Archive for January, 2011

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking, ctd

January 31, 2011 2 comments

In his New York Times opinion piece Nicholas Kristof highlights how religious thinking can cause people to care more about dogma than living human beings.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives.

Of course, stalwart apologist of the liberal religious Kristof champions his version of Jesus against those rule-sticklingly traditionalists.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

I happen to agree with Kristof about the absurdity and callousness of the Church’s excommunication of a nun for saving a woman’s life, but how does he justify his judgement on religious grounds? Many sincere believers consider an embryo or a fetus to be an unborn human child equally deserving of moral compassion as a fully conscious adult. From their premises, they are being perfectly rational. Yet, Kristof summons the Nazarene in his court of moral opinion even though Jesus never told us what he thinks on this issue. However, there is certainly some biblical warrant to suppose God isn’t supportive of abortion. It’s not my burden to resolve this issue for either side. This thick haze just doesn’t obscure morally normal vision – there is no need to try to look through it. An unconscious blastocyst does not have the same moral weight as a breathing pregnant woman.

Sadly, it appears the Republican Party is lost in the fog and continues to exhibit more symptoms of moral vertigo with their push to redefine “the definition of rape and incest” in order to limit federal assistance for abortion.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.”

The sooner we abandon the notion that religion has a purchase on morality the better.

(1st piece)

Graciously Responding to Non Sequiturs

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Sam Harris parries a lot of weak criticism of his book and answers his more serious challenges.

The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.


[C]onsider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, “Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.” And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony. Yes, it is true that a person like Alice could seek to maximize her own health without caring about the health of other people — though her health will depend on the health of others in countless ways (the same, I would argue, is true of her well-being). Is shewrong to be selfish? Would we blame her for taking her own side in any zero-sum contest to secure medicine for herself or for her own children? Again, these aren’t the kinds of questions that will get us to bedrock. The truth is, Alice and the rest of us can live so as to allow for a maximally healthy world, or we can fail to do so. Yes, it is possible that a maximally healthy world is one in which Alice is less healthy than she might otherwise be (though this seems unlikely). So what? There is still an objective reality to which our beliefs about human health can correspond.

Goldstein and McArdle on Education

January 31, 2011 1 comment

Watch this bloggingheads video which discusses many of the major issues in education policy right now. Is anyone aware of any wonky consensus about any particular ed. policy the left and right largely agrees on that could be implemented? For economists, ending agricultural subsidies finds support on both ideological ends but continue because of politics – is there any parallel issue for education experts?

Categories: Educational Policy

Where to Read Good Egypt Coverage

January 29, 2011 3 comments

I’ve found The Daily Dish an essential hub for cataloguing coverage from all over the media.

Marc Lynch’s FP blog provides expert analysis.

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Distractions of Attentive Government

January 27, 2011 2 comments

Public safety is a proper role of government. I can empathize with those concerned with limiting the dangers of distracted driving even if I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of new laws to prohibit distractions such as cell phone use. But even if you agree that government should pursue such goals, today’s New York Times story on “distracted pedestrians” reminds us that sometimes we’d be better off with more inattentive legislators.

That is the theory of several lawmakers pushing the latest generation of legislation dealing with how devices like iPods and cellphones affect traffic safety. The ubiquity of interactive devices has propelled the science of distraction — and now efforts to legislate against it — out of the car and into the exercise routine.

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Politicians’ imagined need to solve every problem becomes pernicious when they don’t weigh the consequences of their own action. As much as I’m receptive to the libertarian critique of nanny-state government, the need for personal responsibility, and the state’s misallocated focus on trivial problems like exercisers’ music I think their emphasis is sometimes misplaced.

Governments shouldn’t not ban ipods because it’s runners own fault if they get hit by a car or because government inherently shouldn’t treat citizens like children but because the state needs to be sure their attempt to solve one problem won’t be replaced by other problems of indeterminate repercussion.

In this case, it is not even clear pedestrians distracted by technology is what is causing the uptick in fatalities. The increase is contained to just “the first six months of 2010” among a national drop going back years. News flash: people listening to music and talking on their phones while on a jog isn’t that novel.  So banning the activity might not only do very little to solve “the problem” but any minor benefit might result in less exercise, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. Can anyone in America really argue right now that our problem is too much excerise?

Feelings vs Expectations

January 24, 2011 2 comments

I’ve spent a good amount of time distinguishing between different types of uncertainty and how they affect or don’t affect our economy. (e.g. here, here, and here) On a simlar topic Matthew Yglesias gives us the quote of the day discussing businessmen’s feelings versus rational expectations for business:

The notion that economic growth depends crucially on the subjective feelings of the business executive class is one of the most pernicious ideas to take hold over the past 12 months. One should distinguish this hypothesis from the accurate point that rational expectations matter in the economy. Expectations do matter. But this is often confused with the idea that if the waiters at Davos are rude this year the economy will go into a recession, but if Obama gives a CEO a really sensual back rub growth will return.

Financial vs Mathematical Inequality

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Ariely conducted John Rawls’ veil of ignorance study for wealth distribution and posted the results on his blog.


Unsurprisingly, Americans were wildly off the actual distribution and preferred a more equal distribution. If you read into the study it turns out most Americans favor the Swedish level of distribution.

This is all very fascinating and instructive, but I can’t help but worry that a study like this highlights another type of inequality… of math and logic skills. The respondents were asked to “indicate what percent of wealth they thought each of the quintiles ideally should hold, again starting with the top 20% and ending with the bottom 20%.” I seriously wonder if you explained that making the 2nd and 3rd quintile each hold 20% of the wealth meant that they would each be perfectly equal and have no disparity in wealth and making the top quintile hold only about 30% of the wealth meant that the “richest” wouldn’t be very rich in a relative sense. If you look at the graph that averages out everyone’s preference in the study it seems like Americans prefer that almost no differences in wealth exist at all. Do Americans understand that distributing wealth in the way they did doesn’t mean that wealth is progressively tiered down but means that everyone has almost the same wealth with the richest having slightly more and the poorest slightly less?

Unfortunately, I can’t find an actual poll asking specifically if rich people deserve their extra wealth, but I remember reading that many Americans feel that they do. [Source anyone?] Greg Mankiw’s latest paper certainly is representative of that view. Ariely is a great behavioral economist that regularly shows that people give answers by how the question is framed. There is no doubt that Americans would prefer less inequality – there is little doubt less inequality would be a good thing – but I’m left wondering more about the possible disparity in their understanding.

(h/t Zach)

Categories: Dan Ariely

A New Insight

January 18, 2011 3 comments

I love challenge. My competitive streak is widely known amongst my friends and I’ve become accustomed to others’ apprehension about playing even trivial games with me. Of course, others enjoy that side of me (if they’re on my team and like winning, for example). But that (honestly, good natured) aspect of me is a microcosm of how I seek much of the pleasure in my life. I seek gratification in attaining professional success, dreaming up novel or strong arguments, looking superficially good, finding a great romantic partner – for the most part, standard goals.

In my quest for strong arguments I find it useful to immerse myself in the arguments of contrary opinion. So I’ve been thinking about attempting a contrary path to pleasure for a while now. I’ve researched a bit on The Insight Mediation Center and am tempted to try it out. It seems so opposite me without being antagonistic to me that I think it might be a healthy new experience.

Honestly, this wasn’t me having an epiphany or me challenging myself by trying out creationism or communism. Among some other people I hugely respect, Sam Harris has been pushing nonbelievers to open themselves up to “spirituality” without the woo. In this otherwise unremarkable Nightline interview with Sam, it is revealed that he’s planning on writing a book on spirituality “devoid of God.” I couldn’t be more excited to read something like that.

Furthermore, in his response to Edge’s latest question, Sam explains how thought is the “primary source of human suffering and confusion.”

I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.

Andreas Kluth also frequently points out the benefits of a “still mind” – he even nominated Patanji, who expressed this notion, as the greatest thinker in history. Blogging demands a mind cleanse every so often as well.

Do any readers have any insights or advice they’d like to share about my search for a new perspective?

Tucson Tragedy Roundup

January 13, 2011 1 comment

Sorry for my lack of postings recently. I needed a bit of a mental break and have been feeling a little under the weather. Also, I didn’t want to react too reflexively to such a horrible atrocity. Here’s a small collection of some commentary from around the web I found worthwhile to think about.

Ross Douthat (01/09/11):

But if overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.

We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events.

Jonathan Chait (01/12/11):

Likewise, consider Obama’s observation that the tragedy could usher in greater civility “not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.” I completely agree with the logic of that statement: If the Tucson shootings got us thinking about the need for greater civility, and greater civility is a good thing in itself, then we should pursue it even if it turns out to be unrelated to the shooting. In the same way, an alcoholic who gives up drinking after wrecking his car would have my full endorsement even if he turned out to be sober when he got into the accident.

But, of course, there are lots of things the Tucson shooting got us thinking about even if they don’t turn out to have caused it—like the need for tougher gun laws or better mental health care. It’s possible that neither of these things would have saved lives this past weekend. But, in the aftermath of Tucson, we can be forgiven for thinking they might make our nation a little better. (The same probably goes for a conservative movement that’s less infatuated with the language of armed rebellion.)

Glenn Greenwald (01/12/11):

What Galston is doing here is what the American political class reflexively does in the wake of every tragedy:  it immediately seeks to exploit the resulting trauma and emotion to justify all-new restrictions on basic liberties (such as the right not to be locked away against one’s will in the absence of a crime or a serious threat to others) and all-new government powers. Every traumatic event — in the immediate, emotionally consuming aftermath —  leads to these sorts of knee-jerk responses.  The 9/11 attack immediately gave rise to the Patriot Act, warrantless eavesdropping, a torture regime, due-process-free imprisonment, and ultimately an attack on Iraq.

Andrew Sullivan (01/12/11):

One would have thought that Palin, like any responsible person in her shoes right now, could have mustered some sort of regret about the unfortunate coincidence of what she had done in the campaign and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t you? If you had publicly defended a map with cross-hairs on a congresswoman’s district, and that congresswoman had subsequently been shot, would you not be able to express even some measure of regret at what has taken place, even while denying, rightly, any actual guilt? Could you not even acknowledge the possibility that your critics have and had a point, including the chief Palin-critic on this, who happens to be struggling for her life in hospital, Gabrielle Giffords.

Conor Friedersdoft (01/09/11):

The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

Matthew Yglesias (01/09/11):

The idea that it’s even coherent to talk about “politicizing” the attempted assassination of a politician strikes me as questionable. But since typically people die without being assassinated, and there are still always allegations of nefarious “politicization” of their deaths, I’d like to go on record as saying that when I decided to write about politics and policy for a living that wasn’t just a weird coincidence. I actually really care about these things. They’re very important to me. And if I die tomorrow or next week or next month or next year or (hopefully!) decades from now and still-living allies want to take the occasion to try to advance progress on the issues I care about, I would applaud that.

Andreas Kluth giving a historical perspective (01/09/11):

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Ezra Klein (01/12/11):

But will congressional aides make for good bodyguards, even if they get “a bit of training?” I doubt it. Because field organizers actually don’t know how to find the one nut who will pull a gun every few decades, they’ll start throwing out lots of people who seem a little off. Better than safe than shot at. But if you’ve ever been to a community meeting, “seems a little off” pretty much describes the whole room. And people who “seem a little off” should have access to their member of Congress, too.


And all this would solve … what? In the past three decades, there haven’t been five members of Congress shot by constituents. There haven’t been two. There’s been one. And it’s not at all clear that most of these proposal would’ve even prevented that shooting.

I don’t want to downplay the horror of what happened in Arizona. But attaching a police officer to every congressional event or trying to train aides who’re supposed to be listening to constituents to instead try and assess the threat level they pose is not the right way to grieve. We’ve suffered a tragedy, but there’s no evidence, at least as of yet, that legislators are in much everyday danger. That’s in stark contrast with, say, people who live in Detroit, who perhaps could use more security.

I think President Obama hit the right notes in his speech last night. Most importantly: “If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy–it did not–but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”

It is clear that uncivil discourse didn’t cause this assassination attempt and I think incivility can, at times, be valuable rhetorically. Yet, more civility among our public officials and public discourse is worth striving for if only to focus our attention on policy differences not personality or partisanship. I think that places me closest to Conor in worrying more (not only) about substance than tone.

Should policy changes result from this atrocity? Possibly but only if we deal with the real dilemma of balancing Greenwald’s fear of reflexive restrictions of liberty with the sober policy assessment that Chait proposes. I admit I’m a bit skeptical of how dispassionate our policy makers can be, but that doesn’t mean any policy changes are automatically harmful or unnecessary.

Dealing with political assassination without diverting police resources away from vulnerable communities to protect against political lightning strikes is difficult. Kluth reminds us that political assassination can have critical repercussions to the health of a republic. In Rome, it prevented reformers from acting. Changing how we replace our public officials if dead or ill is a prudent protection against political saboteurs. I haven’t thought enough about it to offer much, but making sure their replacement would be acceptable to the elected official seems reasonable.

Not to be petty, but in order to contrast a bit with the understandable religiosity of last night’s memorial let me thank the heroism of the people that fought back against the gunman and the goodness of the medical community that is doing their best to care for those injured. People cause tragedies and people need to fix them.

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Alan Greenspan: The Brett Favre of Monetary Policy?

January 10, 2011 2 comments

Fascinating interview with Alan Greenspan:

[Sorry, Edit, can’t get this video embeded. Watch here.]

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