Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (stupidity is intelligence edition)

the stupid! it burns! My Theory: All “Atheists” Believe in God
First: their chosen designation: “atheist”. The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god"... If there is no God, then why include the idea of him in their name? ...

Second: If they don’t believe in God, why do they spend so much effort, time, money and breath denying His existence? ...

Third: If atheists believe in medicine and science (and only medicine and science) why do they not consider that belief in God? ...

Fourth: Science – besides medical science -- is constantly making new discoveries, finding the answers to new questions... Those [newly discovered] rules didn’t just pop into existence out of nothing. Did they “evolve” or were they pre-programmed by an intelligent designer who knew how things work?

Fifth: ... [A]ll this randomness evolved into homo sapiens, humans as we know them. Just as Darwin described, atheists believe it to have been. ... [I]f any sort of evolution did occur, who is to say that God did not make that happen as well?

Battered and Beaten

Brad deLong is not a happy man.

Battered but not and Beaten

(via the holy bearded one)

Skepticism is not equal to atheism

First, I want to make the context of this discussion absolutely clear. This controversy is not about the members of some specific organization such as JREF or CFI debating how best to focus their own organization, their own reputation, and their own time, money and effort. If some organization wants to focus skeptical inquiry on evolution, or global warming, or faith healing, then groovy. Knock yourselves out. I might or might not actually join you, but I'll be at least cheering from the sidelines. I have never seen any atheist demand that any skeptical or scientific organization of which they are not a member stop focusing on whatever they focus on and focus on religion.

This controversy is about an organization, Skepticon, deciding to use their own organization, reputation, time, money and effort, to skeptically inquire into religion. And some so-called skeptics have howled in protest: How dare you mention skepticism and atheism in the same breath! They have nothing to do with one another.

The controversy apparently starts with Jeff Wagg's post, Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3. Wagg commits a logical fallacy so egregious that he is saved from charges of mendacity only by making the fallacy explicit; we are forced to conclude, therefore, that Wagg is either completely stupid or fails to understand basic logic. Wagg's reasoning is as follows:
  1. Skepticon organizer J.T. Eberhard says, "[I]t is the opinion of most of our organizers that skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism."
  2. Wagg concludes, "[T]he organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism
  3. But skepticism is not equal to atheism; one could be an atheist without being a skeptic
Wagg's intellectual incompetence is truly breathtaking. Eberhard's claim that skepticism leads directly to atheism claims an asymmetric, non-commutative, non-identity relationship (a leads to b does not entail that b leads to a or that a and b are the same thing). Equality is a symmetric, commutative, identity relationship (a=b entails that b=a; a and b are the same thing). Wagg is changing Eberhard's claim. This is a tactic more characteristic of philosophers, theologians, politicians, and advertising executives, not skeptics and scientists.

Intellectuals have to take intellectual honesty and integrity seriously. I'm just a freshman in community college, with very low standards. If I put a howler like that in a paper, any of my professors would reject the paper. If I didn't actually include the quotation, I would be kicked out of school for academic malfeasance. Just putting out such a dishonest interpretation is at least irresponsible; as we have seen, commenters will quote the interpretation without the source. Wagg's defenders, when repeating the "Skepticism = Atheism" claim without including the original quotation are actually lying, and Wagg has at least irresponsibly facilitated this lie.

Wagg is correct on his second point: Skepticism is not equal to atheism. But so what? Skepticism equals only skepticism; there is no specific position at all about this particular world — evolution, vaccinations, global warming, medicine, etc. — that only a skeptic can hold. To single out atheism as being somehow different because an atheist is not by definition a skeptic is an obvious fallacy of special pleading. To dishonestly change a claim to hide the fallacy just compounds the incompetence and irresponsibility.

Atheist such as myself typically agree with Eberhard: We claim the relationship between skepticism and atheism is that skepticism leads to atheism. Skepticism leads to atheism in precisely the same sense that skepticism leads to evolution, anthropogenic global warming, Special and General Relativity, the germ theory of disease, aerodynamics, a 13 billion-year-old universe and a host of other scientific conclusions about the world. We have the evidence we have, we have the skeptical method of inquiry, and applying that method to the evidence available leads inexorably to particular positions. Among those positions is that no god exists, for conceptions of god held by billions of people.

Now this claim might well be mistaken. I welcome an honest argument on the merits of the claim. I'd like to see an argument stronger than trivial psychological compatibility. I'd like to see an argument stronger than that we atheists are hurting some cause by alienating the religious. And I definitely do not want a dishonest, irresponsible straw man argument escaping mendacity to incompetence only by explication.

Since I'd welcome an argument against, it behooves me to make an argument for the claim.

First, let me provisionally define "narrow skepticism" as the position that we should determine the truth of testable claims about reality by testing them. In this sense, religious believers make many testable claims about reality: statues crying blood, faith healing, miracles, people rising from the dead, and so forth. On skeptical inquiry, one must determine that these testable claims are false. If one is like billions of religious believers, who are religious because they believe these testable and testably false claims about reality are true, skepticism does lead one to abandon this sort of religion.

What about non-testable claims about reality? Perhaps skeptics should not discuss these topics in the framework of skepticism; they certainly do not fit "narrow skepticism" as defined above. There are two big problems with this position, however. First, any skeptical conclusion can be denied in a non-testable manner. Don't like evolution? Propose the omphalos hypothesis or a non-testable version of Intelligent Design. Don't like anthropogenic global warming? Simply propose some as-yet-unknown natural mechanism; scientists can't exclude everything. More importantly, skepticism really is a method of thinking, and skeptics really are charged with promoting this method. Integral to this method must be not just testing testable claims, but also thinking about the world in terms of testable claims. To simply remain silent about non-testable claims about the world is to allow people to abandon skepticism as a method by thinking about the world in exclusively non-testable ways.

The religious make many non-testable claims about the world, chiefly in the area of ethics and morality. They claim it is is a truth about the world, about which people can have mistaken opinions, that gay people should not have sex. It is a truth about the world that a woman — at least a dirty slut who fucks — is a slave to her uterus. It is a truth about the world that those in authority deserve unquestioning obedience, because all authority is endorsed by God. It is a truth about the world that hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, epidemics are God's judgment for sin, and the victims of these disasters deserve their fate. If we take a methodological view of skepticism, if we commit to think about the world in testable ways, then these claims must fall. Skeptical inquiry into these beliefs will inexorably lead a religious person to abandon that sort of religion.

What about non-testable metaphysical claims, claim not about the world, but about philosophy? When you start trying to talk about "God" at this level, you're either not making any sense whatsoever (the string of words, "God is the ground of all being" is just nonsense) or you're already an atheist. As Greg Egan observes:
As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.
So just thinking about "God" metaphysically — precisely because one adheres to skepticism about the world — leads inexorably to atheism. Once you've taken God out of the world, you've taken God out.

Skepticism does lead to atheism. Religion — at every level — is a valid subject for skeptical inquiry. The "skeptical" critics of atheism are not "protecting" skepticism, they're diluting it, presumably because they want people to accept the conclusions from skeptical inquiry without demanding they commit to skeptical methodology. And, as we've seen, "skeptical" critics of atheism are only one small step above the utter intellectual dishonesty of Young Earth Creationists.

The Stupid! It Burns! (in every conceivable universe)

the stupid! it burns! I don't usually "honor" comments on this blog, but this one is just too good to pass up. Solan comes charging to Jim Lippard's defense, with a lance of wet noodles, armor of grass and a UK spell-check.
That scepticism = atheism is really a claim that sceptical inquiry would conclude that there was no god - and that this would be so *in any conceivable universe*.

So confusing scepticism and atheism is a species of confusing method and conclusion.

Lippard also correctly identifies how atheism may be the result of other processes than scepticism. Adherence to certain political beliefs would be one of these, and these political beliefs may be founded on a rather uncritical and even anti-sceptical outlook. [boldface emphasis added]
It is utter and complete nonsense to say that atheists are necessarily, usually, typically or even very often making such a broad claim about every conceivable universe. There is no god in this universe; the inhabitants of other universes will have to decide for themselves. Every position that skeptics normally believe follows from skepticism hold only for this particular universe; nobody says that evolution or global warming must be true *in any conceivable universe*.

Notice too the weasel words I've highlighted above. "May be" is a phrase for theologians, philosophers, politicians and advertising executives. Again, any position — evolution, vaccination, global warming — may be the result of processes other than skepticism. So what? Who actually does that? Name some names! And if they do, well, we skeptical atheists will be the first to laugh them off the floor.

And what the hell is with this "skepticism=atheism" construction? The claim is clear: skepticism leads to atheism. The use of the equals sign, which implies a symmetric relationship, is an egregious misrepresentation; Solan is not just a fool, he's a liar as well.

Remember, critics such as Lippard, Solan, etc., demand that skeptical atheists stop using the word "skepticism" in connection with atheism. They claim they are different things: one can be both skeptical and atheist, just as one can be skeptical and six feet tall, but the one has nothing to do with the other. If anyone wants to make that argument, let him or her actually make it, so we can examine the argument skeptically. But if you want to argue like a theologian, and lie like a creationist, you should expect mockery not just from atheists but from skeptics as well... at least those skeptics who take skepticism seriously.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Non-skeptical atheists

Our story so far...

Jim Lippard complains about "blurring the lines" between atheism and skepticism.

I reply, harshly, to Lippard's deficiencies.

Lippard comments in his own defense (reproduced in full):
I call false charge of fallacy on your "category mistake" claim.

You write: "The implication appears to be that atheism is about holding a particular position without regard to using the best method to find a reliable answer to questions about the existence of God."

That's correct--what makes one an atheist is not believing in gods, regardless of how one came to that position. You go on to talk about *skeptical* atheists, and I agree that there are such--I'm one of them.

The rest of your post is a straw man--I've not told anyone to shut up. My point is simply that there is a distinction between skepticism and atheism, and that it can cause confusion to blur that distinction.

I also pointed out on Twitter on Nov. 23 (!/lippard/status/7074762350133248): "Seems to me a better argument than I've heard for the name "Skepticon" would be: we want to promote *skeptical* atheism, not just atheism." and (!/lippard/status/7074762350133248) "Did I just miss it, or is that an argument it hasn't occurred to any "Skepticon" defenders to make? And is it even the case?"
First, I don't follow Twitter; I'm not responsible for knowing what anyone's said on that channel.

But Lippard's defense is weak. Of course it is true that "what makes one an atheist is not believing in gods, regardless of how one came to that position." And it is equally true that what makes one a believer in evolution is, well, believing in evolution, regardless of how one came to that position. The same is true of any position. Furthermore, "can" is a pure weasel word: Anything can cause confusion. It can be just as "confusing" to blur the distinction between belief in evolution (perhaps because the Pope has (to some extent) endorsed evolution) and how one came to believe evolution is true. If Lippard is not speaking entirely vacuously, we must read him as saying that people actually are causing confusion.

But who is doing so? Where are the non-skeptical atheists who are blurring the lines between skepticism and a particular belief? I read Planet Atheism every day; I have a standing query in my reader for blog posts containing "atheist" or "atheism"; and I frankly can't remember the last time I saw anyone endorsing atheism for reasons incompatible with or confusing skeptical methodology.

Lippard doesn't just say that he himself happens to be a skeptical atheist, but that there are skeptical theists: In his original post, he says, "The organized skeptical groups with decades of history... have been represented by skeptics of a variety of religious views in events of lasting consequence. [emphasis added]" The implication therefore is that atheism is not a consequence of skeptical thinking; if it's not a consequence of skeptical thinking, it must be an a priori belief. The only rebuttal to this charge is to say that atheism is a consequence of skepticism, but we should ignore some "skeptics'" theism because of their contributions. Lippard is on the horns of a dilemma: either address the arguments that atheism really is a consequence of skepticism, or admit that some beliefs deserve an exemption from skeptical inquiry. And if religion deserves an exemption, why not evolution? Or vaccination? Or homeopathy?

Remember, this whole "controversy" starts with J. T. Eberhard and Skepticon organizing a conference to presumably subject religious claims to skeptical scrutiny. Lippard (as well as other critics) are not members of that organization and are not protecting its interests. They appear to want to protect skepticism itself from atheism. As one of the original critics claims, atheism is "not skepticism. The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor" from the skeptical cause; the only similarity is in an overlapping community. And he says this despite publishing Eberhard's clear and unambiguous assertion that "it is the opinion of most of our organizers that skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism... [emphasis added]"

If Lippard wants to make the argument that theism is actually philosophically (and not just psychologically) compatible with skepticism, let him make that argument; I'll listen with an open mind, and argue the issue on its merits. But he has to actually make the argument, not simply uncritically and unskeptically make the assertion and condemn atheists for failing to adhere to his skeptical dogma.

Until then, he can kiss my hairy white skeptical atheist ass.

The millionaires’ Congress

The millionaires’ Congress:
Members of US Congress increased their combined personal wealth by more than 16 percent from 2008 and 2009, even as the population they nominally represent was going through the worst wave of job losses and wage cutting since the Great Depression.

According to an analysis of financial disclosures by the Center for Responsive Politics, just under half of the US Senators and Representatives, 261 of 535, were millionaires in 2009, compared to 1 percent of the population at large. Fifty-five of these Congressmen have a net worth of greater than $10 million, and eight have fortunes estimated at over $100 million.
Whose interests do you think this congress will represent? Your or the interests of the capitalist ruling class?

(h/t to a reader)

Krugman channels Lenin

The Instability of Moderation.

When a bunch of apparently smart people (and economics requires if not actual intelligence then a considerable degree of cleverness) do something monumentally stupid, you have to think that Hanlon's Razor might not be a sufficient explanation. It might be the case that economists really are that stupid, but economics is sophisticated enough that "Clarke's" corollary — any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice — comes into play.

There is another possibility than outright malice: a hidden agenda. It might be the case that economists (and the capitalist ruling class) are not really interested in the stated agenda, but have a different agenda. It's not that they are strictly malicious, it's not that their intention is to inflict pain, suffering and deprivation, it's just that they are indifferent to deprivation, or that deprivation is an "unfortunate" consequence of their primary agenda. (In much the same sense, a "sophisticated" theodicy might hold that there isn't a specifically malicious God, it might be the case that God is simply indifferent to human suffering, or human suffering is a consequence of His real plan, a plan that does't have anything to do with the well-being of those presently alive.)

So what might be the agenda of the capitalist ruling class and their captive economists? The key issue, I think, is a certain faction of the capitalist ruling class that has been unrelentingly hostile to Social Security. A bit of initial resistance can be explained by short-sightedness or "ordinary" stupidity, but the depth of their commitment to destroying Social Security and Medicare compels a deeper explanation. It would be too facile, however, to just say that this faction just hates old people and wants them to starve. We are forced, I think, to conclude that this faction does not want to admit any compromise to their power to act arbitrarily; they do not admit any positive, active responsibility to the working and professional classes. They know, rightly I think, that to compromise their power even a little will be the thin end of the wedge to the complete destruction of their privilege and power. Even a little "socialism" will, if left unchecked, eventually resolve to outright communism, and the complete social ownership of capital.

(In a somewhat related sense, the most compelling revolutionary objection to reformism is that the "reformists" seem always to want to sacrifice the ability to pursue additional reforms. As Elena Kagan documents, the "reformers" in the early 20th century conflicts in the New York garment district sacrificed the right to strike for improvements in working conditions. I'm not averse to compromise and a degree of flexibility, but it's outright treason to give up your guns to win a single battle. Kagan also documents the revolutionaries' inflexibility and their unrealistic notion that they could win a revolution with one decisive battle.)

We have given the professional-managerial middle class their chance. They gave it their best shot from 1930 to 2010 (and we learned a lot), but they have ultimately failed. They're now fighting a rear-guard action, a Dunkirk if you will, to try to rescue as much as possible from the onslaught of the Randians. But the barbiarians Randians have won the war; the sacking of Rome liberal capitalism is only a matter of time. And sack it they will, with a level of savage brutality that will make the Nazis look like your sweet aunt Mary.

They really do want to "purge the rottenness from the system", the "rottenness" that consists of you and me expecting that we have any right to dignity, respect, opportunity, comfort or a "good" life. We can have those things, but not as a matter of right, only as a matter of power. And we will receive dignity only when we take that power and pry our rights from the hands of the Randians. And if the Randians will surrender our rights only over their dead bodies, well, that's their choice, not ours.

Atheism and skepticism

Jim Lippard wants to distinguish between what to think vs. how to think. But he's making a category error: how you think determines to a large extent what you think. The underlying issue is whether skeptics should be atheists: "Skepticism is about critical thinking, inquiry, investigation, and using the best methods available to find reliable answers to questions (and promoting broader use of those tools), while atheism is about holding a particular position on a particular issue, that no gods exist." The implication appears to be that atheism is about holding a particular position without regard to using the best method to find a reliable answer to questions about the existence of God.

But skeptical atheists typically hold the opposite position. If you use the best methods available, you will find definite, specific reliable answers to questions about the character and diversity of organisms (evolution), the shape of the earth (roundish), the motion of objects with or near objects of substantial mass (gravitation), and the efficacy and safety of vaccinations (effective and many orders of magnitude safer than having a lot of communicable diseases running around). In just the same sense, if you use the exact same methods to find reliable answers to questions about God, you will indeed find a definite and specific answer: no god exists.

To a certain extent, I will grant that atheism also entails a "extra-skeptical" component: a lot of god talk does indeed consist of "non-testable claims", i.e. meaningless blather. But quite a lot of god talk does consist of testable claims, and the meaningless blather is being used to provide a "philosophical justification" for the actual testable claims. I have no idea what atheists say at skeptical conferences (they're not my cup of tea, but if they're yours, more power to you), but if any critic of atheist participation wishes to persuade me, they can actually argue that the atheists are either actually mistaken or making philosophical points at a skeptical conference. Lippard does neither.

It's bad enough that atheists are accused of "dogmatically" adhering to skepticism, but I can deal with that. But it burns my fucking shorts when skeptics insinuate that atheism is an a priori dogma. And it also burns my fucking shorts when skeptics demand that I shut up not because I'm wrong, but because I'm hurting their cause, such as when Lippard says,
The broader skeptical movement produces greater social benefits by promoting more critical thinking in the general public than does the narrower group of skeptical atheists who primarily argue against religion and especially the smaller subset who are so obsessed that they are immediately dismissed by the broader public as monomaniacal cranks.
If I wanted to support your agenda, I would support your agenda. But I have my own agenda, and I don't demand that you shut up because you're not supporting me. Tell me I'm wrong and I'll listen, but if you tell me to shut up because I'm unpopular then you're just going to get a big fat "Go fuck yourself."

So, go fuck yourself, Lippard.

The Stupid! It Burns! (redefining stupidity edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists Redefine Atheism Rather Than Admit Defeat:
As most philosophy dictionaries and encyclopedias, like those published by Routledge and Stanford, clearly state, TRUE atheism is the belief or view that affirms there is no God or Gods. Labeling yourself an atheist but failing to make this claim means you are not an atheist. ... [atheism's] best supporting arguments [were] demolished by a revolution in theist thought beginning in about the latter half of the 20th century, led by intellectuals like [snicker] Michael Behe, Francis Collins, [chuckle] William Lane Craig, [guffaw] William Dembski, John Lennox, Alister McGrath, [snort] Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinghorne, Hugh Ross and [howls of derisive laughter, Bruce] Richard Swinburne, to name a few. ...

[A]theists will usually just make their statements then resort to angry, vitriolic, hyperbolic attacks against those who do not hold those same sentiments, including agnostics.

One cannot help but notice, of course, that the post offers no argument, just a vitriolic, hyperbolic attack against those who do not hold the same sentiments as the post author.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Real and Nominal Prices

Before I continue to talk about inflation and deflation, I want to take a detour and discuss real and nominal prices. Nominal prices are prices denominated directly in units of money; real prices are more subtle. If, as I note in my previous essay, the nominal prices of everything change all at once, by a little or by many orders of magnitude, nothing real has changed. The real height of a building remains the same whether we measure it in feet, inches meters, micrometers, or even fractions of a light-year. Economists go to great trouble to try to abstract away purely nominal prices and measure real quantities, such as Real Gross Domestic Product.

If it's so important to measure and talk about real prices, if nominal prices are as irrelevant as they seem, why not cut to the chase and do our economic transactions directly in some "real" quantity? Scientists do so all the time: They measure length in real meters, weight in real kilograms, etc.; the notion of a purely nominal measure with a varying relationship to anything real would be inconvenient and pointless*. The problem in economics, however, is that it's impossible to immediately determine real prices; whereas nominal prices are by definition immediate; they measure the immediate relations of particular commodities and factors to each other. It is only in retrospect, when we can identify how all these ever-changing relations have sorted themselves out, that we can actually identify real prices. (And economists cannot really identify real prices; they can only estimate real prices.) We can know nominal prices exactly, although we cannot know what they "really" mean; real prices by definition mean something real, but we cannot know them at all immediately, and only imperfectly in retrospect.

*I am not a scientist; it might be the case that scientists do use purely nominal measures. If so, I would very much like to know about these measures, and how scientists go about relating them to real quantities.

Physical objects — a house, a table, a cabinet full of canned goods — always have a specific real value that can be related to the nominal price at any given time: it is simply the replacement cost in present nominal price less the present nominal maintenance price. Regardless of what I nominally paid for my house ten years ago, its real value today is the nominal price of a new house minus the nominal price of fixing the house to make it of a similar quality to a new house. (If standards of quality have fallen, the maintenance price may be negative, increasing the real value of the house.) Since the real value is a function of present nominal value, we can hold the real value constant and use simple algebra to make nominal price a function of time in relation to the constant real value.

Another way of looking at real value is to look at the specifically physical components of a house.

A house requires a certain amount of lumber, wires, pipes, shingles, etc., all of which require raw materials; everything, from the extraction of the raw materials, to the manufacture and transport of the intermediate components to the final assembly of the house require a certain amount of human labor, fixed by the natural world and current levels of technology. So long as none of these components change substantially — the cost in labor of extracting materials, or manufacturing wires or pipes, etc. — change, the real value of the house will not change, even if prices overall rise or fall, changing the nominal value of the house. Of course, if the fundamental natural or technological conditions change — wood becomes more scarce, requiring more labor to satisfy marginal demand, or efficiency of production lowers the total labor cost of producing wires and switches — then the real value of the house — irrespective of the nominal value — will change.

If all wealth were held in purely real terms — in things such as houses, factories, cans of food, or even ingots of gold — then there would be no nominal prices, and inflation and deflation would be meaningless. The problem comes in when we start to socially construct assets with purely nominal value. I'll talk about the effect of these assets in another post.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Modern religion

The trouble with basing values on religions, though, is that the premises of most of them are pure wishful thinking; you either have to refuse to scrutinise those premises - take them on faith, declare that they "transcend logic" - or reject them. As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.

Greg Egan

The Power of Green

The Power of Green

(It's not really an endorsement; it's for my friend, Joe.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (demwit edition)

the stupid! it burns! No, it's not a typo in the title. From the aptly named blog, DemWit, we have On considering atheists:
What I question is [atheists'] need to attack the beliefs of others.

Millions of people around this world find solace and strength and peace in their religious beliefs and great comfort in the power of prayer. Why would any reasonable human being deny them this?

The Stupid! It Burns! (whimsical edition)

the stupid! it burns! Practical Nonsense
The problem with atheism is that it has no standard. Actions follow from whimsical readings and various influences. Your actions, as an athiest [sic], have a reason, but those reasons tell nothing about whether the action is right. They tell nothing of whether anyone else should do the same as you.
If we wanted an objective standard, we could just do what the Christians do and make one up.

Why deflation is a Very Bad Thing part 1

In the long run, inflation and deflation (negative inflation) don't matter. At all. In the short run, though, they do matter. A lot.

Macroeconomic inflation, remember, is a change in aggregate price levels; by "aggregate", economists mean all prices, including wages, rent, interest and profits. If the price of beef goes up, but all other prices stay about the same, that's not inflation. There are a lot of reasons why the price of some individual good can change without any change in overall price levels. For example, market forces or government regulations might require beef producers to spend more money on healthier feed or veterinary examinations, causing the absolute cost of producing beef to rise. There might also be a temporary shortage of beef, causing supply to be allocated to those who prefer beef the most, i.e. those are willing to forego more of other goods and pay more for beef. Similarly, improvements in efficiency can lower the absolute cost, or a temporary surplus would cost the cost to fall until the supply was adjusted. None of these phenomena have much to do with macroeconomic inflation. Inflation is a change in all prices and wages, not just one price or another.

This is an extremely critical point. A person can go into the grocery store and observe that the price of beef has just gone up, and say, "Wow! inflation is killing me!" He would often be wrong. When economists measure inflation — and I must repeat: inflation means changes in all price levels, the aggregate price level — they tend to exclude (at least in the short run) products with a lot of price volatility, such as, well, food. The price of food is dependent on an enormous number of factors: weather and climate conditions, consumer tastes, government policy; inflation — changes in the aggregate price level — is only one factor out of many. It is possible to have the price of food, oil* and other volatile prices go dramatically in directions other than the overall aggregate trend in prices. There are a lot of ways to measure inflation (core inflation, trimmed mean levels, rolling multi-year averages) but all of these measures try to factor out extremely volatile prices.

*And derivative products such as gasoline.

In the long run, inflation doesn't matter. The long run is by definition as long as it takes for all prices to adjust. We can see that inflation doesn't matter in the long run by imagining that the "long run" is instantaneous. Imagine that the government decides to add a zero to everything: to all prices, all wages, all bank accounts, all loans... everything. Yesterday, Alice makes $20/hour, has a $100,000 mortgage at 6% interest for which she pays $800/month, a $1,000 credit card bill at 10% for which she pays $80/month, and buys bread in the store for $2.50 a loaf. Today, Alice makes $200/hour, has a $1,000,000 mortgage at 6% and a $8,000 payment, a $10,000 credit card bill for which she pays $800, and bread costs $25/loaf. Nothing at all about Alice's standard of living, nothing about her real economic situation, will have changed. The same is true if we have instantaneous deflation, if we knock a zero off of everything. So if we define the "long run" as "the time it takes for all prices to adjust", inflation doesn't change anything about the real economy.

But as Keynes notes, in the long run we're all dead. Inflation and deflation matter a lot in the short run. Inflation matters in the short run because all prices and wages do not change all at the same time. Not only do they not all change at the same time, there's a pattern to the changes, and this pattern itself has an effect on the real economy.

Inflation essentially "measures" the relationship between the present and the future, or more precisely our expectations about the future. Very high inflation "says" that the present is much more important than the future; very low inflation (or deflation, i.e. negative inflation) "says" that the future is much more important than the present. Moderate levels of inflation, unsurprisingly, represent a balance between the present and the future. When inflation is very high, consumers want to spend their money as quickly as possible; they will be induced to save only with very high interest rates or rates of return on profit. Because interest rates are high, businesses, which shoulder the bulk of planning for the future by investing in physical capital, will borrow or invest less. (Note that even though prices will be higher in the future, increasing the nominal return on any investment in the present, other factors, especially wages, will also have increased, also increasing the costs.)

When inflation is very high, everyone spends. When inflation is very low or negative, everyone saves. But economics is built on trade. We want the people who want to save to trade with people who want to spend. If everyone wants to spend or save, there's no trade happening, which is (usually) bad.

I'll go more into the dynamics of inflation and deflation in another post.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

2% Sellout

Mr. Obama’s Most Recent "2%" Sellout is his Worst Yet:
Now that President Obama is almost celebrating his willingness to renew the tax cuts enacted under George Bush for the super-rich ten years ago, it is time for Democrats to ask themselves how strongly they are willing to oppose an administration that looks increasingly like Bush-Cheney III. Is this what they expected by his promise of an end to partisan politics?

It is a reflection of how one-sided today’s class war has become that Warren Buffet has quipped that “his” side is winning without a real fight being waged. No gauntlet has been thrown down over the trial balloon that the president and his advisor David Axelrod have sent up over the past two weeks to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% for “just” two more years. For all practical purposes the euphemism “two years” means forever – at least, long enough to let the super-rich siphon off enough more money to bankroll enough more Republicans to be elected to make the tax cuts permanent.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (bullshit meter edition)

the stupid! it burns! Is the New Atheism Really Affecting People’s Belief in God?

"Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

The Stupid! It Burns! (evidentiary edition)

the stupid! it burns! Evidence for Athiesm
The question I wish to ask is this: How can the New Atheists employ evidentialist principles to argue that religious belief is irrational if they are unwilling to apply those same principles to atheism?
A little (philosophical) knowledge really is a dangerous thing.

Metaphors and the brain

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors:
Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (Satanic edition)

the stupid! it burns! A little burning stupidity from "down under." (No, not Australia, Hell itself!)

Man up, (so-called) atheists
Atheists disappoint me. [Awwwwww, I'm sowwy.] ...

[I]s the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which is just a bunch of atheists, really about free thought? Are they free to think about ME? [Yes. They think you're an idiot*.] ...

I also hate religion! And let’s fight their religious bigotry with our own religious big. . . uh, big. . . big signs! That’s it, big signs! [As opposed to what, a blog post that will be read by ones of people?]

First of all, no one believes you. You know why not? Because GOD EXISTS you nitwits!

Hello! Have you not ever looked around you at the world? Ever since its creation (and I was there!), God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Come on, my (so-called) atheist friends, you are without excuse here! Going around saying God does not exist is like going around saying creation doesn’t exist. Do you also look at fine art and conclude no painter existed? Do you look at a novel and say no author existed? Of course not. [Ray Comfort with horns! Is the pineapple proof of Satanic power?] ...

But do people go around writing books about teapots not existing? The Teapot Delusion? The Teapot is not Great? Is there a “free thinker” group whose mission it is to ensure separation of teapots and state? [We would if the teapot believers were flying planes into buildings.] ...

I know you new atheists. And I know that you are not really atheists. You are theists just like me. But just like me, you hate God. [Don'tcha just love it when people tell you what you think?]

*Not really; I have no idea what they think. Probably nothing. But if they did think about this guy, I'm pretty confident what they would think.

The whole post could be sarcastic. <shrugs> If so, I'm well and truly duped.

Do atheist activists poison everything?

A article at StateReligionVIC provocatively asks, "Do atheist activists poison everything?" The article more precisely asks, "Does being antagonistic toward religion compromise human rights?" The answer to this question depends critically on how we interpret the human right of freedom of religion. On an abstract interpretation, antagonism toward religion does not compromise human rights.

Normally, to condemn something, as atheist activists do in fact condemn religion, is implicitly to demand that it should be illegal. If I say that people should not kill each other, or steal each others' stuff, or that banks should not take excessive risks with their depositors' money, then I'm saying we should take coercive measures, either proactively to prevent the activity or retroactively to punish it. It usually doesn't make any sense to say, "This or that is bad, but if you want to do it, go ahead." At first glance the author is raising a valid objection.

There are, however, exceptions to this interpretation. The most important exception follows from the understanding that the government — the collection of institutions that have a near-monopoly on the use of coercive force — is not just a completely neutral third party. People in government (and those who control the government, be it the ruling class or the majority) have their own personal and institutional interests, some of which they can fulfill only to the detriment of the interests of people in general. In such cases we might condemn some activity but also not want the government to enforce that condemnation, not because the activity itself shouldn't be — in a perfect world — coercively prohibited, but because we cannot determine how the government could do so without also having the power to implement its own interests to the detriment of our own.

The position of anti-religious atheists such as myself, who are also secularists, is that the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, i.e. legal secularism, is just such a "negative" right. The purpose of this right is not to establish and protect a good, but rather to prevent a greater evil. We support legal secularism not because we believe religion is a good that must be protected, but rather because we cannot think of a way for the government to stop people from being religious without also giving them the right to be arbitrarily tyrannical. Support for legal secularism has everything to do with the inherent limitations of government and nothing to do with the positive value of religion.

For this reason, you will often see an apparently "schizophrenic" attitude toward religion, especially minority religions such as Islam in the United States. On the one hand, we see nothing at all good about the religion. Even where the religion or religious leaders espouse some good belief, some moral standard we approve of, it's just as bad or worse to espouse a good belief for bad reasons; indeed what makes a reason bad is not that it leads only to bad beliefs, but because it can justify any belief, good or bad. On the other hand, attempts by the government to coercively prohibit or marginalize religious belief are worse than the religion. If the government can prohibit a religious belief, it gains powers that can be used to suppress dissent and democratic debate. So we will often condemn Islam in one breath and in the next vigorously support the "ground-zero mosque." Even if the Park51 Muslim community center were a public relations mistake, it is a mistake that is its owners to make, not ours to prevent.

We can find an eloquent expression of this meta-principle in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, regarding freedom of speech. Mill does not argue that freedom of speech exists because every opinion is itself good. He argues, rather, that we must have to subject all ideas to criticism. It is only by public criticism and analysis that we can separate good ideas from bad.
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
We can also add, according to Hegel and Marx, the idea that the collision of thesis and antithesis can produce a new synthesis; whenever we suppress the antithesis to the thesis of common belief, we lose the opportunity to generate a synthesis, new knowledge and new belief.

The case for freedom of religion is different than the case for freedom of speech. What is similar, however, is the idea that a universal right can operate on a meta-level. Just as Mill makes clear that we need freedom of speech not because every opinion is good at the literal, "concrete" level and should be encouraged and promoted, but rather because we must protect the abstract meta-level of open discourse. In much the same sense, anti-religious atheists support secularism not because any religion is good at the literal level, but because the suppression of religion is bad at the abstract meta-level. I can criticize and condemn at the literal level some racist, Nazi screed, call it not only mistaken or false but also despicable and contemptible, yet not compromise in the least the abstract principle of free speech. Indeed the principle of free speech exists so I can condemn speech I consider abhorrent. In just the same sense, I can condemn at the literal level any religion, even the idea of religion without compromising in the least the abstract principle of freedom of religion.

We can therefore conclude that criticism of or antagonism towards religion at the concrete level does not compromise the abstract principle of freedom of religion. The only available counter-argument is that the freedom of religion is not an abstract principle; it operates, rather, at the literal level. For example, the right to personal property operates at the literal level, the ownership of personal property is itself good, and must be protected for its own sake. One could argue, therefore, that anti-religious atheists really are compromising an important human right, because being religious is itself good. But that's a different argument. Construed as an abstract principle, freedom of religion exists as much to facilitate criticism and outright antagonism as well as the practice and belief of religion.

Abstract principles often create apparent contradictions. For example, freedom of speech affords the opportunity to criticize freedom of speech itself, to call for government or social censorship. On the one hand, because freedom of speech is nearly absolute such speech is definitely protected. On the other hand, such speech seems to violate the "spirit" of the principle. It is — if not logically contradictory — at least hypocritical to demand universal free-speech protection to call for the compromise of freedom of speech. We have an intuition that implicitly or explicitly attacking the abstract principle itself is illegitimate in a sense different from the negative qualities of bad ideas in general. It is one thing to claim, "Your idea is wrong, mistaken, odious, or abhorrent;" it seems quite another thing to demand, "Because this idea is wrong, you should not speak it." The first is only an exercise of free speech; the second an attack on not just the speech but the principle of free speech itself. Both statements are technically protected; but we can criticize the second in a way we cannot criticize the first. In the first case if we believe the criticism is correct, we have nothing to say about it. In the second case, we might agree with the underlying criticism (we might agree that the idea really is wrong) yet still criticize the speech: we should not demand that anyone remain silent. Right or wrong, put your idea out there so the world can criticize it.

The StateReligionVIC post might be similarly illegitimate. If we see freedom of religion in the abstract sense, it is illegitimate to demand anti-religious forego our own abstract freedom of "religion", i.e. the freedom to argue that religions are harmful. Again it is important to distinguish criticism of our position from the claim that merely stating our position by itself compromises a human right. Just criticizing our position — just saying that we were somehow mistaken in our estimation of religion, or that the author disagrees with our position — would be entirely legitimate. But the StateReligionVIC article seems to say that just the activity of being "antagonistic" to religion by itself compromises an important human right. To make this criticism stick, the article would have to argue the direct claim that freedom of religion exists because religion itself is good.

But the article itself does not even make that claim, much less argue it. The article argues for the value of religious tolerance, not the value of religion: the article states that atheist and anti-religious blogger P. Z. Myers "seems very oblivious to central role that religious tolerance plays in a pluralist society," arguing for the value of religious tolerance, not religion itself. The article also observes that it's difficult to determine precisely what constitutes "religion."
[W]ithin the realm of human rights, it is extremely difficult to determine [what] the proper scope of the freedoms of conscience, of belief, and of religion are and to identify those freedoms in a general and versatile manner for all citizens.
I agree! Thus the principle must be seen in the abstract: we protect freedom of religion regardless of religions' merits, because governments cannot even identify, much less consistently evaluate, religious belief. But these problems are benign regarding private criticism, without the coercive power of "public policy or law." If private criticism misidentifies some behavior, it is simply mistaken, not directly harmful in the same sense that mis-identification or vagueness is directly harmful in public policy and law.

The article makes other arguments, but none of them state, imply or argue the critical minor premise that religion itself is good. For example, the article views advocacy for a society free from religion "as a personal opinion, that can not and should not be advocated as public policy or law." The article does not, however, actually cite any instances where this personal opinion actually is advocated as a public policy or law. It chides some commenters for an unsupported opinion, that "calling the people at ACCESS Ministry 'awful people' was not as useful as saying something specific about what they were doing wrong and why it was wrong." Even if absolutely correct, this criticism fails to go to the initial claim. The author objects to his or her treatment by atheist and anti-religious blogger P. Z. Myers and commenters on his site. But again, even if it were correct, this criticism fails to address the claim. Nothing in the article argues for a literal interpretation of "freedom of religion" over an abstract interpretation.

Not only does the article fail to argue for a literal interpretation, it explicitly calls for anti-religious atheists to censor themselves.
In the course of my comments on the school religion issues, I pointed out that I thought PZ Myers would be useful to point out how ICCOREIS statements about evolution exposed their anti science bias, and that the St. James crew didn't want to confront them on this ... so this was an example of how PZ could be "useful" ...

On the issue of religion in schools I find myself continually begging people who are against the current situation, to use language that makes more sense to people who are not anti religious...
The demand that someone else should say something is just as censorious, compromises freedom just as deeply, as the demand that we should not say something. It is the author himself who is at least demanding we compromising our own human rights, the fundamental right to engage in the discussion of religion according to our own agenda, not any Christian's, Muslim's, or Buddhist's or any accommodationist's agenda.

Anti-religious atheists engage in analysis and criticism. We do not, on the whole, advocate anti-religion as a matter of public policy or law, or advocate coercive measures. With the exception of Sam Harris, who states, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,"* a position that has received considerable criticism**, anti-religious atheists confine ourselves to substantive criticism and condemnation of religion itself, its content; we refrain on principle from advocating coercive measures to eliminate religion. We are in exactly the same position regarding freedom of religion as anyone who condemns The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf as not merely false but also odious and abhorrent. It would be one thing if accommodationists such as the author of the StateReligionVIC article were to criticize or condemn our position or arguments for being false, mistaken or inherently odious; to argue in effect that freedom of religion literally and directly protects religion as itself good. But it is hypocritical to demand that we refrain from criticizing religion because criticism is itself "intolerant", because it violates the abstract principle that religion not be subject to coercion. The first would, I would argue, be simply mistaken; the second demand is itself odious and abhorrent, a violation of the very principle it seeks to uphold.

*The End of Faith, pp. 52-53
**See e.g. Tom Flynn, 2005. "Glimpses of Nirvana." Free Inquiry, volume 25 number 2

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (moral edition)

the stupid! it burns! The stupidity is flowing thick and fast this weekend!

Stop It, You're Giving Us a Bad Name:
The normal shorthand way that Americans proclaim that they adhere to a standardized moral code regarding their treatment of other people is to acknowlege membership in a religion. If you don't have such a membership, sensible people will rightly wonder whether you have ANY moral code. Until you convice them that you do, folks have a right to be a little leery of dealing with you.

In my America, the normal shorthand way we proclaim we adhere to a standardized moral code is to call ourselves law-abiding taxpayers.

The author is himself an atheist, proudly in the closet. (He calls anyone out of the closet an "asshole".) It really is true: sometimes an atheist is someone with just one fewer stupid idea than a theist.

The Stupid! It Burns! (willfully stupid edition)

the stupid! it burns! How not to do atheism:
The lesser kind of atheist writers have been trying for some centuries to compile lists of “bible difficulties”. They would like us to believe that, if they can find or invent anything which looks like a contradiction, by whatever combination of ingenuity or wilful stupidity, in a library of books written over a period of several centuries and copied by hand — especially a numerical difference, and we all know how reliable is the copying of numerals in ancient texts –, then that proves … well, what? They get quite hazy about what it proves, specifically, other than that “the bible is not true”.

The Stupid! It Burns! (shoot yourself in the foot edition)

the stupid! it burns! Wow. I'm reading an otherwise well-written and reasonably intelligent essay until I hit this gem of stupidity in the footnotes, which completely undermines the entire article.

A Theology of Disbelief: Women, Religion, and Atheism
Feel free to argue with me until you’re blue in the face, but New Atheism is as much a religious movement as fundamentalist Christianity. Even without a specific unifying doctrine of beliefs and a codified church law and no tax exempt status, new atheism is what scholars call a “quasi-religion” like Marxism.
I'd argue with the author (actually, that's not really necessary, since she herself supplies without rebuttal a fairly persuasive argument against her own position, but she explicitly says she's impervious to reason, that she will hold her belief no matter what.

Sorry, Meg: you shot yourself in the foot and displayed your fundamental lack of intellectual integrity.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unpacking the question

Rule #1: NEVER blithely answer a question. Before you answer any question, ALWAYS determine what the question actually means. This rule is especially true in philosophy* and politics, but as Miller shows us, it's important in science as well. It is more important to ask good questions than to come up with answers; indeed I claim that you cannot get a good answer to a bad question; I claim also that when you've asked a good question, the answer — or at least how to find the answer — will be clear.

*It's arguable that philosophy consists almost exclusively of determining what questions mean and is almost entirely unconcerned with actually answering them.

We had a discussion the other day in Political Science class that illustrates this principle perfectly. The instructor essentially asked: who is greedier, the person who has a lot, or the person who doesn't have a lot, but undeservedly wants more? The discussion quickly moved to the question: what determines a person's social and material outcome, the choices he makes or the environment he grew up in? Both questions, however, are vague, and depend enormously on different kinds of underlying premises; they depend as well on the kind of social and political questions that the answer would itself underlie as a premise.

The discussion of the second question more-or-less took on a "nature/nurture" character. What determines a person's choices: his "innate" decision-making cognitive apparatus or the environmental influences on that apparatus? As Miller notes, however, the ordinary discourse about this question is scientifically incoherent; it's not the sort of question that can be answered scientifically, even in theory. When you have multiple-factor causation, and especially when the different factors don't just influence the outcome but influence each other, assigning degrees of causality to the different factors is not logically possible. Outcomes are, rather, the result of emergent properties of the multiple-factor system, and a superficial reduction loses the interaction between the factors. There are a lot of interesting scientific questions we can ask of multiple-factor causation; Miller offers the example, "How much of the variation in a given human trait is due to genetic variation between individuals of a population?" We could translate this question into the context: How much of the variation in social outcome is due to variation in the individuals' choices? But this, of course, is not the sort of question that we can reasonably expect an answer from a bunch of freshmen in an Intro to Poli Sci class.

We want to use the answers to questions about the underlying causality of social outcome to answer questions about social and political policy: how can we most effectively change social outcomes? What properties of social outcomes do we want to change? If we do change one property of social outcomes, what other properties can we predict will also change, and how do we feel about those changes? How can we detect and respond to indirect changes that we can't predict? And even: should we change social outcomes at all? The last question brings us around to the first question posed in class, which can be recast as: is it morally right to for an individual to receive a social outcome he does not deserve?

We're a little closer, I think, to seeing the important underlying questions we really want to answer. I'll try to ask them explicitly in another post, and maybe try to even answer some of them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (absolute transcendent edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why You and I Can’t Understand Atheists
In fact denialism is pathological in the rationale of Atheism. It is really the only defense against first principles based, transcendent logic. Such absolutist logic can only be denied, not disproved, and this is just what Nietzsche did in his support of Athesim. But most Atheists don't delve that deeply into the philosophy of their own beliefs, because there is no need to examine a personal truth construct for validity if one actually believes it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

And all of the children are above average

In The Election That Wasn't, Thomas Friedman approves of Lawrence Katz' assertion that "Everyone today... needs to think of himself as an 'artisan.'" Not a terrible idea in itself, but Friedman concludes that "...just doing your job in an average way... will lead to below-average wages. Sadly, average is over. We’re in the age of 'extra,' and everyone has to figure out what extra they can add to their work to justify being paid more than a computer, a Chinese worker or a day laborer." This conclusion a pervasive — and pernicious — capitalist moral standard, a moral standard that any future communist society would have more difficulty overcoming than it would actually defeating the capitalist class.

When skill and ability is normally distributed, half of all people are below average. Always. By definition. It is one thing to say we must become "artisans," that we all become become more skilled in absolute terms, but it is quite another thing to say that only those with above average skills can expect anything more than below average wages. And in a capitalist economy, "below average" is newspeak for subsistence wages, only enough to support the bare minimum of survival, never mind "luxuries" such as decent dental care or the education necessary to participate in a democracy.

We read this article in my Economics class yesterday. My instructor maintains that Friedman is speaking metaphorically in his conclusion, but I think he's speaking literally. There really is a disproportionate weighting relative to the distribution of ability and skill towards the high end of the scale: the average wage is substantially higher than the median wage. We see this way of thinking all over the place, from the tendency of upper-middle class people comparing themselves to the ultra-rich and feeling poor, to Joel Spolsky's business model of hiring only the best of the best.

This way of thinking — the idea that those who are only average "deserve" below average wages — matches reality to a certain extent. Productivity is not directly proportional to skill, it's proportional to some power of the skill. A worker who is twice as skilled as another will produce not just twice as much but four times as much as the other. This relationship underlies the 80-20 rule of thumb: 20% of the workers produce 80% of the output. So the idea that the most skilled workers in any field are disproportionally rewarded is in a certain sense "fair".

Without commenting on the "macro-ethics" of capitalism, under economic conditions where there's value in going balls to the wall to increase our economic productivity, to increase productivity an order of magnitude faster than the population is increasing, this particular "micro-ethical" sense of fairness is almost guaranteed to be selected for*. Any economic ecology that identifies the most skilled people and encourages them to work as hard as possible will have an enormous selective advantage versus those that do not do so.

*More precisely, any other behavior will be selected against.

But economic conditions have changed. We no longer need to improve our productivity as fast as possible. We no longer want want to improve our productivity as fast as possible. And we physically cannot improve our productivity — especially our productivity of physical things — as fast as possible.

We have enough "stuff" — enough food, enough clothing, enough housing, enough electricity, enough medical and dental care, even enough televisions, DVD players and computers — for everyone in the world. Or, more precisely, we have the capacity to produce and physically distribute enough stuff for everyone. We have the capacity right now for everyone on the planet to live in a degree of physical comfort. I'm not saying that we shouldn't ever produce more stuff, or better stuff, but we are no longer facing the pressure of desperate poverty to improve our productivity as much as possible.

I don't want more stuff; indeed I want a lot less stuff than I used to want. I don't think I'm alone in this opinion. Everywhere I look, even those who want more stuff seem to be growing more desperately absurd and contrived. I've reduced my spending (and income) almost an order of magnitude, from the low six figures to the low five figures. I don't want a 3,000 square foot house in the suburbs. I don't want a new car every two years to drive more than an hour a day in increasingly congested traffic to get to work. I don't want the latest smart phone, iPad, or electric back-scratcher. I don't want more processed food, processed entertainment or processed opinions. I don't want more stuff; I'm tired of stuff; I'm tired of chasing after stuff. My life is better now with less stuff than it was two years ago when I had tons of stuff.

I don't want more stuff. I want better medical care and especially better dental care, but most of all I want to learn and I want to participate. The greatest technological development of the 21st century, the development that has given me the most reward and satisfaction, is Wikipedia, that has put all the knowledge of the (English-speaking) world at my fingertips. For free*. I don't want a dozen $500,000/year Harvard professors to tell me what job I should do and how much I should get paid, I want to learn about economics myself. I don't want to pay $20 to see professional actors in a $200,000,000 movie, I want a community theater where I can act. I don't want to watch two dozen steroid-crazed gorillas mauling each other on TV, I want to actually play soccer with a bunch of other out-of-shape middle aged folks. I don't want to watch, I want to do.

*Or more precisely for the trivial cost of a half-day's minimum wage work per month for my internet connection

We physically cannot produce more stuff We are running into physical limitations on the production of stuff: pollution, global warming, garbage, the energy required to move stuff around. If we keep producing stuff, and especially if we keep producing more and more stuff, we're going to drown in our own shit. Not in a thousand years, either, but tomorrow.

There's a kind of perversity in the present-day capitalist system. I believe that human beings are fundamentally morally good. I think that underlying capitalism — explaining and even to a certain extent excusing its immorality and exploitation — has been a feeling that it's fundamentally good to do everything in our power to respond to the desperate poverty and unimaginable suffering of the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity's mere economic subsistence. There is a belief — righteous, I think — that the three-century-long project to improve our material well-being has been worth all the sacrifices and excesses of the capitalist system. Worth it or not, here we are, with such a monumental productive capacity that we can today produce more in a year than the the the entire pre-capitalist world produced for all of recorded history. But because this response to desperate poverty is so ingrained, when we are on the verge of actually eliminating poverty, we are reluctant to do so, for fear of eliminating our primary motivation.

We do not rationally construct our ethical beliefs; our ethical beliefs evolve. The idea of concentrating reward for the most productive people evolved because it worked to increase our productive capacity as fast as possible. But we don't really think about why an ethical belief evolved; we tend to think about our ethical beliefs as intrinsically valid, not instrumentally valid. Under specific environmental circumstances we evolved an ethical predisposition to increase our productivity as fast as possible in order to alleviate poverty. But because the ethical belief evolved — because we did not consciously construct it — we have come to believe that increasing productivity, especially for the production of physical goods, is intrinsically good. And therefore we see any retreat from that impulse to increase productivity, or any belief that would even permit a retreat, as intrinsically bad, lazy, useless, wasteful, without regard to the underlying why.

The last three recessions have hinted at the increasing disconnect between our foundational "capitalist" ethical beliefs and the actual material conditions of global society. We recovered from earlier recessions by eliminating production of stuff we didn't want and then using the available labor to increase the production of more and better stuff, stuff we actually needed and wanted. But except for the construction of the internet and cell-phone infrastructure (which are only a small fraction of GDP) the last three recoveries have not been driven by reallocation of production, but by finding new and creative ways to create financial bubbles. We recovered from the 1991 recession by creating a stock-market bubble; we recovered from the 2001 recession by creating a housing bubble; and — lacking a suitable vehicle to create a financial bubble — we have not yet truly recovered from the 2008 recession. In each of the last three recessions, the fall in unemployment has lagged further behind recovery in GDP growth, indicating that the recovery is not being driven by effective reallocation of employment. Indeed, we have seen an increasing fraction of GDP transferred to financial services, services arguably without any actual social utility. We aren't even trying to efficiently allocate our labor anymore; we seem instead to be flailing around to more effectively allocate demand... and failing to do so.

The observation that the exceptional receive a disproportionate reward is obvious, and has been around since the beginning of recorded history. It is only recently that we have been able to push the unexceptional out of sight, in ghettos and mostly in other countries, that we have been able to pretend that "everyone" (at least everyone we can see) deserves a basic level of comfort and dignity that has for most of recorded history truly been available only to a privileged few. With globalization, the pointy end of this inequality has returned to our own shores.

And fundamentally, I object to Friedman's conclusion not because it's wrong, but because it's too limited. Friedman is "right" within his own tiny little box of the capitalist ethos, but the box itself has become too small, too ill-fitting to today's world. It is the ethos of the 19th century, when the vast majority of the population was called upon to sacrifice their lives and labor for the benefit of their great-grandchildren. Perhaps this sacrifice was unjust, perhaps we could have achieved the same result without so much misery, exploitation and suffering, but they did in fact make that sacrifice. We ourselves, however, are those great-grandchildren they made that sacrifice for. It is time now to enjoy that sacrifice, to let everyone live in the comfort and dignity we can because of that sacrifice now enjoy, and to work on making the world better instead of more productive.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Atheist myths debunked!

Ben Pobjie debunks several atheist myths. For example:
3. ATHEISM IS A RELIGION: Not at all - atheism is not the sort of structured belief system usually designated as "a religion" - it is in fact a very narrow set of beliefs more properly dubbed a "death cult". It really ticks us off when we get lumped in with the religious, when our soulless blend of nihilism and masochism is really very distinct.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A stupid question

PZ Myers maintains his stance that you cannot convince him any God exists.

He's right, you know. Fundamentally, the sentence "God exists" is not literally meaningful, even in the loosest sense. It is a mistake, I think, to so easily concede that the statement "God exists" is literally meaningful. As Myers notes, to make the statement meaningful would entail a definition of God that most modern theists would find more objectionable than atheism, [UTA:] and we know of no such beings that actually exist. Alternatively, most atheists who blithely accept the meaning of this statement conflate "God" with "that which causes unexplained phenomena." But of course we are presently surrounded by unexplained phenomena, hence a vigorous and persistent scientific profession. If we sincerely believe that unexplained phenomena are by definition evidence of a god, we should all be theists.

Either way, I think the proper response to the question, "Do you believe any god exists?" is, "What the fuck do you mean by 'god'?" Furthermore, we should respond to the doubletalk and mumbo-jumbo spouted by theologians, apologists and the occasional philosopher with a similar question: what the fuck do you mean by "the ground of all being"? What the fuck do you mean by "that which we cannot speak positively about"? In general, "I'm entirely unimpressed that you can string a lot of fifty-cent words together in complex sentences; what the fuck are you talking about?"

The statement "God exists" is really a idiom for, "Do what I tell you to do, because you are a miserable, despicable sinner." Because I refuse under all conceivable circumstances to subordinate my own moral conscience to another's — all anyone can do is coerce my compliance, which requires guns, not gods — nothing can therefore convince me that any gods exist; the two statements are identical and I categorically reject both.

[Thanks to Dan for the update.]

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (PZ Myers edition)

the stupid! it burns! Interview [sic*] with atheist PZ Myers: Pure self-parody
Myers can’t go three sentences without making a moral claim, but he denies objective morality. His whole worldview is a farce. If he really believed it then he’d “know” that Christians have no choice but to say and act as we do. After all, if the universe is purely materialistic then the molecules in motion would be the cause of everything. Nothing immaterial could exist.

*Even Egnor doesn't claim his article is an interview, which it isn't (but it's pretty fucking stupid too).

The Stupid! It Burns! (banana man edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism And It's Problems
Ray Comfort [the banana man] was right when he stated, “The irony of the Christian faith is that it seems to be intellectual suicide, but proves to be the ultimate intellectual challenge.” Let’s examine a few of these “challenges” to the atheist view. ...

[The atheist] refuses to look at the created world around him; consequently, he fails to realize that God doesn’t need to be proved or disproved -- He is self-evident. ...

[A]theism and evolution are both faiths. Where atheism states that there is no God, evolution supports it by claiming that millions of years ago there was a Big Bang that came from nowhere out of nothing and slowly formed by random processes into what we have today, thus eliminating the need for a Creator. ...

Many atheists claim, “Because I don’t believe in God, He doesn’t exist.”

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (dead atheist edition)

the stupid! it burns! Godless gaffe
This[*] accounts for the ironic spectacle of militant atheists who express outrage if Christians depict atheism on its own terms. That’s “insensitive” (or worse). ...

[W]hen issue at hand happens to be a dead atheist, then you’re not supposed to speak the truth–for the sake of the living. How dare you depict the fate of an atheist in atheistic terms! Even though atheism is true (so we’re told), you should spare the feelings of the living by tactfully acting as if atheism is false.**

*Even in context, I have no idea what the antecedent is.
**Sorry, I have no idea what he's talking about.

The Stupid! It Burns! (agnostic edition)

the stupid! it burns! It's Tough Being an Agnostic
It’s tough being an agnostic. You exist constantly caught between those vast, angry pillars of religious fundamentalism and new atheism. ...

My first port of call was the Reverend Dr. John Hughes of Jesus College. Over twenty minutes, a cup of tea and a packet of minstrels he took me through one of the most potent challenges put to religious believers.[*] The perceived conflict between faith and reason. ... [W]hen it comes to “life and death and morality and reasons for existence” we reach an impasse in which rational proofs are no longer useful. ... [F]aith can be the voice that fills the silence. Where conventional reason finds itself out of depth, the believer turns to other forms of rationality[**] for their answers. So if not logic and reason, what compels a believer to their belief? “A sense of awe and beauty at the universe. The example of someone living a life of purpose and value that we ourselves want to lead.”

*You're at fucking Cambridge, learn how to use a colon.
**There's no such thing as "other" forms of rationality, just as there are no "other" forms of rocks. There is just rationality and things other than rationality.

I usually don't comment on this sort of egregious stupidity, but I do have a few words. I've seen any number of these idiots. Manji is not an agnostic, a person who sincerely doesn't know whether or not god exists (in the same sense I sincerely don't know whether or not there's extraterrestrial intelligence). He is, rather, a theist in search of a theology. He's not a skeptic, he's not looking for a "measured debate", he's just looking for a line of bullshit he can really buy.

Ho hum

Ho hum. The real Republicans have won control of the House of Representatives from the lite Republicans Democrats. I predicted this outcome (more or less) in 2007, and predicted it more accurately in January of this year. If I continue to be accurate, the Republicans will work non-stop for the next two years to discredit Obama, and the they'll take the White House in 2012. If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.

Am I scared? Of course. Am I more scared than I would be if the Democrats had won? Not really. Our economic catastrophe has taken on a life of its own, and the Democratic party is utterly incapable of addressing this catastrophe. The Republicans promise to make it worse, but I don't know that they really can make it any worse than it'll be on its own. When the whole block is merrily burning, just as throwing a bucket of water won't help any, throwing a bucket of gasoline on it won't make it that much worse.

I will definitely predict we're heading for a double-dip recession by 2012, with unemployment over 10% and underemployment over 20% (which will be blamed on President Obama and the Democrats), triggered by a collapse in the stock market bubble, the commercial real estate market, a trade war with China and/or some international crisis, probably in Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran. If we have a very poor Christmas this year, just that might continue the depression trigger another recession.

Of course, the war in Afghanistan will go poorly, as will the war in Iraq whatever the fuck it is we're doing in Iraq with 50,000 troops and only god knows how many mercenaries civilian contractors.

In 2012, look for a very militant — in the literal sense — hard-as-nails Republican president, and an assault on civil liberties and basic democratic rights that will make the Cheney Bush administration look like a bunch of bleeding-heart card-carrying ACLU liberals.

That's actually the best outcome. The worst outcome is that for some reason the Republican candidate self-destructs, the Democrats win a narrow victory*, and the Christian right — with its militias giving it substantial military power — rises up in open revolt and civil war.

*I suspect that if the Republican presidential candidate were credibly shown to have been a homosexual pedophile, the Democrats might pull out a 5 point victory.

"May you live in interesting times." A curse indeed.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Lovecraft on Republicans

As for the Republicans — how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical 'American heritage'...) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.

— H. P. Lovecraft
(via PZ Myers)

The minimum wage and economic intuition

I am, of course, a communist, and I consider the economic and social status of workers, especially in relation to capitalists, to be of primary importance. I'm all for anything that improves the economic status of workers. The minimum wage in a capitalist society, however, fails to do so; even within a capitalist society, the minimum wage is one of the least effective tools for even temporarily and partially improving workers' standard of living.

The minimum wage is good for one and only one purpose: to exclude certain kinds of industry, industry that can be profitable only by paying individuals less than that required for what a society considers a minimally civilized life, i.e. to prevent de facto slavery. A minimum wage, like all direct government price interventions, produces a deadweight loss; a minimum wage fails to offer any additional additional compensation, such as tax revenue. Since a minimum wage can only exclude economic activity, its only proper use is to exclude economic activity we intentionally want to exclude: i.e. that activity insufficiently valuable to support its workers' civilized life.

Furthermore, the benefit of a minimum wage is not that it actually excludes insufficiently valuable activities, but that it conveniently does so. We must implement other macroeconomic policies to ensure that a fraction of the population does not have to choose between slavery and starvation. A minimum wage is not so much an economic policy as it is a political policy: to bring the issue of inefficient production to light, to transform the plight of those workers invisibly and silently employed in inefficient industries into a socially urgent and visible problem of unemployment.

As a political policy, I support a minimum wage. But as an economic policy, a minimum wage — indeed any law that affects only nominal wages — cannot transfer economic demand from the owners of capital to workers, even those workers paid the minimum wage: it is simply ineffective. If a minimum wage were set substantially above the current price levels necessary to support a minimally civilized life, the increased wages would merely cause price inflation necessary to bring the minimum wage down to the minimum standard of civilized life... or even below that standard: a minimum wage in a capitalist society requires continuous adjustment.

While I don't think the minimum wage is a particularly effective tool, many criticisms of the minimum wage reveal a deep misunderstanding of macroeconomics, especially when people attempt to apply their naive* microeconomic intuition to what is essentially a macroeconomic issue. Remember: microeconomics is about relationships between elements within an economy; macroeconomics is about emergent properties of the economy as a whole; an economy as a whole does not (setting aside international economics) have any relationship to anything else. Also, you'll often see economists use the phrase ceteris paribus (literally "with other things the same") especially when they're talking about microeconomics. But when we're** talking about macroeconomics, we usually want to talk about how everything adjusts around various changes; in macro, ceteris is often not paribus.

*I don't mean to disparage naive intuition; by definition everyone has only naive intuition about a field in which they are not experts. But the only way to learn is to be criticized.

**Hey, I'm at least a
junior economist... very junior, to be sure.

We can see these naive intuitions and mistaken analysis in Alonzo Fyfe's post, Minimum Wage.
First, in any economy there are some businesses that are succeeding, some that will fail, and some that sit near the border barely hanging on. Today, they are making enough to keep the doors open. Tomorrow, with the added burden of a higher minimum wage, they slip below the line and close their doors. Rather than making an extra dollar per hour, these employees lose their livelihood. They have not been made better off as well.
First of all, it is only those business that are both minimally profitable and are paying below the proposed minimum wage that would be affected by a change in the minimum wage. Many businesses are barely profitable regardless of (or sometimes because of) their workers' wages above the minimum. So Fyfe overstates whatever case he might initially have. As noted above, an industry that requires its workers to live below what our society considers a minimally civilized existence are precisely those industries we ought to have a moral objection to supporting.

Furthermore, in any economy, we are constantly reallocating labor from less productive to more productive uses. By definition, those businesses that are minimally profitable are precisely those that are ripe for failure, so the labor they're presently using can be allocated to other more productive uses. Even if we set the minimum wage higher than the minimal standard of civilized life, the only businesses that would be affected in the short run would be precisely those businesses least worth preserving.

One common macroeconomic misconceptions is that jobs are externally limited. They are not. There are internal limitations to employment, but a job is not itself a resource that needs to be protected or conserved. Depending on what sort of economist you ask, unemployment is due to either workers themselves choosing not to work or because economic demand, not supply, is somehow poorly allocated. Either way, protecting a job in and of itself is not something we want to worry about... for precisely the same reasons we don't want to put too much economic burden on the minimum wage.
Second, the employer could try to get the money it needs to pay its minimum-wage employees by raising prices. Of course, if it raises its prices, then it will probably have fewer customers. If the business has fewer customers, then it does not need as many employees. Therefore, it lays some of the employees off, effectively redistributing their paycheck among those employees who get to keep their jobs.

Again, Fyfe is again employing "micro" thinking to a macro issue. In aggregate terms, if companies in general raise their prices to match an increase in factor prices (increased wages and the increased profit on the new wages), the increase in aggregate demand will in the long run exactly offset the increase in prices. This is why a minimum wage is typically ineffective (except to conveniently prohibit insufficiently valuable activities), but it is not actually harmful. Even in the short run (because only those companies presently paying under the minimum wage that could raise their prices), because of the increase in aggregate demand, a change in the minimum wage will cause a reallocation of labor, not a reduction in total employment.
Third, it becomes more profitable for the company to invest in automation. Minimum-wage jobs are typically just the types of jobs that are easy to automate. There are certainly going to be companies for whom automation just is not cost effective at the moment. However, an increase in the minimum wage will tilt the balance in favor of automation. With past increases in the minimum wage, we saw the rise in self-service gas stations. The next increase in the minimum wage will see a boom in self-service (automated) checkout stations in supermarkets.

This objection is probably the most serious error that Fyfe makes. All increases to real Gross Domestic Product — the best (but hardly perfect) measure of specifically economic well-being — is a result of labor becoming more efficient, producing more use-value with fewer number of labor hours. In general automation is a Good Thing. One substantial problem with capitalism is that the benefits of automation and labor productivity in general are often poorly distributed (and one argument for socialism and communism is that these systems would more equitably distribute the benefits of increased productivity), but the misallocation of a benefit is not an argument against creating that benefit.
Fourth, a higher minimum wage draws people into the labor market that would otherwise have stayed out. This means that those with jobs will have to compete against a larger labor pool to keep those jobs. One of the biggest sources of new labor are high-school students. There are always some high-school students who consider working and dropping out of school a better option. The more profitable it becomes to drop out of school, the larger the number of high-school students who will pursue this option. Many of these new workers will force existing minimum-wage employees out of the market. The result of fighting for this increase then is to put high school students in minimum wage jobs, and put the people who already have those jobs on the unemployment line.

Fyfe is just wrong here, making three different mistakes. First, drawing more people into the labor market is generally a Good Thing: more people means more productivity per capita. Additionally, you cannot simultaneously draw more people into the labor pool and (per his earlier mistaken point) simultaneously reduce the total number of jobs. (Fyfe at least puts his contradiction in separate paragraphs, avoiding a common error of theologians and religious apologists.) Also, drawing specifically high-school students into the labor force is usually caused by a reduction in the minimum wage (or specific exemptions from the minimum wage), since a high-school students have a lower opportunity cost for working (as they do not typically have to support themselves). Third, at any given wage, new workers do not "force out" existing workers at the same wage; new workers are less experienced and less well-trained than existing workers; they represent a poorer value at any specific wage. New workers force out existing workers only when those new workers can or must accept a lower wage.

A high minimum wage — over and above what is necessary to signal a minimally civilized standard of living — isn't a particularly good idea, but objecting to it for reasons that make absolutely no economic sense is as counterproductive and damaging to our "intellectual health" as justifying humanistic principles on an irrational religious basis. Economic illiteracy is a serious enough problem among the general population. Economic illiteracy in a supposedly educated, thoughtful writer is inexcusable.