Thursday, December 28, 2006

Palmerston's free advice on free trade

Palmerston addressing the Lords in the Commons

Am starting here late today after lots of Christmassy and holiday running around, sorting phones, delivering other people's late presents, gathering Christmas leftovers for the next impoverished week debriefing and complaining about the co-op, pursuing happiness, chatting about religion, and singing grand old Rolling Stones songs along with the car radio.

I'm not far from the end of an 800 pager on the life of Lord Palmerston, published around 1970. How's that for unfashionable. Fact is, I'd not heard of him either before I started reading, but he was without doubt one of the powerhouses of Brit politics in the nineteenth century, that's to say, during a period when Britain could lay claim to being the most powerful nation on the globe.

Palmerston was Britain's Foreign Secretary for years from 1830, and dominated its foreign policy through to the 1860s, by which time he was Prime Minister. In spite of being a lord he was an able and efficient administrator, energetic and pragmatic. Of course being a lord was almost de rigeur in the upper reaches of politics in those days, viz Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell, the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Aberdeen and Lord Derby, to name five of Palmerston's Prime Ministerial predecessors. These were the born-to-rule types, and commoners would've been perceived as out of their depth among such heights, ho ho.

However, unlike most of the titled gents hanging around parliament in this era, Palmerston, though a staunch upholder of his class, wasn't a full-on conservative. Certainly he began his career as such, but over time he moved towards the Whig side of politics, and while I don't find him an entirely sympathetic character, he's sympathetic enough, especially when compared to the other lords on offer, not to mention the various European despots he was dealing with. Above all I'm fascinated by his energy and his unfailing optimism. I'd always like more of that.

What I'd like to focus on here though is a passage I was struck by, which has plenty of resonances today.
Palmerston was a convinced free-trader, and during the Irish potato famine he approved the export of corn by Irish merchants, in the face of much opposition.

Here's a passage from the biography [by Jasper Ridley]:

In a despatch to Lord Cowley, the Ambassador in Constantinople, on 3 November 1847, Palmerston explained to the Turkish Government how wrong they had been when they banned the export of corn from the island of Lemnos during the food shortage there in September. If there was a food shortage in a country, the price of corn there would rise. This in itself would prevent merchants from wishing to export the corn to other countries where the price of corn was lower; on the contrary, it would lead merchants to send corn from abroad to the hungry country where they could sell it at a high profit, which would cause the price of corn to fall there; and soon the scarcity would be replaced by such a glut of corn that some merchants would be unable to sell their corn. They would therefore wish to export it again and sell it in another market; but if the export of corn was banned, they would not be able to do so, and the shrewd merchants, realizing this, would not risk sending corn to the hungry country, and the famine would continue. Palmerston told the Turkish Government that it was for this reason that the British Government had always refused, at the height of the Irish famine, to ban the export of corn from Ireland, and he urged the Turkish Government to follow suit in Lemnos. But the Turks were not converted to a belief in laissez-faire economics by Palmerston's exposition of the infallible operation of the law of supply and demand.

So here's a test question: what, if anything, is wrong with Palmerston's argument here?

I'm no economist, so it's easy to start with the observation that such a dry economic approach to such a tragic situation as famine, or even food shortage, seems to lack something in human fellow-feeling. It's a bit like the kind of dry, chess-like geopolitical game-playing of a Kissinger, making more or less theoretical decisions [though with massive practical implications] regardless of the actual suffering of ordinary people on the ground.

But even the economics sounds wrong. An essential commodity becomes very scarce on an island, causing great hardship. Now, the merchants in possession of the commodity [and presumably they wouldn't have much of it] are at least theoretically able to sell that commodity on the island at a higher rate – always assuming that the inhabitants of the island are able to afford such a higher rate, considering that the scarcity wasn't predicted or prepared for. The argument goes that they would rather do this than export the commodity at less profit. Of course there would be all sorts of factors influencing their decisions about whether or not to export, but let's assume that they make every effort to sell their precious commodity on the island before merchants abroad pour their supplies of the commodity into the island, hoping too to benefit from the higher prices caused by the scarcity. The resultant glut would mean that many merchants, whether local or overseas, wouldn't be able to sell their product [presumably this would particularly hit those merchants who went to the trouble and expense of having the commodity shipped to the island]. But if the government banned exports, the merchants who had imported the commodity would not be able to export it when necessary, and, knowing this, would not take the risk of importing it in the first place, so the famine would continue. This sounds wrong not just because it's too neat, but because there are other considerations – non-economic on the face of it, but ultimately economic – that the merchants must face, such as public perceptions around exporting your product [or for that matter selling it to your neighbours at inflated prices] when your neighbours are starving for lack of it. There would be an expectation that merchants should help out [assisted by governments] by making their product available to the needy, first and foremost. Market forces might finally adjust to sort out the situation as Palmerston argues, but in the meantime people need to be protected and supported.

So the Turkish government was probably right to ignore Palmerston's lecture. A purely laissez-faire system is particularly brutal to the vulnerable people at the bottom of the heap.

Note the oh so gentle irony of Ridley's treatment of the good Lord, especially in the last couple of sentences of the above quote. One of the things that makes the book so readable.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the anthropic principle

abuse of principle

I've slept in a little, presumably permissible on Boxing Day, and I've done my daily weighing and been appalled by another increase – though presumably permissible after Christmas day. I'll write here for a while and go for a brisk walk or something.

I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of the anthropic principle before reading Dawkins a couple of days ago – or at least it had never registered with me. What follows will be taken from Dawkins' book and this Wikipedia article.

The anthropic principle has been invoked to explain the just right conditions, not only on Earth but in our universe, that have allowed the development of those very life forms that ask questions about those conditions. It appears to be a statistical principle (though there are various versions of it). That's to say, though it's rare to find a planet that's in a position to sustain life (as we know it, i.e. carbon-based), a planet that needs to be in a stable, not too eccentric orbit around a star of just the right size which is just the right distance away, etc etc, if you assume that the odds are even as long as a billion to one that the planet satisfies all the conditions, and you further assume that there are a billion billion planets in the universe, that would make for a billion planets satisfying the conditions. Given such odds, and even if you play with the odds quite a bit, it's far from unlikely that life exists elsewhere in the universe. After all, we're even now considering that life may have once existed on Mars, right next door.

There's a great deal more to the anthropic principle than this of course, and some creationists have argued that a version of the anthropic principle, the strong anthropic principle, supports the idea of a designer of a universe which just happens to meet the conditions that support, somewhere within its vast extent, the existence of we humans. Again this argument suffers from the infinite regression problem, not to mention the massive redundancies involved, assuming, somewhat egotistically, that this universe was created essentially for the purpose of sustaining life on this little local planet (and that even the millions of species here are bit-players to humanity's central role).

The anthropic principle helps to explain, statistically, how life might've emerged on this planet, though it doesn't explain the chemical details. Those interested in exobiology are trying to create the original conditions that sparked life on this planet, and I believe there's a substantial prize on offer for the first person to create life as it might've been created out of the primordial soup a few million years ago. Not artificial life – the real thing. Once this improbable event occurred, though, life would've evolved along Darwinian lines in a series of not particularly low probability steps. However, pundits such as Mark Ridley have argued that developments such as eukaryotic cell life, and consciousness, are low probability events on a par with the origin of life itself, and that the three-stage development (life, eukaryotic life, conscious life) which has taken place on our planet might make it all the more unique. Dawkins and others argue that a higher frequency of low probability leaps reduces the likelihood of a creator/designer and that therefore creationists are just displaying their ignorance of what's involved when they jump on the origin of life conundrum as evidence of their deity of choice. In any case, if we do manage to reproduce the beginnings of life from the correct chemical soup, that'll be something else for the creationists to ruefully contemplate.

Dealing more briefly with the greater cosmological aspects of the anthropic principle, the central theme is of a finely-tuned universe – finely tuned, that is, to make our own life form possible, or even to make the creation of heavy elements possible. The physicist Martin Rees refers to six essential numbers, numbers which express six fundamental constants of the physical universe. If any of these numbers were smaller or larger than they are, life as we know it wouldn't be sustainable – they all lock our universe into a 'goldilocks zone' (and there's apparently some reason to believe these numbers are interconnected), creating just right conditions.

Some theists have scented an opportunity here. Surely this propitious (to us) state of the universe couldn't have come about by chance. A deity must've set the controls to the right levels for our sake. The first response is again to point to an infinite regress. Creationists try to argue that such an 'irreducibly complex' entity as this universe therefore displays evidence of design, and must have been designed by an entity more irreducibly complex than itself. But such an irreducible entity must itself have been designed by an entity even more irreducibly complex etc.

There are other responses. Obviously this universe is just right for us, or we wouldn't be here to contemplate it. That doesn't exclude the possibility of other universes, in which we aren't. Nor does positing a deity explain why things have worked out the way they have. It seems too obviously a self-serving argument, with a deity creating this 13 billion year old expanding collection of stars, planets, black holes, etc, just for the purpose of building us a bamboozling and tenuous home, so that he can watch us, guide us and make a more or less infinite range of decisions about our futures, all presumably while controlling and guiding every other nook and cranny of the cosmos. A view, moreover, with no evidence whatever to support it.

So much for my amateur ruminations on the anthropic principle. I wonder if I'll ever have cause to mention it again.

The dead birch in my back garden has fallen over in the wind, snapped at the base. Otherwise it's quiet.

I'm in a post-Christmas trough. No money for quite a few days, and money is energy. As to exercise, I probably need to link up with someone.

Tomorrow I'll write about Lord Palmerston's views on trade.


Monday, December 25, 2006

missionary manouvrings

too good for religion

Christmas these days I associate with charming and sometimes not so charming children, and with overindulgence, mad rushing, sitting around with a stupid smile on your face, inane banter, frayed nerves, wanting to be elsewhere, and of course moments of delight.

A few days ago I bought a copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I thought might be a suitable gift for my youngest stepdaughter. She's had drug and social adjustment problems for years, and in recent times her older sister, who long ago converted to Christianity after her own years of quite extreme teen rebellion, has sought to exert an influence, through invitations to her church and the passing on of Christian literature. As a proselytizing atheist, I've looked on at this with some agitation, especially on observing that Christian-inspired kiddy videos have been turning up at Sarah's place, intended for the brilliant four-year-old Courtney, daughter of the afore-mentioned troubled step-daughter. Now, everybody agrees that Courtney's a star, and, while I may reluctantly concede that belief in a supernatural, vaguely benevolent deity, and joining a mutually supportive group that shares this belief, might benefit a profoundly under-confident young woman with substance abuse problems, I can't for a moment accept that a precocious, articulate kid like Courtney has any need for this sort of pap. I feel quite aggrieved about it.

So I thought it wouldn't be amiss to put some alternative literature in my stepdaughter's way, since she has occasionally professed an interest in science, though she also, unfathomably, has a wide anti-intellectual streak …..

I started reading the Dawkins book. Of course I'm loving it. I knew that, with all the social engagements pending, I'd never get it finished before having to hand it over to my stepdaughter. I also had qualms about forcing views upon her, however gently, even though others appeared to be doing so. I've always had this anxiety about imposing my views on others, which is probably why I reserve my greatest contempt for missionaries. And yet I call myself a proselytizing atheist, and wish sometimes I really were.

I tried to overcome my qualms. I told Sarah that, though it was unlikely that her daughter would read my gift of the Dawkins book, I felt it important to give her the opportunity, to treat her as a responsible intelligent adult, to appeal to the more open and intellectually ambitious aspect of her nature. Sarah was all for it.

In the end, though, I couldn't go through with it. Maybe I was worried that the whole family might find my gift presumptious if not pretentious – for the fact is that Sarah's youngest stepdaughter isn't the only family member with an anti-intellectual streak, and I've always been peculiarly sensitive to this kind of disparagement, having suffered from it so much in my youth.

Another problem was that the Dawkins book was relatively expensive, and, because I wouldn't be able to spend the same amount on the rest of the family, it might be thought that I was giving this particular step-daughter special consideration.

Maybe these were all just excuses, and I wanted to keep the book for myself. In any case, I opted instead for hand cream.

So this morning we opened the presents. My youngest step-daughter received, among many other things, a book. Naturally I expressed interest. ''She's a really good author,'' she replied expertly. I was bemused, as I rarely found her with a book in her hand, let alone blithely categorising writers. I looked at the hefty volume, and found that it was a modern retelling of one of the books of the Bible, a gift from her Christian elder sister (whose gift to me was a copy of Augustine's Confessions).

I vaguely felt I'd been outmanoeuvred, though I have to admit that I was more bothered by the fact that I wasn't particularly bothered than I was by these sisterly shenanigans. Should I be more worried? One of the titles Dawkins recommends is something like Why nonbelievers should take religion seriously. I understood the global concern, and I also understood that seriousness begins at home, but was there really any chance that I could score a victory for atheism within a family that had never shown much interest in anything I had to say?

Much better I think to post my beliefs and arguments to a waiting world here on my blog.

So far [I'm about halfway through The God Delusion] Dawkins hasn't dealt with the what's-the-point-of life issue, the one I mentioned here as atheism's big drawback for many, or so I suspect. However, he has dealt with another issue of interest to me, that of the mystery of life, the apparent improbability of the animate springing from the inanimate.

Firstly, Dawkins' response to all attempts to argue that so-called irreducible complexity can only be accounted for by a designer is to point out that, even if irreducible complexity could be found, any putative designer would itself have to be irreducibly complex and so would have to be accounted for by a designer, and so on in infinite regression. I think this is a sound response, but he also, of course, argues that every instance of irreducible complexity put forward by the opponents of evolutionary development has turned out, on analysis, to be nothing more than a chimera.

Dawkins' rebuttal of these claims are largely taken from his earlier book The view from Mount Improbable, in which he ingeniously details the modifications involved in the development of eyesight, among other things, gradually reducing its supposedly irreducible complexity. I'm not sure that he made much mention of the origin of life in that book though, and I know that this particular conundrum has been leapt upon by many godbotherers.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins deals with this conundrum in two parts, which he calls ''The Anthropic Principle – Planetary Version", and "The Anthropic Principle – Cosmological Version". As this is quite complicated stuff, and as I'm getting tired, I'll write about it tomorrow, and hopefully get clearer about it myself.


Monday, December 18, 2006

hope inn briefing

Palmerston - dishonourable mention

Sarah and I visited the Hope Inn, on Port Road (should start taking pics of these places for daily illustrated), for our weekly, or less than weekly, briefing. It was a briefer briefing than usual, just a glass each of Cockatoo Ridge sparkles.

The Hope Inn is basically on the corner of Port and South Roads, next to Abbotts, a shop I've used regularly for years for co-op purposes without ever noticing the pub's existence, which isn't surprising.

I made the usual tired old jokes – should be called the Abandon Hope Inn, etc - provoked by my need to feel superior but mainly by the fact that on entering the place from the back carpark, we had to negotiate inter alia the usual neonised pokie machines and their hapless aficionados. The first patron I encountered in the bar was a thin elderly madam with a greased grey mullet. This front bar – possibly the only bar – was dominated by the biggest television screen in the southern hemisphere, belting out fox sports so loud that talk endangered the vocal chords. We found the only table from which it was impossible to see the screen, a window table looking onto a semi-demolished building across the driveway. It looked as if someone had got bored with demolishing it months before.

But enough snidery, the fact was that this pub didn't pretend to be other than basic and working-class; low-brow and down market, in my infamous and inadequate pub taxonomy. Having said that, the carpet was new and clean, and the walls were quite freshly painted. No smoke haze, no autumnal piles of bingo or lotto tickets to crunch through, no defensive territorial glances, or not too many. As environments of this sort go, quite bearable, without being in any way appealing – and we couldn't help but reflect that the place's spruceness, the ginormous foxtelly and the shiny new pool table were all achieved largely at the expense of the losers in the poky back room. The building itself was quite likely late nineteenth century, like many of the watering holes dotted along the Port Road, but otherwise of no great interest – a modest establishment in every sense.

As to the briefing – can't remember much of the discussion, but Lord Palmerston and his relationship with Queen Victoria was one topic.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Donnie Darko and what I like in movies

reality, dream and film: a real mix-up

I've seen Donnie Darko three times now, and I enjoyed it, perhaps a little less each time – though maybe only on the Beckettian principle that every pleasant experience loses something with repetition (while provoking the desire for repetition). It never occurred to me though – with this or with other films – to speculate much on what the film was about. Maybe I'm just dumb when it comes to these things. I just hook into the emotions, the ambience, and from time to time I step outside and look in at it from the [very raw] point of view of filmic technique. I very quickly warmed to the richness and layeredness of DD, its interconnected takes on family life, school life, the internal life, fear, sanity, socialization, bullshit, dreams and reality, power, success, pseudo-science and the imagination. I found some parts more successful than others, but the lightness of touch with which the viewer is moved through a series of more or less heavy incidents appealed very much to my aesthetic sensibilities.
If pressed on what the film was about, I would've resisted. If pressed further, I would've said it was about a boy's struggles over the purpose of life, as manifested by the boy's finding himself in a state of limbo between life and death [maybe in a dream, maybe not], through an elaborately constructed yet barely noticeable division of time, forking out from an accident involving a fragment of a plane falling on the Darko home. The main theme for me, in any case, would have been Donnie Darko's internal and social worlds and their interaction.
So it intrigued me when, on listening to some of the DVD features on the film recently, I heard the director [I think] say that it was essentially about divine intervention.
Resolute secularist that I am, nothing of this sort had ever occurred to me. That's a positive, that it doesn’t have to occur to a viewer, who can choose [if indeed it's a matter of choice] to see it as a playful, albeit sometimes dark, what-if scenario, of the type that Borges loved to create and explore, but invested with a lot of contemporary Americana. Style-wise, it seems to me the influence of David Lynch is pretty obvious, but I'm no film expert, and there are no doubt many other influences I haven't picked up.
Altogether, quite a satisfying hodge-podge. The pseudo-science would be a worry maybe if it weren't for the obvious rejoinder; that it's all to be understood from Donny's dark perspective, teen-sensitive reality writ large. Then what do we make of Donny's ''actual'' death at the end? I prefer to make very little of it – it's just a story.


pavlov's cat