Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Assuming People Are Stupid

I often hear conservatives accuse liberals of thinking average people are stupid. I don't think the accusation is very fair, but I will repeat my statement that most progressive analysis and proposals on financial issues start with the idea that people are stupid.

Here's Matt Yglesias on Social Security Private accounts:
This is not an idea I’m enthusiastic about. A large body of research indicates that individuals are not well-equipped to engage in speculative investments, and experience teaches that financial managers are moderately well-equipped to duping people into paying management fees.

Now, one could say that Matt isn't saying he thinks people are stupid. No, he's saying a large body of research indicates that people are in fact stupid, but he's still saying people are stupid. Likewise, a key part of Elizabeth Warren's working assumptions seems to be people are stupid. To be honest, FLG admits there may be some truth to this argument when it comes to financial affairs.

The problem is that a similar sentiment exists in the "people cling to guns and religion" argument as well. I don't want to take that too far. In any case, one ought to be careful when one's primary assumption when governing or regulating appears to be that the average person is stupid.

Quote of the day

Edmund Burke:
I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observation of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business.

For some reason this popped into my head this morning.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Tinfoil Hat Isn't Very Attractive

FLG has never been that into Ron Paul. This is mostly because Mr. Paul has a disturbing tendency to wear tinfoil hats. Bruce Bartlett looks at the most recent example; he wants to audit the US gold supply.

You know, FLG wasn't completely truthful. He used to find Ron Paul intriguing, back when FLG watched the X-Files and was into conspiracy theories. Eventually, FLG realized that all those conspiracy theories end up with blaming the Jews and disavowed his previous conspiracy theory beliefs.

And just from a practical perspective, if you believe, as FLG does, that the government is very bad at doing anything besides bringing lots of resources to bear in a short period of time without much worrying about costs, then the idea of running decades long conspiracies seems ridiculous even with the help of reptilian aliens.

FLG's Initial Perception Of The Key Difference Between PhD and MBA Students

FLG previously wrote in the comments:
I think a big part of me being able to filter out bullshit is the result of taking several PhD level classes.

Arethusa responded:
Oh, so that's the value of a graduate education! Funny, though, how most graduate students fail to learn that lesson and instead propagate more BS.

FLG also wrote:
There are a lot of very, very smart people who can [...] talk for a long time on topics about which they know next to nothing without saying anything meaningful.

At first glance, it would appear that there isn't too big a divide between PhD and MBA students on the issues raised above. PhD students, for example, can talk for a long time on topics about which they know next to nothing without saying anything meaningful. Also, they do propagate a lot of BS.

Here's the difference. FLG thinks that the PhD students think that they are actually making profound and meaningful points. Often they're not, but that's because they've either abstracted themselves too much or gone down some detailed rathole. But FLG doesn't generally question their sincerity about making some meaningful point, even if it is, in reality, a load of crap.

A lot of MBA students, on the other hand, seem to be able to put an air of complete confidence upon a presentation they know is pure bullshit hidden behind jargon and lots of often irrelevant facts and data.

Plato And Pop Culture

As explained by Alexander Nehamas:
And so, as often in philosophy, we end with a dilemma: If Plato was wrong about epic and tragedy, might we be wrong about television and video games? If, on the other hand, we are right, might Plato have been right about Homer and Euripides?

Nehamas explains Plato's position thusly:
What is really disturbing is that Plato’s adult citizens are exposed to poetry even less than their children. Plato knows how captivating and so how influential poetry can be but, unlike us today, he considers its influence catastrophic. To begin with, he accuses it of conflating the authentic and the fake. Its heroes appear genuinely admirable, and so worth emulating, although they are at best flawed and at worst vicious. In addition, characters of that sort are necessary because drama requires conflict — good characters are hardly as engaging as bad ones. Poetry’s subjects are therefore inevitably vulgar and repulsive — sex and violence. Finally, worst of all, by allowing us to enjoy depravity in our imagination, poetry condemns us to a depraved life.

Listen, Nehamas is an authority on Plato and FLG is just some dumbass blogger, but again FLG thinks people take the polis part of the argument in the Republic too literally. If you look at it as a larger metaphor for illustrating how to rightly order the soul, and not really about a polis at all, then it makes much more sense. (Seriously, Socrates pretty much admits that his city wouldn't actually work in practice, so what's the point then if not as a metaphor for what can work -- rightly ordering the individual soul?)

Also, FLG wonders about this explanation by Nehamas:
Do we, as Plato thought, move immediately from representation to reality? If we do, we should be really worried about the effects of television or video games. Or are we aware that many features of each medium belong to its conventions and do not represent real life?

To answer these questions, we can no longer investigate only the length of our exposure to the mass media; we must focus on its quality: are we passive consumers or active participants? Do we realize that our reaction to representations need not determine our behavior in life? If so, the influence of the mass media will turn out to be considerably less harmful that many suppose. If not, instead of limiting access to or reforming the content of the mass media, we should ensure that we, and especially our children, learn to interact intelligently and sensibly with them.

The primary question for Plato is whether something was Good or promoted the Good. Nehamas seems to be arguing that mass media and pop culture might not be bad. Well, that doesn't seem like an argument that Plato would accept. Sure, if we know something is definitely not bad, then Plato probably wouldn't worry about it, but Plato makes a strong case that poetry is indeed bad.

On Writing: The Bible

One thing that always astonished FLG is how simply the writing in much of the Bible is. Many people, well, at least FLG when he was little, thought the Bible was a lot of poetic explanation of the divine. A sentiment that Rufus seems to echo in a post that inspired me to write this:
We can disagree about its truth content, but the poetry is lucid, lovely and powerful- frequently majestic, and the stories are lively and entertaining

But much of the key stories, especially from the Old Testament, are short and told simply. Indeed, the first sentence of the entire thing is this:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Short, simple, to the point. Within another 31 sentences God creates the universe. It takes 25 more to create Adam and Eve. By the 80th line, Man has fallen. From a mere narrative perspective, this is genius. The primary conflict of the entire work is setup immediately.

The story of Cain and Abel is told in a mere 16 lines. I mean, think about that, Cain and Abel, which is alluded to left and right in the Western Tradition takes up a mere 16 lines:
[1] And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.
[2] And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
[3] And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
[4] And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
[5] But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
[6] And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
[7] If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
[8] And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
[9] And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
[10] And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
[11] And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
[12] When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
[13] And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
[14] Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
[15] And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
[16] And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

From FLG's perspective, it's not the poetry, per se, that made the Bible appear inaccessible to Lil' FLG, but the archaic vocabulary. Obviously, other people have come to this conclusion as well and we see other versions with a more modern vocabulary. Nevertheless, the stories are extremely simply told. Extremely simply told, but incredibly rich and profound. I always try to keep in mind that if Cain and Abel can be told in sixteen lines, then what I'm trying to say can probably be whittled down as well.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Two Things FLG Has Learned

...from doing his MBA so far.

There are a lot of very, very smart people who can 1) talk for a long time on topics about which they know next to nothing without saying anything meaningful and 2) who cannot craft clear, concise prose. (And don't get me started on PowerPoint.)

The people who are good communicators, by which I mean those who offer clear, concise, and meaningful statements, really do stand out.

Engineers

TechCrunch:
An interesting paradox in the technology world is that there is both a shortage and a surplus of engineers in the United States. Talk to those working at any Silicon Valley company, and they will tell you how hard it is to find qualified talent. But listen to the heart-wrenching stories of unemployed engineers, and you will realize that there are tens of thousands who can’t get jobs. What gives?

The harsh reality is that in the tech world, companies prefer to hire young, inexperienced, engineers.

FLG has consistently been skeptical of the common argument that the United States needs to focus on science and math education to compete in the global economy. He believes that it should be part of a liberal education, but trying to churn out engineers for the sake of the economy is not a good idea.

Some liberal commentators, people like Robert Reich and Tom Friedman, are always saying we need to do this, usually because they just talked to some tech industry leader. Of course they want more engineers. Of course they want the government or somebody else to pay for their education. Of course they don't want to pay for it or very much in salaries.

If India and China are churning out a disproportionate number engineers (I'd like to add even if some are very sharp many are far less skilled) and turning middling engineering skill into a commodity, then we do we want to do want to compete in that market? What the heads of large companies want is not always in the larger interest, maybe not even the merely economic interest, of our nation.

And as a matter of fact, FLG doesn't think that technical skill or education is the key ingredient in the success of Silicon Valley. Many, many countries have tried to replicate it by investing in universities to create little Berekelys and Stanfords, but the key ingredient is not that. It's the finance. It's angel investors and VC firms. It's the ability to IPO and get liquidity back. It's not simply technical skill, but the ability to put financial and technical resources together so that people can make money creating things.

HT: Instapundit

Blaming The Fed

Megan McArdle:
everyone hates the Fed! Why won't they get us out of this mess?

Here's one possibility: because many of the people who are now complaining that they are too tight, are the same ones who until very recently were loudly complaining that they were too loose during the last recession. There's been a pretty vibrant cottage industry in placing the blame for the housing bubble squarely on the frail shoulders of one Alan Greenspan. He is a convenient villain for liberals, who hate his politics, and conservatives, who hate the sort of technocratic institution he represents. Blaming Alan Greenspan allows liberals to dodge uncomfortable questions about the unintended consequences of government intervention, and conservatives to dodge uncomfortable questions about whether free markets can produce really, really bad outcomes.

Since the Fed always determines the interest rate, and by extension the money supply, their decisions always impacts the economy. Since Fed policy perfectly correlates with every economic issue and it's easier to ignore that correlation doesn't imply causation, one can always blame the Fed. Policy was too loose or too tight. End of story.

Now, interest rates are a hugely important part of the economy, but since you can always argue with some reasonably that the Fed's policies were the problem I'm very skeptical when people blame the Fed alone for economic problems. I'm not saying that the Fed hasn't or can't cause problems. I'm just saying that since one can always and easily point to the Fed we really should be skeptical that the Fed is really the culprit. Most of the time the Fed's policies alone weren't the problem. It's the Fed's policies plus something else that cause the problem. But since the Fed always has a policy, it always coincides with that something else. So maybe it's more about the something else.

All I'm trying to say is that the Fed, because it always has a policy that affects the economy, makes a super easy scapegoat for anybody who wants an easy answer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

FLG Begs Your Pardon

What the fuck are you talking about?

FLG is pretty well-versed in theology and political philosophy and as far as he can tell that's just a bunch of prose intentionally written indecipherably to cover a load of bullshit. Now, in fairness, the author is trying to use Voegelin, who like all 20th Century German Continental philosophers, is indecipherable. Shit, Cheeks' post almost makes me long for the clarity that is Heidegger.

An Extended Conversation

MBA colleague:  We ought to know this document backwards and forwards.  I'm going to read every word.

FLG:  It's an analyst report.  You cull the relevant data and leave the rest.  Reading it line by line is not a very smart use of time.

Next morning....

MBA colleague:  I'm still not finished with the report.  How 'bout you?

FLG :  I spent 15 minutes on it, gathered a bit of insight and some relevant analysis.  Now, I'm more concerned with the financial statements.  (to himself:Idiot.  How do you get through life without knowing how to filter data appropriately?).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Porfirio Rubirosa

FLG came across the name today by accident and was intrigued by the listing of his occupation on Wikipedia: Diplomat, polo player, race car driver. Also according to Wikipedia, he "was best known as an international playboy for his jet setting lifestyle and legendary prowess with women."

FLG made a note to pickup a copy of this biography: The Last Playboy: The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa FLG figures that Rubirosa was either a real life version of the Most Interesting Man in the World or an insufferable cad.

Time Horizons: Dueling Economists Edition

More evidence of FLG's time horizons theory from Raghu Rajan:
before I start, let me declare that I am as much for getting out of this recession as anyone else. However, I would like to get out of this recession in a way that is sustainable, that does not merely pump up growth in the short term only to see it collapse later. This is where Krugman and I differ the most.

At this point, FLG feels that y'all get his theory. Next, he needs to make the compelling case that it applies beyond simply economics.

Victory Through Literacy

A while back Alan was having a beer over at FLG castle and we had a disagreement about the nature of Afghanistan. Alan was upset it's always portrayed as a brown, mountainous country with loads of bomb craters when it has a long history of culture, including universities. My contention was that, while true, almost every country has universities and culture. The problem is that the vast majority of the populous, in particular the ones we are trying to train, cannot read. This makes the job much tougher than in Iraq, for example.

Here's an excerpt from a Danger Room post:
The American-led strategy in Afghanistan relies on training enough local forces to let the Afghans take over their own security. Right now, only 18 percent of those 243,000 cops and grunts have more than a Kindergarten-level ability to read. Which means they’ve got major trouble doing everything from keeping track of their gear to following a battle plan to getting paid, the general in charge of the NATO training effort says. In other words: If these local troops can’t learn their ABCs, this war is stuck.

FLG wishes he wasn't currently listening to



He hates almost everything about the song, but it's stuck on an endless fucking loop in his head. He might have to auto-lobotomize.

Monday, August 23, 2010

FLG Is So Ahead Of The Curve That He's Only Just Now Catching Up With Himself

Mrs. Self-Important links to this article about emerging adulthood and writes:
Suddenly we've made the leap from emerging adulthood as an ambivalent period that has started to appear in the lives of affluent meritocrats to emerging adulthood as a human right, and one that federal programs are obliged to provide for everyone.

FLG will give himself a shoutout and link to an old post:
Alpheus takes a look at Fred Siegel's account of the origin of the Left and comes away impressed.

I'm less impressed. It's a good stuff to be sure. Yet, Siegel is missing the forest through the trees. Sure, he describes a lot of the trees very well. However, he misdiagnoses American liberalism. Do you know how I know? The word "leisure" isn't mentioned once in the article.

The ultimate goal of Marxism, in its purest, Platonic form, is Leisure. Leisure in this case means the ability to pursue one's goals free from constraints. Those constraints could be cultural, economic, or political. Which explains the animus with which the intellectuals mentioned in the essay hate the bourgeois virtues, capitalism, and the American political system.

The nexus of economic statism and cultural libertarianism is not some odd pairing derived from unique circumstances, but a direct product of the end goal of Marxism. Economic statism is the preferred policy because it offers the false hope of spreading the wealth in a way that liberates the entire population from economic constraints in pursuing their goals. This is particularly appealing to people like artists and intellectuals whose activities are not relatively highly valued by capitalism. Cultural libertarianism removes the societal and cultural boundaries that repress and constrain the intellectuals and artists.

Time Horizons And Reactions To Tax Changes

Arpit Gupta:
why do the negative impact of taxes appear much larger at the national level than the firm level?

A clever resolution is suggested by a set of papers by Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard. Chetty points out that the micro estimates rely on instantaneous adjustment to higher tax rates, and typically focus on short durations after law changes. However, a variety of factors may combine to make the behavior responses to tax cuts a more long-run effect. People face costs in switching jobs or entering the job force. They may simply be unaware of tax changes or lazy. Any of these plausible frictions are compatible with large long-term effects of tax cuts that are difficult to capture in micro data.

This distinction is important, because policymakers are generally interested in the economy-wide and durable impacts of tax increases, rather than their short-term impacts. Macro estimates, which use economy-wide data, may be better suited to answer this question.

FLG is ever more convinced that his time horizons theory really does have a lot of explanatory power.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Quote of the day

Jim Manzi:
We are walking into a casino and putting $800 billion dollars down on a single bet in a game where we don’t even know the rules. In general, in the face of this kind of uncertainty, we ought to seek policy interventions that are as narrowly targeted as is consistent with addressing the problem; tested prior to implementation to whatever extent possible; hedged on multiple dimensions; and designed to be as reversible as is practicable.

What I am trying to describe here is not a policy per se, but an attitude of epistemic humility.

ht: The Ancient

BTW, I've been reading Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which I'd only read in parts before, and I really should've read it in full before because it could've saved me a lot of time reinventing intellectual wheels

Friday, August 20, 2010

Time Horizons For The Ten Gazillionth Time

Read this Paul Krugman article with time horizons and the bias of empiricism toward the short-term as well as the blindness of those with those biases toward the inclusion of values in their analysis. For Krugman, those who worry about fiscal deficits in the absence of empirical evidence that the deficits will be problematic in the short run are entirely irrational.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

You, Ma'am, Are No Consitutional Scholar

Sarah Palin tweeted the following:
Dr.Laura:don't retreat...reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence"isn't American,not fair")

Now, I've made my skepticism of Sarah Palin pretty clear, and she is by no means alone in this misunderstanding, but the 1st amendment only prevents the government from restricting your speech. It has nothing to do whatsoever with activists or private parties.

Why is that people somehow think that the 1st amendment is some sort of carte blanche to say whatever you want without consequences?

Plus, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I hate the word fair. Indeed, all conservatives, in my opinion, should avoid and even attack the use of the word fair whenever it is used in political dialogue and rhetoric.

Catching Up On Reading

Since FLG was out of the country for a week, when he returned he skimmed his Google Reader and bookmarked a lot of material for later reading. One such post was this one by Jim Manzi responding to Mark Kleiman.

Unsurprisingly, it dovetails with the discussion of fact versus values that's been going on here. Also, FLG see a lot of support for this theory that one's time horizon, one's personal discount rate, if you will, is the key determinant of the value on attributes to facts. Moreover, it even coincides with the corollary to FLG's time horizon's theory that those with a short-term/empirical/scientific bias are under the illusion that they can separate fact from values, as Kleiman's blog has this famous quotation in the banner: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

FLG is currently listening to

Quote of the day

Megan McArdle:
The fellow who insisted that only conservatives need ideological identifiers didn't understand that he was putting his thumb on the scales. Indeed, frequently writers and editors of this stripe will carefully identify Hoover or AEI as conservative, while referring to a place like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as "non-partisan", which is technically true, but of course, is also true of the conservative institutions they so carefully label. This gives both the writers and their readers a false sense of what "mainstream consensus" is. Perhaps that's why so many of them get so angry about openly partisan journalism from the other side.

This quote struck FLG in light of the recent discussion in the comments.

Cheating On Tests

A coworkers mentioned to FLG that she felt that the recent revelations that teachers and school administrators had cheated on standardized tests to up their students' scores indicates that testing is doomed to fail. And this appears to be a relatively common conclusion among those who opposed standardized testing in schools.

This is, frankly, a stupid reason to stop testing. All tests matter to somebody; otherwise, why test? Consequently, there is an incentive to cheat on all tests. There are a whole host of controls that can be put in place to mitigate cheating by teachers and administrators. For example, teachers and administrators can be randomly shuffled to other schools in the district or even other districts during testing. That way teachers and administrators aren't proctoring their own students.

A Few Responses

Mrs. P writes:
By the way, per:

"But the issue here is that marriage, at least insofar as judges are concerned, is a legal status/institution, not a religious question/institution.

and

"preferred means of dealing with this is to get the state out of the marriage business altogether. I, for a variety of reasons including that this nation has a Protestant heritage, believe this isn't going ever to happen."

So am I gathering rightly that one of the reasons the state will never get out of marriage is because of our nation's Protestant heritage yet religion is not allowed to come into play with same-sex marriage?

The importance placed upon the family due to our Protestant heritage is no longer explicitly religious. It's more a historical fact that many of the institutions, norms, and traditions passed down to us were made by people with Protestant beliefs about the world.

She then follows up with this, which I will respond to inline:
FLG, this by a friend/reader of PP (who owns an award-winning winery if you would like to visit plus he's a lawyer in CA and religious --Episcopalian) is very good:

Politics (the art and skill of government) and religion (the practice of faith in hope of salvation) really have little to do with each other, except that their mixture is usually always combustible. Therefore, people of principle should do their utmost to refrain from mixing them.

Agreed, but the devil is in the definition of the word "mixing."

A case in point is the current dust-up over same-sex marriages. The problem is that the concept of "marriage" has a mixed heritage. As it emerged in early agrarian societies, it was a matter of contract between families or tribes, as a means of acquiring and keeping valuable land and passing it on to heirs in common. The religious element came only later, when the Church began treating the exchange of vows as a holy sacrament.

Again, just because a thing has certain origins doesn't mean that this settles the debate about it properties. We were all born babies, but we grow up. This isn't to say that marriage losing its religious character is a more "grown up" institution, but simply to say that because its origins are religious or agrarian or even imposed upon us by the aliens who built the pyramids doesn't end the debate about what marriage is today.

One pragmatic solution to the current disagreements would be to return to the original contractual basis for the relationship -- the way it is still done in some western societies. A contract is drawn up between the marrying parties; it is signed and attested to in front of a state-designated official, and the record is entered on society's official books, where it serves as a legal basis for determining questions of parentage and inheritance. And that is all that society, as such, needs to concern itself with. Religious norms or mores would have nothing to do with such civilly-sponsored unions.

As I mentioned before, George Pal has brought this up before. They do this sort of thing in France. People get married in a civil ceremony, then go to the Church for the religious ceremony. However, I want to reiterate my doubt that given our Protestant history that the state will ever stay out of marriage. Moreover, I'm not quite sure why this distinction matters. It's not like the Catholic Church or even Catholics need to recognize as legitimate a same sex marriage conducted in City Hall. So what if the state calls it marriage? This contractual basis is merely a explicit break, but has little to no practical benefits for believers opposed to same sex marriage.

Through their legislators, the people could decide what parameters applied to civil unions. They could decide, as they already effectively have in California, that such unions are open to any two persons (but not next of kin), regardless of gender; they could -- since it is all a matter of freedom to contract -- even decide to allow civil unions between three or more persons. The only constraints would be what a majority would back.

But if it's just a contract, then why limit next of kin? Once you allow same sex marriages, then you implicitly say that marriage isn't about procreation. Also, why limit it to two people? Why limit anything? Contracts can have pretty much any stipulation the parties would like. These questions are merely rhetorical, and serve simply to illustrate that this explicit separation of legal contract from religious sacrament/institution not only serves little purpose (because no religious organization will be forced to recognize a civil marriage as far as I can tell) and opens a whole new can of worms. Why are religious believers arguing this angle?

Then "marriage", per se, would become a term defined not by the State, but by the churches. Again, each denomination would be free to observe its own traditions and beliefs in performing marriages. However, there would be no State records of any such marriages, and the church's ministers would not be acting as deputies of the State in attesting to their performance. The only records would be those kept by the couples and by the churches themselves.

Thus people joined by the State could have done with the matter then and there, or they could, if they wished, become in addition "married" in a church ceremony -- in any church that will accept them under its criteria. Conversely, people could choose to marry only in a church ceremony, as long as they realized that the State would be under no obligation to regard them as each other's spouse, with all the legal rights and obligations that relationship entails. (Such a church-only marriage might be just the ticket for two elderly persons who did not want to mess up their finances and taxes, but who were also religious enough to want to solemnize their relationship before God and mortal witnesses.)

Again, I don't understand how this has any practical benefit, but I see huge risks.

The details can be worked out -- the main principle is to keep religion and politics completely separate.

Again, I agree. But the definition of "separate" is crucial, and to be honest I'm not sure religious believers want to go too far down that road to protect marriage. What they really need to do is come up with a compelling secular justification for the one man, one woman marriage.

BTW, these responses aren't really directed specifically to Mrs. P. It's more toward an entire class of people I hear out there and to whom I sympathetic to, those whose religious beliefs render the idea of same sex marriage an apparently self-evident contradiction. Lacking a secular argument they've been turning to religiously-based ones, which is problematic given the separation of church and state in this country, and even, as evidenced above, argued a somewhat paradoxical case for further separation. The only compelling secular argument that I've seen is that the expressed will of the people is pretty much universally against it. This glances over the secular argument and relies upon intuitive and religious understanding of the issue.

While I'm sympathetic to their plight, I'm not in agreement with their conclusion. I do have serious issues with overturning the will of the people as a matter of democratic process, but as Noah Millman pointed out "the only precedent being set is that a state can void an initiative they don’t like if the District court also thinks it’s unconstitutional." And "If the people of California don’t like the decisions that the Attorney General and Governor make, they can elect people who think differently and will make different decisions."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time Horizons: Facts Versus Values

Alright, so over at A&J I posted this in the comments of this post by Alpheus:
I hate, well not really but I'll say I hate it anyway, to bring up the time horizons thing. But you are talking about the long-term. "at some point in the sweeping-away process, society will cease to function."

Liberals look at the immediate effects and short-term. The world won't end the day or even year or probably even decade after same sex marriage is allowed. In fact, I believe it won't, on net, be negative for society.

But this also exemplifies what conservatives are up against. Conservatives are concerned about long-term consequences. Consequences which aren't easily verified empirically or even very easily explained given that many are unintended and often unforeseen.

In very important ways empirical fact tips the scale toward the immediate. So, when Judge Walker talks about facts he's presuming, I believe, that he's actually separating fact from values, but in truth one cannot. Whether it's facts about global warming or same sex marriage or anything else the meaning of facts, their importance, cannot be separated from one's values.

If you value the short-term and present, then a heating Earth over the last century looks catastrophic. Apparently, if you look at the geological record over thousands of years, then the fluctuation might not be as big a deal. Likewise, two same sex people getting married tomorrow won't en society the day after.

This comment is getting a bit confused, but the idea that facts inevitably lead to some irrefutable conclusion, super especially as these facts apply to human life as opposed to something amoral like the motion of the planets, is a pretension of progressivism and liberalism.

Alpheus responded:
FLG: I basically agree, though I guess I would stress that I believe facts *are* separable from values, even if you do need both to make a decision.

I think our public debate would be a lot more productive if people (like Judge Walker) would stop trying to pretend that their values are facts.

Andrew then followed up:
I thought what FLG was saying is that one's values determine the weight one puts on facts. At least that's what I take him to mean when he says that the meaning/importance of facts cannot be separated from values.

I'm not sure I agree with this, since I agree with Alpheus that the common confusion is simply taking one's own values as read. E.g. the health police simply assume that a long and healthy life is so important that every conceivable sacrifice should be made in its pursuit. If cigarettes are bad for people, they assume that it automatically follows that nobody should smoke them. And so forth with red meat or whatever the health threat of the day is.

I just wanted to follow up here, rather than in the comments.

My point is that while you can technically separate facts from values it doesn't really matter. Empirical facts are only useful in so far as they are evidence toward some conclusion or argument. Whenever you make some claim you are invariably bringing in values.

For example, the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun is taken as fact. And nowadays it isn't very controversial at all. But it still involves values. We value empirical evidence over theological or philosophical reasoning to the contrary. Moreover, we assume the laws of nature don't change and believe that even though we didn't check that the Earth is still revolving around the Sun today that it still is.

The issue relative to short versus long time horizons is this: As I mentioned above, unless we constantly reverify that the Earth is still revolving around the Sun, then we are acting on some level of faith that it still is continuing, which means values. Since the natural world's rules are apparently static, it doesn't really matter whether you have a short or long time horizon. If you measured the circumference of the Earth 10,000 years ago correctly, then the same measurement will still apply. That it was a instantaneous measurement doesn't matter.

When it comes to human affairs, however, things are different. You cannot separate facts from values in any meaningful way. The thing that I was trying to illustrate is that the Left drapes themselves in the cape of the empirical and scientific when it comes to human affairs. So, the facts apparently determine the conclusion devoid of value. Things either are or are not. But, again, these are short-term biased. You can only verify an empirical fact at any specific instant. I don't think they generally realize this. Consequently, I don't believe they understand that they are applying their own values.

I've been typing this piecemeal, so I'm not so sure how coherent this post is. However, the issue is this: fact and values cannot be separated. To continue Alpheus' analogy, a fact is kinda like a car. Sure, it's still technically a car without gas, but you ain't gettin' anywhere. Facts are similar. Once you say they mean something or imply some action, then you've applied values.

If I say the sky is blue or water is wet, that's great, but who cares? Once I say you ought to bring a towel if you are going in the water, then I'm applying the value that being dry is superior to being wet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who Wants A Million Bucks?

Telegraph:
A British billionaire, Alki David, has offered $1 million to the first person who manages to streak naked in front of Barack Obama.

Fannie And Freddie

FLG heard somebody from some housing magazine on the radio today say that whatever the politicians say about reforming Fannie and Freddie there is no way to get around that we need them to finance mortgages because they currently finance 90% all mortgages.

This is ridiculous. First, there were mortgages in this country before Fannie and Freddie. Second, mortgages available in other countries and they don't have quasi-public/public corporations helping to finance their mortgages.

Without Fannie and Freddie:
Borrowing costs would be higher.
Downpayment and income requirements would be higher.
There'd probably be no 30 year fixed mortgages.

These would have knock on effects on housing prices, but it's not true that the 90% of people whose loans are financed by Fannie and Freddie wouldn't be able to get loans and almost nobody would be able to buy houses.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Perils Of Defending Tradition

Peter Suderman on same sex marriage:
Same-sex marriage opponents are no doubt failing in part because of their own inability to express a compelling rationale for their position, one that starts with the existing public understanding of what marriage is and should be and then argues that such an understanding is best served by keeping out same-sex couples. But in the long term, I suspect that the fight for equal marriage rights will succeed because millions of Americans will struggle with their intuitive opposition and decide, as I did, that they can not justify it to themselves.

This reminded me of something I heard not too long ago (I think here.) about how explicitly and rationally defending any particular tradition partially destroys it. Tradition derives part or even most of its authority from mystery. Therefore, something like the Polynesian concept of taboo is almost the perfect vehicle for protecting tradition. Things just are taboo. No need to explain. We live, however, in a post-Enlightenment society, and consequently we must rationally and explicitly defend things eventually.

Friday, August 13, 2010

FLG Thought

...completely out of the blue, while driving Miss FLG to daycare today, isn't it entirely possible that Victorian morality was a social manifestation of the public health problems and solutions that arose during the shift toward a more industrial, and hence more urban and crowded, society? Put simply: What if Victorian prudishness was a way to combat venereal disease in an environment that was becoming increasing conducive to its spread?

Now, FLG has absolutely now background on Victorian England. Is this plausible? Is this a common theory?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rufus Blogs Phaedrus

FLG only mildly nauseous. Which is a dramatic improvement. Although, Rufus, for all his Plato blogging, still doesn't get Plato.

When FLG Asserts That He Is Smarter Than A Lot Of Other Bloggers

The Ancient oftens accuses me of underestimating my intellectual abilities. Well, nothing stirs my contempt for other people's intelligence, and in a zero sum manner bolsters my intellectual self-assessment, than somebody who arrives at the same conclusion as I do but with jackass reasoning.

Today, we have Rick Ungar over at the League and also from True/Slant who gives us a terrible argument complete with ridiculous strawmen in favor of the recent court ruling overturning Prop 8. Again, FLG favors gay marriage, but arguments like this make him wonder whether the people who agree with him have even given it due thought.

First, Rick argues that Joe Scarborough was wrong to oppose the court ruling because it is popular with the American people. He writes:
Scarborough is likely right about what Americans believe on this issue. As we know, every single state that has put the issue to a vote has found that the majority of their voters very much do not want same sex marriage.

But Joe should know that equal protection under the law is not subject to the vagaries of popular opinion at any given point in time.

There are two things at play here. 1) I'm very comfortable with courts overturning the expressed will of the people via referendum. It is far better for democracy, though less expedient, to convince the people to reverse their express will then to overturn them through a less democratic judicial ruling. However, we don't have mere majority rule. This brings me to 2) gay people have the exact same right to marry people that everybody else does. They have to choose a partner of the opposite sex. Now, you say they don't want to. OK. But that's not unequal protection. That's demanding a change.

Rick then begins to build the strawman:
While many have shown up on the chat shows to express their delight or disgust with Judge Walker’s ruling on Prop. 8, nobody seems to want to address this issue for what it is –religious and cultural comfort versus civil rights under the law.

They may be right.

While I may not see it this way, I can appreciate how people of certain religious views could view same sex marriage as a serious affront to God’s will and intent for those of us on the planet.

Indeed, most analysts believe that Prop. 8 would have gone down to defeat in California had the state’s African American community approached the question as a civil rights issue. They did not. They approached it as a religious issue, voted to ban same sex marriage and proved to be the crucial factor in the passage of Prop. 8.

See. He says understands. Unfortunately, for those of the religious bent, it doesn't really matter.

But civil rights do not exist at the whim of the populace or any particular segment of the same. Indeed, that is precisely what the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is, in part, all about.

Now, the obvious question I want to ask is: Could one call the entire idea that gay marriage be allowed a relatively recent whim of a particular segment of the population? The equal protection thing doesn't really hold because, as I wrote above, no man or woman is denied the right to marry. One just has to choose a partner that meets certain criteria. That some segment of the population doesn't like the existing and historical criteria doesn't mean that equal protection has been violated.

Anybody with thoughts realizes this argument is getting silly, but then comes the zenith:
In America, each of us is entitled to practice our own religion so long as our practice doesn’t harm others. While one devout Christian may view same sex marriage as a serious violation of the religion, I know many in the Gay and Lesbian communities who believe that they too are sincere, practicing Christians.

Yes, I know that the first group of Christians would say that the second group can hardly call themselves the same if they believe in gay marriage, but isn’t that precisely why this country was set up as a secular system based on a constitution? People will always disagree on religion. We have thousands of years of history to show us what happens when people clash on the basis of religion.

People die…by the millions.

That strawman having been setup and torn down, Rick proceeds ham-handedly:
Gay marriage cannot be a religious question under our system of government. And that means it must, in fact, be treated as a civil rights question.

So, where is the state’s interest in determining just whom can marry whom? Can anyone tell me who is being harmed by permitting people to make their own decision regarding the choice of their partner?

I’ve heard the argument that healthy children need both a father and a mother. While, personally, I think this is a great thing, if this is to be the basis of barring gay marriage, why have we permitted divorce when there are children in existence from a heterosexual marriage? What about children born out of wedlock? As none of this is illegal, the inconsistency would appear obvious.

What’s more, who is to say that two parents of the same sex cannot divide up the traditional roles of mother and father and make it available to their children?

At the end of the day this is about the discomfort people have with gay marriage based either on religion or cultural discomfort- not unlike the cultural discomfort that many once had (and, hopefully, fewer now have) towards African Americans in our society.

Again, marriage has historically been a covenant, a pledge of mind, body, and soul, between two people for the implicit and very often explicit purposes of producing and raising children. That people have recent used marriage for other purposes or that people raise children outside of marriage doesn't change its primary purpose. If you say it's not about having children, then do we allow incestuous marriages? If you say it's merely a legal contract like any other, and not a pledge of mind, body, and soul, then can three or more people enter into that contract? It's pretty hard to deny that there isn't a slippery slope when what you are arguing is that people have a civil right to marry the people they love whomever they be as long as they are adults.

Then, we get to the cultural impact. Liberals, with their short time horizon analysis, say the world, the social fabric if you will, isn't going to rip apart the minute gay marriage is allowed. Therefore, we should let people marry those whom they love.

But that's not the long-term analysis. The longer term analysis is something more like this:
Many people repeat the trope that we live in a Christian nation. They say this stupidly and without understanding. On the other hand, we do live in a nation whose laws, culture, institutions, norms, traditions, etc that have been largely formed by protestants, for good or ill. Years and years of decisions made within the confines of the protestant worldview. Why does this matter?

Well, Luther, as he was casting off the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, needed something else to provide order, and he turned toward the family unit. Consequently, the nuclear family plays an extremely important role in the organization of protestant dominated nations. (This isn't to say that family isn't important in non-protestant countries, but that it plays a unique role in the organization of protestant ones.) There is evidence, empirical evidence, that the breakdown in the nuclear family, the lack of fathers, whathaveyou, has at the very least coincided with other problems that reasonable people have to admit are probably linked. Put simply: The breakdown in the family unit over the past few decades has had demonstrable societal consequences.

Therefore, the question is not necessarily whether gay marriage will rip society apart as soon as it happens, but whether it is a part, and perhaps a very important part, of a long slide undermining the hallowed place this society historically placed the family. It's now an arrangement to be dissolve and reconstituted at will. Some say no-fault and easy divorce is the bigger threat, and perhaps it is. But lack of earthquake engineering in a building doesn't justify ripping up a dam to protect against floods.

Anyway, my view is that this really boils down to a cut view about whether gay marriage is going to have long-term deleterious effects on society. All told, I think increasing commitment will have a net benefit on society, so I'm in favor. On the other hand, I take very seriously the slippery slope that incestuous and polygamous marriages, or at least the fights over them, will follow. What's the point of this post then?

Well, I hate bad arguments and this guy's amounts to: The state has no legal right to tell people who love each other that they can't get married, and anybody who disagrees is a religious motivated bigot, and probably racist too, whose ideas have historically been the cause of millions of deaths. True/Slant pays this guy for shit like this?

Say what you want about me, but I take seriously the idea that one must seek out and be able to articulate the best argument of those who disagree with you. In this regard, I am far superior and much smarter than the majority of bloggers out there because, well, I have coherent thoughts and not inconsistent often contradictory intellectual mush between my ears.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Miscellany

First, Costa Rica is awesome and the FLGs highly recommend it.

Second, somebody posted a linked to this picture in the comments.  Needless to say, it is awesome and FLG highly recommends it. (Incidentally, FLG also learned during his hiatus that there is a Pirate Magazine.)

Lastly, Hilarious Bookbinder offers a post about writing with a quotation from Hemingway that FLG will post in its entirety:

Everybody loses all the bloom--we're not peaches--that doesn't mean you get rotten--a gun is better worn and with bloom off--So is a saddle--People too by God. You lose everything that is fresh and everything that is easy and it always seems as though you never could write--But you have more metier and you know more and when you get flashes of the old juice you get more results with them.

Look at how it is at the start--all juice and kick to the writer and cant convey anything to the reader--you use up the juice and the kick goes but you learn how to do it and the stuff when you are no longer young is better than the young stuff--

You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless--there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.

Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 13 September 1929

HB then comments:
I can say things with precision and construct arguments more complex and sophisticated. The bloom is gone, but lasting success is the metier and not the bloom (to use Hemingway's terms)--even though almost everyone thinks it's the opposite.

FLG wondered who is correct.  To him, both seem to be.  There's a craft to writing.  And there's the creative process.  For the purposes of illustration, let's considered it like woodworking.  You've got raw material, your vision, and your ability to fashion the first into the latter. 

What FLG thinks Hemingway is saying is akin to when you begin you have vision, but perhaps are bad at selecting the raw material and fashioning.  As you get older, you have a keener eye toward picking good pieces of lumber and also at working it.  However, FLG fears that you also begin to get set in your ways.  So, maybe you get better and better at picking good pieces for and at fashioning candlesticks.  Perhaps this knowledge and skill is applicable toward also making bowls and ashtrays.  On the other hand, perhaps you're ability to make jewelry boxes and lifelike sculptures has degraded. You always think in round and smooth shapes.  You're thought process is conditioned toward those.

If you narrow your focus to writing academic papers, for instance, then perhaps you do get better.  Actually, you almost certainly do hone that skill, but FLG fears it hurts the ability to write fiction, let's say.   Not to say that an academic can't write fiction, but to return to the metaphor above, it could be like somebody who makes round, smooth wooden objects making a round, smooth jewelry box when the Platonic ideal is rectangular.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Time Horizons: Vacation Reading Edition

FLG is reading Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World here by the pool and this passage about Keynes struck him:
In 1909, [Keynes] began work on a book on the philosophical foundations of probability, which he hoped would change the way philosophers thought about uncertainty.  The themes of the book -- that nothing can be known with certainty, that it is hard to define what is a rational course of action when the future is so indeterminate, that intuition rather than analysis provides the ultimate basis for action in these circumstances -- were to color much of his later economic thinking and his almost equally remarkable ability to make money from speculating.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The FLGs Will Be Traveling Abroad

Posting will most likely be non-existent as FLG smokes Cubans and drinks girly drinks with tiny umbrellas in them.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Smarter and More Knowledgeable

FLG would like to repeat his long-standing conclusion that Andrew Stevens is way smarter than he is and knows more about pretty much everything* than he does.



----
* Except French.

Correspondence: Plato Cave Edition

FLG received a couple of emails regarding this passage:
what's interesting to FLG is that it's not just that Plato pulls one toward the light, it's scary and painful and you must endure, but that once you've accustomed yourself to the light Plato is trying to bring, you realize that it isn't the light at all. That Plato has, to continue the allegory, only brought you to another cave, which admittedly has more light. And so, as FLG has always maintained, it's never about society really, but about your individual soul.

Specifically, they are asking about what I mean when I write about another cave.

Okay, let's start from the beginning. For those who haven't read the Allegory of the Cave, it's here.

Most people read the allegory as somebody compelled from a cave darkened by ignorance into the light of Truth. This is true. However, FLG, who might be completely fucking nuts, sees it slightly differently.

As FLG has maintained for a long while in this space, he views the Republic entirely about the right ordering of the soul. The Good City is merely, like the cave, an allegory for the Soul. It isn't meant to be taken literally.

Let me put it simply. The Allegory of the Cave tells reader that the Truth lies beyond our sight. That we are seeing and hearing only shadows of Reality. Likewise, the Good City is merely an allegory for the rightly ordered soul, which stated at the beginning when Socrates starts to sketch the Good City, as FLG has quoted before:
When the State is completed there may be a hope that the object of our search will be more easily discovered.

The search continues after the state has been completed. Therefore, the State is merely a means to the true object of the search -- the right ordering of the soul.

Pretty much everybody acknowledges the parallel between City and Soul because Socrates makes it plain. However, what fewer people seem to accept is that the discussion of the State is simply to pull you out into the light. It is not the end. You then need to understand that it is intended as instruction for your soul. You need to then retreat back into your own personal cave and through an enlightened governance of your reason and spirit control the appetites and passions. They'll kill you if they figure out what's going on, but the reason and will are stronger and know the Truth. It's isn't unjust for reason to impose a tyranny upon the soul.

In any case, it's not literally about banning poets or eugenics or anything like this. Indeed, Socrates, at the end, pretty much admits his city couldn't work. It's about rightly ordering the Soul first, then you'll act justly within your Polis.

Plato makes a lot more sense if you can get your head around this.

Then again, FLG gets a lot of disagreement about this and lots of smart people have taken Plato literally. FLG thinks they're dead wrong and still trapped in the cave. But maybe FLG's nuts.
 
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