Bad Arguments

Those protesters all around the big cities aren’t going away. Whether they’re right or wrong, something motivated them to be there. A lot of conservative commentators are passing the protestors off as youths who don’t feel like paying back college loans or people that took out mortgages more ambitious than their finances allowed. I think this is very inaccurate and really, really dodges the issue at hand.

People have a right to be angry at banks. Unemployment is just hovering a bit above 9% due to a balance sheet recession that many bankers were made rich from. While the economy tanked, many got big bonuses (supposedly performance-based). Any reader of this blog knows that I am a market enthusiast, but it’s hard to explain bankers getting their compensation as any sort of productive incentivizing device. Furthermore, these banks got huge bailouts from the government.

However, the protestors are wrong in confusing corporatism for capitalism. It was government who gave the banks bailout money. It was the government supporting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that kept artificially low interest rates and spurred a disastrous bubble in the name of ‘fairness.’ The popular radical argument on both sides these days is that the Fed was the cause of all of this (though I personally think these arguments are overstated).

So what are those in the “#OccupyWallStreet” faction hoping to accomplish? It’s unclear. Right-wingers are taking this to mean a “protest for the sake of protesting.” If a group doesn’t have clear aims in terms of policy, they’re just complaining (or so people are saying). I think this is totally unfair. The Occupiers may be foolish in trying to be overly un-organized (because then they’d be just like THE MAN!) but there’s nothing wrong with coming together because of general disdain for current conditions. A lot of the Arab Spring protests were driven my general dissatisfaction with the status quo. I’m fairly certain that the millions of protestors had incredibly varied reasons for protesting. What they shared in common was that they wanted change.

The Occupiers are just like this. The current system in America has gotten high unemployment, high debt, and frankly, rewarded a lot of people who made the problem worse. So the Occupiers are protesting the status quo.

Where I do think they are foolish is directing all of their anger at Wall Street. Wall Street created wealth and is responsible for a lot of the prosperity in America (if “Wall Street” can really even qualify as a collective noun here). The government had a lot to do with the bad stuff too.

Some opponents are saying the Occupiers are complaining about all this nonsense, yet most of them voted for Obama. Yes, Obama. The same guy who bailed out the auto companies and spent foolish money all around the place. But this doesn’t weaken the justifiability of their angst, I believe. The Tea Party was very much the same. And here’s what I’ve been waiting to get to.

The Tea Party and the Occupiers are very, very similar. Both groups were protesting the status quo with vaguely defined policy goals. The Tea Partiers wanted less government spending (from where? military? social security? medicare? they were never too clear). A lot of them voted for George Bush, the guy who did those huge wars and presided over huge deficit spending. The Occupiers want better wealth distribution and less corporatism. A lot of them voted for Obama. So yes, there’s so inconsistencies and some may say hypocrisies on both sides. But I don’t think that means they’re wrong.

I think both the Tea Party and the Occupiers are right. In fact, I’ll be as bold to say that I agree with both of the groups. Wall Street has been getting special treatment for a long time, mostly because of corporatist practices. The government has been spending beyond its means. A lot of people like to dismiss the tea party because it’s easy to characterize them as religious whackos who think any sort of government is socialism. Indeed, some people in the movement are like that. But some people in the Occupy group are just as idiotic – smelly, lazy, hippies who just like many Tea Partiers have no actual knowledge or insight for what they’re fighting for/against.

But evaluating a group based on their most absurd characters is misguided. It’s the message that we should be attacking or defending. Most importantly, we need to figure out what the policy result of these protests will be.In the case of the Tea Party, politicians were elected who mostly favored borrow-and-spend government instead of tax-and-spend government. For the Occupiers: Will corporations be so villified that business will shrink significantly in America? Or will it mean that corporations stop getting bail outs and a true free market is realized? I hope the latter.


A bit late, but I figure it’s better now than never…

The United States has huge debt. Surrounded by news of European countries needing bailouts and stimulus spending appearing to not do much good, the general public seems to be wanting austerity measures. So about about a month and a half ago Congress was presented with the issue of whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is theoretically in place to stop out of control spending. When Federal debt approaches the ceiling, Congress has a debate on the merits of whether or not to raise the ceiling, ideally based on the quality of the increased spending. Throughout most of history, this increase goes by without much debate. However, in a climate of growing popular support for fiscal austerity, it didn’t go by as easily this time.

Most Democrats in Congress think now is not the time to cut spending. We need more spending to stimulate the economy. Worry about jobs now, deficit later. Republicans, mostly from the urging of tea partiers, think austerity is important to prevent us from approaching default or spending irresponsibly. At the time, austerity measures were also thought to have prevented a downgrading from Moody’s (the budget deal that was eventually reached and raised the debt ceiling did not accomplish this goal).

But throughout all of that, I noticed all of the bickering was essentially useless. Partisan argument for the sake of giving an appearance of taking a stand for the unemployed (Democrats) or spending (Republicans). The two sides seemed on totally opposite sides of the spectrum. But how much were they really fighting over? Were the Republicans really trying to cut the government that dramatically? No, they weren’t. The deal that was reached featured insanely trivial cuts. Despite cries from Democrats that the budget deal reached compromised so much, the Illinois Policy Institute produced a very interesting analogy to show how small the cuts actually were.

Here’s a look at the projected numbers for fiscal year 2011.

These numbers might be a little difficult to comprehend so understanding them from the lens of an everyday household might be a bit easier. By eliminating 8 zeroes just see how different the picture looks.

  • Annual Family Income: $22,280
  • Money the Family Spent: $37,080
  • New Debt on the Credit Card: $14,800
  • Outstanding Balance on Credit Card: $145,840
  • Total Budget Cuts: $3.52
That’s right. They were fighting over the equivalent of $3.52 in a household’s income. The idea that Republicans in Congress want to slash government spending is something Democrats use to scare voters and Republicans use to claim that they actually stand for limited government.
Take a look at this graph showing Federal government spending in 2010:
If we really wanted to tackle spending problems, we need to worry about big things. Concerning ourselves with earmarks, agricultural subsidies distracts from the real issues. Social security and medicare aren’t likely to go anywhere soon (though I suppose medicare costs could be decreased through reforms in health care), so we can’t approach fiscal solvency unless we do something about cutting defense. Discretionary spending accounts for 19% of the annual budget. To me, it’s obvious that we are fooling ourselves into thinking we’re pretending to be responsible by focusing on small spending instead of the things that will actually make a difference.

I’m starting a philosophy MA at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and I’ve been thinking about a recent exchange in a political theory seminar that I’m in. The subject of the conversation was self-interest and its relation to morality. There were a couple of students in the class who maintained that everything people do is actually self-interested, and that humans cannot behave in a non-self-interested way. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard somebody advocating this view; some Ayn Rand devotees I’ve run into argue the same thing. So how can these egoists explain the fact that people frequently act altruistically? Well, they say, when somebody gives to charity, or volunteers to teach at afterschool programs for underprivileged children, or whatever, that person is actually engaging in the so-called altruistic activity because of the personal feeling of satisfaction that they get, or because they think that their (seemingly) altruistic behavoir will make it so that people will help them if they ever fall on hard times. What really motivates whatever action a person might take is furthering her own self-interest.

This view is wrong. Observation of human behavior reveals that people often act selfishly and sometimes act altruistically. An interesting question is, what mechanisms cause one type of action, and what mechanisms cause the other? Is there a theory that can account for these behaviors? The crude egoism that was being defended in my seminar doesn’t offer any sort of interesting explanation of human behavior because it’s non-falsifiable. The philosopher Bernard Gert called it “tautological egoism”. The whole point of a theory of this sort is to explain empirical phenomena (in this case, human behavior). Tautological egoism substitutes for explanation a definitional bait-and-switch in which the meaning of “selfish” is changed so that it applies to all human actions. It offers no explanation and is not falsifiable, and therefore is theoretically extraneous and practically uninteresting.

Slate recently published a bad article by Stephen Metcalf about Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher who wrote that “liberty upsets patterns”, which was the inspiration for the name of this blog. Lots of people have already come to Nozick’s defense, but as a fan of Nozick, I’m going to pile on.

There are a lot of misunderstandings of Nozick in the article, but one of the biggest concerns Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example (you can see a picture of Wilt on the banner of this blog!). Metcalf starts by quoting Nozick:

“Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) … Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to his income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust?”

Here’s Metcalf critique of the argument:

Anarchy not only purports to be a defense of capitalism, but a proud defense of capitalism. And yet if Anarchy would defend capitalism unashamedly, why does its most famous argument include almost none of the defining features of capitalism—i.e., no risk capital, no capital markets, no financier? Why does it feature a basketball player and not, say, a captain of industry, a CEO, a visionary entrepreneur? The example as Nozick sets it out includes a gifted athlete (Wilt Chamberlain), paying customers (those with a dollar to see Wilt play)—and yet, other than a passing reference to the team’s “owners,” no capitalist!


…Nozick is cornering us into answering a ridiculously loaded question: If every person were a capitalist, and every capitalist a human capitalist, and every human capitalist was compensated in exact proportion to the pleasure he or she provided others, would a world without progressive taxation be just? To arrive at this question, Nozick vanishes most of the known features of capitalism (capital, owners, means of production, labor, collective bargaining) while maximizing one feature of capitalism—its ability to funnel money to the uniquely talented. In the example, “liberty” is all but cognate with a system that efficiently compensates the superstar.

This is nothing more than a confused non-sequitur. The Wilt Chamberlain argument is not primarily about defending capitalism. Rather, Nozick uses it to support his conclusion that “liberty upsets patterns”. “Patterns” refers patterned theories of justice: theories of justice that hold a certain distribution D1 as just and deviations from that distribution as unjust. For example, a strict egalitarian might argue that money should be distributed exactly equally between each member of society. But if this hypothetical society starts at D1, what happens when people decide to voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball? The distribution is no longer just. If the distribution is to remain just, coercive measures (taking money from Wilt and giving it back to his fans) must be undertaken continuously. One doesn’t have to have some quirky libertarian conception of liberty for this sort of continuous interference to seem unacceptable. There are serious issues with patterned theories of justice. It is this, rather than the justice of a system that awards large sums of wealth to the super talented, that the Wilt Chamberlain argument purports to establish

It’s important to emphasize that the upshot of the Wilt Chamberlain argument, if it is successful, is fairly limited. It doesn’t show that progressive taxation itself is unjust, since a political system could include progressive taxation without requiring a specific pattern of distribution. But Metcalf was so intent on setting up Nozick as the bogeyman lurking behind every right-wing argument against welfare and progressive taxation that he never took the time to actually understand what Nozick’s positions.


I tend to think that people who try their best to help the environment are well-intentioned people who usually aren’t really doing that much to help the environment. I’ve written before about people feeling so good about themselves in terms of helping the environment that they feel entitled to do things that hurt the environment more. The most helpful analogy I have is an obese person going for a 5 minute jog, then feeling so good that they went out and exercised that they eat a triple chocolate cake. One step forward, two steps back. I re-use bags when I go to the grocery store, so I feel entitled to take multiple trans-Atlantic flights every year to get an education I could easily obtain within a couple miles of my house. has a list of 6 socially conscious things that only look like they help:

  1. Driving energy-efficient cars
  2. Eating local
  3. Purchasing reusable bags
  4. Using biofuels
  5. Volunteering overseas
  6. Rescuing oil-covered birds

The site has a pretty good description for each of why people do it and why, in the end, it doesn’t do all that much.

I won’t take any sort of moral high ground against people who make these efforts. I just think it’s necessary to point out the actual results of these actions, instead of just their intentions.

Sasha Volokh goes off the deep end:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

If a conclusion to a sound argument is this absurd, it means there’s a problem with the premises, and the fact that Volokh is “willing to be absurd” doesn’t get him off the hook. There’s no reason to think that the reasoning that leads us to accept a certain theoretical moral principle is any more reliable than our intuitions about specific moral cases. Therefore, if an argument leads to a conclusion that is this unintuitive, it means that the principles that led to the conclusion should be revised.

The idea behind Volok’s right theory seems to be that having a right places a negative duty upon another person not to violate that right. It doesn’t, however, place people under duties to protect the right holder from any specific outcome. So if I cut down a tree and kill you, that violates your right to life, whereas if a tree falls on its own and kills you, morality has nothing to say.

Consider the implications of this sort of view for disease control, an area in which government intervention is widely viewed as legitimate. Polio is a debilitating infectious disease, and governments can play an important role in giving out vaccines to prevent epidemics. In normal cases of transmission, no person engages in the kind of deliberate harmful action necessary for Volokh to consider something a rights violation, and therefore morality actually prevents the government from doing anything. Now, Volokh himself has said that he’s immune to reductio ad absurdum on this matter, so this wouldn’t be convincing to him, but hopefully other people will have an easier time recognizing the sheer nuttiness of Volokh’s position.

It seems to be conventional wisdom that women make less than men doing the same job. But how true is this? If men made a dollar for every woman that made 77 cents, why would any executive hire a man? Is gender discrimination really worth 23% of labor costs? There really must be more to it.

With regards to a proposed bill going through Congress mandating “fair” wages across genders, I stumbled upon this opinion piece in the NY Times:

…for proof, proponents point out that for every dollar men earn, women earn just 77 cents.

But that wage gap isn’t necessarily the result of discrimination. On the contrary, there are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure.

When these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably — in some studies, to the point of vanishing. A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees.

I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Women, for better or for worse, simply tend to go into professions that aren’t as well-paying. This is not a stereotype, this is true.

Universities, for example, typically pay professors in their business schools more than they pay those in the school of social work, citing market forces as the justification.

What are the market forces? If you’re a business professor you probably have some credentials that will make you a lot of money elsewhere. This is called a high opportunity cost by economists. Contrast this with those with high credentials in social work or even English professors. What is there opportunity cost? Do the universities really need to pay them high salaries to woo them into academia? Not really. What can someone with a phd in English do except teach? Not much. Women tend to go into these areas that naturally pay lower.

One could argue that each gender going disproportionately into different fields reflects sexism in society. But I don’t think some law will correct this; it will more likely create headaches for business people and superfluous litigation.

Could a wage disparity exist between men and women? Could there be a glass ceiling of sorts? I’m not denying it. I just think it’s exaggerated, even if only a little.

There are a lot of rational, good people out there that believe in some pretty crazy things: Birthers, 9/11 truthers, flat-earthers, and those who believe Ozzie Guillen isn’t a good baseball manager. One of the weird things the press seems to be emphasizing lately is that 18% of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. For the record, President Obama was born to a Muslim father but is undoubtedly a practicing Christian right now.

Marc Thiessen over at the Washington Post makes some good points regarding all this hub-ub over the widespread misinformation. Finding an issue where nearly a fifth of people are convinced of something concretely untrue isn’t that hard to come by. Another poll done by Pew showed some weird things:

It turns out that 36 percent of Democrats claim to have communed with the dead, and that 19 percent believe in casting a curse on someone using the “evil eye.” Think about that: According Pew, more Democrats believe in the “evil eye” than Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

The incorrect belief of Obama’s Islamic-ness is wrong, of course. But people believe in all sorts of kooky things, so let’s try to put it into perspective. I mean, look at how many people don’t love free markets!

Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller has been putting out a series of hackish smear pieces on the recent Journolist scandal that take quotes out of context to make them seem a lot more worrisome than they actually are.  Pretty much every time one of these articles is published, former Journolist members respond by putting quotes from the Caller’s pieces in the context of the e-mails or threads the quotes were pulled from, usually showing the articles to be egregious misrepresentations of the actual content of the e-mails.

Tucker Carlson posted a response today to some recent criticisms of the Daily Caller.  He addresses the charge that, if the  Caller really isn’t taking quotes out of context, then it should publish the original e-mail threads along with its articles:

[W]hy don’t we publish whatever portions of the Journolist archive we have and end the debate? Because a lot of them have no obvious news value, for one thing…. [W]hile it might be amusing to air threads theorizing about the personal and sexual shortcomings of various New Republic staffers, we’ve decided to pull back.

Plus, a lot of the material on Journolist is actually pretty banal. In addition to being partisan hacks, a lot of these guys turn out to be pedestrian thinkers. Disappointing.

We reserve the right to change our minds about this in the future, but for now there’s an easy solution to this question: Anyone on Journolist who claims we quoted him “out of context” can reveal the context himself. Every member of Journolist received new threads from the group every day, most of which are likely still sitting in Gmail accounts all over Washington and New York. So feel free to try to prove your allegations, or else stop making them.

Notice the false choice that Carlson presents forward here: either continue with the misleading, out-of-context quoting that has defined the Daily Caller’s articles so far, or make the whole entire Journolist archives public.  Well, here’s a sensible alternative: just publish the parts of the archives that are directly relevant to the quotes and claims in the Daily Caller’s coverage.  Would it really be such a huge burden on the reader if full e-mail threads were at least linked to from the Caller’s articles?  You know, e-mails like the ones that former Journolist members have been publishing themselves in response to the Caller’s dishonest reporting?

As for Carlson’s suggestion that Journolisters publish the archives themselves if they think the Caller’s coverage has been misleading… well, that’s exactly what they have been doing (see, for example, Jonathan Chait).  The fact that so many of the Caller’s articles on Journolist have thus far turned out to be misleading after Journolisters put their e-mails in context, and the fact that the Caller refuses to itself publish more of the e-mails, goes to show, I think, that there really isn’t any smoking gun about a liberal media conspiracy in the Journolist archives, and that Tucker Carlson and the Daily Caller are grasping at straws and torpedoing their credibility by serving up bait for the Drudge/Breitbart crowd that will boost the Caller’s traffic.

I had a relatively low stipend-ed internship last summer. For the upcoming summer, I will be in a similar situation. I am fine with it. Both of my respective employers were/are happy to have me on board. A potential problem? Such work – it is work – comes out to being paid below minimum wage. Some say that unpaid internships or low-paid internships should violate minimum wage laws.

Consider the outcomes if unpaid or low-paid internships were deemed illegal. Just as I would propose in a normal labor market, the wage would go up but the number of positions would go down. Forget about what minimum wage laws are designed for or who they are targeted at when the legislation is passed; these laws could be applied to internships.

Now, in this scenario I am happy to work for the think tanks at the given benefits they give me. The think tanks are happy to employ me at the given benefits. Such an arrangement is inherently victimless. I think this situation illustrates that not only can minimum wage laws have adverse and unintended consequences on the poor, but such legislation intrudes on my ability to bargain with an employer and engage in labor I deem personally beneficial. We’ll see how it shakes out.

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