Archive for October, 2010

Guest Post: Elections Présidentielles en Côte d’Ivoire

October 31, 2010 10 comments

On Thursday, October 28th, Barack Obama made a public statement that you probably didn’t hear a word of. Here is an excerpt:

The United States supports the people of Cote d’Ivoire as they prepare to express their democratic voice and participate in presidential elections… The Ivoirian government, the candidates, their supporters and all political actors have an obligation to ensure that the long-delayed presidential elections are held in a peaceful and transparent manner…The United States stands with the Ivoirian people as they prepare for long-awaited democratic elections, and move closer to lasting peace and prosperity.

The importance of these elections are not lost on Barack, but my guess is that most Americans do not understand the stakes of the presidential elections that will take place in Côte d’Ivoire on Halloween. So I’ve decided to change it up a little bit on Dan Braganca’s blog and tackle an African issue of real consequence.

It’s funny that so many regard Africa as some sickly incurable creature and yet no one bothers to actually take its pulse every once in while. Quick! Think of some African issues! AIDS! War! Genocide! Famine! Or this season’s media sensation “Al-Qaida in the Sahara!”. All of these things are ongoing or recent in the birthplace of love and war; I cannot tell a lie (George Washington, y’all)). But just when you thought there was no hope at all, just when you’d thrown in the towel, all of a sudden, you stopped. And you realized. Africa is a work in progress. It is a living breathing continent of real live human beings like you who just want better lives. You remember that the African continent is an integral part of the ongoing human drama, for better and for worse, and that it doesn’t require your pity or your fear but rather your consideration. So now that you’re calm, read this… unprecedented open democratic elections may be just around the corner in Côte d’Ivoire. If that doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, or seems unspectacular after such a hyped introduction, please feel free to continue reading anyway because it is actually pretty interesting. Please turn off your cellular phones and close your email and any instant messaging services. Thank you.

So, in assuming that basically no one in the anglophone world knows very much about the country that no longer wants you to call it Ivory Coast, I’ll give you a quick little run-down of what’s been up. Côte d’Ivoire is the undisputed economic powerhouse of West Africa (if we’re calling it west of Nigeria). Côte d’Ivoire kept very tight ties with former colonizer France after becoming independent in 1960 under President Houphouët-Boigny, who was very chum chum with a bunch of French Presidents. They had a wildly booming cocoa industry that was funding impressive development and infrastructure until the collapse of the price of cocoa in the early 80s. From that point, the country became increasingly indebted and President Houphouët became less and less popular. This whole time he beat down little uprisings and locked up political opponents. Then when he died in 1995, Côte d’Ivoire, a one-President country since independence, had an identity crisis, flipped out, and everyone started jockeying for position. People were rioting, militias tied to opposition candidates were on the move, the students were forming political parties and turning into armed forces. Xenophobia took center stage as Ivoirians suspected of  Burkinabé lineage (from Burkina Faso, to the North, formerly part of the same French colony as Côte d’Ivoire) were persecuted and excluded from citizenship and the political process. For these last 15 years since Houphouët died, three men have been duking it out for the presidency. One of them is current President Laurent Gbagbo whose term should have ended in 2005, but has stretched on due to six election postponements . His historical rivals are Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié., the former Prime Minister and President of the Republic, respectively. I’m not going to tackle the relationship between the three, which is too complex for a simple blog entry, but let’s just say it involves xenophobia, massacres, secret alliances, and French military and economic interests. Very very messy stuff.

So on October 31st, if everything goes down as planned, Côte d’Ivoire will hold the first round of real democratic presidential elections that will feature all three major historical contenders (majority wins it, if not there will be a two candidate runoff election). Make no mistake, all actors and analysts insist on the “if everything goes down as planned” clause, but there is a decided optimism being oozed by sources close to the elections and experts. All major candidates have agreed on a list of over 5 million voters. Finally leaping the hurdle of finalizing a list of voters was a giant step overcome by this nation torn apart by ethnic strife with a history of strategic and xenophobic voter exclusion. The three main candidates have been having electoral meetings and palling around like MJ, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. If ever a shot at a peaceful transfer of power there was, now it is for Côte d’Ivoire.

So why does Obama think this election is important enough to make a public statement? Why didn’t he instead make a statement about the upcoming elections in neighboring Guinea, which will take place on the same day? The answer is that transparent elections in Côte d’Ivoire would score serious points for democracy and stability in a strategic region for many major global players. As Al-Queda Maghreb creeps southward from the Sahara into Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and others, the region needs peaceful democracy more than ever. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is exploding, carrying high unemployment and widespread disenfranchisement with it. The overwhelmingly young population (more than 50% under 20 years old) needs a sign of empowerment, a point of optimism, in order to avoid the radicalization trap and to responsibly manage the looming resource crunch, amongst numerous other problems. Functional democratically elected governments will be the best chance to fight desertification in the Sahel, famine in countries like Niger, terrorism, illiteracy, pollution, and a hoard of other problems. The next year will see a wave of elections throughout francophone Africa. Getting started on the right foot is essential, setting a positive precedent is invaluable. If more countries follow suit, it will set the stage for elections in countries like Niger and Burkina Faso that suffer from chronic military coups or are ruled by “presidents” for life. This is a crucial junction, the importance of which is not lost on Obama or the super-heavy investor in the African continent that you may know by the name of The People’s Republic of China.

So on the 31st of October, follow in the footsteps of Barry O and send good vibes to l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a positive trend to be established in the most important area of the world that you don’t care about yet.

To follow the election more closely, I would recommend for those of you who understand French or for probably everyone who reads this blog, because, seriously, who speaks French these days? What do you think we are? 18th century statesmen like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson? Sheesh.

For an incomplete English language crash course on the elections, check out this page:

Zachary Rudes is a master’s student in Science Politique et Relations Internationales at The Institute for the Study of the Francophonie and Globalization at l’Université de Lyon 3 in France. The views expressed in this article are those of Zachary Rudes do not necessarily reflect those of Dan Branganca, even if Dan Braganca should probably agree with Zachary Rudes in the opinion of Zachary Rudes. Fin.

Categories: Guest Post

The Socialism of Low Taxation

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Can higher taxes correspond to freer markets? Yes, when the tax that pays for road maintenance raises less revenue than the cost of driving. We need to stop subsidizing driving and raise the gas tax.

File:Friedrich Hayek portrait.jpg

The Low Tax Road to Serfdom?

Over at the National Review Online Josh Barro advocates indexing the federal gasoline tax for exactly that reason.

Many state gas taxes and other vehicle taxes have also fallen in real terms. But this has not led to lower spending on road construction and maintenance—from 1994 to 2008, while GDP grew 103 percent and road spending grew 102 percent, gas and vehicle tax receipts rose only 70 percent.

Governments have made up the difference by tripling their borrowing to finance roads and tripling the diversion of general revenue to pay for road costs. This is a bad trend, because gas taxes below the cost of roads use cause inefficient overuse of roads, and the higher sales and income taxes used to plug the gas tax gap are a drag on the economy.

When driving is priced under its cost, it is not lower taxes – it is higher spending in disguise. Incidentally, raising the gas tax is really the perfect tax to raise for a number of compelling reasons.

1. We want to driving to reflect its true cost. More driving causes more damage to roads and more need for roads in general; they need to be paid for. 2. Burning gasoline is dirty and harmful to the environment (including climate change). If you’re going to pollute you should pay for it. 3. The more cars that are on the roads the more traffic. Price gas closer to its market level and we’ll see less overdriving. Traffic costs our economy billions of dollars in opportunity costs. 4. The more gas we buy the more we enrich the Petro-dictators that oppress their people and fund terrorism. Wouldn’t you prefer our government got that money rather than some despots?  5. Raising the price of gas will make investing in cleaner energy sources more economical. 6. Some research has even shown that raising these types of taxes could, somewhat counterintuitively, improve economic performance.  7. No matter how small a government you want, we have to raise some revenue somehow. Why not raise it by taxing something we want less of instead of something we want more of like labor? 8. The price of gas is going to rise eventually anyway, we might as well make that potentially painful transition as smooth as possible. 9. The Pigou Club is cool.

In his RealClearMarkets piece Barro gives us some hope that Democrats and Republicans might come to an agreement to index the gas tax if all the Bush tax cuts are expanded. I previously argued that Democrats should use the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts to push through some better tax reforms. This wouldn’t be perfect as the Bush tax cuts themselves are extremely inefficient – but I support the proposal nonetheless. I’ve long thought that raising the federal gas tax is one of the best policies we could adopt. I’m not going to get too excited; I’ve been let down before.

The Most Important Lesson For Elected Officials

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In Ezra Klein’s recent post juxtaposing David Brooks from 2005 with David Brooks now is worth a read, but Klein writes 2 sentences that every politician should have tattooed to the inside of their eye lids (one on each?).

You don’t win elections in order to win more elections. You win elections in order to solve problems and make the country better.

Most people probably think that is self-evident, but it seems most politicians easily lose sight of that. Here’s Mitch McConnell forgetting,

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

Don’t think Democrats don’t forget as well. Yglesias reminds Democrats that if they focused on governing better they wouldn’t be losing elections. Even if you’re self-interested enough and want your main goal to be reelection that shouldn’t prevent you from governing better – you just can’t be so myopic.

Speaking to The New York Times‘ Peter Baker for a profile published last week, Obama said his administration “probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right” and drew the lesson that “you can’t be neglectful of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

Marketing and public relations are nice, but opinion is fundamentally driven by results. And on this, Obama has it backward.


The issue is not so much that the administration needed to be more or less moderate, rather that it needed to be more effective in boosting the economy and more mindful of the central role it plays in politics. This matters because, to point out the obvious, the economic outlook is still bleak. Enhanced post-election focus on marketing and PR won’t turn that around. In other words, all the marketing and PR in the world won’t succeed in moving public opinion, meaning Democrats could easily have another round of election losses to look forward to.

Martin Wolf feels similarly,

The president’s willingness to ask for too little was, it turns out, a huge strategic error. It allows his opponents to argue that the Democrats had what they wanted, which then failed. If the president had failed to get what he demanded, he could argue that the outcome was not his fault. With a political stalemate expected, further action will now be blocked. A lost decade seems quite likely. That would be a calamity for the US – and the world.

Every time an elected official compromises what he thinks will be best for the economy for political purposes he’s sowing the seeds of his own defeat. Certainly certain compromises might be necessary to pass a particular bill, but as Wolf points out, when you make it seem like you got what you wanted you’ve trapped yourself. Not only that, but Democrats willingness to give up the rhetorical fight for stronger stimulus (or for any stimulus) weakens them for the future. If they aren’t willing to defend the idea of stimulus (assuming they still actually think it can be productive) how do they think they can gain support for using fiscal policy in the future?

I really don’t understand the long-term strategy of not making the case for the policies you want. Obviously if you want them you think they are the best policies; by undercutting the case for those things you’re just making it harder to get what you want. President Obama continues to make policy compromises that weaken policy only to get no Republican votes, no acknowledgment of compromise, no positive electoral gains, and…. compromised and weakened policy. Here’s my advice.

Stop looking at the next election, close your eyes and recognize why you’re in office.

Utility and the 800-Pound Gorilla

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen have a fascinating conversation on Bloggingheads TV

I really love how the mind of an economist works.

(someone want to let me know how to embed bloggingheads video into wordpress?)

[Update 10/26]:

Over at Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog he wishes he asked about how a utilitarian deals with animal rights in situations where, for example, malaria originated from gorillas and AIDS developed in chimpanzees. File:Female gorilla with 8 months old baby boy gorilla in SF zoo.jpg

Cowen seems to be suggesting, and someone correct me if I’m reading him wrong, that a utilitarian would have to favor wiping out gorillas and chimpanzees because if they weren’t around less humans would have died from these diseases. I’m certainly no Peter Singer, but let me take a crack at that one.

Let’s take for granted Cowen’s assumption that more people have suffered and died because of these infections than if these primates were all killed. But notice that even that’s not totally assured, it’s possible we could learn enough from the science of studying those creatures than if they weren’t around – but it seems likely that Cowen’s intuition is more probable so we’ll go with that. Yet, a utilitarian would also have to take into consideration the value of the lives of all chimps and gorillas and considering that those primates have extremely high cognitive abilities for nonhuman animals (so can suffer and experience pleasure almost as much as humans) we can’t take their own worth lightly. Also, many humans derive a lot of utility from those animals (and the existence of animal diversity as well). We’re pleased by seeing them and learning about them; wouldn’t you personally feel worse if we killed off all chimps and gorillas? We have empathy for them; my friend Dave even cried at the remake of King Kong when the big ape suffered. I’ve already mentioned some of the scientific utility we can gain from learning about our closest evolutionary relatives. We also have to take into consideration the utility future generations of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans would lose if they went extinct.

I’m also not sure why anyone would think that primate specicide would cause less suffering than say just finding cures and resistances to the diseases. Most people would be turned off by killing all those apes because they feel bad for all those animals and think that it’d be worse for everyone if they disappeared – not because of some inherent value in the existence of a particular animal. Let me try to demonstrate that case. Back in 2003, Olivia Judson, argued in the New York Times that we should consider causing the extinction of the type of mosquitos that spread (conveniently for this example) malaria.

Each year, malaria kills at least one million people and causes more than 300 million cases of acute illness. For children worldwide, it’s one of the leading causes of death. The economic burden is significant, too: malaria costs Africa more than $12 billion in lost growth every year. In the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on mosquito control. What’s more, a malaria vaccine is still out of reach; the parasite’s resistance to drugs is a growing problem, as is the mosquito’s resistance to insecticide. The proposed extinction technology could eradicate the malaria mosquito, and malaria with it, within 10 years of the time mosquitoes modified to carry an extinction gene are released into the wild. Tempting stuff.

Most people don’t feel as bad for mosquitos because they almost certainly aren’t conscious creatures and we don’t get as much obvious pleasure and value from them as we do from chimps and gorillas.  Additionally, mosquitos don’t suffer as much as primates do. Of course, people still hesitate to purposefully cause any species’ extinction, but why?

One fear Judson considers is “ecological collapse.” If we killed off any species (mosquito or gorilla) there is a risk of unintended negative consequences. In other words, bad consequences=bad utility. Yet, as Judson writes about mosquitos:

There’s nothing sinister about extinction; species go extinct all the time. The disappearance of a few species, while a pity, does not bring a whole ecosystem crashing down: we’re not left with a wasteland every time a species vanishes. Removing one species sometimes causes shifts in the populations of other species — but different need not mean worse.

Cowen, for the sake of pinning down a utilitarian, could argue the same about gorillas and chimps. Also, as I like to do, let’s make his argument stronger. Let’s stipulate that an omniscient being proved to us that humans would suffer substantially less if we wiped out all gorillas and chimpanzees and there is not better way to reduce suffering and increase utility in this instance. Should we do it?

Yes. Let’s think about it this way. If that omniscient being came to you and said you could bring back the dodo or some currently extinct primate species but to do so 100 million people have to be killed; would you do it? I’m pretty sure no one but someone in the most extreme animal rights groups would take that offer. Surely you’ve noticed that the result is the same or similar. To make it clearer, if gorillas and chimps naturally became extinct would you bring them back at the cost of 100 million human lives? Again, no. We have a nice example of the moral illusion of loss aversion and maybe status quo bias. Even if the net result is the same, we’d chose different options depending on how the question is framed. That suggests to me that it’d be morally correct to choose the utilitarian option: the one with the least bad consequences. So, if it actually was (doubtful in reality and impossible to know in practice) the case that wiping out all the chimps and gorillas meant that 100s of millions of people who would otherwise suffer and die would not and there was less overall suffering of conscious creatures in the world, the more moral choice would be to choose specicide.

Why don’t we do it? One, we’re not omniscient. It’s not at all probable that we can predict all the consequences. There are obviously ways with less potential negative utility to fight diseases such as malaria without resorting to killing apes (killing specific types of mosquitos would be one potential one and I’m sure you can think of even better options). Also, if we killed every species that indirectly or directly caused the death of some humans, we’d have virtually no species left, which would negatively impact those species and ourselves. Sadly, it’s also true that many of the people who suffer from diseases like malaria would lead lives full of suffering even if we eliminated the species of that disease’s origin. Cowen certainly knows a thing of two about marginal utility. Finally, it’s far more practical and moral (and thus utilitarian) to fight the suffering caused by malaria and AIDS by taking steps to eliminate poverty and the effects of those infections (e.g. antimalarial drugs could be more widely distributed). Bug nets and condoms also work well. No one would think about listening to the Catholic Church on the morality of bug nets and we don’t need to for condoms either.

Most moral choices don’t boil down to 2 repugnant choices; we have a wide variety of options to deal with any problem and the utilitarian would advocate for the option with the most utility, not just one that happens to be slightly less horrible than another. Nevertheless, if forced to make an unpleasant choice, the more moral one can be derived by looking at utility.

Categories: Tyler Cowen

The Trouble With Partisan Critiques

October 25, 2010 10 comments

Keith Hennessey, Former Director of the National Economic Council under President Bush, has put out a video critiquing President Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers’, Austan Goolsbee, video. Here’s Hennessey’s cleverly made video where he presents himself “on the other side of the white board” so he can “give you the other side of the story so you can judge for yourself.”

The problem with both videos, and I’ll focus on deconstructing Hennessey’s because Hennessey has deconstructed Goolsbee’s, is that they both set their argument up to win the partisan battle rather than the policy battle. Of course, those partisan battles are rooted in policy differences, but watching the videos the true aim of their arguments becomes clear.

Hennessey’s first criticism is that Goolsbee neglects to include public sector job workers in his chart. Rhetorically feigning incredulousness, he proposes three potential reasons why Goolsbee might do this: 1. “He doesn’t care about government workers” 2. “He didn’t want us to get confused with the effects of census workers being hired and fired” 3. “He wanted to hide the job losses over the last four months so his chart looked like things were getting better.” Then he tells us to be the judge. It doesn’t take much to figure out which option Hennessey wants us to assume is correct. By limiting the options to these three, Hennessey has given us a false choice. Isn’t another possible option that 4. He wants to show the effects of the government’s policies on what most people consider to be most important for long term prosperity, the private sector.

Now obviously, Goolsbee wants to make things look as positive as possible and wants to use visuals that present the administration he works for in the best light possible. That’s why a critique of Goolsbee is warranted, but intellectual honesty isn’t reached by omission on either side. The GOP, after all, were the ones that fought hardest to limit the state aid and to force the layoffs of government workers (one example). How many more ads from GOP candidates do we need to see calling for cutting state workers? Would Hennessey or Republicans support billions of dollars to fund increased hiring of government workers? Odd to criticize the Obama Administration for policy inaction that they don’t favor but you do.

Just imagine if total employment was up due to the government hiring more workers, does anyone think Hennessey would be arguing that Goolsbee has now given a complete and nonpartisan illustration of employment? Hennessey himself has written that he hopes “the pace of private job creation accelerates.” Why would he write that if he didn’t think there is something especially important about private sector job growth? When Goolsbee talked to a CNN Money correspondent he explained that the President wanted his economic team to focus on policies that help the private sector because “the President’s view from the beginning and continues to be now that private sector job growth creation is the sustainable form.” None of this is to argue that Hennessey isn’t correct that the administration should focus on total employment instead of only private sector jobs, but don’t you think he might have included that as an option?

The next statement that Hennessey challenges Goolsbee on is the claim that “the middle class had been squeezed like never before.” To undermine that Hennessey shows total job gains (uninterrupted for 46 months) during the Bush years. Yet this appears to be another example of partisan uncharitableness. Goolsbee wasn’t perfectly clear with what exactly he meant, and Hennessey is right to want to know exactly what Goolsbee meant, but it’s reasonable to assume by “squeezed” he wasn’t just talking about jobs numbers otherwise he probably wouldn’t have pointed out that the recession begins after the “intervening years” of the squeeze. In a discussion about his white board videos Goolsbee told Stephen Colbert that during the Bush employment boom (and he uses the word “boom” acknowledging employment/GDP growth), “it was the first boom in recorded US economic history in which the middle class’s income fell by over $2000 over what was supposed to be a boom and it was followed by what was the worst recession since 1929.” If Hennessey doesn’t watch Colbert, we know he watches the white house videos, and in the above video I posted, Goolsbee repeats the claim that the middle class was “squeezed,” this time in the context of healthcare. The more you listen to Goolsbee, the more you realize that he’s referring to a squeeze on multiple levels in their lives.

I don’t except Hennessey to follow everything Goolsbee has ever said or to be a mind reader, but if you’re trying to combat partisanship and the Adminstration’s selective data engaging in partisanship and omission yourself is hypocritical. I’m sure Hennessey and others may have some reasonable arguments about the exact nature and cause of Goolsbee’s middle class “squeeze” but to pretend you have no idea what he’s talking about or that he could only be referring to the job rate is disingenuous. If Hennessey really didn’t know, couldn’t he have asked?

Right after Hennessey makes the correct observation that people overstate the effect of the President and Congress on the short-term economy, Hennessey can’t resist and makes the same type of criticism he’s faulting Goolsbee and others for. But ultimately he’s right that the color selection is mostly a partisan trick.

Hennessey goes on to puncture Goolsbee’s argument by contending that no one can prove a counterfactual. He’s arguing that it is “impossible” to prove if the stimulus made things better or worse. It’s true that we can’t run history twice and prove conclusively either way, but Hennessey is using this to diffuse only positive assessments of a policy he doesn’t like. His claim works for everything and thus, if we follow Hennessey’s argument to its logical conclusion, means we can’t ever say anything ever about the effectiveness of any policy. He goes on to point out that other policies (many before Obama took office) affected the economy and therefore the recovery. He’s correct. The trouble is that he’s so caught up in blaming Goolsbee for making partisan arguments that he makes the same mistake again. If he was interested in the policy question rather than the political one, Hennessey wouldn’t be worrying about which administration these policies occurred under, just the effectiveness of them. Hennessey says, “Dr. Goolsbee wants to attribute any good economic news to the one policy that was all President Obama’s, the stimulus, and there’s no way he can know or prove that.” Yet, I can’t find where Goolsbee makes that claim. It’s also not evident to me the Goolsbee would argue that those other policies didn’t have a positive effect – Obama himself has argued that many of the policies Hennessey displays were helpful – he even continued and carried many of those policies out (certainly with the input of Goolsbee). Hennessey insists on the most uncharitable and narrow reading of Goolsbee’s argument, further demonstrating his own commitment to partisanship over objectivity.

I do agree with Hennessey’s further point that getting worse more slowly is not the same as getting better. He’s right to point that out to many in Goolsbee’s audience that might not be very familiar with analyzing graphs.

Unfortunately in his new graphs, once he fails to acknowledge Goolsbee’s reasoning behind showing only private sector employment, Hennessey doesn’t show us what that employment picture looks like. Even playing Goolsbee’s words over the new graph didn’t shock me as I think Hennessey intended. Sure, slowing the rate of job loss isn’t equivalent to gaining jobs, but I still can’t help but notice that it is preferable. Goolsbee isn’t obviously incorrect when he says the government’s policies “starts [us] on the path to improvement.”

Ultimately, Hennessey’s critique of Goolsbee had two effects on me. First, using the total employment numbers we see that the situation is far worse than the administration would like us to believe. Therefore, that leads me to support more of the policies that Hennessey (and the Hoover Institution he’s a fellow at) doesn’t seem to favor such as more state aid and direct government hiring. In other words, more fiscal stimulus.

Second, I saw an illustration of the trouble with partisan critiques. Hennessey’s main interest isn’t providing viewers with a complete picture of employment to “give you the other side of the story so you can judge for yourself” – he wants to undermine the Administration’s side and persuade you of his side… even if that means using the same type of omissions and fallacies that he wants to criticize Goolsbee of using.

I hope I haven’t given anyone the impression that I believe I’ve never made a partisan argument before or haven’t focused more on GOP failings over Democratic ones. My aim here is to expose the partisanship that both sides play and remind myself that in attempts to debunk and “deconstruct” the other side it is very easy to make the same mistakes you seek to refute. My purpose in deconstructing Hennessey’s deconstruction is not to declare which side is correct on the merits of their case for or against Obama’s policies. I’m sure reading this or other posts on my blog readers can figure out that I come down more on Goolsbee’s side. But I don’t want that to excuse either side purposefully casting the other’s arguments in the most negative light possible. The true test of an argument confronts the strongest case of the opposition not a weak or incomplete case.

(Hennessey’s video via Mankiw)

Sacrosanctum Concilium

October 21, 2010 2 comments

As discussed before, many people treat the Constitution as a sacred text. Yet, it appears too many of those don’t even understand what they’re worshiping.

There are no Latin translation issues, so what’s the problem? Maybe this is another instance of faith being a poor substitute for learning and knowledge. Remember that atheists knew more about religious doctrine than many of the faithful. So when people who fancy themselves “constitutional conservatives” like Christine O’Donnell don’t know that the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and ask “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?,” what’s going on?

We’re seeing an example of what happens when people worship ideas and are dogmatically bonded to an ideology. O’Donnell isn’t the first person to ask, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Don’t mistake it for actual curiosity; the religious right has a long campaign of challenging the secular nature of our constitution, and that question is a prime indication that O’Donnell has spent more time reading Christian revisionist historians like David Barton than reading mainstream Constitutional law or the Constitution itself. It’s the same phenomena we see with the anti-evolution crowd, who have spent countless hours studying ways to challenge the biology without bothering to learn what it is actually about. If someone says something like, “I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet,” we know they haven’t read any scientific books on evolution, but sure have gone to a creationist website.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that people like Ed Brayton of ScienceBlogs can dismantle the common arguments against the “separation of Church and State.”

Of course it’s true that the actual phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the constitution. But then neither are the phrases “separation of powers” or “checks and balances”, yet no one would argue that the concepts are not there, embodied in numerous specific provisions. Just as the founders used those phrases to describe the intent of the constitutional provisions for power to be divided between three branches of government, they also used the phrase “separation of church and state” to describe the intent of the religion clauses of the first amendment. When the courts go about applying constitutional law, one of the primary ways they do it is to look for the “legislative intent” – the purpose that those who wrote the law had in mind, the goal they wanted to accomplish. When the men who wrote it say in several places, as they did, that the goal of the religion clauses of the first amendment was to erect a wall of separation between church and state, that is about as authoritative as it gets when you’re trying to determine legislative intent.

I hope episodes like these make secular people everywhere realize that it’s not just the science of evolution that the faithful will undermine, but that faith can corrode all of science, all of law, all of history, and reason in general. I know that comes off as hyperbolic. I’m not claiming that all of reason or our secular nation is in immediate danger of collapsing under the pressure of faith but only that we must be vigilant and recognize that faith and reason are fundamentally incombatiable.

Categories: US Constitution Tags:

Conservatives Vs Populists

October 21, 2010 1 comment

Here’s an indispensable post via The Daily Dish. The Republicans have said they won’t cut the blue parts…


And who thinks they’ll cut much of the red which includes things like this (even if they cut it all “wouldn’t even eliminate half of last year’s deficit”). Meanwhile, Conservatives in Britain are saying what they’ll cut:


So how is the GOP “conservative” again?

The Moral Landscape

October 19, 2010 13 comments

Gregg LaGambinaSam Harris initiated the modern intellectual movement that many refer to as “The New Atheism” with his book, The End of Faith. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Dr. Harris hopes to enliven a new, more important, movement. Too many scientists and secular liberals, he believes, have willingly allowed religion to monopolize the discourse of morality. Science and reason, he argues, are the only tools we have to analyze how we ought to behave. A science of morality strikes many people as impossible – how can a subject so burdened by cultural diversity and incompatibility be standardized and studied objectively, they might ask? Harris believes that we can throw out what many people mean when they talk about morality.

We should observe the double standard in place regarding the significance of consensus: those who do not share our scientific goals have no influence on scientific discourse whatsoever; but, for some reason, people who do not share our moral goals render us incapable of even speaking about moral truth. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that there are trained “scientists” who are Biblical Creationists, and their “scientific” thinking is purposed toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Book of Genesis. Such people claim to be doing “science,” of course, but real scientists are free, and indeed obligate, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about “morality” and “human values,” but when we see that their beliefs cause tremendous misery, nothing need prevent us from saying that they are misusing the term “morality” or that their values are distorted. How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally?

So what does Harris mean by “values” and “morality?” He observes that despite all this assumed disagreement almost what everyone is really concerned about is human well-being (his argument applies to all conscious creatures). What else could anyone even possibly care about that doesn’t affect well-being. Even the most devoutly religious care about it – sure, it comes after death, but they worry about the “well-being” of our eternal souls. If they’re right about the supernatural nature of reality, Harris concedes, then they are also right that the most moral thing we could do is bow to God and do everything we can get into heaven and avoid hell whatever the temporal cost – eternity is a lot longer after all.

Luckily, there is no evidence for that religious worldview, so for purposes of our discussion and this proposed discipline, we’ll concern ourselves with this world and our terrestrial lives. If you imagine the worst possible misery for all people all the time that’s clearly “bad” while the opposite is clearly “good.” If you don’t grant Harris that, there is probably nothing that can convince you but I can’t even think of any way someone wouldn’t be able to grant that the worst possible misery for all people all of the time isn’t by every measure bad – it is bad by every measure by definition. Since humans’ well-being corresponds at a fundamental level to their brain states and the reality around them we should in principle be able to scientifically study ways that lead to better and worse well-being. Yes, “well-being” is loosely defined but so is “health” and that doesn’t prevent scientists from discovering objective truths about whether a medical procedure or personal action is beneficial or harmful to a person’s health.

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that his is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously.

Above you see the characteristic incisive humor and insight in Sam’s writing.

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Categories: Sam Harris, TED Tags:

Where’s the Rise of Big Government We’ve Been Hearing About? ctd

October 15, 2010 2 comments

Again, where and when did the switch to socialism happen? I can’t seem to find it in the data… Hmmm…. Also, where was the massive increase in spending for stimulus?

Total Government Spending (all levels of government):


The only way you see a massive increase in government is if you only look at short term federal government spending AND ignore the fact that GDP collapsed because of the recession. Yes, taxes coming in are much less because of cuts and because of the recession – that’s what’s really causing the short term deficit.

We’re not going bankrupt because we’re spending too much on infrastructure or any such nonsense. It appears we’re still short about $2 Trillion for infrastructure (well, according to some reports anyway).  Entitlements need to be reformed, the tax base increased, and we need to find a way to increase economic growth. Maybe the Fed actually intends to try something new now.

(graph via Krugman)

Who Knew?

October 15, 2010 2 comments

I suffer from “immappancy.”

(h/t The Daily Dish)

Categories: The Daily Dish Tags:
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