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.

Jobs to Mexico: What To Do?

It seems that Ford has thrown gasoline on the political fire by announcing that they are moving their small car production to Mexico.  You can almost hear the “build the wall” chants in the background.  But the more you ponder this, the more difficult the problem of what you might do about this becomes less and less clear.

Let’s start with just a little math first.  As near as I can tell, labor cost is about 15 to 20% of the total cost of a car.  But no car company publishes this number, so it is very uncertain.  If we use the high side of the estimate on a $25,000 car, we have a labor cost of $5,000 per car.  Just to make up a number, let’s say that moving to Mexico saves half the labor cost, $2,500 per car.  These numbers are probably very high, but the problem gets even stickier if the labor cost is lower and the savings less.

So, let’s try a few scenarios and see what happens.

So, let’s start with the simple and simplistic Trump solution.  Trump thinks that he is going to call up Mark Field and say, “Mark, if you move the plant, I’ll slap a $2,500 tariff on each car!”  And Ford, shaking in it’s boots will change its plans.  Well, except congress passes taxes and a tariff is a tax.  And what congressman wants signs in every Ford dealership reading, “New Higher Prices brought to you by your congressional representative!”  But I will let you decide whether the threat of a tariff would be enough to keep the car plant here.

The Democratic idea is something along the line of since moving the plant will increase profits, we’ll have a windfall profits tax on rich people and we will take some of those profits back into the public realm and redistribute them.

I don’t think either one is going to keep the plant here, but go ahead and make your case for either approach.

The other side of the problem is that if the plant leaves, we will probably provide some sort of job retraining for those affected, but if there are no jobs to go to, what difference does training make?  It really is a hard nut to crack and I really am looking for new ideas.

One thought I have is that, actually, the Mexicans are getting the raw deal on this one.  Think Cleveland in the 1970s.  Assuming that Mexican environmental and safety laws are not as stringent as ours, they are getting a future mess on their hands.  Mexican Rust Belt anyone?  Besides, since companies are moving there for low wages, there is not going to be much wage growth to go with the increased employment.  And low wage jobs don’t actually grow the economy.  Low growth and pollution…Thanks America!

Then there is the idea that it is not so much location that matters.  According to this: Mercedes has the highest labor cost in the auto industry and Volkwagen is listed as the lowest.  At least part of the difference between the two companies is surely the amount of automation that they use in the manufacturing process.  Small cheap cars are made cheaply.  Big expensive cars get more hands on treatment.  Ford points out that they are increasing investment in big car (such as SUV) production here in the US.  So, even if the plants stayed here they would be more and more automated and use less and less skilled labor.  Once again, maybe we are better off to export these jobs.

Another question is about the future of the car industry anyway.  Some people are predicting a future where the only people who own cars are Uber drivers.  And then those drivers get replaced by computers.  Perhaps the auto industry as we know it is on the path of the buggy whip industry.  Once again, exporting our dinosaur plants could actually be a good idea.

Just one other thing, when Obama wanted to bail out the auto industry (and for many years before that, frankly) there were lots of complaints that labor (unions especially) had pushed up the cost of labor so high that they were the ones putting the car companies out of business.  But now, those are the very jobs that the electorate seems most nostalgic for.  We can be pretty sure that cheap cars and high wages are not going to be on the same plate anytime soon.

Or we can just say, its the free market and you can’t fight the market.

I used to think I might know the answer to this kind of situation, but I don’t any more.  I’d love to hear what proposals you have and what you think.

Meanwhile on the Religious Front…

Being a recovering Catholic, from time to time I tune into (Ir)Relevant Radio, from the far right wing of the cathedral.  I do this so you won’t have too.  Sometimes I also get a blog post idea or two.  But frankly, it turns my stomach so fast that I usually turn it off before I get enough information to actually write a post.

In the minute and half that I was able to listen over the past few days, I caught two snippets that actually go together and explain in a nutshell what is wrong with much of religion in our society currently and why I no longer hold any truck with those folks.

Today some joker named Joshua McCaig was on discussing “Catholic politicians in public life” on the Drew Hystriani show (if you listen for even a few minutes, if you can stomach it,  you will know why I call him that).

McCaig, Mr. Religious Liberty, according to the link above, was going about how Catholic politicians should honor their home faith by forcing it on everyone else through legislation and such.  The idea that someone (presumably someone like Tim Kaine) who would follow Catholic rules in their own life, but not force those rules on others, is just wrong.  Several times in the few minutes I stand listening, McCaig said that things are “black and white, no gray areas.”  Follow the church’s teachings and that is all.  At one point he mentioned that he started a Catholic Bar Association, because he can’t fathom why lawyers, lawyers of all people, can’t understand that these issues are black and white!

I had to give up when they took a call and the caller breathlessly praised Mike Pence for basically preaching the gospel while running for office.  Couldn’t take it any more and I bailed.

But in those two minutes, I got enough to go on for quite a while.

Let’s start with hubris.  The clown thinks he knows the mind of god so well that everything is “black and white.”  He knows god’s answer for EVERYTHING! Every time!  Wow, pretty amazing!  Better than Jesus even!  That would be enough to turn a thinking person from religion, but there is so much more.

How about a different kind of hubris, chutzpah (which was once defined as someone killing their parents and begging the court for mercy because they are an orphan.)  Here is a guy saying that Catholic politicians have to enforce Catholic orthodoxy on the country — and then says he is in favor of “religious liberty.”  This is a new definition of liberty: “To force my ideas on you.”  And he wonders why lawyers don’t understand?

Now, when he said that being a Catholic politician was simple, “because it is black and white” he is really speaking in a short hand code.  What he really means is that you just have to vote against abortion at all times and none of the rest of it matters.

So, I wanted to call in and ask him, what would the Catholic position be on, say, voting to limit the liability of companies that made deadly products, like say, lead paint?  Surely the church would be in favor of people making amends for their actions when they hurt other people.  Surely allowing rich people to walk away from their obligations — in exchange for a few campaign contributions would not be pleasing to god.  Or would it Mr. McCaig?  You seem to know god’s mind perfectly.  Is there a politician anywhere in any party that follows Catholic teachings completely?  I would say the Republicans here in Wisconsin with their pay to play system fall a bit short.  And I am sure McCaig thinks those immoral Democrats are not worthy either.

Let god make the laws directly!  Who needs politicians!

The pay to play issue just broke wide open here in Wisconsin, but what about more mundane things?  We appear not to have enough money to fund our schools and fix our roads.  Republicans cut $300 from our university system and now are short about a billion in road funds.  So, what is the Catholic position on this Mr. McCaig?  Take more money from roads to fund schools?  Bad roads can kill people, so maybe close the schools completely to fix the roads?  Or perhaps the solution is to raise taxes to take care of both.  Jesus said god had no problem with taxes.  Please tell us what god thinks about this Mr. McCaig!  It must be a simple black and white answer!

I could go on, but I know you understand.  There is no politician anywhere who follows the line of any church or religion from top to bottom.  We know that religious people cherry pick, and religious politicians most of all.

Finally, to switch subjects just slightly, I caught a snippet a few days ago where a lady had called into a program and she was looking for an “ethical” doctor.  What she meant was a doctor who would not only recommend only church approved treatment options not only to her, but to everyone the doctor saw.  In other words, a doctor who would not recommend or prescribe birth control to her or anyone.

I should probably make this a separate blog post, but here goes.

“Religious” reasoning is not the same as “ethical” reasoning, lady.  Religious reasoning may include ethical principals, but ultimately religious rules are just that, rules for no real rhyme or reason.  Wearing a hat (for women) or not wearing one (for men) are religious rules with no ethical import.  Sure there are reasons, but they are reasons that are only meaningful to those who follow the religion.  Hat or no hat, makes no difference ethically.

I will not say that using birth control has no ethical import, but I am sure any open minded ethicist can make a good case for the use of birth control, here is a listing of a few considerations.  It is also true that not all churches, or even all Christian churches oppose contraception, so the Catholic argument doesn’t even apply to all Christians.

This lady — and McCaig — both want to take their narrow understanding of what god wants and to force it on everyone, no matter what the conscience of those other people might tell them.  They both are completely cocksure that they know every thing god thinks, wants and demands and wants to force that view and those actions on the rest of us.  That is not ethical thinking or even religious thinking.

It is fascism, pure and simple.  Calling fascism “religious liberty” is just polishing a turd.

 

Epistemology and Donald Trump

Sciencedebate.org, which is backed by about a bazillion scientific organizations has published the answers of the presidential candidates on twenty questions that revolve around issues that are on the border of science and politics (for example climate change.)  You can find all the answers here, although I don’t think any of them are going to surprise anyone.  Clinton’s answers look like they were put together by a PhD policy wonk committee and Trump’s look pretty much like his tweets.  But that you could already figure out.

In his last answer, Trump says something that at first seems jaw droppingly stupid, but turns out to be quite a conundrum.  Here is the question and answer:

20. Scientific Integrity

Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?

Trump’s Answer:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

“Science is Science and facts are facts” at first seems so self evident (and so opposite of Trump’s problems with actually relating to facts) that it is laughable.  But hiding underneath that is a problem that philosophers have been struggling with for millennia and I am currently trying to get across to my critical thinking students, epistemology.

Epistemology is a big word (which Trump is probably unfamiliar with) which deals with the question of how we know what we know and what is knowledge.  And it turns out that, after all is said and done, “science” is not Science and “facts” are not Facts.

When I was in high school, I was taught the “solar system” model of the atom, which at once a simplification of the current theory and an older theory (Google images for “general science” and see how many solar system atoms you see!).  The electron cloud model has replaced this.

Was the former model (and my knowledge of it) a “fact?”  Is the new model a “fact?”  Some years from now will a science website put of a picture of an electron cloud with the legend, “This is what an electron is not!”?  Philosophers debate endlessly about what all this means, but I can assure you that almost nobody (other than religious philosophers) are willing to argue that there is something call Truth with a capital “T.”

And the same is true with “science.”  For the moment, I won’t quibble about the difference between science as a method and the results (and infrastructure) of that method.  For the moment, I am referring to science as the latter: people in white coats, collecting and publishing data and drawing conclusions.

The scientific method is certainly a wondrous thing, but what we call “science” is certainly not Science! (with a capital S).  The scientific method has many safeguards built in which are supposed to reduce or eliminate various kinds of bias, but because science is done by actual humans, we find many clever ways to allow that bias right back in and even create new biases.

Publication bias is a perfect example of a new bias that the infrastructure that is “science” has created.  Positive (and newsworthy!) results get published and negative results get set aside.  In  a similar way, more research is probably done on profitable drugs than unprofitable.  Money, politics, ego and who knows what else introduce biases that prevent “science” from ever being Science!

From the other end of the spectrum, Neil deGrasse Tyson said that what we need is a country where all decisions are “data driven.”  His idea was roundly booed from all sides, and rightly so.  What even counts as “data?”  Trying to determine what the “real” unemployment rate is turns out to be a very thorny problem.  Yes, some methodologies are much more defensible than others, but none is perfect.  How do we make “data driven” decisions when the data itself is subject to doubt?

Here is a minor example I came across today — the harm to humans from wind farms (Say what? you might ask…).  Here is a report that says wind turbines can be harmful to human health, and here is another which reaches pretty much the opposite conclusion:  “the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.”  They both look very “scientific,” So which data should we heed?

This is not to say that complete skepticism is a useful position either.  Philosophers say that “knowledge” is a “justified, true belief.”  Even if we allow that there may be no such thing as “absolute truth” we can effectively substitute “corresponds with reality” for “truth” in the above formulation, which we can say conforms with our current understanding of the world.

 So, then we can say that while the jury may be out on how much harm wind farms cause humans, there is pretty good data that shows it is more dangerous to live next to an oil refinery than to a wind turbine.  Or at least I would hope so.  Using the best available information is the “justified” part of the definition above, even as we concede that such “knowledge” is by definition imperfect.

So, while it is not really true that “science is science and facts are facts” we can move forward on various issues on the basis of scientific consensus.  When a vast amount research, using a variety of methods from different disciplines point in the same direction we are clearly “justified” in calling that knowledge and moving forward with that “knowledge,” even if it might be overturned later.  Business forecasting is notoriously unreliable, but businesses push forward with their plans all the time none the less with the best information at hand.  Society and government should do the same as well. 

A classic example of this is the case for human caused climate change.  Do we have a ton of information, from a wide variety of sources and disciplines that are all pointing in the same direction?  Indeed we do.  Given that the predicted outcomes of these trends are unfavorable in the long term, should we take action?  That is clearly a justified “scientific” belief.   Well, except for the guy who said that “Science is science and facts are facts.”

Trump has famously said that climate change science is a hoax invented and perpetrated by the Chinese.  So, even when he spews what look like innocuous platitudes, Trump is both lying and straddling both sides of the issue.

Trump doesn’t believe that “science is science” but not in the way that philosophers would object.  What he really means is “Science I like is real science and the rest of it is crap that we don’t need to listen to.”  Which, unfortunately is a view that many people hold about science and no amount of philosophizing  on epistemology or transparency on the part of scientists is ever going to change.

Conservative Principles

For many years now, and again in this election season, I have struggled to understand what “conservative principles” actually are.  For expro_life_pro_god_pro_gunample, I saw a car this afternoon with a bumper sticker that read: Pro-God, Pro-Life and Pro-Gun.  How does that even fit into any kind of consistent philosophical system?

Democratic party principles, while not ironclad are, I think relatively consistent.  I think it can be summed as “Freedom is a pretty good thing, but needs limits for everyone to get along.”

So, you get a reasonably consistent set of policy proposals.  They don’t want to take away all guns, but want to control which guns people can buy and who can buy them.  Wants free enterprise, but with limits such as a minimum wage and environmental laws.  Not 100 percent consistent, usually close enough that things make sense.

On the Republican side, I have never, ever been able to figure out what the underlying “conservative” philosophy really is.

For example, Republicans are for freedom with little or no limits when it comes to people who own companies.  But that same freedom does not apply to people who use drugs or want to have an abortion.  Libertarians are consistent on this, but Republicans, not so much.

The same is true of so called “fiscal conservatism.”  Republicans hate budget deficits, but only when Democrats run them.  When Reagan and W. Bush ran deficits, no problem.  Republicans want to count every penny for Zika funding, but when it comes to the Pentagon, they just pour it on.  Even one penny less reduces the military to rubble.

Religious freedom, aka social conservatism, is just a muddled.  Of course there is the “if Christians do it it’s OK, but Muslims, no way!”  But that is just too easy to pick on.  In the areas of gay and reproductive rights, the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” has become a bit of mantra.  When I heard the Hobby Lobby decision, my first thought was “Sincerely held beliefs in what religion?  ‘Cause it sure in hell isn’t Christianity!”

I am sure you remember the bumper stickers, “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re forgiven.”  And you can look it up, Jesus hung around will all kinds of “sinners.”  Seemed to be pretty proud of it, actually, made a bit of a point about it.  Oh yeah and Jesus DIED FOR OUR SINS.  His whole freakingperfect purpose really.  But now, somehow, allowing employees to have access to birth control using their healthcare plan dollars, makes the bosses “complicit” in the sin of the birth controllers.  WTF??  Doesn’t Christianity say we are all sinners?  Didn’t Jesus die for our sins (at least those who pray to him in just the right way)?  So, how is baking a cake for someone making you a sinner?  Makes no sense whatsoever, especially WITHIN Christian theology.  So, even on religion, there seems to be no real “conservative principles.”

Philosophically speaking that is.

Sociologically speaking, it seems the picture gets a bit clearer and Trump is making it even more transparent.  The best way to put it is “in-group vs out-group.”  It is not racism strictly speaking, but it can certainly start there or be used to fan the flames.  So, let’s take another look at “conservative principles” through this frame.

People who use drugs or women who want to control their fertility are just not “honest hard working people.”  They have “no morals.”  Lock them up, punish them.

Which explains the military (at the national level) and prisons and police (at the state and local levels).  Got to have someone to lock them up.

Honest and hard working people deserve their Social Security and Medicare.  But those people, you know who I mean, don’t deserve food stamps and welfare, so we can get rid of those programs.  One of the reasons I think it is not straight up racism is people like Paul Ryan are moving toward another in/out distinction where working people don’t deserve retirement benefits, only folks like the Koch brothers should have it easy in retirement.  Because of course folks like them are the real “creators” and the rest of us are just takers.

And of course the religious angle is really just for show.  No one can convince me that the Hobby Lobby people are really religious.  And even if they are, they can’t really believe that Jesus just loves rich people, but can’t stand people who have sex without having babies every single time.alt-right

Us versus Them is the only consistent theme I can see in so called conservatism as it is practiced here in the US.  I think we need a new name for it.  Alt-Right is not a bad start, but doesn’t really have enough punch to it.  Suggestions welcome (and I am sorry, but Nazi was already used, so I will discount that one from the start.)

Now, I do believe that there could a consistent conservative philosophy.  There is no reason that you can’t be both pro-business and also want to conserve our natural resources.  Wanting a smaller government overall can be consistent if it applies equally and includes some kind of cost-benefit analysis.  Religious freedom is a good idea if it means not telling other people what to believe and letting them live their lives according to their own principles (until they unduly affect others, of course).  These all strike me as “conservative.”  But the modern Republican party does not embody any of these ideas.

It is not “conservative” in the least.

Free College is Not a Game Changer

There have been two battle cries in our current election cycle, “Free College!” And “The System is Rigged!”  My analysis is that the second slogan is actually true (but not in the way it thrown around) which makes the first plan not all that useful.  To understand why I think free college is not a game changer you need to understand what education is really about.

Yes education is certainly about acquiring certain skills and knowledge and most schools are pretty good at that (believe it or not!)  But education also has another function, and that is a social sorting function and this is the part that is certainly rigged.

You could, if you wanted to head over to EdX and get yourself a Harvard education.  You really can, if a Harvard education is about getting information.  But as you will quickly find out, knowing as much as a Harvard graduate is not the same as being a Harvard graduate.  Granted there are a few things you won’t get in your online Harvard education, things like mentorships, but ultimately actually going to Harvard actually means that you are the kind of person who can go to Harvard which means you can get the kinds of jobs that the kinds of people who go to Harvard get.  It is pretty much that circular.

Which is not to say that Harvard folks are not smart.  They certainly are.  But we have a real problem in defining what “intelligence” really is.  How it is defined now, we know that socio-economic status is very closely correlated with both IQ and school achievement.  But again, the process could well be circular.

So, we know that kids raised in a rich environment are more intelligent.  Most likely it is that the environment stimulates brain development and a more developed brain is smarter.  House full of books, trips to zoos, museums and Europe — all stimulate brain development and make people “smarter.”  But wait there is more.

Psychologists like to say that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.”  And what they really mean is that how and what you measure in turn defines what intelligence is, or at least what it is perceived to be.  Let me give you an example with this little thought experiment.

So, you are an intelligent reader, perhaps college educated, certainly widely read and schooled in critical thinking.  Then you should have no problem whatsoever with this short little “college entrance exam.”  You don’t have to actually do it, just look at it and you will immediately know what kind of score you would probably get on this.  OK, go “take the test” and come back.  I’ll wait.

How did you do?  I know for myself that my score on the test would be a big fat zero.  Imagine that the skills and knowledge measured by this test were the ticket to the upper middle class.   Upper middle class homes would all be conservatories of music.  Here is another thing to consider, especially if you are one of the few that aced this exam.  If you aced the exam, you get to go to a “selective” college which is great for you!  Congratulations!

Oh, but wait, there is some “affirmative action” program that lets in kids that didn’t quite have access to your musical education.  Unfair right?  You have much better qualifications than they do!  Because, of course, this test measures musical ability perfectly.  Or does it?

Before you answer, consider a few people who know a thing or two about music, but could not pass this test, starting with the Beatles.  Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music.  Are people who passed this test really musically “smarter?”  I think the same can be said of SATs and other academic tests.

My point?  What we call “smart” and what actually is “smart” certainly overlap, but are not necessarily the same thing.  An article in the Atlantic on the subject of free college points out that the “selective” California schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley and UCSD) are full of kids who got near perfect SAT scores and have near perfect grades.  Yes, I am sure they are smart.  I am also sure that their upper middle class parents exposed them not only to zoos and museums, but also professional journals and SAT prep courses.

Another example, the students at the technical college often times struggle with writing academic papers in APA format.  They have not had much exposure to academic writing, if any.  Children of doctors and lawyers surely get exposed to academic writing style in high school, and surely their parents make sure they do it well as they probably have professional journals around the house.  Writing papers in college is a breeze.  Which is why almost every kid at UCLA is getting A’s.

Excuse me while I digress, but if college is supposed to be a meritocracy shouldn’t the best of the best of those kids get A’s and the rest B’s and C’s.  Oh, there would be a riot if they did that, never mind.  Back to the article in progress.

So, upper middle class kids get A’s in “selective” colleges, which allows them to get into “selective” professional schools (medical and legal) or get the best internships and jobs.  And then they take their kids to zoos, museums, and Europe and the cycle continues.

Let’s face it, in our society a college degree is really a filter.  It separates a person from the “common riff-raff.”  If you don’t believe me, do a Google image search on “College students on the quad.”  Looks like Paul Ryan’s interns.  Lower college tuition is not going to change this, people will simply find another filter.

For many people, college is not really about getting smart, it is simply a marker that they travel in those circles.  Free college tuition is not going to help this.  If anything it will push the price of private colleges even higher.

This does not mean that there is not anything we can do.  We certainly need to strengthen funding for our public colleges to make them as accessible as possible.  We need to have college admission systems that value diversity, not only culturally or ethnically, but also in how we assess “intelligence.”  SAT tests were supposed to bring in a pure meritocracy.  High scores supposedly were indicative of pure ability.  It was originally said that you “could not study” for them.  That has turned out not to be true.  And they only measure a small slice of what might be called “intelligence.”  So, we can do better.

We can also do better in providing education that matches real needs in the job market.  Everyone talks about how we need so many more people who can write computer code.  Yet it is not taught widely in secondary schools.  We could do better.  We can test for “intelligence” better as well and understand it better in society.

Unfortunately there is no way to “unrig” the educational system.  There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy (except maybe Major League Baseball, and I am not even sure about that) and social advantage is always going to be a factor.  The winners of today’s economic system will want to hire people such as themselves, who will come from families like their own.  And it will probably also always be true that kids from well off families will always be “smarter” because their advantages in their home environment.

A fully funded Head Start system is probably the best way to “unrig” the educational system, not free college.