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Monday, December 13, 2010

You have a right to your opinion-but it may be worthless (the opinion, that is)

Let me start by paraphrasing others

1. The late Robert A. Heinlein wrote a short story concerning physicists who, upon re-examining certain mathematical calculations, realized that a particular kind of nuclear power plant was far more dangerous than they had assumed.  They decided that the plant had to cease operations.  But the lead physicist was called into a meeting of the Governing Board of the plant, and was informed that the members of the Board had reached a different conclusion about the implications of the calculations.  The lead physicist responded with a statement to the effect of: "Unless they're nuclear physicists, they don't have the right to an opinion".

2. (On a lighter note)Fran Liebowitz, in her book, Metropolitan Life, wrote something like:  "As is obvious to any single woman who walks into a room at a party, all men are not created equal".

As many commentators have noted, we appear to be living in a political atmosphere which takes pride in anti-intellectualism, and a general suspicion of those who claim some "expertise" based on education or study.  Sarah Palin seems to take pride in her lack of knowledge in many areas.  The successful Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin took pride in his statement that he would need a map to find Washington, D.C.  Pundits on all sides scold President Obama for appearing "intellectual" rather than "populist".

There are reasons for this, and some of them are, at least to me, pretty good, or at least understandable. 

First, people with "more" of anything they consider important - education, money, good looks, or religious fervor, tend to look down upon those who have "less" of that item. It's particularly true in the "education"  and "religious fervor" areas because those areas seem to be more "status" oriented than money or power oriented.  The resulting condescension (which is often obvious) causes an understandable resentment in those of us who have less.  We "lessers" also may have some psychological insecurities that increase our resentment.

Second, intellectuals and "experts" in general have a not perfect track record.  They have a tendency to speak with a certainty that even their mere theories are correct based on their superior education or knowledge, and yet at least some of what they say is not obvious, is counter intuitive, and is often (eventually) proven incorrect.  I believe this to be particularly true in what we call the social sciences.  (This is not meant to be critical of anyone, including social scientists.  The nature of any kind of predictive science is that new evidence may demonstrate that current theories are not correct.)

Third, experts tend to set forth general theories which may run counter to our own particular experience in specific cases.  For instance, experts seem to believe that phonics is the best way to teach children to read.  Since I, my siblings and my children learned perfectly easily without using phonics, the experts' theory, although it may be correct,  starts off with two emotional strikes against it, at least for me.  This is even more true when we "ordinary people" have knowledge the experts do not.  For example - I have lived with my kids.  I know how my body tends to react.  I have been running my business.  The experts almost certainly know stuff that I do not about what I should do to "manage" my kids, my body and my business in certain situations, but the reverse is also true.

Fourth, like any other group, intellectuals have their share of idiots and those with their own axes to grind, but they (I'm tempted to say "we") tend to make our failures more public.

Fifth - an understandable but really "bad" reason.  Sometimes the experts want us to do stuff, individually or collectively, that we do not want to do.  This one is really tempting, really common, and really awful.

Generally, I believe I have a strong populist and egalitarian streak.  Nevertheless, I think the anti-intellectual /anti-expert streak manifesting itself in American politics is very, very dangerous.  The "experts", individually or collectively,  may or may not be right in any particular case, but they are usually experts because they have more training or experience in a given area than most people, and, as a result their opinion is often worth a lot more than "ours".

I'm a lawyer.  Have been one since 1978.  I know a lot about some areas of the law, and much less about others.  In some areas, I could be called an "expert".  Everyone (it seems) loves to argue about the law.  That's good.  It affects us all.  And when you are telling me what you think the law should be, your opinion may be worth as much as my own.  But, when you are a client or prospective client who asks me about an area of the law in which I am expert and in terms of what the law is at the moment, your opinion is not equal to mine; I simply know a lot more about the subject.  Many clients want to argue with me at length about what the law is or is not, because they do not like the answer I just gave them.  This is understandable, if sometimes annoying.  "Annoying" is OK, but having a client actually do or not do something because he or she thinks that he knows as much as I do is often dangerous to the client.

Some of my frustrating experiences in this regard have been with physicians, academics, and very successful business people - people who are, frankly, often "smarter" than I am.  Sometimes much smarter.  However, that does not mean that they know more about my field than I do.  (This is not to say that they cannot learn what they need to know about the law in their particular situation.  Given enough time and focus, most of them can and may actually do so.  The law (at least what I do)really is not that intellectually hard.  It's complicated, but not all that complex.  It can't be; it's created by people and supposed to be generally understandable.)

Politically, the most troubling example of this may be in the area of climate change.  Somewhere between 90% and 98% of those who could be considered "qualified" climate scientists believe that global warming is becoming a problem and will become a bigger one.  There is less general agreement on the causes of global warming and what should be done about it, but almost all the true "experts" believe that it is a very real problem.  These are generally very bright people, and they each have studied climate science for years; they are professional scientists opining about what is a scientific issue. Could they be wrong?  Sure. Are they?  Almost certainly not.

Despite the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, a disturbingly large number of politicians have characterized global warming as "bullshit" or a "scam".  However, is any politician's opinion contrary to what almost all scientists are saying in this area worth anything ?  No.  Your basic politician (or lawyer) is about as capable of really evaluating climate change evidence as my dog is.  (Not intended as an insult; my dog is very smart, but she is not a climate scientist).  This is not necessarily stuff that just anyone can evaluate with a little reading.  As most schoolchildren (and adults who remember) will tell you, science, once beyond elementary levels, is hard.  And being a scientific "expert" takes a lot of knowledge as well as smarts.

There are other "political" examples of: "it isn't so because I say it isn't.  Nyah, nyah", but I won't go into them here.

What bothers me even more than the politicians (I have low expectations) is that a large number of the American people still seem to believe Snake Oil Salesmen, so long as they tell us what we want to hear.  Enough.

P.S.  Addendum

Since I posted the above thoughts, I have heard from some people who at least partially disagree.  They raise (along with some looniness) some good points:

1.  Scientists and the politicians who cite them often blur scientific conclusions with political conclusions, and claim that the combination is "scientific".   True.  So does everyone on all sides interested in making a political point.  This may make the "blurred" conclusions suspect, but the strictly scientific ones tend to be based on evidence or data that is generally transparent.

2.  Some of the scientists involved in the Climate Change debate fudged the data to support their own political agendas.  Yep.  But I think there were exactly 2 of them, and the overwhelming majority of scientists, using "unfudged" data, think it's a serious problem

3.  Most scientists are liberals.  Not sure where the data is on that. (If true, I think that says bad things about Conservatives rather than about scientists, but I have my doubts). It's possible, I guess, but it doesn't make their conclusions invalid or less "scientific".

4.  Scientific research which is inclined to come to "liberal" conclusions is more likely to be funded, and, therefore, science is likely to have a liberal bias.  This would be troubling, if true, but across the board, I think it's not true.  A lot of research is done or sponsored by companies that want to make a profit.  Period.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A good article on Obama being "too reasonable"

Here's the best thing I've seen so far on the issue of whether President Obama should be "tough" or "reasonable".  It's a critique, but a "friendly" one, and comes at the question from a sociological perspective about how groups function to encourage normative conduct. 

No, You Can't
By Shankar Vedantam

It is worth reading if only for the last line, which I will preview here

"Memo to Obama: Being unreasonable all the time is crazy, but if you're always reasonable, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, "Exploit Me." "

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The idea of "small government" as politically-induced bullshit -Someone (else) always has some control -

I will (narcissistically) start with a quote from my last Post, which started a train of thought - "Mr. Beck, however, apparently trusts everyone, except the government (which does not have a profit motive), to act in the public good."

Last week, I was talking to my (and I say this fondly) conservative wingnut partner Micheal about tax cuts and the deficit.  Michael admitted that his major concern was not the deficit, but his desire to shrink the government by "starving the beast" by cutting the money available to the government.  While he focused on the federal government, he believes that governments in general do not do anything (except the military) as well as the private sector, and that government should not "interfere" with people's lives.

I will concede that governments are not always "cost-efficient".  And, as readers of this Blog know, I value the rights of individual adults to act as they please, without government interference.

Let's roughly categorize "Government Spending" as follows:

1.  Defense from violent foreign threats
2.  Defense from violent domestic threats (includes police, courts, prisons)
3.  Infrastructure, which theoretically benefits all of us(in a broad sense-includes roads, bridges, air traffic control, electrical grid, national parks, education, the Post Office)
4.  Payments or other distribution or redistribution of wealth to or for individual citizens or entities (again a broad definition which would include things like agricultural subsidies and tax code provisions like the mortgage interest deduction which benefits one group of taxpayers over others)
5.  Regulatory (which overlaps with "criminal"), (the IRS, the SEC, the FDA, the FCC, state insurance commissions, banking regulations). 

I want to focus on this last, "regulatory" category in this Post, both because it seems to be a frequent target of alleged conservatives, and because looking at it really exposes the fundamental weakness about "small government" I allude to above.

My friend and his "drastically shrink the governments" compatriots are missing a really big point;  none of us lives in isolation.  Someone else produces and sells my food, my house, my electrical appliances and my clothing.  Someone else provides the train service that gets me to work.  Someone else tries to make sure that my my own food or garden tools or medicines do not kill me, that I can safely put money in a bank, and that people who sell me investments or whatever don't constantly cheat me. 

Of course, I have my own very significant responsibilities in all of these areas.  I have to be watchful and careful and not really stupid in how I live my daily life.  However, I am simply not in a position to protect myself in an adequate or even efficient manner from all "dangers".  I can avoid eating spoiled food, but I can't inspect meat-packing plants.   I can avoid sticking my hands under a running lawnmower, but I cannot create electrical or other safety standards for lawnmowers. I can put my money into an allegedly conservative mutual fund instead of going to the track, or even choose individual stocks or bonds, but I must rely on information and advice from other people (unless its my own company and I'm the CEO or CFO) when doing so.  None of us can do all of these things; we have neither the time nor the expertise, nor the bargaining position.

If the Government does not regulate these areas, they will be "regulated", but not by the individual citizen.  Rather they will be "regulated" by those producing or selling the goods or services and (sometimes) the "market" itself.  The producers and sellers are, naturally enough, usually more motivated by profit than anything else.  And while the market in an abstract sense may effectively regulate some things in a long term, it's really not an effective device at protecting us.  For example, the "market" would allow television and other advertising for cigarettes aimed directly at children. (also called shooting fish in a barrel).  A bad food producer or drug manufacturer might gradually get a bad reputation and would be driven out of business (or at least change its name), but a number of people would be poisoned in the interim.  If laws did not regulate insurance companies, they would not have to keep any reserves to pay claims.  Does anyone want to abolish the FDIC and its guarantees of depositors' accounts?

In many circumstances, the idea of a market adequately governing transactions is ludicrous.  For a market to work in those situations, there must be, among other things, some parity of both knowledge and bargaining position.  Take a mortgage or a stock offering or an insurance policy.  Anyone ever tried to actually negotiate the fine print with the bank or insurance company?  Yeah, right. (I would note that if you are sophisticated enough, and are borrowing enough money, you can negotiate some things with a bank - because of the possibility that you can get a better deal elsewhere).

There are situations where the market works wonderfully.  If there are two grocery stores in the neighborhood, the one offering cheaper prices or better produce will tend to get more customers on that basis.  I can look at the grocery store ads;  I cannot go out to South Dakota and Nebraska and inspect the meat packing plants.

It is not the individual consumer who is producing all of his own food, or running his own bank or deciding what medical services will be "covered".  It is someone or something else.  And that someone or something else usually has a strong profit motive that may incline, him, her or it to do "bad" stuff.

Perhaps the best and most topical example of this demonization of "government intrusion"is the debate about health care.  Small government advocates claim the government should not be involved in health care, and warn of "death panels".  I have bad news for them; we already have "death panels", and we've had them for a long time.  For those of us who have medical insurance as well as those who have government sponsored medical care, someone else (besides us and our own doctors) is already limiting our care by limiting how much we can spend on medical treatments and for what.  For those of us with private insurance, it's the insurance companies, whose power to deny claims is limited only by the (gasp!) government. (It's the (evil) government and its laws that requires group insurance to be "portable"; previously, it was very hard for someone with a serious medical condition to take a new job.  It's the (evil) government that requires COBRA benefits and the administrative burden it places on employers). For those of us with government sponsored health care, our care already limited by the government itself.

I would point to the recent situation in Arizona, where the Republican controlled state government eliminated transplant coverage for Medicaid recipients.  I am not blaming the Republicans; they were trying to cut costs and were apparently given incorrect or incomplete information.  Nor am I taking a position as to whether Medicaid should or should not cover transplants or anything else.  Similarly, private insurance companies deny coverage on a daily basis.  I am not saying these denials are right or wrong.  What they are, whether done by the Government or the insurance companies, is necessary.  If I (or one of my kids!) is sick, and particularly if it involves spending someone else's money, I'll spend whatever is possible, reasonable or not, cost effective or not, or whatever.  A wildly experimental and extremely expensive procedure?  You betcha. The best specialist and hospital available, whether they are in my "network" or not?  If it's serious enough, sure. As long as it does not actively harm me, I'll bet I can get a doctor or hospital to do it, as long as they get paid.

There are all sorts of legitimate reasons for and against what is called "Obamacare".  A fear of ggovernment "involvement" and "death panels", however, is simply politically induced bullshit.

Another topical example is the regulation of the sale and purchase of investments and financial instruments.  Despite at least some laws, the investment banking community was able to sell a lot of people (including allegedly very sophisticated investors) utter garbage for a lot of money.  Yet the investment banking industry (who took bailout money) and their political lackeys (hey, you know who you are) have been and are screaming about too much government regulation. Instead, they appear to say we should leave protecting the public up to them, an incentive system that rewards risk, and the "market".  (That's worked out well for the last couple of years, hasn't it?)  More politically induced bullshit, with "we need less government intrusion" as a cover story.  I would be more inclined to believe "the dog ate my homework".  Enough

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Glenn Beck comes out in favor of Salmonella!

Well not exactly, but . .

Yesterday, the Senate (with bipartisan support) passed a bill providing for, among other things, increased frequency of inspection of food production by the FDA. 

My own opinion is that increased food inspections are inherently good, although one can reasonably argue about: 1)to what extent regulations should be applied to small local food producers; 2)what actual standards should be; and 3)how much food inspection and regulation we want to pay for (a basic cost/benefit analysis).  In short, I think that the theory of having the Government make some effort to make sure that our food does not make us sick or kill us is a good.

Glenn Beck apparently strongly disagrees, attacking (yesterday on TV) the passage of the Senate bill in question,  the creation of the FDA by the "progressive" (said with scorn) Teddy Roosevelt, and arguing that if the Government could "control our food", it could totally control our lives.  (Huh?)

Apparently, Mr. Beck believes that we can and should totally rely on the food producers (who certainly don't want to poison anyone, but whose primary motive is -and nothing wrong with this - to make as much money as possible) to make sure that our food is safe.  I think that history shows us that when you leave "the public good" up to those with a profit motive that may not always coincide with that public good, sometimes people will (yep, I'm an optimist) try to act to protect the public good at the expense of some of their profits, and sometimes they will not.  Mr. Beck, however, apparently trusts everyone, except the government (which does not have a profit motive), to act in the public good.

Earth calling Glenn; Earth calling Glenn . . .

Think about that highlighted sentence above - I will get back to it in a future Post. Enough

Comments by the outgoing Dem. Gov. of Ohio

Another reference to an "outside" work, as follows:

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Ted Strickland: Democrats Suffering From 'Intellectual Elitism'
WASHINGTON -- Fresh off a narrow loss in his gubernatorial re-election campaign, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland on Wednesday offered some somber and sober-minded criticism for...
I do not necessarily agree with what Gov Strickland says about the desirability of Obama focusing on his "base", but, as I have written previously, I do agree that he needs to take a more "populist" and agressive tone.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A "Christian Nation" ??

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and its not an issue getting much space in the news right now, but I've had to sort out my thoughts, even more than usual. 

Every so often, usually in some dispute concerning a Board of Education's attempts to change what is acceptable in its approved textbooks, some public official or media figure contends that the United States is and has always been "a Christian Nation".  More "liberal" types object to this characterization, and both sides then attempt to justify their positions by cherry-picking particular quotes from the founders of our Country.

This particular subject is one of my own hot buttons - attempts to label this country as a "Christian Nation" really disturb me, and get my "oppositional" juices flowing [clears the sinuses, among other things.]  However, upon reflection, my strong reaction itself began to puzzle me.

After all, when I grew up, I knew I was growing up in a Christian country.  While many of my teachers and fellow students were, like me, Jewish, we said (usually but not always Old Testament) prayers in school and celebrated and studied Christian holidays. The entire society outside of school was filled with Christian images and culture.  It was just not a big deal.  I knew I was Jewish, and I knew that was OK with most of my fellow citizens.  I knew they - and my country - were generally "Christian" (at least in some vague sense), but that the Constitution guaranteed me both freedom of religion and the lack of a government-established Church.  I also knew that the founders of the country were certainly Christian (at least in background), and that almost all of my country's leaders had been and still were Christian.  I had no problems with those facts.  My parents, as far as I know, had  no problem with them; nor did anyone else I knew.  As I said before, it was just not a big deal, at least not then.

So what has changed?  Why do I now react so negatively to those want the US to be a "Christian Nation"?  Certainly, whatever the founders were or were not has not changed.  The country may be more diverse and less generally religious, but most of us are either Christians or from Christian backgrounds.  Our society is still loaded with Christian images, traditions and ideals.

I think my primary problem arises out of a strong distrust of the proponents of a "Christian Nation", and of their motives Just what is meant by a "Christian Nation"?  What its proponents seem to have in mind is not really the "live and let live" religious existence I grew up with.  Rather, certain people seem to believe it is important to "officially" acknowledge the "importance" of Christianity in our country.   For me, at least, the slope between "publicly acknowledged or official importance" on the one hand and "primacy" or even "supremacy" on the other is a slippery one.

Those who seek a more "official" position for Christianity - or endorsement of some of its ideas - seem to be very upset about four things:  1)the lack of formal acknowledgment of religion in our public schools and other public life; 2)how science is taught in those schools,  3)how history is taught, and how "tolerance" is taught.

My "problem" on religion in public schools and public life really comes from the fact that I did not care as a child.  Emotionally, I wonder why and become suspicious that the other side does care.  After all, I think the secularists are basically right on this one;  public schools and governments should not "promote" religion ("values" are a different matter).  Although I think the pendulum has maybe swung a bit far (singing Christmas Carols never bothered me much), people are free to practice their religions in their homes, Churches and other gatherings.  Why this concern about the public schools, unless what you are seeking is a form of indoctrination?  Or is it linked to some symbolic formal acknowledgment of the society as Christian?  Are the "Christians" so insecure that they need prayer in school, or Christmas Carols in school, or Christmas displays on Government property to affirm, well, something?  Apparently so.  But what are they seeking to affirm?  That  question makes me nervous.  Those Christians who seem to be leading the fight in at least the first three areas described above seem to be very concerned that we formally or officially somehow affirm or proclaim that we are a "Christian Nation. " I don't like that, at all, because that gives "Christian Nation" an entirely different meaning than the "most of us are, in fact, Christian" feeling I was comfortable with when growing up.

The Christians concerned with the issue seem to focus a lot on the founders and American history, and the fact that the phrase "separation of Church and State" is not used in the Constitution as justification for some kind of "official" endorsement of Christianity.  Well, it's not that simple.  The founders were a group of people.  Each of them had different ideas.  They may well have each changed their own minds on these issues over time.  Everyone can "cherry pick" quotes or phrases on this issue to supposedly "prove" what they want.  However, some of the facts seem to be: 1)all of the founders were at least nominal Christians, although some of them had strongly Deist tendencies. 2)As a group, they did not want any established State religion.  3)They almost certainly expected the US to remain "Christian" as a culture 4)Some of them, particularly Jefferson, very strongly believed in the total separation of Church and State; others did not.  5)References to God or Providence were a part of regular official life, and religious symbols were displayed all over public life. 6)In at least one very early and formal action (look up the Treaty of Tripoli), the Government openly declared that the US was not a Christian Nation (whatever that meant - I think it meant in an "official" or "formal" sense, as it obviously was not in a "most of us are Christians" sense). 7)  They would never have imagined separation of Church and State as being used to ban prayer in public schools.

The proponents of "more" religion seem to have confused "atheism" with "secularism", or at least become confused about what "secularism" is and is not.  To me, "secularism" is not a rejection or denial of religion.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that there are some areas of our communal lives that should be kept free of  "formal" religious involvement. I believe the basic concept that religion should be kept out of certain areas is something that all but the most extreme "Christians" would accept. (At least I hope so). For example, I think most of us would agree that the law should be applied to our citizens in a fair an equal manner, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  Also, as the Constitution itself mandates, there should be no religious test for political office. Why should this "religious-free" zone not apply to our public schools as well?

Perhaps the problem of those I view as the other side is similar to my own.  After all, my own negative reaction is based on the fact that I feel that "they" are "pushing" for change - for a more official adoption of Christianity.  Yet their push may have been initiated by the push of my fellow secularists for our own changes. Prayer has been banned in schools.  There are no more creches on Public land.  "Multiculturalism" was not a word used in my history books.  Maybe "we" started the fight.  Maybe some of my opponents are worried about their own "slippery slope" - one which leads to the increasing marginalization of (their) religion as a force in American life.

How science is taught is an easy one for me.  Science should be taught in accordance with what are the generally accepted principles and beliefs of those who are scientists.  (The limits of "science" as a system of knowledge and belief are discuss ad nauseum in one of my earlier Posts).  Science is not about religion, and religious theories about the history or nature of the natural world should not be discussed in any detail in science class.  If an ethics class or a religion class, fine.  Science is a very important subject for our children to learn, and that is what should be taught in science class.

How history is taught is slightly less easy, although the recent attempts by the Texas School Board to rewrite it (and minimize Thomas Jefferson for political-religious reasons) are highly offensive, as well as the promotion of really dubious history.  The truth is that what we teach our children about history is always going to be at least somewhat "political" in nature, and is legitimately within the purview of the political process and of the voters.  I really don't think that there has been too much stress by "elitist liberal educators" on things like multiculturalism or Islam, and I would be surprised if there were any real "anti-Christian" textbooks in this country, but the importance or meaning of various people or ideas in history does include, as a matter of necessity, the effect of religions and religious ideas.

The teaching of "tolerance" is even trickier.  On the one hand, children should never be bullied or ostracized because they (or their families) are "different".   Yet what about a difference that involves the perceived choice of the student to engage in immoral conduct?  Why should  a teen who practices homosexual behavior be "protected" or "tolerated" where a girl who sleeps with all the boys is not?  Or a teen who shoplifts or uses hard drugs or is a bully him or herself?  All of these teens may be perceived as acting "immorally" by a substantial number of their classmates.  Do those classmates not have the right to disapprove of what they believe to be highly immoral conduct?  Does this conflict with the idea of teaching tolerance of different lifestyles , at least in some cases?  Sure it does. I think this is an area in which there are no broad, easy answers.  I have my own [and since this is my Blog, you get to hear them]  No one should be condemned because of choices made by their parents.  No one should be condemned because of matters (like race or ethnic background) they cannot control.  We should be very leery of condemning children for having beliefs which they have acquired from their parents.  Some actions - bullying or harrassment - are never to be condoned, while others, disapproval or even ostracism may have to be allowed.

By the way - note to enemy - characterizing this as an attempt to promote "Judeo-Christian" ideas does not work.  I believe the phrase did not come into common usage until World War II.  There has been way too much Christian anti-semitism (including in the US) for us to be real comfortable about that one.  We (or at least I) aren't buying it.

Still, the bottom line is that this push for acknowledgment of America's Christian roots or nature is one of my hot buttons, and that if people push to identify our Nation as "officially" Christian, I will push back.  As hard as I can.  Enough.

Partisanship v. Ideology - an essay by Ross Douthat

For once, a shorter Post.

There is an excellent "op ed" essay in  yesterday's NY Times by Ross Douthat, concerning the difference between acting in an ideological (basically principled) fashion as opposed to a partisan (always attack the other party) fashion.  Here is a link to the essay.

As readers of this Blog will know, I have my problems with an overly ideological approach to political problems.  However, Mr. Douthat identifies the really intellectually dishonest and destructive problem as hyper-partisanship rather than hyper-ideology.

What depresses me is that while he really nails the "problem", I don't see an obvious solution.  Our governments, both state and federal, are heavily tied into the partisan process.  Politicians usually rise through the partisan ranks, they are dependent on partisan support and funding to win elections, and they need cooperation from at least the members of their own party to accomplish legislative objectives.  A "sort of" exception to this may be some of the "Tea Party" backed candidates who are publicly indicating that they plan to resist partisan pressures and practices in order to remain ideologically pure.  I don't like a focus on ideological purity, but it is far preferable to intellectually dishonest partisanship.  I just fear that partisanship is so entrenched in our system, and has become so crazed in recent years, that it may take something drastic and improbable like a third party (a party to combat partisanship??), to effect any meaningful change.  Enough

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My problems with religious fundamentalism

Warning - likely to be a long - and complicated - and personal - Post.


1.  By "religious fundamentalism", I mean a belief system based on a set of writings by or inspired by a Supreme Being, and which generally accepts those writings to express the literal truth about events that have occurred, and/or will occur, and about how we should behave.

2.   My only knowledge of "religious fundamentalism" is of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic variety.  I do not know anything about anything like Buddhist Fundamentalism, or, indeed, whether it exists at all.

Problem No. 1 - a fundamental difference about what knowledge is "valid", and about how God's will is revealed (if at all) to people

The New Testament was written almost 2000 years ago; the Old Testament is (obviously) older.  Even the Quran is more than 1000 years old.  Fundamentalists of all religions appear to believe that what is written in their respective Holy Books is true, even if it appears to be contradicted by information that comes to our collective attention after those books were written.

Sorry, I just do not think that that is how knowledge works.  Assuming there is a God, I believe that He or She (or It) created Man (and Woman) (or their evolutionary ancestors) with either brains or the possibility of developing brains.  These brains (part of God's plan) allow us, both collectively and individually, to observe, think and learn.  Thus, we are designed to be able to absorb, evaluate and act on new knowledge.  This knowledge may be "scientific", that is about the world around us, or it may be about how we should act, or about anything else.  New knowledge has helped us do all sorts of things, both good and bad, including build railroads, successfully treat (or even wipe out) certain diseases, and live longer.  It has also let us develop the concept (or understand the previous existence of) a Universal God, who wants people to act in certain ways.  It has also led us to social ideas like charity, and (more recently) the "wrongfulness" of slavery.

I suspect that at least some Fundamentalists would counter my belief with the story of Adam and Eve, who lived in the paradise of Eden until tempted into the sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and that my entire approach wrongfully elevates (indeed, venerates) knowledge.  The assumption of the Fundamentalists is that God knew everything when He or She wrote or inspired whatever Holy Book is in question, and that we, the children of God, should just make sure we both believe in and do what we were told.  Certainly, this is a central theme in the Binding of Isaac story, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, not because it is in any way a good idea, but because God tells him to do it.  Abraham proves willing to do so, and God rewards and praises him for his faith.  Whoever wrote the Old Testament was certainly a Fundamentalist in some sense.  If God says do it, just shut up and do it, even if it seems lunatic or even immoral. [In one of Woody Allen's collections of Short Stories, Without Feathers, there is a story called "The Scrolls".  One of the "bits" in the story involves the discovery a "version" of the Binding of Isaac,  which describes a God who stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac while saying the equivalent of "Abraham, are you nuts?  Didn't you know I was kidding?"  I like that God better than the One in the original.]

While I  have a lot of problems with the "Just Do What I Say" approach,  a big one is the whole question of timing.  After all, if God spoke to me tomorrow (from a Burning Bush or whatever), and I believed it was God,  I would almost certainly do it.  (Killing my son as a sacrifice, nope.  If God decides to strike me with lighting as a result, ok. My own religious and moral beliefs do not begin and end with the "word of God", even if it is the word of God.  Does this mean I am willing to substitute my judgment for God's?  Yep.  I may be weird, not to mention arrogant, but how many of you would actually sacrifice your child in that scenario?)

God comes to Man and says "write down the rules".  Man does so.  However, Man's concepts, knowledge, even language, did not then allow Man to write down things which, even among Fundamentalists, are now taken as true (i.e.,  the Earth is round;  Heaven and Angels do not live in the sky immediately above the Earth.)  Surely God must have known this.  God must have also known that while Man not have been ready to abandon slavery when the books were written, Man would eventually figure it out.  In short, God knew that change would occur.  So, would not an Intelligent God  allow for the equivalent of Constitutional Amendments - of some method of changing (not just explaining, changing) the lessons or directions of the Holy Book?

An aside - the Roman Catholics may have done a better job of allowing for new knowledge than other sorts of Fundamentalists.  They have created a real live person who, if He needs to, can claim to be speaking in the name of God, and can, at least in theory, change the Rules (although I do not think the Catholic Church would put it quite that way).

Still, the problem is that once you write something down and declare it to be the Word of God, it is, like the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, which is not the only way how knowledge is (or at least should be) acquired by human beings. The classic way to really change a Religion is to simply start a new Religion, or at least a new branch or Sect,  Christianity being the most obvious example.  Some of these new groups will grow and prosper; some won't.  [Question:  The Mormons - The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints - are they "Christians"?  I think so, but I know some Christians who disagree.  Heck, I know Christians who claim that Roman Catholics are not really "Christians".  I do not intend to criticize anyone by this observation/question. Certainly, I, and I think almost all of those I consider Jewish, believe that "Jews for Jesus" are not Jewish.  I will come back to this "define the group" question in Point 3, below]

Still, my basic point is that Fundamentalism does not allow for changing of beliefs based on new evidence.  That just not how "knowledge" really works.

Problem No. 2 - "cherry-picking"

Several things these Holy Books have in common; they are not short;  they are often vague or obscure; some parts of them can be read as being contradictory to others.  All of these things allow for their adherents (including but not limited to Fundamentalists) to pick and choose the parts that they want to emphasize (often called "cherry-picking").  Easiest example - the New Testament says a lot about, love, charity, feeding the poor, and loving the sinner but not the sin.  However, many Fundamentalist preachers seem to focus a lot on the Old Testament [the wonderful comedian Lewis Black does a great routine on this.  "That's Our Book;  it wasn't good enough for them"], and emphasize the "smiting" (by us) of those who don't agree with us.  My own branch of Judaism (Reform) quite openly chrry picks, and dismisses a number of traditional practices (which clearly appear to be required by the Torah) as mere customs- note, it's called "Reform" rather than "Reformed" because we acknowledge the need to keep increasing our understanding of just what God wants us to do).  But even those Orthodox Jews I know cannot really explain to my satisfaction why some Mitzvot  just are not followed any more.

The most blatant thing is that all of these Holy Books extol the virtues of Peace while suggesting that its readers kill at least some of their enemies because they are unbelievers or from a different tribe.

Which leads to Problem No. 3 - If it's the ultimate authority, a Religious text can be used to justify almost anything-and it will be

In a previous Post, I used the following quote from the late Senator Barry Goldwater:

"On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly.

History and current events are rife with examples of justifying war, atrocity,  genocide, torture, and almost anything bad in the name of religion.  You can come up with your own.  However, I would take issue with those who believe that any particular religion is "warlike" (Some may be more so than others and "younger" religions may be more aggressive, generally).  Rather, I think (and I think Goldwater's quote suggests) the problem is more related to Fundamentalism, whatever its variety.  If people believe that God really suggests that we worship or otherwise act in a certain way, and that God's word should be our prime directive, there's not much room for debate or compromise.  After all, if God says "do it", we're supposed to just do it.

Please note that I do not exempt my fellow Jews from this tendency.  We may tend to be less obnoxious (for lack of a better word) because of the "Chosen People" thing.  The Torah and Talmud do not say that everyone should be Jewish or observe Jewish laws.  Quite the contrary - the Torah and the Talmud are directed at Jews, and they tell us how we, not everyone else, are supposed to behave.  Nevertheless, like all other Fundamentalists, when they have the power to do so, Jewish Fundamentalists have been known to attempt to force other Jews to behave "appropriately", even to the extent of asking Christian authorities to intervene to squash our own "heretics".

Here is where I get back to my "Mormon" question from point one.  Fundamentalists, at least historically, have been particularly vicious to those of their own religion whom they believe have strayed from the true path.  In short, heretics are often treated worse than non-believers.  This may be largely due to both proximity and to the perception that one needs to struggle for the "soul" of one's religion.  In any event, it reinforces one of my points - that Fundamentalists tend to be intolerant - and sometimes intolerance makes people dangerous.


I believe Religion, including "organized" Religion as well as a more general "spirituality",  is, at least today, more of a force for Good than Evil, although I have my doubts sometimes.  Moreover, Religion and/or God are not necessarily inconsistent with what I believe to be how the world actually works. Although I have friends whom I respect and admire who would consider themselves Fundamentalists, I cannot say the same for Fundamentalism, on either count.  Enough.

I blame my iPad (and, of course, my son)

A shorter-than-usual Post.

A Reader commented that my Posts appear to be becoming more annoyed.  Maybe.  But I blame it all (and this Blog as a whole) on my iPad and my Son.

My kind wife bought me an iPad as an Anniversary gift.  I am not a technically oriented person, but I soon started taking it everywhere.  I have found myself reading a lot more besides my usual mysteries and sci fi, particularly newspapers, strictly on line news sources, and magazines.  I have also been exposed for the first time to YouTube. A lot of the stuff I read is political.  Naturally, I have become more of a political junkie.

Also, my 22 year old son has hooked me on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central, which (for those of you who do not know) are primarily political satire (and which I recommend highly).

As a result, I find myself having more political opinions, thinking more about political issues, and getting  more annoyed at what I perceive to be the numerous liars and/or idiots in politics and the media.  I would remain blissfully ignorant about a lot of the lies and the idiots, if they were not brought to my attention, by those who agree with them as well as disagree with them.

Although I view jump-starting my brain in different areas to be a good thing,  we can get sucked into thinking too much about politics.  It's kind of like being hooked on musical or movie celebrities.  I find myself caring about what X says about Y thinks (or guesses or makes up) about Z (who is an idiot to start with).  I understand this often occurs to people who live in the Washington D.C. area (the "Beltway"), but I haven't lived there since I was 14.  Most of us, including me, lead our "real" lives without thinking much about politics, which I really think is another good thing.  Sure, it certainly impacts our lives - or at least its results do - but the new, constantly available media from all sources can overdo it.  All those communications majors with a byline or a Blog, all competing and hoping to find a story or angle that "goes viral" and makes them rich, famous, wise and/or important - if everyone's talking about it (for example, Bristol Palin on "Dancing with the Stars"-which people are expressing political opinions about), it must be important.  There is only so much "real" news, and it tends to be under-reported when compared to more entertaining stuff.

Anyway, here I am starting to get into rant mode again.  While I certainly do not promise to be "Fair and Balanced",  I will at least try to be more thoughtful and less shrill.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jon Stewart (and I) may be wrong

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the best known public figure to make a major point of encouraging civility, reason and respect, and of discouraging exaggeration and demonization, in political discourse.Those of you who have read much of my Blog might guess that I am a big fan of Mr. Stewart.  Indeed, I went to Washington to attend his Rally with Stephen Colbert - with my children -  a few weeks ago.

Nevertheless, I am starting to suspect that he - and I - may be basically wrong.  Not about the abstract desirability of such conduct, but because we are way too optimistic about what will work, politically.  We are simply overly idealistic about what people pay attention to.

Some "hard" facts  (in no particular order):

1.  When bad things happen, most people want some person or people to blame - it has to be someone's fault, be it the politicians, the bankers or the Chinese, rather than just the ebbs and flows of capitalism or the fickle finger of fate or an accident.

2.  People have a shorter attention span than they used to - the 10 second sound bite is more powerful than the 10 minute speech.  It is also more likely to be shown on TV.

3.  People like to be entertained - they would rather see and hear blood, sex, nastiness [how else would you explain Jersey Shore?] even when watching politics, than learn something new or think

4.   Many people associate "reasoned debate" with liberal elite intellectuals, whom they despise.

5.  People would really rather hear someone say something that they already agree with.

6.  People assume that if a figure they like on TV says something, it must automatically be true

7.  People will believe almost anything "bad" about someone they don't like, whether anyone identifiable actually makes the claim or not [Fox News has never claimed that Obama is a Muslim]

8.  People want easy answers and solutions - that's what they like to be told about

9.  People "buy into" slogans or statements without really examining them. "Means" somehow become "ends" in themselves. For example, take "big government is bad."  Maybe; maybe not; maybe sometimes.  But I would suggest that something like "smaller government", while it may be desirable, is a means, not an end. [to me, an "end" would be more freedom and liberty, both to act (individually) and to prosper economically (both individually and as a group) - but that "smaller government" is not always necessarily the way to reach that end]

10.  People would rather hear and believe something bad about someone than something good.  Think about which kind of gossip spreads faster.

11.  Many people are easily manipulated

12.  People hate being "talked down to" or not treated with respect maybe more than they hate anything else

13.  People tend to trust those they can identify with, be it a matter of race, age, religion, politics or whatever, and to distrust those who are different.

14.   People like conflict rather than reasonable discussion (it is more entertaining)

15.  People love pep rallies

16.   People will tend to self justify - that is, they will find a reason for their own interests or beliefs to dovetail with some "common" or "moral" good.

17.  A fair number of adult American citizens actually are pretty stupid [please note that I did not say which ones].  There are always going to be a fair proportion of people on all ends (trust me, there are more than just two) of the political spectrum who will believe all sorts of strange stuff.

18.  A big point - perhaps the biggest - just because you want to play "fair" does not mean that the other side has any interest in doing so.  Here, I am going to use some examples.
      a.  My Dad used to express a concern about whether it was a "good idea to raise sheep in a wolves' world"
      b.  The Israelis have long complained (with reason) that it was very difficult to make peace with the Palestinians because the Palestinians (or many of them) had no interest whatsoever in actually making peace
      c.   John Boehner's proclaimed main goal for the next two years is to see that Barack Obama does not get re-elected.  If you were Obama, would you trust this guy as a negotiating partner?  Would you try to reason with him?
      d.   Politicians and the media frequently make claims that are demonstrably false.  When this is pointed out, they either waffle ("we just repeated what someone else said") or they repeat the lie or even make up new ones.  They don't get called on it often enough; and their supporters do not seem to care.
      e.  Some people have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the truth or common good
      f.   Some people are openly working on the basis of different "evidence" systems.  A powerful Republican Congressman (Rep. Shimkus of Illinois) said last year that he absolutely did not believe in Global Warming because God had promised Noah that there would be no more worldwide floods.  [I am not making this up!  A United States Congressman! ].  Whether he's right or wrong, there is no reason for he and I to attempt to discuss Global Warming.  It does not matter to him what kind of  scientific evidence I may have;  he's not operating on the basis of science as being authoritative.  That's an extreme example of different "evidence" systems, but there are many.

19.  A lie, repeated over and over, tends to get believed.

20.   People tend to both believe and respect anger and righteous indignation.

21.   Many of us want our leaders to be strong and powerful.  "Reasonable" comes in way behind "tough", and may be perceived as weakness, either in principle or in power.

22.  We want certainty, not shades of grey.

23.  We want to be told that "if we only do x, things will be ok."

Would Jon Stewart disagree with my so-called "facts"?  I think not.  But if I am right about those "facts", is it helpful/useful/productive for those of us who believe we are reasonable liberals to try to engage the other side in discussion, while they tell lies and call us names?  Is our good example likely to change their behavior?  Or get us closer to our political goals (one of which is to have more reasoned debate)?  Not unless large segments of the American people catch on and start demanding more reason and less Jersey Shore.  I'd like to believe that that will happen, and I suspect that that is what Jon Stewart is trying to do by focusing public attention in a humorous manner on the more outlandish stuff said by the attack media on both sides.  A couple of months ago, I would've agreed strongly that it was certainly worth a shot.  Now, I kind of doubt it.  It's not because of any election results;  I just do not see enough people paying attention.

I am not suggesting that Jon Stewart do anything differently.  He fulfills a critical function by puncturing pretentious idiots, and he does it extraordinarily well (as does Stephen Colbert).  Moreover, I may be too pessimistic; their observations may have a significant effect, particularly in the long term consciousness of the American people.  Rather, I am suggesting that Barack Obama may be trying much too hard to be reasonable and civil.

Now, make no mistake, I am not advocating that any politician lie, particularly about the "enemy" (although one can make a "Sauce for the Goose; sauce for the Gander" argument).  But I think that there is certainly more than enough truth out there for us liberals (particularly President Obama) to be really nasty and impolite about.  I may eventually write a Post with specific suggestions, but I have some general ones for him (yes I know this is presumptuous; he and his advisers are all much smarter than I am).

1.  Be your own spokesman.  We are used to Presidents staying "Presidential", and letting others speak for the administration.  Start doing it yourself.  You are the one with the "Bully Pulpit";  use it.

2.  Keep your points short and direct.  Avoid sounding like a policy wonk or even overly reasonable.

3.  Draw lines in the sand. (ie., say you will Veto any bill extending the tax cuts for the higher income brackets.  Period.  End of discussion)

4.  Be prepared to throw your own party under the bus.  The public perceives Reid and Pelosi as running the show.  Stop this.  Call for the Democrats (as well as the Republicans) to ban earmarks, and agree on some deficit cutting plan which relies in part on entitlement cuts.  Adopt the "deficit" issue - expose the difference between "anti-deficit" and "anti-tax".

5.  Personally call out Republican leaders and wall street banking types (and maybe even certain media) as "liars" or "greedy pigs" (or slightly less inflammatory things).   A lot of these people either voted for TARP or took TARP money, and are now publically attacking governmental bailouts or regulations.  Don't be afraid to burn your bridges with these guys;  they are the enemy (you can still negotiate with the enemy, but you will never make at least some of these people into anything else)

6.  Do something that will be seen as "strong" (besides Afghanistan) against Moslem extremists.  Killer drones are a good start - don't be apologetic - say something like "call for attacks on American citizens and be prepared to die"

6.  Don't be afraid to lose votes in Congress.  Demand that proposals be put to a vote, even if you think you will lose.  (this will make you no friends in Congress in either party).  If they are not put to a vote, ask why.

7.  Don't be afraid of being accused of "class warfare".  Just tell people that if that's what you are doing, the Republicans have already fired the first shot.

8.  Attack the procedural prerequisites of senators; set a date in the future (so no one knows who will benefit) to limit or even end filibusters and holds.  (Yes I know these are Senate Rules governed by the Senate, but publically suggest it change those Rules)

Please note I do not suggest you either move towards or away from the "middle" of American politics. (although I suspect you should do some of both.)  My main point is that you need to start appearing (not just being) "Presidential".  You are not the head legislator;  you are the President.  Enough.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

False Gods II -"Science" (?)

To the reader:  This a primarily "political" blog.  I don't get to the political point of the following until the end of the Post.

Again, let me start off by being defensive.  I am a great believer in science.  Indeed, as I will discuss more later, I believe science (and especially the scientific method) to be the absolutely best method we humans have for determining "truth".  However, "science" is not a God.  What it appears to tell us is not necessarily always the truth, or, even more so, the whole truth.

Some personal  disclosure is probably appropriate here.  I consider myself Jewish, by background and by religion.  However, most days I could also be accurately described as an Agnostic.  I'm generally not sure whether there is or is not a God.  I have neither scientific evidence or strong faith, one way or the other.  I do believe in something - in the existence of "good" and "evil" and not just "right" and "wrong", but as to its form or nature?  Ask someone else.  Politically, I firmly believe in the separation of Church and State.  I am a real live member of the ACLU.

My first problem with science as a False God is with those who believe that science is the only method for discerning truth.  One obvious example of such a person would be a"militant' Atheist, who maintains that because there is no "scientific" evidence of a God, He or She does not exist.  I would agree that, at least at this point, there is no scientific proof of the existence of a God.  However, I would argue that the non-existence of God does not necessarily follow unless one requires not only "proof", but "scientific" proof.

To create such a requirement is to say that the only valid means of acquiring knowledge is somehow "scientific" (in a very broad sense).   There is no logical reason that such a statement should be true.  Throughout history, including today, large numbers of people believe that things are true because of "natural law" or things written in their respective Holy Books or simply because they exist in their hearts or minds.  Who are we liberal secular elitists to say that they are wrong? [Please note that where there is strong scientific evidence to the contrary, I believe we can and should say that they are wrong; but what I am talking about here is an absence of scientific proof.  And, more importantly, so what if they are wrong?]. 

Moreover,  the scientists themselves,  or at least the mathematicians, seem to have reached a different conclusion as to whether everything is subject to scientific proof.

Years ago, a famous mathematician named Gödel proved fundamental results about axiomatic systems.  He mathematically proved that in any axiomatic mathematical system there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the axioms of the system.  In about 1975, my wife, who is, among other things, a mathematician, when listening to a discussion of Godel's theory, scratched her head, and said something to the effect of:  "If we can prove that there are things that are not susceptible to proof, does this not allow for and perhaps even suggest the existence of an "unprovable" God?  [My wife is scarily smart, but don't tell her I said so.]

My Brother (like me, very pro-science) took a different approach.  He said that the purpose of science was to explain the "natural" world, and that God, by definition, was "Supernatural", and therefore outside the parameters of science.

The second problem with science as a God is that scientific knowledge, by its very nature is uncertain-that is, it does not contain immutable truths.  The great strength of science is that it largely a methodology of acquiring additional knowledge, and carries with it the presumption that additional knowledge can or will be obtained.  Do the laws of Newtonian physics work?  Do they reflect reality?  Well, yes, but not necessarily (as demonstrated by Einstein's theories of relativity) at very high speeds.  Did Einstein himself get it completely right?  I have heard people talk about String Theory and how it may refute some of Einstein's ideas.  [the reason I favor Einstein rather than religious fundamentalists is that I think he would have no problem with his ideas being supplanted-more on that in a later planned Post on religious fundamentalism].  Be that as it may, scientific knowledge, by its nature, is always incomplete and subject to correction.  It is also subject to uncertainty in areas where it is used to explain things which cannot be closely observed and tested.  Is Evolution a "theory"?  Sure, none of us has a time machine.  Is it a theory supported by all of the available scientific evidence?  Yep.  Could new evidence come in that casts doubt on it?  Why not?  Should it still be taught as the best science we know at this time?  Certainly.  However, I, at least emotionally, expect more definitive knowledge if something comes directly from God.

My third problem with science as a God is the immense amount of garbage being passed off as "scientific" (because it involves data or quantities), and therefore true.  Another good quote from my wife (then girlfriend) is that the phrase "Social Science" is an oxymoron.  The most common silliness is the frequent confusion of correlation with causation, and often sloppy use of statistics in general.  My problem here is not with "science"; it's with stuff pretending to be science or even "scientific", and it's all over the place.

Now, the "political" part.  My initial Post was about the need to really listen to people who seemed crazy.  Part of the idea is that if we can do so, we may both understand them and cause them to really listen to us.  I someone approaches me with a starting strong belief that the story of creation in Genesis is literally true,  I would certainly disagree with that view.  I think it is contrary to historical and scientific evidence, and I do not see any evidence that God is telling the story.  However, that does not make the viewpoint or the "truth" automatically  invalid.  Nor should it be an object of disdain or mockery.  I don't believe it; someone else might. Do I believe that religion and/or spiritualism is a valid means of searching for truth?  Yes, I do.  You may not.  The question is where do we go in the very likely event we will continue to disagree. 

If we want religious fundamentalists (or religious people at all) to be tolerant of our right to believe differently from them, we must be prepared to be tolerant of their right to believe differently from us.  If we are ever to convince them, it will not be by bludgeoning them or treating them with scorn and disdain.  This does not mean we need be tolerant of those who would do us harm or force their own views on us.  I will respect your right to hold different views (if not the views themselves), but I will not put up with your attempts to impose your views on me or my children or my Government.  A lot of people seem to think it's important that we agree on "truth"; it's not. (Maybe each of us will find out something after we die.  Or not.) What is important is that at least most of us agree on what we, collectively, should do next.  Enough.

Conservatives/liberals-ideology vs. changing evidence

This week's post is basically a link to a 2005 article in The New Republic by Jonathan Chait. which I found much more illuminating and interesting than anything I am going to write today.  The article also ties into my previous Post about "ideologies" and to one I am planning to write about religious fundamentalism.

While I do not necessarily agree with everything Mr. Chait  writes, I think his basic point is both correct and very important.    The link is:

Monday, November 8, 2010

False Gods I - "the Market(s)"

Recently, I have heard a number of conservative political and business figures allude to the importance/desirability of not doing anything to interfere with the free and unfettered operation of our Nation's market or markets in goods and services.  Although I am a big fan of the "market", if these people mean that the best market is the one with little or no regulation, I must conclude that they are either evil or demented.  They seem to be implying that the "market" is some form of Supernatural Force for good, and that we will all do better if we only follow its dictates, and that attempts to restrict the operations of markets is bad, and that it must [like the Hypno-toad] be worshipped.

The "market" is not a God, but it (or they) can be viewed as a force of nature.

Markets are not creations of the Divine will;  God does not determine how they will act in any given situation.  Nor are the actions of the market necessarily "good" or "just" or "inevitable" or "according to some Divine plan", terms  which might normally be used to describe God determining that some particular thing should occur.  Rather, markets, at least as we know them, are creations of men.  I do believe that in a general sense, they are also an inevitable byproduct of Human societies (although I'll leave that one to the Anthropologists). 

The basic rules of any market are supply, demand, risk and reward.  I agree that we ignore those rules at our peril, and that erection of systems of social/economic  engineering that do ignore those factors is both silly and dangerous.   

To continue with my "force of nature" analogy - My first thought was of a river that provided necessary water to farms and towns along its path.  Without the river, we are, well, screwed.  But  if we do nothing to control or regulate the river, we may have both frequent floods and droughts.  So we have learned over the years about the desirability of building dams, levees and reservoirs.  We have also learned that it is better for anyone downstream if the people upstream do not dump a lot of raw sewage and bad chemicals directly into the river.  Do dams, levees and reservoirs cost money?  Sure?  Do they "limit" the operation of the river? Sure.  Is the upriver business or town more expensive to run because it now needs a water treatment plant?  Yep, at least in the short term.  Are there likely to be unintended and unforeseen bad effects?  Yep.  Yet we, I hope, would all agree that some regulation of some rivers is a good and even necessary thing to prevent natural or man made disasters, and to increase the long term productivity and prosperity of those who live along the river. Markets, if left unchecked, have a strong historical pattern of booms and busts (or floods and droughts).  It is generally thought that such booms and busts are to at least some degree an inevitable byproduct of a capitalist system, but that it is our collective best interest to try to avoid the worst excesses of these patterns, and to do so through governmental action.

I think another very useful analogy is to compare the market to earthquakes or other "natural" disasters.  Because it is subject to earthquakes, California has specific and "stronger" building requirements (and even education/knowledge requirements for structural engineers) than other, more geologically placid states.  Does this increase the cost of, among other things, building a tall building in California?  Sure.  I like this example because the real push right now seems to be by those who want to keep the Government from legally acting to limit excessive risk because limiting risk also will reduce possible profits (again, in the short term, which is all these people seem to be able to focus upon)  If we eliminate laws against Securities Fraud, or even refuse to fund the S.E.C.,will some companies be able to make more money by engaging in "dubious" practices?  Sure, at least until the public stops buying securities because it's too risky.  If we (as we did until the late 90's) require banks to be either 'commercial" or "investment" (but not both), will we reduce the opportunities of those banks to make even more money?  Sure.  (That's why the Banks lobbied so hard for so long to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, a law that worked really well for a long time).   If we eliminate food plant inspection, will some food producers lower their costs of doing business as a result?  Yep.  Of course, if something goes wrong, people lose their savings, the financial system almost collapses, and a lot of people may get sick and even die.  Limiting risks (the downside) will almost always somehow restrict or limit possible profits (the upside), at least in the short term.

No, we cannot make everything perfectly safe.  Nor should we try. Cost/benefit analyses are one appropriate way to decide what and how something should be regulated.  Is stuff sometimes over regulated?  Sure.  However, what I am hearing and reading now seems to be a general attack on the idea of regulation because it "interferes" with the operations of the market.  But the market is not "sacred"; indeed, if left unchecked, it invites participants to lie cheat and steal (as well as to act honestly) for their own benefit.

Moreover, an unfettered market will have adverse economic consequences besides booms, busts and risks to the general public. Generally, with no restrictions on size or market share, the bigger and more powerful players will get richer and more powerful, leading to concentrations of wealth and/or power that actually decrease competition and stifle the idea of a "fair" or "open" market. 

There are also social policy issues involved.  Child labor laws, minimum wage laws, the ability to collectively bargain - all are designed to keep those less rich and powerful from being oppressed [and I use the word deliberately] by those who are richer and more powerful.  The market does operate, in part, according to a particular "Golden Rule" shared with me by one of my clients- "He who has the Gold, makes the rules".  Again, I am not a Socialist or Communist.  I think a society where one can become obscenely rich and/or powerful is , essentially, a good thing.  I would go further - trying to "force-feed" the economic actions of people in order to accomplish social policy is inherently dangerous; I think parts of the original impetus for the current housing crises were the well meant acts of certain politicians to make home ownership more available to poorer people by "encouraging" banks to make economically dubious loans.  (Of course, once the banks and bankers saw the profits to be made, they resembled a stampede of pigs; I think the bigger problem was a failure of adequate regulation).  Like mighty rivers, earthquakes and hurricanes, the market, at least as the world is now structured, will eventually make anti-market governments pay the price, at the very least in having to pay higher interest rates in order to sell their sovereign bonds. That is not to say we should not sometimes try to politically alter incentives to encourage economic behavior that we believe to be in the greater social good.  Indeed, that is the whole point of most of our tax policy (even the parts that the conservatives really like).  It's just that we should know better than to try to make the river run backwards.

However, we have collectively had the wisdom in the United States, throughout our history, to regulate economic behavior for both economic and social/political reasons.  Although certainly motivated by basic American social and political ideals,  I would argue that these regulations have benefited our wealthy classes, in particular.  Among other things, the "poor" have been and are treated "well" enough (or believe they are) to keep them from an armed insurrection.  (No, I am not kidding here;  Communism became a powerful International movement for a reason).

In short, saying that a program will make things more expensive for business or could "hurt" some market is not a reason to automatically not do it.  To maintain otherwise is to advocate creating a Golden Calf and labelling it "short term market forces".  Enough.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Incentives and one thing my Mom used to say about politicians

[This post was originally published in late September;  I went back to correct some typos, and notw it's here.  Sorry]
Interests/Perceived Interests
            Most of us generally act in a manner in which we perceive to be in our own best interest.  Often this will be in terms of our own economic best interest and sometimes it will be in what we only perceive to be in our own best interest.  Usually, it will be in a fairly short-term best interest.  Often, we will extend this to something we will perceive to be in our immediate or extended family's or tribe's best interest.  In addition, most of us have a strong need to believe that we are acting in a "fair" [there's a slippery word] and /or moral/ethical fashion.  We need to believe we're one of the "good guys".  I do not mean to imply that these characteristics are either good or bad.  This is somply how people behave.  (The best short analysis of how behavior is driven by incentives I have come across is in Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; I would highly recommend it.)
Congress and other elected representatives          
       OK, now, as some of you (my relatives) been waiting for with bated breat, we get to my Mom and politicians.  My Dad was a news junkie.  He would watch the news on TV.  Occassionally, he would become irritated, often at some elected official who said something, and who "knew better".  (He was much more tolerant of people he thought were idiots).  My Mom would get annoyed at what she perceived to be his essential naivte and forcefully opine that: "Goddammit, Eddie, they're all just a bunch of crooks".  I remember thinking that she was awfully cynical about politicians.  (She was also the first person I ever heard to actually use the phrase "pigs feeding at the public trough", but that's another story.)  Well, I have to admit that, as often occurs as we grow older, my (our) parents mysteriously became smarter.  And I think she'd be closer to the truth about today's politicians than she was about the ones she was talking about then.
         I do not think most politicans are actually crooks or theives in a legal sense.  I do believe that the incentive system currently in place makes them act in their own interests rather than in ours.
        What motivates people (in a conscious decision sense - not in a hunger, sex, physical fear  more immediate sense)?  1) Money.  2) Power.  3)Status.  4)Feeling good about themselves.  5)avoiding unpleasant consequences.  I think that covers most of it.  With our elected representatives, I would guess that power, status and feeling good about themselves are the big three.  (The money is good, but at least some of these people could make a lot more in the private sector).  How is this a problem?
                 We have before us an anonymous member of Congress. He is or she is at least reasonably principled and does not take bribes – at least direct ones.  He (or she) believes that his (or her) actions are generally in the best interest of the American people.  This person may or may not be is kidding himself, but I , somewhat naively (I am my Father's son), believe that they really believe they are the good guys. 
          Well, what are most of us interested in these days?  Often, keeping our jobs or our businesses afloat.
Most members of Congress – like most of the rest of us – are very, very interested in keeping their jobs.  After all, they have worked hard for years to reach the top of the public servant pyramid.  They get good money,  lots of power and even more status.  They may say (or think) that they want to keep their jobs solely because they feel that they best serve the interests of their constituents or of the country.   Bullshit.  They're people.  They've worked hard to get where they are.  They have egos.  They want to keep their jobs, and, if possible, get more power and status (to do good, of course, but partly because these people really like power and status).
          These days, to be elected, it takes a lot of money.  If you don’t have your own money, you are dependent on raising campaign contributions.  If you do not vote a certain way, those contributions will dry up.  Perhaps the most egregious of example of this is the contributions made to members of Congress in the past several years by the banking and financial community.  These people have given scads of money to Democrats and Republicans alike.  Fundraisers were being held by several congressmen focusing on donors in the financial community at the very same time the Congress was debating the recently passed laws governing those institutions!!  It is interesting to me, at least, that the head of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Christopher Dodd, over the years, received a great deal of money from the financial services industry.  As far as I know, during his long tenure, he did not sponsor any serious restrictive or regulatory steps which might upset that industry during that period.  Senator Dodd did propose such regulations almost immediately after he announced that he would retire after his current term in office.  In other words, once Senator Dodd no longer needed campaign funds, he seemed to see the light.  As my Son would say, "Coincidence?  I think not." 
            I do not mean to pick on Senator Dodd.  I do not know the man, and I am not attributing to him any motive I do not attribute to most of our representatives.  Nor can I really blame these people.  They are acting like, well,  people.  I blame us - the people (and, like everyone else does, the Media) [you may insert your most despised media outlet here.  Being a liberal, I choose Fox News, but they are all pretty guilty, with the exception of Comedy Central] 
   If you're waiting for an easy answer to this one here, you're going to be waiting for a long time.  While I have doubts about the recent Citizens United decision, I am not a big fan of public financing.  I really believe that the right of free speech and association includes the right to put your money where your mouth is.  There are some things that can be done.  We can, as has been proposed, make sources of funding public.  We could also approach it from the cost side.  As a "cost" of allowing broadcasters/cable companies/ whoever use the airwaves or cablewaves or satellite waves, we could require that they make a certain amount of political advertising time available at low cost or free prior to elections.  (I know-it woudl be a complicated mess, but. . . ).  There are, presumably, other "out of the box" ideas.  Unfortunately implementing them would almost certainly require Congress to do something.
Government is not a sport - nor it is a question of whether I was "right" or not
     But the big thing is for us, the people to loudly and publically "Call Bullshit" when we see it.  This involves detaching ourselves from what I call the "sports event" model of politics, where a chief goal is that our "team" wins. 
    There are a number of Congressional Republicans who stated early and openly that their chief goal was to make the Obama presdency a failure.  Given my analysis above, that doesn't surprise me.  That they would admit it publicly and that elements of the press and public would cheer them on is disgraceful.  
   One of my partners, the late Thomas P. Riordan was (and wherever he is, still is) a conservative Republican.  A few years ago, Tom and I were arguing about George W. Bush’s proposed “surge,” in which he was going to temporarily and dramatically increase American troop levels  in Iraq.  Tom thought this was a good idea.  I told him that I thought it was a bad idea, but that I hoped I was wrong. (and I was wrong, as it turned out).  I went on to say that, in fact, I hoped the presidency of George W. Bush went down as one of the greatest in American history.  Tom was nonplused.  He looked at me and said something to the effect of “but you think that President Bush is an idiot.”  I agreed, but pointed out that I hoped I was wrong.  (Afraid I still think I was right on that one). I explained that  I was an American, and that, if George Bush and his presidency went down as being tremendously successful, it meant that things were going well for my country.  That was much more important than my being right or having the Democrats “win.”  To put it in another way, the more successful the government was at accomplishing the goals in the Preamble of the Constitution, the more likely I – and all of us – were to be better off.  Tom indicated that he had to think about that, that it seemed to make sense, but that my idea was “unusual.”  That’s part of the problem.  It should not be unusual.  I am not particularly virtuous – far from it – but I would like to think I am not going to let my own ego or the “team” I root for get in the way of a good result for my country.
    I understand that there are factors involved in worrying about whether your political opponent's apparently good ideas are a "Trojan Horse" of some kind, and that you really would like to win the next election in part to keep him or her from implementing his other, less desirable, plans, but come on; you're supposed to be working for the country. [sorry about the rant].  But our representatives are, as noted above, going to pull that garbage as long as we let them.  In my paranoid(?) moments, I suspect that there are Republican leaders (and Fox News) who would be delighted if America were to suffer a (small) successful terrorist attack because it would make Obama look bad.   At least we have not reached the point where they would admit it openly, but just wait [sarcasm].
     We voters are getting what we deserve because we have been sucked into rooting for teams in something that is not just a sport - and also because we have let our own egos get involved.  Who cares if I'm right?  I hope I'm right a lot, but I'm wrong a lot.  That's called learning from your mistakes, guys. (I would argue that any adult who has the exact political opinions he did 10 years ago is, by definition, an idiot).
     While I really disagree with the Tea Party substantively (my Brother, in response to my last post, emailed me that "Just because they are crazy does not mean that they are not stupid"), part of me is delighted that they are looking at our so-called leaders and "Calling Bullshit".
   As you can tell, I'm sort of fixated on the Tea Party Movement right now.  Let me hasten to note that I know that they are a diverse group, not really a traditional political party, and include a variety of different opinions and motives.   Nonetheless, I will almost certainly babble about them more in some future post .