What is Critical Thinking?

Of course every election season has me asking the above question, especially this one, but that is not why I am asking.

Several years ago I was asked to teach Critical Thinking at my college and I agreed to do so.  The textbook I was given looks at the subject from a philosophical standpoint.  It starts with “What is an argument” and includes things like Venn Diagrams, Truth Tables and several chapters on formal and informal logical fallacies.

The book touches on (very obliquely) Bayesian and other statistical reasoning which I expand on quite a bit.  It also touches (very obliquely, again) on some of the modern work in cognitive biases, which, again, I do expand on.

My question to all of you is: Is there other areas of Critical Thinking that you feel are important?

What have been your most important lessons in Critical Thinking?

What do you wish you knew about Critical Thinking?

Any and all responses would be most helpful to me and my students!

Thanks!

Price vs Ehrman Debate Fallout

I continue to ponder what went down at the Price-Ehrman debate, so the fallout mentioned here is my own personal fallout.  I doubt there is much impact in the wider world.  Unless we find out that Ehrman used an unsecured web server to write his blog posts on.

I went into the debate as a leaning mythicist.  I came out as a “Don’t Careicist.”  I have to say that when you think about the Jesus that Ehrman put forth, a fully human, non-miraculous guy, this really leaves us with the same sort of questions that we should have had before and almost all of them relate to sociological questions of how, assuming there is no God, religions form.

Actually, even if there was a God, we would still have the same problems about knowing how religions form.  Let’s just say for a moment that Jesus really did walk out of the grave in Jerusalem just as described in the Gospels.  There is still the huge issue of how you convince people of this.  Only a couple of witnesses and the story was not exactly air tight, does the story spread faster even if it true?  I am not sure it does.  It seems to me that there are questions that need to be answered whether or Jesus existed.  And for me, at least, none of them revolve around the exact meaning of some Greek term in the Bible.

Question 1:  If Jesus existed why is the first story about him from so far away?  As Ehrman shouted several times during the debate: “Mark was NOT A JEW!”  Why is a Syrian (?) writing the story in Greek so many miles from Jerusalem?  Jesus had that little impact there?  In the same way, where are the accounts of the other Apostles?  Dude walks out of the grave and NO ONE puts pen to paper?  This sort of thing needs to be explained if you take the historicist position.

Question 2: Where did all those early churches in the Eastern Mediterranean come from and how did they all have the same ideas about Jesus?  According to Ehrman Paul was persecuting these Christians just two years after Jesus “died.”  How did word get out so fast?  And how did it formalize so rapidly?  Both historicists and mythicists have to grapple with this one.

Question 3: Who the heck was Paul really?  And what did he really do and say?  None of the “traditional” answers to this seem very satisfying to me.  Here is a guy where half of the works published under his name are “traditionally” considered forgeries, but of course the other half are absolutely genuine.  Not sure why more people don’t have a problem with that.  If we ignore Acts, we get a picture of Paul’s activities, but adding Acts back in muddies the picture with many contradictions, starting with the “traditional” idea that Luke was riding around with Paul, but still feels free to contradict him.  Paul doesn’t seem to have started any churches, but seems to feel free to tell them what to do and think.  How is that?  Paul seems to have only talked to Jesus mystically, but is held in higher regard than the guys who supposedly hung around with Jesus (like the missing Apostles).  How does Paul get to be a leader in a church which he doesn’t seem to have founded.  Where did he get his ideas anyway?  Ehrman says that we can be sure that Paul was real and important because so many wanted to forge in his name, which seems like a very odd kind of verification.  Both mythicists and historicists have a huge problem with Paul, I think.

Question 4:  Where did the New Testament come from?  The consensus view on this is very dissatisfying to me.  It’s fine that we ditched the view that they were written by companions of the Apostles, but what is left is pretty much a mess.  No original manuscripts, not even ones close to the time they were supposedly written.  But even more disturbing, for a religion that claims to be based on the Truth with a capital “T” is the apparent lack of concern that early Christians seemed to have had for the texts themselves.  Just go ahead and rewrite them for a new audience.  Given what seems to have happened in the 4th Century, I don’t think we will ever have a good look at the development of the New Testament, but it certainly matters for how the religion developed.  And none of that hinges of Jesus’s reality.

Personally, I think while parsing ancient Greek is certainly worthwhile looking for clues, that reasoning by analogy would also be useful at this point.

I feel that the history of the Mormon church is very germane to what might have happened in early Christianity.  Of course there are tremendous differences, to be sure, but similarities as well.

Mormonism came about at the time of the “Great Revival” in the United States, an upwelling of religious sentiment.  A small group of people started making supernatural claims and attracted a group of followers.  These claims lead to direct attacks on the believers which may have strengthened their beliefs.  There was then a time of extreme flux where the founding documents and claims underwent revision and reinterpretation.  A formal structure emerged which was then used to gain new adherents, which in turn grew the formalized structure and so on.

In the investigation this path of development it is frankly irrelevant as to whether Joseph Smith was a grifter or visionary.  I think we would also agree that “reality” of the supernatural claims is also irrelevant.  Whether Moroni existed or not, later Mormons got the same evidence.  That is to say, even if Maroni was real, the only thing that later Mormons would have is Smith’s writings.  The writings obviously exist and that is all the evidence people seemed to need.  Same with Jesus, really.

Richard Carrier touched on some of these issues in his book, Not the Impossible Faith, but that book was, unfortunately penultimate to the historicity question.  I now think that historicity is a distraction, a red herring.  Irrelevant.

The real question is why do churches start?  How do they win out in the marketplace of ideas?  What is the psychology and sociology involved?

Agnostics and atheists are the only ones who can really attempt to answer these kinds of questions.  Religionists have their answer built in, “The supernatural claims are true and God guides our church.”  Which, if true, either means there are hundreds of gods or that God wants hundreds of churches.

For me, I am starting with the assumption that churches are something like corporations.  A new idea starts them and then a structure evolves around them.  That process is what I think is worth studying.  Whether or not Jesus really gave the Sermon on the Mount and whether or not it was a rehash or a radical idea really doesn’t matter that much to me any more.

 

The Great Debate 2

Richard Carrier has done a complete academic analysis of the (not so) “Great Ehrman-Price Debate.”  Here is my not so academic impressions of what happened.

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Dr. Ehrman started off with pretty much exactly the same line of reasoning that Justin Bass, a Christian apologist started with in his debate with Richard Carrier — Jesus is pretty much the best documented Jewish figure in ancient history.  The only person, Ehrman went on to say, that we have more information about is Josephus.  He said several times that we know way more about Jesus than we do Caiphas.

Now, I am no expert in ancient texts, but I do know that Josephus talks about Caiphas, who came before and after him, who he was related to and describes how the office of high priest works.  Outside of the Bible, no one, not even Josephus, mentions Jesus.

Ehrman continued to treat the New Testament as history.  He said that there are a number of sources found in the gospels, such as the oral sources behind Mark, the new information provided by Matthew and Luke, the Q source and of course John.  He also considers Paul to be a primary source.  To the extent that these can be shown to be independent sources, Ehrman certainly has a point.  That is an awful lot of people who wanted Jesus to be remembered.

I am not convinced and I know that many others are not convinced that these are in fact independent writings from independent sources.  Other than appealing to concensus and authority, Ehrman offered no more evidence than did Dr. Bass to show the independence and reliability of the Gospels.  Along the way, he committed a logical fallacy, saying the Gospels (and also the epistles of Paul) were written soon after Jesus’s death.  Begging the question?  I think so.

Ehrman also takes the apologist position that Paul refers to a historical Jesus.  In his writings, Dr. Price cites the reference to James as “the brother of the Lord” as the most troubling reference in Paul for the mythicist position.  But Ehrman not only sees a brother in Paul, but also a mother, the last supper, the crucifixion and burial.  He sees all this even though Paul never mentions Mary, Pontius Pilate, any disciples other than Peter and so on.  I did not find Dr. Ehrman’s opening statement convincing on any level.

Dr. Price read his opening statement.  Having read quite a bit of his work, I was familiar with his position.  A friend of mine who attended with me, who is not familiar with this area said she had no idea what he was talking about.

My interpretation of Dr. Price’s position (and I may be missing the point entirely) is that Christianity evolved out of a number of cultural threads that were in the air.  These threads gathered themselves together in the culture, became a movement.  In the second and third centuries some people tried to formalize and organize the movement.  In the fourth century, it was tapped as the state religion, the formalizers won out and finished crafting the Christianity that we know today.

As I understand this process, it doesn’t seem to matter to Dr. Price whether or not Jesus is historical as the result doesn’t reflect whoever Jesus was and what ever he might have taught.  Oddly enough, the same could be said of Dr. Ehrman, but for reasons that are unclear to me, he fights that tooth and nail.

It was pretty clear to me that Dr. Ehrman came to WIN THE DEBATE.  He continued in this mode, even when it became crystal clear that Dr. Price was not there to debate anything.  At most Price thought it was a discussion.   But Ehrman kept trying to score debate points with obvious rhetorical moves and aggressive questions long after Price made it clear that he was doing something else.

The biggest question I was left with after the evening was not, “Was Jesus a historical figure?”  But rather, “What the hell is up with Bart Ehrman?”

Ehrman declares himself atheist/agnostic, but his whole reasoning for the historicity of Jesus comes right out of Christian apologetics.  “Multiple oral and written sources for the Gospels that reflect the Aramaic language….”  Same argument that I heard in Catholic High School.  Seems to be a lot of holes in it, but Ehrman sticks right to it.  Why?

Even more perplexing is Ehrman’s argument that while Jesus is certainly a historical figure, he didn’t do most of things the Gospels ascribe to him.  Like Jefferson, Ehrman wants to strip off all of the supernatural stuff.  No walking on water; no loaves and fishes; no Lazarus; and certainly no resurrection on Easter Sunday.  Ehrman speculated that Jesus was left on the cross for a week or two and then his remains were scattered in a mass grave.  Appearances to his followers were delusions.

And yet he said that Jesus is one of the most influential figures in world history.  For what exactly?  If you strip the Gospels of all of that, what are you left with?  Some Old Testament midrash; some Rabbi Hillell and some other Pharisee teachings; maybe some apocalyptic teachings, but overall not much new.  So how does this make Jesus so influential?  I think it would be like giving Martin Luther King credit for the entire human/civil rights movement that came out of the 19th century.  Yes, he certainly played his part, but you can’t give him credit for all of it.  Was this Jesus?  If so, interesting, but certainly not the most influential person in Western Civilization.  Why is this so important to Ehrman?

And even as he rates Jesus as the most influential person ever, Ehrman seems to gloss over what, to me, are huge problems figuring out how the early church developed.

According to the Gospels, at least 12 guys hung on Jesus’s every word and hundreds more were devotees.  Thousands more heard at least part of his message.  And yet, almost none of these people show up as church leaders.  The Apostles (for the most part) vanish into legend.  The leaders in the Jerusalem Church are Paul and James (who the Gospels don’t mention.)  Out of all those people, only a couple took up the cudgel?  I may be wrong about this, but it looks to me that Jerusalem was not actually the epicenter of the early church, many more things seemed to be happening in Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.  I guess that is why they needed the “can’t be a prophet in your own hometown” story in the Gospel.  And then there is Paul.

I’ll let someone like Richard Carrier take up the argument of what Paul meant when he said things like “rulers of this age” and “brother of the Lord.”  But two things, which are not at all in dispute, have always stuck out to me about Paul and his teachings.

The first is that he says, more than once, that he gets his teachings straight from the mouth of Jesus (or the Lord, or whatever.)  No one claims Paul met Jesus in person.  Paul himself says he had a vision.  Paul gets the teachings of the most influential person in all of history not from Peter, not from a book, but inside his own head.  If that is not bad enough, Paul then brings up the second problem.  Paul himself says that his knowledge of Jesus is equal to Peter’s.  WTF??  Peter who was there at the trial?  Peter who went in the empty tomb?  Peter the rock?  How could anyone argue that they knew as much (or more!) about Jesus than Peter, if Jesus was a real person and Peter hung with him?  Paul argues just this, and this does not disturb Ehrman in the least — why?

Dr. Price has an easy explanation for Paul’s stand.  Since Jesus was an idea in the culture, both Paul and Peter could make of it what they could — and could plausibly claim priority.  King did not create the human rights movement, but he certainly could claim leadership and authenticity within it.  Just like both Peter and Paul.

I still do not understand why is is so incredibly important to Dr. Ehrman that Jesus exists.  It seems to me that the existence question is not the interesting one.  The interesting question is how did we get from here to there?

Joseph Smith clearly existed.  How did we get from what appears to be a 19th century grifter to an enormous cathedral in Salt Lake City.  If Jesus existed, as Ehrman describes him, he seems even slightly less interesting than Smith.  How did we get from a few people believing to the organizers and sanitizers of the second century to the useful church that Romans made official in the fourth?  Those seem to be the most interesting questions to me.

But Ehrman keeps insisting that Jesus is the reason.  And the only reason.  Why?  It really is intriguing to me.

He certainly goes out of his way to label mythicists as being kooks and conspiracy theorists.  Even when he was trying to be nice to the hosts of the event, he misstated their position.  He labeled the Milwaukee Mythicists as Jesus mythicists, when that is not true.  The position of the group is that ALL religions grew out of ancient myths.  Buddah, Moses, Mohammed, even if they actually existed created their “religions” out of mythology.  It is the mythology, the culture, that makes the religion, not the “founder.”  Actually a position very similar to that of Dr. Price.

So, for me Dr. Price while confusing on the details, seemed coherent to me on the philosophy.  Christianity grew out of a cultural upwelling sometime around the first century, combing elements of Judiasm, Hellenism and who knows what else.

Ehrman stamps his feet and screams, “No! It was Jesus!  Only Jesus!”  A boring, human, platitude spouting Jesus.  It seems that there is actually a fair amount of common ground between Ehrman and the mythicists, but he will have none of it.

For an agnostic, Dr. Ehrman seems completely hooked on Jesus.

I still don’t know why.  Maybe some day he will actually tell us.

 

 

The Big Debate is Past

No, I don’t mean the one between Hillary and Trumpenstein, but rather the great debate on the historicity of Jesus.  The much anticipated debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price went down Friday in Milwaukee, courtesy of the Milwaukee Mythicists.

This debate was much anticipated because it featured two guys who normally argue for “our side,” the atheist position, generally against Christian apologists.  But here they were arguing variations of the atheist position in front of an overwhelmingly secular audience.  Even given that, I have to say that more than a few sparks flew and I have to say that I changed my opinions over the course of the evening.

Since the point of such events should be to move the needle in people’s opinions and mine did move a bit, I am going to deal with this first and in future posts do more of a review of the debate itself.  It may take several posts, as it was actually a long evening.  I do also have to say that I was “working” during the debate.  I volunteered to take photographs of the event, so during the whole time I was not just sitting, taking notes and that.  I waking around the room looking for things to snap.  So my impressions may be hazy in places.

Now, where was I before and where am I now?

Prior to the debate I was leaning pretty heavily to the mythicist position.  I had read the Christ Puzzle by Earl Doherty and found it convincing.  I have also looked at Richard Carrier’s follow-up to that and also found that the information there made sense.  Finally I have also read quite a bit of Dr. Price’s work as well.  I have also read many books by Dr. Ehrman and frankly they just added to my leaning toward mythicism.

So, what was said, and what convinced me?

Dr. Ehrman spoke first and started (and pretty much ended) with the notion that Jesus is the “best attested” first century Jew in history, other than perhaps Josephus.  Personally, I find this argument weak.  Most of the evidence that Ehrman presented related to Biblical texts, which he ranks much more strongly as actual history.  Although I disagree with him, obviously he is much more well versed (pardon the pun!) so I can’t really make a case there.  The most interesting thing to come out of Ehrman’s presentation (and Price’s rebuttal) is that Ehrman sees a “minimal” Jesus.  That is to say, one completely stripped of any supernatural element.  A Jesus that did not have a virgin birth, did not walk on water, feed 5,000, raise the dead or walk out of the tomb himself.  Even with that, Ehrman believes that there was a real live preacher and teacher that inspired the writings about him and the Christian church to form in his wake.

Price’s contention is that Christianity, like many social movements, grew out of a number of cultural currents coming together.  Price sees such elements as the Hellenization of Jewish thought, combining with the popularity of mystery religions, with a dash of Zorasterianism and Gnosticism coming together to create a new religion.  Price then theorizes that “Jesus” was just the mythological persona that evolved out of these currents.  As I see Price’s view, Christianity was just something that was “in the air” in the first and second centuries and it coalesced into the structured religion we now know sometime in the third and fourth centuries.

For me, the “Great Debate” came down to how you might feel about the “Great Man” theory of history.

When you read most history books, you see a succession of great actors on the world stage: Napolean, Washington, Martin Luther.  Leaders of movements and armies.

But many historians point out that most of the time these “leaders” end up at the front of cultural movements that were roiling for some time and those leaders are people who come to be the face of the movement.  Which is not to say that they did nothing or were not true leaders, but rather are sort of a shorthand way to refer to something that was “in the air” at the time.

For example the roots of the civil rights movement in the US has roots that run back at least to the 1920s and even further back.  World War II accelerated the movement, and by the late 1950’s it had reached full flower.  Martin Luther King did not start the movement, was not the sole leader of the movement, but eventually became it’s public face, at least in part because of his charisma as a speaker.  I am pretty sure that there are more than a few high school history books that present the highlights of King’s career as “the civil rights movement.”  In reality, we know that there were hundreds, if not thousands of leaders who helped organize civil rights events.  We also know that civil rights was a movement whose time had come, combining the new media (television) with a renewed sense of social justice following World War II.  If not King, someone would have risen to the front of the movement.

So, here is where I stand on the historicity of Jesus:  He is irrelevant.

Ehrman argues in favor of a fully human person: Jesus.  As Price brought up again and again, this is not who (or what) Christians worship.  They do not worship a clever social justice spouting rabbi.  They worship a guy who walked out of a tomb and opened the doors to heaven.  Both Price and Ehrman agree that there is no such guy.

Ehrman never came up with (to my hearing) a coherent picture of who the historical Jesus really is.  Did he bring together all the threads of religious thought that now represent Christianity?  Did his resistance against the Romans inspire people such as Peter and Paul to do so?  Or did Peter and Paul elevate some random preacher when they pulled together the treads in the air?

It is pretty clear that Jesus himself never pushed the movement that far forward.  I always find it interesting that early Christianity doesn’t seem to emanate from Jerusalem.  It seems to spring up in the near east, Turkey Thrace.  Ehrman said (essentially) that Paul was persecuting Christians almost immediately after Jesus’s death.  Where did they come from?  Ehrman never said.  So, if Jesus didn’t push the movement into Tarsus, who did?  Jesus never got outside of Palestine.

Price would say that Christianity was able to spread like that because it did not depend on a human founder, per se, but rather it brought together a number of elements, literally in the air.  People could bring their visions and interpretations of “Jesus” to the mystery dinners.  The idea spread and eventually, a story was put together around the idea.

I still tend to agree with Price, but I can now also accommodate Ehrman as well.  So maybe there was a historical Jesus.

I just wish someone would explain to me what he actually did then.  Ehrman certainly did not accomplish that during the “Great Debate.”

Maybe we need another one now!

 

Third Party Politics in America

People are clamoring for a third party to “save” the American political system.  But it seems to me that the third party moment has come and maybe gone and no one was impressed.

Both major political parties had non-party candidates running for President.  One actually received the nomination and the other pushed the eventual nominee right up until the convention.  “Third” party candidates have been extraordinarily influential this election cycle.

Our political parties are actually private entities.  They can choose their nominees any way they darn well please.  This is why we have the mishmash of various caucuses, primaries and such.

Bernie Sanders has always run as an independent in his elections.  While he does caucus with the Democrats in the Senate, he has not run as a Democrat, except for President.  It would have been quite possible for the Democratic party to have said to him, “Sorry Bernie, you can’t run for President as a Democrat, you are simply not one of us.”  The Republicans could have said the same thing to Donald Trump.  “You are not really a Republican, you are not welcome in our nominating process.”

Either stance may have caused problems either in the short term politically or in the long term, but both parties could have done this.

So, it certainly seems to me that if Donald Trump could just hold a press conference, announce he is running for president as a Republican and they put him on the ballot, there is nothing to stop Gary Johnson from doing the same thing.  Jill Stein could do the same thing on the Democratic side.  If Bernie Sanders can, why can’t she?

Now, before you say, “Johnson and Stein don’t agree with those parties on many issues,” I say, “So what?”  Sanders has a different view of things than the Democratic party and Trump has a different view of things from pretty much every thinking human being on the planet.  Sanders has certainly helped shape the Democratic message during the general election.  Trump IS the Republican message.

So, you might say, “Surely the party regulars and officials would work hard to scuttle a third party candidate.”  And they did.  Some people say the effort worked in denying Sanders the nomination.  Of course the Republican “establishment” failed miserably in stopping Donald Trump.

So, if you are thinking that the Ds and Rs could use a shot of third partyism, the answer now is clear, put on your party hat and run.

If Jill Stein can run the country, surely she could figure out how to get herself in the Democratic primaries.  Bernie did.  And let’s face it, Bernie’s news coverage in the primaries was a million times more effective at getting his message out than Stein has running for president as a Green.

I can think of a few people here in the Midwest who might have been Greens, but put on their party hats instead.  Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin and Al Franken would probably fit in very well in the Green Party.  But instead they ran as Democrats and actually won their elections (Russ soon to do so again) so they can actually make policy, not just talk about it.

While I agree that third parties have a harder time in the US, I am not at all sympathetic to the idea that there is a conspiracy against third parties or that they would in any way “save” us.

The problem that third parties have is that there is no “minor leagues” for them.  Because they are not well organized at the grassroots (there are more people on the Democratic party committee in my county there is for the state Green Party) those parties don’t have battle tested people to run for office.

Which shows in the “other two” candidates this year.  Gary Johnson is an amiable doofus and Jill Stein is only a boutique protester.  The only reason that people are thinking of voting for them is that they nothing about them.  Had they run in the major party primaries they wouldn’t have lasted very long.  Sanders would have eaten Stein for lunch.  He has many of the same policy ideas, but can actually articulate how they might be accomplished.  Johnson would have been shouted (and laughed) off the stage by Trump like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were.  If Johnson and Stein had been in the primary process, no one would think they were going to “save” our political system.

We seem to be not very tolerant of people’s faults lately and the more we get to know them, the less we like them.  Joe Biden gets high marks now, but I am pretty sure had he gone through the primary process (along with a few Republican congressional investigations) people would think no more of him than they now think of Hillary Clinton.

Even if, say, Elon Musk were to run, after getting Foxified, investigated and found to have (most likely) gotten some preferential treatment from some government agencies somewhere, his positive poll numbers would go down as well.

But aside from personalities, if third party candidates want to make a splash and possibly take over American politics the way to do it is to run as either a Democrat or Republican.  If they lose, they get lots of publicity for their positions and perhaps push the party in their direction.  If they win, they can start to carry out their program — with the support of one of the major political parties!

So, if that is you wanting a third party revolution, sign up to run for office — any office — as a whatever party you think you can get the most votes in.

 

 

The Level of Pessimism

Even for a cynic such as myself, the level of pessimism being thrown around currently seems absurdly high.

It is, of course, it is normal for the out of power party candidate to say that we need to change things, but Trump’s declarations that America is “crippled;” has been demoted to the Third World; and that minorities have never had it worse, are, I would say, absurd.  But these ideas seem to resonate, even among those who would never pull the lever for Trump.

A recent poll among millenials found that 52 percent feel the nation is “falling behind” and 24 percent believe the U.S. is “failing.”  A quarter of young people think the country is “failing?”  This strikes me as not just living up to youthful aspirations.  “Failing” is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

I am genuinely flummoxed by this phenomenon that seems to not just be affecting our youth, but people of all ages.

Youth might be excused for their assessment in that they might be said to lack a sense of history.  But many Trump supporters are my age or older and should be well aware that while these may not be the very best of times, they are far, far from the worst.

I was shocked to read this from Robert M. Price, one of  our own yesterday.  He is planning to vote for Trump because of Trump’s “sweeping plans to undo as much as possible of the ruination visited on our country by Obama and Clinton with their Political Correctness (which I call “the Sharia of the Left”), their eroding of traditional values, their inhumane advocacy of abortion, their “world citizen” Globalism, their blind eye to Islamism, etc.”

Ruination of our country?  Really?

Now, clearly I am on the other side of the political spectrum from Dr. Price, but even during the Bush years I would have never used the word “ruination.”  That is even keeping in mind that the Bush years featured the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the most prolonged war since Viet Nam.  By any rational measures, things have gotten much better since then.  But we are in ruins?  Really Dr. Price?

To cherry pick some numbers from FactCheck.org:  The S&P 500 is up 165% since Obama took office, 10 million jobs have been added, 15 million additional people have health insurance, job openings are up 109%, and exports of goods and services are up 27 percent.  To be sure there are some not so good numbers there as well, homeownership is down slightly and incomes have not risen very much, but that hardly counts as “ruination.”

My purpose in using those numbers is not to credit Obama directly with any of those results, but just to show that, in fact, things are certainly improving.  By any historical measure we are doing pretty well.

The Black Lives Matter protests do not hold a candle to the riots of the mid 60s.  In the same way that our current problems with policing pale in comparison to Bull Connor and his ilk.  Our issues with ISIS are not in the same league as our struggles against Fascism and Nazism.  Putin in Crimea does not yet compare to the Cold War.  Lehman Brothers collapse was not Black Friday.  Historically, these will be remembered as rather placid times, I think.

Even the much maligned manufacturing segment of the economy is actually doing pretty well.  Let us remember that the term “Rust Belt” became common in the 1980s — almost 40 years ago!  Back then, it was the Japanese that were going to destroy our economy, not the Chinese.

The map from the Wikipedia page for “rust belt” shown below, indicates that Wisconsin mostly added total_mfctrg_jobs_change_54-02manufacturing jobs in the period 1954-2002.  Added!  Looking at the map, some hardest hit areas for manufacturing loss run from Philadelphia to Boston.  Yes, the poor Metroplex must be destitute!  Or they replaced manufacturing with financial services and are richer than ever.  Manufacturing output is higher than it was in 1990, no matter what Trump might lead you to believe.

Another thing I often hear is that the American Dream is dead, the kids are no longer better off than their parents.  I can say for me, this has been true for four generations now, if we just look at professions.  My great-grandfather was a white collar worker for a municipal gas company.  My grandfather was a white collar salesman of industrial equipment (he did not knock on doors!), my father was a sales manager for national companies.  I am a teacher like my mother.  Four generations of middle, middle class professions.  And no matter what our relative salaries were, I am much better off than my great-grandfather and grandfather.

The housing of the middle class is much better now than it was in the 50s or certainly the 30s.  My $6,000 used car is way better than anything they ever drove.  A smartphone in every pocket and a computer on every desk is clearly better than three TV networks and late night baseball on the radio.  The quality of life of the middle class, even the lower middle class has improved by light years since when my parents grew up.

So, I really don’t know where the pessimism is coming from.  Yes, Fox News and the churches want people to think things are worse than ever because fearful people are easier to control.  But there is so much more doom and gloom hanging in the air than that.

Where does it come from?  I would really like to hear your ideas.

A Modest Proposal for Rural America

I have lived in small towns and now a small city for the past 25 years or so.  Small towns and rural areas certainly have struggled for quite some time now and it is easy to see why residents of such places might yearn for a golden age in the past.

Because of this yearning for a golden past, combined with a current notion that rural life is somehow simpler and more pure, rural voters tend to skew conservative in politics.

Unfortunately for most small towners, voting Republican really hasn’t changed much for them as the party’s twin obsessions with cutting taxes and screaming about abortion does nothing for rural areas.

The trouble in rural areas is really one of demographics, people have been urbanizing since the late 1800s and the trend has continued into the 21st century.  To put it simply, more people prefer the cultural and economic opportunities that cities have to offer, so they vote with their feet.

Many times leaders of rural areas make their own problem worse by doubling down on what they think is their “strengths.”    They try to market their town as being “family friendly” by touting their lack of crime (and frankly, diversity.)  But the aging housing stock and boring cultural life (high school football and basketball are not “culture”) does not bring in young families or even tourists.  Young people leave for better jobs, local employers lose the best employees and the cycle continues in the wrong direction.

I have a modest proposal to fix this, even though rural people themselves might not like it at first.

Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and to me the country is looking a bit like the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.  Massive changes in the economy mixed with changes in immigration and culture.  One thing that was used in those early times was homesteading and maybe it is time to try it again.

In those times, here in Wisconsin, we needed to figure out what to do with vacant land that had been essentially strip mined for lumber.  Lousy soil filled with stumps.  The solution was to give or sell cheaply that land (OK, sometimes dishonestly) to people who were looking for a new start on life.  People were came from all over Europe (and from within the US, of course) to make lemonade out of the less than perfect circumstances.  These same people (or their descendants) would go on to become the backbone of the industrial heartland and ironically now are often calling for immigration restrictions.

Perhaps homesteading could again bring people back to the heartland.  Here is the proposal.

We could offer people the opportunity to move to a rural area and give them an economic incentive to do so.  That incentive would come in the form of very low cost land or housing.  This could come in the form of tax abatements and some kind of “sweat equity” provision.  Something along the lines of “come live here 10 years, and the first five years are free.”

There would be some sort of criteria (improvements made, businesses started, etc.) and if met the homesteaders own their land, otherwise it reverts back to the town, county, whatever.

Now, the original homesteading worked by taking land from Native Americans, so I am not going to feel bad if some land or houses today have to  feel bad if some areas use eminent domain to do this.

To sweeten the deal for the rural areas (and to help pay for things) the homesteaders are going to have to put up with a few inconveniences.  As part of the program, I could well imagine using the homesteaded areas for the public good.  For example, they might be used to generate renewable energy by having wind turbines or solar energy panels.  Part of the power proceeds could go to the homesteaders and the rest to the town or county where they are.  The locals would benefit from employment putting up the renewables and could use the power for a local industrial park.  In the same way, internet infrastructure could be part of the deal.  County-wide wifi, anyone?

Another benefit that could be cooked in is environmental easements on the homestead properties.  Homesteaders could restore wetlands, provide wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities.

The homesteading opportunities would be made available to immigrants, city dwellers and pretty much everyone who would find this intriguing.  I think this would be a win-win for rural areas.  Let’s look at a few of the wins that would be possible.

Rural areas would get a real increase in population — for the first time in decades.  This would increase school attendance and in many places increased state aid.  Hopefully the homesteaders would increase the ethnic diversity, which in turn would increase the area’s “coolness factor.”  Ethnic restaurants, local ethnically based music, farmers markets, free wifi — sounds like a huge increase in tourism to me.  And maybe even many new residents who see “family friendly” and “cultural opportunities.”  New businesses would spring up both those created by the homesteaders and increases in the existing local business community.

Here in Wausau, WI where I live, we had an influx of Hmong refugees in the 1980s.  They are currently about 12% of our population here.  In a town of 40,000, imagine what a further loss of 12% of the population would do to our economy, schools and more.  And those refugees brought none of the advantages that could be baked into a homesteader program.

In the 1970s, Wausau was almost completely white.  We are now much more ethnically diverse, first with the Hmong people, and now a growing Hispanic community.  I personally feel that racial prejudice has decreased and we have, in fact, benefited from the cultural opportunities I mentioned above, with ethnic restaurants taking root and other cultural activities as well relating to Hmong culture.

This is not a completely thought out proposal, of course, but I think it is worth considering and your input can help!

 

The Demise of Critical Thinking?

More than a few commentators have lamented that the rise of Donald Trump is indicative of a lack of critical thinking skills.  This quote from a Psychology Today blog post pretty much sums up this position:

“We all labor within a steep-walled canyon of ignorance. What has changed is that fewer Americans seem to agree that scaling those walls toward knowledge is a good and worthwhile thing to do. Many now seem content to lie down and wallow in the ignorance.”

This kind of thing coming from intellectuals who supposedly know what critical thinking is strikes me as completely unhelpful at best and hopelessly elitist at worst.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that Trump’s message is directed at the intellect, but that does not mean that his followers are stupid or lacking in critical thinking capacities.

Take for example, one of Trump’s signature issues, trade agreements.  Here are two in depth articles on the effects that NAFTA has had on the US economy.  The first one says: “U.S. trade with Mexico went from a slight surplus in 1994 to an almost $100 billion deficit in 2013. As a result of this trade imbalance, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that instead of the million new jobs that President Clinton promised, 700,000 U.S. workers ended up being displaced.” Which sounds pretty much like Trump’s argument.  And the second points out: “Most estimates conclude that the deal had a modest but positive impact on U.S. GDP of less than 0.5 percent, or a total addition of up to $80 billion dollars to the U.S. economy upon full implementation, or several billion dollars of added growth per year.”  Which is not a huge win.

So, are Trump’s supporters wrong with agreeing with him that NAFTA (and other trade deals) were short sighted and counter-productive.  Probably not.  There are certainly solid sources out there that would agree with the direction (if not the tenor) of Trump’s analysis.

The CFR article says that the auto industry has lost 350,000 jobs since 1994, which may mean that there are lots of people who lost $25 an hour jobs and are now working at 7/11.  Can you really say to those people that they would not be better off putting up a wall and building cars for ourselves?

It would be easy to accuse Trump and his supporters of overly simplistic thinking.  Build a wall and deport undocumented immigrants and our problems will be solved.  Indeed, probably not.  But then again, there are many on the other side that think if we just raise taxes on the rich and make college more affordable that all our problems will be solved.  Is this really less simplistic than Trump’s message?

It could be argued that Trump is woefully unqualified to be president, but the same argument was used against Obama when he first ran.  His political experience at the time was a few terms as a state senator and an unfinished US Senate term.  And some people truly believe that politicians are the problem and so someone like Trump is a solution, not a drawback.

Now, there is one area where Trump supporters seem to be seriously out of step with reality and that is their assessment of where the country currently is and where it is going.   Trump is fond of saying that we have become (in one way or another) a “third world country,” and his followers seem to accept that picture.  Personally, I find this completely out of step with reality, but I have to say that we have had extremely strong voices in the media blaring the message that, essentially, the end is nigh.  I am looking at you Fox news. 

So, if your news source is telling you things are bad and getting worse and your personal situation seems to echo that assessment, are you justified in believing this?  Yes, in fact you are.  Again, I think this view is totally incorrect and will deal with that in future posts.

So, even though I teach critical thinking, I will not be one to accuse the followers of any political party with a lack of critical thinking because of that support.

Third Party Politics

greenlib

There has been a lot of talk lately about third party candidates and whether or not they should be allowed to appear in the presidential debates.  The debate organizers came up with a criteria for what a “major” party candidate would be.  The criteria they came up with are pretty simple, the party has to be on enough state ballots that the candidate could theoretically reach the 270 electoral vote threshold and they have to be polling at 15% in several national polls.  No third party candidate is going to meet these criteria this year.

Of course the supporters of these candidates are crying foul and complaining that that the Ds and Rs have rigged the system against their ideologically pure candidates and parties.  The system is certainly rigged, but not in any direct conspiratorial way.

Imagine if you wanted to, say, compete against Wal-Mart and Target.  Is the system going to look rigged to you?  Of course it is!  And sometimes it really is.  Lots of municipalities will be giving tax breaks, infrastructure improvements and all kinds of goodies to get a new Wal-Mart store.  You ain’t gonna get bupkis.  Is is a conspiracy?  It probably is sometimes.  But overall people just want a known entity, one they already consider a winner.  So, yes you are going to have a heck of a time gaining traction on those two and complaining that the “system is rigged” is not going to help at all.

Does this mean that Wal-Mart and Target can’t be beat and will last forever?  Let’s ask Jeff Bezos what he might think about that.  Or let’s ask Sears and Penneys what happened to their market share.  Market leaders can be taken down, but complaining about the system is not going to do it.

While there may be historical reasons that we have two parties rather than three or four, the current dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties is pretty simple.  It is the same as Wal-Mart and Target, they are pretty darn good at what they do.

The two major parties are represented in pretty much every county in the country.  They have tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to knock on doors, make phone calls and attend meetings in every nook and cranny of the country.  They are able to run candidates in pretty much every congressional district and every Senate race.   In most states they can run a slate of candidates from dog catcher to governor.  And finally, they have people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is and fund these operations.

So, this year when maybe 10% of voters are willing to tell pollsters, “I hate those guys, I am voting for Jill or Gary.”  This does not make them a political party.  It may be true that: “Americans have never been closer to rebellion against the political establishment. Millions are fed up with the sold-out Democratic and Republican parties, and looking for a new politics with integrity, values, and vision. This isn’t just a feeling in the air; national polls show that a large majority of Americans agree that the establishment parties are failing us, and that a new major party is needed,” as the Green Party of Wisconsin website says.  But wanting and needing a new party is not the same as actually having one.

The Green Party of Wisconsin “supported” four local candidates according to their website.  They have no congressional candidates on this year’s ballot.  Their governing committee consists of 2 people per congressional district, which means they need 16 people to fill out — they only have eight.  No candidates and not enough people to even fill out a committee.  This is not a “political party.”

The Libertarians are actually better, but not much.  They also would like 16 people on their own governing committee and can only find eight.  They do have seven candidates running for office, one for Senate, three for congress and three for the state legislature.  Two of those candidates are college students.  Better than the Greens, but again, this is not really a political party.  Just because you have some mops and brooms at your country store, nobody is going to confuse you with Wal-Mart.

And even if you are right that people want “authentic goods” from “local merchants” that does not mean that you are going to beat Wal-Mart at its game.   Jeff Bezos is going about beating Wal-Mart.  Micro-breweries are going after the big guys and winning.  Taking down the established big guys can be done, and there are many methods for doing it.

But right now, the third parties are not doing it, it is all just wishful thinking and slogans.

If I ran the presidential debates, I would change the criteria.  Yes, the part about being on the ballot in enough states to get 270, but also having candidates in 15% of the congressional and Senate races.  Neither the Greens nor Libertarians meet this criteria.

Political parties run candidates for office.  It’s what they do.  If you want to talk about political philosophy and policy recommendations, then you are a think tank.

Neither the Greens nor the Libertarians run candidates for office in anything approaching significant numbers.  Until they do, they should not be in the presidential debates.

If they want to be a political party they should do what political parties do, run candidates and get people to vote for them.  You can say all you want that Coke and Pepsi are unhealthy and disgusting and that the revolution has begun, but until my supermarket shelves are filled with something else other than Coke and Pepsi, and those new products are flying off the shelves, the revolution is not actually here.

Bernie Sanders showed that it is possible to build a political organization made up of small donors, generate enthusiasm and get lots of votes.  That could be the start of a real revolution.  The Libertarians and Greens have done absolutely nothing like that.  The could follow the Sanders model or they could make a new one, but so far, they haven’t really done anything other than run boutique candidates for president.  That is not a revolution and they are not actual political parties.

And until they have an actual political party — one that runs candidates in elections up and down the ticket and gets votes for those candidates, it is perfectly reasonable to exclude them from the presidential debates.

 

Predictive Newsfeeds Suck

I have a strange habit when I eat, my mom called it “eating in shifts.”  I start with something, say the piece of meat and I eat it entirely.  Then I eat all my potatoes and then all my vegetables.  Apparently I use newsfeeds the same way and it really screws up my enjoyment of them.

Something comes along like the political season and I start reading those stories.  Pretty quickly, the ship of state turns and washes out all the other stuff from my newsfeed.

At that point I won’t even open the app, because if I see even one more story about Trump, I feel like I will throw up.  I would give anything for some humor or some science news or some stupid Catholic moves, but that is the last thing my newsfeed wants to show me.

So, there I am with my phone, and have a few minutes between classes or waiting in the car.  I turn the phone on.  I look at the app icon.  I turn the phone off.  Turn it on.  Turn it right off.

If there really was any artificial intelligence behind these apps, they would figure out when enough is enough.

And trust me guys, it really is enough right now.