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Now Up on YouTube, Rick Rozoff presents: Russia Hysteria Amid a New Cold War and the End of the Missile Control Regime

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/08/2019 - 9:37pm in



The YouTube video of Saturday, August, 17, 2019 is now available for viewing on the YouTube channel of the Open University of the Left.

All prior video programs are viewable on our YouTube page.

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Dismissing materialism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 11:27pm in

Eric Holloway gives a brisk and entertaining dismissal of all materialist theories of consciousness here, boldly claiming that no materialist theory of consciousness is plausible. I’m not sure his coverage is altogether comprehensive, but let’s have a look at his arguments. He starts out by attacking panpsychism…

One proposed solution is that all particles are conscious. But, in that case, why am I a human instead of a particle? The vast majority of conscious beings in the universe would be particles, and so it is most likely I’d be a particle and not any sort of organic life form.

It’s really a bit of a straw man he’s demolishing here. I’m not sure panpsychists are necessarily committed to the view that particles are conscious (I’m not sure panpsychists are necessarily materialists, either), but I’ve certainly never run across anyone who thinks that the consciousness of a particle and the consciousness of a human being would be the same. It would be more typical to say that particles, or whatever the substrate is, have only a faint glow of awareness, or only a very simple, perhaps binary kind of consciousness. Clearly there’s then a need to explain how the simple kind of consciousness relates or builds up into our kind; not an easy task, but that’s the business panpsychists are in, and they can’t be dismissed without at least looking at their proposals.

Another solution is that certain structures become conscious. But a structure is an abstract entity and there is an untold infinite number of abstract entities.

This is perhaps Holloway’s riposte; he considers this another variety of panpsychism, though as stated it seems to me to encompass a lot of non-panpsychist theories, too. I wholeheartedly agree that conscious beings are not abstract entities, an error which is easy to fall into if you are keen on information or computation as the basis of your theory. But it seems to me hard to fight the idea that certain structural (or perhaps I mean functional) properties instantiated in particular physical beings are what amounts to consciousness. On the one hand there’s a vast wealth of evidence that structures in our brains have a very detailed influence on the content of our experiences. On the other, if there are no structural features, broadly described, that all physical instances of conscious entities have in common, it seems to me hard to avoid radical mysterianism. Even dualists don’t usually believe that consciousness can simply be injected randomly into any physical structure whatever (do they?). Of course we can’t yet say authoritatively what those structural features are.

Another option, says Holloway, is illusionism.

But, if we are allowed to “solve” the problem that way, all problems can be solved by denying them. Again, that is an unsatisfying approach that ‘explains’ by explaining away.

Empty dismissal of consciousness would indeed not amount to much, but again that isn’t what illusionists actually say; typically they offer detailed ideas about why consciousness must be an illusion and varied proposals about how the illusion arises. I think many would agree with David Chalmers that explaining why people do believe in consciousness is currently where some of the most interesting action is to be found.

Some say consciousness is an emergent property of a complex structure of matter… …At what point is a structure complex enough to become conscious?

I agree that complexity alone is not enough, though some people have been attracted to the idea, suggesting that the Internet, for example, might achieve consciousness. A vastly more sophisticated form of the same kind of thinking perhaps underlies the Integrated Information theory. But emergence can mean more than that; in particular it might say that when systems have enough structural complexity of the right kind (frantic hand-waving), they acquire interesting properties (meaningful, experiential ones) that can only be addressed on a higher level of interpretation. That, I think, is true; it just doesn’t help all that much.

Holloway wraps up with another pop at those fully-conscious particles that surely no-one believes in anyway. I don’t think he has shown that no materialist theory can be plausible – the great mainstream ideas of functionalism/computationalism are largely untouched – but I salute the chutzpah of anyone who thinks such an issue can be wrapped up in one side of A4 – and is willing to take it on!


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 10:41pm in

‘In 1989 I was invited to go to Los Angeles in response to a request from the Dalai Lama, who wished to learn some basic facts about the brain.’

Besides being my own selection for ‘name drop of the year’, this remark from Patricia Churchland’s new book Conscience perhaps tells us that we are not dealing with someone who suffers much doubt about their own ability to explain things. That’s fair enough; if we weren’t radically overconfident about our ability to answer difficult questions better than anyone else, it’s probable no philosophy would ever get done. And Churchland modestly goes on to admit to asking the Buddhists some dumb questions (‘What’s your equivalent of the Ten Commandments?’). Alas, I think some of her views on moral philosophy might benefit from further reflection.

Her basic proposition is that human morality is a more complex version of the co-operative and empathetic behaviour shown by various animals. There are some interesting remarks in her account, such as a passage about human scrupulosity, but she doesn’t seem to me to offer anything distinctively new in the way of a bridge between mere co-operation and actual ethics. There is, surely, a gulf between the two which needs bridging if we are to explain one in terms of the other. No doubt it’s true that some of the customs and practices of human beings may have an inherited, instinctive root; and those practices in turn may provide a relevant backdrop to moral behaviour. Not morality itself, though. It’s interesting that a monkey fobbed off with a reward of cucumber instead of a grape displays indignation, but we don’t get into morality until we ask whether the monkey was right to complain – and why.

Churchland never accepts that. She suggests that morality is a vaguely defined business; really a matter of a collection of rules and behaviours that a species or a community has cobbled together from pragmatic adaptations, whether through evolution or culture (quite a gulf there, too). She denies that there are any deep principles involved; we simply come to feel, through reinforcement learning and imitation, that the practices of our own group have a special moral quality. She groups moral philosophers into two groups; people she sees as flexible pragmatists (Aristotle, for some reason, and Hume) and rule-lovers (Kant and Jeremy Bentham). Unfortunately she treats moral rules and moral principles as the same, so advocates of moral codes like the Ten Commandments are regarded as equivalent to those who seek a fundamental grounding for morality, like Kant. Failure to observe this distinction perhaps causes her to give the seekers of principles unnecessarily short shrift. She rightly notes that there are severe problems with applying pure Utilitarianism or pure Kantianism directly to real life; but that doesn’t mean that either theory fails to capture important ethical truths. A car needs wheels as well as an engine, but that doesn’t mean the principle of internal combustion is invalid.

Another grouping which strikes me as odd is the way Churchland puts rationalists with religious believers (they must be puzzled to find themselves together) with neurobiology alone on the other side. I wouldn’t be so keen to declare myself the enemy of rational argument; but the rationalists are really the junior partners, it seems, people who hanker after the old religious certainties and deludedly suppose they can run up their own equivalents. Just as people who deny personhood sometimes seem to be motivated mainly by a desire to denounce the soul, I suspect Churchland mainly wants to reject Christian morality, with the baby of reasoned ethics getting thrown out along with the theological bathwater.

She seems to me particularly hard on Kant. She points out, quite rightly, that his principle of acting on rules you would be prepared to have made universal, requires the rules to be stated correctly; a Nazi, she suggests, could claim to be acting according to consistent rules if those rules were drawn up in a particular way. We require the moral act to be given its correct description in order for the principle to apply. Yes; but much the same is true of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which she approves. ‘Nothing to excess’ is fine if we talk about eating or the pursuit of wealth, but it also, taken literally, means we should commit just the right amount of theft and murder; not too much, but not too little, either. Churchland is prepared to cut Aristotle the slack required to see the truth behind the defective formulation, but Kant doesn’t get the same accommodation. Nor does she address the Categorical Imperative, which is a shame because it might have revealed that Kant understands the kind of practical decision-making she makes central, even though he says there’s more to life than that.

Here’s an analogy. Churchland could have set out to debunk physics in much the way she tackles ethics. She might have noted that beavers build dams and ants create sophisticated nests that embody excellent use of physics. Our human understanding of physics, she might have said, is the same sort of collection of rules of thumb and useful tips; it’s just that we have so many more neurons, our version is more complex. Now some people claim that there are spooky abstract ‘laws’ of physics, like something handed down by God on tablets; invisible entities and forces that underlie the behaviour of material things. But if we look at each of the supposed laws we find that they break down in particular cases. Planes sail through the air, the Earth consistently fails to plummet into the Sun; so much for the ‘law’ of gravity! It’s simply that the physics practices of our own culture come to seem almost magical to us; there’s no underlying truth of physics. And worse, after centuries of experiment and argument, there’s still bitter disagreement about the answers. One prominent physicist not so long ago said his enemies were ‘not even wrong’!

No-one, of course, would be convinced by that, and we really shouldn’t be convinced by a similar case against ethical theory.

That implicit absence of moral truth is perhaps the most troubling thing about Churchland’s outlook. She suggests Kant has nothing to say to a consistent Nazi, but I’m not sure what she can come up with, either, except that her moral feelings are different. Churchland wraps up with a reference to the treatment of asylum seekers at the American border, saying that her conscientious feelings are fired up. But so what? She’s barely finished explaining why these are just feelings generated by training and imitation of her peer group. Surely we want to be able to say that mistreatment of children is really wrong?

Slingshotting around the Sun? Grasping the Oberth Effect

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 4:05am in



A Washington Post article talked about getting to interstellar rocketry by slingshotting around the Sun. I understood the idea of slingshotting required a planet or a moon– something that was orbiting something else because you are taking some of that acceleration of the planet for your rocket. Indeed this is called “Gravity Assist,” so what is this slingshotting around the Sun?  Well, this is where you get the Oberth Effect. The idea is you go really fast by getting close to the sun, burning your fuel, and you will go much faster even after you slow down again having left the proximity of the Sun.

But after reading and rereading the wikipedia article, talking with my mates, watching a youtube video I still did not get an intuitive grasp of it– in fact it seems to break the rule of conservation of energy. How could blasting your fuel while going faster make you go faster?  I think I have an approach to see how it makes sense, in general, but does not bring us to equations.

A rocket works by throwing exhaust out the back at high speed, thus pushing the rocket forward. For a given amount of fuel, you throw it out (relatative to the rocket) at a certain speed and certain weight to become the exhaust thus pushing the rocket forward with a certain amount of force.

Let’s say the fuel is thrown out the back at a certain speed, V. If you do this while standing still, the fuel goes one way at speed almost V and the rocket goes the other. If the rocket is moving at speed V, then throws the burnt fuel out the back (say it does it all at once for simplicity), then exhaust will be standing still and the rocket moving faster than it was.

The first case is like in a swimming pool you push against a floaty to go one way– the floaty goes the other way. The second case can be seen as you are in a swimming pool and you push just as hard, but you are pushing against the wall. The wall goes nowhere, and you go faster across the pool.

You would push against a wall if you could. And by speeding up the rocket you are effectively doing that. Same force, but the floaty goes the other way vs the wall which stays still. When you push against the wall you go faster in the direction you want to go.

In the rocket case, we have to get the rocket to go the speed of the exhaust V, and not take any energy to do that. The way the rocket is speed up is by “borrowing speed” by accelerating towards the sun. The sun accelerates both the rocket and the fuel it will burn equally– this is that tricky thing in high school physics where a feather and a bowling ball fall at the same rate (if there is no air resistance). So the sun pulls both in, the rocket and fuel are going really fast, say V, then the rocket blasts out the rocket fuel leaving it behind, and then decelerates as it leaves the sun. If the rocket got up to speed V, then the net effect is that instead of the rocket throwing its exhaust backwards, it would go nowhere, thus being the wall it pushed against.

The rocket decelerates as it leaves because of the gravity of the sun is pulling it back, but it is getting less force because it weighs less because it burned fuel. Again, this is that tricky bit about the feather and bowling ball. So the Sun applied more force to the rocket+fuel on the way in than on just the rocket on the way out. Another way of seeing how this effect works.

At least this makes sense to me. The effect is caused by the sun accelerating the rocket+fuel, then when the rocket blasts out its spent fuel, the exhaust is not going in the opposite direction as much, thereby offering more of a push to the rocket, even after it is decelerated.

Degrees of Consciousness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 25/06/2019 - 11:37pm in

An interesting blog post by William Lycan gives a brisk treatment of the interesting question of whether consciousness comes in degrees, or is the kind of thing you either have or don’t. In essence, Lycan thinks the answer depends on what type of consciousness you’re thinking of. He distinguishes three: basic perceptual consciousness, ‘state consciousness’ where we are aware of our own mental state, and phenomenal consciousness. In passing, he raises interesting questions about perceptual consciousness. We can assume that animals, broadly speaking, probably have perceptual, but not state consciousness, which seems primarily if not exclusively a human matter. So what about pain? If an animal is in pain, but doesn’t know it is in pain, does that pain still matter?

Leaving that one aside as an exercise for the reader, Lycan’s answer on degrees is that the first two varieties of consciousness do indeed come in degrees, while the third, phenomenal consciousness, does not. Lycan gives a good ultra-brief summary of the state of play on phenomenal consciousness. Some just deny it (that represents a ‘desperate lunge’ in Lycan’s view); some, finding it undeniable, lunge the other way – or perhaps fall back? – by deciding that materialism is inadequate and that our metaphysics must accommodate irreducibly mental entities. In the middle are all the people who offer some partial or complete explanation of phenomenal consciousness. The leading view, according to Lycan, is something like his own interesting proposal that our introspective categorisation of experience cannot be translated into ordinary language; it’s the untranslatability that gives the appearance of ineffability. There is a fourth position out there beyond the reach of even the most reckless lunge, which is panpsychism; Lycan says he would need stronger arguments for that than he has yet seen.

Getting back to the original question, why does Lycan think the answer is, as it were, ‘yes, yes, no’? In the case of perceptual consciousness, he observes that different animals perceive different quantities of information and make greater or lesser numbers of distinctions. In that sense, at least, it seems hard to argue against consciousness occurring in degrees. He also thinks animals with more senses will have higher degrees of perceptual consciousness. He must, I suppose be thinking here of the animal’s overall, global state of consciousness, though I took the question to be about, for example, perception of a single light, in which case the number of senses is irrelevant (though I think the basic answer remains correct).

On state consciousness, Lycan argues that our perception of our mental states can be dim, vivid, or otherwise varied in degree. There’s variation in actual intensity of the state, but what he’s mainly thinking of is the degree of attention we give it. That’s surely true, but it opens up a couple of cans of worms. For one thing, Lycan has already argued that perceptual states come in degrees by virtue of the amount of information they embody; now state consciousness which is consciousness of a perceptual state can also vary in degree because of the level of attention paid to the perceptual state. That in itself is not a problem, but to me it implies that the variability of state consciousness is really at least a two-dimensional matter. The second question is, if we can invoke attention when it comes to state consciousness, should we not also be invoking it in the case of perceptual consciousness? We can surely pay different degrees of attention to our perceptual inputs. More generally, aren’t there other ways in which consciousness can come in degrees? What about, for example, an epistemic criterion, ie how certain we feel about what we perceive? What about the complexity of the percept, or of our conscious response?

Coming to phenomenal consciousness, the brevity of the piece leaves me less clear about why Lycan thinks it alone fails to come in degrees. He asserts that wherever there is some degree of awareness of one’s own mental state, there is something it’s like for the subject to experience that state. But that’s not enough; it shows that you can have no phenomenal consciousness or some, but not that there’s no way the ‘some’ can vary in degree. Maybe sometimes there are two things it’s like? Lycan argued that perceptual consciousness comes in degrees according to the quantity of information; he didn’t argue that we can have some information or none, and that therefore perceptual consciousness is not a matter of degree. He didn’t simply say that wherever there is some quantity of perceptual information, there is perceptual consciousness.

It is unfortunately very difficult to talk about phenomenal experience. Typically, in fact, we address it through a sort of informal twinning. We speak of red quale, though the red part is really the objective bit that can be explained by science. It seems to me a natural prima facie assumption that phenomenal experience must ‘inherit’ the variability of its objective counterparts. Lycan might say that, even if that were true, it isn’t what we’re really talking about. But I remain to be convinced that phenomenal experience cannot be categorised by degree according to some criteria.

Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/04/2019 - 7:58am in



On April 17, 2019, I gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference (DPLAfest). This is the transcript of that talk.

Illustration by Jim Cooke

I love the librarian community. You all are deeply committed to producing, curating, and enabling access to knowledge. Many of you embraced the internet with glee, recognizing the potential to help so many more people access critical information. Many of you also saw the democratic and civic potential of this new technology, not to mention the importance of an informed citizenry in a democratic world. Yet, slowly, and systematically, a virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric of public life.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, most of Silicon Valley in the late 90s and early aughts was obsessed with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. How did they not recognize that this book was dystopian?

Slowly, and systematically, a virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric of public life.

Epistemology is the term that describes how we know what we know. Most people who think about knowledge think about the processes of obtaining it. Ignorance is often assumed to be not-yet-knowledgeable. But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance. In an edited volume called Agnotology, Proctor and Londa Schiebinger collect essays detailing how agnotology is achieved. Whether we’re talking about the erasure of history or the undoing of scientific knowledge, agnotology is a tool of oppression by the powerful.

Swirling all around us are conversations about how social media platforms must get better at content management. Last week, Congress held hearings on the dynamics of white supremacy online and the perception that technology companies engage in anti-conservative bias. Many people who are steeped in history and committed to evidence-based decision-making are experiencing a collective sense of being gaslit—the concept that emerges from a film on domestic violence to explain how someone’s sense of reality can be intentionally destabilized by an abuser. How do you process a black conservative commentator testifying before the House that the Southern strategy never happened and that white nationalism is an invention of the Democrats to “scare black people”? Keep in mind that this commentator was intentionally trolled by the terrorist in Christchurch; she responded to this atrocity with tweets containing “LOL” and “HAHA.” Speaking of Christchurch, let’s talk about Christchurch. We all know the basic narrative. A terrorist espousing white nationalist messages livestreamed himself brutally murdering 50 people worshipping in a New Zealand mosque. The video was framed like a first-person shooter from a video game. Beyond the atrocity itself, what else was happening?

He produced a media spectacle. And he learned how to do it by exploiting the information ecosystem we’re currently in.

This terrorist understood the vulnerabilities of both social media and news media. The message he posted on 8chan announcing his intention included links to his manifesto and other sites, but it did not include a direct link to Facebook; he didn’t want Facebook to know that the traffic came from 8chan. The video included many minutes of him driving around, presumably to build audience but also, quite likely, in an effort to evade any content moderators that might be looking. He titled his manifesto with a well-known white nationalist call sign, knowing that the news media would cover the name of the manifesto, which in turn, would prompt people to search for that concept. And when they did, they’d find a treasure trove of anti-Semitic and white nationalist propaganda. This is the exploitation of what’s called a “data void.” He also trolled numerous people in his manifesto, knowing full well that the media would shine a spotlight on them and create distractions and retractions and more news cycles. He produced a media spectacle. And he learned how to do it by exploiting the information ecosystem we’re currently in. Afterwards, every social platform was inundated with millions and millions of copies and alterations of the video uploaded through a range of fake accounts, either to burn the resources of technology companies, shame them, or test their guardrails for future exploits.

What’s most notable about this terrorist is that he’s explicit in his white nationalist commitments. Most of those who are propagating white supremacist logics are not. Whether we’re talking about the so-called “alt-right” who simply ask questions like “Are jews people?” or the range of people who argue online for racial realism based on long-debunked fabricated science, there’s an increasing number of people who are propagating conspiracy theories or simply asking questions as a way of enabling and magnifying white supremacy. This is agnotology at work.

What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society. To fragment epistemologies. This is a tactic that was well-honed by propagandists. Consider this Russia Today poster.

But what’s most profound is how it’s being done en masse now. Teenagers aren’t only radicalized by extreme sites on the web. It now starts with a simple YouTube query. Perhaps you’re a college student trying to learn a concept like “social justice” that you’ve heard in a classroom. The first result you encounter is from PragerU, a conservative organization that is committed to undoing so-called “leftist” ideas that are taught at universities. You watch the beautifully produced video, which promotes many of the tenets of media literacy. Ask hard questions. Follow the money. The video offers a biased and slightly conspiratorial take on what “social justice” is, suggesting that it’s not real, but instead a manufactured attempt to suppress you. After you watch this, you watch more videos of this kind from people who are professors and other apparent experts. This all makes you think differently about this term in your reading. You ask your professor a question raised by one of the YouTube influencers. She reacts in horror and silences you. The videos all told you to expect this. So now you want to learn more. You go deeper into a world of people who are actively anti-“social justice warriors.” You’re introduced to anti-feminism and racial realism. How far does the rabbit hole go?

One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material.

YouTube is the primary search engine for people under 25. It’s where high school and college students go to do research. Digital Public Library of America works with many phenomenal partners who are all working to curate and make available their archives. Yet, how much of that work is available on YouTube? Most of DPLA’s partners want their content on their site. They want to be a destination site that people visit. Much of this is visual and textual, but are there explainers made about this content that are on YouTube? How many scientific articles have video explainers associated with them?

Herein lies the problem. One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. And then to make sure that what scientific information is available, is undermined. One tactic is to exploit “data voids.” These are areas within a search ecosystem where there’s no relevant data; those who want to manipulate media purposefully exploit these. Breaking news is one example of this. Another is to co-opt a term that was left behind, like social justice. But let me offer you another. Some terms are strategically created to achieve epistemological fragmentation. In the 1990s, Frank Luntz was the king of doing this with terms like partial-birth abortion, climate change, and death tax. Every week, he coordinated congressional staffers and told them to focus on the term of the week and push it through the news media. All to create a drumbeat.

Illustration by Jim Cooke Today’s drumbeat happens online. The goal is no longer just to go straight to the news media. It’s to first create a world of content and then to push the term through to the news media at the right time so that people search for that term and receive specific content. Terms like caravan, incel, crisis actor. By exploiting the data void, or the lack of viable information, media manipulators can help fragment knowledge and seed doubt.

Media manipulators are also very good at messing with structure. Yes, they optimize search engines, just like marketers. But they also look to create networks that are hard to undo. YouTube has great scientific videos about the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaxxers have systematically trained YouTube to make sure that people who watch the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s videos also watch videos asking questions about vaccinations or videos of parents who are talking emotionally about what they believe to be the result of vaccination. They comment on both of these videos, they watch them together, they link them together. This is the structural manipulation of media. Journalists often get caught up in telling “both sides,” but the creation of sides is a political project.

The creation of sides is a political project.

And this is where you come in. You all believe in knowledge. You believe in making sure the public is informed. You understand that knowledge emerges out of contestation, debate, scientific pursuit, and new knowledge replacing old knowledge. Scholars are obsessed with nuance. Producers of knowledge are often obsessed with credit and ownership. All of this is being exploited to undo knowledge today. You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it. You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions.

Thank you!

The Eighth Way to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/02/2019 - 2:16am in



The teams at Rethinking Economics and Doughnut Economics have launched a contest for entries, asking “What’s the 8th Way to Think Like a 21st Century Economist?” It builds on Kate Raworth’s seven ways, here.

Here’s my entry:

8. Widespread prosperity both causes and is greater prosperity: From false tradeoffs to collective well-being.

“Okun’s Tradeoff” — the idea that inequality is necessary for economic prosperity and growth — is baked into 20th-century economic thinking. It probably carries some significant truth in a generally egalitarian economy. But in the 21st century, with wealth and income concentrations beyond even what we saw in the 1920s, with that era’s disastrous denouement, it just doesn’t hold water.

Today’s extreme concentrations cause us all, collectively — especially our children — to have less. (Excepting those few who are lucky enough to extract, hoard, and benefit from multigenerational dynastic wealth along the way.)

Broadly dispersed wealth and income offer up opportunity, prosperity, economic security, well-being, and a springboard for success to hundreds of millions, billions of people and families. And it uses less of our earth’s limited resources in distorted production markets delivering low-value, absurdly priced luxury goods and services demanded by those with astronomical wealth and income. With the same amount of wealth, broadly dispersed — and the increased spending that broader prosperity delivers (spending on higher-value goods) — we can enjoy a vastly better life for ourselves. And we can deliver likewise to those who come after us.

At least today, the equality-vs-growth tradeoff is wrong by 180 degrees. The choice is not a difficult one. In fact it’s not even a choice we have to make. Widespread prosperity both causes and is greater prosperity.

Related posts:

  1. Taxes: Equity versus Efficiency? Not so Much
  2. Want to Spread the Power? Spread the Wealth.
  3. Inequality is Necessary for Growth, Right?
  4. Bill Gates Agrees with Me on Piketty
  5. Are Low-Taxing States More Prosperous? No. QTC.

Safe Assets, Collateral, and Portfolio Preferences

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/01/2019 - 4:30am in



Matthew Klein and Mayank Seksaria had an interesting Twitter conversation yesterday in response to a Stephanie Kelton tweet. Read it here.

Here’s my understanding of the financial mechanisms they’re talking about.

Government deficit spending deposits fixed-price securities (“money,” checking and money-market holdings) ab nihilo onto private sector balance sheets. These are perfectly “safe assets” in the sense that you always know what they’re worth relative to the unit of account (The Dollar). A $1 checking-account balance is always worth one dollar — if the holding account contains less than the FDIC-insured maximum. But for big finance players with big cash balances, they’re not as safe as…

Treasury bills/bonds. And since Treasury is required to “sop up,” re-absorb, burn those newly-created cash balances by swapping them for bonds (“borrowing”): deficit spending + bond issuance, consolidated, effectively deposits new Treasuries, ab nihilo, onto private-sector balance sheets.

Now to the portfolio effects, which are driven by the market’s portfolio preferences (a broader and IMO more aptly descriptive term than “liquidity preferences”).

If deficit spending delivers cash onto private-sector balance sheets, the market is overweight cash. (Assuming portfolio preferences are unchanged.) It can’t get rid of cash because cash is (by its very definition) fixed-price. There’s a fixed stock, unaffected by capital gains and losses. (Yes, net bank lending changes this stock, but very slowly.)

So to adjust their portfolios, market players bid up variable-priced assets: mainly bonds, equities, and titles to real estate. Voila, cap gains: there are more total assets, and portfolio preferences are achieved.

But wait: deficit spending + bond issuance, consolidated, doesn’t make the market overweight cash. It’s overweight bonds. Portfolio balancing is more complicated here, because bonds have variable prices (though they’re less variable than equities).

The market could just sell bonds, driving down their prices and reducing total assets, to achieve its portfolio preference — less bonds, same amount of cash and equities. Or it could sell less bonds but also bid up equities to hit its portfolio prefs; the first reduces total assets, while the second increases that measure. (As they say, further research is needed.)

But none of this, in my opinion, has a whole lot to do with the value of “safe assets” as “collateral” (except when asset prices are diving and all correlations go to one). That seems peripheral and secondary to me, a hamster-wheel of financial shenanigans, sound and fury signifying…

Another takeaway from this: Government deficit spending & bond issuance delivers new assets (Treasuries) onto private-sector balance sheets. But no new liabilities. So it creates more net worth.

But the portfolio balancing that ensues generally also drives up equity (and real-estate) prices, yielding a deficit-spending multiplier effect on wealth by driving cap gains that wouldn’t happen otherwise. One dollar of deficit spending/bond issuance results in more than one dollar in new private-sector wealth, assets, net worth.

That’s how I see it…

Related posts:

  1. The Market Doesn’t Think the Fed Will Ever Sell Those Bonds Back
  2. Actually, Only Banks Print Money
  3. MMT and the Wealth of Nations, Revisited
  4. The Giant Logical Hole in Monetarist Thinking: So-Called “Spending”
  5. Why Unwinding QE Won’t Matter

Why the “Money Supply” Is Conceptually Incoherent

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/12/2018 - 6:04am in



Economists’/monetarists’ use of the term Money “Supply” reveals multiple levels of deep confusion.

1. Supply implies a flow. But they’re clearly referring to a “stock” of money: what’s tallied in monetary aggregates.

2. Even if you’re think of a stock of money: Supply is not a quantity, an amount, a numeric measure. It’s a psychological/behavioral concept — willingness to produce and sell — commonly depicted in a curve representing that willingness at different price points. (All economics is behavioral economics.)

But “supply” is necessary to validate the incoherent ideas of the “price of” and “demand for” money — a set of financial instruments like checking deposits whose price never changes (relative to the Unit of Account). That price can’t change — by definition, by construction, and by institutional fiat.

Likewise, the aggregate stock or so-called “supply” of fixed-price instruments, money, changes only very slowly via bank net new lending. (That change in lending is determined by myriad economic behaviors and effects.)

If so-called demand for money can’t change the (P)rice of money (it can’t), or the collective (Q)uantity of money outstanding (it can but not much and very slowly), what exactly are we talking about here in our imagined supply-and-demand diagram toy thought-experiment?

Related posts:

  1. Lending, Velocity, and Aggregate Demand
  2. Specifying “Demand”: Nick Rowe Meets Steve Keen on His Own Ground
  3. What’s “Scarce” These Days? Borrowers, Spenders, and (Hence) Profitable Investments
  4. Actually, Only Banks Print Money
  5. “Supply” and “Demand” for Financial Assets

Actually, Only Banks Print Money

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/12/2018 - 5:34am in



I’m thinking this headline will raise some eyebrows in the MMT community. But it’s not really so radical. It’s just using the word money very carefully, as defined here.

Starting with the big picture: 

You can compare the magnitude of these asset-creation mechanisms here. (Hint: cap gains rule.)

The key concept: “money” here just means a particular type of financial instrument, balance-sheet asset: one whose price is institutionally pegged to the unit of account (The Dollar, eg). The price of a dollar bill or a checking/money-market one-dollar balance is always…one dollar. This class of instruments is what’s tallied up in monetary aggregates.

A key tenet of MMT, loosely stated, is that government deficit spending creates money. And that’s true; it delivers assets ab nihilo onto private-sector balance sheets, and those new assets are checking deposits — “money” as defined here.

But. Government, the US Treasury, is constrained by an archaic rule: it has to “borrow” to cover any spending deficits. So Treasury issues bonds and swaps them for that newly-created checking-account money, reabsorbing and disappearing that money from private sector balance sheets.

If you consolidate Treasury’s deficit spending and bond issuance into one accounting event, Treasury is issuing new bonds onto private-sector balance sheets. It’s not printing “money,” not increasing the aggregate “money stock” of fixed-price instruments.

This was something of an Aha for me: If you look at the three mechanisms of asset-creation in the table above, only one increases the monetary aggregates that include demand deposits (M1, M2, M3, and MZM): bank (net new) lending.

Arguably there might be one more row added to the bottom of this table: so-called “money printing” by the Fed. But as with Treasury bond issuance, that doesn’t actually create new assets. The Fed just issues new “reserves” — bank money that banks exchange among themselves — and swaps them for bonds, just changing TheBanks’ portfolio mix. That leaves private-sector assets and net worth unchanged, and only increases one monetary aggregate measure: the “monetary base” (MB). 

I’ll leave it to my gentle readers to consider what economic effects that reserves-for-bonds swap might have. 

Related posts:

  1. Safe Assets, Collateral, and Portfolio Preferences
  2. The Market Doesn’t Think the Fed Will Ever Sell Those Bonds Back
  3. MMT and the Wealth of Nations, Revisited
  4. The Giant Logical Hole in Monetarist Thinking: So-Called “Spending”
  5. Currency is Equity, Equity is Currency