31 December 2013

Atheism as a political movement

Pamela Stubbart has an insightful essay about whether atheism is elitist and why atheists don’t care so much about convincing disadvantaged believers that they are wrong:

to the charge that atheism is somehow “elitist,” I say: “of course. who cares?” The forefronts of knowledge have always been, and in some sense must be, the bastion of those who are privileged along some dimension or other. …  We can agree that it would be “cruel and point­less” to try to talk these peo­ple out of their the­ism. But label­ing atheism itself an “intel­lec­tual lux­ury” con­sti­tutes a near­sighted attempt to imbue athe­ism with the con­no­ta­tion that it’s unnec­es­sary and friv­o­lous. Please don’t for­get that in other con­texts, the non-religious do impor­tant work towards cur­tail­ing religiously-motivated harms (female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion, any­one? allow­ing chil­dren with eas­ily cured med­ical con­di­tions to die?) At those times, it is keep­ing quiet about unjus­ti­fied reli­gious claims (“think­ing differ­ently” from athe­ists!) which would be cruel.

On Facebook, Kevin Vallier was ticked off by another comment from the essay:

Kevin Vallier: "If you have gone to college and you do knowledge work for a living, the pursuit of truth ought to be of significant (though probably never overriding) importance to you. Theists of this class are aggravating, because they seem to be either willfully ignorant of science and philosophy, or capable of withstanding huge amounts of cognitive dissonance." Seriously? I hope I'm not one of these unfortunate souls.

In my experience, there is indeed a third possibility apart from willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance. The highly educated theist redefines what religion and faith mean in a way that is more compatible with what s/he knows about science and philosophy. From an atheist’s perspective, the problem with this approach is that each enlightened theist seems to redefine religion and faith in their own idiosyncratic fashion. Hence, there is no way to provide general arguments that would address all enlightened theists’ concerns. And this allows each enlightened theist to feel smug about their own version of theism observing that the atheists only “focus on straw men”.

A second issue is the following. Many of those enlightened theists would accept all the atheistic positions that have public policy impact. For example, they would agree with the separation of church and state, that children should be vaccinated, that evolution should be taught in schools, etc. As such, there is no real political benefit in trying to convince the enlightened theist of their error. Suppose they agree with all the atheist public policy concerns, but nonetheless think that there’s life after death – for example because they think life would be unbearable and meaningless unless life after death exists. (I have actually met a person who believes exactly this, but, again, many enlightened theists would think the belief in life after death is a silly straw man, and would feel smug about it if you would bring it up). So, what would be the point in trying to convince this person of their error?! Perhaps if they were a neuroscientist it would be important, for purely science concerns, but not for many other professions. Moreover, perhaps they would indeed feel worse and meaningless if there were no life after death – why would I try to harm them?

This brings me to what atheism really is. The fact that most atheists would not be “going to the ghetto, shak­ing peo­ple awake, and call­ing them ‘stu­pid’ to their faces”, nor would they be terrible interested in convincing enlightened theists of their idiosyncratic errors, reveals something about what atheism really is. Namely that it is a political movement. Indeed the great bulk of energies atheists in fact spend are in countering the relatively uninformed, but politically relevant, views. Hence, in the same way in which Pascal Boyer looks at what religious people actually do, rather than at their verbal rationalizations, to understand religion, we should also define atheism based on what atheists actually do.

This political movement has two big concerns:
  1. Making sure that all public policy and judicial acts are science-based or at least scientifically informed and not explicitly counter to what we know to be true.
  2. Getting more funding for scientific research, while maintaining the political independence of science.

(Libertarian atheists are skeptical that 2 is realistic, i.e. that you can maintain political independence while getting state funding, but they are a small and inconsequential force within the atheist movement. Although a big chunk of libertarians are atheists, a small chunk of atheists are libertarian.)

As such, atheism, as a political movement that targets mainly the relatively ignorant, can be seen as the political branch of the scientific community. If you’re looking at it this way, you will understand better the pissed reactions of various atheists towards Richard Dawkins – it’s not so much that they disagree with him on substantive grounds, including the inherent incompatibility of religion and science, they disagree with him on strategic grounds. Adopting such a confrontational approach may be a bad political strategy as far as the two goals above are concerned. To succeed at those goals it might be better for the bulk of the population to think that science and religion are compatible, even if they are not.

Frankly, I don’t know what my own position is about this, but each time I see some atheist pissed at Richard Dawkins, this is what I think is really going on – a call for politically savvy hypocrisy.

23 June 2013

The Great Stagnation and over-regulation

The Great Stagnation is the slowdown in economic growth and median wages in United States since the mid-1970s. From Tyler Cowen's book:



The proximate explanation is a slowdown in productivity:



But why did this slowdown in productivity occur?

John W. Dawson and John J. Seater argue that a big part of the explanation is regulation. From their paper, "Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth" [PDF] in the Journal of Economic Growth:

Their explanation, including why there is a lag in the slowdown:

Figure 9 shows the effect of regulation on TFP’s trend.  The effect is negative throughout the sample period, but increases in regulation actually decrease this negative effect on TFP’s trend through about 1980.  This suggests that, to the extent that regulation contributed to the productivity slowdown, it must have occurred through cyclical rather than trend effects.  The combined trend and cyclical effects of regulation can be obtained by constructing the counterfactual series which shows the level of TFP had regulation remained at its 1949 level.  Figure 10 shows the change in the ratio of actual TFP to counterfactual TFP.  As with output, there is an initial point artifact.  Ignoring that, we see that the change in the ratio is about zero in 1965 and then becomes increasingly negative until about 1980.  After that, the change rises sharply and is positive in some years through the late 1990s, after which it falls again. Throughout the 1965-1980 period the change is negative, indicating a persistent negative effect of regulation on TFP during the infamous productivity slowdown.

Their counterfactual:


(reason's cover of the paper.)

21 May 2013

*The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom*

This is one of the best political philosophy books that I've read in a long time. While authors like Nozick and Buchanan accept the normative ideal of a purely contractual society, but reject anarchy out of practical considerations, Mark Weiner accepts the practical viability of anarchy, but contests the value of its normative ideal. His argument is basically this:

1. A purely contractual society rests on individual property rights being defined. Without this prerequisite, there cannot be voluntary exchanges and contracts.
2. Property rights have to be enforced in order to be meaningful. (That's why, e.g., natural rights theory is non-sense.)
3. The enforcement of property rights by a state (legitimate monopoly of violence) makes it possible for everyone to have the same fundamental rights. This is possible, but not necessary, as the example of dictatorial states shows. The degree of legitimacy of a state, from a liberal point of view, is given by the extent to which everyone has the same fundamental rights, i.e. the state enforces the rights in a non-discriminatory fashion. (We can quibble about the exact list of "fundamental rights", but his argument does not depend on making this list explicit or on adopting a particular list.)
4. The enforcement of property rights by private clubs leads to a variety of rights, depending on the club to which you are a member of. In a world without government, fundamental rights (i.e. which everyone should have) no longer exist.
5. Equality of fundamental rights is an essential liberal value that should not be abandoned.

Therefore, a society of private clubs (i.e. anarchy), although it is possible, it is against the liberal individualistic ideal (i.e the ideal that everyone should have the same fundamental rights) and should be rejected.

A lot of the book is about arguing that anarchy is not only possible, but actually it has been the rule in most of human history, and it still the prevailing constitutional arrangement in much of the world. The traditional form of anarchy is not a society of private clubs, but a society of kin-based clans. His argument is that a move towards a society of private clubs, via the weakening of state power in liberal democracies, leads us back to the past in the sense that the idea of fundamental (universal and equal) rights is eroded.

His discussions of historical examples are well worth reading, for example he disagrees with David Friedman that medieval Island had been an example of anarchy. His discussion of Islam as an attempt to replace a clan-based society with a rule of law society is very interesting - he has a comparative analysis of developments in Britain and the Arab world at around the same time -, but he ultimately doesn't have an explanation for why Islam has been so much less successful than European states at eliminating the clan-based organization of society. He also doesn't talk at all about technology, but even so his historical analyses are still very good (I don't think he tries to get into the "ultimate causes" debate, he keeps it fairly descriptive).


27 January 2013

Acemoglu on unbundling the impact of specific institutions from the effect of broad economic systems

From "Constitutions, Politics, and Economics: A Review Essay on Persson and Tabellini's The Economic Effect of Constitutions":

"I now turn to a discussion of the problems involved in using these variables as instruments for specific institutions. This has become a common practice in the newly flourishing empirical political economy literature. … I will argue that there are serious problems in this procedure because of inherent complementarities between different types of institutions. … Here the distinction between a broad cluster of institutions and specific institutions is crucial. In AJR (2001), we defined a broad cluster of institutions as a combination of economic, political, social and legal institutions that are mutually reinforcing. …

As an example of the difficulty of this type of strategy to estimate the effect of specific institutions, consider the quasi-natural experiment due to international politics, the division of Korea into North and South. … Suppose now that we try to use this source of variation to understand the effect of some specific institutional feature, say financial development, on economic growth. It should be clear that this strategy will lead to a highly biased estimate. It is true that South Korea is financially more developed than North Korea. It is also true that the reason for this is the division in 1946 (had it not been for the division, the North and the South would probably have similar levels of financial development). But this does not make the division a good experiment to understand the effect of financial development, because this division also caused many other institutional changes. It is a good laboratory for the study of broad institutions, but not for a study of the specific institutions. …

the objective here is to estimate the effect of specific institutions. … Can we then use Z_i as an instrument for a specific institution, say S_1 ? The answer is no. If we were to do this, all of the S_k ’s would also load onto S_1. … we can get arbitrarily biased estimates of the effect of S_1 on the outcome of interest. This discussion also makes it clear that the problem of instrumenting for a specific institution, such as S_1, is in many ways similar to the omitted variable bias, since other specific institutions that make up the cluster of institutions, G, are omitted from the regression. Even if we include proxies for some of them, unless we can correctly estimate the causal effects of all of those, IV regressions will fail to estimate the causal effect of the specific institution of interest, S_1, consistently. …

a source of variation in the broad cluster of institutions is not sufficient to separately estimate the effects of specific institutional features. In other words, we can find clever instruments, from history, sometimes from geography, or international politics, that affect the whole social organization of a society, but this is only the first step. It does not enable us to conclude that one specific institution is more important than another.

However, what we want to know in practice is not only that “institutions” (defined as a broad cluster, and therefore almost necessarily as a black box) matter, but which specific dimensions of institutions matter for which outcomes. It is only the latter type of knowledge that will enable better theories of institutions to be developed and practical policy recommendations to emerge from this new area. Consequently, the issue of “unbundling institutions,” that is, understanding the role of specific components of the broad bundle, is of first order importance."

14 January 2013

Documentaries

Recomended by them:

Dig! (2004) 
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) 
Hoop Dreams (1994) 
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) 
Quince Tree of the Sun (1992) 
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) 
Undergångens arkitektur (1989) 
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) 
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) 
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) 
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) 
One Day in September (1999) 
Brother's Keeper (1992) 
Woodstock (1970) 
The Thin Blue Line (1988) 
American Movie (1999) 
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) 
Crumb (1994) 
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006) 
Vernon, Florida (1981) 
The Game of Their Lives (2002) 
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) 
Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997) 
Company: Original Cast Album (1970) 

Countdown to Zero (2010 Documentary) 
Stop Making Sense (1984 Documentary) 
Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011 Documentary) 
Tyson (2008 Documentary) 
Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary (1997 Documentary) 
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001 Documentary) 
Dancing Outlaw (1991 Documentary) 
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008 Documentary) 
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010 Documentary) 
Deep Water (2006 Documentary) 
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004 Mini-Series) 
Dark Days (2000 Documentary) 
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991 Documentary) 
Bus 174 (2002 Documentary) 
The Last Waltz (1978 Documentary)