Archive for August, 2011

Seasonal Challenges

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s been a little over a year since I posted Mankiw’s and Mulligan’s challenge to “extreme Keynesians.”  Mulligan argues that the seasonal surge in teenage employment demonstrates that aggregate demand isn’t the source of our employment problems. If it was, he argues, the “increase in supply [of seasonal workers] should not translate into higher employment during deep recessions such as this one. But it does!”

I’m unable to find the comparative data for this year, but I’d like to revisit the topic anyway. My initial reaction to the challenge was that there might be an increase in demand during the summer months, which could explain the jump. Looking at the above graph now, I’m wondering if the slide well before September (when most kids go back to school) illustrates collapsing demand. After all, employment starts to drop before the temporary supply heads back to school – doesn’t that suggest demand’s importance? So, does employment drop before supply dries up and, if not, isn’t it difficult to say which is the cause?

Frankly, I’m not sure why extra supply by itself would cause a spike in hiring. Teenage employment -even in the summer- continues to decline every year. The graph shows employment of 16-19 year olds go up relative to 20-24 year olds, but why wouldn’t unemployed 20-24 year olds be willing to fill available jobs? If it was only supply rather than increased summer demand, why wouldn’t businesses hire the unemployed workers in non-summer months? For example, are hotels going underemployed during non-summer months? Is there any evidence that the unemployed are refusing to work in large numbers?

If you examine the character of seasonal youth employment it seems to suggest increased demand could be causing the boost in hiring. The industries that see rises in summer employment are the same industries that see increased demand. Think recreation and vacations.

Meanwhile, schools and daycares experience decreased employment because people don’t need their services. The reason we see more 16-19 year olds relative to older age groups hired is that if business are going to hire workers to fill the temporary rise in demand they are still more likely to want the lowest cost workers. Nothing about that seems inconsistent with rising demand.

Whether it is increased demand or increased supply (or both) that causes the change in employment, I can’t say for sure. But, Mulligan’s claim that increased worker supply causes the employment spike may confuse correlation for causation. Either way, I’m willing to try anything that might help our employment crisis. I suppose that means expanding immigration into the US to increase the supply of workers and to reignite our efforts to generate more demand.

The Sunset of Morals

August 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Joel Marks in an Opinionator post at the New York Times explains what convinced him that objective morals don’t exist after once believing in them:

In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all.

He calls secular ethics “the clarion call of the ‘new atheists,'” but somehow manages to completely ignore the original new atheist’s entire book on this topic. Allow me to fill in some of the missing argument.

Marks supposes that for objective morality to exist moral actions must be inherently good or bad. A sunset’s beauty or banality does not transcend the experience of the conscious observer  – the beauty or banality are the descriptions of that subjective experience. Yet descriptions can be true or false. The viewing of sunsets has objective effects on observers. If a sunset excites the pleasure centers in your brain and you sense “beauty” that is an objective truth about a subjective experience.

Similarly, Joel Marks may just “dislike” animal cruelty and “death camps,” but animal cruelty and death camps cause objective harm to animals and people. Marks is correct that tossing conscious chickens into meat grinders isn’t intrinsically immoral. All that means is the objective pain experienced by birds doesn’t transcend the experience conscious animals. But, so what? How could it? What would that even mean?

When the pleasure centers of your brain are lit by the image of sunset we call that sensation, “beauty.” If you started calling it “banal” or “ugly” you’d be talking nonsense. When particular actions increase the misery to conscious creatures we call that, “immoral” or “wrong.” It is objectively true or false if more misery resulted.  If you started calling harm to animals and people, “moral” or “good” you’d be talking nonsense. Thus, we can judge the objective morality of an action based on the amount of good or harm that results.

Categories: Morality Tags:

Music Break

August 18, 2011 1 comment


Categories: Music Tags:

A Libertarian’s Case For Government Intervention

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Bryan Caplan is one of my favorite libertarian writers. He’s very persuasive and even when he doesn’t convince me he’s consistently insightful. In his Wall Street Journal review of Nick Powdthavee’s book, The Happiness Equation, he highlights one of the most important metrics for evaluating public policy:

For instance, happiness research makes a powerful case against European-style labor-market regulation. For most economists, the effect on worker well-being is unclear. On the one hand, regulation boosts wages; on the other, it increases the probability that you will have no wages at all. From the standpoint of a happiness researcher, however, this is a no-brainer. A small increase in wages has but a small and ephemeral effect on happiness. A small increase in unemployment, by contrast, has a massive and—unlike most other factors—durable effect on happiness. Supposedly “humane” regulations to boost workers’ incomes have a dire cost in terms of human happiness.

At the other end of the political spectrum, consider immigration. The most pessimistic researchers find that decades of immigration have depressed native wages by about 5%, total. The effect of immigration on Third World migrants’ wages, by contrast, is massive: One recent paper finds that allowing a Haitian to take a low-skill job in the U.S. increases his earnings 10 times. If you care about happiness, the implication is clear: Government should get out of the way.

In many instances, he’s right, government should relax regulations that obstruct full employment. But maximum freedom doesn’t always lead to full employment. Market economies with lax regulation can suffer from painful volatility.

Furthermore, during times of high unemployment like today, government could boost employment at relatively low cost to future growth (or possibly no cost). The corollary to when Caplan argues that a “small increase in wages” isn’t worth the “small increase in unemployment” is that a small decrease in future wealth is worth an increase in today’s employment. Caplan’s sound logic should help convince policymakers to support public investment programs that employ idle workers and to reverse the fall in public employment.

(The surge around May and subsequent drop is mostly due to the temporary census workers)

Over regulation can often raise unemployment, but during downturns it can also provide worker safety as some German labor policies demonstrate. From The Economist’s Free Exchange blog:

Germany proceeded to protect its labour market from major disruption by the great recession, through the use of its “short work” labour sharing programme. Firms were encouraged to cut hours rather than jobs, and workers facing reduced work hours were provided an income subsidy. The result? Germany’s huge output fall produced only a labour market wiggle.

Caring about people’s happiness also makes a further mockery of the hysteria around any Fed policy that might generate higher inflation, which would certainly boost growth and lower unemployment.

If you care about happiness, the implication is clear: Bryan Caplan makes a great case for occasional government intervention.

Everyone’s an Evangelical!

August 9, 2011 1 comment

Reza Aslan has another attack on “the new atheists” that repeats all the standard criticisms of the movement. He observers, along with every other detractor, that the new atheism is just like religious fundamentalism. Bus ads and other campaigns serve as his examples of proselytization. Critics find it endlessly clever to compare atheists to the evangelicals they often target. I’m always curious if they say that just because they know it will annoy atheists or if they actually think they’re offering a meaningful objection. Either way, the comparison is so broad as to be almost completely trivial.

You know who else has bus ads?


Flower shops:

Ambulance companies:

Aslan goes on to claim that the new atheism is a “particularly zealous form of fundamentalism.” He can’t be bothered to provide a single quote that demonstrates his allegation that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others believe “they are in sole possession of the truth.” The charge is almost self-evidently false; “the new atheists” disagree with each other on many issues. Sam Harris, arguably the first “new atheist,” regularly argues that everyone (and atheists in particular) have a lot to learn from the spiritual experiences of mystics. The new atheists simply argue that people should provide reasons for their beliefs – a standard that the On Faith section of the Washington Post would collapse under.

Aslan wistfully remembers the atheism of the past that didn’t give “atheism a bad name.” Yes, Reza is actually arguing that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett give atheism a bad name, but Marx and Nietzsche didn’t.

After that historically oblivious nostalgia, Aslan does his best liberal theologian impression:

What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?

I’m not sure what his first question is even asking, but I’m positive that “such a possibility” is, yes, more hypothetical than theoretical physics. This is due mainly to the fact those religious myths are either disproven already or completely untestable. Although many hypothesis in physics are indeed hypothetical they are qualitatively different from religious myths. Physicists construct them based on mathematical models that must be consistent with observable nature and rise and fall on the scientific method. Of course, scientists are often the harshest critics of theoretical physics. The models are also acknowledged to be hypothetical and won’t be fully scientifically accepted until they make accurate testable predictions. In a rhetorical move seemingly designed to embarrass the science-is-another-faith crowd, string theorist Brian Greene asks himself if he believes in string theory. His answer: “no.”

Do Christians, Hindus, and Muslims admit that their “religious phenomena” are hypothetical? Have they withheld believing in them until they clear standard evidentiary hurdles? Can Reza obscure the difference between science and religion any further?

Reza continues to push falsehoods about the positions of prominent new atheists. He writes, “new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence.” Again, no quotation is provided for the allegedly monolithic atheist view. In actuality, Sam Harris says that Jainism’s “core doctrine is nonviolence” and religions are as varied as sports. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything.” In his most famous polemic against religion, Christopher Hitchens explains that “Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize.” Hitchens and others openly acknowledge that nationalism and other non-religious ideologies can be dangerous; they just point out that faith-based beliefs are harder to correct and that no society has ever suffered from being too reasonable.

I’d love to see Aslan’s evidence for the “stock response” of the new atheists:

The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

Here’s Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan:

You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are “fools” or “idiots.” Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people. One of the horrors of religious dogmatism is that it can produce a Pascal–a brilliant man who was irretrievably self-deceived on matters of profound importance.

Here’s Hitchens in The Portable Atheist:

I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim–so modestly and so humbly–to possess. It is time to withdraw our “respect” from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.

Yes, many atheists think certain believers are dimwitted or ignorant of science, but they don’t make any across-the-board claims about the intelligence of religious believers.

For all the noise about atheists caricaturing the religious, I’ve yet to find a criticism that substantively attacks what the new atheist authors actually argue. Instead, pundits like Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan bumble around like media copycat criminals showcasing a version of the crimes that they fictionalize atheists having committed. Aslan’s stock criticisms, editorial proselytization, and accusations of ignorance litter every scene where he leaves his stamp.

Categories: Atheism Tags: , ,

The Rum Ration Ran Out

August 9, 2011 1 comment

I’m back from my caribbean cruise. Hope to be back to regular posting shortly.

Categories: Personal
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