Saturday, December 31, 2011

The essential role of Christianity in Western culture

Never mind the actual post, The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity and the Question of Christ; the meat of Alastair Roberts' point is in his reply to my comment. (You'll have to scroll down a bit; I don't see any way of linking to individual comments on his blog.)

Roberts seems to make two fundamental points. First, popular forms of Christianity are "heterodox" and "bizarre". His "bog-standard orthodox Christian tradition" is the real Christianity; to address other forms is to attack a straw man. Despite Roberts' effort to find common ground with atheism, Roberts seems to consider the fundamentalists so marginal that they are less of a problem than atheists themselves. Second, atheists seem to have forgotten that Christian ideas, the ideas of his sort of Christianity, are "part of the DNA of Western culture." By abandoning Christianity, atheists are losing a critical grounding for Western culture, without offering a satisfactory alternative. But Roberts is, I think, fundamentally missing the point of the modern atheist movement, which is primarily a struggle against fundamentalism.

Roberts is aware of a wide range of atheist beliefs. He praises (or does he damn it with faint praise?) a strain of atheist thought that is relentlessly questioning and critical. But the modern atheist movement — the New Atheists — aren't really part of the deeper philosophical struggle against theism. Our primary targets are the fundamentalists, those who would use a view of God — a view that I suspect Roberts would find "heterodox" — to assert supernatural status to their petty hang-ups and small-minded prejudices. If Roberts' brand of Christianity does not share those hang-ups and prejudices, good for him; if the shoe doesn't fit, he is not obliged to wear it. If Roberts does not want to struggle against the fundamentalists, that's his choice, but we do want to struggle against the fundamentalists. When New Atheists attack the philosophical underpinnings of fundamentalism, we are not (at least not necessarily) attacking the underpinnings of Roberts own theology. That the New Atheists often seem unaware of his theology is primarily because his theology is not directly relevant to our struggle.

But of course, the deeper philosophical critique against theism, which definitely does include Roberts' theology, is also important. But I think atheists expect a higher burden from Roberts than he would prefer. Roberts claims that Christianity is historically important, but atheists quickly grant that claim. From an historical argument, one can demand only that we include a considerable body of Christian thought in the canon of the humanities, and we do include that body of thought. (Whether we adequately promote that thought as something every educated person should be familiar with is a different argument, and atheists as a group do not have much standing to set the academic curriculum.) Yes, Christian thinkers, operating in various theological contexts, have made important contributions to Western values. Thanks, but what have you done for us lately? But Roberts is not making only an historical argument.

Roberts appears to believe that not only is Christianity an important historical force, but that it is a philosophically essential component of the edifice of Western cultural values, values that atheists themselves endorse. To deny Christianity, Roberts' asserts, is to deny the philosophical underpinnings of our notions of rights, even our notions of skepticism and critical investigation. To assert those same rights and methodologies without Christianity — the right sort of Christianity, of course — is to work on borrowed ontological capital. Hopefully, he will develop this argument further.

But this argument does not require that atheists have a deep understanding of any particular theology; atheists need only offer our own satisfactory grounding, without any gods or supernatural forces. (Of course, I doubt that we will ever satisfy Roberts himself, so we need only satisfy ourselves.) But this grounding is easy to provide. We can observe, and draw scientific conclusions from our observations, many characteristics and properties of human beings in general. We are beings that want to be happy, and we are social beings who have evolved and learned to be concerned with the happiness of others. We can also observe that trying to manage the happiness of large numbers of people is an extremely complicated task, too complex to optimize analytically. We can view all of our discourse on rights, freedoms, ethics, and justice as simply that: a dialectical conversation to address the burning question of how we can all be as happy as possible. We don't need any god to want to be happy, and we don't need any god to observe that we have evolved as a social species, concerned with the happiness of others.

We're all very pleased that Roberts et al. have come to many of the same conclusions that secular humanists have come to, even if they express those conclusions in a theological rather than a naturalistic narrative. But we do not need to be deeply familiar with that theological narrative to address either of our goals. We do not need to address the humanistic theological account to address nonhumanistic religion. To the extent that we struggle against fundamentalism, we don't need to talk about non-fundamentalist theology. And we don't need to address any kind of theology to find that our Western values — the good ones, at least — can very easily rest on our biological and social natures.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Real microeconomics (demand shocks)

Part 1: What is "real"? (commentary)
Part 2a: Real microeconomics (demand shocks)

One definition of microeconomics is the economics of individual firms (or consumers) by themselves, as opposed to macroeconomics, which is the study of the economy in the aggregate. Another definition, which seems especially useful for studying real economics, is that microeconomics takes the total level of output of an isolated* national economy for granted, and is concerned with optimizing the mix of goods and services within that economy.

*International trade notwithstanding, it's easier to consider the national economy as an isolated whole, and international trade doesn't substantially change the underlying theory.

Even the most casual reader should be aware of the standard supply and demand curves, with the equilibrium price at the point where the marginal cost of supply (the amount of something required to produce one more unit of the product) equals the marginal utility of demand (the amount of something for which a consumer will forego to obtain one more unit of the product). In financial microeconomics, the y-axis is the price level. In real microeconomics, the x-axis is still quantity produced, but real economics ignores money. So how should we label the Y-axis?

The supply curve increases not primarily because of diseconomies of scale, but primarily because of rising opportunity costs. Every coat we make means that we cannot make a hat*. To make the first, most demanded coat, we sacrifice the last, least demanded hat. To make the second, slightly less demanded coat, we sacrifice the second to last, slightly more demanded hat. And so forth, until we get to the point where we are making the coat that is just about as demanded as the hat we are not making. Therefore, in real economics, the y-axis represents opportunity cost, the quantity of all other goods and services that we're not making in order to make the quantity of the specific good or service under consideration.

*We can assume wolg that the trade-off is one-to-one and linear so long as the demand curves are monotonically decreasing.

For obvious reasons, it is not the case that the amount of each and every service is at exactly the correct level. Tastes, preferences, and costs are all constantly changing. Therefore, the quantity of most goods and services we're producing constantly changes. But in an industrial economy, we cannot simply turn on a dime and change production instantaneously. Suppose, for example, that we are producing too many coats. If we were to not produce some of those coats, we could produce more hats, which we want more than the coats. However, we cannot instantaneously just produce fewer coats and more hats.

We must undertake a two-step process to modify production. First, we have to invest. We have to make more hat-making factories, and we have to train more workers to make hats. Since we are making too many coats, we make (and maintain; factories wear out too) fewer coat-making factories than is necessary to sustain current production. Once we have the new hat-making factories, we have to actually make more hats, deliver them to stores, and distribute them to consumers. All of this activity takes time.

Usually, it all evens out. We're usually making just a little too many of some goods and services, a little too few of others, and everything evens out. We produce about the same amount for consumption and investment overall, month to month, year to year. Everybody is always a little bit dissatisfied: coats are a little bit too cheap, hats are a little bit too expensive, so people end up with coats they didn't want as much as the hats they couldn't afford. But again, this dissatisfaction is more-or-less constant, and drives long-term economic growth.

But sometimes there are more radical microeconomic shifts, radical enough that they deserve to be called "crises". For example, when the computer was invented, a whole lot of people suddenly really wanted one. It took more than one annual accounting period — about twenty or thirty years, all told — to invest enough to make enough computers (and computer programs) for everyone who wanted one (badly enough) to actually get one. That meant that for a couple of decades, we were consuming measurably less than we wanted and expected to, so we could invest in building computers. It eventually sorted itself out, but it took a long time.

At the real level, microeconomics is concerned with precisely what we should produce. Because the real microeconomy cannot "move on a dime", we have to predict, as best we can, not only what we're short of now, but what we'll be short of — and how short we'll be — in the future.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The summit of the human race?

Why Should We Place Christ at the Top and Summit of the Human Race?

Was he kinder, more forgiving, more self-sacrificing than Buddha? Was he wiser, did he meet death with more perfect calmness, than Socrates? Was he more patient, more charitable, than Epictetus? Was he a greater philosopher, a deeper thinker, than Epicurus? In what respect was he the superior of Zoroaster? Was he gentler than Lao-tsze, more universal than Confucius? Were his ideas of human rights and duties superior to those of Zeno? Did he express grander truths than Cicero? Was his mind subtler than Spinoza’s? Was his brain equal to Kepler’s or Newton’s? Was he grander in death — a sublimer martyr than Bruno? Was he in intelligence, in the force and beauty of expression, in breadth and scope of thought, in wealth of illustration, in aptness of comparison, in knowledge of the human brain and heart, of all passions, hopes and fears, the equal of Shakespeare, the greatest of the human race?

— Robert G. Ingersoll

(via Daniel Fincke)

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas
by Langston Hughes, New Masses, Dec. 1930

Merry Christmas, China
From the gun-boats in the river,
Ten-inch shells for Christmas gifts,
And peace on earth forever.

Merry Christmas, India,
To Gandhi in his cell,
From righteous Christian England,
Ring out, bright Christmas bell!

Ring Merry Christmas, Africa,
From Cairo to the Cape!
Ring Hallehuiah! Praise the Lord!
(For murder and rape.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Haiti!
(And drown the voodoo drums –
We’ll rob you to the Christian hymns
Until the next Christ comes.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Cuba!
(While Yankee domination
Keeps a nice fat president
In a little half-starved nation.)

And to you down-and-outers,
(“Due to economic laws”)
Oh, eat, drink, and be merry
With a bread-line Santa Claus –

While all the world hails Christmas,
While all the church bells sway!
While, better still, the Christian guns
Proclaim this joyous day!

While holy steel that makes us strong
Spits forth a mighty Yuletide song:
SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere!
Let Merry Christmas GAS the air!

(via David F. Ruccio and Uddari Weblog)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (top ten edition)

the stupid! it burns! Top Ten Anti-Christian Acts of 2011

I cannot improve on PZ Myers' analysis:
The most horrible anti-Christian oppression going on in the country right now is that homophobic/xenophobic Christians are being called out on their bigotry.

Our way or God's way

Jerry Coyne points us to Denis Alexander's "metaphorical" interpretation of the Adam and Eve myth. Coyne justly criticizes Alexander for ignoring the fact that millions of people (and no small few theologians) really do take the Adam and Eve story literally, and that while Alexander takes Adam and Eve metaphorically, he appears to take Jesus' resurrection literally. Coyne is correct, of course, but even as metaphor, Alexander's interpretation is deeply problematic.

Alexander wants to interpret Adam and Eve as a "narrative" which "tells the story of humankind going their way rather than God's way." "All people," Alexander tells us "sin by their own free will." Without Jesus' sacrifice, humanity can win back a "friendship with God" that "first Adam – Everyman – is unable to accomplish by his own efforts." But if this story is just a narrative, if it's not actually true, then it becomes almost incomprehensible that anyone would adopt it.

What is this "God's way" that we are supposedly abandoning? What are these "sins" and why should they be an inescapable consequence of free will? It would be one thing if it were literally, actually true, if that's how God really did set up the universe. I can't comprehend why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God would do such a thing, but I'm baffled by far less powerful beings (such as my college's web site designers) than Yahweh. If it's true, we just have to deal with it, just as we have to deal with Quantum Mechanics and economics, which are at least as weird as Original Sin and Redemption.

But if it's not actually, literally, true, then it's not just a story, it's a stupid story. If I have a choice, if the story isn't true, then it becomes at least ridiculous and at worst obscene and immoral. I'm not a "sinner"; I'm very happy going my own way and not God's.
I don't need a "friendship with God", and any friendship that requires the torture and death of a thinking, feeling being — and the character of Jesus in the Bible clearly depicts someone with very human emotions — is a friendship with a psychopathic tyrant: it's not a friendship I even need.

Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with the literal, factual truth. I don't like it that human beings can and have used nuclear weapons on human beings. I don't like it that human beings can and have systematically slaughtered millions of people with industrial efficiency. I don't like it that people can drop brutally torture and rape men, women, and children and then go home and play the part of loving parent and spouse, without a shred of cognitive dissonance and moral qualm. But these things are true.

But if the story of Adam and Eve isn't literally, actually true, if Alexander is seeing it not as a true story we must make sense of, then to not just apply but endorse the metaphorical meaning is to choose it, to endorse it because he likes it. And someone who likes that narrative is not a philosopher or theologian. He's a fool or a monster.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Burke ever held, and held rightly, that it can seldom be right… to sacrifice a present benefit for a doubtful advantage in the future… It is not wise to look too far ahead; our powers of prediction are slight, our command over results infinitesimal. It is therefore the happiness of our own contemporaries that is our main concern; we should be very chary of sacrificing large numbers of people for the sake of a contingent end, however advantageous that may appear… We can never know enough to make the chance worth taking… There is this further consideration that is often in need of emphasis: it is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition.

John Maynard Keynes, Burke’s Timidity on Embarking on War, 1904

(via Brad DeLong)

Note, however, that when the status quo has become unendurable, it is the conservatives, not the revolutionaries, who are intent on "sacrificing a present benefit," and not for even a "doubtful advantage": if we keep things the same, how could conservatives expect anything but a repeat of the present misery?

Keynes and Burke's advice is so obviously true that one must wonder why they offer it. I'm not an historian, but I've read a couple of books, and when I look at the revolutions in history, I don't see any revolution that sacrifices a present benefit for a doubtful future advantage. Revolutions have usually occurred because the status quo had become unendurable, and there was no present benefit left to sacrifice. Alternatively, (as in the bourgeois revolutions) the revolutionary class had made its benefits manifest and present before the revolution; the revolution occurred only to recognize the already existing real economic and political power with nominal state power. If I'm wrong, let me know, but I just don't see that we ever, as a society, have sacrificed a prosperous present for a conjectured utopia.

The closest we can come to a society ignoring Burke's and Keynes' advice are those two sacrosanct* conflicts: the American Revolution and Civil War. British rule of the American colonies was not catastrophic; independence was about as dubious a benefit as one could imagine, and it nearly failed. Slavery was hardly unendurable (for white people) — it had been legally tolerated for generations — and to even begin to obtain basic participation in civil society, black people had to wait a century after the conflict. Even the benefits of preserving the Union were at best dubious; the nationalist sentiment of the Confederacy still simmers today.

*Sacrosanct to Americans, at least

Why then do Burke and Keynes appear to be stating the obvious with great profundity? I have yet to read much Burke (and, again, I'm not an historian), but it seems clear that Burke had a political agenda considerably more substantive than simplistic caution and cost-benefit analysis. A key component of Burke's political philosophy appears to be that the legitimacy of the state is tradition. It is not that we must proceed cautiously and ensure that the benefit of a radical change in tradition will be worth the cost; a radical change in tradition is inherently evil, because tradition itself is the only political good. Burke's conception of tradition appears to make any cost-benefit analysis irrelevant.

Of course, Burke's conception of what constitutes legitimate "tradition" appears somewhat elastic*. Even the radical notion of democracy can — by appeal to the centuries-dead Athenian democracy and Roman Republic — be given the sanctity of tradition. Burke must not only ground legitimacy in tradition, itself problematic, but also give us a methodology as to which traditions establish legitimacy.

*Keep in mind that I'm relying on secondary and tertiary sources.

Keynes is at least on somewhat firmer ground, as he was probably the guiding intellectual force behind the successful reform of laissez faire capitalism into state-managed capitalism. Burke has no such excuse: the conditions in France that led to the French Revolution were truly unendurable. When tradition catastrophically fails, there is no sense in wondering whether it should be abandoned; we can only speculation on how it will actually be abandoned. Revolution is dangerous, revolution can easily go awry, and thus revolution cannot be undertaken lightly. But the French did not take revolution lightly. Tradition had utterly failed them; their only alternative to revolution was slavery in the guise of tradition. Burke might have argued for a better revolution, but to use the French to condemn revolution and laud tradition, to support the catastrophically inept French monarchy, Burke might as well argue against glaciers.

While he is not inexcusably obtuse like Burke, DeLong is not, like Keynes, justifiably optimistic. The professional-managerial middle-class reforms that Keynes midwifed to save capitalism have, after three generations, decisively failed. We cannot simply make the same reforms that we made in the early 20th century. Even if we could make them again, even if we could take the rentier ruling class again by surprise, they didn't last then, and we have no reason to expect them to do any better tomorrow.

Burke might be correct in a rhetorical sense: no matter how radically we transform our institutions, we might well be best served to give our new society the imprimatur of tradition. We need not lie; we need only to be selective. But to say we must be cautious is too obvious; to be actually meaningful, this supposed "caution" can be nothing but an attempt to justify the unendurable failures of the status quo with the bugaboo of the fear of change.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The 10 worst economic ideas of 2011

The 10 Worst Economic Ideas of 2011:
  1. Taxes should be more regressive
  2. Austerity works
  3. Export growth models are sustainable
  4. Fannie and Freddie did it
  5. Cutting Social Security benefits is a priority
  6. Inflation is just around the corner
  7. The Medicare eligibility age should be raised
  8. Competition between Medicare and private health insurance will reform the health care system and reduce costs
  9. Federal spending should be capped at 21 percent of GDP
  10. Balancing the budget should involve equal parts tax hikes and government spending cuts

(via Paul Krugman)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A law of nature?

The Conservative belief that there is some law of nature which prevents men from being employed, that it is “rash” to employ men, and that it is financially ‘sound’ to maintain a tenth of the population in idleness for an indefinite period, is crazily improbable – the sort of thing which no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years… Our main task, therefore, will be to confirm the reader’s instinct that what seems sensible is sensible, and what seems nonsense is nonsense. We shall try to show him that the conclusion, that if new forms of employment are offered more men will be employed, is as obvious as it sounds and contains no hidden snags; that to set unemployed men to work on useful tasks does what it appears to do, namely, increases the national wealth; and that the notion, that we shall, for intricate reasons, ruin ourselves financially if we use this means to increase our well-being, is what it looks like – a bogy.

— John Maynard Keynes, Can Lloyd George Do It?

[Note, I have not checked the quotation against the primary source.]

(via L. Randall Wray and Edward Harrison)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (meaning of life edition)

the stupid! it burns! And Atheists Want What?
I’m curious: what do atheists hope to accomplish in the world? I mean, working from the premise that there is no God and never has been, what does the atheist want to do? Do they want to make the world a better place? Why?

I can’t see any other motivation that can come from believing that the physical world is all there is or ever will be other than complete selfishness and narcissism. I mean, if animals are all we are (and not even that because animals have an animal spirit and simple souls), then what else is there to do but ensure the survival of our gene pool? And yet, even that isn’t possible.

All-consuming factuality

Well. A Christian, a conservative Christian, writing about an atheist (Hitchens), and he's not stupid. Go figure.

In The Atheists and the Savior, Christian William Murchison respectfully reflects on Christopher Hitchens' death, and uses it as a springboard to discuss the declining political position of Christianity. Christianity, according to Murchison, has "facilitated the atheist movement ... by downplaying ... its own truth claims while up-playing its social conscience and good works. This leaves the impression ... that faith in Christ, while possibly a good idea, is just a good, modern-style choice -- take it or leave it." Murchison laments that Christians avoid "the over-arching, all-consuming factuality of [their] faith." He recommends that Christians instead would have been better served by "insisting, insisting, insisting on the factuality" of their faith.

Murchison is, as I said, not stupid. He does not admire Hitchens, and he understandably gives more weight to Hitchens' more abrasive personality traits, but he avoids insult, misrepresentation and canard. We must also admire Murchison because he looks to himself, not the stars, for the faults of his religion. Murchison is not entirely consistent — he both asserts the factuality of Christianity and calls it a "mystery" — but he identifies the primary fault of Christianity: its factuality.

Where Murchison goes wrong, of course, is his exhortation about what to do about the factuality of Christianity. In the sense that Murchison uses the word, factuality is not something to be insisted upon, at least not at first. Factuality is something to be proven; we can insist on factuality only after it has been proven. And Christianity's main flaw is not the refusal to insist on its factuality; its main flaw is its inability to prove its factuality. Yes, "either the Son of God came among us or he didn't." Insist as much as you like, but until you prove it, until you present rationally convincing evidence, at the very best you can call belief in the resurrection a choice; at worst, I can call it an irrational delusion.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Questions and answers about philosophy

Whenever an academic philosopher tells you he has an answer, he's lying. Philosophy is not about answers, it's about questions.

To a normal person, an answer is, in a sense, a stopping point. If you ask me, "How tall is the Empire State Building?" I'll answer, "1,454 feet," and we're done. I've answered your question. Ask me where 4th & Main is, and I'll give you directions. Ask a physicist how the Sun shines, and he'll answer you with what we know about fusion. Ask a doctor why you have little bumps all over your skin, and he'll do some tests and tell you what disease you have, and how (if possible) to cure it. These are the kinds of things that people think about when they talk about answers.

While of course every scientific answer leads to new questions (yay!), scientific answers also serve to, well, actually answer real questions. We have since learned a lot more about evolution, for example, but Darwin's work really does, all by itself, definitively answer questions. There are certain things about which Darwin, Newton, Einstein, etc. (not to mention thousands upon thousands of non-famous research scientists) were just correct. They answered their questions, and unless observations go very far awry, nobody in the world ever has to spend much time going back and revisiting and re-answering those questions.

Philosophy is different. One way to define philosophy (and how to define philosophy is itself a philosophical question) is that philosophy deals with questions that do not and cannot have Answers in the scientific sense. Like the the humanities, arts, and literature, philosophy deals with questions that each society and each individual must answer for him- or herself. What is knowledge? What is existence? What is good? What is beautiful? What is truth? And, most importantly, what is justice? When I say each person must answer these questions, I mean "must" not in the normative sense but the literal sense: just as it is physically impossible to not accelerate towards the surface of the Earth at ~10m/s2, it is physically impossible for a human being to not answer these questions. A being that does not answer these questions, somehow, is not a human being. Even the most unsophisticated, philosophically "naive" person answers these questions.

We don't study philosophers because they've answered these questions. We study philosophers because they've thought about these questions. Really, their answers are not very interesting. We don't read Aristotle, for example, to learn how to be a good middle-class slave-owning Greek citizen of a polis. We read him because we want to see how a very smart guy picked up and examined the same questions our nature forces us to answer.

Philosophy is, I think, like climbing a mountain. Sure, a mountain climber needs her share of ordinary, prosaic, scientific answers: she needs to know all about pitons, carabiners, ice-axes, crampons; she needs to know techniques (of which I am entirely ignorant). But all of that knowledge doesn't get her one inch closer to the top of the mountain. She must, somehow, find the will and drive to actually complete the climb. She can read about how other climbers found their will, but she must find this will and drive completely anew, by herself. So too with philosophy. I can find out how Plato, Aristotle, Rawls, etc. answered philosophical questions, but I still have to answer all these questions for myself. It's a lot, but all that another philosopher can do for me is help me think more clearly and deeply about these questions; no philosopher can answer them for me. (Even if one adopts another philosopher's answers in toto, he has done so because he's thought them through himself, and the answers are his own.) In philosophy, thinking about the question is the thing, not coming up with the right answer.

Philosophers are, of course, human beings, and human beings, I think, have a tendency to think of their answers to philosophical questions as The Right Answers. But this is simply not so: a question that has The Right Answer is ipso facto not a philosophical question. When philosophers are honest about philosophy, they offer considerable value; when those reading philosophy understand what to expect, they can profit. But if you read philosophy expecting to learn what The Right Answer is, you will be disappointed. And if you write philosophy and think you're telling people what The Right Answer is, you are either mistaken about what philosophy is, or you are lying that you offer anything but your own answers.

The Stupid! It Burns! (Egnorant edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists in mourning around the world
The worldwide atheist community is reeling from the deaths of two atheist icons.

Author and public intellectual Christopher Hitches died Thursday from cancer at the age of 62. Author and political intellectual/leader Kim Jung Il died Saturday from heart failure at the age of 69.

Each man represented to millions of adoring atheists the incarnation of atheist integrity and wisdom.

Questions easily answered

Faye has a soliloquy in today's Questionable Content:
Angus loves me. He LOVES me. And I love him. And I was trying to pin down WHY I love him. He's funny, he's smart, he can stand up to me... But deep down, what if the main reason I love him is that it means I'm not alone? Is that enough?

Yes, Faye, yes it is.

(Also, some words of wisdom from last week's comic: "You ought to expect better of people. It encourages you to be a better person yourself.")

Religion and child protection

It's not often that I agree, even a little, with right-wing nutjobs, but when it comes to religion and the protection of children, I have to agree, with some important reservations, with Don Boys'* article New Atheists Want to Remove Children from Your Home–or Worse!. Reading past some uncharitable and unnecessarily inflammatory asides, Boys to some extent grasps a key element of New Atheist thought. It is indeed true that we "want to remove children from the influence of parents, teachers, or preachers who teach the doctrine of Hell..."

*Boys claims a Ph.D., but it appears to be from Heritage Baptist University, which appears to be unaccredited by any established regional authority.

The New Atheists dispute almost every issue, and seeing extreme forms of the religious indoctrination of children as abusive is controversial among the Gnus, but Boys adequately substantiates that this position has real support. Boys quotes Perry Bulwer, who asserts that the indoctrination of some beliefs can be abusive:
The educational rights of children are also undermined when they are intellectually abused with biblical literalism, anti-science creationism or denied the right to attend university. ... Many fundamentalist and orthodox beliefs are highly detrimental to children’s minds.
Boys also quotes Nicholas Humphrey making the same point:
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
Boyd then turns to Richard Dawkins, mentioning that in The God Delusion, Dawkins asserts that teaching children the doctrine of Hell is abusive*, and quotes Dawkins from his essay, Religion's Real Child Abuse: "Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds." Boys presents adequate evidence that considering some kinds of religious indoctrination of children is, if not widely-accepted doctrine, has real support in the New Atheist community.

*Boys seems to be accurately paraphrasing Dawkins in The God Delusion: "I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell" (358).

While accurately characterizing a real position, Boys also wants to conflate the position on child abuse with the Gnus' general opposition to religion. Boys cites American Atheists' Al Stefanelli, in "Taking The Gloves Off…: When Diplomacy Fails, It’s Time To Fight Using The Law," quoting Stefanelli as saying, "They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated." Boys is not being entirely honest here; he interprets "they" to mean "fundamentalist Christians", but Stefanelli specifically refers to "the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam" which "does not operate in the legal system." Also, the context of the article makes it clear that Stefanelli is referring primarily to the eradication of "beliefs and doctrines", not people:
Intolerance toward beliefs and doctrines that serve only to promote hatred, bigotry and discrimination should be lauded, as should extremist points of view toward the eradication of these beliefs and doctrines.
Boys also quotes Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea:
The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for (516).
But Boys ignores Dennett's clear qualification, that we are "obliged ... to cage or disarm" only those religious people who go "beyond the pale" of civilized behavior:
Slavery is beyond the pale. Child abuse is beyond the pale. Discrimination is beyond the pale. The pronouncing of death sentences on those who blaspheme against a religion (complete with bounties or rewards for those who carry them out) is beyond the pale. It is not civilized, and it is owed no more respect in the name of religious freedom than any other incitement to cold-blooded murder (516-517).
Boys' only honest support for true eliminationism in New Atheist thought is Sam Harris' infamous quotation from The End of Faith that faced with a nuclear-armed Muslim state not deterred by certain retailiation, "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own" (qtd. in Boys). But Harris is responding hyperbolically to an unlikely hypothetical, and he has also faced severe criticism from many published New Atheists and nearly uniform condemnation among the rank and file. While he is accurate that many New Atheists condemn certain forms of religious indoctrination as child abuse, Boys fails to link this specific condemnation to a more general attitude of eliminationism.

Another way to read this article is that Boys attempts to establish that atheists have the same attitude towards the teaching of any religious belief to children that they do specifically towards beliefs, such as Hell, that we consider definitely abusive. The full quotation, elided with ellipses above, is that atheists "want to remove children from the influence of parents, teachers, or preachers who teach the doctrine of Hell and the exclusive plan of salvation through Christ." [emphasis added] Note too his unqualified assertion that "Atheists hate religion and consider it child abuse." But, as shown above, all the cited commenters specifically qualify the beliefs and practices that they label as abusive to children. Atheists certainly consider all religion to be nonsense, but not all nonsense is abusive.

Let us grasp the nettle firmly, though: there are some beliefs, some of them religious, some not, that are so poisonous, so toxic, so damaging, that to indoctrinate children, who are in the near-absolute power of adults, be they teachers, priests, or, yes, even parents, to those beliefs constitutes child abuse. Because all children are the responsibility of every adult member of society, when we have good evidence that a child is being abused, we have a social obligation to stop that abuse. Furthermore, we have a positive obligation to prevent that abuse from occurring in the first place. We have at least a theoretical basis for advocating the removal of children from some homes they are being indoctrinated into some religious beliefs.

Theory is not practice, though*. There are some evils that cannot be coercively addressed, even in the best government. I do not, for example, see anything at all good about racist speech between adults. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease; we must (legally) tolerate racist speech because no one and no group, even a majority of all but one, will suppress only bad speech; they will, rather, suppress speech contrary to their interests, and sometimes the interests of one can and does finally become the interests of all. I think the idea of actually removing children from homes on the basis of the teaching of belief is problematic, but it is problematic on this "second order" basis: not because these beliefs are not abusive and harmful, but because it may be impossible to just prevent the indoctrination of only harmful and abusive beliefs.

*Einstein supposedly said, "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not."

Boys' argument is unfocused and distracted, so it's hard to rebut him directly at a deeper level. I suspect that Boys does not consider the indoctrination in children of the idea of Hell to be abusive. I suspect that he would say that our obligation to teach children what is true overrides our obligation not to terrorize them. The first obligation does override the second — we do, for example, need to teach our children to be afraid of traffic until they have the cognitive capacity to cross the street without being hit by a car — but this argument would work only if it were actually true that Hell existed. But Boys doesn't make that argument, and I don't think he can make it. Boys might believe that there's nothing abusive about terrorizing children in general — a lot of Christians have very weird attitudes about fear — but we cannot charitably attribute to him an attitude he does not explicitly declare. Boys does not seem to make any argument based on the direct merits of what he wants to teach children.

To bend over backwards to be charitable, Boys is, I think, trying the second-order effects argument: eliminating the indoctrination of specifically abusive beliefs in children would unacceptably compromise freedom of religion in general. His argument fails, though, because every author he cites explicitly qualifies his objections to specific beliefs, and only in the context of adults who have coercive authority over children. The qualifications are not just specific and narrow; they also fulfill, rather than undermine, the spirit of freedom of religion. In the sense of the legitimacy of coercion, the state is to the citizen as the parent is to the child; a prohibition on what the state may coerce, even with a democratic mandate, should extend to a prohibition on what the parent may coerce in a child. Boys fails to show otherwise; his only fundamental defense can be that religious freedom entails that any indoctrination of children must be permissible, at least if it conforms to his religion.

Even the most "militant" atheist advocates addressing the issue of religious belief as child abuse within the social, political process. To my knowledge, no atheist of any influence argues that religious belief as child abuse justifies illegal or extra-legal action. We do not want to act outside the law; we want to change the laws, using the existing social and political process to do so. This process requires debate, discussion, political action: all the messiness of human, secular, (more-or-less) democratic governance. To make the indoctrinating some religious belief to children illegal requires that we convince a majority of the people (or at least a majority of more-or-less democratically elected legislators) that these religious beliefs really are harmful to children, and that legally prohibiting these beliefs does not create more problems than it solves. If we cannot convince the majority, as well as fulfill all the institutional requirements, we will not prevail.

But overall, it is clear: Many atheists, myself included, believe that the indoctrination of some religious beliefs are actually abusive or unacceptably compromise children's rights to participate in civil society. While the second order effects are problematic, many atheists, myself included, believe that these effects can be adequately addressed. Many atheists, myself included, believe that we have a social obligation to protect the rights of all children. It therefore follows that we have a social obligation to advocate to make these abuses of children's rights illegal. Even if we fail, we should fail because we are unable to convince a majority; we should not fail because we are too fearful to express our opinion and make our argument. To try and fail is honorable; to fail to try is cowardice. But we are trying within the social process.

Boys, however, does not appear to consider the social process legitimate. Boys seems to have contempt for democracy itself. According to Boys,
America is in deep trouble especially when you realize there is still a fool on every corner, a clown in every public office, and every village has not one, but several idiots plus numerous tyrants, terrorists, thugs, and totalitarians lounging down at the American Angry Atheist Association. They are dangerous, duped, dopey and deluded people who might be helped if brains could be transplanted
It's uncertain what Boys is condemning here. One the one hand, how can a democracy (even a half-assed bourgeois "democratic" republic such as the United States) be in "deep trouble" because there is dissenting opinion? On the other hand, Boys apparently believes that not only are there a small minority of atheists around, but these atheists have the power to "get all the state or Federal laws passed they want." But to do so, even here, requires real popular support. Yes, the United States is run by the 1%, but they are not the atheist 1%, and even the 1% ignore popular opinion to their peril. Somehow, I suspect that Boys is not against government by an elite; he wishes instead, I suspect, that the elite not be the bourgeoisie but Christians like himself.

Boys wants the atheists to bring it on: "I simply accept [the New Atheists'] declaration of war. Although the New Atheists might be able to pass any law we want, "they will never take my visiting grandchildren no matter how many warrants they have." Not without a literal fight!" But Boys is wrong: there is no war between Christians and atheists. To have a war, you have to have a violent conflict between two parties, neither of whom recognize a common sovereign authority. Atheists (even revolutionaries such as myself) want to protect children from the worst of religious indoctrination within the sovereignty of the state. The war, if there is one, is between Christians like Boys and the state itself. Unfortunately, while it might be an uneven fight, I think the current government of the United States might be the underdog.

The Stupid! It Burns! (sensus divinatus edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists Disprove God’s Existence Again!
The Lowdown: A Scientist managed to replicate religious experience with electromagnetic waves applied to different parts of the brain. He goes on to tell the world that this proves there is no God. It was an absolute pleasure watching the Reddit crowd blow up over this one, and to see my atheist friends to post it on their Facebook walls with such grave, epitaphic solemnities as “let mankind know knowledge instead of ignorance” and “science has done it at last!” (This time it’s for sure, apparently.)

It gives me the opportunity to clear up — for their sakes — a common misconception about the Christian religion, or perhaps just to assert an uncommon conception: The belief of a Christian hinges upon a Miracle — the Resurrection – and not upon miracles. This is important to realize, for there is an unspoken assumption made by these bored and boring scientists, that if the presence of God can be simulated, then religious experience is not miraculous, and thus God is not real.

Who is The Scientist? He tells us that he has proven the non-existence of God; what did he say? If you don't quote and cite, you might as well just hang a sign on your post in big flashing neon letters saying "STRAW MAN!"

Let me clear up a common misconception about atheism.

It is not part of the atheist project to disprove the existence of God.

There are several reasons disproving the existence of God is not part of the atheist project. First, "God" is equivocal; there are at worst as many conceptions of God as there are believers; at best the conceptions number in the thousands. "God" is kind of like cancer (in more ways than one): there can't be a (singular) cure for cancer, because "cancer" labels a family of very different diseases with very different causes. Likewise, evidence against one particular intervention of God does not act as evidence against any other supposed or imagined intervention. More importantly, too many conceptions of God are entirely unfalsifiable; it's impossible to falsify an unfalsifiable proposition: I can't even tell you with any confidence that God is not hiding behind my couch. There are perhaps some unsophisticated atheists who really do think God can be disproven (but they must be somewhat rare; I've never met one, and I know a lot of atheists), but the idea that atheists can or want to disprove God has been denied so often in both the academic and informal literature that to mention the idea shows either willful ignorance or outright lying.

The atheist project — or, more precisely, the Gnu Atheist project — is to eliminate the social privilege afforded to belief in God.

Sure, we'd like to get rid of religious belief; we'd like to get rid of all superstitions, delusions, and outright nonsense. But that's at best a long term task, and probably impossible. What is feasible in at least the medium term is to make religion private. One's belief or disbelief in God, and the details thereof, should be irrelevant to social, economic, and political life as is one's attitude towards bowling or golf. I should be no more or less of a member of society, an economic actor, and a citizen of the state regardless of what I do or do not believe about God, just as I should be no more or less a member of society, etc. whether or not I enjoy golf, or, if I do enjoy golf, whether I favor the use of a niblick or a mashie.

Fundamentally, the establishment of social, economic, and political privilege requires positive support; we should not require positive support for the elimination of social privilege. It is, for example, impossible to decisively disprove the assertion that white people are inherently superior to black people. We can, however, demonstrate that all the specific arguments so far made for the superiority of white people have so far failed. We are justified, and justified early on, to say, "When you actually can prove it, get back to us. Until then, no, you white folk cannot have any special privileges." Similarly with God: If believers want to introduce positive support for the truth of their beliefs, we can see whether and to what extent those truths justify social privilege. Until then, religion deserves to be only private.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (not even wrong edition)

the stupid! it burns! Usually, I feature egregiously stupid, obviously hypocritical or completely mendacious posts about atheists and atheism, usually by Christians. This post isn't in any of those categories. But I wanted to feature it simply because it's just so vacuous, empty of content. It's difficult to show a lack of substantive content with a quotation or excerpt, so I'll just point you to the original article:

Thank God for atheists

I will highlight this quotation:
Every atheist I have ever read or met does not reject the God I believe in and worship and serve. The ones I know are rejecting an idol (and, of course, replacing it with one of their own making)–e.g., the God of the gaps, the deus ex machina of bare theism or the all determining reality of Calvinism.
That may be correct; who knows? What God does Olson believe in? In one sense, because there simply isn't any way to come to rational agreement about what God actually is (or even whether God is something that can even "be") every believer has a different idea about God is. There's no reason to believe that Olson's idea is any less idiosyncratic.

I suspect that Olson is on the other horn of the theist's dilemma. If they do not define God to be something definite, something about which we can talk meaningfully about truth and falsity, can it be said that they actually believe anything at all? Or are they simply repeating a vacuous slogan, or to use Seinfeld's metaphor, rooting for the shirts? If you construct your belief so that it's logically impossible to prove it wrong, you do not actually have a belief: you have defined your belief out of existence and into emptiness and vacuity.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The value of the humanities?

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….

…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.

—George Steiner, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence

(via Corey Robin)

The Accidental Tutor

I've started another blog, The Accidental Tutor, to talk about my experiences as a Community College Writing Tutor and my thoughts on the theory and practice of instruction in English Composition.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died today. So it goes.

The best way to memorialize him is, I think, by his words.

What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

―The Portable Atheist

By trying to adjust to the findings that it once tried so viciously to ban and repress, religion has only succeeded in restating the same questions that undermined it in earlier epochs. What kind of designer or creator is so wasteful and capricious and approximate? What kind of designer or creator is so cruel and indifferent? And—most of all—what kind of designer or creator only chooses to “reveal” himself to semi-stupefied peasants in desert regions?

―The Portable Atheist

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.

―God Is Not Great

What happens to the faith healer and the shaman when any poor citizen can see the full effect of drugs or surgeries, administered without ceremonies or mystifications? Roughly the same thing as happens to the rainmaker when the climatologist turns up, or to the diviner from the heavens when schoolteachers get hold of elementary telescopes.

―God Is Not Great

Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world…. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment.

―God Is Not Great

Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.

―God Is Not Great

The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.

―God Is Not Great

If god really wanted people to be free of [wicked thoughts], he should have taken more care to invent a different species.

―God Is Not Great

Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing [in the ten commandments] about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?

―God Is Not Great

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.

Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and obstruction, impotence or outright reaction, and, given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two.

Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in proteins and acids which constitute our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.”

―God Is Not Great

Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.

―God Is Not Great

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

―God Is Not Great

Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did.

―God Is Not Great

If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.

―God Is Not Great

I try to deny myself any illusions or delusions, and I think that this perhaps entitles me to try and deny the same to others, at least as long as they refuse to keep their fantasies to themselves.


Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.

Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

(from Daniel Florien)

Opportunity costs

Part 1: What is "real"? (commentary)
Part 2: Opportunity costs

To look at real economics, we're looking at economics in the absence of money. It's important, I think, to revisit a little of microeconomics 101 in real terms.

One thing that doesn't change in real micro is the production possibility frontier (PPF). The PPF basically represents the notion that, ceteris paribus, we can make only a finite quantity of goods: if we make more pizza, for example, we cannot make as much beer, and vice-versa. Since both axes are in quantities of real goods and services, money is not involved, and nothing changes between financial and real microeconomics.

A concept that does change is the partial equilibrium "price" given by the intersection of the supply and demand curves. In standard financial micro, the x-axis is the quantity of some real good (so it's the same in real economics), but the y-axis is the price, denominated in money. Since we don't have money in real economics, we need a new unit of measure for the y-axis. To get the y-axis, we need a narrative about why the demand curve decreases and the supply curve increases.

The demand curve falls because for any single good or service, the more units we already have, the less we "inherently" want yet another unit: the declining marginal utility of demand. The first hamburger keeps me from starving to death, the second makes me feel full, I want the third just because I really like hamburgers, and so forth. The the fifth or sixth hamburger might have negative utility: it'll make me sick. Not all goods and services are like this (think of Imelda Marcos and shoes), but overall it seems intuitively to hold, especially when we start talking about each individual consuming many different goods and services, and each supplier producing for many different consumers.

There are two reasons the supply curve falls. First, there are, especially in the short run (where one or more of the factors of production: land, labor, and/or physical capital are fixed), diseconomies of scale. If I have a certain number of pizza ovens, I can make only so many pizzas, no matter how many pizza-makers I hire. Similarly, for the pizza sector, we can't just magically make more pizza ovens overnight. Even trying to squeeze the maximum productivity out of the pizza ovens we already have becomes less and less efficient.

More importantly, though, if demand "inherently" falls, then, because of the PPF above, if we make more units of one good or service, we must make less of other goods and services. The first, most demanded pizza we make means we must forego the last, least demanded beer we could otherwise have made. The second, slightly less demanded pizza requires foregoing the second to last, second least demanded beer. At some point, we're going to have a coin-flip between the pizza and beer that are equally demanded. Thus the supply curve rises even in the long run (where no factors of production are constrained) because of rising opportunity cost.

We can also talk about demand not just in terms of "inherent" desire, but also in terms of opportunity cost: the "inherent" desire for one good or service minus the "inherent" desire for the most desirable good or service we have to give up to get the first. So in real micro, we can always think of the "price" axis (usually the y-axis) in financial micro as the opportunity cost.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fifteen Fatal Fallacies of Financial Fundamentalism: A Disquisition on Demand Side Economics

by William Vickrey, October 5, 1996

Much of the conventional economic wisdom prevailing in financial circles, largely subscribed to as a basis for governmental policy, and widely accepted by the media and the public, is based on incomplete analysis, contrafactual assumptions, and false analogy. For instance, encouragement to saving is advocated without attention to the fact that for most people encouraging saving is equivalent to discouraging consumption and reducing market demand, and a purchase by a consumer or a government is also income to vendors and suppliers, and government debt is also an asset. Equally fallacious are implications that what is possible or desirable for individuals one at a time will be equally possible or desirable for all who might wish to do so or for the economy as a whole.

And often analysis seems to be based on the assumption that future economic output is almost entirely determined by inexorable economic forces independently of government policy so that devoting more resources to one use inevitably detracts from availability for another. This might be justifiable in an economy at chock-full employment, or it might be validated in a sense by postulating that the Federal Reserve Board will pursue and succeed in a policy of holding unemployment strictly to a fixed "non-inflation-accelerating" or "natural" rate. But under current conditions such success is neither likely nor desirable.

Some of the fallacies that result from such modes of thought are as follows. Taken together their acceptance is leading to policies that at best are keeping us in the economic doldrums with overall unemployment rates stuck in the 5 to 6 percent range. This is bad enough merely in terms of the loss of 10 to 15 percent of our potential production, even if shared equitably, but when it translates into unemployment of 10, 20, and 40 percent among disadvantaged groups, the further damages in terms of poverty, family breakup, school truancy and dropout, illegitimacy, drug use, and crime become serious indeed. And should the implied policies be fully carried out in terms of a "balanced budget," we could well be in for a serious depression.

The Stupid! It Burns! (launderette edition)

the stupid! it burns! The Atheist Delusion
If the chief problem of religion is that it whips up tensions between different groups of people and disturbs peace, then Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are the consummate hypocrites.
The chief problem of religion is that it isn't true.
The militant atheists of our generation are forever badgering people of faith, asking us to justify our own personal beliefs.
We're asking people of faith to justify the beliefs they want to impose on others and/or pay for with public money.
We get it, you don’t believe in God. Can you just leave the rest of us alone?
Happy to. You first, though.
The debate over the existence of a higher being is a question that has been the bane of mankind for centuries, and it isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.
It has been resolved. There isn't one, at least not one worth talking about. (Yes, God might be hiding behind my couch; so what?)
And it certainly isn’t going to be answered by a flustered old bible basher who thinks it’s clever to compare the question of a divine creator with a child’s belief in fairies.
If we look at what actual believers say they actually believe, rather than what "sophisticated theologians" say that believers really believe, Dawkins is spot on.
If you want to know the real reason why Dawkins declined the debate [with William Lane Craig], I’d recommend watching a few clips of Craig debating Christopher Hitchens on Youtube at Balliol College, and observe how the erudite chain-smoking alcoholic gets verbally taken to the launderette.
I haven't watched the debate (I find them tedious in general), but the idea that anyone could hand Hitchens his ass seems... highly dubious. This whole
Craig defeated Hitchens" idea sounds a lot like the Vietnamesque "declare victory then retreat." In any event, Dawkins has talked about the real reason he has declined to debate Craig; why not take him at his word? Author Conor Kenny appears to be simultaneously arguing for amity, condemning hypocrisy, and presuming his opponent is lying. Quite the feat.

According to Kenny, it seems that there are few religious people in the world and nobody takes religion seriously, so how dare Dawkins et al. go around not taking religion seriously!?

I'll close with a quotation that needs no commentary.
For example, the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine has nothing to do with religion; it’s about the illegal occupation of someone else’s land. You’d also be hard pressed to find a UVF or IRA extremist in Ulster who genuinely believes in the doctrine of the religion they claim to belong to.

(via Godless Business)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (whiny sniveling edition)

the stupid! it burns! You Whiny Sniveling Little Atheists Are Pathetic! [title original]
Let’s get this straight. The atheists are suing because they had to turn off the television to avoid the topic of religion or news announcements about the Day of Prayer. They had to alter their conversation to avoid the topic of religion. This made them feel like “outsiders”.

Oh, boo hoo.

You whiny, sniveling, little, pusillanimous cowards. You have the audacity to tell us Christians that we are “weak” and that our religion is a “crutch.” You are supposed to be so “courageous”, venturing forth boldly into the existential mystery of being alone, facing with stoicism the nothingness that awaits you at death, priding yourself on your realism and self-reliance. You are a bunch of feeble fakers.

As usual, there's lots more stupid in the rest of the article, and the comments are also... instructive.

The Good Doctor Myers delivers the smackdown.

The Stupid! It Burns! (insulting edition)

the stupid! it burns! Host Kicks Atheist Off Show For Calling Jesus & the Nativity ‘An Insult’

On December 12,
Fox Business Network’s Eric Bolling invited a FFRF representative onto his show to discuss the group’s anti-Christian stance.

During a dialogue with FFRF spokesperson Dan Barker ... “Follow the Money” host Eric Bolling was so dumbfounded by the group’s anti-Jesus views that he ended up booting the atheist-spokesperson off of the program. ... Barker claimed that America is not a Christian nation and that the nativity should not be present on government property. He went on to say that the nativity represents "an insult to human nature that we are all doomed and damned." ...

[Later,] "Why was Jesus born? To save us from our sins. What an insult that we are degraded, depraved human beings — that Jesus created a hell — a place or torture," Barker quipped. "And how would you feel if you didn’t believe that… superstition?"

If you want to overdose on concentrated stupidity, read the comments.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with a libertarian

In "Journey into a Libertarian Future," Andrew Dittmer Interviews radical libertarian "Code Name Cain", who quotes liberally from Hans-Hermann Hoppe's book, Democracy: The God that Failed.

Part I –The Vision
Part II – The Strategy
Part III – Regulation
Part IV – The Journey into a Libertarian Past
Part V – Dark Realities
Part VI – Certainty
Response to Reader Comments

The stench of humanity

Nietzsche… has a description… of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds. …[T]his attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic… When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he… has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.

G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, p. 185 (published in 1905)

(via Andrew Dittmer)

Three types of libertarianism

Libertarianism, by Karl Widerquist,
distinguishes between three types of libertarianism, left, right, and socialist. It then considers the extent to which the policies of these three diverse groups overlap. The third section focuses on the policies [of] right-libertarians, both because they have popularized their association with the name and because they have a more unified policy agenda.

(via Andrew Dittmer)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

7 Bizarre Trends That Predict an Economic Collapse

7 Bizarre Trends That Predict an Economic Collapse:
#7. Mosquito Populations Surge
#6. Waitresses Get Prettier
#5. Tie Colors Turn Bland
#4. Crime Takes a Turn for the Weird
#3. Advertisements Get Nastier
#2. Romance Novel Sales Spike and Playboy Models Get Heavier
#1. Men Have More Affairs

Thoughts on "what is 'real'"?

I apologize that this exposition is a little disorganized. I'm pretty much figuring this out as I go along.

A few thoughts come to mind after writing part 1.

I define the simplified fundamental identity of real macroeconomics as:
    Production = Consumption + Investment
Note the difference from the fundamental equation of financial macroeconomics:
    Gross Domestic Product = Consumption + Investment + Government + Net Exports
I took Net Exports out just because its easier to assume that a national economy is an isolated whole. But I explicitly did not differentiate government spending. In real terms, that is in terms of physical goods and services, there's no real difference between consumption and investment performed or afforded by the government or by the private sector. A bridge built and/or paid for by the government is just as much a bridge as one built and/or paid for by a private firm.

I also don't distinguish between public and private goods. Public goods, defined as non-rival and/or non-exclusive goods, are still, at the real level, still physical goods. I'm happy (for now) to leave the choice of which goods to produce, public or private, to microeconomics.

When I look at the world specifically as an economist, I don't judge people's wants. If a lot of people want Big Macs, or a badass military, then that's what they want.

I am not yet concerned specifically with distribution of consumption, although distribution will come into play soon enough. Even if one person in a 1,000,000 person economy is consuming all the surplus production of the current capital stock and remaining 999,999 workers' labor, we don't have a macroeconomic crisis unless we cannot produce enough to feed those 999,999, or, for some reason, some of these 999,999 are not working to supply what the one consumer wants to consume. For now, I'm pushing the question of distribution to microeconomics and politics.

I was going to wait to differentiate needs and wants until an actual chapter, but I think the explanation is short enough that I can just include it here.

A need is something we have to produce to maintain the productivity of the labor force. If, for example, we had 1,000,000 people in the economy, but we could produce only enough food to feed 900,000 of them (or feed them all only enough to maintain 90% average productivity) we would not be producing as much food as we need. In contrast, a want is something we want but do not need per the above definition. If, for example, each of those 1,000,000 really wanted an iPad, we would not be compromising our productivity by producing only 1,000.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A real theory of economic crises

Part 1: What is "real"? (commentary)

To understand the current economic crisis, we must look underneath the abstraction of the financial to the real macroeconomy. Doing so is not an easy task, especially when the majority of academic and commercial economists are devoted to obscuring the real economy.

The underlying real economy consists of the use of physical things, such as human labor, steel, land, and machines, to produce other physical things, such as loaves of bread, cars, houses, lattes, and massages as well as (to stretch the definition of "physical" a bit) education, good health, and so forth.

On the supply side, microeconomics talks about how much of each individual good and service we should produce, given some total amount of production. Macroeconomics talks about how much we should produce in total, and how we should allocate that production between consumption and investment in physical and human capital. Macroeconomics also assumes that the national economy is an isolated whole. It is not really isolated, international trade does exist, but it is sufficiently close that the approximation is useful to understand the fundamentals, and the rules of international trade differ substantially from both microeconomics within and the macroeconomics of a national economy.

In a microeconomic crisis, we find ourselves with the productive capacity to produce too much of some things. Because microeconomics takes as given the total amount of production, that we are producing too much of some things implies that we are producing not enough of other things. This state of affairs produces a crisis because it takes time to reallocate the means of production from the surplus to the shortage. During that time, which may be a substantial fraction of or even longer than the traditional annual accounting period, the total production of final goods and services will drop: we will not see the final goods actually sold for consumption until all the capital apparatus has been created and has been in operation for some time. One way we account for this switch is by including investment spending directly in Gross Domestic (and National) Product. From a macroeconomic perspective, we deal with a microeconomic crisis by allocating more real activity from consumption to investment.

In a macroeconomic crisis, however, we find ourselves not producing all we need or want (I will explain the distinction later) to consume. Macroeconomic crises have two causes. First, we physically cannot produce all we need to consume. Alternatively, although we might be physically able to produce more, we are not producing all we want to consume and/or invest. We get into macro crises not because (or not just because) we are producing the wrong sorts of things, but because we are not producing enough things overall.

*If we physically could produce more, but no one wants to consume more, i.e. for everyone the marginal utility of more leisure exceeds the marginal utility of more consumption, then there is no macroeconomic crisis. Alternatively, macroeconomists consider the situation where we do not need to consume more, but we want to consume more than we physically can produce, to be the normal situation, the cause of long-run economic growth.

The fundamental identity of real macroeconomics is:
    Production = Consumption + Investment + Net Storage + Waste 
  • Production is the total amount of real goods and services, final or investment, produced for trade.
  • Consumption is the total amount of real final goods and services used up to enjoy their use values. Investment is total amount of physical and human capital created (either anew or to replace earlier investment used up in the production of goods for consumption) to create final goods that will be consumed (perhaps in a later accounting period).
  • Net Storage is the total amount of real final goods* produced and then placed in storage less real final goods taken out of storage and consumed**.
  • Waste is the total amount of final goods and services produced but destroyed (or allowed to decay) without being used.
Because Net Storage tends to zero in the long run (too many goods stored too long tend to be wasted), and since we always want to minimize waste***, we can simplify the fundamental identity to:
    Production = Consumption + Investment
Because we have eliminated the term for Net Storage, it becomes apparent that in a macroeconomic sense, saving does not mean putting actual physical goods into storage, which tends to be wasteful. Instead, savings means allocating relatively more production to investment and relatively less to consumption.

*We typically cannot store services.
**In financial macroeconomics, we usually count Net Storage as the inventory subcategory of investment spending.
***To avoid a lengthy (although interesting) philosophical debate, here I consider things such as military spending to be consumption.

In addition stating to the fundamental identity of real macroeconomics, it is possible to restrict the factors of production — land, labor and capital — to just labor. First, we use labor to create capital (physical capital such as factories and machines, as well as human capital such as education and training). If we do not have as much capital as we want or need, we must use labor to create more. We can eliminate land (which includes the raw materials actually on the land) because the physical quantity of land (and its raw materials) is fixed; we cannot create more iron ore in the ground.

More importantly, the use of land is entirely in the domain of microeconomics. Most land and raw materials have a continuous (increasing) marginal cost of exploitation. Therefore, we simply add labor to using land until the marginal cost of doing so is in equilibrium with the (continuous, falling) marginal demand of producing the products and services requiring the land. Even when some kind of land or raw materials is discontinuously scarce, the only consequence is that more of the surplus value of labor will be allocated to the owner of the land rather than to other potential recipients.

Therefore, all we need to consider in macroeconomics is labor. A real macroeconomic crisis, therefore, is when the total amount of labor employed in production is less than what we need or want to employ.

I'll put all this together in the next post.

Friday, December 09, 2011

How not to rob a bank

(via Bruce Schneier)

The failure of accommodationism

There's no question that if you're reading my blog, directly or by syndication or republishing, you should also be reading Jerry Coyne's blog, Why Evolution is True. If by some weird chance you're not, you should definitely read Coyne's latest post, Julian Baggini discovers, to his chagrin, that atheism and “real” religion are incompatible. Let me briefly summarize Coyne's article, which itself summarizes a series of article by Baggini.

Baggini started out with a strong bias towards accommodationism. He declared "a plague on all their houses": "Janus-faced" mainstream religions, the "thin gruel" of agnostics and religious liberals, and the "tone deaf" anti-theist "New Atheists". Baggini undertook the task of radically restructuring the terms of the debate to find intellectual common ground between all these camps. To this end, after a series of seven essays, Baggini developed his four "articles of 21st century faith."

First, Baggini defines religion as a set of values and practices, a "way of life", and communities of people with similar values and practices, or combinations and permutations of these elements. Second, religious belief does not require supernaturalism or miracles. Third, religion makes no scientific claims; it does not assert anything about the world outside our minds. Fourth, religious texts are the creation of human beings and human beings alone. Baggini is no random ignoramus on the internet; he has a Ph.D. in philosophy, he has published a number of books, and he has been active in the accommodationist/confrontationalist debate for many years. His articles represents the best efforts of an educated, intelligent advocate to forge common ground between atheists and the religious.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baggini's attempt failed. His articles found acceptance only among those who were already atheist accommodationists or "thin gruel" religious liberals. I myself see nothing particularly objectionable about Baggini's articles, but I agree with Coyne that they do not seem to deserve the labels "faith" and "religion". But the notable failure was that no substantially religious person endorsed Baggini's articles. Their objections were the same as the atheists': his principles reject what is truly religious: a supernatural God, a God who intervenes in the physical, material world, a God who performs miracles, and a God who has specially revealed Himself through scripture.

For example, Coyne mentions "Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge, and a Christian," who "rejects the four tenets in a Guardian piece called 'Julian Baggini’s articles of faith are a nonstarter.'" Coyne quotes Chaplin, "Baggini wants a form of religion that is the 'benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along,'" a suggestion that few religious believers would find interesting. Instead, Chaplin suggests as common ground that "both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant." But this is ground that Coyne will not concede.

I concur with Coyne. I cannot see how any skeptical atheist, even an accommodationist, can concede what Chaplin suggests. To say that theistic beliefs have reasonable epistemic warrant is to say that we know God exists; to concede this warrant, an atheist would have to admit that he does not believe what he knows to be true. Alternatively, we would have to admit that contradictory beliefs can have reasonable epistemic warrant, which poses deeper and and more problematic metaphysical issues than the relatively trivial controversy over the presuppositions of naturalism. Such a concession would, I think, either force atheists to admit irrational contumacy or demolish our deepest intuitions about what knowledge ought to be. The former simply isn't true; while the latter might be true, I would need far better arguments than "it makes me feel good" to admit that I have profoundly misunderstood not just what knowledge is, but also what it ought to be.

The Stupid! It Burns! (two kinds of stupid edition)

the stupid! it burns! Two Kinds of Atheists
For my purposes, there are just two main kinds of atheists. ... One kind of atheist feels that religion is his enemy, while the other kind looks upon religion as his friend. [emphasis original]

The Type 1 atheist—undoubtedly in the majority these days—takes his inspiration from science and considers himself to be “wised up.” He “sees through” the traditional idealistic teachings of religion, and believes that modern science has proven that human beings are “nothing but” animals with hard-wired synapses put in place by selfish genes, all of which is at bottom just molecules—or atoms, or quarks, or strings, or what have you—in motion.

No soul. No free will. No objective standards of right and wrong. Just a bunch of pitiless particles vibrating pointlessly in the primal quantum field.

That’s it. That’s what human being really are, according to the Type 1 atheist. And because traditional religion teaches something like the opposite of this—that human beings have a soul (or spirit) endowed with reason, a conscience, and free will, all responsive to objective standards of right and wrong—the Type 1 atheist feels it is his duty to oppose religion in the name of defending the “truth” about human nature.

The Type 2 atheist is a very different sort of beast (no pun intended). He is not an atheist because he believes in the reductive picture of the cosmos and the human being within it supposedly painted by modern science. He is an atheist because he isn’t persuaded by any of the arguments for the existence of God. It’s that simple.