Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Mixed Reaction to Harris v Craig

I'd say the Harris/Craig debate is kind of a battle of the titans. Craig is the very best Christian debater in my view and the view of a lot of people. Harris is one I would expect to be a top atheist debater. I say that based on limited exposure to him. Just listening to him in the few venues I've heard I find that I'm impressed. Who is better than him? There are a lot of second rate atheist debaters in my view. Some are very smart and know a lot, but among those very smart atheists there are only a select few that have the additional debater's skill. I'm expecting Harris to be among them.

On the whole though after listening to him debate Craig, and you can get the audio here, I'm a bit disappointed. I was hoping for better. Not terrible. Not an atheist victory on scoring certainly. But maybe a success anyway.

Here's what Harris does well. His calm demeanor is perfect. He's got some great lines. And much of what he offers I think is very persuasive in its own right. For instance during his first rebuttal he offered some very poignant arguments related to the absurdity of belief that good is from God when we simply consider the 1,000 children that die in agony every hour hoping and praying to God and God will not be answering them. Meanwhile we are thanking God as if he's responsible for curing our eczema or providing us with a nice parking space. It's absurd.

Those are great points. They are very difficult for the Christians in the audience to deal with. But here's what they don't do. They don't directly rebut Craig's argument. Perhaps they do tangentially. But not directly.

Take Craig's point offered in his opening statement that under atheism morality is in fact just a biological by product of evolution. Given that, then had we evolved differently we'd have different values. Maybe we would value rape. Some animals forcibly copulate with one another. It's not "rape". It's forced copulation. The fact that we see it as immoral is kind of a biological accident.

Where is Harris' answer to that objection? There isn't any. Now, that's not all bad. Perhaps Harris chose to forego a technical victory and just take advantage of the fact that he's here at Notre Dame with a bunch of Christians and he's going to take this opportunity to hammer away at Christians with the absurdity of their view. What will Craig do in reaction? He'll ignore that and stick to the subject. What does that mean? Christians will leave without answers. That can be very persuasive. So forget about scoring. What matters to Harris is convincing. What I hear is very convincing.

When I was a Christian I think the type of thing Harris did was the kind of thing that struck me most deeply. He hasn't answered Craig's opening statement which shows that objective morals don't exist without God. So (from the neutral observer perspective) he doesn't have a logical foundation for his view. But my view is also silly. So now what? If anything I think the Christian leaves and says Deism makes more sense. That's the first baby step out of religion.

At one point Harris says "If you wake up tomorrow and think that if you say a few magic words over your pancakes and they will turn into the body of Elvis Presley you've lost your mind. However if you think that when a priest does it over wafers it becomes the body and blood of Jesus you are just a Catholic." That's pretty hilarious. And it's a great illustration. But what does that have to do with the debate? Not much. Perhaps Harris knows this and doesn't care.

So who wins? There can be no question that Craig technically wins. His opening statement wasn't rebutted. But if you gauge it by whether you think a religious person would be more likely to lean in favor of non-religion and vice versa I think it may be that Harris won. For Harris perhaps that matters more.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Discussion on Libyan Invasion

Would that there was more discussion in our country.

Monday, April 18, 2011

David Frum is Coming Around

His positions on the surveillance state and war are terrible, but on economics he seems to be coming around. Here's a quote:

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Why Big Business Opposes Single Payer

I've always thought it was a little strange that one lobbying sector (health insurance providers and pharmaceuticals) had the power to override the remaining sectors. Single payer health care seems very appealing to business. It's half the cost of what we have. Isn't it good for business to reduce health care costs?

And yet here's IBM attempting to destroy single payer in Vermont. That's kind of hard to understand. I understand the right wing claim that the quality of health care would suffer. That claim is totally bogus, but health insurance providers will offer it because single payer threatens their gravy train. But why would IBM care about that? They should care about profits. Cheaper single payer should be more profitable for them.

But here's the problem as described in the linked article. The present state of affairs provides an excellent recruitment and retention tool. Say you are an engineer that's put a bit of money away and you'd like to take a year off. Maybe hike the Appalachian trail or try and bike across the country. That's manageable if health care is provided by the state. But not with our present system. You can't be without health care in this country, which means you need to be employed always.

Also the fear of being unemployed keeps wages low. You'll work for less because you are scared to be without. And you should be scared, because if you develop health problems without insurance you can be in a world of hurt. Worker insecurity is great for the economy as Alan Greenspan explained.

The other thing this does is crush start up companies. Health care is a tremendous start up hurdle for a new small business. The status quo reduces competition.

Big business isn't a monolith. Some sectors might prefer a cheaper, higher quality system. But so far it seems there are not enough in that sector for us to make this kind of a change. The kind of change that would not only deliver freedom for everyone, but would deliver better care, eliminate health related bankruptcies, and eliminate the deficit in one fell swoop. An ideal solution supported by the vast bulk of the population. But not supported by the people that count. That is, some elements of big business.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Illegality of Afghan War

For some reason I just assumed that the war in Afghanistan was in fact approved by the UN Security Council. I don't know why I thought that, but it's false. Since the UN Charter is the supreme law of the land this means that the war was illegal even according to US laws. The UN Charter mandates that countries settle their conflicts peacefully and that force is not permissible unless authorized by the Security Council, except in the case where it is required to repel an imminent attack, which did not apply here.

Despite that did Congress pass a law authorizing the war? It would seem they did not. The Congressional authorization granted the President the authority to use force "against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

Did the Taliban do that? Nobody I know claims that they did. None of the 9-11 hijackers were Afghans. Two may possibly have passed through Afghanistan. That's about it. The Congressional authorization no more gives the President authority to attack Afghanistan than it gives him authority to attack Germany, where some of the planning is believed to have occurred.

What a ridiculous and destructive war. And Congress knows this stuff. It's not like they don't have Ron Paul on the floor informing them of the facts. Here he goes. At least we still have Ron Paul.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Tobin Tax

Complaining about today's problems is one thing. I do it often. Here I am complaining about how the financialization of the economy has ruined things. But what about solutions?

One is something called the Tobin Tax. It's a measure that would throw a little sand in the speculative machine, increasing incentives on investment for productive use rather than speculation. A thousand economists have signed a letter to the G20 finance ministers urging them to adopt such a measure.

Hedge fund managers make as much in one hour as a middle class household makes in 47 years. And while the income earner in that middle class household is actually bringing overall value it's not clear that the hedge fund manager is doing so. The Tobin Tax would help. It's working fine in England, but Wall St is resisting and so far Washington is siding with them.

The Poor Pay The Highest Percentage of State Taxes

Following up on my earlier post about what the rich pay in taxes, Vinny made the point that at the state level things get even worse. The poor pay a higher proportion of their income in every state except Vermont. It sounds shocking but it's true.

I learned this via an interesting article called 9 Things the Rich Don't Want You To Know About Taxes. It's worth a read.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Personally I Think Mike Church is a Scammer

How many of you know that right wing radio hires fake callers to call in and make the hosts look good or set hosts up so they can spin a preferred narrative. That's not terribly surprising. The goal is profits. Maximizing market share. It makes sense then to try and persuade people of your impressiveness with deception.

I could be wrong but I think I just heard Mike Church do exactly that.

Mike Church is a right wing Ayn Rand worshiping radio talk show host on Sirius and he has a caller that says his name is "Howard" from Pennsylvania and he's decided to close up his small business because he's sick of paying all this tax money to the government. He paid a million dollars in taxes, but he's going to go in today and tell his 30 employees that he's done and they need to find new jobs because they can't work for him any more. He's not going to be a slave to the government. Now the world, and his employees, will have to suffer on without him. Big government has stifled the small businessman and now we're all worse off. If only we were allowed to be free.

Church asks no questions that would permit us to confirm the veracity of this story. He nonchalantly says after he hears the story "We refer to this as 'Going Galt'". In other words Ayn Rand has this story about a guy, John Galt, that is exactly like that. Surprise, surprise, this well spoken and articulate caller fits the narrative perfectly.

I think it's fake. What kind of a person would do this to 30 employees in this economy and with tax rates as modestly progressive as what we have today? Church's questions seem unnatural. There is no "What do you do? What options will your customers have? Do your employees have children?" He doesn't sympathize with him on the one hand but then ask him to consider the suffering of his employees on the other or if there are other ways of making the point. He just takes it all in stride.

Incidentally Rand has another story about a guy named Howard. In this case Howard Roark. Again, I just don't believe it. I could be wrong but the glove seems to fit too nicely.

Jesus Was a Liberal Democrat

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bill Hicks on Foreign Policy

Afghans Have Never Heard of 9-11

92% of Afghan men in war torn regions have never heard of the coordinated attacks against the United States on September 11. What they know is that bombs from the United States are falling all around them and they are left to speculate about the motivations.

And I'm with them. I'm forced to speculate about the motivations. I have no idea why we are attacking them. Of course the Taliban didn't attack us. OBL did, but the Taliban offered to hand him over to a third party. That offer was ignored by the Bush administration. Is it an oil pipeline? Is it the mineral deposits? Is it just the fact that it's a strategic location? Could be any or all of those things. Or it could just be that war is profitable, and as The Onion realized right away we were just itching to get the war machine going.

On a side note I'm having a dialogue with Richard Carrier on general criminality of US foreign policy. He's always been an Obama supporter. Richard is thorough and thoughtful if a bit prickly so I think it's useful. You can read it here.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

On Goldstone's Op-Ed

Some thoughts from John Dugard, law professor at the University of Pretoria and former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory on Goldstone's Op-Ed.

Health Care in Hawaii

Did you know that Hawaii mandates that that all employers provide a rather generous health care package to any employee working more than 20 hours a week? Here's a NY Times story on it. And here's what's bizarre. Generally costs for products in Hawaii are much higher than the mainland. But not for health care. Their premiums are among the lowest in the nation. Their annual medicare expenses per capita are far and away the lowest in the nation.

Quality? Apparently it's wonderful. Even Rush Limbaugh has glowing praise. Probably when he spoke he didn't realize the legal mandates regarding care.

Friday, April 8, 2011

West Coast Customs

…man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits… - Wilhelm von Humboldt writing in The Limits of State Action

I don't watch a lot of TV, but this last weekend I watched a bit of a show called West Coast Customs and found myself annoyed.

If you don't know it's a show on Discovery about a custom auto shop that does amazing things. I'm watching an episode and supremely impressed with the work being done. It's a lot of Mexicans doing the amazing work. Maybe some are illegals. I don't know. But then there's the owner who basically walks around and complains. "Is the work done yet? Why not?" kind of thing. In one scene he says something like "Yeah, I thought I'd come in here since the guys are working through the night to get this extremely important and urgent job done. You know, sort of as motivation." So he's there whining and complaining as if he's helping while the Mexicans are doing the actual work, which is like amazing artistry.

OK, so the CEO is annoying. That's not surprising. He's there to make money, etc. Fine. So then it's a commercial break. Here's the commercial. It's a lot of images of this CEO doing this idiot finger thing. As if he is the one responsible. As if the success of the shop is largely due to the fact that he comes in occasionally and complains about the work not being done. As if he brings some sort of important attitude. I never saw him do a bit of real work on the show.

It's not that I have a problem with him being successful. But who is really the impressive one here? Is it Ryan Friedlinghause with his finger signs and tattoos? Or is it these Mexican workers who put together these amazing creations? Are we supposed to be impressed because Ryan provided the capital needed to purchase some equipment? We return to the show and it's a car for the lead singer of Korn. The Mexicans work all weekend and Ryan delivers the car. The Korn singer is falling all over himself. "Ryan you are amazing. Thank you so much. I owe you such a debt of gratitude."

Yeah, it's a good thing Ryan walks around showing off his tattoos. He's self made as you can see. Did it all by himself. He's got that three fingers up thing. Where would we be without him?

I'm sure Ryan does important things. It's not like he's irrelevant to the success of West Coast Customs. Apparently his grandfather gave him some money. He probably took risks, worked pretty hard, and now he's wealthy and that's great. But there's just an imbalance in terms of the way credit is given. He is not self made. He is indebted to many hard working and creative people that are all around him.

It's the same in the rest of corporate America. Here's the latest Ford Mustang. A beautiful car. Who did that? Who made that? If you check Wikipedia they say it's a guy named Doug Gafka. Doug Gafka was the design director. I don't know Doug Gafka, but I have serious doubts that he designed this. What he probably did was he looked at various designs that were created by others. He contributed to the selection of the final design. That's an important role of course and he deserves some credit. But who designed it? Who took the clay and shaped it? Who laid out the sheet metal in the CAD tool? In the case of the Ford Mustang maybe you could track that down. But I think in a lot of cases, more so with less prominent creations, the credit goes to the CEO or the Program Manager. It's not that they don't do important things. In many cases they do (though in many they probably don't). But it seems that the laborer, the one that actually did the creating, he's not really recognized. He should be.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Bogus Freedom Index From Heritage

In defense of neoliberalism I've often seen conservatives put forward something from the Heritage Foundation, which is a Koch brother's financed conservative think tank. They have something they call an Index of Economic Freedom. Presumably the more free, the more neoliberal.

Before looking at it I think it's useful to first consider what you would expect from it. I think you expect two things. Number 1 you expect crappy countries to be ranked low regardless of the real economic freedom. Heritage is made up of ideologues. They advocate on behalf of neoliberalism, which means policies that are for the benefit of the Koch brothers. Putting forward a poor country as an example for others to emulate doesn't reflect well on neoliberalism. So there's pressure to pretend that a poor country is socialist rather than neoliberal no matter what it really is.

The second thing you expect is that states on the US enemies list would be ranked low. Iran is bad, so it's un-free. Same for Libya, N Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. On the other hand US client states would tend to be pushed higher. So Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, etc.

So let's take a look. Of course I looked at it before offering these expectations, but you can see that it does follow those expectations to some degree. Do these rankings make any sense? I don't think so.

What is the opposite of neoliberalism, assuming neoliberalism is economic freedom? Socialism or communism. What states do you think of when you think of socialism? For me it's Western Europe. So Sweden, France, Norway, Belgium. It happens I was in Belgium a year and a half ago. The people I worked with complained that the welfare state is so extensive and taxes so high that there's no incentive to work.

Where is Belgium ranked? 32 out of 179. Pretty high. Sweden is 22, France 64, Norway 30. Socialist states have high economic freedom.

Really the United States is another case. Enormous regulations on trading, labor, product development. Half of our health care expenditures come via government. We have welfare. We have publicly subsidized high tech. An enormous defense sector. Starting a business isn't easy. My brother tried to start a used car business but quit after dealing with all the red tape. We're in the top 10 most economically free countries in the world supposedly.

I've argued that Haiti is a good example of the effects of neoliberalism. Unlike the United States where the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25/hr, in Haiti it's closer to $5/day. Low tariffs, limited labor rights, non-existent government spending. Very free, right? Heritage puts them at 133. How is this possible?

Let's take a closer look at their analysis on Haiti. The first problem is "Business Freedom." Haiti has an "inadequate regulatory framework." Inadequate regulations? So the more regulated the more free? I thought Heritage hated all that red tape and regulations. Suddenly up is down. Regulation is freedom.

Next is trade freedom. They have inefficient state run administration at the sea ports, says Heritage. OK, so what would be the solution to that problem? Bigger government? Is that what Heritage regards as more economic freedom? Bigger government?

Heritage is close to right on taxes. Haiti's taxes are good and low. On government spending they rock. Crushing the world average. Way less government spending. Heritage says they are at the mean in terms of monetary freedom.

On financial freedom Heritage complains that regulations on banking remain poor. Huh? I thought limited regulation was a good thing. They complain of weak enforcement of property rights. Wouldn't we need bigger government for that? They talk of corruption and bribes. Are they suggesting more government involvement to prevent bribes?

I agree with the criticisms of Haiti's economic situation. Haitians elected a progressive President to resolve these issues. He was ousted by an American backed coup in order to impose neoliberalism. Heritage wants to pretend Haiti is not neoliberalism. You got what you want in Haiti Mr Koch and Heritage. Now you need to own up to it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Goldstone Backtracking

Richard Goldstone is backing away from the findings of the report he issued. This is a bit surprising. Many reports were written, including those by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Goldstone's report is pretty consistent with them. If the conclusions are not that radical why would Goldstone distance himself from it?

Goldstone has been subjected to an intense vilification campaign. Alan Dershowitz called him an evil, evil man and a traitor to the Jewish people. He's been told he's guilty of a blood libel. Apparently Jews in South Africa prevented him from participating in his grandson's Bar Mitzvah.

But here's the biggest factor in my view. The Human Rights Council is recommending follow up on the status of war crimes investigations at the International Court of Justice. The basis for the criminal allegations is primarily the Goldstone Report. So the pressure is on to undermine it. I imagine the pressure on Goldstone is intense. If no action was taken as a result of the report's findings I suppose there wouldn't be much to see here.

For some commentary on Goldstone's about face go here.

Feynman on What You Know

Perhaps I should grant that Darf and HP do have maybe a minor decent point in that I sometimes sound like I'm brimming with confidence when in fact the evidence at my disposal does not quite rise to the level I need. I should probably try to couch my rhetoric with qualifications. In my defense I think sometimes that goes without saying. I present an argument forcefully not because it actually reflects the confidence level I have but because it's an effort to goad a response. On the other hand sometimes the confidence I'm expressing is real. I genuinely am confident and I shouldn't be.

Not that Darf and HP get anything right of importance right. :) Here's Richard Feynman on the topic.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Would You Be Better Off In Europe?

An interesting article here. Here's a few excerpts.

Take Zurich and Chicago. One looks good and the other, broken down. If America has such a famously high GDP per capita and Chicago is one of America's crown jewels, maybe there is something wrong with using GDP per capita as an index of social well-being...

If I get a raise, I might be worse off. I might widen the gap in income with others around me. Who cares? Well, by doing this, I might be spreading poverty, which, like everything, is relative. I might make my public space more of a hellhole than before...

People at the libertarian Cato Institute love to scoff: "Oh, our poor in America are so well off in GDP per capita." Go ahead. Argue. I'll let you win. But I dare the Cato types, when the argument is over, to go outside and walk around some Chicago neighborhoods...

Even in 2008, precisely because of "globalization," Germany had a serious shortage of people able to fill high-skill, high-paying jobs, especially engineers. In the United States, engineers complain they can't find work; many of them just end up in sales. In the union-free, lower-cost United States, we don't create the kind of jobs engineers can do. Germany's problem? It has too many such jobs. It's our whole globalization thesis turned upside down...

In 2005, the real hourly wage for production workers in America was approximately 8 percent lower than it was in 1973, while our national output (productivity) per hour is 55 percent higher. So it's dubious whether most Americans have gained even a penny in purchasing power since 1989.

Also, here's a fun tool for contrasting what life would be like for you in comparison to another country.