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Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

The Right Side of History

June 24, 2011 5 comments

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

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

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

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

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

The Wisdom of Silence

It’s All About Tradition, Right?

(photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

Wanna get arrested with me?

Jail House Reggaeton

Simon Romero for the New York Times reports on this Venezuelan penitentiary:

[T]he prison for more than 2,000 Venezuelans and foreigners held largely for drug trafficking looks more like a Hugh Hefner-inspired fleshpot than a stockade for toughened smugglers.

Bikini-clad female visitors frolic under the Caribbean sun in an outdoor pool. Marijuana smoke flavors the air. Reggaetón booms from a club filled with grinding couples.

 

(photo credit: Meridith Kohut)

I’m Tempted Too

Nicholas Kristof’s newest column asks, “Why Pay Congress?” if they’re just going to act like children and shut down the government while other government workers don’t get paid.

If we careen over a cliff on Friday and the American government shuts down, hard-working federal workers will stop getting paychecks, but the members of Congress responsible for the shutdown are expected to be paid as usual.

That’s partly because Congressional pay is not subject to the regular appropriations process, and partly because of Constitutional concerns.

Kristof’s using this issue to generate anger at our irresponsible elected officials more than to make a principled stand on a Constitutional question.  So it’s not what his column is about, but I think his title question deserves a bit more of an answer than the vague, “Constitutional concerns.” Populist anger often vents over paying the crooks that run the joint, so why not cut them off or lower their pay?

That populist anger is (no surprise) misplaced. Turns out Congress and the President get healthy paychecks for different populist reasons. This helps weaken the influence of bribes and prevents Congress from using the purse strings as political weapons to influence votes. More fundamentally, without compensation only independently wealthy or crooked politicians could serve. A living wage, in theory, allows common people to govern. This American custom contrasted directly with the British, misnamed, House of Commons.

Sadly, the expense of campaigns has made this ideal mostly a theory. I have a lot of reservations about this, but the Founders’ logic should make us consider the public funding of campaigns.

But, geez, they really really make me want to cut off their paychecks.

“Arcane theological points from the ninth century”

March 23, 2011 1 comment

Last week’s New York Times Magazine carried an engrossing story about Yasir Qadhi, a controversial and conservative Islamic cleric in America.

In the West, jihad is often depicted as a self-contained, violent cause. But in Qadhi’s world, it exists within a panoply of complex and overlapping issues. The most immediate question is not whether to fight overseas but how to make peace living in the pluralistic West.

Debates pivot on arcane theological points from the ninth century, a time when religious empires reigned, not secular nations. Classical scholars reference a world divided between dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and dar al-harb, the land of war. But which land is America?

[…]

“It is an awkward position to be in,” he wrote of his situation. “How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media and a group of overzealous, rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message, because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?”

His position might not only be awkward – it could be futile. Is Salafiya Islam compatible with America? Can Qadhi and others like him be persuasive to young Muslims that are disposed to radicalization? I’m not hopeful if the solution is to win a 9th century theology debate.

(photo: Andrea Elliott, Eric Owles, Josh Williams/The New York Times)

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?

Don’t Pray? Don’t Tell.

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

That there are no atheists in foxholes is a myth. Veteran Kathleen Johnson tells us why religious coercion is bad for the military.

In both combat theaters, I recall endless and constant mandatory prayer circles being held by small units before military operations at which unit members who elected not to participate risked harassment, rebukes from their peers and supervisors, and even punishments. I recall dining halls decorated with bible verses, units adorned with bibles, and meetings started with Christian prayers. I recall the panic in a young soldier’s voice when he called me to tell me how his approved social meeting of military atheists was intentionally disrupted by an Army officer (a self-described “prayer warrior”) and that he was receiving threats against his life.

The Moral Landscape Released

October 5, 2010 1 comment

I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.

I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.

Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.

Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.

Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)

Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.

Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”

I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.

Amazing Photos

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Check out these incredible photos of atomic bombs.

No More Uncertainty: It’s Demand

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Catherine Rampell, of the Economix blog at the New York Times, shows what “the biggest single problem facing America’s small businesses” is right now.

Much of the debate about how to spur growth and encourage hiring has focused on making the tax picture temporarily more business-friendly. But as you can see, the portion of small businesses citing taxes as their superlative problem has remained about the same — mostly in the 17-22 percent range, say — for about a decade. (my emphasis)

It’s clear that “poor sales” is what has changed (look from Sep ’07 on) and why employers aren’t hiring right now. That’s not to say that taxes aren’t a concern – of course they are a concern – but if you’re trying to argue that small businesses aren’t hiring now because of the increased weight of Obama’s Marxist regulations (dark orange), new crushing tax increases, the recent Nazi-like health insurance scheme (light orange), or because evil unions are keeping wages artificially high (light blue) you might reexamine those views in light of the, you know, evidence. 

Note to policymakers: craft policies that best increase aggregate demand. 

Moreover this demonstrates the continued lack of evidence for the argument from uncertainty (i.e. policy uncertainty is causing businesses not to hire) (see: here, here). Yglesias also asks proponents of that argument to justify their argument from history.

I’d be fascinated to hear Otellini describe to me the past era in which firms knew exactly what their health care, energy, and tax costs were going to be. This was a time in which the future trajectory of oil prices was entirely predictable, and it was clear that congress would never again alter the tax code. A time when general macroeconomic conditions were not subject to any vagaries of fortune. A magical time.

The biggest uncertainty to businesses right now is whether their sales will grow. They don’t see consumers demanding more goods so if they think sales will stay low they won’t hire new workers to supply for that demand. Welcome to Econ 101.


[update 09/18]: I got in a little debate on this topic over at Rick MacDonald’s blog. I’ll crosspost it here but I encourage readers to check out the original post and following discussion at the source. Enjoy. I threw in a couple more links and a graph so readers have an easier time following what I’m referring to. 




Dan:  I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should make tax policy simple, clear, and as least burdensome as possible for the engines of economic growth – businesses. But I have to say I’m completely unpersuaded that the primary trouble for our businesses right now is taxes or policy uncertainty. There just doesn’t seem to be much of any evidence that demonstrates that either of these are unique or major problems to our current economic climate. It seems you’re a proponent of this view and I’ve tried to find some evidence to support those positions (especially the latter). I was wondering if you could respond to my questions regarding this theory. It seems to me that the real problem for small businesses is lack of aggregate demand manifesting in poor sales.


Rick: I’ve provided interviews with Donald Trump, Jim Rogers, T. J. Rodgers and Steve Wynn…if the direct statements of billionaires can’t convince you about the importance of unpredictability and their view that the uncertainty of markets, tax policy and government intervention are inhibitors; it would seem that you are content to remain unconvinced. The consensus as stated by these gentlemen is the consensus on Wall Street among the majority who are holding onto their capital reserves and only betting on the short term.


Dan:  It’s not that I’m content to remain unconvinced, it seems you’ve mistaken some anecdotes for data. In the link I provided survey evidence (close to 4,000 businesses were surveyed) from respected National Federation of Small Businesses, and policy uncertainty doesn’t show up – or at the least isn’t nearly as big a concern as other issues. Poor sales seems to be the overriding concern. Also, I linked to a graph of recent major legislation paired with the stock market and the passing of the bills never seems to greatly affect the stock market in a negative way. Even with healthcare where you’d suppose the most uncertainty resides, that industry has seen the most job growth out of the major sectors of our economy. Furthermore, it’s not clear that if uncertainty is a problem that it’s a major problem (I’m not saying that it’s not a problem AT ALL, even slightly) or that it’s uncertainty with policy rather than run of the mill economic uncertainty. Consider that quote from Matthew Yglesias I referenced, where he makes the point (I made it to you before myself in a previous exchange) that there is no time in history where there is complete economic certainty. Therefore, how can anyone say now that it is a special problem? 

So in light of all this (survey data from thousands of small businesses, stock market/legislation comparative analysis, the case of the healthcare industry, and the general historical perspective) what can you point to that demonstrates that uncertainty is a MAJOR problem? A few businessmen just saying so isn’t especially persuasive – if a few other extremely rich businessmen said the opposite would you find that convincing of my case? If all this doesn’t make you question your case, maybe it is you who “are content to remain unconvinced.” Notice I am just merely asking you to provide some evidence to support your position aside from a few anecdotal statements you have already quoted. I didn’t think it was absurd to ask you to justify your claims or respond to my counter-evidence.


Rick: It’s my view that you are content to remain unconvinced. The “anecdotes” come from 4 major investors and holders of wealth in the form of fixed capital.


As to statistics; many on the left claim that we are not suffering inflation. If you’ve been shopping on your own for a while, you will notice that prices (especially food prices) have been steadily rising even though interest rates remain low. Jobs are still disappearing at over 400,000 a week, wages are beginning to fall as well and credit is tighter than ever in spite of the government spending the wealth of 2-3 generations or more. As I’ve said before, I have too much to do to debate on line via a blog.


The Keynesians say this and the Austrians say that…I tend to agree with the Austrian economists and see hope that Keynesian economics will soon be tossed aside as a failed system and buried in a grave alongside communism. I know, the video is all ancedotal, but it’s also true.

Dan: Well if you’re not interested in convincing people who don’t already share your views that’s your choice I suppose. I know you’re not interested in debating this and that’s fine, I’ll just make a few points and I’ll end my side of the conversation if that’s your preference. First, it’s not just a “claim” on the left that we’re not suffering from inflation. We’re actually not suffering from inflation. I mean honestly, in the past 2 or 3 years has your money really lost all its value? When was the last time you took a wheelbarrow to the store to buy stuff? We’re not even suffering from moderate inflation. The BLS’s core inflation rate is slightly above zero right now
Your example of food prices is especially dubious because that’s not even included in the rate because prices for things like food and energy are very volatile. Even still it’s not like food or energy prices have jumped very much either.
The video you linked is interesting and I’m slightly familiar with Peter Schiff. Just realize that the idea that because 1 austrian economist predicted a few things correctly than the entirety of mainstream economics has been overturned is preposterous and borderline delusional. You realize Keynesian economists make correct predictions too, right? Has an austrian economist ever got anything wrong? If so, does that invalidate the entirety of the discipline for you? He seems to be getting the whole hyperinflation thing wrong – but I guess we’ll just have to see. Another thing, maybe I’m missing it, but nothing he said in the video seems to directly contradict much of anything in new Keynesian economics. I mean it’s not like mainstream economics doesn’t recognize the possibility of housing bubbles or think that selling toxic financial gimmicks are a good thing for the economy.
Also understand that I’m not saying Schiff’s perspective isn’t informative or impressive. I fully concede that mainstream economics may be able to learn from some of the insights of the Austrian school. But your hyperbole about Keynesian economics belonging in the dustbin of history is too much – as if 80 years or so of economic research has been entirely fruitless. Please.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’d punt rather than grapple with any of my challenges. The Austrian School which you find so persuasive seemingly rejects the whole concept of empiricism and the scientific method. Peter Schiff didn’t bury Keynes, and his shovel hasn’t even broken ground on the Enlightenment.


Rick: Opinions vary, and it’s not that I’m not interested; as I stated earlier, I have little time for long pedantic discussions via comments.

As to the “scientific method” of Keynes, that is all well and good; however, Keynesians leave out the inate tendany of people in power abusing power and acting in ways that are irrational and anti-scientific. They leave behind common sense and ignore corruption and other human factors that one can’t chart except, perhaps, with a Ouija board.
President Obama claims the economy is improving, yet the evidence in housing, unemployment, and contraction of businesses and investment say otherwise. I would tend to call the administration’s opinions more delusional than appreciating what one experiences at the cash register during checkout more so than the comments by the President’s economic team, or his own mouth. Wasn’t it President G. H. W. Bush’s appearance in a store where he couldn’t come close to pricing items? That was the beginning of his reform, and Obama’s “willful suspension of disbelief (H.T. to Hillary Clinton) that will ultimate end his tenure in a vein similar to Jimmy Carter’s.
Of course Austrian economists make mistakes, but they have yet to put the entire global economy in jeopardy to the extent Keynesians have in our current fiasco. I’ll take my chances siding with people like Peter Shiff over others like Art Laffer and Krugman (Keynesians both by definition and admission, but on opposite sides of the Keynesian fence that segments his pragmatic followers according to how much “science” they choose to apply to their “methods”.
Thanks for commenting. Hopefully, you now have a clearer expectation as to what this blog is about and to the audience it tries to serve. Best wishes.

"Proximate Determinism"

July 28, 2010 1 comment

Earlier this week, I discussed the implications of determinism on moral responsibility and my distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of our decisions. To recap a bit, ultimately (it seems likely) that all of our actions are the result of an infinite regress of prior causes, but proximately we make decisions based largely on reasons (even if that reason is ultimately rooted in that same deterministic chain). Free will may be an illusion but it is an illusion that we’re forced to live in. 


I concluded saying I was going to discuss a form of what I termed “proximate determinism.” Although I actually believe all actions are probably not generated by a free will, I want to distinguish between actions that are decided by our proximate will generator (i.e. our reason) and those actions which aren’t. To be less obtuse, I think this free will vs determinism discussion is as good a bridge as any to discuss subjects such as behavioral economics and cognitive psychology. Originally, I just wanted to just show you an excellent Dan Ariely video, but The New York Times and Jerry Coyne expanded on their original posts and it adds some more dimension to this topic.


Most interestingly, they point to some fascinating research that shows our brains’ (also primates’ brains) neurons  register our decisions before we’re conscious of it. Coyne writes, “that implies that the “decision” isn’t really a conscious one—that is, it doesn’t conform to our notion of free will.” He goes on to discuss that research further here.

[T]he brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation.  Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.

This seems to fit with some findings of researchers in other fields that argue our decisions are sometimes made “irrationally.” Here’s Dan Ariely’s TED talk fittingly titled, “Are we in control of our own decisions?” 

***Note to Andreas: you may enjoy the research that used The Economist’s subscription choices (which I actually recall seeing).***


As Ariely shows us, the default settings in our lives play an enormous role in our decision making. It’s obvious that our choices are shaped by various cognitive illusions, it’s becoming more clear that free will itself may be just another one.  


[update]: Jonah Lehrer shares his thoughts on free will.

The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal.

In my last post I reached a similar conclusion: “We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will.” 

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