Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on January 20th, 2013 1 comment
Click on the “About” link at the Edge.org website, and you’ll find that,
Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere. Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.
To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals. This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?” One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics. In his words,
When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention. China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.
He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:
The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?
Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of ”bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca. However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well. Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.” On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.
As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!” All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses. That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog. It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs. It exists because it promoted our survival in the past. Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future? Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals? How much will all these moral niceties matter then? There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive. There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction. The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small. In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.
My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future. I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals. For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible. There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up. For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice. I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach. However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state. States tend to serve their own interests. Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies. As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving. Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.” It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.
In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online. In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally. Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue. To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals. Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.
Posted on November 8th, 2012 No comments
The election is history and the unlucky soothsayers I referred to in my last post are eating crow. To paraphrase Billy Joel in one of his songs, “they didn’t have quite enough information.” For the edification and amusement of my readers, here are some of Tuesday’s losers.
Noted Republican strategist Karl Rove. He thought the polls suggested that more Republicans and fewer Democrats would show up to vote than in 2008. He was wrong.
In an article entitled, “Reflections on Mittmentum,” the ever hopeful Roger Kimball, who blogs for PJmedia, wrote the day before the election,
My own sense of the matter, as I have said here on many occasions, is that Mitt will not only win but win handily. The final tally, I suspect, will show Mitt the victor with something like 330 electoral votes.
The day after, a chastened Kimball wrote,
But I misread and misread badly both the mood of the country and the depth of support for Obama’s failed policies. I will doubtless get around to rejoining Ron in the battle, but a little hiatus for reflection will not come amiss.
That is certainly a sentiment his fellow prophets will agree on. Soothsayers over the water also got their comeuppance on Tuesday. Christopher Carr of Australia’s conservative mag, The Quadrant, had assured his readers,
On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney will be elected President of the United States by a comfortable margin. It will not be a cliffhanger, despite the chorus of conventional wisdom.
Carr added that, because of his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, and his strong performance in the debate, Romney’s victory was assured. In his post mortem after the results were in, he sadly concluded,
Mitt Romney played Mr. Nice Guy. President Obama played the demagogue. But nice guys finish last.
In Germany, Der Spiegel’s token conservative pundit, Jan Fleischhauer, also had it wrong. In an article entitled “Bad, Bad Romney,” a satirical dig at the usual German version of reality in which the Republicans are bad guys and the Democrats good guys, he writes,
In the media the battle for the White House is already decided; Mitt Romney… has no chance. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn’t much help in a democracy. The Republicans may not have the press on their side – but they have the numbers.
Not one to dwell on his mistake, Mr. Fleischhauer penned another article entitled “Our Obama-Love is Infantile“ a couple of days after the election analyzing the “root causes” of German anti-Americanism. It was probably more useful to his readers, noting, for example, that Germans have been hopefully and confidently predicting the downfall of the United States for the last 40 years. In fact, it’s probably been longer than that. I note in passing that, in reading the many comments after the articles on the U.S. elections on German webzines, there are a lot more Germans pointing to the faults of their own country and condemning the ubiquitous destructive criticism of the United States than there were, say, ten years ago. The usual received wisdom according to which the U.S. is the decaying embodiment of evil imperialism, run by shadowy financiers, and inhabited by Bible-thumping Christian versions of the Taliban, is still there in abundance. However, more nuance is gradually being added by those who ask questions such as why, if we are so evil, and Germany such a paradise, so many Germans are looking around for the best shortcut to a Green Card.
One thing that both the lucky and the unlucky pundits will likely agree on is that the electorate is fractured along racial and gender lines as never before. Political ingroups in the U.S. are rapidly becoming less defined by ideology, and more defined by demography. Romney won the vote of white males over thirty by a massive majority. Obama won the black, Hispanic, Asian, and single female votes by similarly huge majorities. His majorities trumped Romney’s. It seems that similarly constituted Democratic majorities will continue prevail more frequently than not in national elections for a long time to come. To the extent that political and economic issues mattered in this election, they mattered less in their own right and more as cultural attributes associated with race and gender than in past elections. The Benghazi debacle was a huge deal for white males over thirty. It was a non-issue for young black women.
Posted on October 7th, 2012 No comments
As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,
The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the point. Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme. That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine. The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards. As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778. An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights. He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family. I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists. This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.
In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy. They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals. As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified. There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains. There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves. It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream. Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits. Such claims assume the independent existence of rights. However, they have no such existence. The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood. It is impossible for them to be self-evident. To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.
When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good. In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable. The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it. One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself. The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.
I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.” I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 No comments
I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before. Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil. Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup. He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built. He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.
Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left. He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors. Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right. If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers. In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;
Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).
Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans. For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings. Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:
I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.
and another by James Fallows:
Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now: A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.
I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact. As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun. For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:
Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.
It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin. For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,
Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”
Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,
Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.
Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit. You be the judge, dear reader. While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well. I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.
Posted on July 29th, 2012 No comments
Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone. That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world. The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it. Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track. Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France. Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,
Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work. In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account. Does that mean that Franklin was stupid? Far from it. As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist. The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology. More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.
The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly. We are not nearly as smart as we think we are. The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.
As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought. Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution. Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British. Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed. His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of. Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless. Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today. The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.
Posted on May 7th, 2012 No comments
Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal. Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden. His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends. His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.
As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy. While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented. No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned. He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:
It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution. No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest. La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization. In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism. Now the time has come for that to happen again. The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence. A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe. The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.
Great shades of 1789! Break out Madame Guillotine. What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics? It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union. Has austerity worked? Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”
…Can one overcome a recession by saving? The answer is: No. those who save during a recession deepen the recession.
I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not. Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other. Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.
No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France. It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany. The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat. Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along. German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?
Not according to Augstein! As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.
The Germans are poster boys of the market economy. Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany. It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe. She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl. Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east. Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.
Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country. We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? If you’re successful, you must be evil. The proper response is guilt. Poor Germans! They just can’t ever seem to catch a break. Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.
According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe. What’s that supposed to mean? That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?” If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be: “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out. Who am I to say? I’m no economist. There’s an election in Germany next year. If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting. We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.
Posted on March 2nd, 2011 1 comment
It has never been advisable to take the statistics thrown out in the heat of political battles other than with a grain of salt. As the old saying goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” There are many ways to slip in the lie. For example, one can introduce variations in the way that common terms are understood, or compare apples and oranges, or simply imply that facts have a significance that lacks any reasonable justification. The battle between the Left and Right in Wisconsin over public unions has generated some interesting examples.
One of the most egregious comes from the left, although the right is hardly without sin in these matters. Specifically, Ezra Klein of Journolist fame is citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that purportedly “proves” that Wisconsin public workers are actually under-compensated compared to their counterparts in the private sector. The basis for his claim is a nice graph included in the study comparing public and private sector compensation as a function of educational attainment. In all these comparisons except at the high school level, the public sector workers seem to be taking a huge hit, amounting to a deficit of anywhere from a quarter to a third compared to the private sector. However, Ezra’s post quotes a couple of paragraphs from the EPI source document citing some caveats regarding this rather striking graph. For example, at the very end of the quote, which appears in somewhat finer print than the bulk of the post, we learn that,
Controlling for a larger range of earnings predictors—including not just education but also age, experience, gender, race, etc., Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.
There is no explanation of why these controls weren’t factored in when the bar graph referred to above, which seems to show that public sector workers make a much greater sacrifice in order to serve the people of Wisconsin, was created. It happens that one can find some possible reasons for the discrepancy if one “Googles” the EPI. It turns out that Ezra somehow forgot to mention that the organization describes itself as “non-partisan but progressive.” For those who happen not to be astute followers of US politics, those who deem themselves “progressives” are rather more likely to be found on the side of the public sector workers than the Republican party in Wisconsin. Ezra also forgot to mention that the source of a big chunk of the EPI’s funding is unions. Perhaps he thought it was too insignificant to mention.
The cost to the state of public pensions is, of course, one of the major bones of contention between Wisconsin governor Walker and the public sector unions. It would, therefore, seem a matter of some importance to calculate this cost with some rigor, and to explicitly document the method used in any document citing that cost. Unfortunately, the EPI source document does not do so. It merely states that,
Retirement benefits account for 8% of state and local government compensation costs compared with 2.5% to 4.9% in the private sector.
It is unfortunate that the details of the method used to arrive at this 8% figure are not described. It seems rather dubious on the face of it. For example, Wisconsin teachers who retire after 30 years service will draw 48% of their top pay in pension for the rest of their lives. It would seem plausible to assume that “top pay” is rather larger than “average pay.” A teacher hired at the age of 25 would reach retirement age at 55. At this age, the average life expectancy for US males is about 25 years, and for females about 28. Any way you figure it, the cost of providing a pension of 48% of top pay for over a quarter of a century dwarfs the 8% figure cited by EPI. Throw in the fact that this figure does not include retiree health and other non-cash benefits, and the discrepancy gapes even wider. On the other hand, the average teacher will likely work for less than the required 30 years. The EPI article does not mention how these and other seemingly salient factors are included in the data. Apparently, its figure is based on the amount of money the state is currently setting aside to fund the pensions, a wildly inaccurate metric for determining what they will eventually actually cost. Given that the organization is anything but an unbiased third party, this would seem to be a rather prominent red flag to anyone tempted to cite them as a source.
In a word, dear reader, to credit statistics thrown out by ideologues is to skate on thin ice. Their main value lies in pointing the way to source material. Should you really be so bold as to seek to isolate a small fragment of something as evanescent as the truth, you will have to endure the tedious task of sifting through a great deal of that source material on your own.
Posted on February 18th, 2011 2 comments
Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception. The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war. In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh. Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever.
In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals. For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view. As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions.
In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion. The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right.
What, then, of Egypt? Who can say? The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos. Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky. One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.
Posted on January 12th, 2011 No comments
There is no such thing as news. There is only narrative. The significance of most of what passes for news is derived from the attention the media pays to it rather than its intrinsic importance. A case in point is the remarkable, ongoing obsession of the news media on both the left and right with the shootings in Arizona. In this case the feeding frenzy was set in motion by the left. Even though there have obviously always been people on both ends of the spectrum who have no life outside of politics, I was still taken aback by their desperate attempts to seize on this issue like so many drowning men grasping at straws. Evidently their resounding defeat in November was even more galling than I imagined. They made no secret of the fact that they were waiting with bated breath for some incident they could construe as evidence of the “violent nature” of the Tea Party movement, conservative talk radio, and the rest of their pet bogeymen. They admitted as much. As their reaction to the shootings makes clear, they were very eager indeed. They’re acting for all the world like so many Communists marching behind the coffin of a murdered “martyr” in days gone by. All that’s missing is the red flags.
Some examples of their overwrought reaction can be found here, here, and here, all based on zero evidence that there was any link whatsoever between the shooter and the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or anyone else on the right. The “objective” CNN even went so far as to write a panegyric of Sheriff Dupnik, now infamous for his ham-handed attempts at political exploitation of the murders, as the soul of wisdom, complete down to everything but his birth in a log cabin. I doubt we’ll be seeing more of the same from those quarters, as in the meantime the good sheriff has been giving off such a stench that even the stalwarts of the left have begun holding their noses.
The left’s seizing at this particular straw was, obviously, ill-considered. Other than not bothering to come up with any evidence to back up their accusations, only to find out after the fact that there was none, they set their own hypocrisy on a pedestal for the right to take pot shots at. After all, the left doesn’t commonly engage its opponents in reasoned discourse. Its forte’s have always been demonization, virtuous indignation, and a style of “eliminationist rhetoric” all its own. They gave the other side a perfect opportunity to point that out, as they did with relish, for example, here, here and here.
There is little that can demonstrate the extent to which the left overshot its mark in its crudely insensitive attempts to exploit the Arizona deaths and the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords than the reaction of the foreign media. Germany’s for example, is usually reliably leftist, often taking its talking points directly from the New York Times. It is all the more remarkable that the Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, Marc Hujer, penned an article entitled “America’s Insane Debate,” in which he wrote, among other things,
The very people who got so upset about the tone of debate in the past year, about the rhetoric of the Tea Party, the harsh words of the Right, the unabashed caricatures of Obama as Hitler, are now poisoning the debate themselves with shameless insinuations. Without learning the facts, they seek the guilty behind the attack, and commonly find them on the right, in the Tea Party, in Republican Party chief Michael Steele and Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.
The language chosen by Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers was doubtless raw and over the top, but doesn’t come close to providing any proof for the claim that they motivated the shootings in Arizona. Indeed, what is known about the shooter at this point gives no indication that he is a member of the Tea Party movement, or a fan of Palin, or that he has any clear political convictions at all. His favorite books included the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan, a weird collection. However, there is no indication that his act was motivated by politics.
The massive criticism directed at Sarah Palin is delusional, and not just because it’s a baseless accusation. The attempt to weaken Palin in this way could accomplish the opposite.
That’s strong stuff coming from a source that’s usually reliably critical of the right, in the U.S. as well as in Germany. The left in this country might do well to take heed for their own good. Perhaps more worrisome than their baseless accusations is what they propose as a cure; a further dismantling of the Bill of Rights. In this case their targets are the first and second amendments to the Constitution. If the history of the last hundred years is any guide, we have more reason than ever before to continue to fight against any diminishing of those rights.