Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

October 15th, 2019

Physicists brought up in the modern system will look into your eyes and explain with all sincerity that they’re not really interested in understanding how nature really works; they just want to successfully predict the outcomes of experiments.

This would indeed be a sad commentary on the state of modern physics if only someone could give any real meaning to the question of “understanding how nature really works” beyond just being able to “successfully predict the outcomes of experiments”

Source: Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

(106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

October 13th, 2019

In almost any imaginable theory an experiment involves the preparation of a system in what we call a “state” and the subsequent observation of various quantities which we call “observables”. The observable quantities might be lengths, colours, states of matter, relative phases of signals, or many other things – but they can almost always be reduced to just real numbers or even just sequences of yes/no questions. And the prepared states typically correspond to the specification of some particular observable values by filtering out those that don’t meet the required criteria. States which are specified as completely as possible are called “pure states” but it is also possible to prepare a “mixed state” in which the specification is not complete and so where the values of some quantities which could be specified more precisely (without interfering with others already specified) are given just by some statistical distribution. In quantum theories the complete specification of some observables may make it impossible to also have a complete specification of others and so even in pure states the values of some observables may not be completely determined. In such cases the state cannot be written as a statistical mixture of ones in which the problem variable is completely determined (which are called eigenstates of that observable), but rather as a linear combination (aka superposition) of the corresponding wave functions.

The measurement process has several stages, and a lot of confusion about what is meant by an “observer” in QM arises from not keeping them separate.
Two of these stages are often identified with the notion of “collapse”.
One is where a small part of the world appearing to be in a pure state (which, for any particular observable, may not be an eigenstate but just a linear superposition of the eigenstates corresponding to different values of the observable) interacts with some part of the external world (which is not in a pure state) in such a way that the small part ends up appearing to be in a classical statistical mixture of eigenstates. After this interaction is complete the observer still may not know which eigenvalue applies (ie what the observed value of the measurement will be), but the situation will be no more (nor less!) mysterious than that of a coin toss which has not yet been observed. For this first stage of collapse (which has been understood in principle since von Neumann, but for which in the last few decades specific more detailed examples have come to be touted as “decoherence”) the part of the world “causing” the collapse could be anything from surrounding thermal radiation, to an actual measurement instrument, or a cat, or another human observer (cf “Wigner’s friend”) who learns the truth before you do.

But if you are the observer we are interested in, then the system remains in a mixed state until you become aware of the result, and collapse of the classical probability distribution happens only in your mind.

So tl;dr there is no “collapse of the wave”. What there is are first decoherence of the wave (which can be caused by interaction with almost anything that is even slightly complicated), and then, later, collapse of the resulting probability distribution which is where you and your “consciousness” come in.

Source: (106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

Speculative Science is not necessarily “Post-empirical” Pseudo-Science

October 8th, 2019

In the promo for his piece: Post-empirical science is an oxymoron, and it is dangerous | Aeon EssaysJim Baggott is identified just as a “popular-science author”, but in fact he’s also a real scientist with research awards and applied experience. And this shows in the quality of his essay which objects to much of the sensationalist mumbo-jumbo that passes for popular science writing these days. But there are other real scientists among those he objects to and I think there is plenty of room for people to work on (and write about) speculative ideas that do not yet have testable consequences.

In his article, Baggott refers to an earlier article by Massimo Pigliucci entitled Must Science be Testable? which carried the subhead “String wars among physicists have highlighted just how much science needs philosophy – and not just the amateur version” (to which I responded with a comment at the time).

For me, YES, science must be testable, and No science does not “need” philosophy – especially the “professional” version.

That’s not a statement about how the world “is”, but about how I choose to define the word “science”, and I suspect that most of my scientific colleagues feel similarly (in general terms though not perhaps in all the details).

More completely, I think of science as the game (a word I shall not try to define!) of making the most complete and accurate predictions from the most compact set of assumptions. It differs from some games in that the “scoring” system is not precisely defined and is largely a matter of personal taste (kind of like judged aesthetic events like gymnastics and diving in the Olympics).

String Theory is a part of that game because it is an attempt (still in progress) to interpolate between General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory in a way that reduces the number of bits needed in order to describe the assumptions while not failing to at least match the accuracy of any of the separate theories’ predictions. One can argue as to whether it is likely to succeed, but any claim to have properly constructed it will be testable in several ways – not all experimental. One is just whether it is logically and mathematically consistent. Another is whether it has limiting cases which match GR & QFT. But then it will almost surely make predictions in situations where the other two break down, and so it will also probably be possible to design experiments which detect whether or not those predictions are correct.

A “theory” which I would not consider real science is the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is designed to exactly mimic the predictions of standard QM and requires exactly the same mathematical tools but just dignifies some of them with the label “real” which sadly does not seem to have any real meaning; however I can see how the interpretation might earn some points if we added a criterion of aesthetic appeal or conceptual accessibility to the scoring table.

There are also some similar-sounding “multiverse” theories that go beyond the many worlds idea and may possibly one day make predictions re observable effects from “nearby” “branes” and such; and the “mirrorverse” idea that Leah Broussard is proposing to explain some observed anomalies in neutron decay time measurements seems to be one of these. As yet it may be even further from being properly constructed than string theory, but I think Baggott is overstating the case against it.

Baggot and others like Sabine Hossenfelder can argue that certain lines of investigation are a poor allocation of scientific resources, but that is very far from making it appropriate to identify them as “pseudo-science”.

An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have 

September 28th, 2019

This could be used as part of a rebuttal to Searle’s silly ‘Chinese Room’ argument. Source: An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have | Aeon Ideas

Is dark makeup always racist?

September 21st, 2019

In response to the dismay caused by recent disclosures of past events where he wore dark makeup, Justin Trudeau has said:

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is… unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”

But is this really true? Actually, I think not for it really does depend on the “context or circumstances”.

Some of the exceptions are extremely rare but it is wrong to deny that they exist. For example there may be medical treatments which darken skin as a side effect, and deliberate darkening for its own sake is often used by commandos and the like in order to evade detection at night or when moving in a dark environment.

The context of a non-comedic amateur dramatic performance should also, in my opinion, be excluded as it may be useful in such a context for both darkening and lightening makeup to be used to reinforce role reversal activities.

In professional performances though, I think there is an obligation to find appropriately pigmented actors if one wants to represent skin colour accurately because it is harder to lighten than to darken and so allowing colour adjustment gives an employment advantage to the lighter-skinned. But in that context the reason for the “ban” is to increase economic opportunity rather than because to permit the colouring would be in any sense racist.

It’s really only in the context of comic or malicious performances that skin darkening can be taken as strongly suggestive of racism, but any adult or adolescent halloween-type costume is sufficiently likely to have humorous or frightening intent that any reasonable adult should be aware that even if the intent is not there the possibility of it being perceived and hurtful is sufficient reason not to do it.

Unfortunately this last is the context that applies to Mr Trudeau and so I think he is right to apologize – and also to acknowledge at least to himself that there may have been an element of racist mockery in his behaviour. But to declare that his offense was to violate an arbitrary absolute ban actually diminishes rather than strengthens his apology.

Source: Trudeau Apologizes For Blackface Video After Saying Sorry For Brownface Photo | HuffPost Canada

Is ALL Advocacy and/or Advertising now Potentially Partisan According to Elections Canada?

August 20th, 2019

If saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity just because some candidate or other denies it, then surely the same would apply to all advertising for, say, Coke or Pepsi if some candidate expressed a preference and intent to favour one or the other (esp. if in government contracts)  – or more realistically, if some politician spoke out against the widespread marketing of both these and other similarly poisonous addictive beverages.

Perhaps having to report their advertising budgets as third party political advocacy would not be too much of a burden on the big soft drink companies, but they would not be the only ones so labelled, and the loss of charitable status for healthy food advocates would be a nasty consequence of having their cause taken up more by some politicians than others.

So, if this interpretation stands then clearly the legislation was incompetently written. But perhaps the real takeaway is that all charitable contributions should be no more eligible for tax deduction than political ones. A fixed per person limit would both reduce the window for scammy self-serving “donations” and provide less encouragement for the wealthy to distort our pattern of social service by giving massively greater support to those charities that they happen to approve of.

Source: Saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity during election campaign, Elections Canada warns – The Globe and Mail

The Earth’s carrying capacity for human life may not be “fixed” but it IS bounded!

August 13th, 2019

Ted Nordhaus’ disappointing essay in Aeon Ideas provides encouragement to those who would deny the need to end human population growth. Of course Earth’s carrying capacity is not fixed, but regardless of what future technology may bring, it will always remain several orders of magnitude less than “standing room only”. And allowing growth before ensuring that it can be supported will just guarantee more of the hardship and starvation that was happening before the “green revolution” (whose primary author was adamant about its giving us only a “breathing space” in which to come to terms with our looming “Population Monster”(*))




(*) From his Nobel Prize address in 1970: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”…Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…”[34]

Is There really a Naturalistic Case for “Free Will”?

August 12th, 2019

In The Naturalistic Case for Free Will: The Challenge, Christian List opens a series of posts at The Brains Blog discussing some key ideas from his book ‘Why Free Will is Real’ (Harvard University Press, 2019).

But if Free Will is defined, even just on a “first gloss”, as “an agent’s capacity to choose and control his or her (or its?) own actions”, then surely it does exist – even for an agent as simple as a programmed light switch (which chooses whether to switch on or off depending on what it perceives by way of motion and/or warm objects in its environment). So the “Free Will” that is denied by some must certainly be more than this (though rather than deny its existence, I would rather say that I have never seen a coherent definition of it).

What neither the light switch nor the human agent possesses is the capacity to change its own programming for past decisions. A human, or even a suitably programmed learning agent, can of course modify the part of its “program” that will make future decisions, and even may modify its own learning algorithm; but neither he, she nor it has the capacity to modify the program with which it started.

What is relevant for ethical and legal discussions though is not some mythical mystical property that is possessed uniquely by humans, but rather the property of responsibility – by which I think we should mean the capacity to modify ones future behaviour on the basis of responses (praise, censure, punishment, reward, etc.) that one receives, or perceives as being received by others as reactions to past decisions.

What is Oil used for?

August 2nd, 2019

Well in fact about 85% of it is just burned as fuel.

But according to the Daily Caller website, “A mere 46 percent of oil is used to make gasoline, while the rest goes to help make a variety of other useful products. The other 54 percent of oil is used to make most over-the-counter medicines, various cleaning products, some rubber, tons of cosmetics, many lubricants and most of the world’s asphalt. Virtually all plastic, and every product made from or containing plastic, ultimately comes from oil. Out of every 42-gallon barrel of oil, 22.6 gallons is used to make products other than gasoline.”

But by priming the reader to make a false assumption, that quote is in fact a lie (since despite the long list provided, most of those “other useful products” are also fuels – and are not included in the list)

Checkout this pie chart

pie chart


Source: Oil refinery – Wikipedia

In fact, according to the British Plastics Federation “In Europe, it is estimated that between 4–6% of oil and gas is used for producing plastics. By contrast, 87% is used for transport, electricity and heating — meaning it is simply burnt and lost.” (ie converted to CO2 in the atmosphere)

The “C-theory of time” asks if time really has a direction

July 29th, 2019

I’m sorry, but this article just adds to my impression that Feynman, Weinberg, and Hawking are right about the usefulness of philosophy in science. So far as I can tell, none of the “theories” discussed in it has any real content.

Right now I have memories which include the memory of not having memories of some “more recent” events and of, within those memories, having memories which include the memory of remembering even fewer events. It turns out that this pattern of successively smaller sets of memories of memories defines a linear ordering of all my memories. I call the direction towards smaller memory sets my past and the direction from any past memory towards the present the future of that past. (I have no actual knowledge of any future now, but my past memories all had futures and I choose to act as if that pattern “will” continue.)

From those observations alone it does not follow that I will find other beings who have similar patterns of memory, but in fact I have done so (along with evidence that similar beings existed “prior” to my own earliest memory) – and none of us have seen any evidence of beings with a similarly defined sense of past direction that differs from my own. (For many centuries of our shared experience it appeared that we all shared a common “present” but more precise observations have established that that is only possible for beings not moving too rapidly relative to one another. However nothing has been observed which is inconsistent with us all seeing the “past” in the same direction.) A number of physical phenomena are observed to behave symmetrically between past and future but others definitely do not, and in those cases there are fairly simple rules which seem to predict which of two physical situations will be seen as “before” the other.

The upshot of all this (and lots more) is that all of the events that I can remember (or have seen reports of) can be consistently associated with points in a 4-dimensional “space-time” in which, at each point, there is a (double) cone of “time-like” directions such that many physical phenomena are consistently asymmetric between the two parts of the cone (ie with respect to any version of a “time” coordinate). This is all we mean when we say that, at least for us and near here and now, “time has a direction”. And it’s true!

And none of the A,B,or C “theories” really adds anything to that.

Knowledge is a problematic stone-age concept, but are we better off without it?

July 16th, 2019

Philisopher David Papineau argues in a recent Aeon Essay that the idea of knowledge as rigorously justified true belief is “a crude concept we have inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, and it positively handicaps us in our dealings with the modern world.”

Now it is true that the unspecified level of rigorous justification needed to qualify a claim of knowledge makes the concept ambiguous (or at least context-dependent), but the fact that it is an ambiguous refinement of unqualified true belief does not alter the fact that it is indeed a refinement (and so at least less “crude” than it might have been). And not being perfect does not render it useless.

Certainly further refinement might be useful, but the attempt to refine “true” and “belief” in terms of probability founders, at least for now, on the rock that there is no widely shared correct understanding of what it means. The bizarre and unrealistic example proposed by Papineau to motivate his discussion of probability in the law unfortunately just adds to the confusion – both by its confused analysis of probability and by adding a particularly fraught context (namely common law) for the discussion of what it means to “know” something.

I’d be all for refinement if it can be done properly, but until then I still find it useful to know whether or not my opponent really “knows” or just suspects that I have a winning card in my hand.

Source: Knowledge is a stone-age concept, we’re better off without it | Aeon Essays

Massimo Pigliucci is wrong about Richard Feynman on beauty and truth in science

July 13th, 2019

Do philosophers ever think before they write?

Massimo Pigliucci claims that Feynman is “often quoted” as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity,’ and then uses this claim as the basis for an attack on Feynman’s understanding of what it was that he himself was really doing. Now I have no idea whether the claim that Feynman is “often quoted” that way is true – many people are inaccurately quoted, and the more famous they are the more likely they are to be falsely identified with whatever catchy phrase someone wants to promote, so it may well be true that Feynman is often quoted that way. But one would think that a professional philosopher would be above using the fact that someone is “often quoted” as having an opinion to infer that they actually did so – especially since in this case the only supporting evidence comes from one journalist and Pigliucci “could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it”.

No matter though.  For a philosopher apparently if someone can’t be found to have actually expressed an opinion, then it is sufficient evidence of  having had it that the accused may seen to have admired someone else who did have it – and apparently “we do know” that Feynman admired Paul Dirac who did want theories to be, in some sense, beautiful (and, despite Pigliucci’s complete lack of any attempt to support either of those claims, they are both indeed true). However Dirac’s well-attested reluctance to work on what he considered ugly does not necessarily translate into a conviction that the ugly theory could not actually be true, and despite occasional lapses (as in being initially doubtful of experimental results which  contradicted his and Gell-Mann’s weak interaction theory), Feynman’s ultimate position was exactly the opposite of what Pigliucci claims. His most famous and well-documented position on truth and beauty is in fact as follows:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to a properly appreciative eye the property of most simply encompassing the largest known range of data is itself the criterion that we identify as beauty in a physical theory. Perhaps this is related to what the poet John Keats meant when he concluded his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by expressing the identity in both directions.

Source: Richard Feynman was wrong about beauty and truth in science | Aeon Ideas

The Sound of Music

June 2nd, 2019
The clackety-clack of a train on the track 
is beating a rhythm that carries us back
to a time in the cave when our yackety-yak
and the chipping of stones
and the crackle of fire and the patter of rain
combined in a babble of sound to decode.

There repeating patterns were clues to the brain
as to what came from where and how to explain...

We appear to feel strongly rewarded by the recognition both of patterns and of deviations therefrom. This makes sense as such recognition is the basis of how we make useful predictions about the world around us, and the ability to make such predictions correctly is the key to our survival.

Our appreciation of music is just the aural manifestation of that reward system – similar in many respects to our appreciation of visual patterns in art and of more abstract patterns in mathematics.

Unfortunately the language and notation that has evolved to describe musical patterns has never “spoken” to me very clearly. It seems full of arbitrary and misleading names for things that could be expressed more simply. So maybe I should try to come up with an alternative (and/or an understanding of the rationale behind that conventional notation).

More on Science and Philosophy

May 13th, 2019

According to Nicholas Maxwell in Bring back science and philosophy as natural philosophy | Aeon Essays:

Far from being yet another specialised discipline, distinct from and alongside other specialised disciplines, as so much academic philosophy strives to be today, philosophy, properly pursued has, as a basic task, to counteract specialisation by keeping alive thinking about fundamental problems in a way that interacts, in both directions, with specialised research..

This is consistent with the designation of the degree required for teaching any discipline at the most senior levels as ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ in that discipline. But it raises the question of what is implied by a Ph.D. in philosophy. It’s sort of like being a master of mastery or an expert in expertise – which makes sense in a way except for the fact that in order to usefully study expertise perhaps one has to experience it in some non-self-referential context. But perhaps not. An ornithologist can study birds (and perhaps explain them to others and raise human appreciation of their value) without the experience of being one. So perhaps can a philosopher of science study the processes of scientists without actually being one. But just as the utility of the ornithologist to birds is not by way of helping them fly, so the utility of philosophers to scientists is not to help them in their work but rather to help improve their public relations. And even this is of course subject to the philosophers getting the message right – which raises the question of who decides what is the right story.

The Confrontation on the Mall – The Atlantic

January 22nd, 2019

The Atlantic and Julie Irwin Zimmerman are to be commended for the article in which she explores with admirable humility her reactions to the recent “confrontation” at the Lincoln memorial. I also appreciated the wider analysis by Ian Bogost on the dangers of drawing conclusions from selected or edited video clips. But I am not so pleased by either James Fallows’ original article on the matter, nor by his mealy-mouthed “regrets” and “clarifications”. What is called for in his case is a full and frank public apology to the Covington kid and his family for having violated all reasonable standards of journalistic due diligence and, with no more sense than a typical Twitterer, having contributed to the spread of an unfounded pack of vicious insinuations about the character of a sixteen year old kid.

Not that I approve of the loud and obnoxious (but nonetheless reasonably typical) juvenile behaviour that was exhibited by the student group as a whole. But the real failure there is with their chaperones and mentors, and the actual behaviour of Mr Sandmann himself was less offensive than most of his peers. It appears from the longer video that he made no move to approach or block Nathan Phillips and that when he himself was closely approached by the drumming singer he just watched and listened respectfully with an uncomfortable smile on his face which only a yellow-journalist would make a point of calling a “smirk” instead. (I can understand how Mr Phillips may have felt blocked and confined but he was not surrounded, and in fact appeared to change direction in order to approach Mr Sandmann.)

I don’t like the politics represented by his hat (if a sixteen year old can be said to have politics), nor the cause which drew him to Washington, but I feel strongly that Nick Sandmann deserves a much stronger apology from James Fallows and until I see that there will be a taint in my mind on all he writes – and on ‘The Atlantic’ for not requiring it.

And on a completely different matter – but again, I’m afraid, at the expense of Mr Fallows, I have to wonder why, out of the masses of available quotes about our tendency to enjoy jumping to the worst possible conclusion, he would choose to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday with one in which the colour black is used as a proxy for evil and white for good.



Source: The Confrontation on the Mall – The Atlantic

Should We Fear Death?

December 22nd, 2018

Stephen Cahn, at Blog of the APA, rejects what he calls ‘Two Ancient and Unpersuasive Arguments about Death‘. But it is not clear to me that he is interpreting the claims correctly.

The word “death”, like many other words in most human languages, has more than one meaning. If it refers to the state of being dead then the classical arguments would be quite persuasive to me (if I didn’t already consider them obvious).

On the other hand the process of becoming dead fills me with terror – both because the actual cause of death is often painful and because, as Cahn notes, we derive much of our joy in life from anticipation of expected pleasures and awareness of imminent death makes us realize that those pleasures will be lost. Perhaps the classical scholars, along with teachers from many other traditions, are primarily concerned with weaning us from dependency on future rewards so that we will suffer less in the final moment when we realize that those are denied us.

Not being a linguist, I don’t know if the Greek and Latin languages reslove this dichotomy in a way that makes Cahn’s interpretation either true or false, nor if the ambiguity persists and his interpretation becomes a matter of choice – in which case might fault him for uncharitably imposing the less sustainable interpretation.

Source: Two Ancient and Unpersuasive Arguments about Death | Blog of the APA

Empathy with the Ostrich

December 15th, 2018

Reading this makes me want to just stick my head in the sand

Source: Viktor Orbán and the Anti-Semitic Figyelő Cover – The Atlantic

I Think This Lets CANADA Off the Hook

December 12th, 2018

Donald Trump’s use of the case against Meng Wanzhou as a bargaining chip (aka hostage-taking or blackmail) in trade negotiations with China is a clear indication that the extradition request was not made in good faith based on the belief that there was a clear obligatorily enforceable  legal case against Ms Meng. Thus Canada is under no moral obligation (and I would hope is under no legal obligation) to deliver her.  I deeply hope that a Canadian court reaches the same conclusion and orders her release on those grounds.

Source: Exclusive: Trump says he could intervene in U.S. case against Huawei CFO | Reuters

Death and Taxes

August 12th, 2018

Taxes For the Common Good?

For as long as humans have lived as pack animals with a dominance hierarchy, taxes have always been a part of human life. Those who are seen as the leaders of the pack, tribe, nation, or empire have always had a social mandate (albeit often a grudging one) to eat first from a shared kill and to take food and other rights from others. For most of human history, taxes have been seized from the poor by the rich without any justification other than the occasional claim that this plunder was justified in order to pay for protection from even greater plunder by even nastier thieves.

One thing that has made this scam so easy to implement is another aspect of human pack structure, namely the tendency to cooperate in competing groups of larger than family size. This competition between groups has favoured an inherited tendency towards suppression of the individual will and acceptance of socially-mandated authority based on a sense of group loyalty.  And to facilitate that we have also inherited a tendency to identify friends and foes on the basis of features such as bodily decoration (ranging from war paint to fashion styles and military uniforms) and behaviours (such as chanting, dancing, and expressing unfounded beliefs).

The human tendency to group-identify, though, has had an interesting secondary consequence. Namely various groups of those not at the top of the dominance hierarchy can come to see themselves as a separate team, tribe, or “class”, and consequently engage in attack and overthrow of the current leadership. In any “nation”  one of the main goals is therefore to build allegiance to a larger whole in which members of various interest groups may accept a “state” authority. In the case of a “democracy” this allegiance to the state is bought from the people by offer of at least the appearance of a role in determining both who wields the state authority and what it is empowered to do; and in even the most primitive groupings, the position of a leader is often dependent on giving some appearance of operating to advance the welfare of all.

Similarly, the power of taxation is often justified and maintained via a claim that property seized by the state will be used for the common good. This is a claim that I am happy to live with so long as the state is making a net positive contribution to what I consider the common good.

So What Is This Common Good?

There are many things that I accept as positive contributions by government to the common good – indeed enough in our present society that I have no hesitation in paying my taxes, no matter who is in power (at least out of the current crop of potentials in Canada). But there are a number of big things missing.

Some of these have to do with the need for better protection of the environment and of shared access to common resources, but the one I want to focus on here is wealth inequality.

It is my belief that the common good is best served by the building of a social economy in which as many people as possible feel that they have a “fair” share of the world’s resources. This can be achieved in at least a couple of ways. One is to brainwash people throughout their lives with a belief that inequalities of birth are “fair”, and another is to strive to remedy inequities of birth by redistributing inherited assets. I lean toward the latter.

Rather than encouraging people to believe that there is some inherent fairness in having them retain control of any assets that they may have acquired or inherited, I favour encouraging them to believe instead that it is fair to use the collective power of the state to progressively take away some of those assets that exceed the global average and distribute them for the benefit the less advantaged – especially of those born in a disadvantaged state.

In other words I favour taxation of all the assets of each individual at a rate which increases with the extent to which those assets exceed the global average.

This does not mean that I favour a taxation system which would have the effect of actually reversing wealth relationships – except under special circumstances such as where the wealthier individual is being penalized for some illegal behaviour other than just happening to have more wealth. Such a system of wealth reversal might be argued by some as a fair correction needed to bring the average lifetime wealth into balance, but I won’t go there.

Also, I do not see complete elimination of wealth inequality as a necessary goal. Some inequality is unavoidable, and there might actually be value in having to accept that the decisions we make may have consequences for our future wealth and happiness.

But I do find the wealth distribution of our present societies offensive. And so I want to reduce its inequality as much as possible.

Unfortunately, giving up my own above average wealth would not solve the problem. In fact, by eliminating part of the mid-range it would make the overall distribution even more unequal. The only solution is to persuade or require those with the greatest wealth to make the biggest contribution. And this does not mean to contribute an equal share of their wealth since that would just preserve the current wealth-distribution shape. No, what is needed is indeed a progressive wealth tax in which the tax rate on an individual increases with the amount of that individual’s wealth.

Some kinds of wealth are harder to assess than others, and there may be some unfairness and intrusivity in having mandated assessment. But there are various ways of overcoming this – such as only allowing insurance and legal protection of property rights up to whatever value the owner has declared for tax purposes. And while paintings etc may be hard to properly evaluate, real estate is less so. So it makes sense to start with a progressive real estate tax.

Why Not Have a Progressive Real Estate Tax?

Some people are lucky enough to have acquired homes that are now valued by the market at much more than they paid for them. And indeed in some cases many times more than they could afford to pay if they had to re-purchase the property now. For such people, the burden of even a non-progressive property tax percentage might be more than they can now afford. And the pain and disruption of having to eventually move might well be an unfair price to have to pay for the lucky circumstances that they currently enjoy. Fortunately, a closer analysis shows that such cases are actually quite rare, and there are many ways of reducing or eliminating any actual unfairness.

Let’s start with the fact that a progressive property tax with higher rates on hugely above average properties might actually provide for a reduction on the tax rate for more modestly valued homes. And in any case the only owners at risk are those whose property values are above the cutoff, which for COPE’s proposed ‘Mansion Tax’ in Vancouver captures a tiny percentage of single family dwellings. A properly implemented progressive tax would have a cutoff expressed as a percentile rank of the house prices so that it always hit only the top few percent rather than capturing more and more owners as inflation pulls all prices higher, and for Vancouver right now a $5 million cutoff means no increased taxes for any of the 99%.

And of course the impact is not sudden, for when a house price does cross the barrier the extra tax is only collected on the excess value. For example  let’s consider a lower cutoff, say at the now modestly above average price of $2 million (but without the obviously necessary inflation adjustment). If a property now valued at $1.9 million gains 10% in value to reach $2.1 mllion next year, then with a 1% mansion tax the extra amount the owner would have to pay next year would be just 1% of the amount by which the new price exceeds $2 million – ie 1% of $0.1million or just $1000. (That’s less than one fancy cup of coffee per day!)

But let’s forget about the Province’s cynical tax grab and go back to the real Mansion Tax designed to hit only the 1% (with inflation adjusted cutoff) and think of the nicest poor old pensioners you know who happen to have somehow acquired a property currently valued at $6million back when they could afford it. (Do you remember when you just missed the chance to buy such a property when it only cost a price you could afford? No, I didn’t think so!). Anyhow these two old dears somehow lost all their other savings and are rattling around that great big mansion living on just CPP and OAS with barely a crust of bread to put on the table after paying their current property taxes. And now the Mansion Tax kicks in. What will become of them?

Well, let’s see. The tax will be 1% of their excess value ie  1% of $1million or a whopping $10,000!  Oh dear! Oh dear!! What can they do?

Well they’re wearing black, but I don’t feel blue!

Why haven’t they been deferring taxes for many years already? (They’ve got to be older than me to have been around when Shaughnessy mansions were selling for peanuts.) “Oh, but then the taxes will be charged when they sell” you say. Yes, but why would they sell? You said the didn’t want to ever leave. And if they do want to move out of town ten years from now, the ten years of Mansion Tax which amounts to ten times $10,000 or $100,000 will be only a tenth of one of the six (or by then maybe more) millions they will have to play with. My eyes are stiil dry!

The real victim of course is the prosperous looking gentleman who has been selling this sob story to you. For the two old sweeties are his parents and what he’s really worried about is the fact that if they defer their taxes for ten years and then die, that $100,000 hit will end up coming out of his SIX MILLION DOLLAR inheritance. Which brings up my next question.

Why Don’t We Have 100% Inheritance Taxes?

…stay tuned.






Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born | Aeon Ideas

May 21st, 2018

News Flash for Philosophers: It is NOT true that “The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism”.

On the contrary, (to the very limited extent that it is a thing at all) it originates as a hypothesis to “explain” the observed simple rational proportions of reagents in chemical reactions – which subsequently also explained first the various observed thermodynamic properties of apparently continuous bulk matter, and then the very specific power law governing Brownian motion, and then countless other observations of all kinds of material interactions. Up to a point. At which point it was modified to include a continuous aspect (via quantum probability distributions) at every level right down to to the most elementary components of the (as yet) most complete “discrete” models.

So any inconsistency with some Philosophy professor’s reading of Democritus, Epicurus, or Lucretius is not a “misreading” at all. And perhaps the suggestion that it is, should be the last Nail in the coffin of academic “Philosophy” as a respectable enterprise.


Source: Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born | Aeon Ideas