21 January 2009

Obama #2: Stimulus Package

The Objectivist
President Obama and the Stimulus Package
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 19, 2009

In the weeks leading up to his inauguration, President Obama pushed the $825 billion House spending plan. By the time Congress sends it to him, this package could well reach $1 trillion. His argument is that the plan is necessary to jump start the economy by increasing demand for goods and services. Obama claims that it contains $275 billion in tax cuts. However, because a significant portion of this goes to people who do not pay income taxes and politically favored businesses, much of this is just more government spending. For example, the plan gives tax cuts to many of the roughly 40% of Americans who were in families that paid no income taxes. Giving money to people who don’t pay income taxes is welfare, not a tax cut.

The stimulus package provides a Christmas tree of goodies to politically correct causes. This includes gifts to the environmental, education, and law-enforcement special-interest groups. For example, the bill includes $20 billion for renewable energy and energy conservation. It also includes $141 billion in grants to states and localities for education spending. It also includes $4 billion for state and local law enforcement. One cringes at how this will encourage wasting even more money and lives on drug prohibition. There is also massive new welfare spending. This includes $43 billion to extend unemployment benefits, $20 billion to increase food stamps, and $9 billion for various welfare programs including, get this, $1 billion for community-action agencies.

It is not clear why we should think that this plan will work. First, it is hard to see how in theory it will work. The money to be spent must come from somewhere and there are only two sources: taxes and loans. If the money is taken from taxes, then the assets are simply transferred from one group of citizens (taxpayers) to another (government beneficiaries). This is unlikely to generate economic growth because taxpayers (in a free market) spend money more efficiently than does the government. If the money is taken via loans, then in the future this money will be taken from taxpayers. This will work only if the additional economic gain is greater than the losses that will occur because taxpayers have less money later on and because interest must be paid to get the loans. Again, this is unlikely.

Second, it is hard to see what historical evidence supports such a plan. The recent bailouts show no signs of working. This might be because of the short period since they were implemented, but at the very least they as yet provide no signs of helping. The federal government has already implemented several stimulus programs, none of which has improved the economy. On February 13, 2008, the federal government authorized a $168 billion stimulus package that consisted of a $300-$600 rebate per person. On March 24, 2008, the federal government set aside $30 billion to allow one investment bank to acquire another (JP Morgan bought Bear Stearns). On October 3, 2008, the government authorized $700 billion for the massive Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) that was supposed to be used to buy loans from banks. These loans have declined in value due to the dropping real estate prices. Instead, the government spent the money to own part of the troubled banks. Other money was spent to bail out GM and Chrysler. On November 25, 2008, the government also authorized $600 billion and spent around $20 billion shoring up the assets of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored mortgage-purchasing companies that owns or guarantees about half of the mortgages in the U.S. Between the rebate-stimulus package (February 13, 2008) and now, the stock market has dropped roughly 37% (using the S&P 500 Index).

Historically, there is no evidence that these plans work. Following the November 1929 crash of the stock market, Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt instituted massive new government-spending programs. Yet, as economist Thomas Sowell points out, for nearly three consecutive years from February 1932 to January 1935, the monthly unemployment rate never fell below 20%. In that last month, it fell to 19.3%. The Great Depression provides no evidence that government spending will jump start the economy or reduce unemployment. Columnist Michelle Malkin points out that in contrast to the disastrous Hoover and Roosevelt presidencies, no recession since World War II has lasted more than two years. In addition, other countries (for example, Japan) have tried this type of plan with piddling results.

Even if there were some evidence that this plan would work, it depends on the money being spent on useful projects rather than ones that favor the politically powerful. For example, there are over 35,000 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. who have and will spend billions of dollars in political contributions. These special interests and pork-barrel spending will divert large amounts of this money away from infrastructure and other less wasteful programs.

Even if we assume that the plan would not be diverted by special interests and politicians, the increase in the debt make it likely that the plan’s costs will outweigh its benefits. Under President Bush, the federal debt exploded. It went from $5.6 to an estimated $9.7 trillion. This is higher than any year since 1960. This is about 68% of the total economic output this year from all sectors of the economy. Because the current 2009 deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion before the .8 trillion stimulus package is added on, the government will tack on another $2 trillion onto the debt next year (increasing it by 21%). In the future, this massive debt will be a millstone around neck of the U.S. economy. Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama are dumping their problems on future generations.

Obama’s support for the stimulus plan indicates that like George W. Bush, he will govern from the left and damage the economy. What a mess.

12 January 2009

The Trinity (The Theist)

The Theist
Thinking about the Trinity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 26, 2009

Perhaps, dear reader, you’re a Christian considering New Year's resolutions. Let me suggest a resolution to reflect more on theology to which you are committed. Trinity theories (there are many) are attempts to reconcile an apparently inconsistent set of four claims many readers find in the Bible: There is only one God, the one Jesus calls Father is God, Jesus is God, and Jesus is not his Father. From any three of these, it seems to logically follow that the fourth is false. (Go ahead - try out all the combinations.)

There is an official answer to this difficulty, dating from the late fourth century: God is one "being" or "essence" containing three "persons" - the Father and Jesus being two (the third being the Holy Spirit). Thus the above four statements are, properly understood, consistent. In order, they mean: There's only one divine being, the one Jesus calls his Father is a person in God, Jesus is a person in God, and Jesus is not the same person in God as his Father. Thus the official answer is to distinguish "persons" is God from the one "being" or "essence" of God - there are three of the former, but just one of the latter.

Yet this official answer is itself a head-scratcher. What are these three "persons"? Some trinitarians think of them as personalities of the one God. Here we have undisputed monotheism, but it is hard to square with the picture of Jesus and his Father in the Bible. Are we to understand seemingly interpersonal relationship as God, in one personality, interacting with himself in another personality? On the other hand, some trinitarians think of the three "persons" as selves, divine selves, each of which has all the divine attributes (being all-knowing, being all-powerful, etc.). But what is this, if not belief in three gods, that is, not monotheism but tritheism? This flies in the face of the Bible, which emphasizes monotheism. Some have replied that the one God is the society, the group of the Three. But this is hard to square with the Bible, which portrays God not as a group, but as a perfect, non-bodily, personal agent.

There are essentially four ways out of this pickle. First, the Ostrich approach - head in the sand. What does all this have to do with loving my neighbor anyway? And isn't this just some sort of attack on the faith?

Second, embrace the mystery. Some gladly avow that they have no idea what a "person" is in the official answer - it's just a label for a distinction within God which we don't understand at all. Others argue that we should expect to run up against apparent inconsistencies which thinking about such a Transcendent being, something so wonderfully beyond us.

Third, break out some fancy philosophical moves. Perhaps there's a way past the dilemma for the official answer above (that whether the "persons" are personalities or selves, the theory is unacceptable). Let’s not be hasty - perhaps there's a third way to understand what the "persons" of the Trinity are. (A number of well-known Christian philosophers have recently attempted this feat in different ways.)

Fourth, one can accept that the four claims we started with really are inconsistent. So to remain consistent, one denies one of them - the most popular candidate being the third.

Each approach comes with its own challenges. Why isn't the first mere intellectual irresponsibility? Why isn't the second a perverse obscurantism, a disingenuous attempt to spin an incoherence as a profundity? As to the third - what exactly are these newfound distinctions, and are they theologically kosher? As to the fourth, is this heresy, or fighting against the Bible, rather than discovering the best interpretation of it?

There are no easy answers, but I believe that there are answers available to the diligent. I can only commend the recent work of many of my fellow Christian philosophy and theology professors, who have recently written much on this issue, in conjunction with a careful re-examination of what the Bible does and doesn’t say. Much of this work has been reviewed and summarized, in dozens of postings going back to 2006, at my blog, which attempts (not always successfully) to straddle the divide between the professionals and ordinary thinking Christians. (http://trinities.org/blog)

A word of caution: life is too short to waste on bad books. Go with recommendations, rather than grabbing the first book you find on the subject of the Trinity, for a randomly chosen book is likely to be both confused and confusing, and likely headache inducing as well.

I counsel avoiding the Ostrich approach. This is a serious discussion between Christians, not an external attack by hostile outsiders. Ignoring these difficulties won’t make them go away. Moreover, shouldn’t lovers of God want to think correctly about him? Quick: What does Jesus say is the first and greatest commandment, one even ahead of the command to love your neighbor? Right - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Wait – there’s one clause missing: "and with all your mind." People tend to overlook that last bit.

07 January 2009

The Nature of Morality

The Objectivist
Morality is Not Objective
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2008

A widely held view is that morality is objective. On this view, moral questions (for example, is genocide wrong?) have right answers. Despite the centrality of this view to the way in which we see the world, it is probably false.

In general, there are two types of objective facts. One type involves a relation between concepts. Examples include mathematical truths (for example, 2 + 3 = 5) and definitional truths (for example, triangles have three sides). These facts are discovered by abstract reasoning or by grasping self-evident truths. A second type involves objects having certain properties. Examples include the fact that whales are mammals and the fact that the speed of sound is 767.58 mph. These facts are discovered by observing what goes on in the world and are what science focuses on. Moral ideas do not fit into either category.

Morality does not involve a mere relation between concepts. Consider M.I.T. professor Judith Jarvis Thomson’s example about George. George is on a footbridge over the trolley tracks. He knows trolleys, and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control. On the track back of the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. George knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control trolley is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight is a fat man, also watching the trolley from the footbridge. George can shove the fat man onto the track in the path of the trolley, killing the fat man; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.

There are two traditions that address what George should do. On one tradition, the ends do not always justify the means. On this tradition, George should not push the fat man because it is wrong to sacrifice one for the benefit of others, even when doing so brings about the best outcome. On a different tradition, we should judge an action by its consequences. On this tradition, George should push the fat man because doing so will allow more people to live. Most people report thinking that George should not push the fat man and thus have intuitions that support the first tradition.

In other cases, however, people report having intuitions that support the second tradition. Consider the following Thomson example. Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley onto it. Unfortunately there is one person on the right-hand track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five. Here most people report thinking that Edward should turn the trolley and are thus sympathetic to the second tradition.

The general point is that the right answer is not something that we can discover through abstract reasoning similar to how we solve math problems. Nor can we arrive at the answer by considering the definitions of the relevant terms (for example, the definition of “right,” “wrong,” and “killing”). Hence, moral ideas are not facts that involve relations between concepts. On a side note, the two trolley cases are similar, so if Edward should turn the trolley then George should push the fat man.

Moral facts are also not discovered through observations about the world. When we consider the heart of morality it involves a few central notions. First, morality involves reciprocity. Examples of reciprocity involve benefiting those who benefit us and harming those who harm us. This notion is common in the Old Testament. Second, certain sexual acts are wrong. For example, incest is wrong. Third, we have special duties to family and friends. For example, a son has a duty not to let his mother or daughter starve but has no similarly strong duty to save Sudanese women and girls.

The fact that human beings hold these ideas and frequently act on them is best explained by evolution rather than the ideas being true. These ideas are found in all human cultures. They are also found in apes, our closest evolutionary relatives. For example, Emory University primatologist Franz de Waal points out that Chimpanzees, who share 99% of human DNA, behave in ways that indicate that they are concerned about reciprocity. For example, when it comes to coalitions, Chimps help those who helped them and punish those who allied against them. De Waal points out that they act as if they adopt the following beliefs “one good turn deserves another” and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” When it comes to sexual morality, famed primatologist Jane Goodall points out that chimps in general avoid incest. Third, favoring family and fellow group members is extremely common in the ape world. For example, chimpanzees viciously attack chimps who are neither family nor group members and trespass on their territory.

When there is general pattern of behavior or emotions that is universal in human cultures and found in our closest evolutionary relatives, there is good reason to believe that it results from evolution. The notion that our moral ideas come from evolution is strengthened when we realize that these behavior patterns increase reproductive fitness, that is, increase an individual’s ability to put his genes into future generations. This notion lies at the heart of evolution. Reciprocity helps an individual survive and reproduce in a social setting, sexual ethics help increase the production of healthy and fertile offspring, and favoring kin helps to increase relatives’ reproductive success. The notion that these moral ideas are true plays no role in explaining why human beings and apes accept and act on them.

If this is correct, then human morality is nothing more than a set of beliefs and emotions that have resulted from evolution. They are not true and, instead, are similar to other genetically caused beliefs such as the one that fashion models are better looking than female gorillas. This result is disturbing because it suggests that slavery, genocide, and incest are not really wrong. Science sometimes changes our worldview in ways that are highly disturbing.