Friday, September 30, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Pakistani trash edition)

the stupid! it burns! I don't get a lot of Muslim sites coming up on my atheist/atheism Google search, so today is special.

Beware! “Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics” Propaganda at its peak ( Report )
Recently I came across a website full of trash named, Pakistani Athiests [sic] and Agnostics (PAA) which apparently describes itself as a ‘social organization for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers of Pakistan.” The venomous website claims to be affiliated with Atheist Alliance International (AAI), an international community that aims to misguide and confuse the masses and the world at large and induce secularism and atheism. ... [emphasis original]

All apostates are liable to death but nothing.

At least they cite their source, which is sometimes more than we get on the Christian side.

Unemployment cards from Hallmark

I shit you not: Hallmark has unveiled a line of unemployment-related sympathy cards.

(via Monday Through Friday)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Western White Scientist edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why Atheists Make the Worst Scientists
What a good scientist NEVER says is, “Because I, the Great Western White Scientist, have never personally seen it, and because my cadre of like-minded Western White Scientists haven’t seen it, it must not EXIST.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moralism, pragmatism, and politics

"I can't stand it when someone tries to put one over on me," a friend of mine exclaimed. She was an upper-middle-class professional, probably making about $100K per year; she was talking about some of her relatives, who were living on welfare. My friend worked hard, spent wisely, avoided debt, and saved for her retirement. Her relatives were — or she painted them as — lazy, imprudent and irresponsible. Her testimony is plausible: there are those who strive to fulfill all the good middle-class virtues and yet remain poor, but there are indeed those poor who cannot or choose not to uphold these virtues. Are they because of their vices thus deserving of not only poverty but starvation? If we do not allow them to starve, are they "putting one over" on us?

To me, of course, welfare is an economic triviality. Excluding Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid (providing pensions and medical care for old people who have worked for decades is hardly welfare), we spend a tiny fraction of our Gross Domestic Product on welfare. I really don't care whether welfare recipients are "deserving"; I'm pleased that for just pennies we can at least ensure no one freezes nor starves, regardless of their virtues or vices. No one can "put one over" on me in this sense: because there's nothing I expect in return, no one can fail to deliver it.

In political science as well as popularly, political "ideology" is usually described along the axes of freedom and equality. I think these are poor axes. Both words describe concepts that are complex and operate at many layers of abstraction. Freedom, for example, sounds good, but freedom to do what? I don't want people to be free to hurt or kill me; I don't want people to walk off with the stuff I need to survive and operate effectively in the world. Do I want the freedom to eat broccoli, or the more abstract freedom to eat what I choose? More directly, do I want to have — and allow others to have — the freedom to do anything I want economically, even to economically exploiting others? Equality is a little better: we can measure certain kinds of equality (such as equality of nominal wealth or income), but no one, I think, wants (or would admit to wanting) a Harrison Bergeron model of everyone being the same. Evaluating ideology on these axes seems to shed little light on how people actually think about underlying political issues.

Based on my conversation with my friend, and many other conversations, I think there is a better axis to label political philosophy, which I'll arbitrarily term moralism vs. pragmatism. Terms in ethical and political philosophy can have widely divergent definitions, so let me be explicit about what I mean. Moralism means the notion that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living. To the moralist, the proper function of the state* is to reinforce the intrinsically correct way of living and to suppress the intrinsically incorrect ways of living. In contrast, pragmatism is not concerned with the intrinsic ways of living, but with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome. To the pragmatist, the proper function of the state is to produce a good outcome. Both of these paradigms entail making moral judgments: the moralist must (somehow) judge which ways of living are good or bad; the pragmatist must (somehow) judge which outcomes are good or bad.

*In the canonical sense of the state as the institutions that hold and exercise a monopoly on the use of violence.

One interesting result of evaluating political ideology on this axis is the observation that most ideologies are mixed: almost all ideologies contain moralist and pragmatic elements. Even so, we can generally observe that "right" ideologies are more strongly moralistic; "left" ideologies are more strongly pragmatic. In the example at the start of this post, we can see that my friend is more strongly moralistic: she is concerned that people not "put one over" on her, regardless of the outcome. In contrast, I'm more pragmatic: I can ensure with little personal cost that a person on welfare does not starve or freeze. Pragmatism does not mean "amoral": I am still making the moral judgment that starving and freezing are bad outcomes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Testimony of Marriner Eccles

London Banker excerpts the testimony of Marriner Eccles to the Senate Committee on the Investigation of Economic Problems in 1933 (complete transcript [pdf]). Eccles quotes an unknown economist:
It is utterly impossible, as this country has demonstrated again and again, for the rich to save as much as they have been trying to save, and save anything that is worth saving. They can save idle factories and useless railroad coaches; they can save empty office buildings and closed banks; they can save paper evidences of foreign loans; but as a class they can not save anything that is worth saving, above and beyond the amount that is made profitable by the increase of consumer buying. It is for the interests of the well to do – to protect them from the results of their own folly – that we should take from them a sufficient amount of their surplus to enable consumers to consume and business to operate at a profit. This is not “soaking the rich”; it is saving the rich. Incidentally, it is the only way to assure them the serenity and security which they do not have at the present moment.

(via Yves Smith)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Christian Used Bookstore

Yesterday, we passed the Christian Used Bookstore (real). My son commented...
Only slightly burned

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Who Put the Rot in Herr Hummler’s Wurst?

Who Put the Rot in Herr Hummler’s Wurst?:
I changed the presentation I intended to make entirely in order to respond to Thursday’s famous Thursday keynote presenter, Dr. Hummler, the head of the oldest private bank in Swizerland. ... Dr. Hummler received his advanced economics training at one of the University of Chicago’s outposts, the University of Rochester. Even within the Chicago school, the UR economists have a reputation for the vigor of their antipathy for even democratic government. ... The reason his bank has customers is overwhelmingly the customers’ desire to evade taxes through means that are crimes in their home nations, but at most civil violations in Switzerland. ...

It is simple under Austrian views of the democratic state as the great danger to freedom to interpret anything, even fraud by the wealthy, that reduces the State’s tax revenues as desirable. ... Under Hummler’s view of property rights, the democratic State can function only because the non-wealthy lack the wealth and financial sophistication (or they lack the necessary immorality) to emulate the wealthy tax cheats by engaging in tax fraud with impunity. As that great Austrian school sage, Saint Leona Helmsley explained: “only little people pay taxes.” ... Re-branding the wealthiest tax cheats into freedom fighters represents a triumph of what criminologists refer to as “neutralization” of the moral restraints against fraud. Successful neutralization leads to increased crime. ...

Hummler’s keynote address contained his famous sausage metaphor. Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are made by slicing and dicing mortgages. It is easier to observe whether meat is rotten when it is whole. When it is sliced up into tiny pieces, mixed with lots of other meats, and placed in a somewhat opaque casing it is far harder to see or smell that it contains some rot. One only learns that the sausage is rotten after consuming it and getting sick. In the CDO context, Hummler says that the rot was U.S. subprime loans. ... Hummler recognizes that he has to explain why the sausage makers would put rotten meat in their sausages. His metaphor is heretical for a theoclassical economist of either the Chicago or Austrian school. He has reversed the core metaphor of the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith. Smith’s most famous metaphor was that we could safely rely on the butcher (the maker of sausages) and the baker to give us high quality goods without rot not because the butcher and baker really cared about our health, but because they were driven by self-interest. ... Hummler is desecrating sacred ground by reversing Smith’s central argument in favor of capitalism. ... If I can get away with fraud, and if self-interest is my guide, then Hummler’s logic leads to a further great desecration of Smith’s metaphor – "Mankiw morality:" .... if you can get away with committing accounting control fraud, and fail to do so, you are not a moral CEO – you are "irrational." It is “irrational” not to breach your fiduciary duties by looting the firm’s creditors and shareholders in order to make yourself wealthy. ...

Hummler does not appear to understand how destructive of theoclassical and neoclassical economics’ defining metaphor it is to argue that Adam Smith’s dependable butcher is now routinely, and deliberately adding meat that he knows is rotten and will make the consumer deathly ill into sausage because he knows that he can deceive the consumer by disguising the filth in an opaque sausage casing. Hummler’s butcher is still acting out of greed, but he has discovered that defrauding and sickening or destroying his customer pays. In Hummler’s dystopian vision, the capitalist is a psychopath, and capitalism has become severely criminogenic.

The article goes on to discuss the underlying social dynamics of the financial collapse, and how the "rot" (liar loans*) became an integral part of the "sausages" (collateralized debt obligations).

*There are some more-or-less legitimate purposes for stated income loans, but most of the liar loans involved in the sub-prime crisis that sparked the broader financial crisis did not fulfill those purposes.


When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
— Frederic Bastiat

(via William K. Black)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A hierarchy of thought

It's useful, I think, to label various categories of thought according to their
"truth-aptness", i.e. whether or not a statement in some sense can be either true or false, and if it can be, what is it true or false about, and how we decide whether it's true or false.

We can start with a loose interpretation of Popper's demarcation problem*. As best I can tell, Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery breaks with the Positivists. The Positivists'** project was to separate statements into "meaningful" and "meaningless": only statements that were (somehow, directly or indirectly) about perceptual events were meaningful; any statement that was not about perception was meaningless, in the same sense that "goo goo ga ga" is meaningless. An initially promising line of thought, Positivism ran into two severe problems. First, Positivism doesn't appear to be very useful: there are all sorts of things that we want to say, things that seem meaningful, but that we can't easily say using a Positivist definition of meaning. Perhaps more damningly, the Positivists couldn't seem to talk about Positivism itself using Positivist meaning. While the rest of the world might welcome a theory of meaning that renders philosophy impossible, philosophers found this exclusion intolerable. And since we really do need philosophy (even if we might be displeased with how professional philosophers might do philosophy), we ourselves have to reject Positivism.

*I'm not a philosophologer, so I'm not particularly interested in what Popper "really" meant; I am, rather, giving credit to Popper for at least inspiring my thinking on this subject.

**Same with Positivism

What Popper does instead is talk about two different kinds of meaning: metaphysical and scientific*. Scientific statements are about the real world, and they can be true or false. Metaphysical statements are not about the real world; they are about how we look at the world. As such, a metaphysical statement is not "truth-apt": it is neither true nor false; it just "is what it is." Metaphysical statements are still meaningful: we do indeed have to look at the world, and it's meaningful to talk carefully, precisely and rigorously about how we look at the world, but there's no objectively "right" way to look at the world. (There are, of course, more or less interesting and useful ways of looking at the world.) Popper's definition of the demarcation is, of course, itself metaphysical: it's neither true nor false that statements "really are" divided into metaphysical and scientific.

*There can be, of course, more kinds of statements.

We need only a few statements describe the metaphysical basis of the scientific method. First, all statements about perception as statements about perception are authoritative, true by definition. Note that authoritative does not mean veridical: if I see a pencil bent when it's halfway in a bowl of water, it is true by definition that I see that it's bent; it is not, however, true by definition that the pencil really is bent. Second, a set of statements about the world that are themselves not specifically and directly statement of perceptions are about the world if and only if they are the "simplest" way of deducing the validity of some relevant authoritative statements of perception. We add a few statements about what constitutes relevance and "simplicity", and we have the complete metaphysical basis of the scientific method.

We can express scientific metaphysics in a few other ways. We can say that science is about discovering things about the world, and "the world" is, by definition, that which causes our perceptual experiences. We could also just dispense with "the world" and just say that science is about coming up with the simplest way to describe all of our experiences. As Popper noted, empirical science does not eliminate metaphysics, as the Positivists hoped to do. Instead, Popper's view renders metaphysics more tractable. We don't eliminate statements about the noumena or God just because they're "metaphysical"; we simply note that these kinds of metaphysical statements are incompatible with scientific metaphysics.

Because metaphysical statements are not truth-apt, because they are not the sort of statements we can say are either true or false, then we can't really "objectively" judge them*. We can't really say that scientific metaphysics are somehow "objectively" better than some religious or New Age woo-woo metaphysics. Using a particular metaphysical framework to understand the world becomes to a large extent a matter of taste and preference. But even though metaphysical statements are not truth-apt, they can be definite and particular. We can't say that scientific metaphysics is "objectively" better than religion, but we can "objectively" determine that they're different.

*Well, we can't judge them much. A metaphysical system might be vacuous (all statements are true) or internally contradictory, but

For example, a religious metaphysical system might add the metaphysical statement that by definition all statements in the Bible* are true. They might be literally true: if some statement that is true within scientific metaphysics contradicts the literal truth of a statement in the Bible, then within biblical-literal metaphysics the scientific statement is just false. A more "sophisticated" metaphysical system might hold that all statements in the Bible are true in some sense in addition to scientific truth, that the Bible gives us extra information that we are obliged to reconcile with scientific truth. But even biblical-literal metaphysics is not truth apt, neither true nor false: it's incoherent to say that even biblical literalism is false.

But we can say that biblical literalism or metaphoricalism is different from scientific metaphysics. Science simply does not define the Bible to be veridical: if the best scientific explanation for our perception contradicts a statement in the Bible, then the statement is just false. We are not obliged even to search for some alternative meaning that renders both science and the Bible true in some sense. We might do so, of course; when we read "Your breasts are like two fawns" (Song of Solomon 4:5) we apply a metaphorical meaning rather than determine the statement is simply false. We are not, however, obliged to preserve the truth of any statement in the same sense that the authority of perceptual statements "obliges" us to preserve their truth.

*Or the Koran, or the works of L. Ron Hubbard, or scripture du jour.

Which brings us back around to religion. We Gnu Atheists don't really care just that religion privileges a different kind of metaphysical system. We care, rather, that all too many religious people try to usurp scientific metaphysics, that they say that their God — and the moral prejudice they invoke their God to support — is scientifically provable. It's one thing to disagree with science; it's quite another to pretend that science agrees when it really disagrees. Similarly, in 1859 I would have disagreed with the laws permitting slavery and say that slavery ought to be illegal, but it would be dishonest for me to claim that slavery was actually illegal. We don't object to religion being different; we object to religious people trying to obscure or erase the difference.

The next post will cover paradigms.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The fifth stage of grief

The Fifth Stage of Grief for the Middle Class Way of Life
The winners, the right wing Democrats and the Republicans, New Labor and the Tories, have said it out loud, and repeatedly: they consider the "middle class" to be people between the 85th and 95th percentile of income, and everybody below that to be poor. And as several of them have said lately, they deeply resent the generosity with which they allow poor people, in America and elsewhere, to cling to unnecessary luxuries ... like air conditioning. And a telephone. And a refrigerator. They resent that they let you keep those luxuries, which means if you're not in the 85th percentile of income for your country, you better take it for granted: those luxuries are going away. Period.

I'll be checking out Brad's recommended book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

An efficent economy

It's a matter of controversy not only how to measure macroeconomic efficiency, but also if the notion of macroeconomic efficiency is even meaningful.

Consider the game of chess as an extended metaphor. From any individual player's perspective (i.e. the "micro" perspective), efficiency seems rather obvious*: efficiency is the number of games won divided by the total number of games. There might be some subtleties, but basically each player wants to win as many games as she can. But what happens when we take an aggregate ("macro") perspective and look at all the players in all the games? No matter what happens to any individual player or sub-group of players, our "aggregate efficiency" is always exactly 50%. For every winner, there's a loser. Considering efficiency as the proportion of games won to games played, there's nothing at all we can do at all to change the aggregate efficiency of chess.

You should, of course, treat my use of "obvious" as a red flag. When I say "obvious", I'm begging you, gentle reader, to carefully examine my assumptions.

Not only does this measure of individual efficiency fail to be interesting at the aggregate level, there is no interesting or meaningful aggregate measure of chess efficiency at all. The smallest aggregate we can look at is both players of a single game. For an individual, there are more or less efficient moves—an efficient move is one that makes winning more probable. But the aggregate efficiency of each move, considered from the perspective of both players simultaneously, is exactly 50%. The purpose of a game of chess is to determine which player is, at least at the moment, the better chess player. The best way to determine the better chess player is to let each player make whatever legal move she decides to make. Any interference, prohibition or compulsion beyond the legal moves actually detracts from the purpose of the game. An "efficient" chess game is one with no outside interference.

Alternatively, consider the art world as another metaphor*. To preserve the analogy with macroeconomics, assume we cannot change the total amount of resources devoted to art. (In macroeconomics, we cannot add any outside resources to the whole economy.) Given a fixed amount of resources, how can we produce art "efficiently"? If we differentiate it from superficially popular entertainment, art is just "for itself"; a work of art serves no purpose other than to just exist. Again, any external interference by definition takes away from the "itselfness"; there can be no useful measure of efficiency.

*I'm not committed here to any particular philosophical theory of philosophy; I'm just trying to use a particular theory of art as a metaphor.

My point here is not to argue that economics really is a zero-sum game like chess, or that it's "for itself" like art. I want instead to understand as charitably as possible how modern economists and modern realist political scientists see the world. With this understanding, I think it's easier to explain the fundamental differences between on the one hand laissez faire economics/political realism and on the other hand communism as an economic and political theory.