Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Whine of the Speculators

It was Kevin Phillips, in his superb book, Arrogant Capital, who first noted that whenever an empire or nation is in decline it is speculation that takes precedence over all else and dictates its economy. Such was the case with the 16th century Dutch, as with the British at the end of the 19th century. It is as true today in the U.S.A.

The problem is that speculative enclaves are mostly hidden away from public view, so they are able to conduct their shenanigans beyond the scrutiny of the public mind. G.P. Brockway (The End of Economic Man, Harpers, 1991) has noted that before about fifty years ago one had roughly equal 'productive' and 'speculative' economies based on Main St. and Wall Street, respectively. Real productivity kept growing because real investment was made in hands-on materials, plant, research and labor. Most everyone benefited, including workers - via real (defined benefits) pensions (not '401ks') as well as higher wages, and companies that produced REAL goods.

Sometime after Reagan was canonized, in the 1980s, the speculative economy - which up until then had been kept in the background- began to take control. Much of this became possible through de-regulation, especially of the banking system. The effect was to shift enormous volumes of capital from Main Street to Wall Street.

Now, as oil prices spike to unheard of highs, attention once more has turned to the commodity "traders" .....errr....speculators. By some independent estimates, up to 30% of the current per barrel price of oil is due exclusively to speculation by institutional traders in the oil commodities market. (Alas, these institutional outfits include pension funds, who put their members future welfare and livelihoods at grave risk especially if the oil prices should crash) If Oil is $140 a barrel, that would mean that minus speculative influence it would descend to about $98 a barrel. And the current $4.10 for a gallon of gas would likely recede to $3.50 or even $3.30.

Of course, the speculators and their apologists and protectors in the media don't wish to hear this, nor do they appreciate the daylight cast upon their activities. In the last week alone, I coiunted no less than eight counter-attacks (in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times) against those who sought to make speculators "scape goats". Much umbrage was taken and editorial bile spilled, but I saw little to convince me the speculators were the "angels" depicted: the "guardians" charged with controlling things in the futures markets for the public good. To which I say, 'Bah', 'Codswallop!' and 'Humbug!"

Commodities traders, like currency speculators (who drove to Thai baht down causing the Asian crisis in 1998) are a mixture of casino gambler and bipedal predatory cockroach. They don't give two squats about anything or anyone except their bottom line! Indeed, these freaks are piling into the commodities racket precisely because the stock market (their usual casino outlet) is tanking, and they can't make enough on their investments.

To the apologists for the precious little speculators and "traders", I ask you to examine this article ('Oil Above $140 on Libya Threat to Cut Output') which appeared in The Financial Times of June 27th (p. 22). The article led off:

"Oil prices rose above $140 a barrel for the first time yesterday as Libya threatened to cut its oil production and Opec's president warned that priuces could surge to $150-170 this summer"

Then two pragraphs lower (caps are my emphasis):


Note, the artricle said TRADERS (e.g. speculators) pushed oil to that high! Not oil companies, not space aliens ....not the supply and demand market, but SPECULATORS in the futures market.

This is an important point, since the speculator apologists always begin their counter rants (and insulting the intelligence of the commodities "commoners") by pointing ot that NO actual physical supplies are being diminished, moved or affected by the traders. But no one said they were!

Much like Enron's shell game in energy trading in 2000, wherein no real kilowatts were generated and moved. Rather kilowatts were shifted on paper and increased costs put on as the transactions crossed particular state lines (say from AZ to CA). In the same way, future costs of future oil are bid upon on PAPER by speculators, and these amount to something similar to an auction bid. The difference is that in the hidden commodity-energy auction, unlike an actual auction for a real barrel of oil at say, Sotheby's- every manjack pays the final bid!

So imagine this room, where dozens of speculators ("traders") are bidding on a future amount of oil. The bidding begins maybe at today's market price, say $139. Then some guy yells out: "I bid $140"! And another bozo in the back yells: "I bid $142!" And it finally ends when some clown in an Armani custom-made pinstripe suit bids "$144".

Does he purchase it? Well, only in a hyperbolic way. You see, rather than paying the full price as a real bidder must, say at Sotheby's, the oil trader has margin requirements in oil futures that are often as low as 5%. This means he need only put up 5% of the total cost of the amount bidded on! Would that all auction bidders everywhere had such a grand deal! Problem is when that oil trader leaves the "auction" room (often thousands of miles away in London at the ICE Futures Europe HQ) all of us non-participants get stuck paying his last bid price wherever we live on the planet!

At the very least, to correct this abomination, the "London loophole" needs to be closed and the same standards for margin requirements applied in NY as across the pond in London. This way, cowboy commodities traders cannot continue to wreak havoc on all of us. An excellent prescription is one now proposed by Rep. John Dingell (D, MI) forcing oil speculators to put up collateral of at least 50% of the value of the energy futures in which they trade. Heck, I'd even make it more: say 80%.

Doing this simple step, as Fadel Ghelt - managing director at Oppenheimer & Co. has noted - could bring prices down to $45 to $60 a barrel. ('Oil Speculation Draws Scrutiny' in The Wall Street Journal, June 24, p. A3) . This translates to $2.25 to $2.50 a gallon for gas.

It is high time that the high priests of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)crack down on the casino operator oil traders and their ilk. It is bad enough that a tanking dollar (because of pusillanimous Fed policies and fear of increasing interest rates in an election year)is causing fuel spikes, but at least we can tame the speculative excesses.

These whackos cannot be allowed to play fast and loose with our economic lives.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Was Albert Einstein a Believer?

The recently reported Einstein criticisms of the Bible revive an ongoing, decades old debate on whether the great man was a believer or not. Given his perceived high intellect, nearly every believer wants this to be true – but is it? Apart from his reported criticism of Bible obsession other aspects also emerge when one examines his writings, opinions.

The famous quote, “God does not play dice with the universe”, was really a metaphorical expression embodying Einstein’s contempt for the modern quantum theory. As a strict determinist, he couldn’t bring himself to accept that an electron’s position was impossible to fix and had to be described by “probability waves”.

The point here is that shouldn’t take his invocation of “God” too literally. Indeed, one of his biographers, Jeremy Bernstein (‘Einstein’, Fontana-Collins Books, UK, 1973) has noted (page 20) that Einstein often loosely referenced “God” as a convenient substitute for “the rational connections, the laws, governing the behavior of the universe”.

Einstein also (ibid) used the pet term “Old Man” interchangeably with the above.

Einstein’s most cogent rejection of the Christian version of a personal God probably appeared in his ‘Ideas and Opinions’ wherein he writes:

“The man who is thoroughly convinced of universal causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events- provided, of course, that he takes the laws of causation really seriously.

He has no use for the religion of fear, and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity – internal and external – so that he cannot be responsible…any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes”.

This is diametrically opposed to any normative, conventional notion of “God” as typically understood. Hence, one may say that – to a first approximation – Einstein believed in NO God.

Later, as if to reinforce this, Einstein wrote:

“Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let those feeble souls, whether from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts.”

So Einstein believes in no afterlife, and hence no “heaven and hell”. Thus, likely no resurrection, no “judgment” or no “second coming”

To all intents, it seems clear to me that at the very least Einstein was an atheist agnostic (readers can refer to this definition in George Smith’s excellent book, ‘The Case Against God’, page 9)

This is backed up by these words of Einstein (p. 120, ‘Einstein in his own Words’):

The human mind is unable to conceive of four dimensions, so how can it conceive of a God, before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?”

Clearly, the inherent message here is that the very concept of deity is unknowable to the human mind.

In the same text, four pages later, Einstein seems to resign himself that most humans will need a crutch to get by. He avers that (p. 124):

”Such a belief (in a personal God) seems preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook on life. I wonder whether anyone can ever successfully render to mankind a more sublime means to metaphysical needs”.

This is not advocating any specific religion per se, but we know the Monotheistic religions are all predicated on a personal deity. It would seem that the foremost job for Atheists is to find some form of “spiritual methadone” which we might offer the majority of our fellows to wean them off the god teat, at least the personal one. In so doing, we might very well help ourselves to become a less despised minority in this country.

Or at least one can hope!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Proving the deity - Or Bayesian Bollocks?

Gil Gaudia (‘God: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’, The American Atheist, Sept. 2007) merits kudos for lacerating the specious premise of Stephen Unwin’s pompous book ‘The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation that Proves the Ultimate Truth’ .

The core issue, as Dr. Gaudia observes, is the: “assumed values- or assumptions – created by the person using the theorem to support a preconceived viewpoint.”

In many ways it would be analogous to my bright, seven year old niece offering that a “50% probability exists” for a pipe-smoking, invisible (except to her) elf to be sitting in her basement fireplace ten hours out of twenty-four.

In a more sophisticated sense, it would be analogous to Tulane physicist Frank Tipler asserting that a “50-50” chance exists for his “Omega Point” to really be the “First Person of the Trinity”. (E.g. see his balmy tome: ‘The Physics of Christianity’ in which he purports to “prove” the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus. and a host of other unadulterated, supernatural codswallop via quantum physics and general relativity)

The trouble is that all of these lack a reasonably sound ab initio epistemology that would warrant a credible statistical assumption. It is precisely the epistemology (if such exists) that would allow us to take the assumption seriously.

For example, I might make the claim that a 50% probability exists for a monster solar flare capable of frying every electric transformer in the U.S. This sounds way out, but we must recall the monster flare of March, 1989 which fairly brought down the Ottawa power grid and indeed, “fried” coils and wires subject to enormous induction currents of 10^ 6 A and more. Hence, given what we know of the magneto-hydrodynamics of flares, and how magnetic substorms are generated on Earth – there is an epistemology for the assignment of probability.

Moreoever, it is one that can be subject to tests. For example at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks now there are ways of generating numerical models of magnetospheric substorms which can duplicate conditions arising from powerful flares.

Can Unwin do the same for his “God”? Can he even differentiate clearly its nature – say from the Hindu Brahmin, or the Islamic Allah, the Jews’ Yahweh or even Tipler’s “Omega Point”? In other words, WHICH God is it that he's “proving” with Bayesian stats, and HOW does he KNOW? What are the discriminating attributes that uniquely distinguish this entity from any other? If this can’t even be specified, it would be like me claiming a “50 % probability” of a monster flare occurrence exists, without even estimating the likely x-ray class, and optical class. I would be hooted out of any solar physics’ seminar!

One would have thought that proving an entity as momentous as “God” would constitute much more than Bayesian smoke and mirrors a posteriori tricks and statistics.

It's all very well to claim an a posteriori "proof" can be rendered for “God” (via Bayesian statistics) but this won't do in serious discussion until epistemological prerequisites are met. It is interesting that whenever assorted God provers like Unwin invoke their proofs, they never provide a discriminating epistemology – which begins with a basic definition of the entity.. They merely use the G-word as if we already know what the entity is they are “proving” (The lone claimed exception to this which I have seen is physicist Frank Tipler in his book, ‘The Physics of Christianity’ – but in order to arrive at it, Tipler must not only resort to a posteriori assumptions and stats, but also mangle all the normative concepts of quantum mechanics!)

So the question persists: WHICH God is it that is being proven?

Is the entity based on the deist (“create it and leave it be”) model? The pantheist Spinozan (“all is God”) model? The personal but "infinite" Christian model? The Christian Trinity? The Hindu impersonal Brahmin model? Until this is resolved in a uniform, operational sense – skeptics and scientists are justified in taking any uses of the G-word with the proverbial grain of salt.

As I have found on numerous forums, and in dozens of venues wherein I've debated these folks (e.g. Salon, AARP forums, Amazon book reviewes etc.) when you press them for an epistemological basis to their deity the best they can do is a generic “designer God”. In other words, as the Discovery Institute and others would warrant, it is the God of “intelligent design” which will answer to the Christian “God” name.

Once you have them offering an “epistemology” – in this case one that posits a “design” presumes a “God” – you have them by the cojones.

They will insist there must be “design” because the odds of overcoming remote probabilities are otherwise too low. But how does one separate naturally low probabilities from outcomes based on the intervention of a special agent? What criteria allow such separation?For example - we know that any one supposed single fusion of (proton) nuclei in the Sun is expected to occur on average once every 14 billion years.However, no designer is required to explain how the Sun shines (from fusion reactions) rather quantum mechanical tunneling. There exists a finite probability that any given proton will surmount the Coulomb repulsive barrier and fuse with another proton. Yes, this is a rare even, but there are trillions of protons in the Sun so it emerges as not so “rare” as one may first believe.

Another question to challenge the epistemology: Why doesn't the "designer" insinuate itself into the domains of other worlds in the solar system to create ("design") life? Why isn't Mercury inhabited, or Venus? Or Jupiter? IF the designer is also omnipotent it ought to be able to design outside of purely natural (or terrestrial) norms and limits. (Thus an organism on Venus, for example, that can live off sulphuric acid, CO2 in the atmosphere and an atmospheric pressure of 90 atm.)If the designer is not omnipotent, and indeed doesn't exist in the first place - it makes more sense that life will only occur on certain planets within habitable temperature zones and containing the elements (oxygen, nitrogen, water etc.) needed for life. In such cases, it isn't "design" at work but a long, gradual process of chemical evolution that eventually leads to life forms. Thus, the only real emergent reason for a designer in the first place would be that it possesses ubiquitous power to design ANYWHERE! If it can't do that, or is limited by conditions already in place - we simply don't need it, it's redundant.

The final challenge to toss at the God-claimant is predicting what the designer or design agent can do for another planet other than Earth. Provide him with ‘x’ attributes of the unknown planet (also give also the spectral class of the star) and let him specify the nature of the “designed” life that would emerge. If he knows his designer deity as well as he claims, he ought to be able to do this and display flexibility irrespective of the parameters thrown at him.

Failing that, force him to offer tests of falsification. Make him tell you what observation – if anything – will falsify his claim. Ideally, force him to relate this to chromosomal observations for various genomes on Earth.(Say using the cytochrome-c gene in one or more species, to determine their interrelatedness, say of the human to the chimp, or the human to a lowly yeast species).

Tipler, at least, has done that – and interestingly, one finds that most of his proffered “tests” have already been falsified. For example, his claim that there can be no “heat death” of the universe. However, the current acceleration of the cosmos via dark energy shows indeed that all the bodies of the cosmos will indeed one day cool to absolute zero temperature. No humanity, no life, no consciousness. It is but a matter of time.

Unwin, Ken Ham and others get away with their nonsense and specious “proofs” largely because skeptics and Atheists fail to call them on their baloney. Demanding that they provide a real epistemological basis for their lunatic claims, as opposed to Bayesian smoke and mirrors. Alas, we often have such a volume of baloney to rebut, that it is often difficult to prioritize!