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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Capital Interlude: Brust's Law

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Brust’s Law is as follows: Truth is counter-intuitive.

I remember the first time a teacher explained to me that a gas took up more volume per weight than the same substance as a solid.  That was obviously ridiculous; gas is malleable, so clearly it can be pressed into a smaller space than a solid would.  Right?  Of course, further explanation  clarified the matter.

I remember Clausewitz explaining that wars are always started by the defender, which is blatantly absurd–and also true.  The one who attacks doesn’t want a war, he wants, for example, to conquer territory, or control resources, or subjugate a population.  If the one who was attacked simply permitted this to happen, there would be no war.

It is absurd to think that a single cell organism could, over eons, evolve into a human being.

It is preposterous to think that an object heavier than air could fly.

But, there it is, truth is counter-ntuitive, and it only becomes intuitively obvious when we begin to understand the subject well enough to change our intuitions.

It seems intuitively obvious that, if you raise the labor cost (ie, wages) of a commodity, the price of the commodity will rise.  Intuitively obvious, but wrong (even the bourgeois economists stopped trying to sell “the wage-price spiral” after about 1977).  Why?  Don’t worry, we’ll get there.  But for now, as we go through Capital, when something strikes you as counter-intuitive, that means it is something to pay close attention to, not a reason to shut down your brain.

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Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

0 Comments

  1. Pretty sure you meant it this way anyway, but just to throw it out there – pay attention to in the sense of ‘examine closely’, not ‘obey and/or accept’! “I don’t understand you, so you must be right” is a habit of thought that politicians and doctors are prone to abuse.

  2. “The one who attacks doesn’t want a war, he wants, for example, to conquer territory, or control resources, or subjugate a population. If the one who was attacked simply permitted this to happen, there would be no war.”

    If, in the events leading up to the ongoing war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had capitulated to each and every US demand, would the Bush administration have said, “OK, great, now we don’t need to have a war,” or would they have found an excuse to invade anyway (“Saddam may appear to be complying with all our demands, but we have evidence that he is secretly stealing American children in order to drink their blood”)? I don’t know the answer to this question, but in a broader context, national leaders often benefit from war itself, since they can use the war as a basis to demand expanded government powers for themselves. Leaders will almost always claim that if only country X would meet demand Y then war would be averted, but these claims are not always credible.

  3. @jonah There’s a good possibility that Bush, at least, would not have gone to war if Saddam had turned Iraq into a US client state and himself over to the US for execution. A lot of the Iraq War was tied up in what Bush saw as his vendetta against Saddam for trying to have his father killed (and his Oedipal issues, but that’s going a little far afield). Whether that would have been enough for some of his cronies, I don’t know.

  4. I haven’t read much Clausewitz (actually, On War is my current stuck-at-a-traffic-light book in my car, because I’d seen enough references to it that I thought I ought to read it, but I haven’t gotten far yet). But I’m going to assume his point was not to lay BLAME, but to merely say that all conflicts require two participants.

    One can always avoid a fight, by not resisting. One cannot always avoid VIOLENCE; the attacker may still choose to pummel the unresisting victim. But it won’t be a fight…

  5. I thought Brust’s Law was something like “Authors want to put cool stuff in their books, and readers want to read cool stuff, and the extent to which an author and a reader connect is the extent to which they agree on what stuff is cool.”

  6. Jonah @ 2:

    The point is not just whether or not Iraq would have capitulated with the demands.

    If we had started invading, and there had simply been no resistance, there would not have been a war. If there was no insurgency in Iraq now, there would not be a war. Simply an occupation.

    It is the presence and activity of resistance that results in violence, and hence “war”.

  7. Rathgar @ 5:

    I believe that is Brust’s Theory of Cool.

    Brust’s Law of Truth sounds like the cousin to my own Theory (and B.S. detector): Truth is always complex. And as a corollary: Truth is never simple.

  8. Sean: Absolutely. It is worth taking some time to emphasize that point, so thank you for doing so.

    Jonah: What several people said. Clausewitz is not dealing with the *moral responsibility* for a given war, but with the starting point of the war for the purposes of drawing tactical conclusions.

  9. I like that the war analogy. And I thought Sethra was making shit up when explaining this to Vlad.

    Britain declared war on Germany to defend Poland and balance of power in Europe.

    America declared war on Japan so that by default it would be a declaration of war on Germany so in turn, it could defend its long term commercial interests against the Soviet Union.

    America declared war on the Vietcong on the premise that it was defending itself against the so-called united global communist threat.

    America declared war on Iraq under the premise it was defending itself against Weapons of Mass Destruction. Actually no – it was in the defense of the united front Al Quaeda and Saddam. No, wait – it was defending freedom. No scratch that – Tony Blair said recently that it was to defend against the potential of Iraq making Weapons of Mass Destruction.

    I don’t know what’s worse – do those in power actually believe they are defending “us” against the metaphorical “boogy-man” or do they create the boogy-man to justify their positions in power?

  10. While I agree that some truths are not intuitive, I do not think I would call it a “law” (which I suppose thereby implies that it is always or mostly true…if it is so only true half of the time, why call it a “law”?).

    I always felt it was intuitive that a given mass/weight of gas took up a larger volume than for that same substance as a solid…gases are wispy and not dense, while solids are obviously more dense. What is intuitive to one person is not necessarily so for another.

    I cringe whenever I am told that a software interface is “intuitive”. Whomever they get to design and test these things obviously does not think anything like the way I do.

    I am not sure how to apply this law, but since your law seems counter-intuitive I guess for logical consistency I should conclude that it must be true.

    Anyway, since this was mentioned in the context of Marx/Capital: I have not yet seen anything in the discussion from Capital that seemed even remotely intuitive to me. The way that Marx is attempting to abstract things over the entire economy bothers me a bit. How does one know that such an abstraction is possible, or useful, and how is it to be made? What we do in working and exchanging items always comes down to individual people –not some faceless abstract entity representing the entire population–as far as I can see. This may be related to the following thing that also bothers me sometimes: I have never understood why something as complicated as running an economy for millions of people is generally presented (at least in the USA) as having only the two relatively simple possibilities: capitalism and socialism/marxism.

    Please keep up the posts. They are interesting reading.

  11. Macroeconomics, which works at the scale of national economies on up, has always been a bit more slippery than microeconomics, which deals with things at the level of the product or firm. In the big Paul Krugman profile that ran in the New Yorker this week, he mentions that for many of the macro models, you select assumptions that will produce some kind of realistic result, even if the assumptions themselves are unrealistic.

    The two system (capitalism vs. Marxism) view was mainly useful for political/tribal reasons. Most of the people who work with economics and organizational behavior would say that there are many setups for allocating resources (free & constrained markets, command/hierarchical, random/lottery, first-come-first-serve, direct negotiation, etc.) and that we use them all in a functioning society.

  12. @Scott “…we use them all in a functioning society”.

    Actually, I’d say that most functioning societies used some variation of ‘share stuff with your family and friends (and, under certain circumstances, with strangers or rivals)’. But then economics, as it is currently framed, has nothing to do with a functioning society (for any useful definition of ‘functioning’).

    A lot of the counter-intuitive aspects of Marx’s theory of value make a lot more sense if you recognise that he is describing and deconstructing value from the standpoint of a fundamentally dysfunctional system. It’s a good idea to keep the very first sentence of the chapter in mind as you read–he’s discussing how things appear in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production. That’s also why it is often recommended that you re-read Chapter 1 of Capital after having completed the book (or at least Volume 1).

  13. A lot of the messiness of Marx’s theory of value is due to it being fundamentally wrong. Marginal pricing is a lot more elegant and gives a rather better description of how pricing actually works. Prices are determined by the intersection between the supply curve and the demand curve.

    Usually:

    As price increases demand falls (the demand curve slopes down).

    As price increases supply increases (the supply curve slopes up).

    The point at which they cross is the marginal price. While the marginal supplier will be making barely enough; lower cost suppliers may make large profits. Your profit is the difference between your costs and the marginal price.

  14. Kevin Volk @10:

    “Truth” really depends on ones own preconceptions.

    Marx approaches the question of economics based on the preconception that Labor is ultimately responsible for the creation of all value. Taken from this viewpoint, most everything he posits as “true” is almost undeniably so.

    Other economists (Smith, for example) are approaching the same subject with a different set of preconceptions; that trade restrictions hinder the ability of capitalists (and nations) to generate profit. In this discussion, labor is just seen as a factor that affects the cost of production. Again, taken from this point of view, most of what he says can be considered “true”.

    Which set of preconceptions is closer to “reality”? Is there any clear way to find an answer in which “reality” is not subjective to the person viewing the question?

    A wise man once said that “reality” is the only word in the English language that should always be used in quotes.

    What is “truth”? What is “reality”? These are not economic questions, they are philosophical (or, if you prefer, metaphysical) ones. Unfortunately, they’re ones that are all but impossible to escape, impossible to define to everyone’s satisfaction, and the source of much of the angst in the world.

    That’s just my opinion, however, and only as “true” as you choose to find it. Which is what it says. 😉

  15. Perhaps “Learning is always counter-intuitive”?
    One of the best questions I know is “What was most surprising?” In information theory, one of the popularizations of the definition of information is that it’s “surprise”, so the question is actually solidly scientific. It has been useful in a lot of different circumstances.

  16. It needs an addendum: “But not everything counter-intuitive is true.”

  17. “It seems intuitively obvious that, if you raise the labor cost (ie, wages) of a commodity, the price of the commodity will rise. Intuitively obvious, but wrong (even the bourgeois economists stopped trying to sell “the wage-price spiral” after about 1977). Why? Don’t worry, we’ll get there.”

    Not necessarily intuitively obvious unless you assume a monopoly of production. If Company X is the only one in the world who makes a widget, and they raise wages, they can also raise prices because they control the market.

    More often, in situations like this, companies have a price point they sell to. In, say, the logging industry, if a thousand board feet is selling for $247, and a producer raises wages, they don’t suddenly get to sell at $280. The product still sells for the same amount, so the difference comes out of profits, and if that makes them unprofitable, then they have to find other savings if they want to maintain those higher wages. Or they go broke.

  18. Tim

    It needs an addendum: “But not everything counter-intuitive is true.”

    Yes and no.

    Two ways of looking at it; not the only two, by any means, but two that come to mind:

    • What is the difference between the Witches’ Rede and the Law of Thelema?

    • A syllogism need not conclude truth in order to be valid.

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