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Thoughts of the Day

(A web log)



David Sirkin


Science and religion

Feynman on Science, Religion, and Doubt -- plus:  What is "the supernatural?"


by David Sirkin

6 July 2014


Richard Feynman identified doubt as an important distinguishing feature of the scientific mind, distinguishing it from  the religious believer's mind.  I think he hit the nail on the head.  Faith is the opposite of doubt.  The religious person approaches the world with a faith, which is an unshakable belief.  Over the centuries, those who have approached the world with a belief that comes from ancient scriptures and teachings have made less progress in advancing science than have those who have doubted.  That is because the descriptions of the universe, and the natural histories of the earth and the universe, that are found in scriptures and ancient legend are mostly wrong.  A scientist who is also a religious believer, like J. C. Eccles or Francis Collins, can make contributions, but only so long as the work he does involves primarily data collecting, or else theorizing in a limited region of scientific exploration that does not abut, or at least does not arouse conflict with, religious dogma.


A friend and colleague, who is a religious believer and also a physician and scientist, offers another difference between the Feynman-like atheist scientist and the religious believer: the atheist does not believe in the supernatural -- he is closed-minded to the possibility of supernatural miracles etc. No amount of eyewitness reports will convince him that such things exist or occur.  I think Feynman would consider "belief in the supernatural" to be an oxymoron: If believing in something means to consider it to be real, existing, then that thing would be considered natural, because "natural" encompasses everything that is real and existing.  (Even manmade, or artificial, things are natural in the broad sense of the word.  Humans are part of nature, and therefore so is everything they make and do.  A cell phone is just as natural as a bird's nest.)  If scientific exploration leads us to discover a being, or entity, in the universe that is reading all our thoughts, and sending us messages, and manipulating natural phenomena towards conscious objectives, etc., then such a being, or god, would be considered part of nature, something that exists.  Likewise if scientific exploration led us to discover that our psyches (or souls) persisted somewhere after our deaths.  And so on.  But scientific exploration that is guided by a desire to find that which one already believes to exist because of religious faith is likely to be misguided and unfruitful.







Bravo GiveDirectly! (and let's have negative income tax for our poor at home)


by David Sirkin


18 Aug 2013


Giving money to poor Africans works! Simple redistribution of wealth--what poor people need is money (who knew?).


This lesson should be applied to foreign aid policy, and to domestic policy too: Our poor in the US would benefit from increasing the minimum wage and from negative income tax (Robin Hood).



Population and economics

Compete with China … or Japan?


by David Sirkin


18 Aug 2013


In "Why the economy could … pop!," (Time Aug 12, 2013), Roger Altman states that the US. currently has "advantages," including "a growing population and the prospect of further immigration," while "Japan, where population growth is falling, hasn't seen meaningful [economic] growth in years and isn't likely to see it now."


It is curious that obviously intelligent and knowledgeable people like Altman continue to cling to the long-discredited notion that you can become more prosperous by having a larger family. Malthus realized that the notion was wrong two centuries ago, and the Chinese government realized it was wrong four decades ago, when it reversed its policy on fertility. Are we going to wait until we have the same amount of environmental devastation and poverty as China before we agree that we can't multiply our way to prosperity?


When we have a world-shaking gargantuan economy and a gargantuan population, but a population that is mostly poor, like China's, while Japan has an irrelevant small economy and a small population, but one that is almost universally comfortable, like Denmark's, will we say that we won and Japan lost?







Population and economics

Population growth and Mideast turmoil--heading for genocides


by David Sirkin


18 Aug 2013


Shakespeare's Coriolanus: Menenius Agrippa would not attempt to request for mercy for Rome from Coriolanus before Coriolanus had dined:

"The veins unfill'd, our blood is cold, and then

We pout upon the morning, are unapt

To give or to forgive; but when we have stuff'd

These and these conveyances of our blood

With wine and feeding, we have suppler souls

Than in our priest-like fasts"


No coincidence that dividing into factions along religious, ethnic, and ideological lines and killing each other (Iraq, Syria, Egypt) is occurring in a region that has been experiencing rapidly growing population and growing poverty and food scarcity: Hunger drives anger, hatred, and violent struggles, Genocide is a natural behavior that is triggered in times of scarcity, and suppressed in times of plenty (see Jared Diamond's book, Collapse). We tolerate, even enjoy, the different appearance, customs, and beliefs of our neighbors when food and other resources are abundant, but when times are hard, we see those who are not in our group as taking our jobs, our land, our money, and our food.


Facts on Egypt:


17 percent of the population suffered from food insecurity in 2011, compared to 14 percent in 2009.  Food security exists when all people, at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their basic dietary needs. --UN WFP


Real GDP growth rate: 2.2% (2012 est.)

Population growth rate: 1.88% (2013 est.) -CIA

(Per-capita GDP has been increasing only slightly; per-capita wealth, including public wealth and wealth that is in natural resources, very well could be decreasing.)




Population and economics

Response to George Monbiot's complacency about population growth


by David Sirkin


21 Jan 2012


Is Mr. Monbiot living on a different planet than I am, one with different facts and different logic?


Here in the US, blaming economic problems on population growth is a rare opinion overall, but when it does occur, it is more likely to be a liberal rather than a conservative position. For example, Population Connection, the new name for the Zero Population Growth organization started by Paul Ehrlich, is a liberal environmental organization. Some conservatives rail about immigration, but these are mainly working-class conservatives. I suspect that for every "rich, elderly white man" who says we should be concerned about population growth, there are a dozen more who quietly but gleefully urge on the growing numbers of consumers and cheap workers that will increase markets while keeping down labor costs and thereby increase profits. Western-style capitalism is as much population-growth-driven capitalism as it is consumption-driven capitalism.


The fact that a person in the US consumes and pollutes many times more than a person in China, India, or Nigeria is hardly a reason to be complacent about population growth. It might have been, were it not for the fact that many in China, India, and Nigeria would like to consume at US levels, and are making strides towards doing so, and for the fact that the US population is still growing at about 1% annually: the US's fertility rate is still slightly above 2 (see the CIA World Factbook: ), and it also has net immigration.


And the statement that there is nothing we can do about population growth is both uninformed and dangerous. First of all, we have a considerable way to go in providing access to a full range of family planning products and services to all the world's women who want them. Secondly, much more could be done worldwide with education programs to explain the desirability of and the means to keeping fertility low. Thirdly, the governments of several wealthy countries could be persuaded and pressured to end their ridiculous pro-natalist policies: They need to abandon not only their propaganda efforts, but also their tax and welfare laws that reward women for having more children, rather than incentivising small families. Fourthly, governments in poor countries could also incentivise small families by various means. If we do not do these things, and whatever else we can do to slow and end population growth in gentle ways, then "mass killings" are very likely to occur at an increasing rate: we will kill each other, and Mother Nature will kill us with famines and floods.


As Chandran Nair beautifully explains in his very important book, Consumptionomics, it is the huge size of the world's population that will force us to curtail our consumption. We avoid addressing population growth at our collective peril.




I must give credit to Mr. Monbiot for supporting the continuation of efforts that have helped lower fertility rates so far (including sex-education, access to contraception, and empowerment of women) and for urging a more equitable distribution of wealth, which is also likely to help.


Obviously it is total consumption that is the problem, and total consumption is the product of population size and per-capita consumption. Given that total consumption is too high, but at the same-time per-capita consumption is intolerably low for much of the world's population, we must reduce wasteful and extravagant consumption, and increase fairness in distribution of wealth and consumption, but in the long run, we probably should look not only to an end to population growth, but further to an eventual shrinking of world population to a size at which all people could enjoy a high standard of living in a sustainable fashion in harmony with nature.


We must not be complacent with current progress towards ending population growth, but rather must increase our efforts worldwide to stop growing and then shrink to a comfortable size.




Economics and social justice

Population and economics

Obama is inspired by Europe, and Romney is inspired by … Latin America?


by David Sirkin


14 Jan 2012


In Mitt Romney's recent victory speech following the New Hampshire Republican primary, he complains that Obama looks at the capitals of Europe for models; accuses Obama of wanting to turn the US into a European-style social democracy (if it's true, then too bad he has not been more successful). And where does Romney turn for inspiration--to the capitals of Latin America? Maybe Romney would accelerate the pace at which we may be moving towards Mexican-style capitalism: the hundred families with their monopolies having fabulous wealth, while most of the country has almost nothing. Maybe it would be good if Romney were our next president: Things are not going to be good for the average American over the next 4 years, but with Romney (or any other Republican) in the White House, things will be worse than with Obama. Perhaps then more Americans actually will be open to the idea of a European-style social democracy? (Or maybe, like Batista in Cuba in 1959, Romney will set the stage for a socialist revolution? That would be going too far.)


It is easy to bash Europe at the moment, because its economic woes (or at least those of several of its countries) seem to be even worse than ours. But, as one British commentator interviewed on National Public Radio said, it was not European social programs that caused the current problems, but rather the turning of European countries towards American-style capitalism (presumably she was referring partly to the unregulated housing markets that became bubbles in the UK and Spain, as did the housing market in the US).


[Besides the effect of unbridling capitalism, the effect of population increases from immigration undoubtedly has also made it difficult for the average European to maintain his/her standard of living. The wealth-decreasing effect of population growth is under-appreciated. People (and their governments) don't realize that sizable percentages of GDP need to be devoted to expanding infrastructure to maintain per-capita wealth as population grows. Then they (people and governments) borrow in order to maintain the same standard of living they have enjoyed: It is living beyond one's means; it is unsustainable.]







Population and economics

Another voice of reason: Gillian Tett


by David Sirkin


16 July 2011


The comments of Gillian Tett, US Managing Editor for the Financial Times on today's ATC reveal her to be one of a small but growing number of people who are beginning to understand what is going on economically and environmentally (the two are linked now as never before because of the unprecedented size of the human population, the unprecedented level of human economic activity, and the resulting unprecedented environmental impact of human economic activity) in the US and the world. She clearly challenges the illusion that continued economic growth will lead to prosperity, and even hints that we are approaching a time when great amounts of growth of the US economy may not even be possible. The only thing she didn't do in her brief remarks was mention explicitly US population size and growth as obstacles to prosperity.



11 June 2011

Population and economics


Urgency to fill the family planning gap--for food supply and for the survival of plants and animals


The thing that world leaders today can do that will have the biggest impact on the future of humanity and the planet, is increase family planning services in places where they are needed, so that the human population of the world will peak at 9 billion or less rather than at 11 billion or more later this century. In the balance hangs the well-being of billions of people for many, many years to come, as well as the survival of a significant fraction of the species of animals and plants on this earth. The urgency of the situation, as well as a synopsis of the history of how we got here, is laid out clearly and powerfully in May 2011 articles by Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell in The Reporter and in Foreign Policy. Lester Brown also listed increased family planning availability as the first step to make it possible to feed all the people on the globe in a recent National Public Radio interview.




13 May 2011

Economics and Social Justice

Boehner's big fat lie

On NBC's Today show on 10 May 2011, Speaker of the House John Boehner said, "We can take all of the money from the wealthy and guess what? We'd hardly make a dent in the annual deficit and do nothing about the $14.3 trillion worth of debt."

As Jonathan Chait wrote in his New Republic blog, this is "utterly false, and seems to be based on a simple inability to correctly perform basic arithmetic."

So let's do the arithmetic: Total privately owned wealth in US is about $50 trillion. The wealthiest 1 percent own 40 percent of that, or $20 trillion. The national debt is about $14 trillion. So if we took only 70 % of the wealth of the richest 1 percent, we could pay off the entire national debt all at once, and then they would still have 30 percent of 40 percent, or 12 percent of all private wealth! In other words, even after we confiscated 70 percent of their wealth to pay off completely the national debt all at once (without the remaining 99 percent of Americans paying even a penny of tax), each of them would still have on average more than 12 times as much as the average American.

But let's try a slightly less disruptive approach. Instead of taking 70 percent of the wealth of the richest all at once, why don't we take just 10 percent per year over 10 years?

They would bounce back. After all, they are the fittest: the smartest and the hardest working. It would be inspirational for the rest of us to see them work to increase their wealth again.



10 April 2011; updated 3 July 2011

Economics and Social Justice; Population and Economics


How to increase prosperity for many Americans and pay off the national debt: tax the rich

Our government does not spend too much; if anything, it spends too little. Our problem is that we have allowed wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few, while the average person, as well as the government has too little.

It is only natural that we should turn to the rich to get us out of the current fiscal crisis. Why should the great mass of people be told that they have to give up things that they need, when living among us are people with enormous wealth who are being asked to give up very little of it? The richest people in the village are expected to help the community in a time of crisis, even if the greed of the rich over the previous years were not partly to blame for causing the crisis.

We should increase taxes slightly on the top 5 percent of earners, much more on the top 1 percent, and spectacularly on the spectacularly rich. The marginal income tax rates should increase up to 90 percent, and then ultimately to 100 percent in order to put an absolute ceiling on after-tax income.

In addition, to address our present debt crisis, there should be a progressive wealth tax for the richest one percent. The wealth tax rates should progress up to about 10 percent for the very wealthiest individuals. (In order to avoid having to make another amendment to the Constitution, the wealth tax could actually be calculated from a formula based on an individual's income for the previous ten years; in other words, it actually would be another income tax for the very very wealthy. Such an idea was proposed by Leon Friedman in an

American Prospect article.)

In order to redistribute income and wealth more evenly, the income tax rates for the poorest Americans should be negative, starting with a credit for adults with no income that would be "refunded" to them in monthly installments to provide a subsistence "after-tax" income.

The progressive income tax rates should be set in such a way that the maximum after-tax income is about 100 times the minimum after-tax income.

The wealth tax rates should be readjusted annually according to the country's needs. In good times, they could be close to zero; in times of fiscal crisis, such as the present time, or in times of war or following a natural disaster, the highest marginal rates might approach 10 percent (of estimated wealth calculated from 10 years of income data).

The money thus collected from the rich could be used not only to pay off the national debt, and to raise the incomes of the poorest Americans, but also to increase the public wealth of the nation, and to improve the quality of life for most of its citizens. Public infrastructure could be improved and expanded, and the federal government could contribute more to public transportation, health care, and education.

The second thing we need to do over the long run to restore, maintain, and increase prosperity for Americans is to stop our population growth. We have allowed, or encouraged, our population to continue to grow, and at a rapid rate. Population growth fuels economic growth, which is good for investors. But population growth not only stresses the environment, it erodes per-capita wealth, making it difficult to improve or even maintain the average standard of living and quality of life.

Therefore, we should do the following: Promote family planning, and increase funding for Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide family planning services. Change the welfare system so that poor women and girls will not improve their standards of living by having children; this change will be easy to accomplish once a subsistence income is guaranteed to all adults through negative income tax. Reduce net immigration to zero; replace our seemingly generous tolerance for a high immigration rate with a truly generous increase in economic assistance to poor countries (including assistance to their family planning programs).

Finally, all members of Congress and their staffs should be encouraged to burn their copies of Atlas Shrugged and replace them with copies of Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, an American classic that should be required reading for everyone.






22 March 2011

Population and Economics

Are leaders and tycoons being liberal and generous when they say they are pro-immigration?

Today on Charlie Rose there were several mayors of US cities who pointed out the need for immigrants who can create jobs, and foreign engineering students who should be allowed to stay and work in US after getting their degrees. It is only "ideology" that drives the anti-immigrant movement, but mayors are concerned with real issues, are pragmatic. Really? Maybe their views also reflect ideology. They don't consider the very real problems caused by population growth, of which net immigration is a major contributor, for both the environment and the economic future of the country, including the cities. Kind of surprising.


Like when Bill Gates or the CEO of Intel (who was recently interviewed on NPR) say they need more immigrant engineers. Now add in Michael Bloomberg, one of the mayors on Charlie Rose. As a radio listener said, these are wolves in sheep's clothing. It is self-serving for these super-rich industrialists to get a steady supply of engineers from poorer countries. It keeps the salaries of engineers down (which makes the jobs less attractive to Americans), and it obviates the need to improve US K-12 and undergraduate education, which might be achieved by taxing the rich.



4 Mar 2011

Economics and Social Justice


Shorten the work week in the US


Consider the following facts:


1.  Unemployment is high.


2.  Many corporations are cash rich (holding large cash reserves).


3.  US worker productivity is at an all-time high.


At this conjuncture, what should the government do?  The obvious answer:  shorten the work week!  That would force corporations to spend some of their money to hire more workers.


Think about how much technology, including labor-saving technology, has advanced since the 40-hour work week was established in 1938 (Fair Labor Standards Act), and you will wonder why the work week has not been reduced from 40 hours several times already.


Why haven't we all for a long time been enjoying a high quality of life while working only 20 hours a week?  There are many reasons, but two of the main ones are:


1.  Increased work has been required to build houses and other things for  a growing population (A surprising fact ...).


2.  The output of the many has been siphoned off to increase fabulously the wealth of the few.


But here we are now with this trio of indisputable facts.  The government should shorten the work week now, even if only temporarily.





11 Feb 2011

Population and Economics


Population growth is one cause of Egyptian frustration


Egyptians are rejoicing at the fall of Mubarak, and they believe they will now be better off.  I fear, however, that powerful fundamental forces, not the least of which is population growth, will keep Egypt impoverished for a good while.


David Frum in a February 2 radio piece on Marketplace compared Egypt to China. According to a satisfaction index measured by questionnaire in several countries, China is the most satisfied of big countries, despite being undemocratic, and therefore its people are unlikely to follow Egypt’s example in overthrowing their government. In contrast to Egypt, and its “sluggisn state-controlled economy,” China has turned towards “dynamic capitalism.”  And, Frum adds, while Egypt’s population has doubled since 1981, China now has slow population growth, which also has contributed to the rapid raising of incomes in China.  Frum suggested that leaders around the world would do well to emulate China's shift to market-driven capitalism.  How about its one-child policy?





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