William Penn Accidentally Signs Away Pennsylvania

From Wikipedia:

A more serious problem arose when fellow Quaker Philip Ford, his business manager, embezzled from Penn. He capitalized on Penn’s habit of signing papers without reading them by including a deed transferring Pennsylvania to himself, and then demanded more rent than Penn could pay.

Why am I reading about William Penn? Because Penn was an insider/outsider. Born to wealthy parents and educated at Oxford, he became a marginal religious leader, at one point imprisoned for eight months for writing a “blasphemous” pamphlet. Just as self-experimentation empowered me, cheap travel across the Atlantic empowered Penn. He took his followers to what became Pennsylvania.

I believe that cheap new ways of doing things empower insider/outsiders. A modern example is Stephen McIntyre, empowered by blogs. (His blog is Climate Audit.) The classic example is Martin Luther, empowered by the printing press. In contrast, expensive new ways of doing things empower insiders (the already powerful) because only they can afford them. I suppose the classic example is agriculture. Agriculture is expensive because it requires land. Lots of things start off expensive and become cheap, but many do not. The classic example is agriculture (land never becomes cheap); the big modern example is health care. It is very expensive to develop a new drug or new medical technology. This is at the heart of why the health care industry is extracting more and more money from the rest of us, just as government officials in rural China regularly ripoff farmers. I am unsurprised that doctors resist cheap new improvements, the only way out of a terrible situation. In China, people in rural areas migrate to cities; that’s how they escape. In Croatia, some friends of mine lived downhill from neighbors who were in the Communist Party. My friends were not Communists. One day they woke up to find that the property line between them and their uphill neighbors had shifted downhill about 10 feet. Unlike William Penn and rural Chinese, my friends could not move — and thus the powerful became more powerful.

8 Replies to “William Penn Accidentally Signs Away Pennsylvania”

  1. Whenever you write about climate science I get a little nervous for you, because eco-consciousness is the new piety and blasphemers get excommunicated from the church.

    You mentioned Feynman before, have you seen this?

  2. David, that’s a good point. I would put it a bit differently. It explains why rich psych and econ departments are hiring people who do fMRI research. Less well-off departments are not hiring such people because their research is too expensive.

    intellectual yokel, thanks for the Feynman link. I can’t always get YouTube here in China but next time I can I’ll look at it. As for climate science, Alexander Cockburn put it well: “the Copenhagen dogmata are a farce. In terms of distraction from cleaning up the pollutants that are actually killing people, they are a terrible tragedy.” That’s right. Trying to reduce CO2 emissions is a huge distraction from reducing industrial byproducts that kill people, heavy metals, carcinogens, and so on.

  3. reducing industrial byproducts that kill people, heavy metals, carcinogens

    That is the real tragedy. I was listening to people talk about climategate today. What has always bothered me is that the predictions indicate that it is already too late to avoid disaster (which is obviously not going to happen, given that the data was cooked). I couldn’t understand the approaches, given that it was too late under the model promulgated. They should have been advocating how to cope with the disaster that was already unstoppable.

    One guy said that what they were doing was telling lies in order to get people to do something now before it was too late.

    Another said they were just looking for a way to corner the grant money and the attention.

    A third said they were malevolently trying to cause us to all starve to death in the dark after collapsing the international economy.

    Finally, someone said they were just in the pay of those causing the real problems and being paid off to distract everyone.

    I’ve been thinking ever since about that.

  4. IMO the climate situation is pretty clear. Models show that it is too late to avoid disaster, as Stephen M says. However, the future is uncertain, and reality may be better or worse than this. If it is worse, too bad, but if it is better, then maybe it is not quite too late to avoid disaster. By acting now we decrease the probability of future disaster.

    This message is probably too complex and subtle to be easily communicated, but it seems to be a straightforward summary of the current scientific understanding. Some people say we shouldn’t trust our models, but after all they represent our best efforts to apply the collective intelligence and reasoning power of humanity towards understand the likely course of future events. We shouldn’t ignore our best forecasts just because we don’t like them.

  5. Hal, those models haven’t been tested, much less verified. By which I mean their predictions haven’t been tested. In the absence of verified models, we have to rely on simpler reasoning, such as whether recent climate is unusual.

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