Sunday, June 28, 2015

on "same-sex marriage" and predictions for the future

The theme of the week for the SCOTUS seemed to be "give the powers that be what they want". The good news (with "SSM" and the ACA): We can see how these things will play out-- and my guess is that both will be quite mild, despite the rhetoric on both sides and what they tell us is at stake. (People usually forget that such things are far more than legal. And in the case of the ACA, there are a number of relatively obvious, practical benefits.) 

With "SSM", my educated guess is that there will be a flurry of activity from activists and those who are passionate about the topic and the freedom. After that, there will be disappointments with personal/public ripple effects (e.g., divorce, child custody) and unsavory moments (e.g., Brittney Griner's recent problems), but mostly apathy-- that will reveal how little was actually at stake for *most* of the relatively few people involved. (There are *real* issues for some of those involved, but that's a relatively small part of what seems to be going on here-- and those could have been handled through more-modest means than SSM.)

The legalization of polygamy (polyandry and polygyny) is a much easier legal case to make-- than what has happened over the past decade with "SSM". There will be fewer people interested in making the case publicly-- from whatever motives (e.g., true love, the op to be famous, legitimate or semi-legitimate financial considerations-- e.g., health insurance). But all it takes is one good litigant-- and it'd be easy to win, given legal precedent. The SCOTUS seems to be into politics quite a bit these days, but who would oppose this? Feminists. LOL! Christians? Nope, this would be much more consistent with a Biblical worldview. As a result, I'd guess that they'll be legal within a few years. (A really interesting side question: If so, will polygamy return to a place of vital significance within LDS theology?)

Church-level responses to "SSM": As a result of the SCOTUS ruling, the litigiousness of American culture, and the intolerance of faux liberals, I'd expect at least theologically-conservative churches to make these adjustments in short order (if they have not done so, already): 

1.) institute significant pre-marital requirements for weddings at their building and through their ministers; 
2.) restrict such weddings to members; and 
3.) tighten membership requirements considerably. 

It also seems likely that churches and state legislatures will move to separate civil from sacred/religious marriages. These legal and church choices would have benefits and costs-- and quite arguably, the benefits would (easily) outweigh the costs. 

For disciples of Jesus, the challenges are the same: live out your own marriage and family as well as possible; strive for community within the Church and church that uplifts marriage and family; work to fulfill the Great Commission-- making disciples who can make disciples; minister to our "neighbors" as there is need; and so on.

Friday, June 26, 2015

the ACA as political, judicial, and economics

A nice article in Forbes that leads to the following observations...

From the beginning, the "survival of ObamaCare" (the ACA) has been a matter of politics, economics, and the judiciary. Many people have made the mistake of assuming it belonged to only one or two of those realms. 

While it seems that the judicial part of it has been somewhere between troubling and incoherent, the good news is that it keeps the ACA in the court of economics and politics. 

A primary political implication of this is that defenders of the ACA will have to live with its benefits and its costs, with little or no ability to shuffle blame to other entities. When it inevitably continues to cause significant costs and its benefits are modest, the political costs to be paid will probably be significant. 

The economics are that the ACA could only be an Ace bandage (or maybe only a band-aid) on a broken bone. Failing to understand and/or deal with the root issues, the govt is trying to make health insurance more accessible to those with fewer means. This has been a reasonable pursuit (albeit slated to fail), since the govt has worked so hard to jack up the system and to make health insurance so much more expensive over the last 70 years. 

on measuring and assuming racism and other isms

Lew Rockwell on trying to define and measure "racism" (or other isms)...

If we locate/define it as a heart matter, we'll find it difficult to measure. If we look to behavior-- and move beyond obvious examples-- it becomes quite difficult to measure well (if that matters to those who use the term). 

The usual efforts to measure such things are curious and unsatisfying. Two key examples: 1.) Folks often rely on simple aggregate stats-- comparing all members of group X to all members of group Y. (The most common example here is men vs. women.) No other variables are held constant-- and all of the differences are assumed to be caused by discrimination. The comparisons are quite selective. (For example, nobody uses this method to compare Asian-Americans to the average.) And theory/logic is ignored. (Under what contexts would the market tolerate paying X a modest percentage of what they pay Y? Why aren't labor markets assumed to be reasonably competitive in such cases? Why wouldn't greedy folks hire a lot of X to max profit?) 

2.) Folks measure certain outcomes and not others. Here, people seem to start with a theory/story of where an ism might be-- and then look for anecdotal or statistical differences. If one doesn't imagine that an ism could exist (perhaps mixing in the supposed existence of "good intentions"), we don't look (or ignore outcomes when they're presented). Examples: How we measure police violence by race. How we ignore policy outcomes and policy stances against African-Americans on Social Security, minimum wage, and K-12 education. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015


The SCOTUS upheld key aspects of the ACA / ObamaCare today. Not a surprising outcome.

The most favorable implications of the SCOTUS decision: 

1.) It further reduces all of the macro-level uncertainty created by the ACA and the many lousy efforts to do fiscal policy over the past eight years ("stimulus" by Bush, Obama, and Congress). As always, thanks for the lousy recovery!

2.) It takes away excuses from the Left about the limitations, failures, and costs of the ACA. We know they'll take credit for its benefits-- and that's fine-- but it'll be nice that they can't hide so easily from its costs. As usual, the pursuit of power, good intentions, and assuaging guilt trumps good policy. 

3.) It helps the GOP avoid the sadly-inevitable black eye of not having enough intellect, courage, and momentum to come up with policy fixes to the underlying problems in health care/insurance-- most of which have been caused by the govt over the past 70 years. That's reason #53 why one should distinguish "conservatives" and "libertarians" from "Republicans". 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

why women are (far less likely) to be Libertarian than men

A bunch of possible answers to an interesting and important question. In no particular order...

1.) Women generally feel more vulnerable and embrace govt as a means to various ends. 

2.) Women generally tend to be more paternalistic in their personal relationships and may extend this to governance.

3.) Women generally pay less attention to politics and reasonably settle for one of the two major parties.

Others? Is Gen 3:16 in play here?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Haidt's "The Righteous Mind"

I loved Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind, when I read it a few months ago. But it requires a lengthy and relatively in-depth review, so I've been postponing it to do some other writing projects.

Haidt's book is a must-read for those interested in politics and religion. He comes at his topic as an academic, popularizing research in various fields. He comes into it as a non-fundamentalist, evidenced by his mid-life switch from a liberal (of some sort) to a lower-case-L libertarian. He comes at this from an evolutionary perspective (complete with research and a lot of just-so stories), but you don't need to be an evolutionist to learn a ton. He comes at things as an atheist, but one who is respectful of religion. In a word, the work is fascinating; the thought experiments are provocative; the implications are interesting and helpful. Again, it's a must-read for those into the combo of politics and religion. 

Haidt opens with the Rodney King line, "Can we all get along?" (p. xvii). His goal is "to drain some of the heat, anger and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity...My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us to get along." (xviii-xix)

His overview of the book:
Part 1: Intuition precedes moral reasoning. And our reasoning (such as it is) serves those intuitions-- as a rider serves an elephant (his metaphor; xx-xxi).
Part 2: There's more to morality than harm and fairness (xxi). People are prone to think solely in terms of one or the other-- and there are three or four other criteria as well.
Part 3: "Morality binds and blinds" (xxii). His metaphor here is the self-interested and relatively selfish chimp (90% of us) and the social/group bee (10%). In evolutionary terms, individuals compete with individuals, but groups also compete with groups. So, there are advantages to cooperating at times, even when incentives to cheat still abound. 

Haidt argues that the mind is inherently moral, but intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental (xix). He sees its righteousness (and its cousin, self-righteousness) as normal and argues that it's "a feature of our evolutionary design" (xx). (The latter claim ends up somewhere between compelling [in places] and feeling like "just-so stories" [in other places].)

Haidt discusses the literature/debate on where morality comes from (5-9): nature vs. nurture; blank slate (Locke) vs. "pre-loaded" (whether inscribed by God and/or "determined" by evolution) vs. rationalism (where children figure out things for themselves, more or less a la Piaget and then Kohlberg). And he notes 
universal social conventions (in particular, that harm is wrong) vs. cultural conventions (but to what extent are these things a matter of cause or effect?). 

In all of this, "disgust" seems to play a significant role-- frequently (but not always) in response to behaviors that were/are more prone to illness, contagion, and disease. But at times, disgust seems to move beyond harm. As such, Haidt asks "why do most non-Western cultures moralize so many practices that seem to have nothing to do with harm?" (15). Another category that rises to the fore: "disrespect" (22). In fact, when Haidt began experimenting in this arena, he found that disgust (vs. community ethics) and disrespect (vs. divinity) were the two things that set people off within various cultures-- aside from harm (117). 

On a related matter, "liberals" score better on neophilia (open to experience) and "conservatives" on neophobia (172). Haidt sees this as an evolutionary "disgust" adaptation to the "omnivore's dilemma"-- how to eat animals appropriately (172). And without disgust, we can't have the sacred-- by means of a necessary contrast (174).

When people have "harmless taboo violations", they can't defend them and always try to rationalize them back to perceived harms-- even inventing harms as necessary. "These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions." (28-29)

Haidt describes Plato, Hume and Jefferson on the mind and emotions (36), focusing on a distinction between moral judgment as intuition and reasoning. "Emotions are not dumb"; they "are a kind of information processing." (52-53)

As such, one big piece of advice: "Talk to the elephant first" if possible. "If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch-- a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed." (59) Here, it's obvious that empathy is far more important than righteousness. One must be correct but typically needs the tact to approach arguments carefully-- say, to "Tell It Slant" (a la Jesus, Emily Dickinson, and Eugene Peterson).

A big part of Haidt's "conversion" story is the set of revelations he's had in his field research-- in particular, while in India (119-124). As he grew to like the natives, he gained empathy and perspective-- in ascribing weight to community over equality and personal autonomy as "sacred values". As a result, he gained the ability to disagree agreeably with them and was able to practice (true) tolerance. He could still see the ugly side of the implications of their beliefs. But he was able to see the positive sides more clearly and imagine why they would make those choices. From there, he was able to extend the same skills to American disagreements over sacrilege, materialism, and trivialized sexuality.

On ignorance and fundamentalism in social/political matters...
Haidt finds that social and political judgments are particularly intuitive (66-69). This lines us nicely with what economists say about limited info and "statistical discrimination". The latter is the *universal* and nearly-continuous practice of drawing inferences about individuals from information about the relevant groups-- and about specific contexts from knowledge of related contexts. 

Along these lines, Haidt lays out some fascinating research on the use of "trigger words" and the "Implicit Association Test" at illustrating how quickly/easily (and perhaps disturbingly) many of us can flip our supposed views.

In the political realm, "Public Choice" economists call this "rational ignorance and apathy"-- recognizing that it's worth little effort to gain knowledge or take action in political markets. The result is a ton of ignorance, "special interest" to an issue or two, and an often-unseemly adherence to the major political parties. 

Haidt wonders why we would evolve toward rationalization over truth-- and persuasion over discovery (83). His just-so story is based on the importance of groups and the role of reputation within groups. He notes, as have other authors, that individual self-interest is (or seems to be) lightly related (or unrelated) to political stances. Early-on, he posits instead that voters are focusing on their group. That's a just-so story-- and seems lame, pushing the question to why the individuals would join that group in the first place. (Later, he argues that it's moral self-interest instead of economic self-interests [216].) But why bother with these stories when this sort of thing is the natural result (with or without evolutionary processes) of making important decisions with limited and costly-to-obtain information?

Haidt shares some amusing research on the limits of ethical reasoning (104), noting that moral philosophers are equally likely to engage in all sorts of unethical behavior. Given our limited information and our penchant for rationalization, the best opportunity to make progress is to read widely and surround oneself with a diverse set of people who can help one reason (relatively) openly (105). Unfortunately, few people seem to care about that, more comfortable in their ignorance, rationalizations, or even fundamentalism. Some people would need to work really hard intellectually to get "there", given their current constraints. Others could get there more easily-- e.g., given their greater ability to read and find a diversity of friends. But in my experience, I don't see as much of it among my "smart" colleagues as I do among my average friends.

Another interesting angle is the addictive nature of partisanship (103). This probably connects to "rational ignorance" and fundamentalism, especially among "smart" people. In any case, it speaks to the wisdom of avoiding immersion in the toxicity of the contemporary political culture. As such, one is probably in a much better position, avoiding TV-news and talk radio-- instead, reading, practicing silence and solitude, etc.

On politics, ideology and political parties
Haidt draws an important distinction (161) between "fairness" as "equality" on the Left vs. "proportionality" on the Right. (In economics and public policy, the distinction I've heard and used is a focus on outcomes on the Left vs. processes on the Right.)

In chapter 8, Haidt has some fascinating observations about differences in political marketing. He sees Democrats appealing on Care and Fairness, but Republicans appealing on those two (albeit differently), as well as Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.

Part of his passion for this field stemmed from his desire for Democrats to do a (much) better job in selling themselves to those outside their camp. "Republicans understand moral psychology; Democrats don't." (181). "I didn't blame the Republicans for trickery. I blamed the Democrats for psychological naivete." (182) Ironically (given their reputation and often-self-righteous self-assessments), Haidt found that the Democrats were much worse on understanding and empathy in this realm (even though they score a little bit higher [333]), hamstringing their ability to achieve (more) political success. (One fascinating piece of evidence: moderates and conservatives were best able to pretend to be liberals, while "very liberal" people were the worst [334].)

He critiques John Kerry's two most prominent slogans as "ineffectual". The first, "America can do better" was "connected to no moral foundation at all". And the second, "Help is on the way" was "connected weakly to the Care/Harm foundation, but only if you think of America as a nation of helpless citizens" (180).

More need for empathy: Democrats constantly ascribe evil motives or use (bad) "psychology to explain away conservatism", making it "unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously..." (191)

Haidt on the need of leaders to practice civil religion (193): "The president must invoke the name of God (though not Jesus), glorify America's heroes and history, quote its sacred texts, and perform the transubstantiation of pluribus into unum."

Haidt on the importance of social moral capital, usually overlooked on the Left: "Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build up and easy to destroy...the threat of moral entropy is intense...not a big margin for error...[if] you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot on the Left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism." (342-343) 

Haidt sees trade-offs here: liberals are more likely to push for individual rights, but more likely to "reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently". Conservatives are better of that but often fail to recognize certain victims. Aside from the violation of Webster's Dictionary and the other reasons why "civil unions" would have been preferable to "same-sex marriage", is there any better example than the recent and on-going debate on "SSM"?

Haidt follows this with a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of the views of liberals, libertarians, and social conservatives (345-361). He admires liberals for believing that "governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms". But of course, there is are gaps (massive chasms?) between "should", "can", and "can do well". And in practice, there are so few liberals. Instead, we see a lot of posers-- a dog's breakfast of statists, partisans, crony capitalists who favor certain special interests, and true liberals. 

For Libertarians, he focuses on their admiration for the "miracle of the market". He then takes another poke at "liberals": "Liberals generally embrace Darwin and reject 'intelligent design' as the explanation for design and adaptation in the natural world, but they don't embrace Adam Smith as the explanation for design and adaptation in the economic world. They [often] prefer the 'intelligent design' of socialist economies" and government control (356). 

On altruism...
Haidt devotes considerable attention to the difficult topic of "altruism". Simplistic models in economics ignore "unselfish" actions within its "self-interested" models of economic decision-making. (Haidt makes a common error in relying on a standard caricature of reductionism in Economics [150].) Broadening things a bit, it's easy to include the well-being of others into one's "utility function" and to define unselfish actions as self-interested (chosen because they reveal that the decision-maker believes the altruism to be their best choice). 

In contrast, scientists (and Evolutionists) have heavy lifting to do here: "evolutionary theorists have realized that reciprocal altruism is not so easy to find among nonhuman species...[some] evidence for reciprocity in chimpanzees and capuchins...but still ambiguous...Reciprocal altruism also fails to explain why people cooperate in group activities." (207) Haidt cites the free rider problem and the "strong desires" to protect community from individual slackers (210). "Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. We're one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally--even if rarely-- can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees...But if you focus on behavior in groups of people who know each other and share goals and values, then our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive that we don't even notice it." (229-230)

Gould's argument about "punctuated equilibrium" has always interested me. On the one side, we have those who have relatively few explanations-- and tremendous faith, that an amazing number of small changes led to what we see today. On the other side, we have those like Gould who (quite reasonably) have less faith in the mechanism and engage in a different sort of hand-waving-- that the evolutionary mechanisms are insufficient and require some unexplained quantum-leaps forward to reach what we see today. Haidt visits a version of that here: "I used to believe that there were too many small steps in the evolution of morality to identify one as the Rubicon", but he changed his mind when he heard this from Michael Tomasello: "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together." (237)

Haidt ultimately concludes that "human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee". We're like chimps in the competition we face between individuals. "But human nature also has a...groupish overlay..shaped by the relentless competition of groups." In a word, "human beings are conditional hive creatures...[with] the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest..." (258) Haidt points to "hive switches" that encourage the move from individual to group focus. For example, he sees rave music/dancing and religious worship as examples (267-269). 

The "bee" part of us explains (or at least, allows us to weave reasonably-compelling stories about) group behavior-- whether altruism and heroism or war and genocide. Of course, an alternative explanation is that its in an individual's interest to be a part of a well-functioning group-- whether a company, a church, an extended family, or a civic organization. (We cover this sort of thing in economics-- particularly, "managerial economics"-- in great detail.) As such, Haidt sees religion as "an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality." (xxii)

In chapter 11, he provides a "positive" and "rational" approach to religion as a "team sport" that encourages good behavior among individuals and groups. He takes (some, many?) sociologists to (ironic) task for the way they approach religion: "Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees." (287) And of course, aggregating individuals through polling data doesn't, at least by itself, move the analysis toward the hive. 

He also takes "the new atheists" to task. He dismisses Hitchens out-of-hand, since he advertises his own work as polemical. The others (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) claim "to speak for science" (289). But in seeing religion as "sets of parasitic memes" (292), they're stuck in a strange and faith-filled paradigm: "you have to grant that religiosity is (or at least, used to be) beneficial or you have to construct a complicated, multi-step explanation of how humans in all known cultures came to swim against the tide of adaptation and do so much self-destructive religious stuff. The New Atheists choose the latter course." (290) Instead, he cites Nicholas Wade (!) [306] and others approvingly-- on the idea that religion helps groups which helps individuals (297-298). He also brings Pape into the mix (312)! 

A host of other resources: 
1.) My favorite: Haidt (138) notes that "Bentham offended many of his contemporaries by his inability to perceive variety and subtlety in human motives." He uses Bentham to mess with a group of Libertarians to great effect on 
2.) Haidt's TED talk on this topic. 
4.) On the channels in our brain from muscle memory-- here, riding a bike
5.) Cass Sunstein on what conservatives care about
6.) Shermer in Reason on a supposed increase in moral smartness
7.) Related research from Joshua Knobe on the "Knobe Effect"

Saturday, May 16, 2015

a really nice twist on (homosexual vs. other) orientation and choice...

a really nice twist on (homosexual vs. other) orientation and choice...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

should X unionize? (in this article, X = adjuncts and grad students)

I want to discuss this set of NYT articles and these two groups (adjuncts and grad students), but I also want to answer the question in broader terms to help people apply the principles more generally.

A union is a cartel of labor suppliers. They're striving for more (monopoly) power in their market, as they negotiate compensation (pay, benefits, deferred comp, job conditions/characteristics, etc.) with those who "demand" (rent) labor services.

1.) Is it good for X to form a cartel/union? Likely/maybe. IF they can form the cartel AND keep it together at relatively low cost-- AND IF it enhances their bargaining power sufficiently-- then the benefits may outweigh the costs for them. (The various articles do a nice job in wrestling with the practical concerns here.) 

In a word, it's (far) easier said than done-- to form/maintain an effective cartel-- at least, without the government's help. One practical concern is that the increased bargaining power may not result in sufficient gains, particularly if employers are hamstrung from compensating at an artificially high rate-- e.g., because of budget constraints in the public sector or product market competition in the private sector. That's why government is often encouraged by cartels (as special interest groups) to restrict their competition in product or labor markets, to engage in crony capitalism on their behalf at the expense of the general public.

2.) Is it good for society for X's to form a cartel/union-- in terms of equity (fairness) and efficiency (good for economic growth, society as a whole, etc.)? Unlikely, in a modern, reasonably-developed economy. Why? Because the norm in those settings is competitive labor markets. If workers are relatively free to shop around their skills, then a competitive labor market will take care of them. Even though employers would love to under-compensate, they won't be able to do so, given the presence of many employers. (Why don't engineers get paid $10/hour?) This is akin to competition in product markets-- where firms would love to charge higher prices, allow lower quality, etc., but cannot do so in a competitive environment.

That said, as labor market are less competitive, then a union can be helpful-- in both equity and efficiency terms. Here, think about the Polish labor unions bargaining with a Communist government as a terrific/clear example-- or American baseball players before "free agency". As "monopsony" power for firms increases, the door opens wider for unions to be effective and equitable.

So, how do we know? Two relatively easy tests come to mind. First, you can think through the labor market options for most of the affected workers. If they have few options, then they are more vulnerable, more prone to under-compensation, etc. Second, if you see the cartel using government to lock out competitors, then it's not monopoly power being used against them; it's their (ironic and cynical) pursuit of monopoly power instead.

Finally, so what about adjuncts and grad students? Unless they're in a large city, adjuncts have relatively few options-- in academia. But given their intellect and broad skills (right?), they (should) have many options outside of academia. Whatever the level of monopoly power in this market, it's certainly wisdom for them to have/pursue non-academic jobs and only adjunct on the side.

Grad students generally have a number of options as they enter grad school. (There are certainly exceptions for those who want to enter more specialized fields.) Once they're in a program, it becomes more difficult to leave, increasing the monopoly power of the school/employer. Then again, i
f a school (or even a department) is routinely taking advantage of students, their reputation should take a hit, harming them in the future. That said, wisdom here would be for prospective grad students to research their options thoroughly-- in particular, asking current students how they're being treated as teaching assistants and as they write their dissertations.