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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Opium, trade, and China's rise

by John MacBeath Watkins

Here's an interesting perspective on China's growth as an economic power (from here):

Clearly, China's rise is not so impressive as its decline has been. From a third of world GDP to less than 5% of world GDP is an impressive decline, and shows how badly managed the country was for many years. Since Deng Xiaoping's reforms, the recovery has been dramatic, but the long slide demonstrates the decline of one of the world's great civilizations.

When European and American merchants were first dealing with China, they found there was nothing they made that the Chinese wanted. Our best porcelain, for example, were called China because it was an imitation of Chinese goods. We could bring them silver and take away manufactured goods, but until Europeans discovered that the Chinese had a taste for opium, there just wasn't much the west had that China wanted.

In some respects, that's not too different from Columbia's trade with America.

The British discovered the Chinese taste for opium, and began importing it from India. Not only did this spread drug addiction in China, it interfered with the deep-seated Chinese belief that China was the center of the world, and did not need what other countries were selling. Eventually, the Chinese tried to ban importation of opium, and lost a war over the matter.

In 1730, the British imported 15 tons of opium into China. By 1773, it was 75 tons, and by 1820, where our chart begins, the trade had ballooned to 900 tons annually. The Qing Empire tried to stop it, but could not, and the Opium War only showed how little they could control their own country in dealing with the foreign devils.

Now, the current government of China is officially Communist, but more than anything else, Chinese. History changes rapidly, culture changes slowly: The Confucian distaste for merchants might be part of the reason Communism had an appeal, but the cultural attitudes that underlay Chinese society have probably changed less than Mao had hoped. Like most ethnic groups, the Chinese would like to see themselves as better than other ethnic groups, and return to a time when everyone wanted what China had.

That may go some distance in explaining Chinese trade policy, though there are plenty of other factors, such as the perception that the Soviet Union fell in part because it did not have the foreign exchange to buy enough food to feed its people (see The Soviet Collapse, Grain and Oil, by Yegor Gaidar, here.)

Restoring China to her former glory would certainly please her leaders, and help with the legitimacy problem they face with the collapse of Communism as an ideology.

But can they go back to being the world's most wealthy and powerful empire, with a third of world GDP, with the same sort of trade rules? I doubt that making silver the only trade good they will accept will work next time around. Chinese policy has tried to make it so that they can run a trade without having the currency appreciation that usually accompanies such a surplus. The U.S. tried such a policy between 1923 and 1929, probably contributing to the crisis that caused the Great Depression. There's a pretty good explanation of the process here.

We can hope that the Chinese have learned something from the 2008 crisis, and can reform their ways in time to head off further crises, but we can't count on it, because China's somewhat opaque politics will determine what policies are enacted. But if China can avoid policies that tend to cause such crises, they can rise again. Perhaps they will not account for a third of world GDP -- their population relative to the rest of the world is not as dominant as it was before North America became densely populated -- but it will become commensurate with the proportion of the world that is Chinese.

I can readily see them accounting for 20% of world GDP, because they have about that percentage of world population. It can be larger than that if Chinese productivity is higher than average for the world. American GDP is about 22% of world GDP and we have about 5% of world population. Our proportion of world production will shrink as other countries become more productive, even if we continue to become more productive and more wealthy.

But let's remember where we came from and where China came from. In 1820, we accounted for only about 2% of world GDP, compared with China's 33%. And we didn't just become more productive, we bought land from France, took land from Mexico, and took land from the Indian nations. Our pursuit of natural resources involved some sharp elbows. We should be ready to face the fact that China will throw some elbows as well.

But this time around, they need to integrate themselves with the world, not isolate themselves. It was during the time that world trade was exploding that insular China was declining, after all.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Scott Olsen, nonviolence and violence: Where do we go from here?

by John McBeath Watkins

Scott Olsen, the Iraq war vet who police hit in the forehead with a projectile (probably a "beanbag" filled with 40 grams of lead shot, a type of "non-lethal" projectile that for a time was abandoned by police following a 1971 fatality) during the Occupy Oakland protest, is recovering but cannot at present speak, causing his family to worry that the speech center in his brain may have been damaged.

This is in part an outcome of the same sort of thing that resulted in the Battle in Seattle, when a black bloc started smashing windows and throwing things at police. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said that a small number of protesters threw rocks, bottles and paint at police, and some rushed banks while other protesters tried to restrain them.

Meanwhile, interest in Occupy Wall Street (also called the 99 percent movement) has increased to the point that internet searches for it far exceed any period in the Tea Party Movement, and unlike the Tea Party, OWS has inspired protests all around the world. Here's a chart of internet interest:

If there's a lesson from the Arab Spring, it is that where the rule of law has at least some currency, non violent protest can achieve things violence cannot. Where it doesn't, violence is the last resort.

But there have always been people who want violence, who want to battle their enemies in a more concrete way. As Prof. Gene Sharp has pointed out, when it comes to violence, the state has all the tools and the protesters have few. A monopoly on violence is part of the reason for the state to exist, after all.

There are always those who think the power of violence is the only real power, and sneer at the actions of those who shun it. It's a bit like the chicken hawks of the Bush administration who thought being the tough guy who would torture was the way to get information in interrogations, while the actual experts in interrogation said the opposite. Violence is the easy way to "get tough," a lazy way of seeking glory and catharsis while sabotaging your own cause.

That the asshole element has arrived tells us that it's time for the 99% movement to look for new ways of expressing itself. You can only be so articulate by camping in the middle of town. At some point, the movement has to find a way to get its goals expressed in the political process. The protesters have built some networks and a sense of community, but if they are to make real changes in society, they need to find a way to get our leaders to change their behavior.

For the Tea Party, this was relatively easy. They tended to belong, overwhelmingly, to the Republican Party, and were ideological conservatives who often were already politically active.They were, in fact, the Republican base.

An academic study of the OWS supporters found that 70% are independents. This is a very different kind of movement, in which only about 27% of the participants identify with the Democrats and less than 3% with the Republicans. This independence from political parties is part of what makes the movement attractive to people world wide. It's also the reason it will be difficult to translate the movement's popularity into political action.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is Herman Cain having a James Garfield moment?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The tangled, Gordian knot of the poll trend lines for the Republican nomination reveals something important: Republicans really don't like any of their candidates.

Mitt Romney was riding the inevitability express until potential primary voters began to seek desperately for someone other than Romney to vote for. Rick Perry soared like a skyrocket, then exploded like a skyrocket, then fell to earth like an expended skyrocket. Herman Cain, who hasn't bothered to run a conventional campaign, is now the candidate leading in the polls.

His strategy of going where his book tour takes him and avoiding spending much time in Iowa or New Hampshire has something going for it: As soon as Republican voters get to know candidates really well, they abandon them. It's happened to Michele Bachmann, it's happened to Rick Perry, and it could even happen to Mitt Romney is they ever take note of the fact that looking over the stands he's taken on the issues during his career is like setting your iPod on "pander."

Not since James Garfield got the nomination by giving a rousing extemporaneous speech to introduce his favored candidate has anyone approached getting the nominee for president so casually.

Garfield gave a speech extolling the virtues of John Sherman and nominating him for president. During the speech he said, "And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?"

A voice called out, "Garfield!"

And Garfield was drafted. Well, not right then, he did get to finish his speech nominating Sherman, a man so uncharismatic his nickname was "the Ohio icicle." And it helped that the figure he described in his speech was considered by many to resemble Garfield more than Sherman. Had Garfield actually written a speech instead of speaking off the cuff, perhaps he would have managed one that would have served Sherman better. He worried, after the speech made him quite popular, that his sudden ascendance would harm his reputation with his peers. He was convinced that his time was not yet.

The delegates disagreed.

Are we faced with another Garfield moment, when a man who hasn't done the organizing and the groundwork could get the nomination?

I sort of doubt it. It seems likely to me that he'll stumble, as Bachmann and Perry did before him. In a recent CBS poll Perry came in behind not only Cain and Romney, but Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul as well.

But the fact that Cain could take over the lead in the polls mainly through charismatic performances at the sort of cattle-call debates the Republicans are now having tells me that the Republican primary voters are not happy with their choices.

Much like the delegates at the 1880 Republican Convention.

Monday, October 24, 2011

More on the incarceration boom

by John MacBeath Watkins

Now, here's an interesting statistic:

We're now prosecuting about three times as many people for "public order" offenses, and this really took off in 1996. Public order includes immigration, firearms, and indecency cases.

So what happened in 1996?

 The Communications Decency Act of 1996. Aimed at internet porn, the part of it intended to protect children from being exposed to porn was struck down almost immediately as too broad, but the rest of the act, which affected the publication of obscenity as defined by community standards, allowed prosecutors almost unlimited venue shopping, because internet publishers can't restrict distribution of their product by geography.

So now, we're dealing with about three times as many public order cases as we used to. Was this part of the calculation we were given when the law passed, or is the cost of trials and incarceration never mentioned?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Webb's study stymied: The do-nothing congress does nothing about prison reform

by John MacBeath Watkins

A filibuster blocked Sen. James Webb's bill to form a commission to study federal, state and local prison practices. With 57 senators voting for considering the bill and 43 against, the study is stymied. All those voting against the bill were Republicans, which may help explain why Webb is an ex-Republican. All the senate Democrats and four Republicans supported the bill.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn spoke against the study, claiming it would encroach on states' rights.


The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports Webb's response:

"Their inflammatory arguments defy reasonable explanation and were contradicted by the plain language of our legislation," Webb said in a prepared statement. "To suggest, for example, that the nonbinding recommendations of a bipartisan commission threaten the Constitution is absurd."
 Coburn doesn't seem to have referenced any particular provision of the constitution that bars the federal government from even studying state and local prison practices.  And in fact, the federal courts have been heavily involved in state prison practices for decades, and as recently as this June the Supreme Court ruled that California must cut its prison population from 143,435 to 109,805. Contrary to Coburn's claim, when prisons violate the 8th amendment, the federal government has every reason to get involved.

To put the numbers in perspective, Japan has a prison population of 75,250, with a population of 127, 560,000 people, while California has a population of 36,961,664. That's almost twice the prison population with less than a third of the total population.

California calls its prison agency the "Department of Corrections." With a recidivism rate of 57.8%, that would appear to be a misnomer. Canada's recidivism rate is 35%. Texas has a recidivism rate comparable to Canada's. Are Californians just evil, or is their "corrections" system not working?

The Houston Chronicle reports that reforms to the Texas prison system helped lower the recidivism rate and prevent the state from having to build more expensive prisons.

Among approaches that hold promise in reducing repeat incarceration, researchers said, are incentive programs that shorten paroled inmates' supervision time if they meet specified treatment or education requirements. Such programs now are law in Arizona, South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Pew Research reports recidivism rates ranging from 22.8% in Oregon to 61.2% in Minnesota (the only state with a higher recidivism rate than California.) With that much variation between the states, surely some sort of study is in order to find the best practices and spread them. I'd much rather have people working and paying taxes than living at my expense in a jail that does nothing but put them in contact with the sort of people who will advance their careers as criminals.

Webb laid out the problems with our penal system in a 2009 article he wrote for Parade magazine:

The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.
Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear.
As Webb points out in that piece, the way this works makes a mockery of the term "justice system."

Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

I know I've run this graphic before, in this post, but it's so mind-boggling perhaps I should run it every time I address this topic:

Did we suddenly become an evil people in 1980? Or did something go terribly wrong with the way our criminal justice system works?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Where immigration, polarization and incarceration meet

by John MacBeath Watkins

One nice thing about the internet is that authors can continue to update information between editions. And since academic books that are not textbooks tend not to make the best seller list, that's especially important for such works. Consider this:

McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal published this through MIT Press in 2006, but they have now updated some of their charts on party polarization and inequity through 2009.

Here's their chart that shows party polarization and the Gini index, which shows the degree of economic inequity in a society.

As you can see, as inequity increases, so does polarization. The puzzle is, why should that be the case? From the abstract for their study:

Some direct causes of polarization can be ruled out rather quickly. The consequences of "one person, one vote" decisions and redistricting can be ruled out since the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, has polarized. The shift to a Republican South can be ruled out since the North has also polarized. Primary elections can be ruled out since polarization actually decreased once primaries became widespread.

But this does not make sense. We've had, in the past, parties that were regional -- Republicans in the north, Democrats in the south, during the Civil War and Reconstruction. We've had a period when the parties were not regionally distributed -- the era of the New Deal, until the realignment following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in which Southern Democrats became Republicans. That really started with the 1968 election and Nixon's Southern strategy. In fact, periods of polarization have tracked pretty well with both parties relying on a regional base. In addition, the Senate usually is less polarized than the House. So look at this chart:

The parties are more polarized now than any time since Reconstruction. In fact, polarization dropped like a stone after World War I, rose a bit after World War II and climbed rapidly after about 1970.

McCarty et al found that there is a metric that tracks this fall in partisanship pretty well: A drop in immigration. See this chart:

Apparently, a high level of immigration tracks with a high level of economic inequity and a high level of political polarization. Again, from the abstract:

It is more difficult to find the causes of polarization than to reject them because social, economic, and political phenomena are mutually causal. For example, immigration might lead to policies that increase economic inequality if immigrants are at the bottom of the income distribution and do not have the right to vote. We document an upward shift in the income distribution of voting citizens. In turn, dispersal in income might lead to polarization. It also might lead to laxity toward immigration if inexpensive immigrant labor in the form of domestic and service workers is a complement to the human capital of the wealthy.
A high level of immigration might also lead to lower wages for those with whom they compete for jobs. Workers would have less leverage in negotiating pay, because businesses could simply hire someone willing to work cheaper. A labor shortage would raise wages and pull more people into the labor force. A labor surplus does the opposite. Labor force participation has in any case been increasing for my entire adult life, because women were increasingly in the workforce. Here's a chart via Matthew Yglesias:

During the Clinton boom in the 1990s, labor force participation increased.   Yglesias maintains that "the reality is that we’ve been in a continuous labor market recession for the past decade." So, was labor share of our economy's rewards falling because of immigrant competition the reason for polarization?

The Gini index started falling in 1933, not coincidentally the beginning of the New Deal. But reduced polarization started before that, taking a sharp turn toward moderation in about 1920. In other words, it wasn't the economic effects of immigration that were correlated with the polarization, it was immigration itself.  The economic effects no doubt magnify the effects of immigration, but the basic problem seems to be that it seems to take time for Americans to get used to new groups of Americans.

One reason for the delay in the fall of the Gini index after immigration fell following WW I may be that the 1920s were a time of rapidly rising productivity, as assembly line production and electrification reduced the need for labor and may have harmed its bargaining position. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office, he brought with him a conviction that deflation was a real problem. Executive Order 6102 devalued the dollar by about almost 70% against gold. In 1933 the National Recovery Administration started working on codes of "fair practice" and set prices, working against "price chiselers," and when the Supreme Court ruled the NRA was unconstitutional, the National Labor Relations Act replaced many of its provisions, such as minimum wages.

Giving labor more power decreased inequity, but as we've seen, polarization dropped first. This makes me think that labor's negotiating power is only a side effect of the real cause, which is a high level of immigration. When Americans live in an environment where they can get used to who is an American, polarization diminishes.

We could test this, I suppose, by requiring that immigrants invest $1 million to gain entry. If we had immigrants who didn't compete for low-paying jobs, we could see if they still had the effect of sparking a Nativist reaction.

I suspect there are secondary effects of immigration. If large numbers of the lower-paid people in our society don't have the vote, that would leave us with a large group of unrepresented people, and with people who sympathized with them. For example, if Hispanic immigrants have extended families in which most are legal immigrants and some are illegal, that's one group. Another example would be that non-Hispanic blacks accounted for nearly 40% of prison populations while amounting to less than 13% of the population as a whole. On June 30, 2008, an estimated 4.8% of black non-Hispanic men were in jail or prison, while 1.9% of Hispanic men were there and only .07% of white men were incarcerated. This means that black men are about five times as likely to lose their right to vote because of a felony on their record than white men.

Shortly after the Civil War, blacks were inclined to vote Republican. Almost 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, very few are inclined to do so, and they have switched to the the Democrats while many Southern whites have switched to the Republican party.

How does this relate to immigration? Whites who have a prejudice against immigrants often have a prejudice against blacks. The difference, of course, is that after a couple generations, whites tend to forget what they had against white immigrants. Resentment against immigrants, blacks and those who are "on their side" fuels the white-hot anger of polarization. That anger is part of what is behind differences in enforcement. For example whites use drugs about as much as blacks, but are much less likely to be convicted of a drug crime. And differences in enforcement change the electoral  math in a way that makes it possible for those whites most worried about losing their position in life so "the other" -- immigrants or blacks -- to defend themselves at the ballot box.

And that gets us back to the problem I had with Polarized America -- this statement:
The shift to a Republican South can be ruled out since the North has also polarized.
 No, not at all. If one region chooses to fly one banner, and announces its hatred of the other side, you can expect the other side to disagree with them. It works like this:

"I think you suck!"

"No, I don't. You do!"

And there you have it, the essence of polarization. You can put either side in either position, they still don't agree.

A poem for Libya:

Percy Bysshe Shelly

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Novels in three lines

 by John MacBeath Watkins

This is what happens when you let an anarchist write stories for a newspaper. In 1906, Felix Feneon wrote the following police beat report for a Paris newspaper:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

 "Novels in Three Lines"

And this report is worthy of Charles Fort:

Frogs, sucked up from Belgian ponds by the storm, rained down upon the streets of the red-light district of Dunkirk.

More typical of the police beat:

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector. 

 And a reminder of what life was like before such things as Social Security:

The corpse of a sixtyish Dorlay hung from a tree in Arcueil, with a sign reading, "Too old to work." 
They took their politics seriously in 1906:

"If my candidate loses, I will kill myself," M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He Killed himself.

More here.And here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Got my signed copy of the new Terry Pratchett!

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've just received in the mail my new copy of Terry Pratchett's new novel, Snuff. Pratchett is my favorite living author, which makes it a bit annoying that usually when I hear about him these days, it's because he's once again embroiled in the death with dignity controversy, as he has been pretty much since he was first diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. I'd been hoping he could reliably churn out a book a year into his 90s, like P.G. Wodehouse. It is not convenient to me for him to die without doing this, and it is upsetting to be reminded of his mortality.

So it's a relief to hear in a recent interview with Neil Gaiman that he says he still has good use of language, though he can't type and has to think twice putting his trousers on in the morning.

And, happily, he can still sign his name, so I've got a nice little book plate he signed in the book, along with a stamp that says...

"Sir Terry Pratchett
American tour 2011
The New Discworld Novel

Well, at least they didn't say it was his Snuff tour. His subject matter in the last book, I Shall Wear Midnight, was darker than usual, but then, the books have been getting steadily more serious over the years, and one of my favorites, Small Gods, deals with some fairly dark aspects of religion, while another, The Hogfather, is about an assassin who sets out to kill the Discworld equivalent of Santa.

I'm delighted to learn that Sir Pterry is working with Stephen Baxter on a project reviving the long earth, a series he abandoned when the Discworld books took off. We may not have him as long as we want, but he's still producing books for now.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I've discovered the problem with the Republican primary polls. It's cats.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Just noticed this track of polling data from Real Clear Politics:

Looks like thing were going along in sort of a sane way, until about July. At that point, it's like a cat got into the threads of yarn. That's about the only way I can explain the utter chaos we're seeing in this chart.

Purple, or course, is Romney, blue is Perry, red is Cain.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why I am not an atheist

by John MacBeath Watkins

We live in an age of evangelical atheism, in which prominent atheists argue vociferously that any rational person should give up on religion and show their smarts by adopting a firm belief in the non-existence of god.

I believe myself to be as rational as the next man, in fact rationaler, if I may coin a neologism, but I'm not jumping on the bandwagon. I've been agnostic most of my life, and I remain in that state of suspended belief.

Part of the reason is that rational proofs of the non-existence of a thing strike me as irrational. If I want to know if a blowfish exists, I don't reason whether its existence is possible, I consult those who claim to have seen it and evaluate their evidence. There are many accounts of people encountering them, there's a tradition of eating them even though they can be poisonous if improperly prepared, and I can easily find pictures of them.

All that could be faked, of course, but it would require such a vast conspiracy for so little purpose that the notion that the blowfish is fake is laughable.

God is a bit more problematic. Although there are many accounts of people encountering him or his minions, these accounts are often at variance with who he is supposed to be.  Consider the following verses:

King James Version, Second Kings 2:23-24
23: And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up that way, there came forth little children of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; Go up, thou bald head.
24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD.  And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them.
 And God so loved the world that he gave it vengeful she-bears.

This gets at the problem of pain, and why a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being would allow so much of it in the world. Indeed, if he created everything, he created evil (the theological consequences of which are explored in The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis, and The Time Bandits, which contains the following dialogue: Kevin: Yes, why does there have to be evil? Supreme Being: I think it has something to do with free will..)

Christian apologetics is popular, and C.S. Lewis is about the most popular among them, but their logic always struck me as motivated reasoning.

A study by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber proposes that reason evolved not to discover truth, but to persuade people of views one already holds. From their abstract:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.
 In other words, reason does not exist to discover truth, but to persuade others that you are in possession of it.

I'm a bit dubious about that. I'd say that's one of its ancillary functions, but that reason is an abstract expression of that problem solving ability that any animal with a brain needs to survive. We have, relative to other animals, a giant brain, so we have better problem-solving abilities. We have symbolic thought, which is an outgrowth of language, and when you combine symbolic thought with problem-solving, you get reason.

However, in a political setting, Mercier and Sperber may often be right. Political actors work in a series of linked systems of symbol and value, those of family and home, community, ethnicity, commerce, religion, and warfare, for example.

Many of those value systems are based on traditions, emotional attachments, and webs of obligation. Reason may modify these systems at the margins, but for the most part they form our identity and world view to an extent that is more powerful than reason. They form the assumptions on which we base reason. Edmund Burke even argued that our prejudices are an expression of the wisdom of our civilization. From Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Burke was swimming against the tide of the Enlightenment, in which reason ascended from its role as the artisan and mechanic of our symbolic life to its throne. Intellectuals like John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau became important in the political sphere in a way that religion had for millennia, telling people what sort of ruler was legitimate.

"Naked reason" has not always had good effects. Marxism, which claimed to be based on reason, attempted to give us a scientific socialism that would result in a better way of life. It gave us, instead, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot. Of course, any system can produce bad rulers, but Marxism seemed to produce bad results far more often than liberalism or even the tradition-bound system of monarchy.

Part of the problem was that it had no really workable system of value. Yes, all right, labor creates value, but how do you distinguish between productive labor and useless or destructive labor? Liberalism had an answer, which is that value is subjective. From Chapter 10 of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan:

The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.
 In addition, Marx reasoned that since property and religion were connected with much of the suffering in the world, they must be wrong, and could be done without rather than reformed. Part of the problem, I believe, is a profound misunderstanding of what property is. I would say that property is the rules, obligations and customs regarding the use of things humans use. As long as there are humans and things they use, property will be with us. Marx did not give his followers any such arrangements for determining how such things would be used, and no Communist society based on his work ever fully resolved the problem.

And the officially atheist societies based on Marxism were without religion, but the Communist Party soon took on the characteristics of the worst and most corrupt church, running inquisitions and giving privileges to their functionaries.

The result was unproductive labor, unproductive use of capital, and a social order that tended to terror.

In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse began with the statement that "A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization..."

When I read that, I wrote in the margin, "that doesn't sound too bad." After all, if we are to have civilization, it must be organized somehow. If we can organize it in a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic way, we're way ahead of most of human history. Marx despised tradition for its defects, while minimizing its graces.

Reason based on false assumptions also gave us social Darwinism, of both the individualist, capitalist, American sort and the racist, fascist, European sort.

These bastard offspring of the Enlightenment demonstrate the dangers of reason, logically following the wrong assumptions through reason to the wrong conclusions.

So I'm a bit wary of reason unchecked by humility. And I am not at all convinced that reason is the best guide to all aspects of how we should run our lives. Yet I am a creature of the Enlightenment, and to me, Burke's defense of prejudice has at least as many limits as unchecked reason.

If we listened to our prejudice and not our reason, would we not still hold slaves, as most human societies did for most of human history? John Locke, who was himself complicit in slavery, told us that we are each born owning ourselves, and that ownership was inalienable: You will always own yourself, and cannot sell yourself into slavery, because that property right will always be yours, it's what you call an inalienable right. And once we had built an entire civilization on that principle, how could we countenance slavery?

The thing is, both tradition and reason have things to tell us about how to live. When Graham Greene was asked what arguments caused him to convert to Catholicism, he said he couldn't recall. To an atheist, that makes no sense at all, because to an atheist, all belief should be based on reason. But Greene wasn't converted so much to a belief as to a way of life, and I suspect that most people who take religion seriously look to it not for reasoned arguments, so much as a structure for their lives.

Churches offer a sense of belonging, a community and a social safety net. They offer comfort and succor, and guidance on how to live a good life, both in terms of our enjoyment of life and in terms of how we treat others. But Christianity responded to the Enlightenment as if it were a threat to the church, because, in fact, it was. It had the potential to take away the power of the church by offering a way to evaluate the legitimacy of rulers without regard to faith. Religion had probably ruled men's minds from the explosion of evidence of symbolic thought that came with Upper Paleolithic civilization around 50,000 years ago until the Enlightenment, and it's still fighting for that throne.

When we speak of people's reason being unseated, we think of an irrational person, a blithering fool. Yet think of the fact that reason had to unseat faith to become the dominant mode of our civilization. That would make you what, a damned fool?

Christian apologists have done their best to reconcile faith with reason, so that we may be no sort of fool. I'm not convinced they have succeeded. The effort to define God as a rational being who operates on certain principles -- omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent -- is actually harder to reconcile than the ancient sort of god who could be fooled or could be foolish, as the Greek gods sometimes were, whose passions and foibles tripped them up at times.

It strikes me that such an interpretation is actually more compatible with the god of the old testament, who tortured Job on a bet with Satan to see if he would renounce his god, who tested Abraham's faith by demanding he sacrifice his son Isaac on a stone altar like a scene from some Frank Frazetta cover for a Robert E. Howard novel. (All right, it would have to be a busty and barely clad young woman instead of Isaac, but you get the idea.) Consider these verses from Genesis 22:

5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
If you were one of the young men abiding with the ass, you might think god was acting like a psychopathic cult leader at that moment, forcing Abraham into a situation where he was ready to commit an atrocity to show his allegiance.

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634

I am unconvinced that the apologists have succeeded in reconciling such passages with their Platonic vision of a perfect god. I'm neither willing to have my reason unseated by evangelical religion nor to accept reason as my only master when we've seen it so badly used. And the logic of the atheist is not unassailable. The problem of pain is sometimes expressed with the lines from Archibald MacLiesh's play, JB:

I heard upon his dry dung-heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If GOD is GOD He is not good,
If GOD is good He is not GOD;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."

But that does not preclude the existence of a spiritual world, especially if God were imperfect. The perfect God was a Platonic ideal, an expression of the Enlightenment in that like the perfectly round orbits of the planets and sun around the earth, God was supposed to express perfection. But like the efforts to explain the actual orbits of the the planets with Ptolemaic assumptions, there is a danger that such justifications will evolve into the epicycles of a spiritual armillary sphere.

The conflict between atheist and believer is one between those who would make reason our god, and those who would make god our reason. Neither position seems attractive to me, and I'm a person who has an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity, and unresolved questions. Consequently, I choose to remain suspended between belief and disbelief, open to possibilities of which I remain unpersuaded.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: It's not jealousy, Mr. Cain

by John MacBeath Watkins

Herman Cain, addressing the Value Voters summit, said that the Occupy Wall Street protests are being staged by "jealous" Americans who want to take somebody else's Cadillac.

It's not the first time I've heard this from conservatives. On a boat forum I frequent, one conservative said the following:

"Personally, I feel that if you're unhappy with how much wealth and power others have in relation to yourself, you would be well advised to generate more of same for yourself instead of aimless protesting. And this from a still practicing , leftover child of the 60s."
 It's a theme I've run into often enough -- conservatives equate any criticism of the money/power distribution in this country envy of the "haves." Anyone wishing to regulate the way wealth is accumulated or tax income at, say, a rate far less than that under Nixon, is seen through the prism of envy.

That's a fascinating bit of projection, and a convenient condition for acknowledging the protest. Well, if you don't like what the plutocrats are doing to the country, become a plutocrat! Buy into the power structure you object to, in other words.

Herman Cain has devoted his life to gaining money and power. He admires and envies those who have more of it than he does. He therefore assumes that anyone who objects to the current power arrangements in this country wants what he does, more power and money for themselves.

Mr. Cain, the people holding up signs that use the term "banksters" do not wish to emulate the people who drove our economy off a cliff. They want to reform a system that allowed "banksters" to make themselves rich by taking unconscionable risks with other people's money. They are addressing a problem that you find it inconvenient to acknowledge, that the financial markets failed.

Every economist is familiar with the concept of market failures. They are the result of poorly designed markets, which give rewards for the wrong behavior. However, I doubt Mr. Cain would be willing to admit that markets fail.

Markets, after all, are a human artifact. Conservatives may wish to believe that markets are the natural state of man, but they are constructed and supported by society. Without government to protect property and adjudicate disputes regarding property, markets would cease to function and be replaced by banditry.

Consider this market failure:

The two men were seized as they drove to the airport at Bosasso in Somalia, along with two Somali journalists who had been assisting them, after having completed their assignment for the Telegraph newspapers and website.
It appeared that they were seized by the bodyguards escorting them to the airport, the Telegraph said.
The bodyguards had a contract to safely deliver the journalists to the airport. Because no one enforces contracts in Somalia, they felt free to violate that contract and hold them for ransom instead. In a country like the United States, they could expect agents of the government to track them down, capture them, take their ill-gotten gains through the action of government courts, and imprison them for a long period of time in a government-run gaol.

Now, I suppose the natural extension of Mr. Cain's argument would be that market failures don't happen, because markets exist in a state of nature prior to governments. Perhaps the journalists should have bought their own guns and taken their own hostages if they didn't like the way power is distributed in Somalia.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and what victory might look like

John MacBeath Watkins

The Tea Party Caucus now has 62 members in the House of Representatives, four in the U.S. Senate. Will we ever see an Occupy Wall Street caucus?

I ask this because Vice President Joe Biden has compared the two. Both feature home-made signs, wild costumes and political goals that seem hard to define.

The Tea Party was built on two main pillars, according to this study: Conservative ideology and racial resentment. From the study's abstract:

The overwhelming majority of Tea Party supporters were Republicans and supporters were much more conservative than other Republicans. While conservatism is by far the strongest predictor of support for the Tea Party movement, racial hostility also has a significant impact on support. Along with their greater conservatism, Tea Party supporters were much more politically active than other Republicans.

This finding matches pretty well with an earlier study by David Campbell and Robert Putnam. They interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans in 2006 as part of their research in regional political attitudes, and interviewed those same people again this past summer, so they were able to see what peoples' attitudes were before they became part of the Tea Party. This allowed them to deduce who was attracted to the movement.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.
Just looking at the pictures of people who are in those Occupy Wall Street pictures, they look like the mirror image of the Tea Party crowd -- except that they, too, are predominantly white. Not as nearly exclusively white as the Tea Party, but here's a picture from Wikipedia illustrating the OWS movement:

They are younger, by and large, and shaggier, and a bit more racially mixed, as you would expect of a group not founded in part on White racial resentment. Also, if they display the American flag, they do so upside down, to signal the nation is in distress.

Now, consider this New York Times story:

Thousands Rally in Capital to Protest Big Government

Amanda Lucidon for The New York Times
A crowd marched toward the Capitol as people from around the country gathered to express their discontent with the government. More Photos >

Published: September 12, 2009
WASHINGTON — A sea of protesters filled the west lawn of the Capitol and spilled onto the National Mall on Saturday in the largest rally against President Obama since he took office, a culmination of a summer-long season of protests that began with opposition to a health care overhaul and grew into a broader dissatisfaction with government
Have you spotted the non-white participants in this rally? The closest thing to it that I've found are a couple posters depicting President Obama as the Joker (Heath Ledger edition.)

In fact, the people participating in OWS look pretty much like the peaceful protesters at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization ministerial conference, which became notorious as the Battle in Seattle after some nihilists introduced violence into the mix by smashing windows. These black-clad anarchists were about the most organized group there, advancing in a black bloc. What smashing the windows of Fox's Gem Shop had to do with protesting against globalization isn't clear to me at all, but that sort of activity gave the police a justification to come down hard on all the protesters.

We can certainly hope these jerks don't show up this time around, but we're also faced with the fact that the anti-globalization protesters lost momentum pretty quickly. Part of the problem was that they didn't have any suggestions that would result in the near-term improvement of any Americans' lives. Their demands were diffuse and impractical. It reminds me a bit of the exchange in The Life of Brian just before the memorable "what have the Romans ever done for us?" scene:

COMMANDO XERXES: What exactly are the demands?
REG: We're giving Pilate two days to dismantle the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist State, and if he doesn't agree immediately, we execute her.
In any human conflict, resolution in your favor requires that the other side be able to submit, which means victory is only possible if your goals are achievable. OWS needs such goals, and I think the country needs them as well. We've got problems, and there are solutions, but those solutions don't appeal to our current crop of politicians.

Here's a suggestion. We're in a balance-sheet recession. People are unable to get out from under enough debt to contemplate spending any money, and the lack of demand for what they are selling is why businesses aren't hiring. A couple kinds of debt have special status under American bankruptcy law. A bankruptcy court cannot write down the principle on mortgages or student loans. And since you can give back a house but not an education, student loans can't be discharged in any way other than paying them off except under extreme circumstances.

Let's give those types of loans the same status as any other secured debt.

An even more popular goal would be to return the tax rate for the top income earners to an earlier level. Perhaps not to Eisenhower rates (top rate 90 percent) or Kennedy rates (he lowered the top rate to 70 percent) but to some level commensurate with the ability the rich have to pay.

For example, Mitt Romney is paying about 14 percent of his income as taxes. Working stiffs pay about that much in payroll taxes (half is paid by the employer, but it's all payroll expense, so it all comes from what would be paid) before they even start paying income taxes. Romney, who pulls down around $15 million a year, can afford to pay a higher rate. In fact, if he were a basketball player making the same money as earned income instead of as capital gains, he'd be paying more like 30 percent under current law.

Take a look at the chart from this article:

You don't have to be John Kenneth Galbraith to notice that periods of low taxes have been followed by long recessions that differ from most recessions in that they follow financial crises. Such balance-sheet recession are different in kind than most recessions, and may have something to do with the distributive effect of such policies.

The International Monetary Fund recently completed a study (full study here) that shows the effects of income inequity on economic growth, and found that societies with great inequity tend to have more financial crises.

Here's a chart from the study:

The greatest predictor of economic growth is income distribution, followed by trade openness.

 From the study:

...the increase in U.S. income inequality in recent decades is strikingly similar to the increase that occurred in the 1920s. In both cases there was a boom in the financial sector, poor people borrowed a lot, and a huge financial crisis ensued (see “Leveraging Inequality,” F&D, December 2010 and “Inequality = Indebted” in this issue of F&D). The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in U.S. financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality. With inequality growing in the United States and other important economies, the relationship between inequality and growth takes on more significance.
The result has been good for no one, so why do we persist in policies that produce so much inequity?

Simple human nature. People don't feel rich unless they are richer than their neighbors. A rising tide may lift all boats, but some of us feel richer if the other guy's boat sinks. It's time to put a stop to that sort of thinking, and realize that we are all in this country together.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I may be one of those alien life forms we've been searching for

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some years ago, I read about a wild theory advanced by an astronomer whose name escapes me, who had advanced the theory in the 1960s that earth's water arrived from comets. It was largely ignored at first, because it was published on April 1. People actually thought it was a joke.

Now, decades later, we've found comets from the Kuiper Belt that have the same chemical signature as earth's water. From this NASA press release:

New measurements from the Herschel Space Observatory show that comet Hartley 2, which comes from the distant Kuiper Belt, contains water with the same chemical signature as Earth's oceans. This remote region of the solar system, some 30 to 50 times as far away as the distance between Earth and the sun, is home to icy, rocky bodies including Pluto, other dwarf planets and innumerable comets.

"Our results with Herschel suggest that comets could have played a major role in bringing vast amounts of water to an early Earth," said Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-author of a new paper in the journal Nature, published online today, Oct. 5. "This finding substantially expands the reservoir of Earth ocean-like water in the solar system to now include icy bodies originating in the Kuiper Belt."

Scientists theorize Earth started out hot and dry, so that water critical for life must have been delivered millions of years later by asteroid and comet impacts. Until now, none of the comets previously studied contained water like Earth's. However, Herschel's observations of Hartley 2, the first in-depth look at water in a comet from the Kuiper Belt, paint a different picture.
Which means that at least some of the chemicals needed to brew primordial soup arrived from space. I like to think this means that you and I are those alien life forms we've been searching for.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Enhanced Interrogation = torture: McCain gets his ethics back

by John MacBeath Watkins

For me personally, the worst thing that's happened to my country in my lifetime isn't wars based on lies (Viet Nam and Iraq)  or the terrorist attack against this country that was used to justify the second of those wars, despite the tragic deaths they caused, but the fact that the president of the United States made torture the official policy of my country, which is supposed to stand against such things.

So it was a relief to find that John McCain, who muzzled himself against the Bush-Cheney policy of torture when he was running for president, has got his ethics back:

For those who cannot watch videos, McCain refers to "'enhanced interrogation' i.e. torture," points out that we got no useful information through torture, that it is illegal, and that it is harmful to the United States.

McCain, himself a victim of torture when he was held prisoner in North Viet Nam, has for most of his career had a clear and admirable record on the issue. The exception was the period when he was running for president as a republican, and was aware of the feelings of the Republican base on the topic.

He voted against a law that would have specifically outlawed watherboarding in Feb. 2008. I find this impossible to understand unless he thought voting for it would endanger his electoral prospects.

It's nice to see the old McCain back. It would be nicer if CNN and the rest of the mainstream media has been willing to call torture by its name while it was happening.