Wednesday, August 30, 2017

on fundamentalism vs. anything-goes

"God himself placed many polar forces at work among His people, particularly, and probably at the base of them all, the opposition of prophetic-fideistic (Mosaic) religion and priestly-sacramental (Aaronic) religion, between subjective and objective understandings, and institutional and free expressions of the faith. These are brothers struggling in the womb, joined and reconciled in, and only in, the Lord Himself. The Scriptures bear witness to the Son of God and the Son of Man, by nothing in between-- only their unity in the Mystery of our Faith, the Person of Christ Jesus...As long as these impulses are found together and not allowed to exclude one another, Christian life, with blessing, is possible. Whenever one overcomes the other without comprehending it, the faith dies...the rigid unresponsiveness of dead orthodoxy on the one hand, and on the other, sectarian heterodoxy..."

Great thoughts from S.M. Hutchens (in Touchstone) on Christianity in particular-- and fundamentalism vs. anything-goes in general...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

on peace and submit in Islam (both accurate) and the regressivity of Islam's god

In the most recent Touchstone, Dr. Richard Cervin makes a number of interesting points about Islam:

-The root word for Islam is slm or "submit", but another word with the same root is "peace". So, the two words are homonyms in Arabic. "Thus, the current politically correct claim that Islam = 'peace' is not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely correct." Cool point.

-Cervin recommends arguing against Islam in terms of logic and its ethics. In a word, Islam recommends "ethical standards" that are "remarkably backwards and inferior" to those of Judaism and especially Christianity. It then follows that Islam requires a "regressive god", even though Islam claims to be a "greater, more perfect revelation". Great argument.

the core of the faith was delivered by Jesus rather than a process of long evolution and ultimately, human force

In the most recent Touchstone, Donald Williams notes that Jude starts with an exhortation "to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people." Since this was written in the 60s, his inference:

"In much NT scholarship today, you will find an unquestioned and unsupported assumption underlying the whole enterprise: that Jesus brought no theology with him...but his followers, in a long process, evolved many understandings of him which were reduced to one by arbitrary power at the Council of Nicea in 325. Yet here is a voice...saying that the faith was not evolved from scratch but that there was a substantial and recognizable core of it that was delivered to the saints."

He closes by quipping that he trusts Jude more than Bart Ehrman-- "someone who was actually there" rather than "a scholar speculating about it 2000 years later". If one is going to believe in the creation of legends, it's much easier to see Ehrman's work as "legendary".

Friday, August 25, 2017

are we "sinners"?

A Lifeway Research survey and this article (from Bob Smietana in CT) on "sinners" got me thinking...

The results:

75% answered and agreed that sin is a real concept. (15% did not want to answer; 10% said "sin does not exist"-- and apparently are allergic to that particular term for a universal idea.) So, from here, we'll ignore the agnostics, the cowards, and those with allergies.

Of the 75%...
a.) 8% said they are "not a sinner"; 67% said they are "a sinner"
b.) of the 67%, 28% said they "depend on Jesus Christ to overcome sin";
c.) 34% said they "work on being less of one"; and 
d.) 5% said they were "fine with that".

The survey allows for wiggle room by asking for the "best" answer. But based on my understanding of the Bible and theology, I could comfortably answer "all of the above". Like you, I am someone who sins frequently. And hopefully like you, I "depend on Jesus to overcome sin". Through the Spirit and a greater understanding of what God wants for/from me, I'm "working on being less of" a sinner. And because of the blood of Jesus, God no longer sees me as a sinner-- and I'm "fine with that". 

How is "sinner" used in the Scriptures? I did a little word study to categorize its uses. 

Probably the most famous reference is "sinner" as a pejorative-- or as it's echoed back as a pejorative by Jesus to his opponents (Mt 9:10 * 3, 11:19; Mk 2:15 * 4; Lk 5:30 * 2, 7:34 * 2, 15:1 * 2, 19:7). Likewise, Paul uses it as a sarcastic pejorative in publicly confronting Peter (Gal 2:15-17 * 2). And it's not always verbal; Lk 7:39 records someone thinking someone else is a sinner. 

All of the Gospels use the term, but Luke seems to use it most-- perhaps predictable because he's writing to Gentiles and shows the greatest interest in the Samaritans. John only uses it in chapter 9-- the remarkable passage where Jesus (who is called a "sinner" * 4) heals a man on the Sabbath who banters with the Pharisees.

Elsewhere, the Bible treats "sinners" as a real and a really serious category. Adam (Rom 5:19) and Eve (I Tim 2:14) were sinners and caused a ton of damage! Life happens to "sinners" and everyone else (Eccl 9:2, Luke 13:2). But sinners are compared to the ungodly and they will receive their "reward" (Pr 11:31; 13:6, 21; Eccl 2:26). Temptation will snare them (Eccl 7:26) and they cause a ton of damage (Eccl 9:18). They are not to be emulated (Ps 1:1), followed (Pr 1:10), or envied (Pr 23:17). Israel receives three warnings as sinners (Num 32:14's "brood"!; Is 33:14, Amos 9:10). Even Jesus uses the term once in a literal straight-up manner-- in labeling his crucifiers-to-be (Mt 26:45, Mk 14:41).

Without repentance, they are on a path to condemnation and destruction (Ps 1:5, 26:9, 37:38, 104:35; Is 1:28, 13:9; Rom 3:7, I Pet 4:18, Jude 15). Since God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (I Tim 2:4), "sinners" are repeatedly called to repentance (Ps 25:8, 51:13; Mt 9:13, Mk 2:17, Lk 5:32, 15 * 2, 18:13, I Cor 14:24; Jas 4:8, 5:20). Along those lines, Paul uses himself as a "chief" example (I Tim 1:15-16).

The Gospel? Jesus was "set apart" from sinners, so He could be the Perfect High Priest offering the Perfect Sacrifice (Heb 7:26). As such, "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God." (II Cor 5:21) And all of this was "while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8).

So, we can say that being a "sinner" is a serious, deadly state. But God offers His amazing grace-- and extends it to bozos like us. Accept the gift. And either way: recognize that labeling "sinners" is apparently a dangerous move, fraught with a temptation to legalism, pride, self-righteousness, and other nastiness-- that itself receives God's judgment. 

I'm going to go outside the narrow word study to get to the punchline. Jn 1:12 says that believers are "given the right to become children of God." I Jn 1:8-10 says we fool ourselves, if we say we don't sin. But in I Cor 6:9-11, Paul argues that the identity of the Christian is no longer a "sinner" or a particular kind of prominent sin (e.g., an adulterer): "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ..." 

So, it seems most accurate to say that believers were "sinners", but we are no longer known to God as sinners; instead, we are children of God who still commit sins.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Progressive (vs. Conservative) errors on history...

The "Progressive" always has a (strong) lean against the past, seeing Progress as something to be pursued and/or something that naturally occurs. As "conservatives" (in the strict sense of the term) are tempted to elevate the past and diminish the present, Progressives are tempted to diminish the past and inflate the present.

Aside from the truthfulness of either, these approaches to history and worldview have some troubling ethical and practical implications.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

things you need to know

All of these sound like a topic for Scopes or TruthOrFiction, but I learned these things from Neil Steinberg in Games Magazine this month:

-Sideburns are named for Union general, Ambrose Burnside. (Thankfully, he was not a Confederate; think of the mayhem that would ensue!)

-Graham crackers were invented by a Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham. He recommended daily bowel movements and avoiding meat and white bread-- and created the cracker to help us out. (He was nicknamed the Peristaltic Persuader for his troubles.) This reminds me of a certain Rev. Welch who popularized grape juice for Communion.

-John Duns Scotus thought people should wear pointy hats to facilitate learning (as a reverse funnel). This was a popular idea for awhile, but times changed, and eventually they were seen as "Duns' caps".

-The leotard was created by Jules Leotard, a French acrobat. 
-Earl Tupper invented the technological advance of Tupperware in 1942.

-The saxaphone was created by a Belgian, Antoine Joseph Sax, who wanted it to rival the bass clarinet. He won that competition.

Friday, August 18, 2017

on the solar eclipse

on the near-full solar eclipse (in our area) on Monday, August 21st. 

My one observation: It was really cool, but I can't believe how bright it was, even with 6% of the sun visible! 

A number of cool articles and resources: 

The most important: Is it coincidence/random or (weak) evidence for intelligent design? The sun is 400 times larger and 400 times further away. Of the other moons we can see, none come close to this co-inky-dink. Some fun with atheists who have some trouble with awe and beauty-- akin to the theist's struggle with a good God allowing pain and suffering. 

Kathleen Parker on how the eclipse made life normal again-- at least for her, but maybe for all of us (at least for a while). 

Some fun from Reason on the anti-science and "pro" science folks.  

Some macro and micro economics: the eclipse was like a free festival-- and thus, good for the economy, by encouraging voluntary, mutually-beneficial trades.

Time magazine with a simulation of what you'll see at various zip codes over time. UPDATE: The simulation greatly exaggerated the darkness that would accompany a 94% eclipse!

IUS throwing an eclipse party

10 things to remember from MSN

Pop culture refs: Brian Regan on the sun; and Bonnie Tyler with this pop/cult classic that we used to sing way too loudly and with a have-to-watch-unwatchable video to boot

And unfortunately Neil DeGrasse Tyson has gone more pop culture and politics than science: his tweet was sad; this Babylon Bee reply was funny-- while this reply from Butch Porter is awesome and useful. 

the mathematics is based on some pretty sound science. Gravity is a physical phenomenon, and basically orbits are determined based on Newton's Laws of motion, Kepler's laws of planetary motion... that science (one of the four forces of nature) feeds the mathematical models which predict the geometry of when things are going to be where...

But...none of those things apply to climate science. The models that they use have not been derived from different sources independently and they haven't accurately predicted ... well...anything.

If they had, we wouldn't be having these conversations over and over again. The fact that the eclipse could predict to within SECONDS and practically to the square meter when the eclipse was going to start and end tells you that the science is "settled" on the relationship between the three objects in question, and the gravity that drives it, and of course the geometry that maps out the paths.

Meanwhile, the climate scientists have been wrong on simply every prediction... storms, glaciers, temperatures... you name it. Why? Because the science is NOT settled, because when it comes to temperature and climate there are a TON of other factors...with an eclipse,'s just gravity. Almost nothing else is at play...

The fact that someone who calls himself an astronomer doesn't understand this basic STARTLING, and it tells you all you need to know about how politicized his rhetoric has become.

my JMM review of Leonard's Illiberal Reformers

my review of Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers in Journal of Markets and Morality...

Thursday, August 17, 2017

give me that old-time American Civil Religion-- with respect to foreign policy

A review of Walter McDougall's The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy... (Here's a review by Christopher Caldwell in FT.)

In a nutshell, McDougall labels all of American history-- with respect to foreign policy-- as being driven by various forms of the American Civil Religion (ACR). And he divides our foreign policy at 1898 with the "Spanish-American War". (Bacevich does the same in this essay.) Prior to this time, our approach was "Classical" and non-interventionist.

After 1898, we added two activist/interventionist approaches. "Progressive" is a militant approach grounded in beliefs in "American ideals", democracy, and relatively free markets; the pursuit of empire or to "end tyranny"; Progress, science and technology-- and generally, a high level of optimism about government intervention. "Millennial" debuted after the Cold War and is another militant approach which shares optimism about government intervention, but more in the service of universal "human rights." (I'm going to rely on the framework and the title of this strong review in Reason by Daniel McCarthy.)

With waves of (at least perceived) success and abysmal failure (through sins of omission and commission), the result since 1898 has been a dog's breakfast of C, P, M, and "neo" versions of all three. In a word, McDougall closes his introduction by describing his project as "U.S. diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode." (6)

McDougall opens with our current context: With the Cold War over and post-9/11, what do these various worldviews of foreign policy say about how to proceed? (4-6) Where are we now? How did we get here? And where should we go from here?

In Chapter 1, McDougall details Bush II's blunders in Iraq, including a brief discussion of nine theories for why Bush took us to Iraq: terrorism, WMD, neo-conservatism, Israel, oil, "Bush family dynamics", reelection, Rumsfeld, and wanting democracy in the Middle East (7-10). Whatever the motives, we both "knew what we were doing" and "had no idea what we were doing." (11)

In Chapter 2, McDougall talks about our seeming inability to learn most of the relevant lessons. "All three post-Cold War administrations...were based on dubious assumptions of American exceptionalism, a unipolar world, and democratic peace theory...The three administrations differed only in their styles of governance." Here and again in the last chapter, he describes Clinton's mixed record (11-13, 342-344)-- and in the easiest of contexts. Obama's record is not nearly as different as fans and opponents imagine-- and his approach is (ironically, given his reputation with his opponents) built on ACR (347-352).

In Chapter 3, McDougall features Robert Bellah's "discovery" of the ACR in 1967. "The most surprising feature of Bellah's article and the scholarship it inspired is that there was anything surprising about it at all." (25) But somebody had to be entrepreneurial and put the novel thought to paper! McDougall traces the elements of the ACR but then notes that all of us have had a piece in the authorship: "The American God had no name and a hundred names." (29) McDougall also reminds us of the original intent of the First Amendment: to avoid the establishment of any particular religion, allowing a fluid, non-sectarian ACR to dominate.

In our first century, there were "four powerful checks against zealotry" in foreign affairs: our relative weakness as a "power"; our ability to expand westward at relatively low cost; memory of failed republics and empires; and "residual Christian anthropology." (31)

"Washington's World" (chs. 4-10)
McDougall covers Washington to McKinley-- what he labels the "Church expectant". The U.S. was not particularly active in world affairs, but was already looking forward to a greater future role.  

The U.S. featured limited but effective government. In terms of foreign policy, its stance was defensive. Among early presidents, McDougall features Washington, Jefferson, J.Q. Adams. Manifest Destiny begins to set the tone for 20th century endeavors. Lincoln and the Civil War got people to start fantasizing about military means to various ends. Cleveland kept things modest, but that would soon end with McKinley.

Interestingly, McDougall points to three pre-cursors to what would soon follow-- a change in the dominant ACR: 1.) Darwinism and "its corollary, Anglo-Saxon supremacy" (95); 2.) post-millennialism, a general optimism about the future, and a sense of America's place in that future (96); and 3.) Benjamin Harrison's prominent use of speeches to invent "the rhetorical presidency as bully pulpit" (half as many as all previous presidents combined!; 98-99).

McDougall describe Orestes Brownson's prophetic vision and concern about Deism and Protestantism. "Bent on pursuing their to craft their own religions as if they were gods...might claim the right to force their disparate moral agendas on others, again as if they were gods." (103) Later, he quotes Chesterton-- that America was "a nation with the soul of a church"; that "God was the author of human rights but left it up to the people to fill it with content." (134)

Brownson argued that America needed Catholicism to avoid those devils, but of course, a monopoly creates its own (102, 103). A generation later, Brownson's prophecy had come true with few seeing any danger, because "imagined reforms at home and interventions abroad to be leaps of progress..." (104) No single trend is responsible, but the four checks McDougall had noted before were now gone-- and the U.S. and the world was about to be a very different place (106).

"Wilson's World" (chs. 11-16)
McDougall describes McKinley through Hoover-- what he labels the "Church Militant". With changes in worldview, the emergence of economic wealth, the possibility of military power, and passing the peak of English power, America began to assert itself vigorously toward various foreign policy goals. 

As in other contexts, idolatry toward government was intense. (In my work, I've seen a bunch of this in late-19th century domestic policy and efforts to do education and welfare; I have some good quotes on this in Poor Policy). Through a combination of faith in Progress, admiration for science and experts, Darwinism's license to see people as having different values, an emerging social gospel (both domestic and foreign), faith in government's ability to extend successful private efforts or to create their own successes, people began to embrace government as an ethical and practical means to various ends-- here, including foreign policy. 

In Chapter 11, McDougall details the run-up to the Cuban Independence / "Spanish-American War" fiasco in 1898. Much of the passion came from Progressive "Mainline" Protestants: "the year marked a huge theological shift in ACR born in a prairie fire of righteous Protestant indignation." (112). Even William Jennings Bryan and Walter Rauschenbusch got in on the zeal (113). 

In Chapter 12, McDougall extends the analysis of Progressivism and Protestants. They were enamored with "scientific management through governance informed by credentialed experts." (117) Mainliners "surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible to science, and surrendered their cultural authority to secular Progressives." (118) 

"Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with Progressivism to beget a heretical variant of the original ACR. The new theology devalorized virtue, prudence, humility, and small government in favor of power, glory, pride, and big government at home and, when possible, abroad." (122)

McDougall notes that the US had three options with goals that overlapped and we pursued all three: territorial expansion through constitutional equality; territorial expansion through colonial inequality; and equal status for all (137-138). In a time famous for increased domestic equality, it's interesting to consider our pursuit of inequality through foreign policy. 

Woodrow Wilson gets deservedly harsh treatment in chapters 15-16: two invasions of Mexico and three military occupations of other countries; "startling speeches" and "strange views"; rhetoric that is blamed on his religious upbringing when ACR was his dominant religion (144). He was "ivory tower" (145) and "he despised checks and balances in domestic policies, hated compromise, and resented how hard it was to amend the Constitution" (146).

McDougall has a handful of interesting observations of our brief foray in World War I. (Here's my review of Hochschild's book.) The Senate sent us to war on Good Friday (154). The Russian Revolution caused us to be out-flanked on the left-- "its identity as the progressive nation cast into doubt" (158)! The struggle of our rookie troops (160), as in WWII. And the mess of a peace plan-- a huge, "punitive, nitpicking" treaty (161-164).

"FDR's World" (chs. 17-22)
The GOP Presidents before FDR get two chapters-- in sum, that they "shunned messianic ambitions" but "reaffirmed most of" ACR (182). They were "anything but isolationist" with "their energetic diplomacy." (183) He gets some cheap laughs out of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact that "renounced war as an instrument of national policy" which was ratified by the Senate with one vote against (187-188). 

The outcome? The Japanese expanded in the Pacific and the English and French reneged on their war debts. McDougall's conclusion: "War had solved nothing, and now, it turned out, neither had peace...That is why, in the 1932 presidential election, Americans voted against the internationalist candidate and for the isolationist." (190) This seems like a really strange interpretation-- in contrast to the common and compelling economic argument: that the economy was in the tank and Hoover's many interventions had not succeeded, so the country chose a Democrat instead.

In any case, McDougall spends the rest of the section on FDR-- in a period he labels the "Church Agoniste". Not wanting to follow in Wilson's shoes, FDR tried to remain out of WWII and then felt compelled to enter it-- thus, the "agony". What to do? 

McDougall describes FDR's economic system and approach to politics: "friendly fascism, securing truth, justice, and the American way; freedom in abundance and abundance in freedom, ultimately for the whole human race...the magical synthesis FDR sought in order to reconcile Wilsonian internationalism with American nationalism, the New Deal with Big Business, and materialism with mission in an updated version of Progressive ACR." (170-171)

Once in office, FDR came to feel differently about isolationism. McDougall has a few nuggets from just as the war was wrapping up. The military were not excited about the British or the Soviets winning and two-thirds expected another world war within 25 years, most likely with Russia (225). He cites high rates of desertion, venereal diseases, self-inflicted woulds, alcohol abuse"-- one of those many squirrelly observations about "the Greatest Generation" (225).

"JFK's World" (chs. 23-28)
McDougall describes Truman through Reagan-- what he labels the "Church Triumphant". The post-WWII era was marked by a combination of FDR's failed foreign legacy and the necessary beginnings of a Cold War with the USSR. McDougall is critical of Reagan, but largely sees him as responsible for the end of the Cold War. So, it's interesting that he calls it "JFK's world". I think it's because JFK is in the middle of the time frame and his view is what dominated, even if his efforts did not prevail and arguably set things back. 

McDougall describes the tremendous optimism of the post-WWII Period: we had won all of our wars; the ACR was in fine form; economic growth and the promises of Keynesian economics; and evidence of material progress; corporate culture, labor unions, and the suburbs (237-238). Now, the Soviets were still out there and this became more alarming when they winning the Space Race, but all (well, most) of us were together in opposing the godless Communists (241). 

And two little nuggets I had never heard: McDougall notes that we "never thought twice about the pagan names attached to their [space] hardware." (242) And he notes that Star Trek was an ode to universal human rights and ethics, a diverse crew led by an American captain named Church-- i.e., Kirk! (244)

McDougall ranges quickly through post-WWII history: the English were done as a power; Truman, the Marshall Plan, and the Korean War/Truman; Ike and his explicit contributions to ACR; the use of "American exceptionalism" as the ACR's "creation myth" (270);
back and forth through JFK, LBJ, and Nixon (317-320). McDougall argues that Nixon's Cold War diplomatic success made it "thinkable" to attack him domestically. Then, Ford and Carter's mixed bag (324-327), which set the table (positively and negatively) for Reagan (332-337).

In the final chapter, McDougall describes "Obama's World"-- from Bush I through Obama. Again, the choice of Obama is interesting. One could argue for any of the Presidents, especially Bush II. But putting it in Obama's lap is probably a bow to his current popularity, his recent presidency, and the somewhat-provocative fact that, despite the rhetoric and the Nobel Peace Prize, he mostly continued what his predecessors did. 

What does the future hold? McDougall wonders if the Millennial ACR will become the "the first operational global civil religion", with more power given to national and global entities. If so, of course, it would be sold as pro-democratic, devoted to human rights, and so on (352-354). I doubt this prediction; special interests won't necessarily like that outcome and they have too much clout to dismiss lightly. 

He also pictures greater persecution for dissent-- and this may be more likely, but not because of a global civil religion. Instead, unless there's a correction, our current version of progressive ACR will dominate on domestic matters-- with its faux tolerance, faux intellectualism, selective use of science, penchant for government solutions, etc.

Finally, a note on the subject of our universal penchant for apocalytism, millennialism, and eschatology: With respect to history and policy matters, both domestic and foreign, I could cite a wide literature. (Someday, I hope to write a journal article or two, starting from Richard Landes' excellent book, Heaven on Earth.) For now, I'll look at the top of my pile for that topic and link to a recent essay in Harpers by Walter Kirn.

unexpected consequences of tweaking the HC/HI policy beast

Not good news perhaps, but very cool analysis...

The complexities alone point to one part of why the ACA and the AHCA are fools' errands-- aside from trying to remedy govt's creation of the pre-existing problem.

Once you distort markets-- as the govt does in so many ways, from small to enormous-- good luck with your efforts to tweak the govt policy beast and the distorted market outcomes that necessarily follow.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

the robots' union

If there was a labor union for robots, they would love a higher minimum wage for humans. More likely, companies that make robots will lobby for a minimum wage. And we know that's part of why labor unions lobby for higher minimum wages, prevailing wages, etc.

It's always good news for me if I can make my competition artificially more expensive.

the post-modern dilemma of Charlottesville

How do we deal with the growth or emergence of "white identity politics", when so many other politically-distinguishable groups are passionately engaged in a politics of identity? (h/t: Tom Huston)

Their problems are compounded by (or potentially, begin with!) the prevalence of broken families, crony insistence on sub-optimal K-12 education, the economic challenges of globalization, and a deeply-fragmented culture. But we're unwilling or unable to address those causes. 

So, what to do? The dominant culture doesn't want people to talk candidly about sensitive topics. The preferred methods today are shame (to deal with nice people) and more aggressive uses of force (for not-so-nice folks). But how well do these methods work...really? Do you make the problems go away or do you just drive them underground (mostly) and make them worse?

If you look to idols for your security, sustenance, and solutions, you're bound to be disappointed and you'll harm yourself and others.

If your "identity" is primarily built on X, Y, or Z that cannot carry that load, your idolatry will necessarily lead to all sorts of problem for you.

As society invests more in identity and identity politics, it's likely to lead to all sorts of social and political problems-- pursuit of power over good policy; confusing symptoms and causes; more contention as small and large groups seek to impose their ideology on others; and so on.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

mortality inequality and increases in mortality

Democrats spend a lot of political energy on "inequality" these days. But it seems like mostly a convenient tool to grasp for power. How and why? That's a separate blog post. Here, I'm going to focus on inequality in mortality and recent increases in mortality-- and why these will get limited attention and a focus on symptoms over primary causes.  

First, consider Sam Peltzman's 2009 journal article on mortality inequality. Peltzman notes that a consideration of income or wealth inequality is incomplete if not accompanied by a measure of lifespan inequality-- whether underestimating inequality (if lifespans are an extension of other inequalities) or overestimating inequality (if lifespans counter other inequalities or are if lifespans are roughly equivalent). Generally, income and lifespan are positively related, but the correlation sharply decreases both within and between countries, at higher income levels. Longevity was a larger source of inequality in days past, so inequality in this sense has dropped dramatically. Peltzman calculates a "mortality Gini coefficient" for countries-- and shows the results at a point in time and across time periods. Then he analyzes state and county level data-- with state-level convergence by 1960, but continued correlation at the county level. Very cool!

Second, consider recent work by Case and Deaton on shorter lifespans and increased mortality and morbidity rates in the US for Caucasians in midlife since the turn of the 21st century. (This is despite big improvements with cancer and heart attacks-- the biggies.) These trends "continued unabated to 2015, with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcoholic-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less." This problem has presumably gotten worse since the close of their data in 2010. The problems here are connected to lifestyle choices and a lack of hope-- what Case and Deaton call "death by despair".

Compared to other developed countries: "Mortality rates in comparable rich countries have continued their pre-millennial fall at the rates that used to characterize the US." And in Europe, this includes those with more or less education. So, this is a problem special to the US

Falling incomes may be part of the story, but we don't see the same results with the same income profiles of other races or Europeans. Looking at education: "Mortality is rising for those without, and falling for those with, a college degree. This is true for non-Hispanic white men and women in all age groups from 25-29 through 60-64. Mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics continue to fall..." So, it's connected to less-educated folks.

Their theory: "We propose a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage over life, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education." If so, it will take years to change if at all-- and the public policy options are limited (at least what is feasible politically). The point to the "over-prescription of opioids" and they allude to the importance of marriage/family and education (esp. K-12) but they avoid policy RX's there. 

Of course, for those familiar with Murray's Coming Apart, all of this is familiar and a big chunk of the cause/effect is quite clear. The inability to see how life is for the non-elite-- and the inability to understand why we might be "coming apart"-- is part of the Dems/Left's lack of empathy, their tin ear politically, and ultimately (and ironically) their profound lack of compassion.

One funny little thing in closing, since the authors are apparently unaware of the non-existent ROI on Social Security: "Those in midlife now can expect to do better in old age as they receive Social Security and Medicare." How nice, we've taken your money for all these years and now, if you survive, you'll be better off financially.

Third, on the spiritual angles of cause and effect, Aaron Kheriarty's article in First Things is helpful. He focuses on suicide and connects the dots between all of the above.

Finally, consider Charles Murray's comments before a Senate committee on the topic (along with Robert Putnam). These relate to his work in Coming Apart-- essential reading if you find this important. But here, he focuses on self-destructive behavior-- particularly by choosing instant gratification. This is made more likely when we have trouble with family structure and stability; in a culture with less social capital; with mores that promote sexual liberty and confusion; and so on. 

As Murray notes, the solutions are much more likely to be cultural than political. Hopefully, the politics will improve or stay out of the way. Hopefully, the Church, our country's handful of liberals, and our country's handful of conservatives will lead the way.

Dems generally see poverty and inequality as a useful political tool: here's how and why...

First, because they're not talking about poverty much anymore-- and poverty is the more important concern. Why the near-silence on poverty? Well, it has proven intractable-- at least by the government's primary statistic for measuring it. Their favored ways to try to address it have obviously failed. For those who think thru the cause/effect, the "solutions" have obviously caused a ton of trouble-- in particular, by subsidizing the obvious troubles with family structure and stability

Second, we know that Dems aren't all that interested in poverty, given their policy preferences. In sum, they actively harm the poor (especially African-Americans) from cradle to grave. They support all sorts of redistribution from the poor/middle-class to the wealthy: farm policy, subsidies for college, bowing to crony capitalism in K-12, and so on. (Real liberals still talk about crony capitalism a lot, but unfortunately, there are so few of them!) They tend to see the problems of poor as external to them-- a debatable position-- but they ignore many of the external causes that they foist about the poor! But here's a punchline if you need one: How often do you hear Dems complain about the 15.3% tax on every dollar earned by the working poor and middle class?

As for inequality, Democrats are unaware of or ignore the profound difficulties in measuring income inequality and the even-larger problems with wealth inequality-- overlooking these problems to use the topic as a convenient political tool. My favorite in this realm: income inequality is mostly unchanged when you look at individuals, but has increased dramatically between households-- indicating that the massive changes in household structure over the past few decades are the key to understanding the issue. Obfuscation on this issue indicates a key point of ignorance or a disappointing point of demagoguery.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

on the intersection between economics and climate science

A helpful article by Vincent Randall on its own merits... 

Of great interest to me, other economists, and non-fundies in the climate science (CS) debates: the author's link between the difficulties of CS and (macro) economics-- with theoretical and empirical modeling in low-information, high-uncertainty contexts...

As the author notes, economists have wrestled with information problems and uncertainty for a long time. In Micro, it's a common feature of its models-- and an important discussion when we relax the assumptions in those models to get closer to many elements in the real world. In Macro, it's a necessary part of the deal (when you're trying to model something so amazingly complex). And the "information problem" is a particular point of emphasis in the field of "Austrian Economics"-- where they grapple with how economic markets do an amazing job (particularly with tacit information) and how much political markets necessarily struggle with the same problem.

Rnadall's intro: In this essay I am going to try to introduce non-economists who work in fields where they are first coming into contact with the ‘uncertainty monster’...what some economists have learned from their encounter with it. First I will try to explain why economists encountered the monster before others working in different disciplines. Then I will try to give the reader an overview of what different economists have said about it. Then finally I will briefly consider the differences and similarities between how economists are confronted with the uncertainty monster and how those working in ‘harder’ sciences, like climate science, are confronted with the uncertainty monster. There are definite differences and definite similarities.

Dealing with his first point, Randall explains: The questions raised by uncertainty seem to have been addressed in more depth and with more clarity in the discipline of economics than they have elsewhere. It seems that this is because they were encountered in economics more forcefully than in other disciplines that lent themselves to mathematical modelling and statistical hypothesis testing. The reason that they were encountered so much more forcefully is that economics deals with human behavior – and humans are constantly faced with an uncertain future. For this reason all human behavior is undertaken in the face of uncertainty. 

Randall then talks to the preeminent example in Micro: the role, the challenge, and the opportunity of the entrepreneur-- and the need to do it over and over, for years. He notes the debate between Myrdal, Keynes and others in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Keynes "concluded that this means that a lot of economic activity is determined not by calculation of probabilities or anything like it. Rather it is determined by the state of confidence."

The implications for strict economic modeling are devastating-- for micro and esp. for macro (and its cousin, "economic development"): "Once this Pandora’s Box was opened up it started eating economic theory from the inside out. The whole theory was based on decisions made in the face of calculable certainty. But once we admitted that the future is properly uncertain the theory started to unravel. Within a few years the economists have put the ‘uncertainty monster’ back in the box. From where I’m standing this rendered their theories pretty much useless and I’m sure that many readers can make the connection between this fundamental epistemological error and the inability of economists to see the Great Financial Crisis coming..."
He has a great quote from GLS Shackle (previously an unknown to me): 

To be uncertain is to entertain many rival hypotheses. The hypotheses are rivals of each other in the sense that they all refer to the same question, and that only one of them can prove true in the event. Will it, then, make sense to average these suggested mutually exclusive outcomes? There is something to be said for it...'The golden mean’ has been a precept from antiquity, and in this situation it will ensure that, since the mass of hypotheses will still be in disagreement with the answer which is thus chosen, they shall be divided amongst themselves and pulling in opposite directions. Moreover, the average can be a weighed one, if appropriate weights can be discovered. But what is to be their source? We have argued that statistical probabilities are knowledge. They are, however, knowledge in regard to the wrong sort of question, when our need it for weights to assign for rival answers. If we have knowledge, we are not the answer to a question about a single trial, the frequency-ratios are not knowledge. They are only the racing tipster’s suggestion about which horse to back. His suggestions are based on subtle consideration of many sorts of data, including statistical data, but they are not knowledge.

Randall quotes Shackle "at length to give the reader a sense of how reading his work might be a useful guide to making certain decisions that are encountered with some regularity in climate science." 

Next, he cites Paul Davidson on ‘non-ergodic’ science-- the future does not necessarily mirror the past; just because x happened in the past does not mean that x will happen in the future: "the assumption of ergodic stochastic economic processes permits the analyst to assert that the outcome at any future date is the statistical shadow of past and current market data." He also makes the case – and this is of interest to those in other sciences – that non-ergodicity may apply to systems that are very sensitive to initial conditions. That is, systems which are commonly referred to as ‘chaotic’ today."

Next up is Tony Lawson: Randall says "He makes the case that recognizing uncertainty requires the economist/scientist to occupy an entirely different ontological position – that is, they have to view the world in an inherently different way to the way their uncertainty-free colleagues do...only ‘closed systems’ – that is, systems that are both deterministic and in which we fully understand the determinates driving the system – can be mathematically modeled in any serious way." 

Lawson: "The first thing to note is that all these mathematical methods that economists use presuppose event regularities or correlations. This makes modern economics a form of deductivism...formulate theories in terms of isolated atoms." 

Lawson then gets back to what is usually a key assumption in Micro: "Notice too that most debates about the nature of rationality are beside the point. Mainstream modellers just need to fix the actions of the individual of their analyses to render them atomistic, i.e., to fix their responses to given conditions. It is this implausible fixing of actions that tends to be expressed though, or is the task of, any rationality axiom. But in truth any old specification will do...It is easy to show that this ontology of closed systems of isolated atoms characterizes all of the substantive theorizing of mainstream economists. It is also easy enough to show that the real world, the social reality in which we actually live, is of a nature that is anything but a set of closed systems of isolated atoms."

Randall closes with a compare/contrast between econ and climate science: CS studies natural processes, so that's good news. But the climate is extremely complex-- in ways that we don't understand-- and so we're prone to fall prey to unknown unknowns. Empirical work is notoriously difficult in both-- and is often assumed, naively, to be a lot easier and more accurate than is reasonable to have confidence about. In any case, Randall hopes that CS will learn a lot and learn humility from economists who have wrestled with these issues.

a brief review of the movie "Get Out!"

In his directorial debut, Jordan Peele has a little somethin' for all y'all now...Wow!

Peele (a comedian of Key and Peele fame) neatly pokes and skewers a number of targets: "liberal" condescension; "conservative" racism; Progressivism on science, eugenics, and its implicit pursuit of godhood; racism among the police; rationalizations of the use of force on others to benefit me and society; wrestling with what does it mean to "be/act black"; and so on. In a word, the movie has been described as "horror-satire".

The movie has a few crass moments in terms of sexual content-- although it's all talk (vs. showing anything)-- and especially in terms of language. Beyond that, the movie is loaded with mature social themes; this is not a movie for kids at all! It's difficult to describe the movie's genre: it's well-crafted and scary in a cool/creative way (much more suspenseful, creepy and a depiction of evil than "scary" per se). But there's a good bit of comedy and drama too. (It reminds me most of M. Night Shyamalan's work.)

A few little things you may not catch: The characters in the opening scene show up later and one guy is wearing a helmet. Halfway through the movie, they're not playing bingo. (Pay attention!) The moment of redemption with Georgina is very cool. (Rod also gets off the TV to start his investigation.) The use of cotton and milk with the Fruit Loops are nice, subtle touches. Peele makes frequent use of deer (including the noise of the first deer later), eyes (a prominent physical and metaphorical theme), TV's, and cotton. And if possible, see a version that has the alternative ending with Peele's fascinating explanation. (At first, you can imagine that the alternative ending is realistic. But then if you think about it, it's quite unlikely). Here's a bunch of other observations in a review and a bit more!

One big theme in the movie is what to do with stereotypes-- what economists call "statistical discrimination". In a world of highly-imperfect-and-costly-to-obtain information, how much information do we work to obtain-- and how much care should we take in drawing inferences (about age, race, circumstances, etc.). Do we sympathize with the one character's reluctance to judge or the friend's paranoia? You know something before the character does, but how much do you really know and how much does you or he "know"? At what point are you required to make a decision, with your limited information-- and what do you do?

-Chris says it's "good to see an old brother". Rod complains that an old lady could be a terrorist, but few people want the TSA to divert resources from searching Ahmad to searching Ethel. 
-The guests harbor various stereotypes about African-Americans males. But are they true and if so, how does it matter? Ironically, Jim values Chris as an individual-- at least, for "his eye". (Even here, Jim is stuck on biology and mired in literalism, since Chris' "eye" is connected to his brain and will not translate to Jim.)
-Dad notes that it's a "total cliche" to have black servants. He "hates the way it looks", recognizing the potential gap between reality and perception in a low-information environment. Jeremy is a racist of some sort-- not a good sign, especially if we're supposed to think highly of his parents.
-Dad says he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have-- and this gives him currency with Chris. One sees virtue signaling of this sort in many different contexts. 
-Dad is a neurosurgeon, so Chris is supposed to accept his expertise. Mom is a psychiatrist, so her training and expertise bolster her reputation. Society says we should highly value intelligence and training, but as per Murray, then we're wondering about the far-greater role of morals and ethics.  
-We laugh at Rod's conspiracy theories and we note how he and his story are handled by the police. Conspiracy theories are attractive in that they explain the little bits of information that we have-- all in a nice clean bundle which "explains" the world quite well (a la Chesterton's maniac). The funny thing is that they're not conspiracy theories if they're actually correct.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Freakanomics on Charles Koch

A lot of people attack "the Koch Brothers"; many of them are fundamentalists in the usual sense of the term. One easy way to tell a fundy here: they haven't read anything or heard them speak at any length. The easiest way: When the Kochs are labeled "right-wing". (Hint: they're Libertarians.) "The Kochs" can also give you a quick read on someone's approach to politics. If a person calls them "right wing", then you're probably dealing with someone who's a rube or a demagogue on this topic.

A bunch of cool stuff in this Freakanomics interview with Charles-- on life, business and politics. My favorite factoid: the Kochs' activism started with their profound disappointment with Bush II, including the Harriet Myers cronyistic appointment attempt.

Part 1...

Part 2...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

lousy responses to Murray's Bell Curve (two professional/academic and one pop)

I recently posted a summary of Charles Murray's complete, unedited, chapter summaries from his controversial book, The Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard Hernnstein).

A few months ago, in response to me sending the relevant links to a friend/colleague, he sent me links to two professional/academic responses in one of the field's top journals-- one from 1996; the other from 2012. (American Psychologist is the peer-reviewed journal of the APA and is rated 10th out of 129 journals in the field.) Later, he sent me a popular article on topic in Vox.

The 1996 article is a distillation of a 1995 report from a task force of experts whose purpose was to respond to Murray and Hernnstein (MH) and TBC. The 2012 article was an opportunity to update the literature, revisit the controversy, get a nice journal article for the resume, and take some pot shots at Murray. In the Vox article, the authors discuss TBC in light of a Sam Harris podcast interview with Murray and the Middlebury brouhaha (where illiberal students, posing as liberals, attacked Murray and his liberal host). Two of the three Vox authors are in the 2012 AP article. So, this was an attempt to popularize the academic article, extend its audience reach, apply the intellectual debate to current events, and mess with Murray some more.

If you want read a really good review, including some critique of TBC-- along with a strong discussion of why bad reviews are so lousy, including the irony that they drive people to the side one opposes-- check out Tom Sowell's review for American Spectator. (And as an aside, I also want to commend this article by John McWhirter to the pile. I'll discuss it briefly at the end.)

In the rest of this blog post, I'll discuss details of all three articles...

1996's Neisser et. al.
In establishing the task force, the founders noted that an "unfortunate aspect of the debate was that many participants made little effort to distinguish scientific issues from political ones." One might quibble or even argue that MH did not do enough to separate science from politics, but when you look at the structure of the book and their conclusions, it's clear that they certainly made a strong effort.

Moreover, "the charge to our Task Force was to prepare a dispassionate survey of the state of the art: to make clear what has been scientifically established, what is presently in dispute, and what is still unknown. In fulfilling that charge, the only recommendations we shall make are for further research and calmer debate."All of that sounds good-- and again, one might quibble or argue with MH on how they handled the science, but it's not in good faith to claim that they don't make a good-faith effort. As for "calmer debate", unfortunately that call has not been heeded by MH's opponents, especially and ironically, those who haven't even read MH's work at all.

This article has little to say about TBC, at least directly. There is an oblique assertion early-on-- that MH and "many of their critics" have gone well beyond the scientific findings (78). One might wish for more precision in the assertion, but the article's purpose is not to engage MH and TBC per se. Moreover, it's interesting that Neisser et. al. take a vague poke at many of MH's critics-- either in the spirit of vague fair-mindedness or wanting to be or be perceived as agnostic on TBC.

They mention MH a few times throughout their lit review, either acknowledging that MH are within the mainstream in their citations of the field (82, 95) or they are on one (presumably respectable) side of a debate in the field (78).

They make another reference to TBC's discussion of "Affirmative Action" as beyond the scope of their effort (90). As I note in the other post, MH are careful to talk about individual vs. group differences-- and thus, as it follows, to advocate more focused policy efforts (something well within the reasonable scientific inferences for public policy).

They spend the last page of the article on Black/White IQ differences-- a topic in TBC but they don't interact with it all. (As an aside, Neisser et. al. note that standardized tests are not racially "biased" (93); I didn't know that had been established in the literature so long ago.) At the end of the day, this article is innocuous for TBC and helpful as a reasonably-objective academic look at the relevant literature. 

2012's Nisbett etl. al.
This article deals with MH and TBC much more directly. Unfortunately, their greater directness is matched by less accuracy and, apparently, less objectivity.

Start with their summary of MH in TBC:

"IQ tests are an accurate measure of intelligence; that IQ is a strong predictor of school and career achievement; that IQ is highly heritable; that IQ is little influenced by environmental factors; that racial differences in IQ are likely due at least in part, and perhaps in large part, to genetics; that environmental effects of all kinds have only a modest effect on IQ; and that educational and other interventions have little impact on IQ and little effect on racial differences in IQ."

Let's compare/contrast this with how MH actually summarized the relevant science in their intro:
  1. There is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ.
  2. All standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests expressly designed for that purpose measure it most accurately.
  3. IQ scores match, to a first degree, whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language.
  4. IQ scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much of a person’s life.
  5. Properly administered IQ tests are not demonstrably biased against social, economic, ethnic, or racial groups.
  6. Cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.

See the differences-- and do you see how they tilt each time? "Accurate...strong...highly...little influenced"? In the next paragraph, they claim that Neisser et. al. was "critical in some important respects". This vague statement implies significant disagreement with MH (ehh, not sure that's accurate) with NO mention of them taking the same poke at MH's critics (gotta do both, if you want to be seen as objective, folks!) If you'll forgive my half-tongue-in-cheek reference to another fun topic in science: Given the probabilities involved, I'd say these characterizations are a product of intelligent design rather than a random, purposeless process.

Nisbett et. al. conclude their summary with this probably-telling sentence: "The authors were skeptical about the ability of public policy initiatives to have much impact on IQ or IQ-related outcomes." The description is quite accurate this time. But where Neisser et. al. leave policy in the background, Nisbett et. al. bring it to the foreground. As I argue in my other post on this, I think this is the likely reason for such angst about MH and TBC. 

After the opening, they only engage Murray, MH or TBC twice. The article seems to be a good review of the updated literature, but the pokes at Murray are somewhere between odd, intended to titillate, and trying to please a journal editor.  

2017's Vox
Here, two of the co-authors of the 2012 piece (Nisbett and Turkheimer) join another (Harden) to write a popular piece. (Here, it's noteworthy that Turkheimer is the lead author; the newcomer--probably a former grad student-- is second; and the top academic of the 2012 piece is now third.) The article is explicitly in response to the Sam Harris podcast with Murray. (For kicks, I'll guess that Harden subscribes to the podcast and brought it to the attention of T, who then included N as an author here, since he had been lead author on the academic piece.)

Since they're now writing in a popular setting, the logic gets sloppier, the writing gets looser, and polemic gets a larger role. (The title is crap-- inaccurate and inconsistent with what they write in the article ["junk science"?!]. But that's probably the fault of the editor much more than the authors.) It's not all wrong by any means, but it ain't academic either. (Maybe I should more careful how I write in more popular settings, unknowingly using my currency as a PhD?) 

For example, their conclusion is clearly hyperbolic and misleading: "Our bottom line is that there is a responsible, scientifically informed alternative to Murrayism: a non-essentialist view of intelligence, a non-deterministic view of behavior genetics, and a view of group differences that avoids oversimplified biology." "Murrayism" is neither essentialist, nor deterministic, nor based on oversimplified biology. As the authors note earlier (thankfully and accurately), "there is undeniably a range of opinions in the scientific community. Some well-informed scientists hold views closer to Murray's than to ours." 

From their discussion of the podcast, it sounds like Murray gets loose too-- along with Harris. So, maybe all's fair in science (vs. Science) and rhetoric. So, be careful-- especially in interpreting the adjective choices-- but the article is also worth a read. 

One big beef: "Murray and Harris pepper their remarks with anodyne commitments to treating people as individuals." Murray "peppers" in this regard?! Uhh, no! It's patently clear in TBC, rather than peppered-- both in the analysis and the policy recommendations. His opponents misrepresent him on his analysis-- and ironically, strongly prefer NON-individualistic public policy approaches! And if you read anything else from Murray-- in terms of philosophy or public policy-- this is a ridiculous claim that leads to unpleasant inferences about the intellect or integrity of the authors.

John McWhirter's piece is strong on its own merits. But it also points to the need to talk about intelligence and other group differences IF one insists on blanket public policies-- by groups or especially by race! For example, you can't do Affirmative Action for race X (well at least responsibly) without addressing the efficacy of the policy, which depends in part on the characteristics of the recipients.

Along those lines, let me close with the authors' odd defense of our govt's ineffective and remarkably expensive Head Start programs. Their embrace of Head Start seems to illustrate the importance of ideology over analysis, a strong preference for means over ends, a disinterest in effective public policy, and an implicit lack of concern for the marginal in our society. Nobody credible can look at Head Start and be satisfied-- with respect to either the theory or the data.

TBC certainly expresses (warranted) skepticism, but does not dismiss the potential role of government activism in addressing these problems. But to MH's crucial broad point on public policy, such policies should be appropriately targeted rather than imposed as a blanket-- if we're to have much if any hope of getting beyond the usual problems in political economy (e.g., cronyism and bureaucracy) to construct effective programs.