Archive for April, 2011

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

April 25, 2011 21 comments

Some days I feel a bit radical and think the state should just get out of the whole marriage business altogether – problem solved. But I have some sympathy for the conservative case that state sanction is a useful encouragement of a valuable institution. Then again, would people pushed into marriage by such incentive really be in society’s interest? Regardless, if the state is going hold the official stamp of approval it seems unjust to prohibit same-sex couples from participating.

Previously I praised Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that found that the state has no legal cause to deny homosexuals the right. A reader, Cyberquill, protested that creating a new right was unwarranted given the traditional definition of marriage. We proceeded to have a long debate on the topic in the comments if anyone is brave enough to dive in. Recently he refined his argument and sent us the link. He infuses the argument with a bit more flourish than typical but his argument rests on the standard case that granting the right through courts just opens it up to everybody and dilutes the institution making it essentially meaningless. Thus, if a constitutional right to marriage exists for homosexuals, why not for ketchup bottles? Yes, that’s really his argument, but its reasoning is not that uncommon.

Since marriage itself would remain legal in Connecticut and the laws of the land must apply equally to all, how could it be constitutional to permit marriage for some but not others solely based on who or what they are? What if the law were to ban marriage between Heinz and Heinz but not between Heinz and Hunt’s? And even if it applied to ketchup across the board, marrying ketchup with mustard or mustard with apple sauce would still be allowed.

Samuel Johnson, evil genius?

The provocative and game Cyberquill considers noticing that  “marriage” is a polyseme a profound and meaningful observation. Following his logic, he’d have you believe that we need a constitutional amendment to prevent homonyms from breaking the binding of society. I admire Strunk and White as much as the next guy, but I never thought verbal traditionalism carried such high stakes. As a resident of  Massachusetts, where we love Barney Frank but (apparently) hate Samuel Johnson, I await the linguistic apocalypse.

Until the armageddon, let me tempt the fates further by explaining why traditionalists miss the essence of marriage.  But how is one to decide what properties make up the fundamental components of marriage?  Cyberquill – after partially conceding marriage’s varied history – believes marriage is defined by numbers and gender. Why? I suppose it’s convenient to his argument. It seems he’s confusing marriage’s participants for its properties. Given his fetish for tradition allow me to reach back through history to Plato and Aristotle. They taught us that purpose is the crucial underpinning of nature. Teleology, not lexicography, ties the knot of marriage.

In PGA Tour v Casey Martin, the justices sought to determine the goal of golf in order to decide whether a handicapped golfer should be allowed to untraditionally participate (use a golf cart) in the official tournament. Was walking essential to the sport? More broadly I could ask what relationship the participants themselves have for the purpose of marriage.

If the state has an interest in regulating marriage, we must ascertain what the purpose of marriage is for the state. I return to Judge Walker’s decision. He writes,

The state regulates marriage because marriage creates stable households, which in turn form the basis of a stable, governable populace.

I’ll leave it to lawyers to certify whether that squares with legal precedent, but it appears that the purpose is clear and is relevant to the state interest. Permitting same-sex marriage satisfies that criteria, whereas “automarriage,” condiment matrimony, and other extreme unconventional unions don’t.  Some religiously motivated campaigners might argue procreation defines marriage’s telos. But unless the state were to ban all infertile couples, it seems tailoring the prohibition to gays won’t fit with the Fourteenth Amendment.

Marriage need not be arbitrary or trapped in the inertia of orthodoxy. The union of equality and marriage share a purposeful bond. Although I still might leave ketchup off the wedding menu.

3 or is it 2 Cups of Tea?

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

File:Greg Mortenson portrait.jpgI haven’t read the book so I don’t have a whole lot to say about the scandal involving Greg Mortenson’s apparent lack of truthfulness. Stories like these greatly disappoint me because it is so difficult for readers to guard against this. I spend a lot of time reading nonfiction but I can hardly fact-check everything I come across – and I’m right not to; it’d be a massive waste of time. Only if something seems particularly questionable or significant will I spend some time investigating it.

Contrast that with the ability to critically evaluate arguments. The concept of “critical thinking” is too glibly tossed around. You hear educators constantly emphasize the benefits of critical thinking but so little time is actually spent teaching the skill. Critical thinking is not the same as doing difficult schoolwork or pondering the universe or figuring out the best way to structure a tax code (although it is crucial to do any of those well). It is also not fact-checking. Critical thinking is about reading an argument and being able to judge its merits even when all the facts are solid. It’s difficult, but readers should be expected to determine if the authors’ reasoning is flawed. But the general public needs some goodwill along with hardworking publishers and journalists to ensure what we’re reading at least gets the basic facts right.


Categories: Critical Thinking

Top Speed

April 24, 2011 1 comment


The Real Deal:

(video via The Daily Dish)

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An Imperfect Argument

April 21, 2011 8 comments

I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.

To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.

Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.

Where does good come from?

Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”

Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?

Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”

Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?

Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”

Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?

Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”

Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?

Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”

Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.

All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.

This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.

“Being Forthright Is Saying Nothing”

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s encouraging to see some actual adversarial journalism happening on this issue. Unfortunately, “adversarial journalism” isn’t redundant.

Progressives shouldn’t be hoping for more left of center journalism. Conservatives shouldn’t be thankful for Fox News. Journalists should be feared by anyone with power and responsibility.

Burlington Mall Holdup: live blogging

April 19, 2011 1 comment

So I’m in the burlington mall at work. A supposed gunman is in nordstrom.

Everyone except legal seafoods is evacuated.

1150: 3 guys with ATF jackets just walked by.

1151: no surprise everyone has a different story of what is going on.

1152: looks like it all might be a misunderstanding. Had something that “appeared” to be a weapon. Maybe an umbrella.

1159: getting free breakfast.

People waiting desperately for baked scrod

Reflections on the Day:

Now that I’m back home at my computer and not attempting to write updates through my phone I’ll reflect a bit on today’s events.

I arrived at work at about 10:20am and swiftly learned about “someone being shot at Nordstrom.” He was still loose in the mall. Human psychology never ceases to amaze me; I was struck by how immediately and regularly humor was used to defuse the situation. Emotions overlapped and fluctuated between humor, bewilderment, alarm, and curiosity. We all consciously avoided windows for the most part, we ran outside when being evacuated only to return quickly to the locked restaurant – we sought to balance safety, rationality, and (astonishingly) industry.

The unreliability of information during sensational events was obvious even at the time as stories circulated of whether someone had been shot or not, whether a jewelry store had been robbed, and whether it was a shotgun, rifle, or, later, an umbrella. Yet, more interesting is how strongly evolution has biased us against skepticism due to the danger of making a Type II error.

As easily as it was to joke and is now after learning of the misunderstanding, the gunman seemed real at the time. In fact, our belief in the reality of the gunman that shot someone was real at the time. I don’t want to make more of this event than it is, but incidents like these not only make great stories but highlight insights about the world.

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Mankiw Admits GOP Policies Are “Repellent”

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

In his recent New York Times piece Harvard economist Greg Mankiw envisions a presidential speech in 2026 if we don’t do something now to fix our fiscal crisis.

If we had chosen to tax ourselves to pay for this spending, our current problems could have been avoided.

The odd thing about Mankiw’s formulation is that the “current problems” are basically his preferred solutions so we’re not really avoiding anything. I’m not denying that taking early action to fix these problems is sensible – the problems are real. But I’m not sure if conservatives fully recognize that it’s difficult to scare people into action by arguing that our only solutions to long-term problems is to embrace them earlier. A voter might reasonably ask, “if we’re going to face these difficulties no matter what, why not just wait?”

Economists like Mankiw recognize that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in the future – so even if the difficulties intensify later it might seem that putting them off is “worth it.” But Greg Mankiw, Paul Ryan, and other conservatives argue that in order to prevent the destruction of our current policies we must… destroy all our current policies. You’ll notice that in all of Mankiw’s doomsday scenarios his proposed fix is not to adjust our commitments and tax code in creative ways to preserve the basic structure of our welfare state but to preemptively implement the pain now. It’s as if consent to misery somehow makes it more palatable. Also, conservatives’ policy preferences aren’t merely acquiescence to some Calvinistic political inevitability – they frequently argue the moral superiority of their policies.

In 2026 Mankiw imagines that “we have to cut Social Security immediately, especially for higher-income beneficiaries.” His solution to this in 2011 is to… cut social security.

In the future we’ll be forced “to limit Medicare and Medicaid.” To save us from this problem, the GOP plan is to have people “pay for these treatments on their own or, sadly, do without.”

Republicans including Mankiw favor repealing Obamacare. We better cut middle-income subsidies so we don’t have to cut them later!

Forthcoming budget realities ensure that “subsidies for farming, ethanol production, public broadcasting, energy conservation and trade promotion” must go. As expected, Mankiw thinks we should do that regardless of the bond markets (e.g. here, here, and here).

On taxes, Mankiw predicts the budget will force us to broaden the tax base and eliminate deductions. Of course, economists like Mankiw already want that.

Watch out in 2026: we’ll have to raise the gas tax “by $2.” As a champion of the Pigou Club, Mankiw has been arguing for years that raising the gas tax is a great idea.

His hypothetical president believes these changes are “repellent.” Does that mean that Mankiw, the conservative economist that favors all these changes on their own merits, thinks his own policies are repellent? He’s right that if we choose them earlier they’d be less immediate and “draconian” but if they’re harsh then aren’t they detestable now?

I don’t dispute that doing something soon is essential. I actually support a version of many of the policies Mankiw advocates. But conservatives have been advocating that cutting social security, slashing medicare and medicaid, removing all subsidies, and broadening the tax base are morally preferable. Paul Ryan doesn’t require his staff to read Ayn Rand because he thinks her policies are unfortunate inevitabilities; he considers them optimal and just.

No one believes that our current welfare state and tax policies are sustainable or flawless, but progressives at least attempt to preserve and improve them. It’s possible Paul Ryan and Greg Mankiw are right that all progressive policies will eventually collapse. I just can’t understand the rush to get there.

(photo credit)

[update 04/15: Greg Mankiw responds]:

I emailed Professor Mankiw asking what he thought about his policy preferences seeming to mirror the “repellent” and “draconian” view his column imagined.

That wasn’t me speaking. It was a hypothetical future president. 😉

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Music Break

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment
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When Unbearable Debt Meets Unsustainable Political Support

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Many idealists think we can just inform the public enough to understand the best policies to govern ourselves. Unfortunately tilting at windmills seems more productive. Policies gain and maintain support not by voter knowledge but by voter experience. I don’t care how many TV specials or column inches get devoted to explaining that congestion pricing is better for drivers – it will only reach a critical mass of support when drivers experience the benefits outweighing its costs.

As a pure political argument, do you think hugely slashing defense spending is a winner? Maybe right now. What about the months after 9/11? Voters have no idea what the practical differences are of a few hundred billion more or a few hundred billion less in spending on the military. If the country feels safe they’ll support a low level of defense spending (assuming that the level is compatible with actual and perceived safety). Are high tax rates politically sustainable? If there is strong economic growth, yes. Of course if they’re too high and they weaken growth they’re not sustainable. Bill Clinton easily won reelection and somehow maintained higher tax rates that many currently think would be politically reckless to advocate. Those tax rates even gave us a surplus and would do a lot to balance our budget. What’s the difference? Clinton didn’t explain it better – he presided over a growing economy. Clinton even won large percentages of wealthy voters (not majorities though). Today, growth is anemic.

What does this tell us about any debt reduction plan? Since future congresses will have to keep any policies in place that balance the budget, the policies can’t be incompatible with voters’ improving experiences. Paul Ryan’s medicare “fix” isn’t bad because it is unfair or ideologically conservative – even if you forced everyone to read and love Atlas Shrugged it wouldn’t fix the deficit. When the elderly start getting vouchers that decrease in value (they grow at the rate of inflation but healthcare grows faster) they’ll see their situation as steadily deteriorate and vote to change the policy.  That doesn’t mean that benefits need exponential growth to maintain support, but shifting the cost to consumers also doesn’t work. Public debt means higher taxes and less ability to spend elsewhere while private debt directly consumes personal wealth that reduces demand and economic growth. That’s why costs need to be contained not payments. Ezra points out that smaller versions of Ryan’s plan failed:

Various states have gotten waivers to radically remake their Medicaid program, and the consumer-driven model that Ryan is proposing for Medicare has been attempted in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program and Medicare Advantage. None of these programs have worked, which is why we’re in our current predicament.

Voters need to feel that their overall well-being is improving which means holding down costs in a way that doesn’t prevent economic growth. A growing economy makes every policy sustainable; the trick is to pick solutions that don’t kill economic growth. Paul Ryan correctly realizes that medicare can’t be an open-ended commitment because doing so would eventually harm the economy. His numbers don’t add up, the distribution is unjust, and its prospects are inconceivable but we can debate the merits of it as policy. He should be commended for offering something tangible even as we reveal its flaws. Are there other solutions?

The Kaiser Family Foundation compares some proposals. Many Democrats think strengthening the Independent Payment Advisory Board holds promise. Introducing a dedicated VAT to government healthcare spending always made sense to me – that way it explicitly ties what we’re willing to spend to what is politically sustainable.

Politicians should remember that the single best thing they could do to reduce the deficit is choose policies that maximize economic growth (even if that means taking advantage of cheap borrowing now). Yet, our debt is so large more must be done. Since the major problem is too many retirees relative to able workers, we could change one policy that no one seems to notice would dramatically help. Increase the number of young workers… otherwise known as immigrants. Obviously immigrants age too so it’s not a magic bullet, but anything that keeps the dependency ratio at a reasonable level would be enormously helpful.

Another aspect of immigration policy that needs consideration (since we can’t feasibly let in enough migrants completely solve everything) are temporary workers. Temporary workers are great because they come at almost no cost to the taxpayer. We don’t have to educate them and we don’t have to pay for their retirement, but they grow the economy and pay taxes. As Matthew McConaughey might observe, high school girls and temporary immigrants have a lot in common: they “stay the same age.”

Much more needs to be done, but anything that passes must maintain support.

Quotes That Could Be From Me

April 12, 2011 Leave a comment

You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Obama has produced his birth certificate. There were announcements that ran in two contemporaneous Hawaiian newspapers at the time. The head of the Hawaiian medical records has announced, ‘I have seen the long form you all want.’ I don’t know why the long form is considered more credible than the short form. They’re both from the same office. The State Department accepts the short form or as we call it, the birth certificate.

(You’ll never guess who this is from)

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