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Archive for June, 2011

The Lab Results Are In

One of the beauties of federalism is that different states can try individual approaches to problems and see which works the best. Since the recession two general policies have been advocated: some argue that we should increase spending, the other side thinks we should make cuts. In America, we generally get to observe a sample size of 50 – generating sufficient statistical power to make strong inferences on the correct approach.

The data is clear.

Adam Hersh of the Center for American Progress explains the findings:

Relative to national economic trends, states that increased spending enjoyed on average:

  • 0.2 percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate
  • 1.4 percent increase in private employment
  • 0.5 percent real economic growth since the start of the recession

In contrast, states that cut spending saw on average

  • 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate
  • 2.1 percent loss of private employment
  • 2.9 percent real economic contraction relative to the national economic trend
Obviously in light of these results, the GOP will stop pushing for short-term cuts. Right?

“You Don’t Have Sovereign Power Over The English Language”

June 27, 2011 3 comments

Opponents of full civil equality for gay citizens stress the importance of the definition of marriage, but like Judge Perez they don’t seem to have any problem changing the meaning of the word “bigot.” Apologies to those who think it’s too far to compare gay marriage opponents with racists; the above video clearly demonstrates that they only think and argue like racists.

(video via The Daily Dish)

Categories: Gay Marriage Tags:

The Right Side of History

June 24, 2011 5 comments

New York state lawmakers voted 33-29 to legally extend marriage rights same-sex couples. Now the sixth state in America treats its citizens as more important than dogma. Good people across the state of New York won’t allow the godly to settle for bigotry and moral poverty.

God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago. -Senator Ruben Diaz, the lone Democrat opponent

Everyone that fought for this bill should be joyous that we continue to write our own history.

Here are some of my past posts on same-sex marriage. Feel free to search around the blog for others.

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

The Wisdom of Silence

It’s All About Tradition, Right?

(photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

Scott Adams’ Narrow Pen

June 24, 2011 12 comments

I thought I confronted the only purveyor of the view that males should be castrated because of their “natural” inclination toward violence. Well, to my surprise, Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams believes “that’s where we’re headed in a few generations.”

In his “men’s rights” style blog post, Adams argues “that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable.” I wouldn’t normally pile on with the rest of the internet, but as the resident mass-castration opponent here I had to respond. Feel free to read Adams go at it with Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams and Jezebel writer Irin Carmon.

Adams begins his piece by misleading his readers through a pointless and faulty analogy.

If a lion and a zebra show up at the same watering hole, and the lion kills the zebra, whose fault is that? Maybe you say the lion is at fault for doing the killing. Maybe you say the zebra should have chosen a safer watering hole. But in the end, you probably conclude that both animals acted according to their natures, so no one is to blame. However, if this is your local zoo, you might have some questions about who put the lions with the zebras in the same habitat.

This is his analogy to how human males get blamed for “tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive.” Adams does write that it “seems right” that the males themselves, not the victims, are to blame. In other words, they’re unlike animals that don’t possess moral responsibility. But in the next paragraph he seems to reopen the case of blame. His analogy now appears to suggest that we need to fault humanity’s equivalent to a zookeeper.

The part that interests me is that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable. In other words, men are born as round pegs in a society full of square holes. Whose fault is that? Do you blame the baby who didn’t ask to be born male? Or do you blame the society that brought him into the world, all round-pegged and turgid, and said, “Here’s your square hole”?

Adams decides he can’t blame anyone in particular for setting up society as it is, so he suggests that it’s society’s fault. I don’t see how that isn’t absolving moral responsibility from individual rapists despite his earlier claim that it “seems right” to blame men for their own actions. In his defenses he accuses his critics of poor reading comprehension, but I’d ask him to clear up his own exposition and say whether blaming rapists “seems right” or is right.

His cartoon evolutionary psychology and moral philosophy fails profoundly. Certainly males, generally speaking, instinctively desire more sexual partners than women generally do. But it doesn’t follow that males instinctively want to rape women. Adams goes on to argue that,

 All I’m saying is that society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.

Aside from his absurd implication that men naturally desire to rape random women, he neglects men’s own internal competing desires. Men want stable homes and families. Men have urges to protect their female kin and friends. I’m not sure what culture Adams lives in, but men can also have plenty of consensual sex with women to fulfill their more explicitly sexual desires. I thought it’d be obvious, but I guess I should mention that most men think consensual sex is more desirable.

He doesn’t seem to appreciate that many of women’s desires are unfulfilled by social norms. Generally it seems women would rather they be treated with more respect and less like desirable objects. Additionally, I’m sure women have urges to mate with certain men but they can’t because he’s taken or uninterested. As long as we’re using sketchy psychology, women generally want to marry celebrities and high-status men but “society is [also] organized as a virtual prison for [women's] natural desires.”

Adams inaccurately draws society for his audience, but even if his representation were correct, his placement of blame remains unbalanced. Society didn’t just “drift” in the direction of eroding violent and offensive urges in an amoral tide.  Society built up its moral foundations because the consequences of allowing rape and many other “criminal” activities harm society’s citizens including men. If bigger men with the urge to commit violence on whoever they desired became culturally acceptable that would be the real “zero sum game.” Men and women agreeing to consensual behavior is the definition of positive sum – Adams should refresh his understanding of game theory. The beauty of good behavior is that it appears to be generally conducive to more happiness not less.

It shouldn’t surprise you by now that Adams’ lack of imagination means he supposes that no compromise exists when men’s and women’s urges conflict. If society is restrictive of adultery, a compromise would be for consensual couples to become more permissive of open-relationships. They certainly don’t suit everyone, but in reality people have a greater range of desires and for many couples this arrangement works. For others, monogamy works. Only single life will do for the rest.

If Adams believes that society is a “virtual prison” if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon, he’ll continue to suffer in the solitary confinement of his own mind’s boundaries. Human consciousness competes our internal desires against one another in a constant struggle. Self-control isn’t a straight-jacket, it’s the acknowledgment of moral responsibility.

Growth Domestic Prosperity

June 23, 2011 5 comments

I’m always happy to gain new readers, even the ones that challenge me. In a way, the dissenters are the most useful; recently, Lauren Sheil questioned one of my premises.

“Why does everyone assume the perpetual economic growth is not only possible but even a good thing?”

I tried to answer that under the original post, but our short back-and-forth in the comments got me thinking further about what economic growth means and how that applies to today’s policy disputes. Many of my posts focus on the problems our world faces, but our discussion reminded me of the importance of stepping back and noticing just how good we actually have it. Let’s take a look at some graphs that provide some perspective on our current situation.

(source)

Even if you conclude that most of this growth went to the richest Americans that doesn’t mean everyone wasn’t gaining from this remarkable increase in wealth. For example, as Matt Ridley explains in The Rational Optimist, even today’s poor are substantially better off from even a short time ago.

Today, of Americans officially designated as ‘poor’, 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 per cent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these. Even in 1970 only 36 per cent of all Americans had air conditioning: in 2005 79 per cent of poor households did.

Someone might counter that this all well and good for fat-cat Americans, but what about the rest of the world: how has economic growth benefited them? Let’s take a look at another graph.

Today, more than half the world is middle class. Economic growth made this possible. With economic growth comes better health, longer lives, more choices, more happiness, and much more. Expressing cheerfulness at our relative prosperity to ages past doesn’t mean we can ignore the pernicious effects of inequality, contemporary poverty, or any other problems still with us. It should remind us exactly why economic policy should focus on growth. People are suffering economically now precisely because growth is weak. Here’s the GDP data I grabbed from the St. Louis Fed.

FRED Graph

Growth has mostly been trending below 2.5%. In other words, all those unemployed people aren’t making new things like air conditioners or better homes and aren’t providing services that make our lives more comfortable. As policymakers lose focus on getting the unemployed back to work they aren’t just failing those individuals, they’re depriving everyone of more wealth and better lives. A stagnant economy that doesn’t produce more things means less for everyone – today’s growth is hardly enough to keep up with the population increase. If we hope to look back with memories of how only 65% of Americans had broadband access or any other good someone enjoys today remember that we need to grow to prosperity.

Categories: Economy Tags: , ,

Would Tattoo Artists Stop Being Creative?

According to the “World Intellectual Property Organization” the rationale behind IP rights is “to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public.” Mike Tyson’s tattoo artist has a copyright claim on the ink eyesore that appears on Ed Helms’ character in The Hangover II. Fortunately for fans of the movie that wanted to have a laugh at the terrible drunken decision Helms made by getting a stupid tattoo on his face, Warner Bros. settled with S. Victor Whitmill and the image will remain.

I would have thought Mike Tyson paying him lots of money would be enough incentive to be a creative tattoo artist, but I could be wrong. I’m also not sure why the relative creativity at mocking permanent face art isn’t seen as at least as valuable as Whitmill’s contribution to artists and the public interest.

Categories: Copyright Tags: ,

Tricky Math

June 17, 2011 5 comments

A little over a week ago everyone from economists, bloggers, and politicians lambasted Tim Pawlenty for making his ridiculous claim that if he was president he’d achieve 5% economic growth for a decade. It’s nuts for a variety of reasons and Klein passed on a zinger from Alan Blinder:

Trend growth is three percent or so,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Five percent growth would be two percentage points higher, which should cut the unemployment rate by about one percentage point per year. So after 10 years, it will have fallen from nine percent to minus-one percent. Nice trick!

At the time, I thought the criticism was probably hyperbole designed to highlight the absurdity of Pawlenty’s idea – I wasn’t sure though. Now today Klein repeats Blinder’s remark and, at risk of looking foolish, I’m curious if it’s meant to be serious (even if “cheeky”). As Klein shares, the “speed limit” on the economic growth rate is basically the growth in productivity plus the growth in the labor force. Now, I realize that achieving that level of growth is completely unrealistic (and crazy to think a president can do anything that would directly cause it), but it doesn’t seem like it is impossible as Klein implies in multiple blog posts.

Sure, the labor force isn’t going to grow large enough without improbable immigration, but if the right mix of policy reforms coincided with a revolutionary invention that drove a sky-high productivity increase, couldn’t we  achieve 5% growth for a decade without having negative unemployment?

Are Klein and Blinder just joking or is it actually impossible? If it is impossible, what am I missing?

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