Monday, January 13, 2020

Jonah Goldberg, etc. on the Dem primary and "diversity"

After Kamala Harris dropped out, angst about diversity in the Dem primary got rolling. Jonah Goldberg joked: "An Asian guy, two black guys, three white women (one of whom spent much of her life claiming to be Native American), a Pacific Islander woman, a gay guy, a Hispanic guy, two elderly Caucasian Jews (one a billionaire, the other a socialist), a self-styled Irishman, and a few nondescript white guys walk into a bar, and the bartender yells, 'Get the hell out! We value diversity here!'”

Now, as we move to the hot-and-heavy part of their primary, the diversity has largely disappeared-- especially of the racial sorts usually most-emphasized on the Left. What to think? 
a.) Dems may be getting what they want in terms of racial outcomes. but not the picture they like to portray. Do as I say; not as I do.
b.) I'm hoping to see the top-tier candidates propose remedies for this in terms of Affirmative Action, reparations, or redistibution of some sort to deal with this profound inequality.
c.) When you have simplistic ideas about class, economy, and political economy-- and incoherent views on race-- what do you expect?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Larsen on Ryrie on the emotional side of atheism

Looking forward to reading this book in the coming year. (Larsen's review was good too!)

Since atheism is not a coherent logical position (aside from a mere rejection that does not propose a compelling alternative), it's important to consider its true sources. Ryrie's (sympathetic) take is the "emotional" side-- and the history of that angle (esp. the role of anger and anxiety in the 16th & 17th centuries).

In his excellent review, Larsen describes the far-more-common non-theism routes-- combinations of agnosticism, Esau-like apathy (described as "godless" in Hebrews 12:16), and the decline of faux or pseudo forms of Christianity (e.g., less political and social coercion, less reliance on the church's social safety net).

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Pete Buttigieg's incredible "whiteness" (if not "white privilege")

Good to read a really nice bio in The New Yorker on Pete Buttigieg...

His use of religion is really annoying-- except that it makes clear that the Left (or at least Dems) are quite happy to use religion as a convenient and practical means to their ends. Otherwise, he comes across as quite reasonable-- and relatively impressive compared to their other top tier candidates.

Here's the kicker-- and it became clearer to me after this article. He seems like, quite ironically, the top candidate of "white privilege" or at least "whiteness". Trump's numbers with African-Americans will continue to grow, if the economy stays strong. But they'll pick up extra pace if the Dems choose Buttigieg (or Warren or Sanders).

Monday, December 23, 2019

Justice for all, when convenient: Hong Kong, Kaepernick (and LeBron)

When I teach about “personal discrimination,” I often use the example of bigotry against the number 13. You’ve probably heard that some people have the strange religious belief that 13 has supernatural powers.
Owners of tall buildings have succumbed to this bigotry by getting rid of the 13th floor. Well, not eliminating the entire floor, but pretending that it doesn’t exist by adjusting the numbers on elevators and office doors. (The bigotry is amusing when one realizes that the folks on the 14th floor are really on the dreaded 13th floor.)
Even if the owner doesn’t share this numerical bigotry, she’s likely to defer to it. She can probably find enough tenants who don’t personally fear or hate the number 13. But these tenants would still reasonably worry about prospective employees and customers who dislike 13. And that’s enough to make 13 unattractive to tenants — and thus, the owner.
Why do we tolerate this blatant discrimination? Because we don’t care about the number 13 — and because the costs of discriminating against it are quite low, for individuals and society.
Then, I turn to a tougher example. What if you own a restaurant in the Deep South in the 1950s? You’re not a racist, but if you hire black people or serve black people, there could be big trouble for you. Your home or business could be fire-bombed. You or your family might be attacked. You will lose friends and be ostracized by neighbors.
What should you do? In class, I allude to the moral and ethical standards at hand, but leave the question unanswered — as a matter of conscience for my students. Of course, the point is as clear as the question is difficult. Following a moral standard may be costly — and for many, too costly to follow.
What makes this case much more difficult? In contrast to the number 13, we do care about how African-Americans are treated, but we realize that doing the right thing could have been quite costly.
In recent years, to play further with the concept of personal discrimination, I’ve started to discuss Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Michael Sams, Kareem Hunt, Tyreke Hill, Joe Mixon and Ray Rice. All of these football players have characteristics beyond their performance “on the field” that has impacted their “productivity.”
For team owners, the two most prominent goals are to make money and to win games. These players might be capable enough on the field. But they might impact team chemistry or cause a media circus that would sacrifice wins and profits. Hiring a football player is not simply a matter of his productivity on the field.
Now, back to bigotry and personal discrimination. Aside from questions about their “productivity,” these players might be judged and disliked by owners for their off-the-field behavior or beliefs.
For example, an owner might have a problem with Kaepernick’s kneeling, Tebow’s Christianity, Sams’ homosexuality or Hunt’s domestic violence. But even if an owner doesn’t care about these things, what should he do if customers or other players are bothered by their character or behavior?
Finally, let’s turn to Hong Kong and the NBA’s recent troubles with China. Many pro basketball players stood with Kaepernick and for free speech — in his protest against police shootings and his support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But all of those NBA athletes (most prominently, LeBron) caved when it came to free speech and protest against China’s oppression of Hong Kong.
What’s the difference? Not principle, since the actual and potential human rights abuses against those in Hong Kong are far greater than those currently against African-Americans. Perhaps it’s nativism or xenophobia, but I think the most likely explanation is costs and benefits.
What’s the solution? Embrace core principles consistently. Be more focused on character and integrity than virtue signaling and accumulating wealth. And advocate justice for all people — not just when it’s cheap for you or only relevant to those you love, especially if you’re powerful or prominent.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Who are you—and what have you done with Elizabeth Warren?

As it appeared in the C-J (and elsewhere)...
When one of my sons does something unexpected, I like to joke: “Who are you and what have you done with my son?” After reading Elizabeth Warren’s three books on politics, I had the same question about her.

The first, The Two-Income Trap (TT) in 2003, is moderate or even conservative. Some of her arguments on public policy consequences are so well-reasoned that it brings a tear to an economist’s eye. But really, the book is what you’d expect from an academic—thorough work, thoughtful analysis, and careful conclusions.
Warren’s thesis: when financial troubles come, life often falls apart—even for two-income families who “play by the rules”. Higher household incomes could have meant more savings and less risk. But household spending increased as well. With both parents working, a family has less flexibility—thus, “the two-income trap”.
Warren notes that most of the increased spending came from housing. And she rightly saw a connection between housing prices, K-12 school quality, and neighborhood safety. This led her to advocate greatly expanded school choice—vouchers, charters, and so on—to break the link between housing and schools.
The policy prescriptions in TT are mild, compared with her later books and her proposals today. This stemmed from her understanding of how subsidies distort markets and inflate prices: “America simply cannot afford mass subsidies for its middle class to buy housing. Besides, direct subsidies are likely to add more ammunition to the already ruinous bidding wars, ultimately driving home prices even higher.”
She made similar arguments to criticize subsidies for day care. But her analysis and prescriptions were not always impressive. She complains about inflation in higher education without noting the impact of its massive subsidies. And her level of trust toward consumers, particularly the poor and certain minority groups, is not very high.
Unfortunately, the impressive things about Warren went out the proverbial window when she became a politician. It’s easy to see when you compare TT to her other two political books: A Fighting Chance (FC) in 2014 and This Fight Is our Fight (FF) in 2017. Both move toward rhetoric, biography, and boilerplate—and away from careful analysis.
New policy preferences emerge which look like a crass grab for political power. And beyond grand plans that can’t possibly be financed through wealth and income taxes, Warren’s avid embrace of wide-ranging and extensive subsidies—for college, student loan forgiveness, child care, and health care—makes no sense and has no apparent cause.
So, here’s the most amazing story in Warren’s books: Her research on bankruptcy leads to political influence. She gets the opportunity to meet with First Lady Hillary Clinton and argue against a bill penned by industry lobbyists. Congress and President Bill Clinton support the law. But Elizabeth persuades Hillary—who persuades Bill to veto the bill.
But here’s the kicker: The bill is reintroduced in Congress the next Spring. “This time, freshman Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the bill…The bill was essentially the same but Hillary Rodham Clinton was not…Her husband was a lame duck at the time he vetoed the bill; he could afford to forgo future campaign contributions. As New York’s newest senator, however, it seems that Hillary Clinton could not afford such a principled position.” Ouch!
Eleven years later, Warren tells the story again in FC. This time, she shares Hillary’s role in persuading Bill to veto the bill, but does not mention Hillary’s affirmative vote in 2001. Of course, Warren’s redacted re-telling is a smart political move. But it is also indicative of her emergence as a political animal in her own right.
Her flips on public policy are staggering enough—from one who knew better and opposed to someone who pretended not to know better and supported. The hypocrisy is even worse because she crushed Hillary for the exact same move—and Warren’s own sins in this regard are far worse.
So, what happened to Elizabeth? I heard Rod Dreher speak at the 2019 Touchstone Conference on “The Benedict Option”. Dreher had been a devoted Catholic, but “lost his faith” as he investigated the Catholic sexual abuse scandal for The New York Times. He started to obsess on the important work he was doing. He began to imagine that he was indispensible. He didn’t take steps to ground his work in something greater. In Christian terms, “the good fight” became an idol—and idols always fail.
When Dreher used the term “fight” to describe his crusade, it immediately brought Warren’s last two books to mind—with “fight” in both titles and “fighting” as her most prominent metaphor to paint her own efforts. My best guess—and I think, the most gracious interpretation of her hypocritical flips—is that she has traveled a similar path to Dreher.
Hopefully, Warren will not get to enforce her preferred version of society and her hypocrisies on others. And as Dreher eventually learned, hopefully Warren will find that there are things much more important than “the fight”. When the ends justify the means, it’s never ultimately good for those who misunderstand—or those they try to influence and control.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

on voices, variance, and VET

Bob Heleringer's op-ed on Dan Seum in the CJ, on the occasion of Seum's retirement from the KY legislature...

We need more people who think independently and act as a legitimate voice-- whether we agree with them or not. That's one huge reason to appreciate people ranging from Rand Paul, Flake, and Amash to ACO, Gabbard and Yang in national politics. (Another way they're useful: when people equate Rand with Mitch, for example, you can quickly distinguish that they're a rube.)

I worked with Dan on VET. My research indicated that at least a dramatic reduction was in order-- to help the environment and the economy. But the momentum behind the grass-roots movement and Dan's leadership led to its abolition in Louisville (and the better program in So. IN.) I appreciate his work and his voice in the KY legislature.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Bushman on Mormonism

I recently read Richard Lyman Bushman's primer, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. It was the first time I've read literature on Mormonism in quite a while. (Mormons often prefer the label "LDS", but I'll go with Bushman's term here.)

I've studied Mormonism off and on, but moreso back in the day. I used to focus a lot on the holes and difficulties within its doctrine, archaeology, history, etc. But then, I realized the truism that a professed faith does not fit easily into a box-- and that religions and denominations are only general labels. If group X believes ABC, you still need to know what the person believes, who self-styles as a member of group X-- in order to have a useful conversation. If you look at survey data, about 25% of Mormons have conventional, conservative Evangelical views. (This is about the same as Catholics and twice as many as Episcopalians. As I've quipped before to those who are concerned about Mormonism being a cult: if they're a cult, what are the Episcopalians?!)

So, my more-recent efforts were in trying to understand and find common ground. To that end, I enjoyed two books by two pairs of theology professors (one Evangelical; one Mormon) to talk about similarities and differences: How Wide the Divide and Claiming Christ. I had a Mormon colleague who read the book with me-- and was in Bible study with me at school-- leading to an interesting and useful dialogue. And really, the bottom line starts with salvation by God's grace. So, my focus has turned to defining key terms clearly and trying to determine whether one believes they're saved by faith or works.

Bushman is a practicing Mormon, so the treatment is sympathetic but reasonably objective. (Then again, how objective can any work like this be-- or be perceived to be?) If you're looking for that sort of thing, Bushman's book seems as good as any other. But if your goals are evangelism and conversation, I'd recommend one of the other two books.

What did I find of interest (or to quibble about) in Bushman's book?

-He cites the founding miracles of Mormonism as "equivalent to" the resurrection of Jesus (2). As he notes, this will inevitably cause controversy. Uhh, yes!

-He says that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were commanded to be polygamous (3). Although one can make decent biblical arguments that concerns about polygamy are over-stated, I don't know of any support for his particular claim here.

-He is "puzzled" by the "charge" that Mormons are not Christians. But this charge is inevitable--as the flip side of the Mormon claim to greater revelation, to be the one true church, etc. Catholics and Church of Christ have the same problem: if you see yourselves as the only ones or clearly the "best" ones, then the others will obviously see you as deluded, a heretic, or at best, a misguided legalist.

-He compares Joseph Smith to Luther and Alexander Campbell (4-5). He describes the latter as a "rival", which I hadn't heard before. But there is at least some reason for this claim, given the proximity in time frame and Campbell's similar claim to restore/return to original/true Christianity.

-He sees Smith as equivalent to the original biblical prophets, in receiving revelation from God (5). But then he describes Smith's work of "translation" (19-22), which is not equivalent to how the prophets operated. Their books combined direct words from God with their own writing under the Spirit's inspiration. The closest he comes to describing the biblical understanding of its own formation is when he claims that Smith "freely edited the words written under inspiration", presumably inspired by the Spirit (25-26).

-I was a bit surprised to read that the execution of the tithe is interpreted by the member (40). I've heard a range of "enforcement" levels on this-- from looking at W-2s to simply asking a question. (Apparently, this is not a matter of "membership", but being a member with full standing and access to the Temple-- "temple recommend".) In any case, it's an interesting example of what economists call a "public good"-- where people can "free ride" off the contributions of others. Churches have trouble here, since you can go to a church without contributing anything. But Mormons work around that by saying that you're not a member if you don't tithe (with some level of enforcement).

-It was interesting to read his account of the necessity of the priest to have authority behind the required sacraments (49-51). I don't remember reading that in such stark terms before.

-Bushman covers important ground in traditional areas of interest: the three levels of Heaven along with the few people who would end up in Hell (75-77); the theological thought (albeit weakly covered here) and the practical logic behind polygamy and the eventual reversal on that doctrine (86-91); the legalistic practices with hot beverages and alcohol (104-105); and as his last topic (!), the historically awkward position on African-Americans and the priesthood (110-112).

Socialism Sucks

Economists Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell (L&P) have written Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World—a breezy book on a stale and lousy economic system. Its casual tone is rooted in their use of beer as a metaphor and a key prop to describe socialism in various countries.
Their punchline: many people advocate socialism without knowing what it is. Socialism is when government owns all of the means of production rather than individuals. But few people really want that, including most self-styled socialists. Instead, most of them imagine “socialism” as a dog’s breakfast of Leftist and Liberal policy proposals. They see it as a vague call to increase government activism, justice, fairness, and ironically, democracy.
So, if you’re worried that so many people are advocating (real) socialism today, you can rest easy. They’re not advocating the abolition of private property and political oppression. (Not many people understand capitalism either, but that’s another story.) Their policy prescriptions might be troubling, but thankfully few folks are really embracing socialism.
L&P visit eight countries to describe various types of socialism. They start with Sweden as “Not Socialism”. Contrary to popular opinion, L&P cite data from the “Freedom Index” to note that Sweden has a relatively free economy. They cites its high taxes and expansive welfare state (with the resulting problems), but that doesn’t make it a socialist economy.
Next is “Starving Socialism” in Venezuela. L&P note that American Leftists were praising this country a decade ago. But now, the country is a nightmare, with plummeting incomes and rampant inflation. While Venezuela might be a poster child for socialism, it’s also Exhibit A for why socialism is inhumane.
Cuba is labeled “Subsistence Socialism”. It’s better than Venezuela. But the food is bland with so few available spices. Government hotels are run-down; private Airbnb-style housing is much better. Havana is famous for its 1950s American cars. But it’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds, with outrageous car prices and run-down rides. And there are no storefront signs. Even poor market economies have advertising, but in Cuba, there’s little incentive to sell, since the State owns everything.
North Korea is “Dark Socialism”—named for the famous satellite photos that show how little light they have. L&P have the same experience on the ground, as they look across the river from their hotel in China—into the utter darkness of a large North Korean city at night. We’ve seen a natural economic experiment over the 60 years in North and South Korea. If socialism is the experimental treatment, one can only recommend living in the control group.
China is “Fake Socialism”—with its big increases in capitalism and income over the past few decades. Russia and Ukraine are depicted as “Hungover Socialism”—better off since the fall of the USSR, but still stuck with heavy doses of crony capitalism and statism. And Georgia is their example of the “New Capitalism”—a Soviet-bloc country that has many disadvantages, but has embraced market reforms and is growing.
Throughout the book, L&P underline the importance of the “rule of law” for economic incentives and performance. They mention the history of mass murderers in Russian and Chinese 20th century socialist history. But they also bring repeated attention to the devastating correlations between reduced economic freedom, diminished civil liberties, and social repression by government.
I was fortunate to visit Berlin with a friend before the Wall came down. East Berlin was the most impressive city in the Eastern Bloc. But compared to West Berlin, East Berlin was drab with little variety and a far-lower standard of living. We were walking around and my friend said, “This isn’t so bad.” I replied, “All you need to know is that they built a wall to keep these people in.”
While socialism could work in theory, the data indicate that people will be worse off—economically and socially—with socialism. Hopefully, L&P’s book will convince people to reject an economic system that has caused so much devastation—and forgo government solutions that look promising but usually fail.

TRM Howard: civil rights pioneer, etc.

The David and Linda Beito biography of T.R.M. Howard is academic in substance and detail, but an easy read. Still, it is a long read, unless you're really into the broader topic of the American Civil Rights movement and its heroes. But even for those who won't want to read the entire book, it's worth it to read a review to learn a bit about an important but overlooked historical person.

By profession, Howard was a doctor. More broadly, he was an entrepreneur who dabbled in all sorts of business ventures, built hospitals, and constructed community resources, including a park and a swimming pool for blacks (54, 56). His legacy is a "testament to the largely unsung role of the black middle class during the 20th century." (xvii) Even outside of politics, his contributions to economic activity and civil society make him a fascinating figure. 

But Howard was also prominent in the Civil Rights movement. He had a tremendous influence on many of its leaders. Beyond M.L. King Jr, the Beitos link Howard to influencing Rosa Parks, being the key catalyst for Jesse Jackson's emergence (Jackson officiated at his funeral), his various tussles with Thurgood Marshall, his work with Medgar Evers, his correspondence with Roy Wilkins as the head of the NAACP, and as the subject of Juan Williams' work when he was a young journalist.

The most interesting part of the book: Howard was a key player in the Emmett Till murder trial. The Beitos devote two chapters to the Till story and Howard's role in it. (This is, by far, the most detail I've seen on this brutal incident.) Chapter 6 describes the murder and the trial in great detail. Chapter 7 covers the aftermath, with Howard helping to publicize new details about the crime that emerged after the trial. In this, he criticized the FBI in their role as investigators, which led to a public spat with J. Edgar Hoover (with Marshall defending Hoover behind the scenes).

In the Beitos' telling, Howard was a top-tier civil rights player. Why has he been relegated to historical anonymity? Some of this may be the vagaries of history, timing, etc. His influence in Mississippi peaked before the expanded reach of television. He was then superseded by others who were better placed to stay in our historical memories. He spent the last half of his public life in Chicago, making it difficult to put him in a convenient historical box-- as either Southern rural or Northern urban. (Of local interest, he was the son of tobacco workers, born in Murray KY, in 1908.) He was in between the more militant and more passive wings of the civil rights movement. So perhaps his fervent but still moderate approach doesn't catch an historical eye. But the larger problem seems to his complexity as a man who can't find eager champions.

The Beitos express surprise that Howard's complexity hasn't attracted more attention for him, since there's something to appeal to everybody, whether conservative, liberal. moderate, or libertarian (257). But that's also part of the problem, since people like their heroes to come without ideological or personal warts. Howard was a big game hunter (223, 228-229) with a "safari room" in his home who opposed gun control laws on racial grounds (116). He was a prominent abortionist and had a "pattern" of rampant infidelity, fathering many children from those dalliances (23, 72-73, 225). He was avidly opposed to the New Deal and efforts to subsidize people (32)-- and an anti-communist (thus, avoiding some of the negative attention that King received from the government). Howard went back and forth politically (191-192), in a time when African-Americans were not so beholden to a single political party. He finished as a Republican-- even running for Congress, and getting trounced by a long-time incumbent and member of the party machinery in Chicago (ch. 8, esp. 191-193, 210).

The Beitos' broader discussion of abortion was intriguing. They detail the debate about the eugenics aspects of abortion, noting Dick Gregory's opposition on those grounds (238). (They also describe Jesse Jackson's avid opposition to abortion into the 1980s until he ran for President [239-240].) Howard applied eugenics arguments to the disabled, but vigorously opposed them when applied to race (34-35). He saw abortion as an important option for the poor, even defining anti-abortion laws as "unjust" (44). (Of course the science has come a long way, so it'd be interesting to see what he would think today.) That said, most of his (illegal) abortions were for whites with financial means (94). Before Roe v. Wade, its illegality was determined by state, but he often worked around the law with bribes (190). He finally ran afoul of the law (much of ch. 9), causing him tremendous trouble toward the end of his professional and political life. 

Howard is a complex man whose life deserves more renown and more study. Thankfully, the Beitos have produced a book that documents this complexity and celebrates another key figure in a key era in American history.