Monday, August 29, 2005

Peter Singer rears his utilitarian head yet again

In the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine there is a series of 16 short articles in which 16 different authors each chose something--an institution (political parties), a concept (anonymity), or even a currency (the Euro) and proclaimed its passing. The theme was something like "16 things we take for granted that actually will not be around much longer."

I was struck by the naivete, or, phrased a different way, the lack of any sense of history, of most of them, but especially of two: Peter Singer's farewell to "the sanctity of life," and Jacques something-or-other's dismissal of "monogamy." (I'm also struck by how many commas I used in that sentence: 6.)

Whether or not Peter Singer is correct about any of the things he thinks, to make the claim that "most people in the past held to some sort of belief in the sanctity of life, and in the future they will not" is either unprovable or false. For much of history, most people didn't have the luxury of having well-thought-out beliefs on hot-button issues that they would rigorously argue with each other over dinner. Another problem is that beliefs are not a good guide to actions: a poll of Germans in 1942 about belief in the sanctity of life yielding a high result is pretty much irrelevant, as would be one done among Romans exposing their children and then decrying the barbarian hordes. (One suggestion for comments: is my dilemma, bolded above in this paragraph, exhaustive, or are there other options?)

Most of the same criticisms apply to Jacques's treatment of monogamy. I would argue that since widespread monogamy for life is not something the human race has ever really had, it can't go away. We've had polygamy, serial monogamy, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, and Bill Clinton: it's pretty much been relationship chaos since the dawn of civilization. On the other hand, Jacques's related point that in the future, children will be raised by groups of adults in consenting sexual relationships, is 1) a bad idea and 2) up for debate.

Thoughts, good blogspeople?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sports, subjectivity

Strange article at Yahoo news about kids being cut from sports teams. Implicit in the author's tone is that being cut from a sports team is somehow unjust, and that its "subjectivity" is a flaw in the process:

"Thousands of area teenagers suffered last week during high school sports tryouts, an increasingly high-stakes process both coaches and players abhor. As more families invest money into year-round club sports and intensive summer camps in an effort to propel their kids onto top high school teams, the pressure has increased on what remains a subjective tryout process. Because a spot on a varsity or junior varsity team can dramatically impact a teenager's self-confidence and social status, there is little tolerance of mistakes."

"Because of increased complaints from parents, many high school coaches now strive to make cuts more scientific. Until she retired last season, longtime Eleanor Roosevelt girls' soccer coach Kathy Lacey made her players run 1.5 miles in less than 12 minutes to make the team. Mike Bossom, the volleyball coach at Centennial, scores players with a number -- 1 through 5 -- for each drill and then logs the scores on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet."

It seems to me that it's not so much a teenage self-esteem problem as it is an aggressive parent problem. There will always be unjust cuts, and people will always have off days, but I don't think there's a better system than this one.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Iraq, ironically

All from here:

A former top aide to Colin Powell says his involvement in the former secretary of state's presentation to the United Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "the lowest point" in his life.

"I wish I had not been involved in it," says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a longtime Powell adviser who served as his chief of staff from 2002 through 2005. "I look back on it, and I still say it was the lowest point in my life."

"(Powell) came through the door ... and he had in his hands a sheaf of papers, and he said, 'This is what I've got to present at the United Nations according to the White House, and you need to look at it,'" Wilkerson says in the program. "It was anything but an intelligence document. It was, as some people characterized it later, sort of a Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose."

"In fact, Secretary Powell was not told that one of the sources he was given as a source of this information had indeed been flagged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a liar, a fabricator," says David Kay, who served as the CIA's chief weapons inspector in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

Does this stuff mean anything to anyone, or are we burnt or dead when it comes to this issue?

I hear they have the Internet on computers now

Over at Wired Kevin Kelly mocks those who made predictions about the Internet in 1995--and then launches his own about how it will be in 2015. He also says:

"The Netscape IPO wasn't really about dot-commerce. At its heart was a new cultural force based on mass collaboration. Blogs, Wikipedia, open source, peer-to-peer - behold the power of the people."

Now, the Internet definitely has some Democratic aspects to it. Reviews, Wikipedia, blogging, Ebay--they level the playing field for users. I just don't share Kelly's optimism about the transformative power of the net--only 1/7 of the world's people are online, and though I can blog or buy a cheap book or podcast, I still can't click a button and bring down a tyrannical regime (though some people are trying). Now, am I saying that our amazing google-y powers don't help or don't make the march of democracy easier? Not at all--they certainly do. But do they make democracy inevitable? No.


Maybe we'll get away from arguing about Iraq. Then again, maybe not.

standingoutinthecold: I like Colorado.
charlespeirce: Quite justifying the Iraq war.
standingoutinthecold: Why do you hate America and her Christian God, you terrorist-loving liberal?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The pirate or the weasel?

I blogged here in fury at Maureen Dowd's latest column--her ineffective rehashing of the usual charges against Bush and the Iraq war. Now, she's done it again, and I'm forced to ask myself: the New York Times pays her to do this? She's sarcastic, flippant, and smug:

"This president is in a truly scary place in Iraq. Americans can't get out, or they risk turning the country into a terrorist haven that will make the old Afghanistan look like Cipriani's. Yet his war, which has not accomplished any of its purposes, swallows ever more American lives and inflames ever more Muslim hearts as W. reads a book about the history of salt and looks forward to his biking date with Lance Armstrong on Saturday.

The son wanted to go into Iraq to best his daddy in the history books, by finishing what Bush senior started. He swept aside the warnings of Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell and didn't bother to ask his father's advice."

Just as President Bush and his administration have not asked me for any sacrifices to fight an actual war on terror, so the comfortable shells of the liberal elite have not asked me to do anything to oppose it while simultaneously supporting our brave men and women in uniform. Again I am faced with the choice between bloodthirsty corporate pirates and soulless weasels.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Lutherans, wisely, hedge.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently had its national meeting in Orlando, Florida. Meetings of this sort are held every other year and are presided over by the ELCA's bishop. The current bishop of the ELCA is Mark Hanson. You can read one of his letters here. There are between 10 and 13 million Lutherans in the United States, making it the 4th largest church in the country, after Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, in that order.

At the meeting the delegates voted 503-490 against lifting a ban on the ordination of same-sex clergy. This measure (it needed a 2/3 majority to pass) would have allowed bishops and church districts (which are called synods) "to seek an exception for a particular candidate if that person was in a long-term relationship and met other restrictions." The delegates also voted 851-127 "to keep the church unified despite serious differences over homosexuality."

Keep in mind that the ELCA is the more liberal of the large Lutheran churches in the country. The Missouri synod, with almost 3 million members, would certainly not even consider such a measure.

I followed the meeting with interest and I'm happy that these votes turned out the way they did. I don't know all the answers to the questions about the role of homosexuals in the church, but I do know that it's not to have some policy stuffed down the throats of congregants. Solutions need to come from the bottom up.

Now, does this mean that individual churches should be able to vote on whether to call homosexuals to ordination? I don't know. Church policy on homosexuality is, for me, one of the trickiest areas of culture right now.

What should we do?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The tax challenge

Over at threat of the future we got into two tax issues: whether wealthy people paying as much as they do in taxes is justified; and whether the United States tax policy favors white people over minorities. They are directly related, and I'm going to attempt to answer both of those questions in the affirmative. The following is from the New York Times:

"In 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data, the 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000."

jackscolon responded with this:

"I think someone making $100 million and paying the same percentage as someone making $75,000 is totally fair. For every ten percent taxed, he or she is kicking in $10 million for the other person's $7,500. Can you argue that the wealthier person is using up over 1,300 hundred times the services?"

Here's my thesis: the number of your tax dollars that come back to you in a useful form is a function of what you do for a living, and not how much you pay in taxes. Let me explain.

Most conservatives think that the wealthier you are, the less you get out of the services that traditionally spring to mind when we think of taxation: welfare, unemployment, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, public transportation, financial aid for college, etc. This is ABSOLUTELY TRUE. However, these services are just a small part of what our taxes pay for. Take someone working for a defense contractor. The biggest defense contractors in this country--Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon, SAIC, CSC, Titan, BAE Systems, Anteon--do nearly all of their business with the federal government. That means that they are 100% taxpayer supported. (Boeing is a notable exception--they have many commercial and international contracts.) So, if you work in the defense industry your paycheck consists of tax dollars and you gain a huge reward from the taxes you pay. In fact, the defense budget and defense-related expenses are consistently 40-50% of our national budget.

So, the very reason Bill Gates is able to make $100 million is because he is using our tax-supported infrastructure and tax-supported services as well, just like Mr. Defense Contractor. He's supporting himself by paying $10 million in taxes, as those taxes go to pay for the things that he then makes his money from. The example of his kids not going to a state college and receiving aid is perfect, because his tax dollars go to provide financial aid for students who can't afford the private universities he can--thus creating a market for his products, namely the massive amounts of Windows licenses that educational institutions buy and are able to pay for because of tuition dollars that Bill Gates contributes to. No tax, no financial aid; no financial aid, lower enrollment; lower enrollment, less need for Windows licenses; less need for Windows licenses, Bill Gates's income goes down.

Here's another example. Johnny Casino Owner resents that he pays 6.2% of his income out in Social Security every paycheck. However, the massive amounts of senior citizens patronizing his casino are doing so partially with their Social Security money, so it goes right back into his pockets! Cut the tax, cut the benefits; cut the benefits, cut the senior citizens gambling in Johnny's place and cut his profits.

Again, wealthy people do get less out of the services aspect of their tax money, but they get so much more out of the infrastructure aspect. This is why progressive taxation is justified: the wealthier you are, the more your tax dollars contribute to the things that you can then take advantage of by being wealthy. I'd argue that benefits from taxation are exponential and not linear.

The clearest analogy I can think of is how some states get more back from the highway dollars they pony up (paid for by gas taxes) than others. This has NOTHING TO DO with how much money they pay; it has everything to do with the structure of the state economies and who works where. California, where gas taxes are high, and which pays a massive amount of money into the highway systems, gets even more back than Wyoming does, because it has more roads and needs more maintenance per capita. This mirrors my thesis, found above: you can't just look at a state and say "It pays more out in highway money, therefore it gets less back," just as you can't compare a rich person paying 38% on an income of $500,000 and a poor person paying nothing on an income of $5,000 and say that the poor person is getting way more out of the system. They're just not.

Everyone with me so far? Good. Now, this is why our tax policy favors white people. It's NOT because it's overtly racist: there's no black tax. But since it should be even more progressive than it is, and since the average income of African-Americans is much less than that of whites, it's subtly racist.

In closing, I'd like to point out that my argument is valid, which simply means that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. IF I am right that wealthy people get more out of the system, and that their taxes should be even higher than they are, then I am right that the system (unintentionally and blindly) screws black people, because no one disputes that white people make more.

Go to work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The left: burnt or dead?

Here is today's Maureen Dowd column from the New York Times (login required: get one here.) It illustrates perfectly the problem with some Democratic thinkers right now (especially newspaper columnists with good, secure jobs.) This column is all negative. While I think that, strictly speaking, nearly everything Maureen Dowd says is true, there are still fundamental problems with her presentation.

First, her tone is condescending, as if everyone who disagreed with her was a backwards moron.

About W, "It's hard to think of another president who lived in such meta-insulation." Meta-insulation? Is that what Kant put in his basement?

Twisting one of the military's slogans around, she says "So fighting them there means it's more likely we'll have to fight them here?"

The column purports to be about this woman, but it's just another excuse for Dowd to say all the things she's been saying for a year--there were no WMDs, the war was wrong, Bush takes too much vacation, etc. GREAT. But what are we going to do about it? Why did all the Democratic senators roll over and die during the lead-up to the war? What was our response to 9/11? What were we going to do about Iraq, the UN scandals, and the morally bankrupt, two-faced conduct by the European nations in their dealings with the Middle East?

This column is the equivalent of Rove saying that liberals prepared to offer therapy after 9/11 while conservatives prepared for war. I would also like to note, in closing, that I wouldn't call Down's column biased, just as I wouldn't call Rove's divisive comments biased. I'd call them both pathetic.

Monday, August 08, 2005

More on the MSM

In a great pair of articles, Slate editor Jack Shafer rips into Richard Posner's take on the "crisis" in media and talks about the credibility of media consumers being at an all-time low.

I think this is brilliant stuff. He explodes some of the things that people take for granted--for example, he asserts that since only 31 percent of the [surveyed] public is aware of the Jayson Blair debacle over at the NYT, it can't be playing much of a role in the new skepticism. Another refutation:

"How could blogs have played any role in eroding public trust by 2002 when almost nobody in the mainstream had heard of them? The press loves to seize on new trends, especially techno-trends, but the word "blogs" doesn't appear in a Nexis search of all U.S. newspaper and wire stories until 2000, when it was mentioned in 22 stories. In 2001, the word appeared in 67 stories. In 2002, the concluding year of the survey cited by Posner, it appeared in 359 stories. That's too few by a factor of about 100,000 to have had an impact on the public's view of the press."

Here's his bottom line:

"The mainstream American press is better than it's ever been. If you don't believe me, visit your local library and roll through a couple of miles of microfilm of the papers you're currently familiar with. By any comparison, today's press is more accurate, ethical, reliable, independent, transparent, and trustworthy than ever. Skepticism is a healthy disposition in life. I wouldn't be a press critic if I regarded the press as hunky-dory. But mindless skepticism is mainly an excuse for ignorance."

Agreement? Disagreement?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Those "Philosophy and" books you see in bookstores

There is a series of books out in bookstores across the country which feature articles by various contemporary academic philosophers who take on pop culture--the "Philosophy and..." series. You've probably seen them. Topics include Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Superheroes, the Matrix, Seinfeld, and a half dozen more. I do not like these books.

They anger me NOT because of their attempt to make philosophy accessible, NOR because they bring philosophy and pop culture together. I applaud both of those attempts--more reading is always good for everyone, and I think pop culture is a field that should be studied just like any other. I think these books could have been good--thus, what I dislike is A) how fluffy the specific essays are, and B) how reversible the essays are. I'll explain what I mean after one caveat to the other side.

I do not expect contemporary academic philosophers (hereafter referred to as CAPs) to do philosophy the same way that previous philosophers have. There is so much information available today, and there are so many fields of study in which one can become an expert, that few people approach "knowledge" the way that, say, Aristotle or Kant did: as something that one can approach holistically and have the final say on. Kant says in multiple places that everyone must either accept or refute his arguments; but this is not an exhaustive dilemma, as they are safely ignored by most people. I think this is a good thing. CAPs can focus on the history of philosophy; on feminism; on ethics; on one specific person; on logic; on science; or on anything they wish. For example, at the conferences I have been to, CAPs will present papers on Some Famous Philosopher's Argument Against Subjectivism in Ethics instead of their own exhaustive treatise on the subject.

Most of the essays in these books are explorations of philosophical concepts alongside critiques of pop culture. A philosopher whom I met at a conference once and with whom I have corresponded, Dr. Harald Thorsrud, has contributed multiple essays to the series: his are the exception to the rule. In the Harry Potter book he brings in Aristotelian concepts of friendship (which was considered a virtue by The Master of Those Who Know) to analyze Rowling's characters in an insightful and enjoyable way. Most of the essays, though, consist simply of some thoughts about philosophy mixed around with some thoughts about pop culture. "Here's a summary of existentialism. Homer Simpson sure is amusing!" I wish the essays had been more aggressive, and I've seen the few that actually do make bold cases for things get their subjects totally backwards (like the essay in the LOTR book arguing that the elves, quintessential essentialists [HA!] in my view, are existentialists). That's what I meant by reversibility, as I said above: I could take most of the essays in the books, make the exact opposite case in the same flimsy form that the author did, and still have a paper.

The philosophy that stretches all of us and makes us better people is found in the books that (as I explained above) no one writes anymore, and if the "Philosophy and" books succeed in getting people to read Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and the rest then I'll be happy. But this was a real opportunity to do some hard-hitting writing, and most of the writers took a pass.

Let me know what you think.