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Archive for September, 2010

Away for the Weekend

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ll be away for the weekend. Here’s some stuff to read.
Contrary to myth, Reagan raised taxes.
Mark Zandi’s plan to save the economy.

Conor Friedersdorf on “The Shortcut To Serfdom.” 
Ending the war on drugs would save $88 billion a year

Categories: Blogging, Various Tags:

Texting And Unintended Consequences

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

From time to time, I throw up a post about unintended consequences because it nicely illustrates the limits and problems with government action. This should always be kept in mind whenever I or anyone else advocates for any particular policy from the state. Although, recognizing that unintended consequences follow from almost every policy (the larger the more potential unintended consequences) shouldn’t paralyze us. The status quo’s consequences might just be worse than any result of the policy. Yet, it should humble us and remind us to pursue as minimal intervention as possible to correct any negative externality.

In Massachusetts a texting ban while driving will soon go into effect. But the a recent study found texting bans making things worse.

Researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute compared rates of collision insurance claims in four states — California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington — before and after they enacted texting bans. Crash rates rose in three of the states after bans were enacted.

The Highway Loss group theorizes that drivers try to evade police by lowering their phones when texting, increasing the risk by taking their eyes even further from the road and for a longer time.

Another reminder that having empirical data to back one’s case, not just good intentions, can lead to better policy and better outcomes.

Amazing Photos

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Check out these incredible photos of atomic bombs.

Belief In Nothing

September 28, 2010 6 comments

Completely to the surprise of everyone except atheists and agnostics, it turns out that nonbelievers actually know more about religion than the religious. It’s almost as if nonbelievers looked at the claims of religion, investigated them, and concluded they are astonishingly unconvincing.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

This level of ignorance should be deeply embarrassing to anyone that considers themselves to be a particular religion. It seems to confirm the human bias to form tribes. The importance for most people isn’t in the content of the beliefs just their homogeneity with others in their group. This same type of ignorance I’m sure mirrors political beliefs to a certain extent. 

Looking at this survey, it is unclear whether increasing the level of religious knowledge is casual to being a nonbeliever. Policy proposals (you can start around the 4:00 mark) by atheists like Dan Dennett to increase comparative religious knowledge seem to rest somewhat on the assumption that learning about religion in a secular way amplifies skepticism. Surveys like this help that case, but don’t prove it – after all it’s not like Jews and Mormons did that much worse than atheists and agnostics. Also, given that these numbers are an average, some atheists and agnostics probably have pretty poor competency as well. Yet, I’m never really against raising knowledge as a good in itself. At the least, you’d expect people learning about other religions would be able to better empathize with other groups which could lead to less sectarianism. Dennett seems to believe the same, and remarks that informed consent is essential to democracy. He’s right about the importance of knowledge and I support his proposal despite my worries about abuse of religious curriculum.  

I’m happy this Pew Survey undermines the notion that atheists aren’t believers because they’re religious “know-nothings.” Apologists pursued the wrong target lecturing nonbelievers about their assumed ignorance – the more troubling problem is theists willing to believe while being ignorant of those very beliefs or of alternative doctrines. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “It was the schoolboy who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell wrote, “We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Both were wrong. Faith seems to be worse, it allows one to accept dogma without even awareness. Faith isn’t blind, it’s mindless. After all, if someone doesn’t know about something you’d expect them to not believe in it. But the unconscious credulity of the faithful is consequential and common. “Belief in nothing” is no longer a slur appropriate for atheists. It’s the definition of faith.

Pat Fucking Tillman

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

You need to see this interview. We all need to see the movie.

Sad To See Larry Go

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I want to wish Larry Summers the best. The Administration is losing an irreplaceable talent. Ryan Avant seems to think that the unemployment rate would have been lower had Summers replaced Bernanke at the Fed. Seems like a pretty impossible thing to know, but given my admiration for Summers I’d have been willing to give it a try. Maybe next term. In the meantime I hope he takes up writing at FT again. 

Breaking Secular Idols

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

The Economist has a very good piece on “The perils of constitution-worship”. It serves as a useful reminder to people like me who sometimes fall into that trap. In a college course I wrote a paper defending James Madison from all attacks – in retrospect I realize I can recognize his genius without making him infallible.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution still amaze me and deserve our respect. This isn’t an argument for casting them aside as of relics of dead white men. We must be on guard against calcifying unnecessary flaws into our political system. Ironically, the last thing the Founding Fathers would have wanted would be to have their words treated as sacred… not that what they wanted has to matter.

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