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Monday, October 26, 2015

Defending Freedom of Speech

Do you you really want to deny some people the right to speak their mind?  How about letting someone else deny you your right to speak your mind?  Best to push back before this gets any worse.

The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feeling:
There’s that saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. When it comes to censorship, one might say that the road to thought and speech control is paved by people trying to protect other people’s feelings.

Of course, the real and fair solution is much less politically correct but effective. It’s to stop trying to protect people’s feelings. Your feelings are your problem, not mine—and vice versa.
Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

College Campuses should be amongst the friendliest places in support of the free exchange of ideas.  However, they are failing miserably in that role:
Crippling the delivery of unpopular views is a terrible lesson to send to impressionable minds and future leaders, at Wesleyan and elsewhere.
This is simply the latest proof that colleges and universities in this nation are turning from bastions of free speech and academic freedom to institutions that are enabling and enforcing “speech codes” that student activists demand. The result is the death of “robust intellectual debate” on campus.
The campus speech police at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee just declared “politically correct” to be taboo.

There seems to be growing awareness of the problem.  Organizations like FIRE are fighting the good fight in trying to rectify the situation.

George Will had some terrific remarks on the matter delivered last April (excerpts):

transcript  video

What I want to talk to you about tonight is the amount of intellectual ingenuity that is now devoted to rationalizing the disappearance of free speech. For forty years now, every bit of jurisprudential thinking about the First Amendment has been devoted to explaining how we can balance First Amendment freedoms against other competing and superior, we’re told, values, balancing away the First Amendment one bit at a time. 
…Today’s attack is different. It’s an attack on the theory of freedom of speech. It is an attack on the desirability of free speech, and indeed, if listened to carefully and plumbed fully, what we have today is an attack on the very possibility of free speech. The belief is that the First Amendment is a mistake. 
...The longer I live around politics, and I’m now in the second half of my fifth decade in Washington, the more I believe that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. We are living today with the consequences of two bad 19th century ideas that were imported like much of progressivism from Germany. 
…Of course free speech zones are now common around the country. Some of us thought that James Madison of the great class of 1771 of Princeton University, that James Madison established a free speech zone coast to coast.…Because our minds are made up in a social context, we really have no minds of our own. The minds are social constructs. This is a kind of totalizing way of looking at the world and it leads, as night to day, to totalitarian impulses.…The Declaration in the light of which the Constitution being construed is a charter of limited government, limiting the government to protecting natural rights. 
Well that was not good enough for Woodrow Wilson. Progress for him meant progress up from the founders. Science was in the air at the time: Edison, Ford, Marconi, the Wright Brothers. And political science had its own day. He was present at creation, indeed he was the creator, of the academic study of administration, which represented his worship from afar of Bismarck’s Prussian bureaucracy. In 1912 during the campaign, Woodrow Wilson said the history of liberty is the history of limits on government power. Ah yes, he meant the history of liberty, not the future of liberty. 
…Yesterday, as I said, we saw the Democratic’s probable presidential nominee say that one of the four most important things she wants to do in the world is end Citizens United and end the First Amendment as we have known it, to empower the government to protect the American people from money in politics, all of which is spent to disseminate political advocacy. For four and a half decades in Washington I’ve seen many bad laws passed, and none as bad, none as ominous, none as symptomatic as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. A lot of people say, refer to the campaign finance laws, they say well they’re to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof and they always refer to them as the post-Watergate campaign finance laws. Not true. Yeah, they came after that. The impulse to regulate campaign spending in a serious way was not because of the 1972 Watergate break-in it was because of the 1968 Gene McCarthy campaign. The Democratic Party was appalled that Gene McCarthy was able to mount a serious insurgency against an incumbent president because he got Stewart Mott and about 8 other wealthy people to give what then was serious money, a hundred thousand dollars apiece, to empower his campaign. And the Democratic Party set out on all campaign finance regulations since then traces its pedigree to this impulse. They must stop this from ever happening again, to allow a small group of dedicated supporters from enabling an insurgent campaign to challenge the incumbent orthodoxy of a party. 
…What we see in this comprehensive, metastasizing attack on freedom of speech, an attack on what Jonathan Rauch, in his wonderful 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, about this subject, called an attack on the three pillars of an open society. One is an attack on democracy itself, on how we decide who will exercise power. Second an attack on capitalism, which is how we allocate wealth and opportunity through impersonal markets. And third an attack on science itself because science exists to unsettle things. Science is how we decide what is true. And instead today we are constantly plied and belabored with the assertion that science about this, that, and the other thing is settled. Solved. Cholesterol, climate change, you name it. Well, if the electorate is not sovereign, if the electorate’s mind is passive to the touch of advertising, then democracy is a ruse and a sham. If markets never reflect the real desires of people, then there’s no need to respect capitalism. And if science is not to be allowed to unsettle things, if science is to be a series of closed arguments, then the way we discover the truth is closed. 
This is why what you tonight are supporting here goes to the very heart of the American experience, and is part of continuing resistance to the bad ideas that came from abroad in the 19th century when Americans went to Germany because we did not have graduate schools. I leave it to you to decide whether we’ve progressed in that regard. 

What is happening on our campuses is contributing to the marginalization of the academy, and that’s an excellent thing. If the academy is going to be taken over by people adopting an adversarial stance to American culture, the American past, and the American founding, then let it be marginalized and made ridiculous. 
…Second, we are learning things. My idea of heaven is endless learning, and we’re learning a lot because of what’s happening on campus. We’re learning who are the cowards and who has spine. And there are more people with spines out there than we might have thought, and the William F. Buckley Program and others are finding them, nurturing them, supporting them, and giving them additional courage. 
Third, the current nonsense on and about campuses, really does, if you stand back and let it, add to the public stock of harmless amusement. For example, we have learned that there are 93 members of the California state legislature who have never had sex. How do I know that? I know that because they passed the affirmative consent law, which says, this is the guidance to these hormonal young men and women on campuses, it says there must be affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement at every stage of a sexual activity. The authors of that do not know what they’re talking about. 
…We’re not such a fragile people. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln gave a talk at the precursor of what became the Wisconsin State Fair. At the close of his remarks, he told the story about the oriental despot who summoned his wise men and gave them an assignment. He said, I want you to go away and don’t come back, until you have found a proposition to be carved in stone, to be forever in view, and forever true. Some while later the wise men came back and proposition they had was this too shall pass away. How can consoling in times of grief, said Lincoln, how chastening in times of pride, and yet, said Lincoln, it may not be true. If the American people, he said, cultivate the moral and intellectual world within them as assiduously and prodigiously as they cultivate the physical world around them, we shall endure. 
It’s true of the idea of the American founding, which is what we’re all here to talk about tonight. We are not a fragile people and we are certainly not going to be defeated by tenured radicals.

Let's hope so!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Enactors of moral order

A book that caught my attention when it was published a few years ago is The Righteous Mind.  It never quite made it to the top of my reading list. Since comments by the author Jonathan Haidt have appeared recently in a number of articles, I was prompted to read it recently. ( This tease  with link is for one of those articles, The Coddling of the American Mind.

There is a  website for the book, full pdffigures, a summary and other summary by other readers that I think are interesting.  I've included several pages of excerpts here and more limited excerpts below.

This is overall a well written book presenting interesting material.  It is one of the most well organized books I can remember reading.  In each chapter and each section the author lays out what he is going to explain, explains it well and then summarizes the key points.  A subset of the aforementioned excerpts follow(emphasis mine):

I study moral psychology, and I’m going to make the case that morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilization possible.

But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife. Some degree of conflict among groups may even be necessary for the health and development of any society.

Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Part III is about the third principle: Morality binds and blinds. The central metaphor of these four chapters is that human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion.

I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or a parasite, as some scientists (the “New Atheists”) have argued in recent years.

We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.

We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers … are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”

Hume got it right. When he died in 1776, he and other sentimentalists10 had laid a superb foundation for “moral science,” one that has, in my view, been largely vindicated by modern research.11 You would think, then, that in the decades after his death, the moral sciences progressed rapidly. But you would be wrong. In the decades after Hume’s death the rationalists claimed victory over religion and took the moral sciences off on a two-hundred-year tangent.

The remaining three foundations—Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation—show the biggest and most consistent partisan differences. Liberals are ambivalent about these foundations at best, whereas social conservatives embrace them.

Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six. Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, and Fairness/cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away fairness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives.

Until Democrats understand the Durkheimian vision of society and the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.

We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.93 If you take that claim metaphorically, then the groupish and hivish things that people do will make a lot more sense.

Durkheim argued, in contrast, that Homo sapiens was really Homo duplex, a creature who exists at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society. From his studies of religion he concluded that people have two distinct sets of “social sentiments,” one for each level.

Religions are social facts. Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees. Durkheim’s definition of religion makes its binding function clear: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.3 In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.

In Wilson’s account, human minds and human religions have been coevolving (just like bees and their physical hives) for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. And if this is true, then we cannot expect people to abandon religion so easily. Of course people can and do forsake organized religions, which are extremely recent cultural innovations. But even those who reject all religions cannot shake the basic religious psychology of figure 11.2: doing linked to believing linked to belonging. Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely “rational” beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon. It can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense. There is not a big margin for error; many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire,43 and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.

If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. Conservatives understand this point.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity and what to make of it. He firmly rejected moral relativism: I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false.1 He endorsed pluralism instead, and justified it in this way: I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments.… There is not an infinity of [values]: the number of human values, of values which I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite—let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.

 Intuitive foundations of morals, multifaceted moral dimensions and competition among groups with identity tied to differing emphasis on these dimensions.  All very interesting.  This doesn't really settle anything, but it does give some perspective on the nature of some pretty deep rooted conflicts in societies.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Looting is Strong with the NYT

In oblivious pursuit of its quest to prove once again that socialism works so long as someone has some money somewhere for the government to shovel into heaps and set on fire, the NYT sets about that increasing taxes on the rich would provide free dosh.

The NYT must issue its writers with a macro that generates sentences like this:

When it comes to paying taxes, most Americans think the wealthy do not pay their fair share.

One wonders if most Americans, or the author of this article, referred to this chart:

Wealthy pay more in taxes than poor

From it, one thing should leap right off the screen: the top 3.8% of income earners pay more income tax than the other 96.2% combined. Apparently, for the socialists with dollar signs in their eyes, this just isn't enough.

So the NYT spends a thousand words or so explaining why there is Free Money for Everyone! It's simple, according to economists like Nobel Prize winning Joseph Stiglitz (whose prize clearly isn't in the category of knowing what you are writing about, but rather, like the NYT, in Advanced Looting.)

It is “absurd” to argue that most wealth at the top is already highly taxed or that there isn’t much more revenue to be had by raising taxes on the 1 percent, says the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel in economic science, who has written extensively about inequality. “The only upside of the concentration of the wealth at the top is that they have more money to pay in taxes,” he said.

Here the NYT treats us to a chart that shows two things, both predictable enough. Our tax system is already quite progressive, and that people who earn more have more after tax income. It also engages in some NYT-strength deception. How so? The graphic shows average tax rate — that is, the tax paid over pre-tax income. But as everyone knows, or at least should, US income tax rates are arranged in brackets (why not a continuous curve is beyond me, but that is a subject for another day).

This isn't nit picking.

To get the most accurate picture possible, throw in all the scraps of income, from the most obvious (like wages, interest and dividends) to the least (like employer contributions to health plans, overseas earnings and growth in retirement accounts). According to that measure — used by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution — the top 1 percent includes about 1.13 million households earning an average income of $2.1 million.

Raising their total tax burden to, say, 40 percent would generate about $157 billion in revenue the first year. Increasing it to 45 percent brings in a whopping $276 billion. Even taking account of state and local taxes, the average household in this group would still take home at least $1 million a year.

Notice what is going on here. With scarcely a nod, the NYT includes that which isn't currently taxed — employer contributions to health plans. Whether they should be is a topic for another time. However, I can't help but notice a glimmering of economic sanity that typically eludes both the NYT and the Social Security Administration: employers don't "provide" anything to health plans or Social Security; it is all in lieu of income.) Then it piles on that which is already taxed elsewhere, and what is taxed later.

About that last bit. The reason people put money into retirement accounts is to shield it from top marginal rates during earning years, then paying the typically lower tax rate when it is withdrawn during retirement. So what, among other things, this exercise in progressive innumeracy means is that growth in retirement savings will be taxed along the way, meaning less growth over time, then taxed again as it is withdrawn in retirement.

Do you see that mentioned anywhere in the article? I don't. Whether through stupidity or mendacity, well, that is a heck of a choice.

The vig?

Raising their total tax burden to, say, 40 percent would generate about $157 billion in revenue the first year. Increasing it to 45 percent brings in a whopping $276 billion. Even taking account of state and local taxes, the average household in this group would still take home at least $1 million a year.

Left unmentioned: how much does the top bracket have to change in order to bring the total tax burden to 45%? It isn't a simple 12% increase (to go from 33.4% to 45%), because of the lower brackets. In order to bring the total tax burden to 45%, the top bracket would have to go from 40% to roughly 52%.

In other words the tax increase in the top bracket would be 30%, and that is ignoring all the other sources that the looters have their eyes on. Which, also unmentioned, launches no small number of people into the highest bracket.

Raising their total tax burden to, say, 40 percent would generate about $157 billion in revenue the first year. Increasing it to 45 percent brings in a whopping $276 billion. Even taking account of state and local taxes, the average household in this group would still be allowed to keep at least $1 million a year.

After this para follows a laundry list of all the free stuff that would flow from this largesse: free college! free child tax credit! repealing the Cadillac Tax on high cost health plans! (wait, what?) free highway repair!

What doesn't follow is a list of all the government programs that turn people's hard earned income into smoke, or worse. Or the IRS's inability to protect its data, or stop sending out billions in fraudulent tax refunds. Or, for that matter, the rampaging incompetence of federal agencies, for which no one is ever held accountable. Never mind the costs of excessive regulation.

In short, why does it never occur to looters to go some distance towards putting the ravenous beast on a diet, before demanding to feed it more?

More fundamental questions remain untouched. In the quest to demonize the well off, the article fails to address fundamental questions.

Having already paid $700k in Federal taxes, the average amount for the top 1%, how much more before it becomes theft? The argument for a progressive tax system is easy enough to make, but that argument doesn't extend to infinity. That $700k is already well in excess of what those taxpayers get in return; what amount is too great?

More fairness. Picketty, the pole star for extortion minded collectivists, abundantly makes (IMHO) the mistake of confusing characteristic with composition. To him, all the wealthy are CEOs. However, every player in major professional sports, for just one example, are in the top 1%. Yet they don't stay there for very long, and their presence in that top 1% is due to their effort, skill, and risk. The kid from Compton, who plays left tackle for 5 years: how much more does the government get to take from him?

The article asserts that such an increase "[would not do] serious damage to the economy … The big question is how much is too much, because at some point higher tax rates would discourage extra investment and work." That is a very blinkered view; after all, higher taxes do more than just discourage extra effort.

That extra bite, roughly $30,000 per year per average taxpayer in the top 1% (and who thinks the bite would stop there?), goes to the government rather than to the economy in the form of consumption or investment. One wonders what collectivists have against, say, workers on the Cadillac assembly line. The point should be clear: it only makes sense to take more in taxes if the government can spend that money better than individuals can. If it can't — and one would have to have a Pollyannaish view of government to reach that conclusion — then extracting more taxes will make the economy worse, regardless of the impact on individuals knowing that they are working for less than half-pay.

Yes, it is easy to make an argument for progressive taxation. Won and done. When 3.8% of people are paying 54% of taxes (and that is just at the federal level), one suspects that many Americans, if made aware of that fact before Pew asks its questions, might, just might, think progressive is verging on punitive. Beyond that, though, the goal of collectivism, crystal clear here despite misdirection and innumeracy and immune to fairness or cost, is this: gimme.