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Another religious threat to education April 11, 2010

Posted by michaelmussachia in Uncategorized.
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Simon Gardner posted a commentary on RichardDawkins.net (http://forum.richarddawkins.net/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=110266) about a proposed “Religious Bill of Rights” in the U.S. senate:

“Colorado Senator, Dave Schultheis proposed a bill, SB089 (1), this past week, which would have undermined important democratic institutions. Fortunately, poor negotiating skills made killing the bill in committee possible(2). The vehicle for this subversion was a Religious Bill of Rights, that, in addition to being an insult to the First Amendment, was deemed generally redundant to the ‘real’ Bill of Rights.

This Bill was purportedly necessary for the protection of religious persons from attacks on their religious rights in the public school system despite the fact that there was no evidence or even anecdotal testimony to support such ridiculous claims. The particulars of the Bill and it’s outrageous demands have been well covered (3)(4). The two most controversial areas of concern are first, that teachers would not have to teach anything that may disagree with their religious views, and that they could openly display their own religious material in their classrooms and, second, that students could refuse or oppose course material for the same irrational reasons(1). The part of the story that I would like to draw attention to is the resulting affect any such Bill would have on the ability of the elected officials of the school board to implement the wishes and demands of the electorate. What is the affect on our democracy if the curriculum of our public school system is influenced by dictates from either one, or even several competing, religious theologies?”

While it looks as though the bill isn’t going anywhere, it’s nature reveals the degree to which religious zealots in this country are still trying to undermine education. It’s 2010. We’ve sent space probes beyond the solar system, explored the nature of matter down to the subatomic level, and gained tremendous insight into the evolution of life, including ourselves, and yet we still have to defend scholarship, science and reason against religious fundamentalists. I wish some of these people could crawl back to the Dark Ages where they would feel less threatened in their beliefs.

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Student Loans and the Banks April 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Currently, many students who apply for a student loan are directed to a private lender who loans the student the money and collects the interest. The federal government guarantees the loan, if the student should default, so there is no risk to the private lender. The banking industry is therefore subsidized to provide a service that the government could provide for less. Why is there a middleman in this process? The government could make the loan, with no bank involved, and save billions.

This is precisely what the Obama Administration has proposed—a program to make direct loans to students and bypass the banks.

Predictably, conservatives (both Republicans and Democrats) are up in arms, complaining that it is more “big government”. Apparently, it is OK to waste taxpayer’s money as long as private businesses can benefit.

And of course the banking industry and their lobbyists are hard at work trying to pick off enough Democrats to scuttle this proposal. And they may well succeed.

This is why I argue, in Reviving the Left, that traditional, moderate, middle-of-the road liberalism is complicit in the disasters that conservatism has wrought and must be radically revised. Moderate liberals want to give everyone a seat at the table and coddle every interest group, even when the interest being served is plainly wrong and contrary to the public good.

Why do the bankers have any standing at all to govern the administration of student aid?

 

 

 

 

Ambivalence About Water April 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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If you’re reading this blog in California, you know that the state is in the third year of a drought. Communities, especially in Southern California, face water rationing this summer, and farmers throughout the state have had their water allotments sharply curtailed.

The problem is exacerbated by a ruling from a federal judge that ordered cuts in the amount of water pumped through the Sacramento River delta in order to save a species of smelt that is endangered.

Of course, this is not simply about one minor fish species. The fate of individual species are indicators of the health of the environment. The disappearance of species suggests the local ecology is approaching collapse, which is the result of years of pumping too much water through the delta. We have known about this problem for years and have done nothing about it.

But the water cutbacks are devastating the farm economy and threaten the economic well-being of California.

Do we build more dams and suspend enforcement of the Endangered Species Act? That would reduce pressure on agriculture but would discourage conservation, encourage more waste of a precious resource, and create additional environmental hazard.

Or do we draw a line in the sand today and impose strict water rationing and conservation efforts, a policy that will cause a good deal of short-term pain on people whose jobs depend on adequate water supplies?

This is not an easy call.

There are environmental principles at stake. But I would endorse exceptions to those principles if there was clear evidence that developers, business interests, and agriculture had a real interest in long-term sustainable practices.

And maybe pigs will fly.

Climate Change Deniers April 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

I’m curious. What makes people cavalier about making the earth uninhabitable?

Freeman Dyson is without question a brilliant physicist (although not a climate scientist). But, as this recent NY Times article reminds us, he continues to claim that we ought not do much about global warming?

The consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic climate change is real is substantial. I understand that there are some scientists who question the models on which projections of global warming are based. But how confident can we be in these dissenting opinions given the substantial consensus? Scientific consensus is sometimes mistaken, but it isn’t typically mistaken, and is seldom entirely wrong about very settled beliefs. Getting on board with the deniers seems a risky bet. It is possible that our climate models are wrong but surely the probability is relatively low.

I understand that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change. How large the climatic effects will be, what parts of the world will be most affected, etc. cannot be known at this point, although we can make some highly educated guesses. But why would it be rational for any country to gamble that they won’t be affected given the potential for catastrophic outcomes?

And there is justifiable controversy over how much the mitigation of the effects of climate change will cost and who will bear these costs. There are clearly opportunity costs to spending lots of resources on mitigating climate change—the money could be used to alleviate poverty, for instance. But most current models of the effects of climate change predict significant disruption in agriculture and habitation patterns that promise substantially more misery than the disadvantaged experience today. If we ignore climate change, we are taking great risks with their lives.

Moreover, there is credible evidence that new green technologies will be a powerful stimulus to economic growth both in developed and underdeveloped countries.

My problem with global warming deniers is not merely that they are opposing the scientific consensus. Science often advances when qualified scientists challenge the consensus. There will always be scientists who devote their lives to showing an hypothesis to be false, if they can. That is their job. My problem is with the judgment that we ought to base policy on this aspiration to be iconoclastic.

Risking lives on the basis of a belief one knows to be probably false is a case of bad moral judgment. This is true even if one has doubts about the climate models. The issue is not so much a matter of science but of morality. It is morally wrong to risk great harm based on a hypothesis that is likely to be false.

Like Wall St. bankers, climate change deniers think they can make risky bets and someone else will pick up the tab.

The Road to Imperial Ruin March 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left..

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that the ethics of care is relevant in the political arena in areas such as foreign policy.

Unlike moral theories that strive for universality, and thus focus on what human beings have in common, the ethics of care rests prescriptions on knowledge of particular persons, their circumstances, and their differences, and the cultivation of empathy and perceptiveness to gain such knowledge.

Matt Yglesias makes a point about our approach to Pakistan that implicitly reinforces the importance of an ethic of care.

In responding to the argument that we may not be able to trust the Pakistanis to root out the Taliban and Al-Quaeda from tribal areas he writes:

“This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project….And when we get involved in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English….they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

This is one reason why so many of our foreign policy and foreign aid initiatives go wrong. We assume that other people are like us. We assume they share our interests, habits of communication, and ways of looking at the world because we assume our way is simply the human way.

And these assumptions are encouraged by our dominant moral theories (e.g. Kantian or utilitarian theories) that enjoin us to act only on prescriptions on which it would be rational for anyone to act. Our moral reflection tends to take place on a very general and very generic level.

How Not to Think March 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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The New York Times is read by millions of people everyday. Why do they allow drivel on their editorial pages? (The offending op-ed piece is in Friday’s Union-Tribune)

On Thursday, Nicholas Kristoff wrote:

Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff?

One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. There’s evidence that what matters in making a sound forecast or decision isn’t so much knowledge or experience as good judgment — or, to be more precise, the way a person’s mind works.

Huh? How does one make a good judgment without knowledge or experience? Don’t we go to doctors when we are sick for a reason—because they have knowledge and experience?

Then he goes on to give examples of how people who pretend to be experts can bamboozle us.

“But experts who are trotted out on television can move public opinion by more than 3 percentage points, because they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities.

Well of course. But people who pretend to be experts are not really experts. We are fooled by reliance on authority—but that doesn’t tell us anything about genuine expertise.

We are already deep in the weeds of a thesis descending into nonsense—but it gets worse.

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

and then reinforces his point with:

Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated.

This completely misconstrues Tetlock’s thesis. Tetlock’s book is not about the uselessness of knowledge or expertise. Tetlock, a highly regarded psychologist, shows that a certain kind of judgment—one that is very sensitive to context, complexity, and change—is more reliable than a judgment that follows from rigidly held ideology that produces formulaic solutions.

Nothing in Tetlock’s book could be construed as an attack on knowledge or expertise. Instead, he attempts to distinguish genuine experts from hacks.

Kristoff in his zeal to sell newspapers is trying to tap into the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture. Tristero over at Hullaballoo explains why this is dangerous.

This is one of the silliest pseudo-American myths, pure Norman Rockwell, that the average Joe (never a Jane) can perceive The Bigger Truth that somehow eludes the so-called pointy-headed experts.

This is how we get Joe the Plumber giving advice on foreign policy.

The decline of newspapers in this country may be a real loss in some respects. But sometimes they deserve their demise.

Better People, Not Just Better Rules March 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Geithner outlined his plans for re-regulating the financial system in order to avoid future economic calamities like the one we are experiencing.

His proposal includes more government oversight of risk-taking in financial markets and tighter control of financial institutions, especially regarding how much capital they must hold as a buffer against losses.

This, of course, entails a significant expansion of the power of government regulators.

No doubt these regulations are necessary. But they are not sufficient.

After all, the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan could have imposed tighter lending standards on institutions or higher interest rates to slow down the growth of the housing bubble without any change in regulations. And the SEC already had the authority to raise capital requirements for banks.

Any of these moves would likely have prevented the credit crisis. But none of these steps were taken.

The problem was not that the rules were not good enough; rather the people charged with implementing the rules didn’t think regulating the private sector was important. They believed the government should not exercise oversight despite the fact that it was their job to do so. The theory that government was an unfortunate obstacle to economic activity drove the zeal to deregulate, but more importantly, it influenced the behavior of officials charged with the task of regulation. It was ideology and its influence on the motives of individuals, not the presence or absence of rules and procedures that caused the collapse in our financial markets.

This is why I argue that we should stop thinking of political ideologies as competing ways of organizing society, and instead think of them as prescribing competing constellations of motives for acting.

We need better motivated people; not just better formulated rules. And that requires moral change, not just political change.

Moral Outrage Redux March 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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I wrote last week that moral outrage is a cheap emotion—easy to generate but demanding very little from us.

Robert Reich provides the evidence:

In a rare show of bipartisanship, members [of Congress] are eagerly registering shock and outrage at AIG’s bonus payments by coming up with an assortment of ways to reclaim the bonanza…But much of this is for show. When the public isn’t looking, Congress reverts to its old ways. The Obama-supported plan to allow distressed homeowners to renegotiate their mortgages under the protection of bankruptcy has run into a Wall Street wall. Although Citigroup temporarily broke ranks… the rest of Wall Street has remained adamantly opposed, and apparently Democratic leaders have decided not to push back.
Meanwhile, Obama’s plan to limit itemized deductions for the richest 1.2 percent of taxpayers (including the top 1.9 percent of small business owners) to 28 percent, starting in 2011, is also in trouble on the Hill. Wealthy contributors and friends of congressional leaders involved in setting tax policy have balked. So Congress is telling the White House to look elsewhere for the $320 billion it needs over ten years to finance half of the tab for health care reform. Congressional leaders have also informed the White House that they don’t have the votes to pass Obama’s proposal for treating the earnings of hedge-fund and private-equity managers as income rather than capital gains.

The bonuses paid to AIG executives are small potatoes with minimal impact on the public compared to the package of reforms contained in the budget. Yet, when it comes to the stuff that really matters, changes in policy that would make a real difference, Congress will roll over for their Wall St. patrons.

And why are Congress critters so easily bought off? Because they know the public is interested in cheap emotional payoffs and lacks the sustained attention required to follow through on holding their feet to the fire.

Outrage can be readily manufactured when you can point to easily identifiable villains in the spotlight of a media-driven narrative that demands of us only punching the TV remote. It is much more difficult to sustain outrage when knowing who the villains are requires more complex judgments about systematic abuse of power.

Geithner’s Plan: Getting the Values Right March 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to rescue the banking system is due to be released today. Details of the plan have been leaking all weekend, and it should come as no surprise that there is no consensus among economists (or at least the one’s I read) on whether it is a good plan or not.

Paul Krugman called the plan “an awful mess”

But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives… For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

But Brad Delong is more smitten:

So why do I have a positive and Paul a negative view of the Geithner Plan? I see three reasons:

1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul sees it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.

2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.

3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values because they are unlikely to pay out much cash.

In fact, Delong’s entire FAQ is worth reading if you want a brief, clearly written analysis of the plan.

I’m not an economist so dear reader beware. But, as I sort through the various opinions of economists, it seems to me some of the disagreement is about values, not technical economic issues.

Some people emphasize the fact that this scheme throws more taxpayer money at the same dingbat scumbags who got us into this mess. The government will insure overpriced assets that will have little value in the future, and we will end up once again rewarding investors for their bad bets. This is fundamentally unfair and unjust. These folks don’t like the plan.

Others emphasize the chance that this plan will get the bad assets off the bank ledgers and encourage more lending, giving consumers more buying power and firms less reason to lay off workers, thereby (hopefully) stanching economic decline. These folks like the plan a lot more.

I think both sides are right on the economics. It seems to me that there is plenty of incentive for investors to buy these assets since the government will limit their losses if they go bad. That is good and should provide further stimulus to the economy. They also have an incentive to bid up the price of the assets since they don’t have to put a lot money on the table to acquire them. That is bad because undoubtedly the taxpayers will have to pay up.

No one knows if this will work or not, and my economics crystal ball shattered many decades ago. But the moral philosopher in me would rather sacrifice a little justice and fairness to avoid the misery that a prolonged recession (or worse) entails. So independently of the economic issues, I think the administration gets the value question right.