On Symbolism in Science


[Originally posted on Mises.ca]

[Note: Many economists justify their use of unrealistic mathematical models by reference to “the map and the territory”: that mathematical models are merely a map to the territory of the real world, and that a “perfect” map wouldn’t be a map at all. The origin of this metaphor is an extremely short (only 145 words!) story called “On Exactitude in Science,” which recounts an ancient myth of map makers who made the perfect map as big as the empire, which unsurprisingly turned out to be useless. However, I have recently uncovered a second part to this legendary tale, which elaborates on what happened when the map-makers abandoned their desire for realism….]

… The New Cartographers, having long ago abandoned their obsession with exactitude, had a new focus: prediction. Thus, they crafted a System of Symbols to simplify and minimize the size of their Maps, while maximizing their predictive Power. But the Symbolism became so complex and divorced from Reality that, instead of occupying a small Corner, Map Legends occupied many Pages—and required trained Expertise for interpretation. Hiring Teams of Map Interpreters became the norm for Travelers, creating many Employment Opportunities for the New Cartographers. Yet the Maps were so confusing, that even with Professional help, Travelers still lost their way in spectacular Fashion. In fact, as the Symbolism grew more complex, and the Fees of the New Cartographers skyrocketed, more Travelers failed to ever reach their Destination. And soon, for Reasons of Self-Preservation and Economy, both the New Maps and the New Cartographers were discarded.

–Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLVI, Lerida, 1658


Should Everyone Vote?


[Originally posted on Mises.ca]

To ask it another way: Is it really a good thing to tell people who are ignorant of law (so they don’t know which proposed policies are illegal), and/or ignorant of economics (so they don’t know what the actual outcomes of proposed policies will be), and/or ignorant of political science (so they don’t know which proposed policies are politically feasible with the actual people and institutions we already have)?

If politics is serious business, shouldn’t people have more than causal understanding law, economics, and political science before voting? How are people supposed to judge platforms otherwise–by what “feels right”? Continue reading “Should Everyone Vote?”

Reminder: Patent trolls are among the least bad features of IP

johnoliver_hbo[Originally posted on Mises.ca]

Patent trolls are companies whose entire business model is to file patent suits against legitimate businesses, in order to extort them for money. Patent trolls are bad.

However, they are not the worst thing about the current intellectual property regime.

In fact, they may be one of its best features. Continue reading “Reminder: Patent trolls are among the least bad features of IP”

To Taylor Swift, Love Freedom

Originally posted to Mises.ca

imageDear Taylor,

You recently wrote an open letter to Apple, Inc. (To Apple, Love Taylor) where you spelled out your decisions on why you will not be allowing them to stream your album, 1989, without paying you for the privilege. Your letter was clear and eloquent, and provides a strong emotional case for why you feel Apple needs to pay artists during the three-month trial period for their new streaming service.

As I understand your letter, your grievance with Apple can be summed up with your statement that “it is unfair to ask anyone to work for no compensation.” In a biting kicker, you conclude, “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

If Apple is truly asking you (and other artists) to provide them with labour or products with absolutely no compensation, then I agree that would be an unfair deal. In order to acquire your property, it’s only fair that the richest corpor
ation in the world offers some of theirs. But what if Apple has already compensated you for your work (or more accurately, your property), and you are now double-dipping—asking for even more compensation? Wouldn’t that be unfair? Continue reading “To Taylor Swift, Love Freedom”

Will Iceland’s Sovereign Money Proposal End Economic Crises?

Frosti Sigurjonsson

A recent proposal out of Iceland has been making the waves around economics blogosphere. In it, Frosti Sigurjonsson critiques the current fractional-reserve banking system and proposes instead a system he calls “Sovereign Money”. But what is “sovereign money”, how is it different from the current system, and how will it work? In this post I’ll first explain how the current system works and the problems it has from an Austrian perspective, then go through the sovereign money proposal to see how it solves any of the short-comings of the current system.

How is money created in the current system?

Before we can analyze the sovereign money proposal, we need to understand how the current system operates. This can be demonstrated in a 4 step process. But first understand that a central bank (like the Bank of Canada or the Federal Reserve) is a lot like any other bank: it offers deposit accounts and loans to clients. The difference is that you can only become a customer of the central bank by invitation only.

Here’s a step-by-step process:  Continue reading “Will Iceland’s Sovereign Money Proposal End Economic Crises?”

What is the Motte and Bailey Fallacy, with Examples from Economics

A “motte and bailey doctrine” is a style of argument (and informal fallacy) that’s based on a motte-and-bailey castle. The bailey is a big courtyard and where people live and work and generally want to be. The motte is a mound with some kind of fortification on top, that’s used as a last refuge when the bailey is under attack.

motte and bailey

A motte and bailey doctrine for arguments goes like this: someone is usually making an argument from a big and comfortable courtyard of ideas, being very liberal with their terms, accusations, and implications. But when someone attacks their argumentative “bailey”, they retreat to a “motte” of strict terms and/or rigorous reasoning. They can’t be attacked at the motte because even their opponent would agree with their definitions and reasoning. The problem is that the motte and the bailey are different arguments: often to get to the bailey, additional assumptions are required; sometimes the arguments are even contradictory.

In short, to argue from the motte is to argue from a strongly defensible position, whereas to argue from the bailey is to make broad and far reaching statements that are poorly defended. Continue reading “What is the Motte and Bailey Fallacy, with Examples from Economics”

Interview with the Economics Detective

An interview I did with Garret Peterson’s podcast, The Economics Detective. Garrett is an economics PhD student at Simon Fraser University. Topics of discussion were the articles I wrote on mathematical economics versus “literary” economics and whether the Austrian School is a cult.