Friday, September 30, 2011

Climate Change, from a Free Market Perspective

I'm spending a couple of posts giving arguments concerning climate change that we should be getting from any conservative free-market oriented politician running for public office.

Yesterday, I gave the moral argument - activities that inflict harms on others without their consent are immoral. Harm doers, at the very least, owe harm-takers compensation for harms done. This is the very essence of the principle of individual moral responsibility. The purpose of government - unless one wants to support total anarchy where even the government court system, police, and prisons are abolished - is to make sure that people pay for the harms they inflict on others. The harms caused by putting greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are not immune from these moral principles. Furthermore, they define moral rights that are applicable to all humans, not just a subset of humans.

Today, I am going to give the economic argument.

My opponents claim that taking action against climate change is bad for the economy.

This is true - in exactly the same way that taking action against murder, rape, theft, vandalism, arson, and fraud is bad for the economy.

If you know your history, you know that in the 1850s, people were saying that we cannot end slavery because it would be bad for the (southern) economy. Southern plantations would not be able to compete. Prices would rise. Jobs would be lost. The economy would stumble. Ergo, we must maintain the slave economy. It is the only way we can compete.

This turns out to be true only if we define the economy in such a way that we exclude the people who suffer arm. Exclude those who are murdered, raped, or whose property is stolen or destroyed, exclude the black slaves and consider only the economic well being of the white people, and you might actually be able to make this argument work. This is because wealth plundered from those excluded from these definitions and given to those included are calculated as economic gains under these conditions.

Even here, the argument would likely fail. The presence of other wealthy, well-educated, skilled and talented people with which we can trade tends to make each of us better off - not worse off. It means more potential buyers for our skills.

In all of these cases - including the case of climate change - we are talking about actions that impose harms (costs) on others without their consent.

When people - even greenhouse gas emitters - are allowed to inflict harms with impunity, the economic effect tends to be that they perform actions in which the overall economic cost (harm) of their actions greatly exceed the overall economic benefit. The net result is a lot of activity that is actually economically harmful.

Assume that everybody was given a credit card such that, when you buy things, the card randomly searches bank accounts with money in them to pay for it. What would be the result?

We could expect two results, actually.

One of these results is that people would end up spending huge amounts of money on things that, even to them, have trivial value. A person can spend $500 on something he wouldn't normally spend $50 on. From his economic point of view, the price is not $500. The price is $0. Since a $0 personal cost is less than a $50 personal gain, he will pay $500 for the $50 item.

The second effect us that it destroys incentive to create wealth. The personal value of wealth created is $0. If I were to create $500 and put it in the bank - it will be gone in an instant. So, why should I go to the effort of earning $500? I will do so only when the creation of $500 is an unintended side effect of actions that I perform for other reasons.

To have any type of functioning economy, we need rules - a set of regulations, permissions, and prohibitions jointly known as "property rights".

These rights say that you cannot take, damage, or destroy the property of another without their consent or compensation. Of course, another person's life, their body (health), and their liberty (labor) are their property rights - they count high on the list of things others own that we may not take without consent or compensation.

Compensation is what free market economies actually require for economic efficiency. Consent is important because, in most circumstances, it is the most reliable way to determine how much compensation is owed - how much value is actually being taken, damaged, or destroyed. Consequently, free market economics puts a lot of weight on voluntary, unforced, "free" (as in freely engaged in) trade.

Free trade dramatically reduces the amount of economic activity that produces net social losses. With free trade, if my action does harm to the life, health, liberty, or property of other people, I must make sure that my action creates enough of a social surplus that I can compensate others for their losses. If I fail to do so, then I accept the loss difference for myself - others are not forced to suffer for my mistake. I can't simply take $500 or destroy $500 in the value of that which somebody else owns. I must cover pay the $500 out of my own pocket - which includes paying a person $500 if he should suffer $500 in harm.

These limits are not bad for the economy, they are essential for the economy. They sit at the very core of the idea why a free market economy is such a great idea.

Unfortunately, society is filled with all sorts of people who want to do things that harm the life, health, and property of huge numbers of people, without paying them a dime in compensation for harms done.

Among these are greenhouse gas emitters.

The free market itself tells us that permitting this would be economic folly. If we permit this, what we will get is a lot of people engaged in a lot of activity where the overall economic costs well exceed the overall economic benefits precisely because they are being permitted to pass those costs onto others without compensation.

Those who insist on the legal permission to emit greenhouse gasses without paying compensation for harms done are neither applying nor defending free market principles. They are defending a form of wealth transfer that the free market finds absolutely abhorrent - a permission to ignore the free market rights to life, health, and property of those harmed - rights that makes sure that private actions produce a net public benefit.

So, for the sake of the economy, we must find ways to make sure that those who cause harm pay enough to compensate those harmed for the harms done. And if their actions produce more harm than benefit, that they take those costs on themselves, and not freely pass those costs onto others. If the price for that activity turns out to be prohibitively high, the free market tells us that this is only because the activity is one in which the benefits provided are less than the costs generated. It is an activity that the free market itself tells us people should not be engaged in precisely because it generates an overall economic net loss.

This, then, us how a conservative who actually followed and applied the principles of free market economics would answer the question of climate change.

The reason we do not hear this coming from Republican presidential candidates is because they are not actually defending free market economics. They are defending an economic system that can best be described as corporate feudalism.

Corporate feudalism is a system where the serfs do not have rights to life, health, and property. As a result, any harms they may suffer from an activity such as greenhouse gas emissions are not included in the economic calculation. We do not include these harms done in our math - only the benefits provided to the corporate lords and ladies who actually do have rights to life, health, and property.

In effect, the economic argument for greenhouse gas emissions are of the same quality as the economic arguments for slavery in the 1850s. The arguments might work as long as we exclude those who are harmed from the economic community and, thus, do not count their losses among the economic results. Thus, it stands on a foundation that depends ultimately on a fundamental violation of free-market principles. And even then, it probably fails.

Well, as one reader has already pointed out, this argument and the one yesterday both depend on the claim that there is harm done. And that is something that many Republicans simply deny. Let's look at that argument next.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Conservative Response on Global Warming

I would like to give a proper conservative answer to the issue of climate change – the type of answer that a conservative political candidate would give if he were to give an answer true to conservative moral and economic principles.

We will see that this answer is not permitted in our current political system. At least, no candidate who sincerely wants to win public office would dare to suggest that these principles apply in the way described here.

Well, the science of climate change is not subject to partisan interpretations. The science of what happens when we put greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is like the science of what happens when a person fires a bullet into another person’s body. Science tells us the consequences of those types of actions, and it is up to us to apply our moral principles to those facts to determine what we should do.

Conservative moral principles tell us that it is basically wrong to fire a bullet into somebody else’s body. It is wrong to burn down his house, to take possession of his car without his consent, to take a baseball bat to his collection of fine china. They say that governments exist to provide people with protections against these types of harms. The perpetrators of these forms of harm – no matter how wealthy they are or their political position – are equally subject to the same moral law, which requires that those who do harm to others be made accountable for the harms they cause.

There are a few who seem to think that the only punishment a perpetrator should suffer is a loss of reputation. This and the free market will see that murderers, rapists, thieves and robbers, con men, and violent gangs demanding protection money, all suffer the same free-market fate when others simply refuse to trade with them. However, I will assume that this who want to close down all the prisons after releasing all the prisoners, shut down the government-run courts, and fire the police, are very few. Even among conservative thinkers, the government runs a police, court, and prison system to prevent people from inflicting harms on the lives, health, and property of others with impunity.

Throwing a chemical into somebody’s eyes that blinds them, or throwing a chemical into the air that sets fire to their homes or that summons a wave from the ocean to destroy their property are not separate moral categories. Where they inflict harm on others, they fall into the same moral category. The inflict the type of harms that governments exist to prevent or, at least, to make sure that the harm-doers answer for.

Even if it takes a whole crowd of people to throw enough chemical into the air to summon a wave from the ocean to destroy a neighbor’s house. If you are a part of the crowd, you are morally responsible for the results. You cannot destroy somebody else’s property and declare innocence just because you were a part of a violent and destructive mob. Nor are you morally innocent just because your mob is large enough to threaten anybody who might want to hold you accountable for the harms done.

That is what morality tells us.

That is our ethos - or morality. This is how we reduce irresponsible and harmful behaviors in society. If we allow harmful actions to go unpunished - if we do not demand accountability and responsibility for harms done - the effect is to promote and encourage irresponsibility and the destruction that comes from it. Society exists – and governments rightfully exist – as hostile opponents to this type of unanswered harms.

When the rich and powerful try to defend a legal permission to do harm to others, they are not defending a free market. They are not asserting conservative moral principles. They are defending something like corporate feudalism, where the corporate lords and ladies can utterly disregard the lives, health, and property of the lesser beings. This so-called right to do harm with impunity utterly contradicts the principle that ALL people are created equal, and the lives, health and well-being of even the poorest citizen cannot be harmed on a whim for the pleasure if the upper class.

Science tells us that putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere constitutes an action harmful to the life, health, and property of others. Science tells us what happens when we put greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, just science tells us what happens when you fire a bullet into another person's body. Science, itself, is non-partisan.

And the fact that ALL people have the same moral rights means that we ought not to live in a world where doing harm to the life, health, and property of the poor does not matter so long as the rich can profit from it. The wealthy and powerful may not show a callous disregard for the life, health, and property of other human beings - and must respect those rights just as they demand that others respect their equal rights.

This is what conservative morality tells us.

Conservative economics, as it turns out - and not coincidentally - gives us exactly the same message.
 I will cover that angle tomorrow.

I want to add that I do not agree fully with this position. It depends fundamentally on an assumption of foundational self-evident intrinsic rights that do not exist. However, an argument grounded on things that do exist – desires, some of which are malleable, states of affairs, and the relationships between them – can get to substantially the same conclusion, at least up to a point. There is a point at which those two systems diverge, but we have not yet reached it.

Not coincidentally, that desirist moral argument has a lot in common with the conservative economic argument for these principles. I will discuss them tomorrow.

Until then.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Humanism and Capital Punishment

I will start with this:
I am opposed to the death penalty.
And yet, I want to call out this piece - The Humanist Case against Capital Punishment by John Shook - as an intellectually vacant, arrogant, and condescending treatment of the subject.
The very first sentence oozes with condescending arrogance.

Humanism cannot support the death penalty.
This is like saying that science cannot support a geocentric theory of the solar system. It could support the geocentric theory - if the evidence were to be found for it. There is no evidence - but that only supports the conclusion that science does not support a geocentric theory of the solar system. It would not be science to say that it could not.
Humanism - unless it is a dogmatic system that issues commandments that no person shall be permitted to question - can support the dealth penalty, if reason can be found to do so. If no reason can be found to do so, this would support the conclusion that humanism does not support the death penalty, but it would not support the conclusion that humanism can not do so.

Here is another place where his arrogance oozes out.
The pro-death camp will admit that trials can deliver wrong verdicts.
There is no pro-death camp.

Claiming that there is such a thing is a libelous distortion of the opposing view in an attempt to bludgeon the reader to accept a conclusion.

I am entirely in favor of name-calling, when the name-calling can be proved true. I do not object to calling somebody who lies a liar, or somebody who rapes a rapist. If I can demonstrate that somebody applies moral principles inconsistently to self and others, and that he makes derogatory overgeneralizations across whole groups, then I call him a hypocritical bigot.

But Shook's 'pro-death' refocus falls into the category of abandoning truth and reason in favor of bludgeoning readers with an emotional club devoid of fact and reason - if they dare to question his Truth.

Next, John Shook writes as if he is in complete ignorance of one of the two classic arguments for capital punishment - the deterrance theory. That is to say, executing convicted murderers provides a way of reducing the number of innocent people who will be killed.

He writes, against the death penalty, that potentially killing an innocent person is a bad thing - something we should avoid. However, if it is a bad thing, and if killing a convicted murderer - or threatening to - deters the killing of 10 innocent people on average (for example), then this would make the death penalty a good thing. We are preventing the killing of innocent people - preventing more of what Shook himself claims to be worth preventing.

This is not some obscure argument buried deep in the capital punishment literature. It is Ethics 101 - an argument I would expect any college freshman just picking up the subject to cover.

The data does not support deterrence claims. However, that is not the point if this post. The point of this article is Shook's arrogant and condescending name-calling without even considering common arguments like the one above. The deterrence argument doesn't fit Shook's interest in derogatory over generalizations, so there is no mystery in the fact that he ignored it.

Besides, even the innocent who are executed are seldom, if ever, pillars of social virtue - far worse, on average, than the average person murdered.

In addition, innocent people are not only executed, they are imprisoned as well. There is a real risk that, in abolishing capital punishment, we conclude that questions of guilt and innocence are less significant. After all, if we merely sentence people to life in prison, we don't have to worry so much about the fact they just might happen to be innocent. That only matters if we plan to kill them.

Isn't this potential execution of the innocent argument really saying that we want to make it okay to be less concerned with the guilt or innocence of the accused? How many people, whose case was given greater scrutiny because of capital punishment considerations, were found innocent - but would have been found guilty in a system less concerned about guilt or innocence because it merely imprisons people?

So, Shook tells us that humanism cannot support capital punishment.

I wonder what humanism has to say about intellectually honest debate on social issues such as crime and punishment. It appears that Shook's brand if humanism, at least, isn't too comfortable with this principle either.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Hypothetical Perfectly Rational Person and Morality

I want to try a new tact in this claim that you can get morality by asking what a perfectly rational agent behind some veil if ignorance would say in answer to moral questions.

I am going to tentatively accept thus model and ask a hypothetical perfectly rational agent what she would say in answer to moral questions.

Here is how I think that person would answer.

First, get rid of this veil if ignorance. What makes you think that decisions made in a state of ignorance have any merit?

Okay, I know that you think that these facts should not be considered relevant in making moral decisions. I understand that. I get it. Bit you don't need to make a perfectly rational person ignorant of irrelevant facts when you seek their answer to real-worked questions.

The eccentricity of the orbit of the fifth planet discovered orbiting the star Gleise 581 is not relevant to the the question of where to search for my car keys as I get ready for work. You don't need to make me ignorant of the eccentricity of that planet when asking me questions about where to search for my car keys. Being a perfectly rational agent (hypothetically), I already know that those facts are not relevant.

Why aren't they relevant?

Because they do not answer the question. Moral questions simply are not questions about my personal likes and dislikes - about tastes that I have.

I suggest that moral facts are statements about what malleable desires people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation. When you ask me questions about these malleable desires, I know that my own likes and dislikes have only the slightest bit of relevance in answering those questions. Grounding my answer in those likes and dislikes is not rational.

Furthermore, when I answer the question of which malleable desires people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote or inhibit using these social tools, my answer will be grounded on objective facts. There is a fact of the matter as to what people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote or inhibit, and those facts remain facts even if I - the hypothetical perfectly rational person - were to cease to exist. The conclusion does not depend in any way on a fictitious entity such as myself.

Now, I may answer that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a strong widespread aversion to responding to words alone with violence - a fact that can also be reported as 'a right to freedom of speech'. When I say this, it does not automatically follow that you, as an individual, have any particular reason to promote such an aversion. Even when you know all of the facts, it may still be true that you, personally, have no interest in promoting such an aversion.

However, it remains true - regardless of your personal likes and dislikes, that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion. They have many and strong reason to praise and reward those who exhibit an aversion to responding to words with violence, and to condemn - even to punish - those who lack this aversion to responding to mere words with violence. There is a fact of the matter, substantially independent of whatever likes and dislikes you or I happen to have.

In telling you that there is a right to freedom of speech, then, how do I get you to refrain from responding to words with violence?

Well, I can't do it by reason alone. Desires (such as the aversion to responding to words with violence) are a-rational. Making you aware of all the relevant facts, and even making you a perfectly rational person - has no necessary implications for what you want.

The tools for changing desires are not facts and reason, but praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

My claim that there is a right to freedom of speech is a claim that people generally have many and strong reasons to employ the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote in people such as you and me an aversion to responding to words with violence. They cannot create this aversion by providing us with facts and rationality. They create this reason by putting us in an environment with the relevant components of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

There is still a place for reason in morality.

If your car has a flat tire, reason alone - or reason combined with relevant facts - cannot change a tire. But it can tell you the most efficient way to get the tire changed. It tells you how to use a jack, tire-iron, lug nuts, and spare tire to create a state in which the flat tire has been exchanged for one that is not flat. It even tells you - given your desires - why you should change the tire.

Similarly, reason and facts cannot create virtue. But it can tell you how to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to create virtue, and even which desires to promote or inhibit using these tools.

There is a reason why praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, are such dominant parts of moral institutions. It is because morality is concerned primarily with the tuning of malleable desires, and these tools are the tools for tuning malleable desires. This feature of praise and blame - praiseworthiness and blameworthiness - is something that a great many moral theories simply ignore. They sweep it aside, refusing to acknowledge that their inability to explain the role of these elements is, in fact, a serious argument against the theories they are offering. 

The final question you might ask, then, is what reasons do people generally have to promote those malleable desires they have the most and strongest reason to promote, or to inhibit those malleable desires they have the most and strongest reason to inhibit.

If you ask that question, I will simply accuse you of not paying attention and uttering words without thinking about what they mean.

This, then, is the answer from the perfectly rational person. Well, this is my proposal for how she would answer. Not being a perfectly rational person, I can only offer a theory as to what she might say - the way many moral philosophers offer theories about what such a person might say.

Importantly, it is an answer that meets the criterion that, once we know the answer, we can rid ourselves of the hypothetical perfectly rational person. She was just a place holder for the right answer. She was never an essential part of the answer. The fact that she is a work of fiction - an imaginary being - does not affect the moral argument, because she is a premise that can be eliminated and replaced with objective facts.

And with that, we get an actual real-world objective morality without pieces of fiction woven into it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Let Him Die" Demagoguery

There was an incident at a Republican Party Presidential Debate yesterday that some dishonest demagogues on the left have decided to twist beyond recognition for the sake of a few rhetorical political points.

At the CNN Tea Party debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what he would have us do if a 30 year old healthy person were to freely choose not to have health insurance, but ends up needing 6 months of intensive care. should we let him die?

A couple of hecklers in the audience shouted, "Yes," and some demagogues on the left want to brand the whole of the Republican Party with this answer. Thus proving that deceptive misrepresentation is also a key moral value of the left.

There is a new web site, that deceptively edits and presents the events of the debate. Their commercial is a carefully edited version of what really happened that aims to paint all Republicans with the heckled comments of a few in the audience.

Imagine somebody trying to brand all atheists with an answer to certain anti-theist (e.g., that the teaching of religion to a child should be considered abuse and thus be made criminal) might cheer at a debate.

If you want to see the full context of the question and the answer, you can watch thus video: Let Him Die

The correct conservative answer to that question - and the answer that Ron Paul gave and was applauded for by the vast majority of the audience - was not "let him die" but "let us provide a more cost effective and humane form of care than a government bureaucracy can provide."

First, because government tax-payer funded health care will become the feeding trough of drug companies and corporate hospitals lobbying the government to pay more and more money for less and less care. These wealthy corporate organizations can afford to invest millions of dollars for tweaks and adjustments to the red tape, each of which drains another $1.00 out if each of our pockets, bundles it into a big package, and deposits $100 million into the corporate bank account. Only, all of those $1.00 additions are adding up to a health care system that Americans cannot afford.

Second, because private care helps to build a community. Previously, as Paul said, churches took care of this function. And though some of my atheist readers may loathe to read this, churches were an early form of health insurance. People came together in a congregation, and when somebody in the congregation cane upon rough times, the others stepped in to help out. This is something atheists often lack, much to their detriment. There are a whole lot of reasons for going back to the concept of local, community care for those who need it.

So, no, the conservative answer is not "let him die". The conservative answer is, we should trust his care to a community that can provide a higher quality, more cost effective and compassionate form of care than any red-tape bureaucracy designed to rob each of us for the sake of the wealthy can provide.

This is the conservative answer.

It is not my answer. A couple of the problems that I see with this answer is that communities of this form tend to be all of one economic class - so poor communities form poor congregations with limited resources. Another is that many of these communities adopt a strong "us" versus "them" mentality, and often exclude - sometimes violently - people that the congregation counts as "them" - Jews, blacks, atheists, Catholics (for a protest group), Protestants (for a catholic group). Increased care for those within the community often comes with hostility often erupting into violence against those outside the community.

But, I hold that these are issues that social scientists need to research.

Another issue that left-leaning individuals with a sense of integrity and honesty should confront are left-leaning demagogues who want to distort and twist the issues because it gains political points. An eagerness to win elections by deceiving and manipulating the voters is not a value that people of honesty and integrity should be willing to tolerate.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Economic Miracles

On economic matters, I tend towards the conservative side of the fence - though not for the reasons that most conservatives cite.

My reasons are that people with money and power are in the best position to manipulate government - the monopoly tool for the use of physical violence to achieve its ends - to their advantage. So, the best thing to do is to keep this force small so that we can better see what it is doing. Its actions are more transparent. The larger and more complex the system gets, the easier it is for wealthy well-connected but morally deficient individuals to manipulate the system - effectively using threats of violence to transfer wealth from people in the community into their pockets.

However, I have a major problem with the conservative movement in America.

We have here a group of people who have abandoned reason and evidence even on matters as solid as science - evolution and global warming.

They routinely rewrite history, replacing historic facts with ideologically pure historic fiction. We see this not only in their view that scripture is historically accurate, but in the fantasy stories they weave into the history of this nation's founding.

Even those who reject these fictions are willing to embrace a culture of irrationality and make-believe. They are unwilling to declare that there is any type of problem with people embracing fiction and trying to base real-world policies on fantasy-world beliefs. They make pandering to America's most ignorant a cornerstone of their political ambitions.

I would feel a lot more comfortable if those economic conservatives would embrace a culture of evidence and reason-based foundation for their economic conclusions, and demonstrate their respect for evidence and reason by rejecting arrogant, ignorant irrationality even when it comes to the defense of their conclusions.

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people who believe in the invisible hand of free enterprise feel that this is the invisible hand of God.

"They say the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work," says sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the Baylor Religion Survey, released today by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

(See Baylor Religion Survey reveals many see God steering economy.)

It's a miracle!

They have no understanding of economics, so they have no understanding of economic policy. When asked, "Why does this have that effect?" they answer here, as elsewhere, "God did it!" Meaning, "I am too stupid or too lazy to figure out what is really going on and base policy on a solid understanding of the subject matter."

Their "policy" is to view anything that political and business propagandists tell them is "not free market" as a form of blasphemy which - to the best of their understanding - offends God, so must be opposed. And because of their ignorance even of free-market principles, it is too easy to convince them that even anti-free-market activities (e.g., allowing companies to contaminate the air with chemicals that harm other people and destroy their property) can be made holy in their eyes.

"When Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann say 'God blesses us, God watches us, God helps us,' religious conservatives get the shorthand. They see 'government' as a profane object — a word that is used to signal working against God's plan for the United States. To argue against this is to argue with their religion."

Even here, where I am disposed to accept some of the conclusions of a conservative economics, I find myself surrounded by ignorant irrationalities. This, in itself, is enough to make me wonder whether my own acceptance of those conclusions can actually be put on a solid and rational footing.

Not everything an arrogant, irrational, uninformed person believes is wrong - it's just poorly founded. But arrogant, irrational, and uninformed policy making is still extremely dangerous even if, entirely by chance, every once in a while it is accidentally correct.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perry's Christian Agenda to Defend Israel

In answering questions about his policy towards Israel if he were to be President, Texas governor Rick Perry had this to say.

Well, obviously, Israel is our oldest and most stable democratic ally in that region. That is what this is about. I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel. So from my perspective, it's pretty easy. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.

(Start at about 1:45 in the video below.)

We need to combine this with the fact that Perry seems to think that the 1967 borders for Israel are "new borders" being imposed on that country. Concerning Obama's claim (and former President Bush's claim) that the 1967 borders is a starting point to negotiation, Perry said in starting his campaign for President:

He seeks to dictate new borders for the Middle East and the oldest democracy there, Israel...

(See Text of Gov. Rick Perry’s Presidential Announcement Remarks

Combined, these two policy statements seem to suggest that Perry's foreign policy is to establish and defend Israel's biblical borders - perhaps (as some Christians believe) as a way of triggering Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.

Two quick things to say about this.

First, Mr. Perry, the American military and its soldiers do not exist as a tool for you to use in some fool religious crusade.

Second, this clip and this quote is going to make a wonderful recruiting tool by Muslim extermists who want to portray American actions as anti-Muslim and who want to claim that they are in need of soldiers to defend Islam.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Rejection of Social Contract Theory

A member of the studio audience, Mike Gage, has asked me to address my reasons for objecting to social contract and impartial observer moral theories.

You said in one podcast interview that it's problematic because there is no impartial observer or social contract. I argue, though, that it can be grounded in the propositions that would be true if there were such things.

I am going to respond to this objection in two forms - in the form that it appears in Gage's comment, and the form that it appears in Gage's post that he links to in the comment.

I will take the current form first.

Any argument that has premises that "would be true if there were such things" can only support conclusions that "would be true if there were such things". It cannot support premises that are true - unless "if there were such things" is changed to "such things are real."

"I am not an only child" would be true in a universe in which I had a brother or a sister. But that does not make it true in which such things do not exist. In the real world, we still have to look at whether I do or do not, in fact, have any brothers or sisters.

This is my main objection to impartial observer and social contract theories. They start with admittedly false premises. "There is an impartial observer," and "There is a social contract" are false.

Now, on to the second form of the argument. Mike provided me with a link to his post on this matter where he provides a different argument.

Under a contractarian framework, I think we get truth value from reference to a proposition. For example, to say we have reasons to prevent and condemn action x is to say that the following proposition is true: "A perfectly rational being in the original position would have reasons to prevent and condemn action x." What we are really grounding our morality in is rationality itself and we can point to these propositional truths in order to be describing an objectively true fact of the matter.

(See Atheism and Evil Part 2.)

The "Original Position" here is behind John Rawls' veil of ignorance, in which the agent is unaware of the position he will hold in the society whose rules he is evaluating.

This is a different argument, and it invites us to ask the question, "What reasons does this perfectly rational agent have to prevent or condemn action x?"

What is her answer?

"I condemn action X because a perfectly rational agent would condemn action X, and I am a perfectly rational agent, and I condemn action X."

That's not a very satisfying answer.

Look at it this way:

To say that the squares of the two sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse is to say that the following proposition is true: "A perfectly rational being in the original position would have reasons to believe that for a right triangle the squares of the two sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. What we are really grounding our math in is rationality itself and we can point to these propositional truths in order to be describing an objectively true fact of the matter.
Now let's ask this perfectly rational mathematician why she believes the squares of the two sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse.

I trust that we would not be satisfied with the answer: "I believe it because a perfectly rational agent would believe it and I am a perfectly rational agent, and I believe it." We would want her to provide her reasons for believing it. Once she does, we can then adopt those reasons as our own, and do away with the perfectly rational mathematician. She was merely a place holder for whatever reasons she would offer in support of her belief.

So, the perfectly rational agent in Gage's example is also merely a placeholder for whatever reasons she should give for condemning X - reasons that, once we knew, we could adopt as our own.

However, in the case of condemning X, we run into another problem. Is it the case that the reasons she has for condemning X are necessarily reasons we can adopt as our own?

She may make herself a peanut butter sandwich because she likes peanut butter sandwiches, or refuse a sandwich because she is allergic to peanuts. The fact that she takes a particular action does not justify the conclusion that I should act the same way - not if the reasons she uses are not reasons that I should adopt as my own. The fact that she likes peanut butter sandwiches does not imply that I should adopt a liking for peanut butter sandwiches as my own.

The "veil of ignorance" may be an attempt to deal with this. It makes each decision-maker ignorant of their own desires so that they cannot use them in making a decision. But they are supposed to be aware of the fact that such preferences exist and she might have them.

However, agents only act on the desires they have - not the desires that they know to exist. I may know of your aversion to pain, but whether that will motivate me to avoid states of affairs in which you are in pain or cause them depends on whether I have a current aversion to you being in pain or a desire to see you suffer. Without desires of my own on which to base a decision, I am indifferent to your pain. So, a perfectly rational agent ignorant of his own desires would choose nothing.

However, a more important problem is unjustified logical leap from what an imaginary agent in an imaginary situation would do to what we should do.

It might be perfectly rational for perfectly rational agents to adopt a particular set of rules behind a veil of ignorance. However, once the veil is lifted, and a flood of new information becomes available, the perfectly rational agent does not simply ignore this information. She uses it to reassess and revise the conclusions she drew while ignorant, and to adopt new conclusions based on new and better information. What is rational in a state of ignorance is often quite irrational in a state of having information.

The fact that it would be rational for me to leave the building in a state in which the fire alarm is going off does not imply that it is rational for me to leave the building at this moment, when the fire alarm us not going off. Even if I was a perfectly rational being with good reason to leave the building when the fire alarm goes off, this does not imply that everybody should leave the building at this moment. These types of inferences just do not have any logical validity.

So, not only is it the case that the perfectly rational agent is a mere placeholder for the reasons she has for believing something, in the case of an action (and condemnation is an action), the reasons she has are not necessary reasons that we have any reason to adopt as our own. And actions that an imaginary agent would take in an imaginary world in a state of ignorance does not imply anything about the actions real agents should take in the real world in a state of non-ignorance.

For these reasons, I reject social contract theory.

Now, I want to stress, there are moral facts. The failure of social contract theory does not imply a failure of moral realism. It's just that this particular route to that destination has far too many logical roadblocks. We have to look for another route.

An objective morality requires premises that are true in the real world, and does not try to draw inferences from what is imaginary (perfectly rational agents behind a veil of ignorance) to what is real.

Briefly - the conclusions that I would defend say that we really need to ask our hypothetical perfectly rational person a different question. Without assuming any ignorance, ask her, "What malleable desires do people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation? And what actions would a person with those desires perform?" When we ask the hypothetical perfectly rational and fully informed agent this question, the agent is, in fact, a mere place holder for a set of objective facts. And the reasons she gives for whatever answer she gives us is made up entirely of reasons we can then adopt as our own reasons for adopting the same conclusions. This meets the criteria for an objective morality.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Job Creators

Which group creates the most jobs in an economy?

Group 1: 200 million households with an average of $50,000 each?

Group 2: 2 million households with an average of $5,000,000 each?

House Speaker John Boehner calls Group 2 members "job creators".

What is Group 1?

Both groups have the same amount of money (about $10 trillion in this hypothetical example). Group 1 members are buying food and clothing, washing machines, cars, computers, hairdriers, and microwave ovens. They go to movies, eat at restaurants, take vacations, use cell phones, get their hair cut. They seek doctors and plumbers and teachers for their children.

However, according to Boehner, they are not "job creators". Only people in Group 2 are actually "create jobs".

Well, maybe only those people in Group 2 get to be called "job creators" because they actually hire people. They are the employers. We are the employees.

But . . . what are they hiring people to do?

It would seem to me that they are hiring people to harvest and ship food, sell clothes, repair washing machines, build power stations, write computer software, build web pages, service bank accounts, wait tables, teach, provide medical care, build movie sets, provide cell phone services, cut hair, and the like.

But they wouldn’t be doing any of these things without people in Group 1 buying the things that these employees are working to provide.

When people are not buying these things, Boehner's so-called "job creators" become "job destroyers" as they lay off people and close businesses. That is if we adopt the "employer" definition of "job creators" as opposed to the "consumer" definition.

Now, it must be admitted that these 2 million people with an average of $5,000,000 are also job creators - along with the 200 million with $50,000 each. They hire people to design, build, and decorate large and expensive houses, buy expensive jewelry, collect expensive cars, buy personal jets, eat in the finest restaurants, buy tailor-made clothes, travel around the world, take cruises, build home-theater networks, and hire gardeners, maids, and chauffeurs, and secretaries to do their errands for them. Like Group 1, they create jobs. They just create different jobs.

While Group 1 makes up 1 percent of the population in this hypothetical community, they have half the wealth and, thus, create half the jobs. In other words, half of the productive power of this society caters to the interests of 1% of the population of this hypothetical community, and the other half caters to the other 99%.

Representative Boehner is giving us meaningless political rhetoric rather than meaningful political solutions. He is falsely asserting that Group 2 members are special, magical people who have supernatural qualities with the power to “create jobs” that the rest of us lack. This, he says, is why Group 2 deserves special protections - why we mere mortals must shoulder 100% of the burden of fiscal discipline and the special 1% must be spared even the slightest burden. If Boehner's gods are happy, then and only then will they bestow upon us their divine gift of employment.

This part of Boehner's political rhetoric is simply false. It plays well to the worshippers of the Ayn Rand "Objectivists" religion, but it is as much myth and superstition as another religion.

It is true that the average Group 1 person cannot, by herself, create as many jobs as the average Group 2 person by himself. However, Group 1 people are out there creating jobs. Putting the whole of the burden of balancing the budget on Group 1 because Group 2 are "the job creators" is simply a myth that aims - well, it aims to try to convince Group 1 to take on the whole burden while Group 2 takes on none.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Class Warfare

Well, it appears that President Obama is accepting one of my suggestions. To communicate that the government is taking the issue of the national debt seriously, he is proposing more than than the $1.5 trillion in cuts that the budget supercommittee is supposed to come up with.

From what I have read, his proposal will be for $3.5 trillion in budget cuts and additional revenue. Of this, $500 billion will be used to pay for his jobs package. Thus, the recommendation provides $3 trillion in net deficit reduction.

(See Obama to unveil $3 billion in debt cuts..)

Some of this will come from additional taxes on the wealthiest Americans. It's a move that many Republicans are calling "class warfare".

(See GOP calls Obama's tax plan 'class warfare'.)

So - let me make sure that I understand this. We have a deficit problem. Some sort of change is required. If we divide the burden up so that the poor and middle class shoulder 100% of the weight, that's fine. But if we divide it up so that the poor and middle class shoulder 99.9% of the weight and the rich get 0.1% of the burden, that is a declaration of war on the rich.

Obama's plan divides the burden more fairly than this, but I am interested in the principle here. What counts as "class warfare"? Many Republicans insist that the percent of the burden that shows up as increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans be 0% - that 100% of the solution must be found someplace else. This is their position.

This view is entirely incoherent. If putting 0.1% of the burden on the wealthy is a declaration of war against the upper class, then reason would seem to require that putting 0.1% of the burden on the poor and middle class is a declaration of war against the poor and middle class. And yet the percent of the burden that these Republicans insist be put on the shoulders of the poor and middle class is 100% - that this somehow avoids class warfare.

Somebody needs to explain how this can be made coherent.

Another argument that some Republicans are using us that the tax will cost jobs - that if the super-rich shoulder even 0.1% of the burden that this will cost jobs, but if the poor and middle class shoulder 100% of the burden this will not cost jobs.

I have a few points to make on this issue.

First, the rich have the money, and they are doing a horrendous job of creating jobs. In fact, if they were actually creating jobs we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Second, why is it that $1 in the hands of the wealthiest 1 million Americans "creates jobs", but that same $1 in the hands of any of the other 299 million Americans does nothing?

Third, a substantial portion of the economic stimulus that has driven up the deficit has consisted of tax cuts. So, while these Republicans are saying that increased taxes are economically harmful, they are also saying that tax cuts are economically impotent (Obama's stimulus package will fail). Again, this seems a bit inconsistent. Politically useful, perhaps, but intellectually bankrupt.

Fourth, what about the "economic stimulus" the Republicans passed when the economy turned sour during the Bush administration? The government literally wrote checks and mailed them off to people all in the name of stimulating the economy. Yet, I have not heard any of them apologize for what they must now consider to be their earlier mistaken beliefs - or what caused them to change their minds.

Fifth, if tax cuts for the wealthy is such a great way to stimulate the economy, why are we not swimming in new jobs right now? This was supposed to be the payoff from the 2001 Bush tax cuts. Where are those jobs?

Ironically, it is not the upper class that is actually making these arguments. Many are quite willing to have the upper class take on a fair share of the burden. They have a basic sense of fairness some Republicans seem to lack. The real perpetrators of this incoherence is not an economic class - but a political class that has learned over the years how to package this bundle of inconsistent rhetoric and turn it into votes.

These are scare tactics. "If the super rich shoulder even the slightest bit of the burden, you life if ruined. Your only hope for a better life is to do 100% of the work yourselves!" If enough people can be made to believe it - or to cower in fear over the possibility that it might be true - then we actually get 100% of the burden as our reward, and the wealthy get to keep everything they have.

Apparently, if we (those who make less than $500,000 per individual or $1 million per married couple) were to accept only 99.9% of the burden instead of 100% of the burden, we are declaring war on the class being asked to take up that 0.1%.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Governor Perry and Crony Capitalism

One of the accusations being leveled against Texas governor Rick Perry is that of "crony capitalism". This charge has been applied to Perry in virtue of his executive order mandating HPV immunizations. That order, if not stopped by the Texas legislature, would have provided a multi-million dollar benefit for Merck, a campaign contributor with whom Perry was connected through a major supporter and advisor, Mike Toomey.

The nature of this relationship is described below:

The ties between Perry and Merck run deeper still, according to the report. Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff, was working as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck at the time Perry bypassed the Texas state legislature and issued his executive order. Today, Toomey is one of the founders of the pro-Perry PAC Make Us Great Again, which can accept unlimited donations and plans to raise upwards of $55 million dollars to help Perry win the GOP nomination.

(See Skate Perry has closer ties to Merck than he admitted)

One of the ways in which we might understand crony capitalism is in terms of straight-forward deals. "If you contribute $5000 to my campaign, I will sign this multi-million dollar benefit for your company." This is the interpretation that Perry used when he claimed - in answer to this charge at the Tea Party debate - to have been offended by the suggestion that he would sell his power for a mere $5,000.

But there is another way of interpreting crony capitalism.

Let me assume for the moment that I am an executive in a large company dealing with multi-billion dollar budgets. I discover that my company has or can obtain a relationship with a lobbyist who is a close friend and advisor with this idiot governor. This lobbyist is selling his influence over this idiot governor - that is the very nature of being a lobbyist. If I can get the idiot governor to sign an executive order requiring the use of my company's product - paid for by the state - I can add millions of dollars to the corporate bottom line. If I can spend $1 million in resources to get an order signed that will bring in $5 in profits - that is a great investment.

I could go to the idiot governor and offer a deal, "If you sign this order worth millions to my company, I will contribute $5000 to your campaign." However, that would show up in a bunch of mandated public campaign reports and certainly harm both my company and the idiot governor's political standing.

Instead, I am going to hire the idiot governor's close friend - or 'crony'.

With millions of dollars at stake, I can rationally offer the lobbyist a large amount of money. However, I can offer the lobbyist even more. The lobbyist's income depends on this idiot governor staying in office. Towards that end, I can offer the lobbyist a lot of non-monetary help.

I could say something like, "Lobbyist. Here is a list of people you can call to get campaign contributions for the idiot governor. I have already sent them letters telling them to expect a call from you. Many work for my company. They are executives and we pay them well - and they know that we can pay them even more if we had this additional income. Some are friends and neighbors of employees, and some are social contacts through church or the country club. They are, in other words, cronies. I think your talks will prove profitable for you, and beneficial to our joint project of keeping the idiot governor in office."

Unlike a direct campaign contribution, none of this will show up on any report. Yet, it is worth millions. Not only is it unregulated, it can't be regulated. What is the government going to do - read my private mail to friends and monitor my cocktail party conversations? Am I to be banned from saying publicly, "I am supporting the idiot governor's campaign and I think you should too?"

None of this requires that the idiot governor even know what is going on. All that is required is that he be an idiot and that he is capable of holding his seat as governor. He can honestly declare that he is offended at the suggestion that he will sell his vote for cash. He can honestly say that he has performed the action to realize some benefit. Under the influence of his cronies, he will even believe it. (See my posting on Bachmann, Perry, and What Counts as Evidence)

The idiot governor is not corrupt. What he gets is a lot of people telling him how great and wonderful he is and how important his work is. "Tell him he is God's gift to the state - that this is his divine calling. He'll eat that stuff up. Heck, he'll actually believe it, and he will carry that self-confident assurance throughout his public appearances, and that alone will increase his appeal to the voters."

The idiot governor has to have a few useful qualities of his own to pull this off. He has to look good on camera and have a nice smile and commanding stage presence. He has to actually have opinions that prevent him saying anything too stupid. Not just any idiot can rise to the position of idiot governor. It takes an idiot with special qualities.

Now, if the idiot governor had these qualities in sufficient quantity, it might be possible to get him into an even higher and more profitable position - the position of idiot President. If having influence over an idiot governor is profitable and useful, imagine having influence over an idiot President.

If a suggestion comes up - such as a suggestion to have the idiot governor host a huge religious gathering - I am well situated to make sure that this event has the resources it needs to be a huge success. I will work with the lobbyist, of course. And we would court resources with few direct ties to the governor or to my company - but that is not hard at all. We would get the right people invited to benefit the idiot governor's campaign, make sure it is well marketed, and make sure that there are people assigned to do all the leg work that will be needed. The purpose of the gathering is to promote the idiot governor's political standing before the religious right - a huge and financially well endowed voting block. But, here again, our campaign contributions will not appear on any official report.

I would like to add that this form of political effort simply is not available to the poor and the middle class. This takes wealth and power. Only the wealthy and powerful have the means to raise an idiot to the status of idiot governor and, if he has the right qualities, to the position of idiot President.

One of the ways that we can determine if this is the case is to see if there are other issues where the idiot governor adopts a different position - a position also profitable to people with huge amounts of money to spend to keep the idiot governor in office - but does so through inconsistent means. For example, the idiot governor who accepts the claim that HPV vaccines are necessary might accept the position that human induced climate change is a pack of lies - accepting science in the one case but rejecting it as a huge conspiracy to defraud the government of money in the other.

Something needs to explain these inconsistencies, and "crony capitalism" seems a useful working hypothesis.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bachmann, Perry, and What Counts as Evidence

Recently, in addition to attacking Texas governor Rick Perry for the crime of protecting Texas girls from a severe - often fatal illness, Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann has included the claim that the vaccination is dangerous.

The morning after the debate, she reported on the case if a mother who came up to her after the debate, crying, claiming that the HPV vaccination caused her child's mental retardation.

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate and tell me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said.

See: Washington Post Bachmann questions safety of HPV vaccine for girls

This raises the question for Michelle Bachmann: "What counts as evidence?"

If she wants to make national policy as President, how is she going to decide what to do? What is her ability to distinguish good data from bad data? In case if a potential natural disaster, or a potent rial pandemic, or rumors of a potential terrorist attack, or the effects of some chemical being put into the air or water, what is she going to count as evidence?

It would have taken no effort - in fact, it should have been considered obligatory - for her to have some staff member do a little bit of checking on the side effects of the HPV immunization. That researcher would have learned that the potential side effects include pain and redness at the injection site or flu-like symptoms (headache, fever, nausea).

But what counts as evidence in Michelle Bachmann's book is not the findings is not stacks of data gathered by the Centers fir Disease Control as a result of nearly 40 million immunizations, but a politically convenient fiction told to her after the debate. Instantly, she accepted what this mother told her was true. As for the findings of the CDC - they were not even consulted.


Because Bachmann was using her prejudice to filter the evidence. She knew what she wanted the facts to be. If the HPV vaccine is dangerous, then she has a politically potent case against Perry. Wanting the HPV vaccine to be dangerous, the claims of this mother became evidence that she took with her. Potential sources of information that might contradict those prejudices must be presumed to be flawed in some way, or simply not worth checking.

Besides the dangers of having somebody who thinks (to use the term loosely) this way as President, Bachmann is already doing harm and costing lives. Because of her statements, somebody is going to refuse to immunize their child. That child will get cervical cancer, and that child will die a horrible death. A child will die, because Bachmann is too full of herself to check anything other than her own opinion and political convenience in deciding what to tell people about matters that affect their health, their lives, and the lives of their children.

Ironically, every criticism that can and has been made against Bachmann concerning HPV immunizations can be applied to Perry concerning climate change. Here, it is Perry who has formed an opinion, looks only at the evidence that confirms his bias while dismissing contrary evidence as unreliable or - worse - lies and deception for the purpose of making money.

Perry's disdain for evidence tells us that his opinion on HPV infections almost certainly did not come from an examination of or understanding of the evidence. If he did not want to accept the conclusion, he would have simply asserted that the science was unsettled, that a mysterious "growing number of scientists" were questioning these findings, and that the conclusions were engineered by whatever special interest group would profit by misleading us - in this case, the pharmaceutical company, Merck.

Here, it is particularly interesting to note that while Perry can be suspicious of climate scientists worldwide being involved in a conspiracy to doctor data so they can get government funding, he raises no suspicions when the data comes to him through an employee of a company that will directly benefit to the tune of millions of dollars.

However, in the case of Merck, the evidence came to him through a trusted friend and advisor - Mike Toomey, who was a lobbyist for Merck.

The ties between Perry and Merck run deeper still, according to the report. Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff, was working as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck at the time Perry bypassed the Texas state legislature and issued his executive order. Today, Toomey is one of the founders of the pro-Perry PAC Make Us Great Again, which can accept unlimited donations and plans to raise upwards of $55 million dollars to help Perry win the GOP nomination.

(See Skate Perry has closer ties to Merck than he admitted)

Perry's proven inability to discern fact from fiction and to conveniently dismiss evidence he does not like suggests that he would have likely believed Toomey said regardless of the evidence. If somebody like Toomey were to suggest that the science that the vaccines were dangerous was not to be trusted, then Perry's pattern of behavior suggests that he would have believed that and questioned the research and the scientists conducting that research.

The hypothesis that Perry was convinced by the evidence simply flies in the face of the fact that Perry has blindly dismissed evidence he does not like on other issues. He had to have been convinced by something other than the evidence - accepted something other than evidence as proof. In Perry's case, it was the word of a friend who happened to work for a company that profited by engineering Perry's beliefs in its favor.

With respect to both Bachmann and Perry, the question is: What counts as evidence? A crying mother with a politically useful story that flies in the face of years of known research? A friend working for a company that stands to profit by engineering one's beliefs? A consultation with genuine experts in the field who have spent their lives scientifically studying the issue - using all of the tools of science including those that correct for individual bias and personal preference?

In the case of Bachmann and Perry, it is certainly not the latter.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bachmann on the HPV Vaccinations

Such is the state of the Republican Party these days that the greatest offense its candidates could find in Texas governor Rick Perry's political history is his interest in saving the lives of girls and young women.

In 2007, Perry signed an executive order to have Texas girls 12 years old and older immunized against human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is known to lead to cervical cancer, and the vaccine significantly decreases the chance of getting this cancer.

Presidential candidate Michelle Bachman had this to say about the decision.

"I'm a mom and I'm a mom of three children and to have them make 12-year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. That is a violation of a liberty interest."

So, Ms. Bachmann, have you had your children vaccinated against polio, measles, small pox, or tetanus? Or, as a mother, did you leave your children vulnerable to these disease?

There are those who do not want their children to be vaccinated against HPV because they do not want to encourage their children to have pre-marital sex.

Let's set aside the fact that one can get the virus from a marital partner who turns out to be less than fully faithful, or from rape, and focus on this argument for a moment.

Morally, this argument shares a lot of moral ground with the practice in some culture of killing (usually by stoning) women and girls caught having sex outside of marriage. It even shares the fact that these executions sometimes involve the victims of rape. The one difference is that, in those cultures, the guardians of household "honor" are willing to kill the women and girls themselves and take responsibility for their actions. American honor killings by proxy involve setting things up for a virus to do the honor-killing, so the defenders of family "honor" can say, "I didn't do this."

However, we can trace the fact of the woman's death to facts about the moral character of those who did not care to protect her from that death.

"But I love my daughter," many of these defenders of honor would say. "How dare you say that I do not."

I would bet that parents in other cultures who intentionally kill their children for reasons of honor also claim to love their children. Indeed, they might even say that love is what motivated them to do the killing.

Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, right?

I wonder if Bachmann recognizes that these liberty interests she talks about have limits. Parents have no liberty to best or rape their children. Nor do they have a right to lock their children in cages. Hey are obligated to see that their children get an education and are properly fed.

Children do foolish things, and one of the obligations of a parent is to make sure that the immature and poorly considered actions of a child do not get her maimed or killed. It is not a part of this description to cheer for or carry out her killing.

And now, let us bring back the fact that, in some cases, the woman or child has not done anything foolish. In some cases, she was the victim of a violent crime or of another person's careless disregard for her welfare.

Perhaps Bachmann's protest is not against forcing parents to protect their children from a potentially fatal illness, but the fact that Perry acted through an executive order rather than through the legislature.

I would agree - Perry should have gone through the legislature. he should have fought for it openly and he should have won.

However, the Texas legislature made clear their preference for honor-killings by viral proxy over child welfare when they passed revoking the executive order. Perry signed the law, saying that the legislature clearly had the votes to override the veto. This tells us how important honor-killing by proxy is to the people of Texas.

Now, Bachmann has added phony claims about the immunization causing mental retardation. I'll have more to say on what this tells us about Bachmann's moral character - and Perry's in my next post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Tea Party Debate

Tonight, we have a treat. The Republican Presidential candidates will vie for the support of America's Stupidest Voters - the Tea Party party movement.

This is not name-calling. This is reporting a verifiable fact.

A recent Yale-George-Mason poll shows that 66% of the Tea Party members deny the truth of global warming and evolution.

Really, on average, these people excel in stupidity. Interestingly, they also exhibit one of the primary characteristics of idiots - an inflated sense of their own intellectual superiority.

Tea Party members are much more likely [than Democrats, Republicans generally, and Independents] to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they "do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind.

Golly, mister, I already knows everything there is to know. Why on God's green earth would I want to waste time learnin' stuff?

Questions about evolution are not policy questions. There is no "liberal" or "conservative" position on global warming or evolution, any more than there is a "liberal" or "conservative" position on the effects of feeding ground glass to a child of firing a bullet through a person's heart.

I think it is time to revive an idea that came out in the last Presidential election.

It is time for a science and technology debate.

If we can have a debate that panders to the egos America's Most Stupid, then I think there is room on the debate schedule for the candidates to field questions in the area of science and technology.

It will be a debate about medicine - such as preparing and handling a potential pandemic.

It will be a debate about natural disasters - such as a potential tsunammi, earthquake, ot hurricane.

It will be a debate about energy - energy technology, alternative sources of energy, and the technology of conservation.

It will be a debate about transportation - various ways of getting people and things from one place to another.

It will be a debate about the environment - what might be killing us and how do we avoid them?

It will be a debate about the communication infrastructure, computers, and the internet.

It will be a debate about terror - weapons of mass destruction and how to prevent their use.

It will be a debate about education. How do reduce the nation's obvious surplus of idiots?

There's plenty to be discussed in such a debate.

So why is it that we have no debate on science and technology, but only a debate where candidates grovel for the favor of American Most Stupid?

Friday, September 09, 2011

Intellectual Recklessness on Climate Change

We have more examples of people misunderstanding the science of climate change because it suits a political ideology.

This time, I am prompted to write in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal, The Other Climate Theory

Again, I am not objecting to the fact that people have objections to the science of climate change. I object to the fact - when it us a fact - that certain people don't care enough about the potential loss of life and well-being of others to actually understand the subject they are writing about.

A decent human being would say, "Okay, given these potential costs, I might make a mistake, but I will not allow it to be a dumb mistake. Or, if it is a dumb mistake, I will be acutely embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I have enough of a moral conscience to recognize, where lives and widespread destruction are the possible consequences of error, any self-respecting person will take pains to avoid dumb mistakes.

The dumb mistake I am referring to here involves claiming that, because of the potential effects of sunspots, cosmic rays, or the like, we can dismiss claims about the human contribution to climate change.

These people treat the issue of climate change as a crime scene investigator would treat the discovery of a body. In the latter case, the CSI agent has a body and searches for a cause of death. In the former case, the critic admits to climate change, and asserts a potential cause.

This is an understandable mistake for somebody just starting to learn about the subject. However, it is a mistake that a morally responsible person who actually wants to understand the subject will quickly discover and avoid – typically before that person even puts a finger to keyboard to write on the subject. Or, if that person failed this test, she would feel such acute embarrassment (and a severe blow to her credibility among morally decent human beings) that no amount of apology or regret would seem quite sufficient.

A more accurate way of depicting the science of climate change is not to imagine a body for which a cause of death must be discovered. Instead, one is looking at a study that shows, for example, if you were to move a lever (called a trigger) at the base of a gun, it will cause a hammer to strike a percussion cap, causing a chemical reaction that will turn solid gunpowder into a high pressure gas that will project a bullet into the body of another person in such a way that it would shred the heart and kill that person.

There is no body. Nobody has pulled the trigger yet. However, we know – or we have good reason to suspect – the possible consequences of pulling the trigger. And we have a person standing there, gun in his hand, claiming that he will shoot.

As he is standing there ready to shoot, we see just how stupid it is for somebody to jump up and assert, "But a person can also die if you pass a large current through his body." We would look at this person and think, "You are such an idiot. This has nothing to do with the fact that if the gun bearer pulls the trigger in these circumstances, he will kill the person struck by the bullet."

Another daft critic might assert, "Oh, look. Here's evidence of a whole bunch of people who died, none of whom were actually shot!" This describes those arguments that assert that there has been warming in Earth's past and on other planets that was not caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. The moral person's response would be, "Are you seriously suggesting that your evidence proves that it is okay for this man to pull the trigger? Are you seriously suggesting that your ‘evidence’ calls my prediction of what will happen when he pulls the trigger into question? You are SUCH an idiot!”

Or, in a perfect display of indifference over the fact that somebody could be killed, the critic asserts, "How can you say that pulling the trigger us dangerous? We don't even have a body yet." This is comparable to saying that the climate is not yet changing - a claim that, even if true (which it isn't), would not be relevant.

A morally responsible person, just starting to understand the subject, could think for a few days or weeks that these could be legitimate responses. This will last until she understands the subject she is writing about. Then, she will see them for the stupid irrelevancies that they are. Morally responsible people know that mistakes and misunderstandings such as these are possible, and will consciously set out to discover and avoid them. Morally irresponsible people do not care to go to the effort.

Yet another morally outrageous argument that doesn't fit in the categories above that we still often hear takes the form of, "It is my gun and I have a right to pull the trigger and all of this evidence about what might happen when the bullet enters his body just is not morally relevant. We are a talking about my freedom to pull the trigger. You people are trying to deprive me of my God given right to pull the trigger of my own gun. That is my right - regardless of the potential consequences."

Or, along the same lines, “I am going to consider it permissible to pull the trigger until you can demonstrate beyond all possible doubt that doing so will result in this person’s death. If there is even the slightest chance that he will live, then it is okay to pull the trigger.” We can imagine the drunk saying, “You can’t prove that I will kill somebody if I try to drive home, so it is perfectly legitimate for me to try to drive home.”

These are moral assertions that almost nobody actually believes, but which we still find in the climate science denial literature.

None of this implies that criticism of the science of climate change is itself immoral. There are legitimate criticisms that a morally concerned person on the other side of the discussion would have to consider. The two most applicable are, "Your model is mistaken - here is evidence that pulling the trigger will not kill or even injure the person struck by the bullet," or "Even though this person will be killed by the bullet, doing so will produce benefits that justify killing this person."

When I read these types of responses, I can at least give the critic the benefit of a presumption that she is a morally responsible person who has made an attempt to understand the subject matter and knows what counts as a legitimate response.

When I read anything containing the other arguments I described previously, I know that I am reading the work of a morally defective individual who does not even care enough about others to take the time to understand the subject she is writing about.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Texas Governor Perry's Divine Punishment

It appears to me that God is trying to send Texas governor Rick Perry a message – not to be such an idiot when it comes to the science of climate change.

God has provided us with all sorts of evidence that climate change is real and it is caused by human beings. But Perry has decided to close his mind to all of the evidence. I suspect that slamming the door of one’s mind in God’s face must have made him angry – and he decided to punish Perry with a drought that covers all of Texas.

Certainly, the drought covers Oklahoma and New Mexico as well. However, when it comes to sending divine messages, God has never shown himself to be all too concerned about precision.

Though he is both all-knowing and all-powerful, when it comes to smiting, God seems to prefer methods akin to throwing a hand grenade into a crowded train to stop a thief. While we would normally consider such actions to display a casual disregard for innocent life, God must be considered immune to these sorts of accusations. Yet, God can hardly claim that he had no choice in the matter – that he could not have possibly found a more precise way to inflict harm on those who were actually guilty. We must consider that a more precise strike was possible but, for God, considered unnecessary or unimportant, but in a good way.

When God decided to punish America by refusing to lift an omnipotent finger to thwart the 9/11 attacks, he killed a lot of devoted Christians. And the Katrina hurricane, aimed at New Orleans for the sin of allowing a gay pride parade, did not seem to distinguish well between those who supported gay pride and those who opposed it. Instead, God’s aim seems to have been directed more at those who were poor and black.

I do not know the political leanings of those of those who were killed or injured by Hurricane Irene - or who had their property destroyed - but I doubt that they were all Obama supporters.

That whole thing about killing all of the first born sons (and the other plagues inflicted on Egypt) struck a lot of people who had nothing to do with keeping the Jews in Egypt.

These events demonstrate that divine smiting is not a precise science. Consequently, the fact that the Texas drought has also hit Oklahoma is not evidence against the conclusion that God is angry at Perry for his scientific ignorance and closed mindedness. It's just God doing what God normally does when God wants to punish somebody or send a message.

Regulations and Job Creation

The Republican plan for creating jobs in this economy includes an intention to create jobs by reducing the amount of regulation – regulations that get in the way of hiring people.

I think that this is a wonderful idea.

If the decision were left up to me, I would start by eliminating those regulations that prohibit the use of hit men – paid assassins. Because of this prohibition, there are a number of potentially tax-paying workers particularly adept at killing others that are not able to find employment that puts their skills to work, at least not in this country. Currently, a lot of these types of jobs - and the tax revenue that could potentially come from them, are mostly exported overseas.

Permitting the employment of paid assassins will have a ripple effect throughout the economy. Not only will paid assassins become tax-paying contributors to society, when they complete an assignment they will often create a new opening in whatever job their target originally held. On executing a contract against a judge, for example, a new judge will need to be appointed. The successful execution of an ex spouse could open up a job as a secretary or factory worker.

Finally, permitting the use of paid assassins will mean that others – those who wish to avoid being assassinated – will want to hire body guards and security consultants to help ensure that they are not assassinated. This will create even more jobs. The market for Kevlar suits and other working or casual apparel will likely boom, as will the market for bulletproof glass, security cameras, and walls topped with barbed wire.

Along similar lines, we should eliminate regulations that prohibit the use of professional burglars, hackers, arsons, vandals, and thugs. Each of these regulations provide a bar to employment that, if lifted, would put people to work.

A company might have use for an entire department of professional computer hackers whose job assignments could range from breaking into the computer systems of competing companies and steal their ideas to shutting down those computers to interfere with their ability to compete. Companies will not only have a use for a Department of Corporate Espionage and Sabotage, they will also need a department of counter-espionage. We should not leave out the fact that these would likely be high-paying, technical jobs.

At the same time, less-skilled laborers could find employment in new job positions such as that of the corporate thug. Their job would be to perform such business-related tasks as convincing homeowners to sell a particular prized piece of property, convincing a competitor to pack up and leave, and collecting on past-due accounts. In some cases - such as a group of thugs working for a local hospital or ambulance service, the corporate thug can simply create a demand for their employer's good or service.

Some skills, like that of the professional arson, may need to be licensed. There is a risk that an unskilled arsonist – in working with dangerous chemicals – could pose a threat either to himself or to others if he is not properly trained. Arsonist licensing will ensure that any professional arsonists has received the proper training that will allow him to do the job efficiently - in ways where the only risks belong to those that the arsonist or his employer want to put at risk.

Many of the regulations that we have in place are, at least in a moral sense, much like the regulations that I mention above. They are regulations that prevent companies from putting poison into the air that others breathe, or into the water that they drink. They are regulations that prevent the battering of another person’s body that a poorly designed or improperly used piece of machinery might cause and, in many cases, to prevent the loss of life.

In the context of the current political debate, it is ironic to note that a set of regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, thus preventing a person in Texas from losing their home or their life to a fire caused - or made worse - by those who contribute to global warming. To the person whose home is a pile of ash, it doesn’t matter much whether the cause is some company making profits by contributing to global warming, or making profits by hiring professional arsonists. It is the same pile of ash either way.

When I hear a politician talk about promoting the economy by reducing regulation, this is the type of thing that I imagine. I imagine some business executive living off of $30 million per year who knows of a way that he can get $31 million per year if his company were only permitted to do something that potentially kills people. To him, the deaths of a couple dozen, when weighed against the possibility of having another million dollars of revenue just isn't that important.

To be honest, I do not imagine an executive who is told that his business practices have killed a couple dozen people shrugging his shoulders in indifference. Instead, he responds by denying - even to himself - that he caused the deaths. This allows him to continue to think of himself as a good guy even as real people lay dead and dying in the community.

This describes what has happened with respect to smoking and climate change. Corporate executives see a regulation as hindering their profits and turn a blind eye to the fact that the regulation aims to prevent them from profiting by killing and maiming other people and destroying their property. They close their eyes, shove their fingers in their ears, and shout loudly, "Your regulations are hurting the economy! Your regulations are hurting the economy!" loud enough to drown out all other information.

A lot of regulations are nonsense – put in place by stupid people for stupid reasons. Many do not aim at all to promote the public good but have been manipulated to funnel money from the general citizen into the bank accounts of rich people who can afford expensive lobbyists and campaign contributions. Certainly, an eye should be cast at finding these regulations and getting rid of them.

However, this is consistent with arguing that there may, at the same time, be a need for new regulations. New information and new technology - or even changes in the world in which we live - imply a constant stream of new ways to profit by killing and maiming others or destroying their property. Insofar as we morally frown on profitable killing, maiming, and destruction of property, we may find the use of these practices themselves to be morally illegitimate and justifiably regulated.

We do not need in the office of the President - or any place else in government - office holders who see things only out of one eye or hears with only one ear - be it the left or the right. These types of people are half-blind or half-deaf to what serves the public good.

There are some things besides jobs that help to determine whether or not a particular regulation is a good idea. And I have not even talked about regulations that aim to protect national security or to prevent information or weapons from flling into the hands of our nation's enemies. Those are regulations, too.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Creating Jobs?

I admit, I do not understand how this "job creation" is supposed to work.

President Obama is apparently wanting to spend yet another $300 billion in so-called "economic stimulus". This means selling $300 billion in treasury bills - promising to pay that money back in future generations - to "stimulate the economy". Some of that money will go to buy things directly (pay some construction company to refurnish a school). Some of it will be used to cover current expenses while the government cuts revenue elsewhere (extending the payroll tax credit).

Now, let's assume that I have $2 million that I could use to buy some of those T-bills.

What would I be doing with that money if I didn't buy T-bills with it?

I see three options.

Option 1: I could spend it - renovate the house, buy a car, order Chinese food, see a movie, upgrade my computer, buy a huge home theater system, and so forth. You know - stimulate the economy. Create jobs.

Option 2: I could pay off debt. For me, this would mean that I get to blow more of my future earnings on stuff I want instead of making payments. For the bank, it means that they have $2 million that they can use on whatever they want. They could lend it to somebody wanting to start a small business, or build a house, or have a wedding, or buy a car. You know - stimulate the economy. Create jobs.

Option 3: I could put it into savings. For me, this means turning it over to a mutual fund manager. She would then use the money to make me partial owner in any number of companies that her researchers expect will make money in the future. Who knows what the previous owner wants the money for. Maybe he wants to invest in some other opportunity that is expected to make even more money? Maybe he is retired - or unemployed - and needs the money to cover expenses. Or my mutual fund advisor could use the money to buy bonds from companies that are borrowing money for some project or other. You know - stimulate the economy. Create jobs. It could buy government bonds, but what is the economic difference between buying government bonds to pay for a government project, and buying corporate bonds to pay for a corporate project?

I do not understand how this type of government program is supposed to actually improve the economy. Instead, it seems to simply change the nature of the jobs that are being created, from those that I would create with that money, to those that the government creates with that money.

The economic downturn may well be attributed to weakened demand, but what reason is there to believe that the government will be drawing it's money out of the weakened demand? As opposed to, say, diverting the flow of existing demand?

If somebody were to just drop $2 million on my lap - that is, print 100,000 $20 bills and ship them to my home (or just change the balance on my checking account by adding a 2 and a string of zeros in front of my current balance), I can see how this will stimulate the economy. But, to borrow money to stimulate the economy? How does that work?

Heck, drop $300 billion in my bank account and I will stimulate the economy. I would build a space program that would construct an orbiting factory town that builds orbiting solar power satellites and beam the energy down to earth. I don't know if it is an economically wise project, but I would employ a lot of people - a lot of intelligent people. These would be good jobs.

We would never have to pay anybody back - because the money was not borrowed. It was created out of thin air just by logging into a computer and altering the balance in my bank account. Legally, of course - as a matter of government economic policy.

We would have to deal with a bit of inflation. My space project would bid up the price of certain goods and services - from raw materials used to make and launch the rockets to the skilled labor that creates and uses both the hardware and the software. Others would have to pay the inflated (bid-up) price. That is one of the costs of this method.

But that is not the option President Obama is proposing.

Maybe it is a placebo? It is supposed to make the patient think that something is being done while nature takes care of the problem itself.

Face it, a President cannot stand in front of a group of people and say, "Sorry, there is nothing I can do," even if it is true. The next person will come along with his or her snake oil that does nothing but promises everything and get all the votes. So, every candidate needs to bottle and market their own brand of snake oil. The best snake-oil salesperson wins the election.

In this contest, the incumbent has a bit of a disadvantage - we see that his snake oil doesn't work. The other snake-oil companies can loudly point this out to us while they give us untested promises on the effects of their own snake oil.

Remember those checks we got as economic stimulus under the Bush administration?

If there were a Republican President today, he would also be giving a speech selling his own brand of snake oil, against a screaming herd of Democrats telling us that it won't work and to put a Democrat in office instead.

The only question is, do we prefer the red snake oil, or the blue snake oil?

But this snake oil has side effects. They include $300 billion in debt that future generations will be forced to pay back. Another side effect is a misplaced labor force, because once the stimulus ends the economy - including the jobs - will have to shift again. Stimulus jobs die, and people become unemployed.

But let no President or candidate ever be allowed to stand before us and say, "We are going to have to ride this out." We can't allow that.