Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Economic Statistics and Political Goals

Bush nominated Ben Bernanke to replace Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve in January. On CSPAN last night, they showed a clip of a meeting in which Bernanke was discussing his budget philosophy with some House committee. In that discussion, I heard Bernanke and several Senators express a line of thought that concerned me.

Leanings

For the most part, I am an economic conservative. My beliefs are grounded on the idea that if Person A spends Person A's money, he will spend it in ways that benefit Person A; while, if Person B spends Person A's money, he will spend it in ways that benefit Person B.

If Person B is a Senator or Representative, the money will still tend to be earmarked towards whatever fulfills his or her interests, and not necessarily the interests of those who are providing the money – the taxpayers.

In short, the political system is inherently corrupt. I am not talking about the type of corruption where sinister people in powerful positions with a knowing disregard for right and wrong advance their interests at the expense of others. I am talking about the tremendously underrated power of self-deception; believing something merely because one wants it to be true (e.g., that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

I am talking about a case where somebody running for public office gets introduced to somebody who has control of money and the capacity to influence a large number of voters. This stranger comes with a passion for an idea. If the politician likes the idea and embraces it, he will get this stranger’s support – as well as the contributors and voters that this man can influence. So, he wants to believe that the idea has merit, and gives it the benefit of all doubt.

Of course, this is not to deny that there are individuals who knowingly cook studies and promote fallacious reasoning because it profits them to do so.

In fact, the plan has been built on faulty research, logical fallacies, and wishful thinking. However, neither the stranger proposing the plan nor the politician wants to see this. As a result, this, and a lot of other very poor ideas, make it through the legislative process and become law, to the detriment of all tax payers.

Illustrating Flaws in Reasoning

The arguments that disturbed me most in the hearing I saw yesterday were arguments of this type that Republicans, and Bernanke himself, seemed to accept. During the session, they focused most of their attention on gross economic figures -- total economic growth, unemployment, and overall inflation rates. As I see it, these figures tell me nothing about whether a particular policy is a good idea.

I would like to illustrate the problems that I have with this line of reasoning with a hypothetical example. In using this example, I am not saying that this is what is happening under our current policies. My claim is that the arguments that these people are using do not rule out this possibility and do not show any concern for it. Because of this, I cannot tell it the statistics being cited are giving me good reasons to support the policy, or good reasons to be concerned about the policy.

So, let's take a hypothetical society in which there are ten people each making ten dollars per year. We institute a tax cut. As a result, the income distribution changes. One person is now making $100 per year, while the remaining nine are now making $9 per year.

As a result of our tax cut, we have grown the overall economy by $81 dollars -- nearly doubling its size. However, nine out of ten people are actually worse off. Most people (almost all of them) are living a worse life than they would have had under the original system, and only one person is experiencing a better life.

Those who endorse this line of reasoning, however, speak about how great this tax cut was, since it did such a good job promoting economic growth. They also claim that government now has more money, because there is more wealth in the economy and more taxes are being paid. Because of the success of this program, they argue for another round of tax cuts.

While the public debates this argument, it is useful to note that in this example one person now controls over half of the economy. He has $100 in income, while the remaining nine combine assets; the remaining nine combined control $81. In a “one dollar – one vote” private economy, this one person gets to cast over half the votes, and dominates the economy. Anybody who does not please him suffers; those who please him are rewarded.

This one individual also has the capacity to buy up the radio stations and the television stations. Everywhere a citizen turns, he hears about the benefits of these tax cuts – how they increased economic growth and government revenue. Nobody can afford to say anything else because they do not have the money, and they fear the wrath of alienating those who have the money.

So, our hypothetical economy gets another round of tax cuts. This one person’s income goes up to $200 per year, while the other nine people drop to $8 per year. This time, we have grown our economy by $91. Average income is now up above $27 per person, and the government is now bringing in even more money.

However, it still makes sense to ask where this economy is heading. If this keeps up, we will end up with an economy where one person makes $1000 per year, and the rest are his slaves. Yet, the economic measures being used in arguing for this economy says that average income has now reached an all-time high of $100 per person. Those numbers suggest that the economy is 10 times better than it was before these tax cuts were enacted.

There is something wrong with using these types of numbers to measure economic success.

Now, I want to repeat that I am not saying that this is what is happening as a result of these policies. I can make another hypothetical argument in the other direction. Assume a country in which one person makes $1000 and nine people make $10. We start a wealth-redistribution program that damages the economy so that 1 person makes $100, eight people make $8, and 1 person ends up unemployed. Wealth redistribution is not necessarily a good thing, and I have not proved the case one way or the other.

My point is not to say that one program works and the other doesn’t. My point is to identify the types of measures we should look at in determining what works, and to warn against measures that work like bait in a trap, drawing in voters by their sweet smell until they have no opportunity for economic escape.

A Statistic Worth Using

Here is a statistics that actually have some merit in determining if policies work.

Median Household Income

Median Household Income is the amount of money made by the person in the middle of the income spectrum. If a household is at the median household income, then half of the households make more than they do, and the other half makes less. This is different from the “average” household income e. The first hypothetical example above shows average household income going up to $18 on the first round of tax cuts, while the median household income drops to $9.

In both of the hypothetical examples given above – the ‘tax cut’ and ‘income distribution’ examples -- median income dropped. What we need are policies that allow median income to go up.

In the real economy, real median household income (adjusted for inflation) has increased from $35,000 per year to over $44,000 – a 33 percent increase.

This statistic still has some weaknesses. How much of the median income is going to health care? If the household income is going up, but employers used to pay for health insurance and pensions that employees now need to cover out of their wages, then an increase in median household income does not mean much.

This measure also still assumes (incorrectly) that money is everything. If we could eliminate certain health risks, but doing so would reduce our median household income by $1 per year, it may be worth it. Thus, a higher median household income is not the only thing that matters.

Conclusion

The main point is to pay attention to numbers and indicators that actually say something about whether the country is heading in a direction that we would want it to go. Anybody who talks about economic growth or average income or even government receipts is not giving us useful data. Either he does not know how useless this data is, or he knows and is hoping that we do not.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Science Saves Lives

I just wanted to make a quick comment, now that Hurricane Wilma has passed Florida. I think it is useful to note that for days, while Hurricane Wilma was moving slowly to the northwest, the United States Weather Service said that it will take a sudden turn to the east and hit southern Florida. This gave the people in Florida days to prepare for the hurricane, at a time when the hurricane was actually moving towards Texas. Also, the citizens of Florida knew that the hurricane would turn and speed up, arriving quickly. Under different circumstances, I can easily imagine the sudden change in direction and speed of this hurricane catching millions of people by surprise. The loss of lives might have been in the hundreds or thousands. Instead, less than 10 people died -- the rest having had pleanty of time to seek safety. Science saves lives. One of the worst and most destructive acts that a citizen can condone are those who want to pervert and undermine science education because it happens to reach conclusions that conflict with their religious beliefs. If this were a harmless activity, we could shrug our shoulders and say, "Go ahead, it's your life." Unfortunately, these people are putting more than their own lives at stake.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Faith Based Prisons

It is ironic that a group of people who want to have a position rehabilitating prisoners do not have the moral integrity to produce an honest report on their progress.

In earlier essays I have defended a rule-of-thumb regarding freedom of religion.

That principle states, "I may not prohibit you from building a church; at the same time, you may not force me to pay force me to attend."

I also argue that this is a reasonable interpretation of the moral principle behind the First Amendment to the US Constitution -- the part that says, "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"No law respecting the establishment of religion" makes sense as a restriction on the Government that no American taxpayer will be forced to pay for the construction of a church or for the activities of a church that he does not belong to. Nor should any citizen be punished for deciding not to attend such a church. Presbyterians will not be forced to build a Baptist church. The salary for a Catholic priest will not be taken out of an Anglican church member's paycheck. The Jewish citizen will not be required to cover the expenses of Christian missionaries going about the world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"No law prohibiting the free exercise of religion" means that the government will not pass laws saying that a citizen cannot fund a church of his choice. If the Baptists want to build a church, and collect the money for it by private donations, then they shall not be prohibited from building that church. If the Catholics raise enough private money to hire a priest, then they may hire a priest. If a group of Christians raise enough money to hire missionaries to go into some part of the world and preach to the inhabitants, then no law may prohibit them from going there and preaching to the inhabitants.

In short, religious institutions may do what they wish, but the money they use to pay for it must come from private sources.

Trial

Today October 24th, a trial begins in Iowa where Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed suit against the InnerChange Prison Systems for violating the Constitutional provision against the establishment of a religion. According to Americans United, the government is forcing taxpayers to fund an evangelical Christian church, pay for the salaries of its ministers, and even paying citizens to attend, while imposing penalties those who do not attend (or who the program will not accept).

Now, for my standard disclaimer: I am here to discuss right and wrong, not legal and illegal. Not everything permitted by the Constitution (e.g., slavery before 1865) is moral. I am concerned with what the law should say, and I will leave it up to lawyers and judges to fight over what the law says in fact.

The government sponsorship of InnerChange violates a moral rule captured in the statement I used at the start of this post.

The InnerChange program takes money from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Wiccan, and other citizens and uses them to construct a missionary church in the prison system, to pay for the staff of that church, and then sets out a program for providing those who join the church with benefits that those who are kept outside the church are not entitled to. It is entirely inconsistent with the doctrine of not forcing people to support a religion they do not belong to. It is entirely consistent with a doctrine that requires each church to depend on the voluntary contributions of their followers rather than coerced contributions mandated by the government.

The Effectiveness Argument

InnerChange argues that it should be permitted to continue to function as a government-funded ministry because of its effectiveness. There are two arguments to be raised against this.

Cooking the Numbers

The first is that its alleged effectiveness is the effect of cooking the numbers to get a desired result. Using the same principles, I can design an academic program that will be guaranteed to produce the same type of success with respect to academic excellence that this ministry claims for its prison program with respect to recidivism.

The program works like this. Students may freely decide to apply to the program. Those who get in will be given extra benefits. This will include the use of a video-game room that no other student can use, a wider selection of classes, and a cash signing bonus. There will also be different standards of punishment. If the school has a policy of 1 hour detention for disrupting a class, students in my program will get 15 minutes of detention.

Of all of the applicants, my staff gets to decide which ones to let into the program and which to keep out. (Note: Of course, we are going to select those students with the best academic record and keep those with a poor academic record out of the program). Furthermore, at any time, we reserve the right to expel any student that does not meet our standards. (Note: This means expelling any student that threatens to lower our average scores on any standardized academic test).

Under this program, I guarantee that my students will have higher academic scores than you will get from those students who are not a part of my program. I will guarantee those results with my life.

On these same standards, InnerChange is able to guarantee that its participants will have a lower recidivism rate than will be found among those who are not a part of the program. They will use this to argue that their program should continue to be funded.

I could set up such a program. I could use the same type of analysis that InnerChange uses to prove my product a success. I may also set it up as a prejudicial and discriminatory program in the sense that only those who disavow any belief in God are permitted to be teachers, and students who disavow any belief in God get special treatment, and still be a success.

The most significant point to make is that this method of reporting, this “cooking the numbers” is fraudulent. It is immoral. It is wrong. A person of good moral character would want to provide prisoners with options that are actually effective – that sound science (as opposed to intellectual fraud) finds to be effective. He would find the discover of somebody selling “snake oil” rehabilitation to be morally repulsive and abhorant.

Fairness

The other argument against form of reasoning is to ask whether 'effectiveness' in this regard provides a good reason to build a government-funded church.

Let us assume that statistics show that Jews tend to commit fewer murders per capita than Catholics. Also, let us assume that they are also less likely to molest children, and contribute a higher proportion of their income to charity.

If we accept the InnerChange line of reasoning, this means that we should set up government-funded synagogues and pay people to go to them as a way of fighting crime and promoting charity. By InnerChange logic, this is not to be thought of as an example of attempting to establish a national religion.

Yet, clearly, that argument is absurd. Nothing would be more obvious than government programs that reward people for joining a government approved religion and punish those who do not violates the principle of government neutrality on religion. The person who denies this is speaking as much nonsense as the politician who says, “Sure, I lied under oath to the Grand Jury, but I did not commit perjury.”

If the plan is truly effective, then it should be able to generate private contributions that would allow them to continue their good work. Success does not give any religion the right to government funding.

We keep the religious peace in this country (unlike many other countries around the world) by a mutual agreement among different religious factions to use only voluntary methods to promote religion, and not to allow religions to start fighting for control of the state. There are legitimate reasons for concern when different religions violate that peace treaty and start fighting for control of the government.

Conclusion

The doctrine that I presented at the start of this essay states that InnerChange has a right to establish an outreach program within the prison system with whatever money it raises from the voluntary contributions of its own members. Prohibiting the church from giving its message to the prisoners -- particularly, prohibiting it from doing so based on the religious content of its message, would violate the moral principle I asserted at the start of this post.

Correspondingly, InnerChange has no right to force people who are not members to contribute. Nor does it have a right to negotiate "special rights" for its members -- making them super-citizens with powers and liberties not available to other citizens. These actions are just as much a violation of the same moral principles.

Some people actually care about moral principles.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Evaluating the Hirers

Preliminary Question

Why is Michael Brown, the former FEMA director that was forced out of office after the Katrina disaster, still working for FEMA?

According to the Mary Curtis of the Los Angeles Times,

Brown is still on FEMA's payroll as a consultant, [FEMA Spokeswoman Nichol] Andrews confirmed. He works from home, where he is "pulling all the documentation together" for the investigations into Katrina response, she said, and his original 30-day contract was recently extended for another 30 days.

Second question: Exactly what type of documentation is he pulling together? Does it have anything to do with his actions regarding that hurricane? Can somebody assure me that these things are being handled in a way that protects the integrity of the data that Brown is assembling?

Evaluating the Hirers

If an employer hires an employee who is poorly qualified to do his job well, the person responsible for the error is not only the employee who made the mistake, but the person who hired him or her.

Michael Brown

This is the case with FEMA director Michael Brown. Marty Bahomonde, the only FEMA official at the Superdome while things got so bad there, testified he had personally informed Brown about those situations and gotten no substantive response. He reported sending emails to Brown and talking to him on the phone on one occasion to tell him that the levees had broken. Later that day, when he tried to contact Brown again, he was told that the FEMA director was unavailable because he had gone out for dinner in a fancy Baton Rouge restaurant, and had a TV appearance to make after dinner.

If this can be substantiated, this represents a willful dereliction of duty. It would be comparable to an Army, while a battle is being fought, putting a "do not disturb" sign on his office door and telling his aide to hold his calls for a couple of hours. The time for fine dining and a relaxing evening is after the battle is over and the situation is known to be well in hand.

With respect to his qualifications, it has been widely reported that Brown's last job before working for FEMA was as a supervisor of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association IAHA) -- a position he was asked to resign. Plus, he worked on Bush’s presidential campaign.

This is unfair because his job experience, at the time that Katrina hit, included 4 years working for FEMA; 1.5 years as Deputy Director and 2.5 years as Director. This more than overshadows what happened at the IAHA five years earlier.

My sense is that people who focus on Brown's service for IAHA do so because they are more interested in unjust derision of another person than in fair criticism. These people should have spoken up in 2002 when Brown was nominated as Deputy Director. Where were they then? Brown's confirmation was approved by Senate that the Democrats controlled. They are as responsible for hiring Brown as Bush was for nominating him.

Actually, there is a constitutional dispute over what role the Senate has with respect to nominations. The Constitution says that the President hires people with the advice and consent of the Senate. The dispute is over how to define "advice and consent". Still, the Senate -- a Senate run by Democrats, consented to this appointment.

Where were these critics when Brown was nominated for the position of Director in January 2003? This would have been a perfect time for the Senate to have asked questions. This would have been a perfect time for the Senate to ask, "Can't we get somebody with more experience actually responding to a disaster in this position?"

When people say that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was a failure at all levels of government, this has more truth to it than most people realize. The failure includes the Senate – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – which failed in its role to give advice and consent the President’s nominee.

Karen Hughes

Another recent Bush appointee is Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. She is in charge of improving America’s image overseas. In short, she is the ‘spin doctor’ for explaining Bush Administration policies to the people of other countries.

In a recent visit to Egypt, an Egyptian opposition leader asked her why Bush mentions God so often in his speeches. This is said in the context within which Muslim extremists are using the idea that America is on a religious crusade against Islam to recruit soldiers and solicit funds for their campaigns. According to a briefing transcript, Hughes reports, “I asked whether he was aware that previous American presidents have also cited God, and that our Constitution cites “one nation under God.’

Actually, it appears that the person in charge of promoting foreign understanding of America does not have a working knowledge of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution contains no mention of God. It only mentions religion twice – once to say, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Section VI, Article 3) , and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Amendment I).

If anything, it would serve American interests well if the people in the Arab world knew what the US Constitution actually says about religion. It would also serve American interests well if the people in the Bush Administration knew what the US Constitution actually says about religion.

Harriet Miers

Miers’ job history includes an appointed position to the Texas lottery commission (under Governor George Bush), then serving Bush during the 2000 election campaign, getting a job in the Bush Administration as Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary, and moving up to White House Council in 2004.

Earlier this week, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee returned the answers that Harriet Miers provided to a questionnaire, saying that her answers are inadequate.

One of her answers even contained an error, where she wrote that she had to make sure that the Dallas City Council conformed to the proporational representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause.

There is no proporational representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause.

The severity of this mistake comes to light if we consider that a Supreme Court Justice needs to write a decision about what the Constitution says about a particular case before it. The Justice needs to know what the Constitution says. Furthermore, that Justice needs to have enough presence of mind to double-check his or her facts. She should have asked somebody, somewhere, to check her answers and make sure that it makes sense. She should have exercised as much care answering the Senate’s questions as she would have otherwise spent writing a Supreme Court decision.

Overall

A good manager does not know how to do every job that needs doing in his organization. But he knows how to find good people to do those jobs. If we discover that jobs are being filled by people who are not capable of doing that job well, our questions should ultimately fall on those who do the hiring.

In this case, it is not just President Bush who does the hiring. It is also the Senate that is supposed to be giving him advice and consent. It is the Senate’s job to look over the qualifications of those that the President submits and say, “I don’t think that this is the best person for the position” or “Heck, sure, I think he can do the job.”

Many people want to blame the President alone. However, it is time to start asking Senators as well, “Why are you allowing these people into these positions?”

Friday, October 21, 2005

Bird Flu and Intelligent Design

This post follows up on arguments I posted on September 23rd on Divine Wrath.

There, I argued that recent natural disasters contain an element of cosmic justice similar to divine wrath. It's not that the disasters themselves were punishment for the wrongs that humans commit. They are nothing more than the natural effects of the laws of physics at play. However, the severity of those effects -- the numbers of people who are killed and injured and the amount of property destroyed -- is our punishment for human moral failings.

The effects of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was our punishment for failure to establish a tsunami early warning system in a part of the world where tsunamis are possible and hundreds of millions of people live in harm’s way.

The devastation in Pakistan and India from this most recent earthquake is punishment for constructing buildings near a fault line that cannot withstand such an earthquake and packing those buildings full of people.

At New Orleans, we did not suffer because we tolerated homosexuals and abortion clinics. We suffered because we built a city below sea level surrounded by levees capable of withstanding Level 3 hurricanes in a land where Level 4 and 5 hurricanes were possible.

Bird Flu

Nature is now threatening us with another round of punishment for decades of moral decadence. It is threatening us with a pandemic caused by a mutated strain of Bird Flu – the H5N1 virus. The moral crime which has increased our risk of suffering and death centers on the resistance people have put up against theories of evolution on the basis that it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

We may soon be the victims of a campaign that has fought for 150 years to gut and dismember our scientific understanding of biology and genetics – the tools that provide our best defense against such a pandemic.

"Intelligent design" (an evolved form of “Creationism”) tells us that when we encounter what appears to be an unlikely change in biology, such as the creation of the flagellum, that we should shout "irreducible complexity", throw up our hands, and blame the change on a designer. Science, on the other hand, tells us to look for a natural solution -- a way in which the proteins and genes could have come together naturally and produced this effect.

"Intelligent design" is a campaign of willful ignorance. When we encounter a problem in biology, we shelve it and move on to other things.

Science is a campaign of forming theories, designing experiments to test those theories, observing the results, and upgrading the theories. The best theories give us hints as to what might happen to living organisms today under different circumstances. If the theory works, then it allows us to explain what happened in the best, and predict what will happen in the future. It means being better able to explain a pandemic that occurred in 1918, and predicting and preparing for a pandemic that might occur in 2007.

“Intelligent design” is not a theory that says, “I do not know what happened.” It is a theory that says, “I do know what happened – an intelligent designer is responsible for these effects.” Somehow, ignorance is supposed to give us the ability to ‘know’ such a thing.

Scientists have no trouble saying, “I do not know.” There are some things they will admit to not knowing – and some things that they will admit that they can never know. However, the scientist keeps looking, where he or she is able. He keeps theorizing, keeps designing experiments to test his theories, and keeps throwing away proposals that do not withstand the rigor of experiment and scientific testing.

The scientist advances our understanding so that we can explain and predict what something like the "bird flu" will do under different circumstances. The “intelligent design” theorist freezes our understanding at the point where he claims to find ‘irreducible complexity’, leaving us ignorant, defenseless, and unable to plan and prepare for the dangers that nature may have in store for us.

Years of Change

Changing our ways, and encouraging more children to learn the basic facts of biology, including genetics and evolution, will not have an immediate effect on our ability to react to the Bird Flu virus. These effects are long-term.

However, I am talking about the price that we pay for past sins. The campaign against literacy in the biological sciences has been going on for a long time -- for 150 years. It is reasonable to expect that this campaign has had at least some effect, causing us to live today in a world with fewer medical advances and less overall scientific understanding of the living organism that share this Earth with us than we would have otherwise had.

It is the past promotion of willful ignorance that puts lives today at risk. It is our current campaigns to promote willful ignorance that will put future generations at risk.

Now, I do want to add an important addendum, in case somebody draws some wrong implications. It is never permissible to object against an idea by using the force of law to suppress it. Bad ideas have to be defeated by education, not violence or government sanction. So, I would reject any campaign against intelligent design based on laws and punishments. I would only accept a campaign that puts more emphasis on rational thought and an appreciation of the benefits that we can obtain through a greater understanding of the biological sciences.

Failure to promote a proper appreciation for the science of biology is a sin which some of us may well pay for with our lives.

Cosmic Justice

We have two groups of people proposing two separate programs for protecting ourselves from the next natural disaster.

One group advocates violently interfering with the lives of our neighbors in order to enforce a uniform religious code, and a uniform scientific ignorance, on everybody. Somehow, this is supposed to please a God who will then protect us and make sure that plagues and pandemics do not strike us.

Intelligent Design can be understood as telling us to give up on predicting Bird Flu at the start, because, at any moment, a designer will introduce the perfect design into this disease, and we will not be able to explain or predict it.

Another group advocates using the scientific method to understand how the natural forces moving around us actually work. With that knowledge, we come up with theories that allow us to explain and predict those forces. We then use that power to immunize ourselves against disease, prepare for potential outbreaks, and to respond quickly and efficiently when they do occur.

Of these two, I am willing to assert with confidence that the second option has significantly more promise of saving significantly more lives than the first. However, the second option requires being honest with ourselves and with each other about what the scientists are telling us about the facts of living organism.

Intelligent design can tell us nothing that will allow us to predict or explain the world around us. The ‘intelligent designer’ that they speak of can do whatever it wants, and is entirely outside of our ability to explain or predict. The theory is of no use. It only stands in the way of theories that we can use to prevent real death and suffering.

What scientists are telling us is that the best theories for predicting and explaining what will happen in nature are theories derived from or dependent on evolution and genetics. Promoting ignorance of and hostility toward the best life-saving tools we have available, by definition, puts lives at risk that could otherwise be saved.

Promoting such a risk is not something that a person of good moral character would want to do.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Science vs. Religion

As the case involving the reading of an anti-evolution statement to 7th-grade students in Dover Pennsylvania continues, I have read a number of accounts in which individuals have said, "I am religious, and I believe in evolution." From this, they infer that the theory of evolution has no religious implications -- that religious belief and belief in evolution are compatible. This further implies that there are no religious implications to teaching evolution and that the practice is consistent with separating church and state.

Really, that argument does not work.

The fact that Person A's religion is compatible with evolution, does not imply that Person B's religion has the same compatibility. Nor does it change the fact that teaching evolution in science classes involves teaching that religions that are compatible with evolution are better than religions that are not compatible with evolution.

More generally, the claim that science and religion are distinct and separate realms, and that science has nothing to say about religion (or that religion has nothing to say about science) is nonsense.

If one's religion states that the earth rides on the back of four elephants that are, in turn, standing on a giant turtle, then science has a great deal to say about that religion. It's wrong. It's hypothesis that earthquakes are caused when these creatures move is also wrong. Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates moving over, under, and past each other.

If one's religion states that a solar eclipse is caused by some divine creature devouring or destroying the sun, and that innocent people must be sacrificed to this god in order to bring the sun back, this view is mistaken. The eclipse is caused by the relative motions of the sun and the moon, and will come back on its own.

If one's religion states that lightning bolts are Thor's weapon and thunder is the pounding of his hammer, then science has created a problem with this religion. Science has shown that thunder and lightning have more to do with the static electricity that is generated by water and ice crashing past each other in the atmosphere.

If one's religion states that the earth is at the center of the solar system, and that saying anything contrary to this so offends God, that the offender must be burned at the stake to appease this angry and vengeful God, science tells us that this view is mistaken. All planets revolve around the Sun, since it contains most of the mass (and, thereby, the gravity) in our solar system.

If one's religion says that strange behavior is the result of demonic possession and that exorcism is the appropriate treatment for this behavior, science tells us that this is wrong. Strange behavior is caused by the way the mind/brain sometimes gets wired. It advises us to respond to these cases with medication, surgery, or behavioral modification therapy, or to simply leave these people alone to live their lives as suits them (if they are no danger to themselves or others).

If one's religion states that disease is caused by a rejection of God, and that prayer and sincere expressions of faith restore health, then science has shown this to be incorrect. Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses, or internal organs that cease to function as they used to because of physical processes. Acceptance of God is a far less reliable road to health than antibiotics, surgery, diet, and exercise.

If one's religion states that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, science has proved that this religious view is incorrect. Teaching children this nonsense will perpetuate ignorance of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, climate, ecology, and a number of other fields that we must understand if we are going to make intelligent choices that keep people safe from these natural disasters.

Science is not neutral with respect to religion. Science is constantly coming into conflict with religious beliefs. Teaching science in junior high and high school means teaching a way of thinking that is incompatible with at least some religions. It means conveying the message that "those religious views that are not compatible with these scientific findings are mistaken.

It means putting children in a position where they must choose to either accept the scientific findings and reject their religion, or accept their religion and reject the scientific findings.

Establishing Religion

The next question is whether teaching science violates the Constitutional provision against attempting to establish a religion. Science classes coerce students into religious beliefs that are compatible with scientific findings. It promotes evolution-compatible religions over evolution-incompatible religions. It promotes old-earth-compatible religions over young-earth-religions.

It takes the business of treating physical and mental illness out of the hands of the priest and puts it in the hands of his leading competitor, the physician. That physician may still believe in God, but he does not believe in the same religion. One religion prescribes prayer, the other prescribes anti-biotics, and science classes tell us that the latter is better than the former.

This creates tension. It is a tension that some people want to deny. Glossing over these issues by saying that science and religion are distinct and separate realms really involves just as much denial as ignoring the evidence that the earth is over 4.5 billion years old. Everything that science says is an invitation to young students to adopt a religion that is compatible with this reported fact, and to reject a religion that contradicts the scientific claims.

Implications

So, what does this mean about teaching science in public schools? Does the prohibition against establishing a religion prohibit the government from teaching that earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates rather than turtles, the static-electricity theory of lightning where it conflicts with the Thor's hammer theory, or 4.5 billion year old earth where it conflicts with the literal interpretation of The Bible?

Our country would be in a sorry state if we did.

One of the key features of science is that it allows us to better explain and predict what is going on around us. It makes the results of our actions less a matter of chance and blind luck, and more a matter of choice.

This is not an accident. It is the very essence of science that it strives for better and better ways to explain and predict what goes on around us. The very criterion for determining which theories to keep and which to toss out is that of better explaining and predicting the world around us.

To toss out science for religion means to toss out the ability to explain and predict the world around us, the ability to make intelligent choices, to avoid misery and suffering and choose, intelligently and deliberately, fulfillment and happiness.

The only reasonable option is to teach science in school – teach children the ideas how to predict and explain the world around them. Then, let people do whatever they want to or can to try to reconcile their religious beliefs with scientific fact.

“These are the facts, world. Do with them what you will.”

Many religious people reshape their religious beliefs around scientific facts. It is as if they say, “When science says that the earth is not the center of the solar system, they do not burn the scientist at the stake, they say that their interpretation of scripture must have been mistaken – because scripture cannot be wrong, and if scripture actually said that the earth was the center of the universe, it would be wrong.”

Others are less flexible, demanding that science confirm their religion.

Science is not neutral between these two religious perspectives. It clearly favors the first over the second.

That is a fact. Do with it what you will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Illicit Justification for War

According to Chris Matthews - MSNBC.com, the investigation into the Victoria Plame case may start to touch on some very significant questions.

Did the Vice-President of the United States orchestrate a campaign of deception against the American people in order to drum up support for an attack against Iraq?

Whether he did or not is a matter of speculation. I did not start this blog as a place for speculating on political fortunes, nor am I interested in the legal aspects of the case. This blog is concerned with ethics – as much with legal immoralities as those that are also illegal.

We do not need to have evidence of a crime to justify investigating a potential offense. One of the main powers of government is to investigate situations, not for the purpose of finding who is guilty or innocent, but to find out the truth of a situation and whether and how the law can be improved.

Morality justifies an investigation into the use of American intelligence before the war. Morality justifies asking the question of whether Americans think that being deceived into going to war is a trivial concern that can be shrugged off, or whether we think that deceiving the people into supporting a war is among the actions that we count as intolerably wrong.

Are we going to send a message to future political leaders, "Do not toy with we the people when it comes to war?"

A Matter of Trust

There is a complexity in this issue in that we cannot expect our political leaders to tell us everything they know relevant to a decision to go to war. They may have information they cannot reveal without threatening our security. For example, divulging such information may expose important spies or other intelligence-gathering operations.

Because of this, we have to trust the Administration to go to war for the right reasons -- reasons we would approve of if we knew about them. If they say that a country is seeking to build nuclear weapons, we cannot say, "Prove it!" We must trust that they know what they are talking about. We have to assume that they would not be saying these things without evidence – evidence that they have taken no less lightly or casually than we would demand of them.

The problem that exists when one group must trust another who is in a position of power and authority is that those with the power and authority may abuse that trust. In this case, they can lie and say that they have evidence of a threat to national security that does not exist in fact. They can lie and say that they have given this evidence the care that we would demand of them.

If they can lie about these things, they can steer this country into a war with any country that displeases them that is not sufficiently powerful to defend itself. So, we demand that they take no action towards war without a careful assessment of the evidence and the necessity of war.

Evidence of an Abuse of Trust

Before we started this war (and we were the ones to start it), there were signs that our political leaders had abused their trust. Joe Wilson’s remarks themselves told us that the government had given us reasons for going to war that everybody who had investigated those reasons had discredited.

Yet, even with these accusations being launched, there was a problem deciding what we could do about them. We cannot demand that the government laid its intelligence-gathering operations open for all to see. There are all sorts of politically-motivated reasons for making these types of accusations, even if they are not true. There would be no such thing as national security if the government had to reveal its secrets every time an accusation was made.

So, we still had to trust our political leaders. We must give them the benefit of the doubt. Correspondingly, they must have the moral character that makes them deserving of the benefit of this doubt.

Yet, we are getting more and more evidence that these people did abuse their authority and our trust.

We have the fact that the United States had inspectors in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction before the war started. Our government told us that they are not looking hard enough or in the right places – that we had evidence of weapons that they were not finding. The inspectors asked for the information, but the United States Government refused to make it available -- perhaps because there was none to make available.

The last inspectors' report to the United Nations said:

Governments had many sources of information that were not available to inspectors. Inspectors, for their part, must base their reports only on evidence, which they could, themselves, examine and present publicly. Without evidence, confidence could not arise.

We have Joe Wilson’s testimony that he and others checked out some of these reports – reports of attempts to purchase uranium in Niger. All of the sources we now know about came back saying that these reports were unfounded, that there was no evidence of such an attempt. Furthermore, they provided this information before the war started – before the decision was made to save us all from these weapons of mass destruction. The only examinations made to date of Wilson's contributions have been Republican-controlled investigations.

We now control Iraq and have determined that the reason the inspectors did not find weapons of mass destruction is because there was no such weapons to be found. The reason that rumors of purchasing uranium could not be substantiated is because they were false. The so-called intelligence stating that Iraq was a threat and that we needed to act to preserve our security seems all to have been wrong – if there was any such intelligence at all.

Perhaps Bush’s war was another faith-based initiative. Perhaps his administration’s belief that there were weapons in Iraq was not based on evidence but on faith. Perhaps they decided to gamble, hoping that the needed evidence would show up after the invasion, that their faith would be rewarded, and they would prove themselves to be heroes.

This illustrates one of the most significant problems when people base their actions on faith rather than evidence. Faith tends to be an unreliable indicator of truth, and those who depend on it too strongly run the risk of crashing head-first into reality.

Investigation

We have enough ‘probable cause’ to launch an investigation. Americans who believe that we ought not to tolerate politicians who lie their way into war have reason to demand that we find out whether this happened.

Political party should not matter. An investigation should be welcomed both by those who have faith that the Bush Administration is innocent, and those who have just as much faith that they are guilty.

Personally, I belong to the tradition of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” However, this presumption of innocence never takes the form of presuming that the innocence is so obvious that no hearing on the matter can ever be justified.

I want to add emphasis here. I am only arguing that there are enough questions to warrant an investigation. I do not approve of presumed guilt. Nor do I approve of cheering evidence of wrongdoing or that a crime had taken place. I simply want to know what happened and, only if what happened violated moral standards, then decide what action to take.

To the rest of the world, we have an important question to answer considering our moral character as a nation. We have to answer whether we believe that lying one’s way into war is a trivial offense, or an intolerable wrong. The only way to show that we know the right answer to this question is to make sure that, given the evidence suggesting the possibility of deceit in this case, we demand assurances that our political leaders did not commit an intolerable wrong.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Toledo Riot

The neo-Nazis had a right to march in Toledo, Ohio on October 15th. They had a right to march where they marched. The wrongdoers, in this instance, were the protestors who decided to respond to their message with violence. (News)

This is not to say that I approve of the neo-Nazi message. In fact, that's not the point. The person who defends "freedom of speech" only when the speech is something he agrees with does not understand the concept.

In fact, neo-Nazis place atheists on the same list as Jews, blacks, and foreigners. The only reason that this aspect of their philosophy is not widely heard is because the neo-Nazi attitude towards atheists is mainstream, so it is not newsworthy. Yet, in spite of its widespread acceptance, and in spite of power in blocking atheists from public office, I still hold that the anti-Atheist hate groups have a right to freedom of speech.

The Insult Argument

One of the arguments that I often hear against allowing the neo-Nazis to march is that others have a right not be subject to being insulted and offended. The claim seems to be that a person has a right to walk down the street without hearing anybody say anything that he or she does not like.

The concept of a "freedom of speech" is nonsense if it does not include an obligation to put up with insults and offense from time to time. The individual who says (or writes), "I am in favor of freedom of speech, so long as the speaker does not say anything that I find insulting or offensive" is not really for freedom of speech. A so-called "right" to be free from insult and offense is nothing other than a "right" to suppress speech that is insulting or offensive. If we give groups or individuals the legal "right" to suppress speech they find insulting or offensive, then there is no free speech.

The right to freedom of speech means an obligation to take an insult and to suffer offense without resorting to violence against the speaker. It says that a citizen may get angry, and counter offensive and insulting speech with speech of their own, but that if speech results in violence, it is the person who threw the punch who is at fault, not the person who spoke.

Location

I have also heard some people defend the position that the neo-Nazis be allowed to march, but that their march should have been confined to some other neighborhood where fewer people who would be offended. The fault, they say, is that the city officials allowed the marchers into a neighborhood made up largely of African Americans immigrants and people of eastern-European descent.

Let us take this suggestion to its logical conclusion. Even if we move the marchers into another neighborhood, some people there would still find the words offensive and insulting.

We would not say if somebody is attempting to rob a hundred people, that we have lived up to our duties if we place him in a different neighborhood where he can rob only ten. There is no moral sense in saying that a legitimate response to somebody who wants to blow up a bus with thirty passengers should be directed instead to a bus that blows up three.

If a thousand people have a "right" to be free from offense and insult, then it makes no sense to say that a hundred people do not have the same right or that, in virtue of their lower number, they have no such right. So, if it is wrong to insult a thousand people then it is wrong to insult ten. And if it is wrong to insult ten, then it is wrong to insult one. The only option remaining is to put these speakers in a place where nobody can hear them, so nobody will be offended or insulted by their words.

What happens to the freedom of speech if we pursue this option? Let us imagine a dictator who says that he has decided to grant freedom of speech in his country. He will allow his political opponents to say whatever they want, so long as they do so in a soundproof room, with the door closed, alone, with nobody looking through the window who can read his lips.

Would this satisfy us that freedom of speech is truly being protected? Or would we consider this attempt to allow people to speak but to restrict who may hear his words to be a joke?

Hopefully, we are smart enough to see it as a joke. It is just as much a joke to say that the neo-Nazis may have their march, but they must march "over there" where far fewer people can see and hear them.

Other Insults

Why do we need this freedom? Why do people not have a right to be free from insults and offense?

Simply look at the things that can be considered offensive. A group of people who are protesting a war "insult" and "offend" military families who took up arms themselves or have friends and family who took up arms and fought in that war. A law banning offensive and insulting speech can make sure that the next anti-war rally is routed through some deserted streets where they cannot be seen or heard by those they might offend.

Consider the how the anti-abortion marcher "insults" doctors whom they call murderers and compare to Nazi soldiers willingly participating in a new genocide. If offense and insult justifies moving these speakers away from where they cannot be heard, then we need more than a corridor of free passage to the door of the abortion clinic; abortion-clinic protestors will have to be moved out of earshot of any patrons.

Civil Order

I am not saying that the freedom of speech is an absolute and that all other considerations must give way. Individuals have no obligation to put up with a nuisance with a bull horn shouting slogans outside of his window all day and all night. If a parade or march threatens to tie up traffic or cause some other type of civil disturbance, than city officials have a right to demand advanced notice so that they can be prepared. As a result, city officials have a right to demand that speakers obtain permits.

However, those permits may not be accepted or declined based on their content. If the March of Dimes is allowed to have a walk-a-thon go through a residential neighborhood, then a neo-Nazi organization has a right to walk through that same neighborhood. Government officials have no right to say, "We approve of this message so you may speak here where others can hear and see you. We do not approve of that message so the speakers are limited to locations where we know few people will encounter their message."

Prohibiting any group from shouting slogans on the street day and night is not an issue of content. It's an issue of getting some sleep.

Violence

Ultimately, we need to ask who provides the greatest danger to the public. Does the danger come from a dozen radicals who are walking along a public street surrounded by police hurling insults? Or does it come from those who decided to hurl rock?

It was not the neo-Nazis who wounded the police officers who were doing their job. One of them in critical condition after getting hit in the head with a brick. She was defending free speech from those who could not stand the idea of allowing others to speak freely.

It was not the neo-Nazis that looted and sat fire to the bar.

It was not the neo-Nazis that proved by their actions that they have no regard for the life, limb, and property of their peaceful and innocent neighbors.

The next question is whether the people of Toledo value freedom enough to elect politicians willing to defend it, or if they will yield to the intimidation of those who proved that they are willing to use violence to see those freedoms suppressed.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Military vs Civilian Choices

Typically, I wake up in the morning, select a topic, and write my first draft on the bus as I go to work. I research the topic some more during the day, and edit the piece on the ride home.

When I woke up this morning, I read a report that the Army had killed 70 insurgents, and I began a posting about some of the issues that I had with the war. I started by writing some of the moral questions that the news report had put into my head.

The Morning Report

Is this good or bad? Is killing 80 people better than killing 70? Or would it have been better to have killed 60 instead?

What is an insurgent? How does one identify a particular body as belonging to an insurgent, as opposed to a civilian casualty? Is there room for something in between? Do we have to view everybody as either “for us” or “against us”? Can’t there be some who have not made up their mind yet?

Body Counts

I have a problem with judging a war by body counts. Doing so tends to put a higher value on stacking up a larger number of bodies. We saw this in Vietnam where a focus on body counts caused soldiers to report casualties that did not exist, and to kill a few more people than necessary to drive up the count of bodies that did exist. Neither of which are admirable traits.

Now, I am not talking about a person who thinks, “I need to add a few more bodies to the pile” and kills people at random. I am talking about the effect that these institutions have at the margins, where an individual has to make a judgment call. It creates an atmosphere where an act that would have fallen on the “let live” side of the fence ends up falling on the “kill” side – because the fence itself has been moved a little to put a larger percentage of options on the “kill” side.

In a military action, there is no trial to determine if those who were attacked are guilty or innocent. There is no opportunity to hear from the accused, to determine if what the accuser thinks he sees is accurate or has an innocent interpretation. A military operation is like a trial, where the accused is not allowed to speak or call witnesses, and where a conviction targets not only the accused, but whomever is within the blast radius of the accused.

When guilt is assigned in this way, mistakes are inevitable, and far more common than they would be in a court of law. That is why we have courts of law. This is why we invented trial by jury, to eliminate the high risk that those who would otherwise inflict harm on somebody too easily agree that the individual deserves the harm that he is being made to suffer.

Victory is not best measured by killing as many people as possible. Nor is it best measured by killing as few as possible. It is best measured by teaching a moral lesson that says that those who endanger innocent lives will be subject to severe sanction, and those who defend the institutions that aim to protect innocent lives will be seen as heroes. Victory is measured by the degree to which the survivors better recognize the value of the rule of law.

The Afternoon Report

As the day wore on, the news carried additional information about the attacks. There were stories of civilians being killed in the attacks – over 25 civilians including 18 children, according to the Washington Post.

I do not know if there were civilian casualties. Does the military?

I do not want this to be taken as an anti-military rant about a group of hotheads that are out killing people indiscriminately. I have no doubt that the military takes pains to ensure that they attack valid military targets. Yet, every order to fire is a judgment call, and every order to fire is made with the possibility of error.

This is the major difference between a civil society and a society governed by war. Most of the provisions of a civil society are created specifically for the purpose of making sure that the power of the state is used only against those who are guilty, and to protect the innocent.

Why are the accused presumed innocent until proven guilty? Because innocent people should be free to live their short lives on this planet as well as they can – so long as they do not harm others – and it is a great tragedy when that innocent life is ruined by a wrongful conviction.

Why do government authorities need an indictment from a Grand Jury to hold somebody for more than a short amount of time? It is because we do not want innocent people to be constantly harassed by a government. Before the government can interfere so violently in a person’s life, they must prove to a Grand Jury that they actually have a case. If not, then the private citizen is left alone.

Why does the Constitution require that agents must obtain a warrant before they can search somebody’s place? Why does it state that the warrant must list precisely what is to be searched and what the agents are looking for? Again, because the burden of proof is on those who want to forcefully interfere with somebody’s life. They have to show that they have enough evidence to identify what the accused is involved in and what evidence one expects to find.

None of these protections are available when the military strikes. An intelligence report comes in, a decision is made, and a bomb gets dropped. Usually, it is dropped on a crowd of people. Even if some of them are “guilty” in the eyes of the military, there is a good chance that the bomb will harm others who are not guilty.

If the police move in on a group of people, they can separate the guilty from the innocent, move the guilty off to jail, and free the innocent. A bomb dropped on a crowd makes no distinctions.

A bomb acts on the same philosophy that the Catholic forces used when the captured Beziers, a city populated by both ‘heretics’ and Catholics. Unable to tell one from the other, and fearing that many ‘heretics’ were lying, the victorious commanders gave the order, “Kill them all. Let God sort them out.”

The Problem

Here is the problem that distinguishes between the military and the civil way of dealing with criminals. The military formula puts more emphasis on God or the fates sorting guilty from innocent. The civil formula puts the burden on civil authorities – judges, juries, and grand juries.

Civil institutions – at least just and moral civil institutions – show their moral quality by showing their concern for making sure that the person struck by the violent force of the state’s resources actually are a threat to others, and not merely standing within the blast radius of those who have been called ‘guilty’ in a one-sided trial.

Of course, this greater concern not to harm the innocent comes with risks. Those who would harm innocent people are able to more easily escape those who are hindered by the rules that aim to protect the innocent.

Yet, what is the difference between the “them” and “us”? Clearly, the only difference that is worth fighting and dying for, is that “us” have a greater concern with protecting innocent life. It has to be that “us” are interested in using human institutions to sort the guilty from the innocent, and leaving less to the fates.

Here, then, is the gamble. If “us” show a greater interest in making sure that we do not harm innocent people, and a greater willingness to use civil institutions to sort the innocent from the guilty, this might – just might – convince the people that they are better off supporting these principles and institutions than those that are less concerned with innocent lives.

Perhaps, just perhaps, people in society can ask themselves, “With whom will I be better off? With those who have rules of evidence, warrants, grand juries, presumed innocence until proven guilty, trials, and rules against cruel and unusual punishment to protect the innocent from the violent instruments of the state, or those who think that these tools just get in the way?”

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Deceptive Truth and the Use of Averages

In reading some text against a referendum on the ballot here in Colorado, I saw an argument that fits in a family that I resolved a few years ago never to use again.

I was using a member of this family of argument against the government’s deficit spending. I said to a co-worker that the government’s deficit for that year was the equivalent of $1,500 worth of additional debt – added on to the debt the government already had -- for each man, woman, and child in the country. That meant $7,500 in debt for each family of five.

Then I thought about it for a while and realized that I was using rhetoric to make my point. I was misleading my co-worker about the actual facts regarding the deficit, and doing so for the purpose of manipulating his sentiments about that deficit. I wanted him to fear the deficit more than reason said he should. It seems that telling the truth was not good enough.

As soon as I realized what I was doing, I resolved to stop doing it. I also saw a reason to distrust any who would use this argument, because they are probably more interested in manipulating people than they are in informing people.

The Flaw with the Argument

The fact is that different people will not all pay back the same portion of the deficit. An individual who earns no money will not be paying back $1,500 worth of debt. His debt will be shifted onto somebody else.

In fact, the bulk of the burden in paying back that debt will be shifted onto those who pay the most taxes. My friend’s “share” of the deficit is equivalent to his “share” of the taxes. If he pays an average amount of taxes each year, then he will be paying an average amount of the proportion of the debt (with tax). If he pays less than average in taxes, he will pay back less than average proportion of the debt. On the other hand, if he pays more in taxes than the average citizen, then he will pay back a higher portion of the debt.

My point here is to show how an argument is deceptive, not to come up with actual numbers. So, let’s assume that the deficit for a particular year is $500 billion. Let’s also assume that the only way that the government makes money is through income taxes.

In 2003, according to the a report from the Congressional Budget Office, the top 10% of all income earners account for a little less than half of the Federal tax liabilities. So, out of this $500 billion deficit for one year, $250 billion will be paid by 10% of the population. My co-worker was not a member of that part of the population. He was, along with the remaining 90% of the population, responsible for the other half.

My friend and his family would actually be responsible for less than $7,500 in debt. Yet, I was telling him that his family was responsible for an equal portion of the deficit. I was doing this because an “equal portion” was higher than the actual portion that will be taken out of his and his children’s future salaries (unless he or one or more of his children became very wealthy).

Because the average portion was higher than his actual portion, I could expect it to summon more anxiety and, thus, summon more opposition against those who are responsible for the deficit.

Do not misunderstand me. I have arguments against a national debt. I think that running up huge deficits represents a moral crime against future generations. However, in arguing against the deficit, I have resolved not to use arguments that are fundamentally deceptive. I will use arguments that I actually think have merit (and I will not judge merit according to ability to manipulate others).

The “average” argument is deceptive.

Truth, Fiction, and Deception

An interesting fact about my attempt to manipulate my co-worker is that I did not lie. I told him the truth – the government deficit for that year was, in fact, equivalent to $1,500 for each man, woman, and child in the country.

Yet, my intention in reporting that fact was to deceive. I knew how he would likely take this fact. He would imagine an additional $7,500 attached to his family’s debt. He would think about the trouble that he is having with the debt he already owns, and feel a sense of desperation at having another $7,500 added to it. He would react as if I had told him that he, as the provider for his family, would have to come up with the money.

I define a lie in such a way that it covers more than making a false claim. A deceptive truth -- a truth that invites somebody to draw a false conclusion -- is just as deceptive.

This the deceptive truth is the bread and butter for many political consultants. In that business, an individual who is skilled at coming up with the best deceptive truth is somebody who can make a great deal of money.

In fact, there are solid scientific methods for evaluating the effectiveness of deceptive truth. Through focus groups and other techniques, a company in charge of marketing a political idea can test a number of deceptive truths, identify the most effective ones, and give them to the client, who uses the resources at their disposal to spread the deceptive truth as far as possible.

Colorado's Referrendum C

I don't want to discuss the Colorado Referrendum per say, but to use the argument I found as another example of deceptive truth.

In this case, the discussion concerned a change in the tax law that would allow the state to keep, rather than refund, a substantial increase in tax revenue. Regardless of the merit of the tax cut. Those who are arguing against the referendum (thus, arguing for the tax refund) say that, “The estimated five-year total for all refund methods, including the sales tax refund, averages $1,106 per taxpayer.”

This message suggests that the average Colorado voter can expect to be over $1,100 wealthier if he votes against this measure. A reader, thinking of himself as an average taxpayer, thinks that voting against the referrendum will bring him over $1,100.

However, the amount of money that an individual taxpayer will get depends on how that individual squares off against the different types of refunds. Most of the refund will come through a sales tax, where the more one spends, the more one saves. Other savings come through fifteen other refund categories which include reductions in capital gains for Colorado assets.

The way averages work, one person who gets $10,000 in refunds, balancing against nine people getting $118 in refunds, will generate an average refund of $1,106.20. Yet, in this hypothetical case, 90% of the people will get significantly less than the average amount, and one person gets substantially more.

These are hypothetical examples, and it remains open to question as to how the Colorado distributions will actually stack up. The point is not to make a specific case regarding either the national debt or Colorado’s Referrendum C. The point is to make a case against a certain line of reasoning, and the problems with it.

Summary

The main point is that, if you hear somebody starting to talk about “averages” in terms of cost or benefit for a government program, be careful. Because of the distribution in income levels in this country, it is quite likely that that the “average” is a deceptive truth. It leads the reader to thing that he or she can expect whatever the “average” is reported to be, in terms of costs or benefits.

In fact, those costs and benefits will be distributed in such a way that the “average” (or median) American can expect something quite different from the “average” being reported.

I began writing this blog in part because I saw deceptive truth to be too widely accepted and, as such, doing a great deal of harm. I not only resolved not to use those arguments myself, I wanted to expose them so that those who do use them can find themselves condemned, rather than rewarded with pay raises and bonuses for their skilled use of deceptive truth. We are made worse off by this practice, and it is in our interests to condemn that which makes us worse off.

We would be better off to the degree that society learned to recognize and to treat the deceptive truth like any other lie.

The instant that somebody starts speaking about “averages”, the way that I divided the national deficit equally among all taxpayers, or the opponents of Referendum C in Colorado are speaking about distributing the tax benefits of rejecting the Referendum, take this as a clue to ignore everything else that individual has to say. He obviously sees nothing wrong with deceiving you into accepting his position, and is not to be trusted, until he repents and rejects the use of those types of arguments.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Democracy and Tyranny of the Majority

With Iraq having voted on its new Constitution, I thought that this would be a good time to say something about morality within a democracy.

Clearly, it is not the case that the majority is always right. If we take a poll in a society and determine that 85% of them believe that capital punishment is morally acceptable, 10% of the people are opposed, and 5% are undecided, this does not prove that 85% of the people are right and 10% are wrong. It is possible that the 85% are victims of a popular injustice.

Against Cultural Relativism

To illustrate the problem with the idea that the majority is always right, imagine a society where 85% of the people want to simply round up and kill everybody belonging to a genetic subgroup or religion within that society. Let us assume that this subgroup makes up 2% of the population – it is too small to defend itself. Naturally, this 2% is opposed to the slaughter. Let us also assume that 8% of the remaining are opposed as well.

So, we have a society with 85% favoring this slaughter, 10% opposed, and 5% undecided.

Being a member of the 10% opposed to the slaughter does not mean that one is wrong. It does not matter that the slaughter would pass a popular vote, it is still wrong.

For a moment, let’s take seriously the claim that right and wrong (for a society) are determined by what people within that society tend to say is right or wrong. If this is true, then a person answering the question, “Is X wrong?” is being asked “Would people in this society tend to disapprove of people doing X?”

Applying this to the example discussed above, the people being asked if this slaughter is wrong are being asked, “Is it the case that people generally will support such a slaughter?” We would have to interpret the 85% of the people saying ‘yes’ as saying ‘the majority of the people would support such a slaughter.” The 5% of the people who are undecided would have to be understood as saying, “I do not know whether people would generally approve of this slaughter or not.” The 10% opposed to the slaughter would be understood as saying, “People generally are saying that this slaughter is wrong.”

Clearly, when people answer this question they are not trying to divine what people in society would generally approve or disapprove of. They are trying to decide whether the slaughter has “something else” – a moral quality, with 85% saying ‘yes’, 10% saying ‘no’, and 5% being uncertain, and with 85% being wrong, in this case.

This is fatal to the idea that right and wrong is determined by what the bulk of a society approves of. This is fatal to the idea that all you have to do in a society is take a vote and you arrive at a moral truth (for that society).

There are wrongs other than slaughter, by the way. The 85% majority may decide to enslave the minority. This slavery might be as obtrusive as putting 2% of the population in chains and allowing them to be bought and sold, or it could involve allowing them to work while taking from them everything (or almost everything) that they earn.

The 85% could force the minority onto a reservation, building a wall around them, and not allowing them the freedom to move about that others are allowed to enjoy. It could mean prohibiting the minority from enjoying liberties that others enjoy – such as prohibiting them from working at jobs they enjoy and are competent to perform, or prohibiting them from entering contracts that others of equal competence may enter.

These points are relevant to those who push around the following piece of “wisdom”:

It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!

There are two moral objections that can be raised against those who are sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this message.

The first is that a fair and just government is a government of, by, and for 100% of the people, not 86% of the people. This is (or should be) neutral ground where people of different backgrounds and beliefs meet to peacefully negotiate their differences. A majority that insists on putting up its own flags, signs, and banners is trying to claim this ‘neutral territory’ as its own, and destroying its neutrality. They are saying, “We are not equals here. We are the masters, you are the servants. We have the right to command, you have the duty to obey.”

The second is that the majority never has the right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up. This is cultural moral relativism at its worse. It represents not only an arrogant presumption that the majority is always right, but it lays the foundation for a tyranny of the majority in that the majority assumes the right to demand that the minority “sit down and shut up.”

Anybody who promotes the idea that the minority can be told to “sit down and shut up” is somebody who has lost his moral compass and who shows a disturbing inability to distinguish right from wrong.

Tyranny of the Majority

So, what happens in a democracy where 85% of the population actually think that they have a right to impose these unfair and unjust burdens on 2%; and only 8% of the remaining population are willing to say that it is wrong?

How does a democracy ensure the power of the majority does not corrupt them to the point that they subject the minority to unfair and unjust treatment? What protections are there against a tyranny of the majority?

If the courts decide to defend the rights of the minority, the majority has the power to replace those judges with those who are willing to accept, and even eager to promote, injustice against the minority. It may take some time, but it can be done.

We can see this as an issue in Iraq, where certain minorities fear that they will be subject to a tyranny of the majority.

So, how do we set up a democracy that avoids this problem? How do we set up a society so that the majority recognizes that the fact that they have the most votes does not prove that right is on their side, and there are things they may not do to the minority?

Defending Right from Wrong

I see this as being analogous to a situation where a kidnapper is holding a gun on a hostage. What is the hostage to do if he is at risk of being treated unfairly and unjustly? Let us also assume that the hostage taker has a physical advantage – fighting back is out of the question, both because the hostage-taker has all the power, and the hostage is adverse to using violence to solve problems.

One option is to point out, as I did at the start of the post, that “popular” does not mean “right”, and minorities have no duty or obligation to serve the majority or to sit down and shut up. But what is the use of reason in this case.

In other words, the minority can appeal, through reason, to the moral facts and hope that the majority can be made to recognize and respect those facts. This is true just as the hostage may try to appeal to the hostage-taker’s better nature in trying to negotiate his own safety. However, this requires that the hostage-taker have a better nature.

There are ways, I think, to reason with the majority, because there is no absolute majority. Anybody can find themselves in a minority, depending on how the political allegiances line up. In matters of race, gender, cultural heritage, physical location, in any number of ways an individual can find himself in a minority. At this point, the question becomes, “What type of rules would you want the majority to adopt regarding the treatment of minorities, given that shift in the political allegiances at any moment may make you a minority.”

Do you agree that the majority should think it right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up? Do you agree that the governments should be neutral ground where all citizens are treated as equals and none have a right to lay claim to them by posting their side’s flags and banners around as if to convey the message, ‘This is our territory; you are allowed here only insofar as it pleases us to allow you on our territory?”

The rules of a democracy need to be established with these types of considerations in mind. The majority has no right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up. The majority has no right to take possession of ‘neutral territory’ represented by the government institutions and to put up its banners and signs and to take possession of ‘neutral territory’ as its won.

These are just two of the rules that bind the majority -- that say, "Regardless of how many votes you can muster, regardless of your ability to take control of courts and make your own members the judge of everything, there are still some things that you have no right to do."

These rules are essential to protecting against a tyranny of the majority. These rules are essential to protecting minorities from abuse and injustice that majorities will otherwise be tempted to inflict on them.

The establishment of an Iraqi Constitution is a good thing. Though, ultimately, peace and justice requires a recognition that, even in a democracy, being popular is not the same thing as being right. And even God cannot give the majority the right to take possession of the neutral ground that is Government, or to tell the minority to sit down and shut up.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Follow Up on Dobson’s Remarks

Follow Up on Dobson’s Remarks

Four days ago, I wrote about James Dobson, the founder and head of Focus on the Family, admitted that a wrongdoing had taken place when he said that he knew things, "…that I probably should not know."

Last night, on his radio show, Dobson said that Carl Rove had released him to talk about their conversations. He said that in those conversations, Rove had assured him of Miers' personal anti-abortion position without committing Miers to any vote on a future issue. Rove had also mentioned that other potential candidates had said that they did not want the nomination because they wanted to avoid the approval process.

Regarding the information that "I probably shouldn't know", Dobson said that it was that Harriet Miers was on the President's short list.

And what I was referring to is the fact that on Saturday, the day before the President made his decision, I knew that Harrier Miers was at the top of the short list of names under consideration. And as you know, that information hadn’t been released yet, and everyone in Washington and many people around the country wanted to know about it and the fact that he had shared with me is not something I wanted to reveal.

I have a slight problem with this. The nomination was announced on Monday, October 3rd. Dobson made the statement, "...things that I shouldn't know," on Wednesday, October 5th. More importantly, he spoke in the present tense -- not about things he learned earlier than others but could not talk about, but things that others did not know on October 5th that were relevant to his decision.

It is hard to tell what he meant. Therefore, I want Dobson brought before the Senate committee, put under oath, and asked directly, “You stated that there were things that you probably should not know regarding Harriet Miers or other subjects relevant to her nomination. What were those things that you probably should not have known?”

If he answers with some innocent fact that could be easily assumed or there was no reason to keep secret, Dobson should be reminded that he swore an oath to tell the truth and that lying to the Senate is a crime.

If Dobson invokes the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination to keep from revealing that information, he is at least on the record as far as this issue goes, and the Senators can act accordingly.

If Dobson actually comes up with things that he should not have known, the Senate can decide the best course of action to take with that information once it is made known.

The explanations that Dobson gave on his own radio program were not made under oath, with no particular reason to believe that Dobson was telling the truth.

I would like to note that Dobson did not specify that he learned that which “I probably should not know” from Rove. He simply stated that he knew things he probably should not know in the context of discussing the Miers’ nomination. Senators questioning Dobson should keep this in mind when framing their questions, and not focus narrowly on his conversations with Rove.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

When Only Priests May Be Judges

The Bush Administration and the Religious Right ultimately want all Americans to face trial, not by standing in front of a secular judge, but by being hauled before a religious priest. Thus, having the correct view of the Bible becomes the single most important fact to know in determining if a nominee is qualified to be judge.

Only Priests May Judge

When I was young, one of the jobs that I had on my short list of preferred professions was "Judge", with an interest of sitting on the Supreme Court. It was not a deep, overriding passion -- I had some suspicion that I would not be good enough to qualify. However, my interest prompted me to study legal issues. This included a year-long course in the History of the Supreme Court, and concentrated study in the Philosophy of Law as a graduate student, where I taught Philosophy of Law.

However, I had a problem with that profession. A judge's job is to apply the law that exists, regardless of whether that law is just or unjust. If the law said that harboring escaped slaves was punishable by fine or imprisonment, I would have to be an agent through which violators were fined and imprisoned, regardless of my sympathies for the abolitionists. I was more interested in making just law and opposing just law, than in enforcing the law independent of whether it was just or unjust.

However, I wonder what would have happened if I had pursued that particular American dream. What if I had gone to law school and excelled, graduating near the top of my class? What if I became a practicing lawyer, where I acquired a reputation for keen intellect and solid knowledge of the subject matter? What if my reputation included a strong moral character where people felt safe assuming that I would bend no rules?

If I had done all of this, according to President Bush, I would still not qualify to be a judge in the United States, because I would fail his religious test. In noting why he picked Miers, Bush said that “part of her life is her religion.” Suggesting, of course, that a person for whom religion was not a part of her life would be considered less qualified, and probably unqualified.

Ultimately, Bush and his supporters among the religious right do not like the idea of Americans being judged in secular courts. They want Americans to stand trial in a church court before accepted members of the Conservative priesthood. Consequently, only priests are qualified to be judges.

Constitutional Provisions

Article 6, Section 3 of the Constitution states:

The senators and representatives before-mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

I want to speak to this statement, not as a principle of law, but as a principle of ethics in a free society.

There can be no law that prohibits an individual from basing his decision to vote for or against a candidate on religion.

There can be no law that prohibits an individual from basing his decision to vote for or against a candidate on race. However, the person who does this violates a moral principle, even if no law can be passed against it. This is a person rightfully classified as a bigot. Parents interested in raising morally decent children rightfully point to such individuals and say, "Do not be like him, he is of poor moral character."

We can pass no law against these types of decisions. However, we can justifiably condemn and criticize anybody who advocates this type of behavior, treating them honestly like the bigots they are. We can make an example of any citizen whose bigotry inspires him to stand before a microphone and use race as a criterion for voting. People may still do this, but they will do it without the sanction or approval of society at large.

We could write into the Constitution that there shall be no racial test shall be required for any office of trust in the United States. However, we do not have to. It is written into our moral code, and that is enough.

The same argument applies to religion. The individual who stands before an audience and demands that candidates pass a religious test demonstrates the same morally contemptible bigotry as the man who advocates voting on the basis of race. A fair and just society would greet those who suggest such a thing with the same contempt. A society that does not greet those who suggest such a thing with the same contempt is not fair and just.

Implications

What does it mean to say that only those belonging to a particular religion are qualified to judge the law?

If you say that a person is not qualified to judge the law, then you must also be saying that he is not qualified to obey it. In a sense, we are all judges. We live our lives safe from legal entanglements only to the degree that we are capable of knowing what the law requires and on which side of the law our actions would fall. If people belonging to the wrong religion are not qualified to see the line, they are not capable of keeping their actions on the good side of the line.

When an individual encounters a complex law, he contacts a lawyer. To a certain extent, a lawyer's job is to predict what a judge would or would not say about a case, and advise the client accordingly. An individual who is not competent to judge the law is not competent to advise clients how to stay on the right side of that law.

If only priests and practitioners of the right religion are qualified to be judges, then only priests and practitioners of the right religion are qualified to be lawyers as well, or to be full citizens.

These are the implications of the religious bigotry that rest behind the decision to use a religious test to decide who to appoint, or who to vote for, for public office.

A Pattern of Bigotry

While the Constitution of the United States says that no religious test will be required for all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, will need to pass a religious test, 8 State Constitutions still require a religious test.

The Supreme Court has blocked enforcement of these provisions. However, they have not been removed.

Imagine the uproar that would exist if the Constitution of any state still required a racial test to hold a political position in any state. The people would instantly recognize that having that wording in the state Constitution, even if it is not enforced, was tantamount to an endorsement of racism -- an expressed wish to return to the days when racial bigotry and discrimination was the norm and blacks knew their place.

In some circles, this is not a wish, but a policy. Fortunately, a fair and just society rejects this view and recognizes that morality and justice require the condemnation of those who do not reject it. Such a bigot may still have a right to speak, but not a right to our respect. Society shows that it accepts that this view is wrong by removing these archaic provisions from their constitutions and laws. A society that keeps these provisions still has not found the moral courage to leave its bigotry behind.

Keeping these religious provisions inside the State constitutions admits to the same type of bigotry. It is an expressed wish to return to the good old days when religious bigotry and discrimination was the norm and non-theists knew their place. Among some circles, this is not a wish, but a policy. Unfortunately, the principles of fairness and justice that says to condemn this policy has been ignored.

A fair and just society would remove these bigoted provisions from their constitutions, and thereby remove the approval of the religious bigotry contained in these provisions implicit in the decision to keep these rules in place.

In addition, a fair and just society would react to a President who says, “You can trust she will make a good Judge. She is one of us – because of her religion” will face the same reaction as the President who says, “You can trust she will make a good Judge. She is one of us – because of her race.”