Saturday, July 30, 2016

IGM Economic Experts Panel public policy polls

By Mathew Goldstein

The Initiative for Global Markets asks an Economic Experts Panel public policy questions and publishes their answers on the Internet.  The panel consists of fifty one "senior faculty at the most elite research universities in the United States" that "was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars."  These are people who make a career of studying the empirical evidence to try to find the logical best fit predictions for the impacts of different public policies.  Sometimes they share a consensus, or near consensus, conclusion.  Our civic obligation as voters is to be aware of, respect, and defer to, the expert consensus.  We are not going to be better informed, or more likely to have the better answer, than they are when they reach a close to consensus view on an economics related public policy question.  

For example, no one should be voting for President, Congress, or Governer someone who advocates for re-implementing the Gold Standard, such as Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Chris Christie, or presidential candidate Donald Trump together with his choice for Vice President, Governor Mike Pence, given that economists unanimously think that is a bad policy.  It is embarrassing for our country that people who presume to know better than our own experts are elected.  Of particular interest to secularism advocates are the questions on vaccines and primary school vouchers.  There is close to a consensus here for mandating vaccinations against contagious diseases that maim or kill as advocated by the Secular Coalition for America.  For anyone interested in public policy more generally there are many interesting poll results to ponder.  It should be standard practice for universities to encourage their faculty to participate in public policy opinion polls.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Allegany County v. McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky

By Mathew Goldstein

Eleven years ago the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that Ten Commandments documents displayed in a government court building in Kentucky violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The same day the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that a Ten Commandments monument on the property of a government court building in Texas was constitutional.  Justice Breyer voted differently on the two similar disputes because he concluded that the monument in Texas was more secular than the framed wall displays in Kentucky for various trivial reasons, including that the Texas monument was one of more than a dozen different monuments on the court building property.  Justice Stevens dissented from that second decision, Van Orden v. Perry, arguing that the display "has no purported connection to God's role in the formation of Texas or the founding of our Nation ..." and therefore could not be protected on the basis that it was a display dealing with secular ideals. Stevens said that the display transmits the message that Texas specifically endorses the Judeo-Christian values referenced in the display and thus violates the establishment clause.

Justice Stevens was correct, although his implied endorsement of the existence of God as a secular fact was biased.  Justice Breyer's hair splitting distinctions between the Kentucky and Texas Ten Commandments appears to reflect an effort to balance his discomfort with the displays with his discomfort with confronting public opinion.  He appears to have ruled against one display in accord with his honest preference that such religiously partisan monuments not be displayed on government property, to try to limit the harm, while carving out an exception big enough to ensure any government could continue displaying the Ten Commandments anyway.  These two inconsistent decisions place the dispute in an unresolved status that encourages more litigation.

A self-identifying secular humanist and atheist who owns property in Allegany County, Jeffrey Davis, recently filed a lawsuit in Allegany County seeking to have the McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky decision re-applied to a Ten Commandments monument on the property of an Allegany County court building.   The granite monument is one of hundreds (the total number is disputed) purchased and donated over ten years by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to promote the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments movie.  The Fraternal Order of Eagles is a theists only membership organization, with an initiation ritual that features a Bible and religious phrases and prayers, that restricted membership to Caucasians in the past.  There is also a George Washington monument somewhere else on the same property.  Davis is writing the arguments himself although he is not a lawyer.  He expresses an interest in obtaining assistance from experts.  Apparently the Maryland ACLU (no surprise here) and the AHA have so far refused to assist him.  

Meanwhile the county is spending lots of money on a non-profit law organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to try to convince the judge to retain the Ten Commandments monument.  Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian organization that describes itself as "defending the right to hear and speak the Truth".  We would never argue that our government institutions should display the secular humanist manifesto to respect our freedom of expression to communicate the fact that there is most likely no God and that religions are fictions.  Our government does not function as our vocal chords, keyboards, printers, Internet, billboards, etc.  When our government remains silent regarding theism versus atheism our government does not thereby deny anyone's freedom to express themselves.  There is a time and place for conducting business and another time and place for expressing convictions about (an imaginary) god within every 24 hour day, with time remaining for eating, sleeping, etc.  Or watching T.V., it's your choice.

Ten Commandments monuments on the property of a government institution never were, never will be, never can be, a secular display in any country where a majority of citizens profess those commandments came from God as revealed in a (too often primitive and barbaric) holy text that designates death penalties for violations.  No judge, no team of well educated lawyers from an expensive law firm, no biased popular opinion, declaring otherwise will change this basic fact.  The Ten Commandments is religious by origin, by content, by usage.  It is a thoroughly religion drenched biblical document that also has some incidental secular content.  When judges falsely claim such displays are secular they demonstrate that they, and our laws, sometimes lack integrity. As secular humanists we should say this publicly, repeatedly, and unequivocally.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Ayn Rand was not a good philosopher or economist

By Mathew Goldstein

For about three years Adam Lee has been criticizing Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged chapter by chapter, section by section, on his Daylight Atheism blog.  His criticisms of that book, and of Ayn Rand, were also critical of Objectivism.  Objectivism is the name given to the world view that the atheist, and self claimed advocate for reason and individualism, Ayn Rand tried to promote with her books.

Atlas Shrugged the Ideologocal Event Horizon summarizes Lee's criticisms of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist movement.  He argues that Ayn Rand's Objectivism fails to deliver on its claims of being rooted in reason and individualism.  Ayn Rand's fictional books are indeed unrealistic fantasies that attempt to promote a flawed philosophy.  Various Republicans reject Objectivism as being tainted by its link to atheism (as if that link automatically defeats the philosophy), but they continue to promote her books anyway as providing insight into good economic policy.  As a guide for economic policy we lack sufficient reasons to think her writings are any more sophisticated or realistic than her Objectivism philosophy.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

I don't like to boast but...

By Gary Berg-Cross

You may find it surprising, but I've been thinking about boasting and self promotion a bit these days. Well OK, in today's campaign environment this is perhaps not that surprising as we are confronted with naked forms of narcissism than usual . I'm thinking here, of course, of various claims that flow, or overflow, out of candidate Trump's mouth. In March, for example, on Good Morning America D. Trump claimed, “ No One Has 'Done So Much for Equality as I Have' Evidence? His clubs are open to everyone.

"You take a look at Palm Beach, Florida. I built the Mar-a-Lago club, totally open to everybody. A club that, frankly, set a new standard in clubs and a new standard in Palm Beach and I've gotten great credit for it. That is totally open to everybody."
Speaking to AIPAC he boasted “I've studied the Iran nuclear deal more than anyone.” The AIPAC audience laughed, maybe nervously. One reporter labeled it a “Crazed Speech Filled With Self-Promotion And Delusion.” 
Doonesbury  documented 20 such boastful delusions including claims of being # on Bible reading, women's issue, trade etc.

It's all consistent with Dan McAdam's Mind of Trump article ( a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency) in The Atlantic which provides such labels to the Donald personality as:

  • narcissism,
  • disagreeableness,
  • grandiosity

These ingredients offer some idea of why Trump trumpets himself. He thinks we need to know how awesome he is. He just lacks or does not find useful the methods by which many of us engage in humble boasting. Where we may not want to let our audience on to how we are dying to brag about our kids or grand kids, new job, great investment, well Trump is on to the direct bragging path. And like a super stereotyped New Yorker he anticipates a good return on investment with little cost.

Generally, research suggests that people dislike direct, explicit self-superiority claims such as being better than others, chosen, gifted or favored by fortune. It is perhaps a comparative thing with thelistener being put one down. You can read all about the dynamics of “humble boasting in another Atlantic article by MATTHEW HUTSON called “How to Boast on the Sly A guide to bragging better.”

While we can't expect Trump to be guided by factors that influence day to day boasting as opposed to national level ones there are some factors in here that may eventually come into to play at least for some voters, outside of the Trump tribe, who are entranced with a blinding, boastful, self delusional and self promoting vision of change and leadership.

For example, as noted by Hutson when we brag overtly, we miscalculate how others will react. That is, studies suggest that self-promoters overestimated the extent to which their audiences would feel “proud” and “happy,” and they underestimated audience annoyance. A way around this is to “hire” someone to do the boasting for you. There is plenty of that in politics but again, Trump likes to toot his own boast organ himself so he may run into a limit here as praise from the usual suspects seems to be hard to hear.

One wonders if we will see a turn off from DT's explicit self-superiority claims (“I am better than others”). Of course in a campaign such claims are always there is some form maybe a bit more humbly implied. One warning to Hillary, as Hutson notes:

"Women appear to pay the greatest price for bragging. When job candidates in one study self-confidently highlighted their accomplishments, they were seen as more competent than when they spoke modestly. Yet the women who self-promoted were seen as less likable than the self-effacing women. "

Another cultural hurdle for women to clear.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Off target, the Air Raid podcast

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Coalition of Maryland (SCMD) is "... a radical left-wing lobbying group that wants to ensure that people of faith do not have the ability to practice their religion freely."  Or so claims Brian Griffiths who is Editor in Chief of the Red Maryland Network where his recent comments can be found on his The Air Raid podcast.  He is a former Chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans for two terms who also served four years on the Maryland Republican Party Executive Board, was President of the Anne Arundel County Young Republican, and was Assistant Secretary and Northeast Regional Vice-Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation.

He characterizes SCMD as a "left wing hate machine" who seek "to force people to participate in" what he characterizes as "state sanctioned homicide" (this is referring to the bill that proposed legalizing physicians prescribing a lethal dose of barbiturates to the terminally ill).  To make his case he cited, among other things, our opposition to the bill titled "Health Occupations - Health Care Practitioners - Exemption From Participation in Aid in Dying". That seemed to particularly annoy him.

After reading some of the contents of the SCMD web site and identifying bills SCMD opposed he devoted most of the remaining time mischaracterizing SCMD positions.  He ignored that SCMD opposed only particular provisions of some of the bills, falsely claiming that we opposed the bill sponsor's stated goal in its entirety each time. He conjured a straw man negative stereotype of SCMD and then attacked the straw man he created.  He appears to have close to zero tolerance for every legislative outcome that SCMD seeks and focused more on negatively labeling us than on making an effort to engage in any two way discussion on the substance of the issues.

SCMD argues that Maryland's health provider conscience law should be amended to clarify that the clauses granting institutions a conscience right to refusal apply only when the institution is privately controlled.   Also, freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to the people who adopt one side of the two opposing sides.  Whenever institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it necessarily follows that institutions that support those same disputed medical procedures are entitled to the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.

A good freedom of conscience bill for health care providers would prioritize freedom of conscience for individuals over that of institutions (since these two goals unavoidably conflict) by restricting institutional level employee mandates to privately controlled institutions.  A good bill would also be reciprocal and not privilege institutions that want to opt-out over those institutions that want to opt-in.  With those two modest adjustments that bill would become a reasonable and balanced bill that allows individuals working in public institutions to opt-out and allows privately controlled institutions to fully opt-out or opt-in.

It is clear that the perspectives of the SCMD and those of Mr. Griffiths are very far apart and in conflict.  Mr. Griffiths' views appear to align with those of his church.   Religious institutions take their theology seriously, they are inclined to claim that they are defending the will of God, which can generate conclusions that conflict with people who think differently about what God wants, or think that there is no knowledge of what God wants, or think that there is no God.  What is unclear is if there is a genuine willingness on his side to argue on the substance of our disagreements.  His commentary sounded like an effort to shut down the possibility of a discussion.