regulation.

I welcomed Benjamin Welton, our second additional writer, in September. I had meant to write an article about using the historical concept of outlawry to deal with violent illegal aliens myself, but time constraints led me to outsource the project. He then explored several historical examples of private military defense, finding that something novel must be created in order to defeat the state and maintain a libertarian social order.

In the wake of two major hurricanes, the usual complaints about price gouging were made yet again. I explained why price gouging is actually beneficial.

Qui wrote a piece about the limits of the applicability of libertarian philosophy, explaining that humans can fall into the categories of personhood or savagery, and that it is important to deal with each accordingly.

Catalonia held a referendum to secede from Spain and become an independent nation on October 1. This was met with force, and much hostility ensued. I wrote a list of observations on the events.

Qui examined the role of the modern concept of citizenship in advancing a particularly insidious form of totalitarianism.

On October 5, the New York Times published an opinion column by Michael Shermer in which he argued that the rule of law is a bulwark against tyranny, but guns are not. I thoroughly rebutted his arguments.

Welton explored the history of judicial corporal punishment, then made a case for restoring its use as a replacement for imprisoning lesser criminals.

The debt ceiling became a political issue again. As it incites financial panic for no good reason and hides important truths from common view, I advocated for its elimination on formalist grounds.

Capitalism and consumerism are distinct phenomena, with the latter caused by high time preference, which in turn is caused by the flaws inherent in modernity. Qui explained this at length.

I welcomed Nathan Dempsey, our third additional writer, in November. He runs a project called Liberty Minecraft, and wrote an introduction to the project.

The relationship between libertarianism and racial politics has become a controversial issue in recent years. Views on the issue run the gamut from complete opposition to imperative alliance, with nearly every conceivable position between being advocated by someone noteworthy. Many libertarians either provide the wrong answer or are afraid to address the question, so I decided to address libertarianism and support for ethnic nationalism.

Black Friday is revered by most libertarians as a celebration of free-market capitalism. I updated my explanation of why this reverence is misplaced. I weighed in on holiday shopping again due to some misguided criticism of computer programs designed to scalp popular gifts. Finally, I detailed the problems with Santa Claus.

Qui offered a message of hope in dark times by demonstrating how the socialists and anti-capitalists of today are not usually as fanatical as those that the early libertarians opposed, then offered advice on how to argue against them. He quickly followed this with an explanation of his concept of autostatism, which closely echoed one of the other presentations from the Corax conference. He then dealt with traditional views on degenerate behavior, and how a compassionate, non-enabling approach is necessary.

Due to surging exchange rates, the opening of Bitcoin futures, and the likelihood of Bitcoin exchange-traded funds in the near future, there is renewed mainstream interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. There are benefits of cryptocurrencies which will be cheered by political outsiders to the chagrin of the establishment, and I listed eight of them.

Qui finished out the year by explaining why individualism and nationalism are not as incompatible as many people believe.

All in all, it was an interesting year full of occasions to make sharp libertarian and reactionary arguments. May 2018 bring more and better. Happy New Year!

On Traditionalism, Degeneracy, and Compassion

Reaction and Traditionalism

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in traditionalist and reactionary thought. However, as far-right circles still retain a tint of modernity, some anomalous developments have occurred. Parts of this new reaction engage in a contest against modernity without seeking any actual return to traditional norms. This creates a situation in which the framework of modernity is tacitly accepted while modernity itself is rejected. Since the people who appreciate modernity tend to oppose pre-modern wisdom and accomplishment, reactionaries have a tendency to oppose everything modern without the necessary consideration. This is an example of a phenomenon that neoreactionaries call “Error Push,” in which people signal agreement with positions that are factually inaccurate because an ideological opponent holds those positions.

Thus far, there has not been a coherent grounding for this traditionalism. The attempts to lay an alternative groundwork have thus far been arbitrary and capricious. Whether the current fad is traditional Christianity, white separatism, or worshiping Chilean dictators, none have provided an analytic or cohesive framework for what is supposed to come after modernity in lieu of postmodernism. As there has not been a good and proper moral standard for the new reactionaries, there are people who claim to be reactionaries who are openly participating in modernity. These include proud and open homosexuals who cite the ancient Greeks, a degree of intersectionality of men’s rights activism and traditionalism, and supposed conservatives who promote pornography, to name a few. To make sense of this and to provide an alternative, there needs to be an establishment of coherent norms of morality and what is expected of those who hold traditional values. The ultimate answer to this is found in early libertarian theory.

The Typology of Degeneracy

The traditional libertarian notion of tolerance is fundamentally antithetical to the modern notion of tolerance. What has now become a tacit acceptance of every sort of perversion and lifestyle under the sun grew out of a reluctance to use force against non-violent people. This, coupled with the ideas of free will and individual responsibility, was the libertarian view until libertarianism became tied together with cosmopolitanism. In a cohesive framework utilizing these ideas, the question of degeneracy becomes simplified. First, it is unjust to force individuals to cease being degenerates as long as the individuals in question are not initiating the use of force. This should be obvious to every libertarian and acceptable to most people who believe that a traditional society is necessary. However, it is completely justified to exclude undesirable degeneracy from a society. The method for fighting against degeneracy is thus to have a set of moral standards agreed upon by private property owners in a community, with physical removal as the punishment for non-compliance.

This splits degeneracy into two types: personal and communal. Personal degeneracy is that which has absolutely no effect on the community; in economic terms, it imposes no externalities. An example is the notion advanced by homosexuals that what they do in their own bedrooms is not the business of the state. Despite the dubious nature of this example in the real world (if they were really only concerned with what occurs behind closed doors, there would be little need for public agitation), it is true that insofar as their activities are confined to their own bedrooms, it does not affect the larger society. In fact, the rest of society will not even know that they are homosexuals and will function under the assumption that they are not. The people who choose to engage in acts that are only harmful to themselves are the responsibility of themselves and no one else. That being said, the typology of degeneracy is not a simple binary. Not all personal perversion that has effects on the community becomes communal perversion, and there is always some degree of externality in every action, however minuscule. Thus the typology becomes a matter of degree; degeneracy can be more communal or more personal, but is never entirely one to the exclusion of the other.

There is another important aspect which both libertarianism and theology can provide. There is a difference between choosing to engage in degenerate behavior and having an abnormal nature. For example, a drug addict who is clean and has no interest in furthering drug abuse or engaging in depraved behavior is very different from a drug addict who actively promotes and regularly engages in the use of dangerous substances. In this case, a drug addict is likely to have genetic and environmental factors that make drug addiction more likely. A broken person is much more likely to turn to heroin in an effort to fill an emotional void than out of a desire to do heroin, but there is still a choice involved to some lesser degree. As before, this is a matter of degree and not a simple dichotomy. The more one personally embraces a degenerate behavior, the more likely it is to become public, as degenerate behaviors necessarily cause a loss of the self-control needed to keep the behavior private.

These factors lead to a correlation between voluntary degeneracy and communal practice, as well as a correlation between involuntary degeneracy and personal practice. There is variance outside these two cases, but they are the two broad categories of depravity. Voluntary communal degeneracy can be reduced by the proper raising of children, but can only be defeated by forming communities that exclude those who promote degeneracy. Reactionaries tend to understand this, but often lack understanding of involuntary personal degeneracy. Due to radicalization and having no effective definition of counter-modernity, the first impulse is often to shun and attack those who are effected by this sort of decay. The other impulse that is often prevalent is to simply accept degeneracy as long as it is kept within personal boundaries. This creates a massive amount of confusion within the radicals who have no moral background and leaves potential problems to grow and fester. Furthermore, both of these approaches are fundamentally modern, in that they attempt to hide and ignore that which is undesirable rather than confront and defeat it.

The Role of Compassion

There is only one internally consistent way to deal with involuntary personal degeneracy. This is not through tolerance or acceptance but through compassion. This is the libertarian-Christian ideal forgotten by the new wave of reactionaries, the notion of loving the sinner but hating the sin, of disagreeing with a person’s behavior but still wanting to help them improve with non-coercive discussion and empathy. This is the most rational and effective way to change behaviors in a productive manner. If one cares about people who have succumbed to destructive behaviors without subjecting others to what they are doing, one needs to provide them with constructive support that does not enable their degeneracy. If one is guided by a vague sense of moralism, it may be repulsive to approach such people with an open mind. It may seem natural to shun everyone who has problems which they are unable to solve. But everyone has some degree of behavioral tendencies which could be harmful to oneself and others. What matters is knowing how to properly manage these tendencies and that one can live the most balanced life by facilitating a compromise between higher ideals and personal desires. The goal should not be to rid oneself of personal desires completely or to eliminate people who have desires which go contrary to morality, as this would ultimately cause human extinction.

The only way in which it is possible to change the minds of people who are in a state of decay through no fault of their own is to show how their state can be improved by living a better and more moral life. A drug addict cannot instantaneously stop being a drug addict; however, he can stop actively desiring to participate in voluntary and communal perversion. The same is true for homosexuals, excessive gamblers, the sexually promiscuous, and every other type of participant in degenerate behavior. In essence, the goal should be to increase the degree to which unnatural urges are involuntary and personal. If we are to stop degeneracy, it must be done by compassion or forced exclusion. The former requires actively caring about the people in our personal lives who have some degree of degeneracy and are willing to be helped.

Book Review: The Euro

The Euro is a book about the shortcomings of the eurozone currency project by American economist Joseph Stiglitz. The book makes a case against many of the policies pursued by European leaders thus far and recommends several alternatives, including further integration, a flexible euro, and the exit of one or more members. The book is divided into twelve chapters which explore different aspects of the problem and possible solutions.

A short preface details Stiglitz’s view of the economic problems of Europe as being largely attributable to the creation of a single currency zone without the creation of other institutions that are found in other such places elsewhere in the world. He compares the euro to the gold standard, repeating the flawed mainstream view that deflation is bad. His Keynesian approach to economics and thoroughly statist worldview is apparent from the beginning. That being said, Stiglitz appears to want to solve problems and correctly identifies some people and institutions as being uninterested in doing so.

The opening section begins with a chapter that expands upon the preface and outlines the rest of the book. There is little here that is not covered in greater detail later, so let us move on. In Chapter 2, Stiglitz argues that the poor results of the euro should have been expected because economic integration of this sort cannot come before political integration. Here, he contends that military might no longer shapes outcomes as it once did, but this is dubious because nothing short of a nuclear exchange that no one wants could have stopped the United States from conquering and colonizing Iraq if that had been the intention and American leadership had used its full power. So too for Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. His responses to other arguments for a single currency make more sense. He states the fallacious mainstream position on public goods, claiming without logic or evidence that it is impossible for markets to provide basic research and common utilities. This amounts to a confusion of collective action with state action. Even so, Stiglitz does recognize that localization is better than central planning from afar, though his disdain for German policies makes him inconsistent on this point. He then turns to economic integration, discussing the importance of German history with hyperinflation and its prominent role in modern Europe for understanding the European Central Bank. Next, Stiglitz writes about effect that a shared currency has on economic integration, which is mixed. Like many Keynesians, he accuses the market of failure when this is actually impossible; such events are actually failures of government, resources, or individual people. He also regards economics as scientific, even though the scientific method cannot be applied to subjects in which counterfactuals are so important but also unobservable. As usual, the word ‘neoliberal’ says more about the person using it than anything else. He concludes by arguing that there is a democratic deficit in Europe, even though he argues elsewhere in the book against incentive structures which are necessarily part of any democracy.

Europe’s lackluster economic performance since the 2008 crisis is the subject of the third chapter. Stiglitz begins by claiming that Keynesianism is a success because it has lengthened business cycles and shortened downturns, but it has also made the downturns that do occur so much worse that markets were better off before such interventionism. Much of the chapter consists of empirical data for Europe since 2007. When discussing unemployment, he seems not to recognize that unemployment benefits subsidize a negative behavior and will thus produce more of that behavior. Stiglitz relies upon the Gini coefficient when discussing inequality, which is a faulty metric because it measures pre-tax income rather than after-tax consumption. This causes it to exaggerate the amount of income inequality. His detailing of the long-term adverse effects of recession in terms of destroyed human capital is largely correct, but he again recommends interventionism that tends to worsen such problems. He also takes the position that the state should protect those at the economic bottom, though almost every economist would avoid social Darwinism on this front. Stiglitz then commits a fixed pie fallacy by arguing that trade surpluses necessarily cause trade deficits elsewhere, when the reality is quite different. He concludes by correctly noting that the counterfactuals help critics of the euro, and that there is no better explanation for many of Europe’s troubles than sharing a common currency across uncommon societies and economies.

The second section argues that the euro suffers from a flawed initial design. In Chapter 4, the requirements for a single currency region to be successful are considered. Here, Stiglitz uplifts full employment and market stability as goals while denouncing those who favor economic freedom as a “lunatic fringe.” This leads him to contemplate a false dilemma between national control of money and supranational control. He blames market fundamentalism (which he calls neoliberalism) for the crisis of 2008, despite the fact that markets were altered by central bankers in such a way as to cause the crash, which he all but says elsewhere. In explaining the differences between the United States and the eurozone, Stiglitz highlights the freer movement of Americans, the identity of Americans at the national level rather than the state level (at least in modern times), and the federal nature of monetary and fiscal stimulus. He is correct to say that there must either be “more Europe” or “less Europe,” but sides with the former. He describes the Keynesian theory of business cycles, but makes no mention of the Austrian theory. Stiglitz then repeats the tired fallacy that austerity caused the Great Depression and the current malaise, rather than central bank shenanigans and tariff policies. His blame for the gold standard is similarly misguided. He somewhat fixes an error from the previous chapter by clarifying that trade imbalances are not a problem if currency exchange rates can change to compensate for them. He straw-mans the laissez-faire position on unemployment by saying that it views unemployment due to market adjustments as good rather than as simply necessary. Stiglitz then gets a few points correct: low wages undermine worker morale and productivity, falling wages may not amount to falling prices if firms are worried about their solvency, and monetary stimulus has a breaking point at which interest rates cannot be lowered further. But he again blames the private sector for being excessive when it is only reacting to perverse incentives created by governments and central banks. There is little to fault in Stiglitz’s explanation of why currency areas are prone to crisis except for the preceding error, but it never occurs to him to simply not have such an area. The chapter ends by repeating many of the fallacious arguments from the previous chapter concerning trade surpluses and deficits.

The fifth chapter considers the economic divergence of the eurozone countries. Stiglitz argues in favor of institutional frameworks to prevent the need for bailouts, as well as funds to make depositors whole and provide bailouts. This ignores the moral hazard created by such a regime that causes bankers to take excessive risks, as well as the powerful incentives that an absence of protection would have on depositors to act responsibly and hold bankers accountable. His view of regulation is starry-eyed, missing the entire concept of regulatory capture. This is especially striking, given his focus on institutional capture in the following chapter. Stiglitz rightly complains of capitalized gains and socialized losses among bankers. In his consideration of other sources of divergence, he again fails to consider the possibility of turning over infrastructure to private development, instead proposing expansion of the European Investment Bank, which is certain to become another statist boondoggle. His view of knowledge markets is flawed in the same manner as his view of economies; it fails to account for the distortions that statism necessarily causes which lead to various types of failure. He concludes the chapter by showing how policies in the eurozone have caused greater instability, but cannot seem to avoid blaming the private sector for responding to the incentives imposed upon it.

In Chapter 6, Stiglitz examines the European Central Bank. He begins by saying that open markets and free competition can efficiently allocate resources only in the presence of adequate government regulation. This is a contradiction because an absence of government regulation defines an open market with free competition. His arguments concerning the inflation-only mandate of the ECB and the problems it causes would be much stronger if the Austrian business cycle theory were anywhere to be found in the book. His description of events in Chile under Pinochet does not agree with the long-term result of economic prosperity relative to the rest of South America and neglects how much worse conditions would have been under Salvador Allende. His claim that markets are supposed to be efficient and stable are a straw man; instability in the form of creative destruction and inefficiency by some metrics rather than others are inherent in a market economy. Stiglitz correctly writes that monetary policy is always a political question, pitting creditors against debtors for control of the central bank. But he leaves unclear how democracy is supposed to hold central bankers accountable. He also must not know any libertarians, or he would know that some people have proposed taking away spending power from governments to ensure that they do not misbehave. The chapter ends with a history of fashionable central bank policies over time and what was wrong with them from a Keynesian perspective.

The next two chapters delve into the Greek situation in particular, as Greece has suffered a more severe economic crisis than any other eurozone country. The seventh chapter explores the effect that the Troika’s policies had on countries in crisis. Stiglitz accuses some European leaders of acting in bad faith by purposefully attempting to punish governments with different political views from their own, which may be accurate. He continues his misguided attack on austerity, though it has more merit against what Europeans have actually done than against real austerity. He correctly explains the problem with primary surpluses, but then commits the broken window fallacy by embracing Keynesian multipliers. Stiglitz accurately diagnoses the problems of increasing taxes, but seeks to aid governments in collecting them rather than encourage economic freedom and stronger property rights. He describes his ideal system of property taxation in the same tone that a proud and unrepentant thief might use to boast of his crimes. Although he is correct to say that particular moves toward privatization and economic freedom may produce adverse results in particular contexts, this is a justification not for state intervention, but for undoing even more statism so as to remove the problematic context. Stiglitz notes that the hegemony of American military power has put Europe into a Pax Romana problem in which it cannot fend for itself against a real threat, but advises that this problem be worsened in the name of fiscal restraint. He compares reductions in pensions to wage theft when the two are clearly different. It is the responsibility of workers to figure out that they are being offered terms which may be impossible for the employer to meet in the future and practice caveat emptor. As for bank bailouts and debt restructuring, Stiglitz describes the situation well except for his faulty view of austerity.

Chapter 8 delves into structural reforms in Greece that made matters worse. Again, Stiglitz’s views of austerity and democracy corrupt an otherwise sound analysis of trivial and counterproductive actions taken by the Troika. He claims without proof that industrial policies are required to advance countries that are lagging behind in technological development, neglecting that markets are not doing this because they are either disallowed from doing so or are assuming that the state will do this for them. He criticizes intergenerational transmission of advantage and seeks to use the state against it, when it should be championed as both eugenic and important for maintaining a natural aristocracy. Stiglitz argues for a price on carbon emissions and claims that the private sector will not address climate change, when again the state has kept this from happening. He finishes by discussing counterfactuals, which is interesting given his empiricist thinking on economics.

The final four chapters deal with various proposals going forward. In the ninth chapter, Stiglitz offers his advice for fixing the eurozone. As before, he embraces what Henry Hazlitt called “the fetish of full employment” as the goal of his policy proposals. Much of the content of the chapter rehashes proposals from previous chapters. He seeks to create common deposit insurance and common resolution while abolishing place-based debt within the EU. This will create moral hazards and work against people who wish to escape debt slavery inflicted upon them by their ancestors. He calls for wages to be raised in countries with surpluses, which will lead to unemployment in those countries as workers whose labor is not worth higher wages are laid off. He fundamentally misunderstands precious metals, failing to understand their role as a store of value and medium of exchange, even if no longer officially used in such capacities. Stiglitz seeks to make the financial sector and other corporations serve society, but fails to recognize that the organs of a statist social order inherently and irrevocably serve themselves at the expense of the society. The shortsightedness of markets of which he complains is actually caused by the institutions that he seeks to use to solve the problem. One of the few sound recommendations made in this chapter is the creation of a super-Chapter 11 bankruptcy procedure to quickly restructure debt. He goes on to propose that EU taxes be based on citizenship, and that some of the proceeds be used for foreign aid or resettlement of migrants, further impoverishing and culturally endangering Europeans.

Chapter 10 examines the possibility of what Stiglitz calls “an amicable divorce,” in which countries exit the eurozone. He considers the example of Grexit, or Greece returning to its own currency that he calls the Greek-euro but would probably be called the drachma, as it was before the euro. He proposes that Greece create a new electronic currency to ease concerns over producing coins and banknotes, stop tax avoidance, bring everyone into the financial system, and facilitate the ability of central banks to create credit. Stiglitz fails to consider that people are likely to reject such a system in favor of cryptocurrencies, which have all of the benefits of such a system without most of the drawbacks, and that such a system could offer states tyrannical control over their citizens. His view of credit indicates magical thinking, although this is quite common in modern financial circles. He again blames the private sector for problems caused by politicians and central bankers, while ignoring peer-to-peer lending as a substitute for modern credit systems. Stiglitz describes a potential system of credit auctions which could be abused with much the same ease as the current system. He admits and supports what should be abhorrent to any decent person: that fiat currencies are ultimately given value by extortion in the form of taxation. Stiglitz correctly says that a new Greek currency would enable them to devalue it to correct trade imbalances, but his proposed system of trade tokens for the same purpose would be redundant. He equates deflation with a deficiency of aggregate demand, neglecting the possibilities of an abundance of supply or improvements in efficiency and/or quality. His description of currency change as a debt restructuring is insightful. To end the chapter, Stiglitz considers the alternative of Germany leaving the eurozone, though it is unlikely that they would give up their current position of power so willingly. This segues into the topic of the next chapter, which is a flexible euro consisting of several subdivisions.

Stiglitz uses Finland as a counterexample against those who claim that profligacy in southern Europe is to blame, rather than the structure of the eurozone. Most of his argument here is correct, except for his view of austerity. His proposal in this chapter is to have several eurozones with fluctuating exchange rates, which could be brought closer together over time as political integration occurs, eventually resulting in economic integration. The details are borrowed from the previous two chapters. Though more likely to succeed than the proposals in those chapters, it is also the least likely to be adopted. Stiglitz correctly recognizes that having a single currency area is an interference in the market in and of itself, monopolizing exchange and interest rates in the area, but cannot seem to fathom that his flexible euro proposal also does this on a smaller scale. He claims that it can be better not to simply rely on prices for the allocation of resources, but does not explain how to solve the local knowledge problem or the economic calculation problem in a superior manner. He also says that history shows free banking to be a disaster, when the truth is quite the opposite.

The final chapter sees Stiglitz review many themes from previous chapters, but he also covers topics which are barely mentioned elsewhere. He denounces anti-immigrant groups in Europe, which are only trying to resist demographic replacement by a ruling class that they did not ask to replace them. So much for the “democratic accountability” that Stiglitz extols in the same breath. He blames right-wing economic ideology for rising inequality in the United States beginning with the Reagan administration, but incomes really began to diverge ten years earlier, when Nixon ended the gold standard. Stiglitz expresses a desire to preserve the Enlightenment values of Europe, but cannot comprehend how letting in migrants with distinctly anti-Enlightenment values will jeopardize that mission. On the issue of trade policy, he understands that free trade is not always best for all parties involved, as it can destroy important societal arrangements that prevent conflict. But then Stiglitz incredulously asks how one could have expected that Europe’s leaders would create such economic dysfunction, with massive unemployment and lack of economic security. The answer is that a proper amount of cynicism would require such an expectation.

Overall, the best thing that can be said for the book is that it is not an effort made in bad faith. Stiglitz correctly identifies many of the problems with the current state of affairs in Europe and seems to want to help, but his proposed solutions are thoroughly misguided. Despite his palpable disdain for Milton Friedman and other Chicago School monetarists, he suffers from one of the worst of their faults: a desire to solve the immediate problems set before him combined with a lack of broader perspective. This leads him to propose a banking system which could be used to terrible effect against political dissidents, tax collection schemes that would indicate criminal intent in any non-statist context, and forced political integration by means of stealth and subterfuge. He also seems to believe that everything would be fine if only state power were used by the right people to implement the right policies. It never occurs to him that the power itself might be the problem. The Euro is an interesting case study in leftist economic thought, but those looking for real solutions to Europe’s economic woes should keep looking.

Rating: 2.5/5

Building Liberty in Minecraft

The defining feature of this time period is the Internet, which provides unprecedented freedom of speech and access to information. But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Millennials have suffered from the same steady march against economic freedom. We understand much about social media and relatively little about free markets. But a new generation can know about a free society right now, and this led me to build Liberty Minecraft.

Prior Developments

For the past quarter century, the Internet has generated emergent digital economies in which people exchange digital items for analog items, usually fiat currency. These economies offer pay at any rate, avoiding minimum wage laws that remove low rungs on the economic ladder. Digital economies also exist in massively multiplayer online games.

In 2007, more than one hundred thousand people were employed as gold farmers in World of Warcraft for as little as thirty cents per hour.[1] A gold farmer is a person who plays multiplayer games to earn in-game currency for the purpose of selling it for real-world currency. Earning in-game wealth takes time and effort. Because online games can be accessed all over the world, people can earn a competitive wage in relatively low-wage markets by selling in-game currency to players in high-wage markets. Gold farming uses server bandwidth in exchange for money that players wish to spend on the game, and this costs game developers. It was once typical for game developers to ban gold farmers, but in recent years they have turned toward economic freedom as a solution to rising costs due to gold farming.

Today, players of Runescape and Eve Online may exchange in-game wealth for tokens called Bonds or CCP, respectively. These tokens are purchased for cash by one player, traded in game to another player, and may be used to pay for membership services that would otherwise cost $10-$15 per month. Game developers like play-to-pay business models because they can sell membership services for a 30% premium and use their own players to regain market share from gold farmers.[2] For gamers, play-to-pay models can provide dollar-equivalent hourly wages of less than $1, but highly skilled players can earn $5 or more. One may earn a wage during the least productive periods of their daily lives, producing at least some value instead of none.

Transactions are not always small. For example, a player of Entropia Universe spent $2.5 million to purchase virtual real estate in 2012. This was done because in the game, land owners share the revenue generated by player-to-player transactions, and this revenue is directly convertible to US dollars. This speculative bet may have yielded annual returns of 27 percent.[3] By their nature, speculations infrequently generate a profit, but one develops ability by trial and error.

Digital economies make it easier to learn about economics. Many capitalist acts between consenting adults are illegal in the real world,[4] but such barriers are rare in online games. Digital exchanges execute billions of trades per month for any of a thousand virtual commodities. Players of all ages can make thousands of equity decisions in those markets without having to file capital gains taxes. People can lose a digital shirt and learn real economic lessons.

Experiencing economic freedom in games is all well and good. This may partly explain why millennials were so attracted to Ron Paul’s “End the Fed” movement. However, organizing society by libertarian principles is about more than economics. Non-aggression and private property require freedom from the state. No such freedom presently exists in the real world. The lack of such empirical examples may help one understand why those same millennials support Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump just four years later. We do not understand freedom from the state, and this has not changed. Because a libertarian society is foreign to our experience, people ask questions like “who will build the roads?” The answer is actually simple. Without a state, people who want roads and are capable of building them do so. I have seen this in action because of Minecraft.

Original Conditions in the World of Minecraft

Minecraft is a sandbox game. Play is self-organized within a block building, 3D world. Players may select one of three basic game modes. In Creative, one may access a menu with infinite resources. In Survival, one must gather and consume resources to live but will respawn if they die. Hardcore mode is like Survival, but death is final.

Minecraft worlds are large by default. From an origin, a player may travel 30,000 kilometers along any axis and may build 256 meters to the world’s zenith. This is roughly half the size of Neptune by surface area (if it were a terrestrial planet) or seven times the surface area of Earth. Each Minecraft world has three dimensions of this size and depth. Each world is generated algorithmically from an 8-byte seed, a string of numbers. There are 264 possible 8-byte strings, leading to over 18 quadrillion possible Minecraft worlds.

The Virtual State of Nature

Online, Minecraft is lawless. Before modifications of any kind, the only rules which govern player behavior are physical laws. You have exclusive control over your player character but anyone may attack and try to kill you, thereby gaining access to resources that you carry or protect. However, in such large worlds with abundant ‘natural’ resources, violent conflict is relatively rare because it is simply easier to work for what one wants.

Competition among Minecraft servers is unfettered and meritocratic. Engagement is high; Minecraft is the best-selling computer game at present. The barrier to entry is low: a Minecraft server can be created or copied in minutes, deployed online at low cost, and operated by anyone. In less than one minute, a player may select and visit any of thousands of servers. Participation is voluntary; players always have the option to leave a Minecraft server at once.

Minecraft servers have diverse rule sets. An infinite number of server configurations are possible with server plugins that modify the game. Within commercial use guidelines and technical limitations, server operators establish rules according to their preference. These rules need not and often do not conform with existing laws in the real world. These rules can be and are often enforced by computer code. In this way, all Minecraft servers are new principalities which may or may not be governed by smart contracts.

Social orders are spontaneously created within Minecraft. Players develop institutions that are optimized to solve problems. Users build means to produce, distribute, and trade valued goods, especially food and building materials. They create farms, roads and shelters, and also chests to organize and store items for later use. Players create and promote their own social norms. If a player does not fill in potholes or replant trees to replace those that they have felled, other players may try to change their behavior. This may take various forms, from warning them in the game’s chat to attacking problematic players. Those who share values and aesthetics build their own communities and exclude (sometimes by violence) others with opposing values. Spontaneous order thus develops with or without an explicit ethical framework.

In Minecraft, people experience social orders with arbitrary rules. So, what happens if one creates a Minecraft server that defines rules by libertarian ethics and Austrian economics? In my case, the result is Liberty Minecraft.

Long Experience in a New Order

Liberty Minecraft is a sandbox for freedom. The goal was to establish a practice environment where people may test ideas within a digital free society and may learn about freedom by playing it. For over nine months, this goal has been achieved. Play is ordered spontaneously within the physical laws of Survival Minecraft. In a number of other ways Liberty Minecraft is different.

Liberty Minecraft is not as large as a default Minecraft setting. As before, there are three dimensions but their size has changed. The Overworld is seven kilometers on a side; just under nineteen square miles in surface area. This is roughly the size of Manhattan.[4] The Nether, another region, is just as large. The End, a place devoid of most resources, is ten times larger.

Some resources in Liberty Minecraft are renewable, while others are not. Resources must be gathered in order to be used or exchanged. Products are either created by the players or discovered in scarce structures that are native to Minecraft worlds. Liberty Minecraft could someday run out of trees, water, or soil, among other things.

Liberty Minecraft has few rules. Only one rule constrains player behavior; resolve nonviolent disputes nonviolently. Players of Liberty Minecraft must seek nonviolent solutions to the problem of scarcity. Two other rules further specify conditions that permit a player to use my server: read and understand the rules, and do not hack the server. The fourth rule is followed by myself and by the server itself. This rule does not bind the players, but rather provides them with an option and a promise: everything you claim is yours; if someone else claimed it first, then it is not yours. Private property rights within Liberty Minecraft are enforced by smart contracts.[5]

To claim property, a player may use a claim tool on unclaimed land and must spend claim blocks to create a claim. Claim blocks cost $20 each. A player may also purchase land from an existing claim holder. In both cases, smart contracts are optional and available to execute these transactions. Smart contracts also enforce all other forms of property on the server. This applies to player characters.

One may engage in combat with others provided that each player turns on the ability to do so. In Liberty Minecraft, a player character is protected from other players by default. This protection is optional. A player may disable these protections and enter player-versus-player mode. By entering this game mode, a player consents to be attacked at will by other players. This allows for combat between two or more people to take place, but only if all parties involved agree to enter into mutual combat.

Competition within Liberty Minecraft is unfettered and meritocratic. In under one minute, anyone who owns Minecraft for PC can join the server and begin to act within a libertarian social order. Player interactions are voluntary, with complete freedoms of association and discrimination. No one is required or forbidden to provide for others.

Liberty Minecraft uses Diamonds, one of the in-game commodities, as money.[6] At present, Diamonds are used to create the best tools and armor in Minecraft. They are also scarce, durable, and fungible. Within Survival Minecraft, diamonds cannot be farmed or produced synthetically. To obtain a diamond, one must search for hidden chests in scarce structures or dig underground for diamond ore.

Minecraft players seem to have freely chosen Diamonds as the medium of exchange. Thus, I have chosen Diamonds as money. However, a Diamond is indivisible. This problem was addressed by creating a Diamond Exchange to split a Diamond into $1,000. The value of a dollar is measured to fifteen decimal places, so there is plenty of room for revaluation if money becomes too valuable to perform ordinary transactions.

Engagement is strong so far; since the official launch in March 2017, players have engaged in more than 100,000 trades using our shop system. A single trade may consist of anything from one item to more than a thousand items, all player created. More than 8,000 hours have been logged by the players at the time of this writing. Liberty Minecraft is also cash flow positive and profitable.

Some Problems with Liberty Minecraft

There are four clear problems with Liberty Minecraft. First, the money is inherently disinflationary. Land claims as private property can only be traded when players have a “claim blocks from play” value that is larger than the size of the claim being traded, which is a technical limitation. To provide a real estate market with existing smart contracts, players must somehow accumulate claim blocks from play. To achieve this, players accumulate 20 claim blocks per hour, which is an arbitrary amount. All players receive the same amount per hour of play. Claim blocks are worth $20 each, so players currently receive a universal basic income of $400 per hour of play. Universal basic income is an obviously anti-libertarian element, but it does present the opportunity to solve this problem and observe what happens when a libertarian society eliminates universal basic income.

Second, within Liberty Minecraft, power is centralized in a single, flawed operator. I, Nathan Dempsey, make mistakes and correct them. Both types of actions can cause problems. For instance, when I created the world border in The End, I incorrectly calculated the area. The End was roughly ten times larger than I intended, and if I had left it that way, our world would become far too large for me to economically perform regular backups. I recalculated and changed the world size. This changes the availability of resources that are found in The End. I will make more mistakes as time goes on. However, if any player decides that my choices are intolerable they may (with some work) use software to download the world and their property. Then, they may put their version of the world online with server software and compete with me for players. This functions somewhat like a hard fork of a cryptocurrency. Following a land dispute, a player decided that absolute property rights are intolerable and left after downloading the world, which proves both that new competitors may enter my line of production and that I cannot be an ultimate decision maker.[7][8]

Third, the conditions of the game and server make theft and assault impossible. A player might create a death trap, but these can only be made on one’s own property, on unclaimed land, or on land in which they have been granted permission by the claim owner to create such hazards. Because property claims are impossible to violate (unless I chose to or a hacker managed to alter the server status), Liberty Minecraft does not provide a model for dealing with aggressors against property rights aside from having the server owner (me) remove someone from the server.

Finally, the Terms of Commercial Use prohibit anyone from selling soft currency for hard currency. Therefore, I cannot offer the play-to-pay model described in the opening without violating the Terms of Commercial Use. The terms provide a narrow range of ways that I can provide value to players in exchange for money. This even applies to affiliate marketing (which is not permitted), such as with Amazon. The consequence is that I must innovate within these narrow terms, which creates an interesting problem but deviates from a libertarian order. And ultimately, Mojang, the company that developed Minecraft, is regulated by the state, so Liberty Minecraft still operates within a statist framework to some degree.

Conclusion

Minecraft spontaneously generates social orders. Liberty Minecraft is an effort to create such an order based upon Austrian economics with libertarian ethics. Within Liberty Minecraft, players operate in an unfettered free market and experience social freedoms that are opposed by state aggression. This experience sharpens one’s thinking about economic and social affairs. Experiencing economic freedom online without freedom from the state has led people to reject the Federal Reserve System but favor the state at large. The goal of this project is to test libertarian ideas in a simulated environment and lead people to reject the state in favor of private property rights and non-aggression, which one experiences within Liberty Minecraft. Liberty Minecraft has some important problems that may be solved in future updates, and represents nothing less than a proof-of-concept for exploring social orders in games.

References

  1. Valdes, Giancarlo. “Jagex Wages War against Gold Farming in RuneScape 3 with Bonds” VentureBeat, 25 Sept. 2013. http://venturebeat.com/2013/09/25/jagex-wages-war-against-gold-farming-in-runescape-3-with-bonds/
  2. Dutton, Fred. “Entropia Universe player spends $2.5 million on virtual real estate” Eurogamer.net, 4 Apr. 2012. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-04-04-entropia-universe-player-spends-USD2-5-million-on-virtual-real-estate
  3. Block, Walter. “Fake Economic News | Walter Block” YouTube, Mises Media, 4 Aug. 2017. www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiwhlU4d-nY
  4. Dempsey, Nathan. “How The World Works” Liberty Minecraft, 14 Oct. 2017. www.libertyminecraft.com/how-the-world-works/
  5. Dempsey, Nathan. “How Private Property Works” Liberty Minecraft, 4 June 2017. www.libertyminecraft.com/how-private-property-works
  6. Dempsey, Nathan. “How The Money Works” Liberty Minecraft, 4 June 2017. www.libertyminecraft.com/how-the-money-works/
  7. Dempsey, Nathan. “Free Market Update: Land Disputes” Liberty Minecraft, July 2017. https://www.libertyminecraft.com/free-market-update-land-disputes/
  8. Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 21.

Book Review: Calculating The Cosmos

Calculating The Cosmos is a book about the history and current practice of physics, astronomy, and cosmology by British mathematics professor Ian Stewart. The book gives the reader an overview of many topics, including gravitation, the solar system, spacetime, extraterrestrial life, and quantum mechanics. The book is divided into nineteen chapters, as well as a short prologue and epilogue.

The prologue begins with the mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, then gives a brief recounting of previous space missions. The role of mathematics in astronomy is discussed, followed by its role in cosmology. The first chapter takes us through the history of gravitational theories, from the ancient Greeks to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, and onward to general relativity and quantum mechanics. More detail in the path toward relativity would have improved the book here. With the second chapter, Stewart begins discussing the solar system, starting with its formation. The nebular hypothesis of a collapsing gas cloud that forms stars and planets is the main focus, along with previous theories and why they were rejected. These are used to illustrate the importance of physics concepts like momentum and angular momentum. The chapter ends with a discussion of possible futures for the solar system, some of which involve planetary collisions and ejections.

The third chapter is devoted to the theories for the formation of the Moon. These include the giant impact hypothesis, as well as several other ideas that fail to explain the Moon’s composition, tidal locking with Earth, and angular momentum. Much of the chapter concerns the nature of constructing simulations for events like an impact between Earth and a Mars-sized object, or the formation of a solar system. In the fourth chapter, Stewart examines the Titius-Bode law, then expands to power laws in general. Their use in discovering Uranus comes next, followed by the use of perturbation techniques to find Neptune. The chapter ends with the accidental correctness of perturbation techniques concerning Pluto and their failed prediction of Vulcan, a hypothetical planet closer to the Sun than Mercury. Oddly, no mention is made here of the hypothetical Planet Nine, and Stewart does not note that Neptune is out of place by the Titius-Bode law.

The fifth chapter is called Celestial Police, in reference to a group of astronomers at the turn of the 19th century, though most pages have the chapter name “Number of Asteroids.” Stewart gives the history of discovery of the asteroids, then explains how resonances with Jupiter’s orbit explains gaps in the asteroid belt. This leads into a discussion of the 2½-body problem and the five Lagrange points of such a system. The chapter concludes with natural examples of objects in Lagrange point orbits, such as Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and Saturn’s moons Tethys, Telesto, and Calypso. The next two chapters concern the moons and rings of Saturn and Jupiter, respectively. The discovery of Saturn’s rings and the path toward discovering their true nature comes first, then Stewart shows how resonances with Saturn’s moons explain both the gaps in its rings and how the F ring stays in place. Resonances appear once more in Chapter 7 to explain conjunctions between the moons of Jupiter and Pluto. The chapter ends with facts about some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s major moons.

Comets are the focus of the eighth chapter. The comet 67P and the effort to land a space probe on it are examined in greater detail. Better known comets, such as Halley’s Comet, are discussed to illustrate the predictive power of mathematics. The origin of comets leads to sections on the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt, then the chapter concludes with the 1994 impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter. The ninth chapter gives a basic overview of chaos theory, and does a good job of clearing up common misconceptions in popular culture about the subject. After this, Stewart returns to the asteroid belt resonances to discuss a possible origin for the object that likely caused the Cretaceous extinction event.

The tenth chapter discusses various types of orbits and how they can be used to send spacecraft from one place to another with varying degrees of efficiency and travel time. In the eleventh chapter, Stewart brings optics into the discussion to write about stellar composition and classification, illustrated by the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. The nuclear fusion reactions that power stars, as well as the ultimate fates of stars of various masses comes next. The role of stars in producing all of the heavier elements is explained, from supernovas to newer stars. The observation of sunspots is the subject of the next section, as well as a possible explanation for their cycles. The last subject of the chapter is the means of measuring cosmic distances, from the distance from Earth to the Sun to the distances of various stars. The chapter ends with a few pages of color illustrations, the only ones in the book.

Chapter 12 is devoted to galaxies. Stewart begins with the Milky Way, observed since antiquity but only explained relatively recently. Hubble’s empirical classification of galaxies is cited, then attempts to explain the various shapes are discussed. The failure of galactic rotational speeds to match predictions is left as a puzzle for a later chapter. In the thirteenth chapter, the methods for discovering exoplanets are examined, along with possibilities for extraterrestrial life both elsewhere in the solar system and elsewhere in the universe. The chapter concludes with Stewart’s inventive imagination concerning a hypothetical alien world. The fourteenth chapter begins with the historical steps toward current theories about black holes. The difference between a static black hole and a rotating black hole are explained, as well as their possible role as a link to other universes and hypothetical white holes, which function as expellers of matter and energy that cannot be entered. Alternative explanations for black hole geometry, such as gravastars, are considered at the end of the chapter. The Penrose diagrams here could use more explanation, as they can be quite confusing to a lay reader.

The fifteenth chapter is about the distribution of matter in the universe, as well as the topology of the universe. Stewart does as well as he can without resorting to complex mathematical equations, but doing so would greatly aid the reader’s understanding of the subjects involved. In the sixteenth chapter, the discoveries and interpretations leading to the Big Bang theory are discussed, as well as the various proposals for how the far future of the universe may play out. The next two chapters deal with inflation, dark matter, and dark energy, which are correctives to make the Big Bang theory agree with experimental results. Stewart criticizes this standard cosmological model for its large number of unobserved conjectures, then discusses some alternative theories. The final chapter waxes philosophical about the unlikely combination of physical constants that seem fine-tuned to produce life, then Stewart critiques some of the more outlandish claims regarding this. The epilogue recounts many subjects from the book and points out the difference in procedure between science and mathematics.

Overall, Stewart does a good job of both exploring past and present scientific theories while stressing that science is always tentative, subject to new theories and empirical evidence, unlike his native mathematics. He helpfully notes the scientific jargon so that the lay reader can look up the relevant topic to learn more. However, there is relatively little mathematics in the book, and this can be disappointing for people who cannot see physics without the mathematics. Even so, Calculating The Cosmos is a good read for an intelligent layperson who wants an introduction to cosmology.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Science Of Selling

The Science of Selling is a book about how science can improve the field of sales by American sales trainer David Hoffeld. The book explains what research in psychology says about each aspect of the sales process, as well as how to sell in accordance with how the brain makes buying decisions. The book is divided into ten chapters, which comprise three sections that focus on different aspects of the business of sales.

Hoffeld begins by discussing some of his background and what made him decide to use science to improve his sales performance. He then explains why sales is not an obsolete profession and why science works to improve sales performance. The remainder of the introduction lays out the framework of the rest of the book.

The first chapter explores why salespeople are struggling. The suggested remedy is to adjust sales techniques to conform to the manner in which the human brain makes buying decisions. The second chapter covers the functionality of influence. The peripheral route is explained first, in terms of building trust and understanding the heuristics that most people use when making decisions. The central route is explained next, which involves the actual message of the salesperson. What this message should contain is the primary focus of the third chapter. Hoffeld uses a proprietary method called the Six Whys combined with attending to the buyer’s emotional state in order to address a buyer’s questions and get the buyer to feel like buying. These questions allow a salesperson to understand a buyer’s needs and convince a buyer to purchase a good or service now from a particular company. The fourth chapter focuses on the role of emotions in decision making and how salespeople can alter a buyer’s emotional state away from negativity.

The second section, composed of the next five chapters, begins with a study of questions. Many types of questions are analyzed, along with their role in the course of securing a sale. These are used to gain a basic understanding of a subject, then prompt potential buyers to think through an idea, then get potential buyers to disclose their dominant motives. The sixth chapter delves into primary buying motivators to explain why buyers buy from particular providers, then turns to buying requirements. Advice for dealing with decision makers and those who influence them come next, followed by how to learn a buyer’s decision criteria concerning what they need, how soon they need it, and how much they can pay for it.

Hoffeld deals with value creation and countering obstacles to making a sale in the seventh chapter. He uses social exchange theory to explain how a salesperson can help buyers to see value in the product being sold. Next, inoculation theory as a means of neutralizing competitors is discussed. After this, Hoffeld returns to the Six Whys and positive emotional states when considering how to address objections. In the eighth chapter, Hoffeld shares his approach to closing a deal. The Six Whys factor in again, as he views the close as a commitment that follows from a series of commitments throughout the sales process. This is supported by evidence from psychology that shows the power of the desire to be consistent. The use of trial closes to guide buyers into making a decision to purchase are covered next. Hoffeld suggests handling non-commitments by addressing objections and reinforcing the commitments that the potential customer has already made. With that done, the only thing left to do is to make a closing statement or ask a closing question to finish a deal.

The ninth chapter is about the design of sales presentations. The experiment Hoffeld mentions with jam selections in a grocery store to show that more choices can reduce sales is illuminating in the field of sales and far beyond. The strategies of setting anchors that portray one’s product as superior to an alternative, activating a customer’s mirror neurons by exhibiting their body language, using visuals instead of words only, and the use of stories and testimonials are recommended for effective sales presentations.

Hoffeld closes with a final section/chapter concerning the future of sales and what changes he believes will occur in the coming years. The prediction that a scientific approach will take over an anecdotal approach almost has to be correct, as all of the incentives mandate it. This necessarily validates his second prediction, that sales research will blossom. The final prediction that sales hiring practices will improve is probably true, but likely to take longer.

The Science of Selling is an excellent resource for salespeople, as the strategies therein are more effective than the trial-and-error and guesswork that is commonly practiced today. However, I must admit to reading this book at three levels in addition to face value: how a jobseeker may sell oneself to employers, how a philosopher may persuade the public of one’s ideas, and how a political activist may succeed in advancing one’s agendas. At the jobseeker level, this book explains why certain people fail to get job interviews and/or fail in job interviews. At the philosopher and political activist levels, this book explains why certain people are unpersuasive, why certain political systems are constructed as they are, and why logical fallacies seem to work in the real world. Thus, this book is useful not only to its intended audience, but far beyond it as well.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

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The Case For Bringing Religion Into Politics

In a July 23 interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was asked about internal Democratic National Committee emails which had been released recently. One of the email chains included a staffer’s suggestion that they ask questions about Sanders’ religion in an attempt to undermine him with religious voters. Clinton said in response, “I am adamantly opposed to anyone bringing religion into our political process. …That is just absolutely wrong and unacceptable.” But is it? Let us make the contrary case that the religious beliefs of a candidate should be part of the political process.

In the philosophical sense, a religion is a set of principles by which an adherent is supposed to live. As these principles are supposed to be the guiding precepts by which a believer makes decisions, it is especially important for people who are going to choose who will wield state power to know about the stated religious views of each candidate. Knowing this will allow voters and rival candidates to detect hypocrisy, anti-empiricism, and aggressive tendencies, none of which are desirable in a person who wields state power. It also allows people to consider whether any heretical views held by a candidate are for good or ill.

Hypocrisy

It is in the nature of politicians to say one thing and do another, or to espouse contrary principles when pandering to special interest groups or demographics which are at cross purposes. This is understandable, given the perverse incentive structures which are invariably present in democracies. But some engage in more blatant hypocrisy than others, doing so out of internal corruption rather than merely as a reaction to the prevailing political system. One indication of this is for a politician to claim a certain religious affiliation while acting in contradiction to the teachings of that religion. This can be a sign that the candidate will flip-flop on important issues, as those who lie to voters about one thing will be more likely to lie to them about something else.

Anti-Empiricism

Religions are frequently a source of anti-empirical beliefs, as most prominent religions were founded long ago when current scientific knowledge was unavailable. In the absence of reason and science, religion offered people what they thought were answers for phenomena which eluded their understanding. But accepting answers on faith is dangerous on two counts; they are probably incorrect, and it keeps people from searching for a proper understanding of the correct answer. When politicians take answers on faith rather than seeking rational, scientific explanations, the policy results can be disastrous. As such, it is important for a voter or rival candidate to know whether a candidate believes, for instance, that the Earth is flat and/or less than 10,000 years old just because an ancient text tells them so. This is an important indication that the candidate can be made to believe almost anything without asking for proper evidence.

It must be noted that not all anti-empiricism is undesirable. There is nothing wrong with opposing the entry of empiricism into fields of study in which it does not belong, such as mathematics or economics. And because empiricism requires rationalism in order to be used, it cannot overrule pure reason. As such, logic overrules experience and a priori truths are not subject to empirical study. But religions do not generally offer such strongly rational truth; instead, they rely upon divine revelation, which believers are taught to accept without evidence.

Aggressive Tendencies

When most prominent religions were founded, the world was a more violent place. Punishments for behaviors which aggressed against no person or property were commonplace, as was genocidal behavior toward neighboring people of different faiths as well as conquered peoples. But understanding of moral principles (if not their practice) has advanced since then, and most people have come to rightly condemn such behavior. When a candidate espouses a fundamentalist or literalist interpretation of a religious text which calls for such behavior to be practiced throughout the society, it should give voters pause. This can require some study on the part of voters and other candidates to detect, as openly supporting wars on religious grounds is no longer fashionable in the West, but such tendencies can still be observed among religious neoconservatives.

Many religions also include content which is opposed to free markets, private property, and freedoms of thought and association. If such content influences a candidate to support such policies as high taxes on the wealthy, expansion of common spaces and/or welfare statism, restrictions on activities which do not aggress against any person or property, or policies which discriminate in favor one’s own religion and/or against other religions, voters and rival candidates should be aware of this.

Heresy

Some people claim to be an adherent of a particular religion but have a different understanding from most people of the meaning of the teachings of that religion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if such heretical beliefs lead a religious person away from hypocrisy, truth denial, or aggression. But those who define terms differently in one aspect of life will almost certainly do so in other aspects, and this is important information for voters and rival candidates to know. Whether this is for good or ill depends upon the particulars of each case, but it is an indicator that a candidate must be given more than a cursory examination in order to be properly understood.

Conclusion

For the above reasons, it is entirely appropriate to bring religion into the political process. It is a tool that voters can use to examine a candidate for flaws, as well as legitimate grounds for one candidate to attack another for character traits unbecoming of a person who would wield state power.