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One Decade's Time

In 1999, federal outlays were $1.70 trillion.

In 2009, we have a $1.75 trillion deficit.

Have a nice day.

Paying for Itself

Tom Laskawy, over at Weaver's Way, takes on what he sees as Amtrak-hating Republicans. In the process, he appears to misunderstand what it means to call something a public good:

This drives me nuts. In an article by the AP on the House's omnibus budget bill comes a reference to: "the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system"

Come on! How about the money-losing Interstate Highway System? Or the money-losing national parks? Or our money-losing VA Hospitals? Or the Mother of All Money-losers: the US Military?

At the Prospect, Ezra Klein falls for the same trap, complaining that

there's been a concerted effort over the past 30 or 40 years to paint Amtrak as uniquely wasteful because, like highways and parks and fighter jets, it loses money.

At first glance Tom and Ezra seem to have a point; we don't expect the military or our parks to literally pay for themselves. But I think that, on another level, the complaint totally misses the point of public goods.

The fact is that roads and the military actually increase our wealth. (Within reason; arguably a military that gets really damn big just becomes a sinkhole, but that's another issue.) Having a highway allows workers to get to my factory quickly and cheaply and it allows me to ship my goods cheaply and it allows you to get to the store and buy my goods more easily. Those things combine to make all of us wealthier. And, assuming that we've built our road in an area where all of these things happen on a regular basis, there's a pretty good chance that we have increased the total amount of wealth by more than the cost of the road.

Given that fact (and given the public goods problems involved in building the road in the first place), there's at least a decent libertarian case to be made for taxing people to construct the road. It's a collective investment that makes all of us better off. So in that very real sense, we do expect roads to make roads pay for themselves. The same can be said for the military; having a taxpayer-funded military keeping me safe from invasion gives me the freedom to invest more of my resources in producing widgets more cheaply and less in buying tanks to protect my inefficient but cheaper factory.

So, no, we don't think that roads and fighter jets have to literally pay for themselves. But we do think that they ought to provide more value than they cost.

Whether Amtrak does this is an open question. I mean, as someone who lives in the NE corridor, I like Amtrak. But passenger trains are mostly substitution for other available means of transit. Given that we already have roads that will get people up and down the NE corridor, the public goods argument for passenger rail is fairly weak. So it's not unreasonable to expect that various substitution-goods should have to be self-sufficient -- that trains, like the airlines with which they compete, should have to pay for themselves.

Now there is a possible public goods argument for trains, depending on how seriously one takes environmental concerns. But it's not the case, contra Ezra and Tom, that passenger rail is an obvious candidate for public good status. They would be better served by actually making that argument, rather than simply dismissing those who don't buy it as "train-hating b@stards."

UPDATE: Edited to strike out extraneous words. Next time I'll remember to proofread.

Democrats against Democracy

Here's an excerpt from a letter which appeared in the Washington Post today regarding the Orwellian-named Employee Free Choice Act under consideration in Congress:

The problem is that the election process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board has become drawn out and acrimonious, with management campaigning fiercely to deter unionization, sometimes to the extent of violating labor laws. Union sympathizers are routinely threatened or even fired, and they have little effective recourse under the law. Even when workers overcome this pressure and vote for a union, they are unable to obtain contracts one-third of the time due to management resistance.

To remedy this situation, the Congress is considering the Employee Free Choice Act. This act would accomplish three things: It would give workers the choice of using majority sign-up-- a simple, established procedure in which workers sign cards to indicate their support for a union – or staging an NLRB election; it triples damages for employers who fire union supporters or break other labor laws; and it creates a process to ensure that newly unionized employees have a fair shot at obtaining a first contract by calling for arbitration after 120 days of unsuccessful bargaining

Now, generally speaking, I try to think the best of my political opponents, since I tend to think almost all political ideas have some merit. But not this. Let's look at a few of the "best" parts of the letter.

The problem is that the election process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board has become drawn out and acrimonious, with management campaigning fiercely to deter unionization

Management campaigning "fiercely" against unionization? The horror! To be fair, the letter writers then go on to complain that some of the campaigning violates the law. One can fairly ask, though, the extent we, as an allegedly free society, want to regulate the speech employers are allowed.

But what's truly crazy is the idea that signing cards rather than elections is going to lead to a more accurate representation of employee preferences. Look, if anyone truly believes that, I have a counter proposal: Why not allow employers to ban unions after 50%+1 sign cards saying they don't want unions? If card check is a legitimate method to get at preferences, this clearly is acceptable. So how about it: Let's have a system where your boss calls you into his office and asks you to sign the union-banning card. And, gosh, I do think employee evaluation season is coming up . . .

Better yet, if we're going to follow the principle that signing cards represents preferences, and that's it's perfectly OK if only one side has this privilege, why not allow it in the United States in general? From now on, I propose that once 50%+1 of registered voters can be persuaded to sign a card, the Republican candidate for president becomes the winner. After all, it saves us the time and expense of acrimonious elections.

Now, as a skeptic of democracy, I don't necessarily think weird alternatives to elections are always wrong. But at least I have the balls to admit it. Would that the leftwing economists here, fed up with the annoyance of democracy leading to policies they don't like and proposing to do away with the roadblock of elections, would show the same courage.

Thought of the day

Since Obama has established the logical proposition that those who take federal money (e.g. CEO grandees of troubled banks) should have government impose salary caps on them, why not do the same for those home-owners that are about to be bailed out?


Some Republican's Don't Take the Money, or Do They?

On February 16th, Paul Begala, trying to justify the most wasteful spending bill in the history of the US wrote, in perhaps the most face punch worthy hypothetical of all time:

"Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina took umbrage at my writing that his approach to the economic crisis is to do nothing. I'll deal with his "ideas" in a moment, but first let me make a modest proposal:

If Republican politicians are so deeply opposed to President Obama's economic recovery plan, they should refuse to take the money. After all, if you think all that federal spending is damaging, there are easy ways to reduce it: Don't take federal money.

Gov. Sanford can lead the way. South Carolina should decline to accept any federal funds for transportation, education, health care, clean energy or any of the other ideas President Obama is advocating to fix the economy. And the rest of the GOP can follow suit."

Yeah, he essentially says, "we are going to spread the slop we expropriate from the taxpayers and if you don't like it then just back off from the trough. Oink. Oink."

His picture is in the article. Fist, smirking face, POW! Print it out. Tape it to a soft object, and punch it.

Well some Republicans have now responded, not that they have been exemplars of fiscal responsibility when in control, they at least have a guilty conscious.:

"If we were to take the unemployment reform package that they have, it would cause us to raise taxes on employment when the money runs out -- and the money will run out in a couple of years," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CNN's 'State of the Union' on Sunday."

Wow, some sanity at last. Wait a second. I read on ...

Schwarzenegger called it "a terrific package," and said he does not foresee a need for a tax hike in the future to sustain the unemployment provisions.

The fantasy lasted for maybe five seconds.

Oh, Arnie, Whatever happened to the free market, Milton Friedman, stuff? Guess you never truly understood in the first place. I know Friedman didn't. His monetarism got us into this mess, and it wasn't truly free market. Go Austrians! No not the Schwarznegger type. The other kind.

Yeah, some other republicans are mentioned as turning down the unemployment money but they don't seem to be doing so for the rest of it.

Begala was right in his estimation of Republicans that's for sure. I don't however think that makes him or the Democrats look very good. Makes them look like robbers who flung money in the mud to some groveling wino.

Isn't there some movie scene like this with some evil doer throwing change in the dirt for some hard up addict looking for a fix while giving the poor creature a humiliating tongue, or physical thrashing? Some scene where the bad guy humiliates someone also prone to vices?

No, I am not talking about Deliverance, despite the "Oink, oink, squeal like a pig". That scene more about the taxpayer.

The International

Movie PosterI decided to go see The International, simply because it had a gun battle in the Guggenheim. What could be cooler than that? The movie's poster makes sure that you remember that this is the movie with the gun battle in the Guggenheim, so evidently the advertisers knew what they were doing.

Funny thing, though. What popped into my head each time I saw the title was the Communist anthem. The association didn't make sense to me, so I didn't think much about it.

Then I saw the movie. Minor spoilers. The antagonist of the movie is not only an international bank, but entirely untouchable within the law because it has the major governments in its pocket. The bank has tremendous reach. As the poster says:They control you "They control your money. They control your government. They control your life." The bank can get away with anything and everything, and its power is almost magical - it reminds one of the machines of The Matrix, only this is not an over-the-top technofantasy but is intended to be a depiction of present-day reality. We learn that one of the characters was a hard-line communist, and this is treated within the movie as a Very Good Thing. I do not recall even the slightest hint given during this revelation or at any other point in the movie that being a hard-line communist might be anything less than admirable; on the contrary, to have left the fold is treated as a disgrace.

This is not intended to be a movie review. I only wanted to mention this aspect of the movie. If you want my assessment, it had a substantial gun battle in the Guggenheim, which is what I came to see, so I did not leave the theater feeling cheated.

UPDATE: I've been trying to find someone who understood the signs the same way I did, and sure enough, somebody did.

Instruction Manual For Life

A reminder that faith based religion is not merely about community. If it were then I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Kling on Public Goods

Writing about the housing bailout, Arnold Kling proposes a definition of public goods:

My test is this: would an overwhelming majority of Americans be willing to donate a significant amount of their personal funds to the cause of bailing out troubled homebuyers? If the answer is "no," then it is not a public good. The answer probably would be "yes" for courts, police, national defense, or cleaner air. If so, then those are indeed public goods.

I must confess, I find this a bit puzzling. Public good has a pretty clear standard meaning, and this just isn't it. As Paul Samuelson initially describes them, public goods are those that, once provided, can be consumed by others at no additional marginal cost. In other words, a public good is one that people certainly value but also one that it is rational to free ride on. In other words, by the standard understanding of "public good," they are, by definition, things that no rational actor should be willing to pony up for.

So Kling's definition really makes no sense at all. If enough people actually pony up to make a service happen, then that providing that service wasn't a public goods problem in the first place. Certainly lots of the ancaps here at DR will like that view. But I don't think that's really Kling's position.

Indeed, even from a practical point of view, Kling's definition is, well, slightly crazy. He's more-or-less giving the government carte blanche to spend on anything, just so long as it's popular. His definition makes Social Security (which is tremendously popular) into a public good. In fact, properly framed (i.e., "Would you be willing to donate to keep entire neighborhoods from collapsing?" or maybe "Would you be willing to donate to keep the economy from worsening?") even the housing bailout might pass the test. There is, after all, nothing in the test about a proposal actually being true. The test is just whether people would donate to a cause.

A for effort?

Via Vox Populi:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade. Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

While we might want to acknowledge effort in some way, giving an A for effort implies that effort is as good as accomplishment. And of course, it isn't.

Where else do we see manifested the notion that effort is as good as accomplishment? Some expressions:

  • "It's the thought that counts."
  • "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."
  • "Everyone's a winner."

Not to deny that there is at least some truth in the first two, but we say these things to console losers. We ought to be very suspicious of the things we say to console ourselves or other people. Some other manifestations of this notion:

  • Participation in political demonstrations. While demonstrations can sometimes accomplish things, I believe that for the most part participation in demonstrations is about visibly making an effort without regard for its effectiveness.
  • Recycling and other environmental-conscious activity. A lot of it does not withstand close scrutiny, and yet it persists, which suggests that it is primarily about making an effort.
  • Political discussion. Via Econlog, John Nash made the point:

    Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

    I think there's a lot of truth to that.

  • The Transportation Security Administration. This is a highly visible effort whose dubious effectiveness has not dented it.

Liberals and Leftists

My post on liberaltarianism sparked some discussion of the distinction between liberals and leftists. In several of my comments, I attempted to lay out the difference, as I see it. I'm not sure that I ever do so all that rigorously or systematically. Fortunately, a piece by Sheri Berman in the latest issue of Dissent sheds light on the distinction.

In outlining her take on the history of the left, Berman writes:

Crudely stated, Marxism had three core points: that capitalism was a great transforming force in history, destroying the old feudal order and generating untold wealth and productivity; that it was based on terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict; and that it would ultimately and naturally be transcended by the arrival of communism...Everyone on the left agreed with Marx on the first two points. By the late nineteenth century, however, some of its sharpest minds began to disagree on the third.

I think it's that second point that distinguishes liberals (of the sort Will and Jonathan and I are interested in bringing into an alliance) and the leftists who are favorite targets of many libertarians (and rightly so, IMO). See, I think leftists really do hold that capitalism is based on "terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict." Welfare liberals, on the other hand, don't think that at all.

To put the point another way, leftists (at least the intellectually honest ones) are quite willing to admit that capitalism has produced some unalloyed good in the world. But a leftist thinks that such progress is the result of a system that, at least on some level, is fundamentally wrong. A free market might well create a lot of wealth, but it does so at the cost of harming some members of society. And so for a leftist, the market is at best something to be tolerated.

Welfare liberals, I think, see the market differently. A liberal disputes the notion that the market is inherently exploitative or that the inequality it produces is a terrible thing. Rawls, for instance, is perfectly willing to countenance inequality in the just society, just so long as the promise of the rising tide lifting all boats is more than a nice-sounding metaphor. And even the stridently partisan Paul Krugman defends child labor in foreign sweatshops as reasonable, given the available alternatives.

It's possible to think that the market is a fundamentally good thing while also seeing those who inevitably fall through the cracks as a public goods problem. One can defend some sort of safety net without thinking that markets are built on the backs of the exploited. That's the type of person I'd call a liberal.

Myth and Cult: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion

Commentlog was a blog dedicated to preserving and centralizing the most thoughtful comments left on other people's blogs. Sadly, the editor has let his hosting account expire. I say "sadly" because I need a particular post of his for a future piece, and hardly a week goes by that I don't want to recommend it to someone.

I managed to find it through the magic of Google cache. So to save myself trouble, I repost it here in its entirety.

Because the rest of this post is just a verbatim quote, I forgo using any special formatting to delineate it:

"Deep in a comment thread on Unqualified Reservations, Michael S. provides the best apologia of traditional religion that I have ever read. Years ago I stopped believing in the Christian God and left the church. Had there been anyone of Michael's intellectual caliber still left in the Catholic church, perhaps things would have gone differently. Below I have reproduced Michael's key comments from thread, so that others may read them easily:


There are at least two components to any religion, namely myth and cult. Under the heading of myth are comprised all of the just-so stories of ancient or primitive peoples. An example is the Greek myth which explained the daily rising and setting of the sun as the passage of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky.The Greeks became good astronomers and by the classical period had developed better ideas about the nature of the heavenly bodies than that myth implied. Nonetheless, they did not give up the cult of Apollo, which persisted right up until the suppression of paganism. Literal belief in the myth was not necessary to the cult. The myth could be understood as symbolism and poetry.

A case in point of the distinction between myth and cult is seen in the life of Cicero, a hard-headed politician and lawyer whose surviving writings indicate that he was a follower of the New Academy of Carneades, which held that certain knowledge was impossible, and that practical assumptions based on probability were as much as could be achieved. Yet this practical and skeptical man also prized his initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis, which he claimed was the best and most divine gift of Athens to the world. One cannot imagine that Cicero took the myth as literal truth, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the cult.

Because the Abrahamic religions are scriptural, and a substantial number of their believers insist on the literal truth of scripture, it is more difficult to distinguish myth and cult in them than it is in ancient religions. Nonetheless the distinction can still be made.

Consider the example of the prophet Daniel, who, as told in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, acted as a sort of spiritual detective. Scattering ashes on the floor of the temple of Bel, he revealed that the offerings said to be eaten by the idol were actually removed by Bel's fraudulent priests; feeding an unpalatable meal to a 'dragon' worshipped by the Babylonians, he caused it to burst and die. This narrative is the antecedent of Black Sea's scenario in which a primitive's supposition that a little man must be talking inside the transistor radio is refuted by opening it.

When Dawkins and other proselytizing atheists point out the errors, inconsistencies, and crudities of the Bible, they hope to be the doughty Daniels of their own True Faith. But by showing that there is a great deal of myth in scripture, all they are doing is to fault the people of two or three millennia ago for not being aware of current scientific theory and for using the means available to them to describe natural phenomena.

Serious adherents of the cults of Judaism or Christianity are not at all disturbed by this news. They are already aware of it. The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist. What disturbs him is the neo-Epicureanism that frequently accompanies it (and for which there is no more empirical basis than there is for the idea of intelligent design).

The ultimate vindication of the truth of Daniel's faith, we may recall, came after his exposure of Bel and the Dragon. It was then that his enemies caused him to be thrown into the lions' den. It is unfortunate that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have so far, in their attacks on fundamentalism/salvationism, chosen to face only a few malnourished alley cats. They need to withstand sharper and bigger claws and teeth before their testimony is credible. Although I'm not a Roman Catholic, my suggestion is that they be thrown to the Jesuits.

Some years ago I read a transcript of an interview of the great scientific cosmologist Stephen Hawking. I do not recall who conducted the interview. At its conclusion the interviewer asked Hawking, did he believe that the universe had a creator? Hawking said that he did not. Why? the interviewer asked. Hawking responded, "Because I find it more aesthetic." There spoke both an honest atheist and one with a much better philosophical footing than Dawkins and his ilk.


Black Sea, I did not say that you exemplified the type of proselytizing atheist I meant. I said that you and Aaron Davies illustrated the problem such people face. They think their task is as simple as breaking open the transistor radio to show the Amazon tribesman there is no little man inside. In representing the belief of theists as based in ignorance, and proposing themselves as instructors having the knowledge to remedy that ignorance, they both misrepresent the basis of religious belief and condescend to the believer, while expressing an undue confidence in their own intellectual superiority.

Of course there are simple and unsophisticated believers who are literalists. They understand their religion according to their capacity, and it is unlikely they would understand science any better.
There seems to be no appreciation amongst atheists of the Dawkins type that organized religion has always had to contend with excessivley credulous believers, and in many cases has served to restrain superstition rather than to encourage it. Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.

The wisdom of this observation is seen in the recent popularity of accounts of flying saucers, alien abductions, and similar uncanny experiences. It is evident to anyone who is familiar with their history that people have been seeing strange apparitions since time immemorial. It is also evident that they always see these things in culturally appropriate ways. The pagans of classical antiquity saw the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, sylphs, and so forth. Christians saw angels, demons, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, etc. Mohammedans saw djinn, efreets, and the other marvels related in the Arabian Nights. People began to see flying saucers and little green men in the late 1940s - after they had been culturally conditioned for several decades by the work of H.G. Wells and the pulps published by Hugo Gernsback. Enthusiasts of the extraterrestrial commonly explain the experiences of past visionaries with angels, demons, etc. as being 'close encounters' with aliens. They would no doubt bristle with indignation if it were suggested to them that the aliens they thought they saw were in fact messengers from God or the Devil, djinn, or the elementals described by the abbé Montfaucon de Villars in his "Comte de Gabalis."

Such credulous folk, who believe in anything, really ought not to be fair game for Dawkins and crew. They will always be among us even if atheism becomes the state religion. Under the former Soviet Union there was a widespread literature devoted to supposed extraterrestrial visitations. Since the press in that country was under the complete control of the state, one can only conclude that the powers-that-were wished to encourage belief in these manifestations, as a means of undermining the Christianity they had failed to supplant amongst ordinary people with the bald and unconvincing narrative of their Marxist atheism.

Let me make my own point of view clear - it is that the only position tenable from a viewpoint of strict empiricism is that the existence or non-existence of God are equally un-disprovable. Pointing to one or another scriptural absurdity iluustrates only that the man who wrote it long ago failed to understand matters properly; pointing out that many people still believe that absurdity, in the face of evidence to the contrary, proves only that there are still many simple and unsophisticated people. On the other hand, all the arguments customarily advanced by religious believers, such as the argument by design, are such as to be convincing only to people who already believe.

Yet all these things being taken into consideration, two points remain. The first is anthropological: there is no society known to history in which there is not some sort of spiritual belief. This coincides with the ancient Christian doctrine that all people are inherently aware of God even if they have not the knowledge of the Gospel. Physical explanations of instinctive spirituality ("the God gene") are not persuasive, because they run afoul of the mind-body problem. One is left with the nagging suspicion that there might be something to the spiritual, though just what is the great question.

The second point is aesthetic. Arguably, the highest achievements of the human species have been motivated by that instinctive spirituality just mentioned. The great cathedrals, the precious heritage of religious art and music, are not only monuments to religious belief, but more persuasive testimonies to and arguments for faith than the disputations of theology. Have you ever read the story of the conversion of St. Vladimir, the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church? He was, as the account goes, a pagan prince of the line of Rurik; and an enthusiastic pagan, having built several temples. Yet he was not quite satisfied with his religion, and agreed to hear deputations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians each deliver their respective sales pitches. The presentations of the first two were rather arid, but the Christians (who had come from Byzantium) put on by far the best show, high mass with all the smells and bells, rich vestments, singing, the whole nine yards. Vladimir was convinced - any religion that was so beautiful had to be the right one (it also didn't hurt that it had the least restrictive dietary rules, and no ban on booze). Accordingly, Russia became Christian, and Vladimir a saint - all on the basis of his aesthetic judgment.

I suppose these anthropological and aesthetic reasons explain why many people remain culturally Christian despite an abundance of doubts and discontents. They aren't willing to dismiss the spiritual out of hand; they see more benefit than detriment accruing to society from religion in spite of their doubts (as did Jefferson and Franklin); and they find Christianity aesthetically appealing (as did St. Vladimir). They are therefore unwilling to discard it in favor of the barren and austere horizon offered by the crusading atheism of a Dawkins. For my part, I'll wait to see whether Dawkinsianity produces anything equivalent to Chartres, Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem, the Pietà or the Sistine ceiling. When it does we may re-evaluate it to see if it offers anything worthwhile.


Mr. Davies, I suspect that Ayn Rand's 'proof' of the non-existence of God is a mirror-image of the mediæval scholastic proofs of the existence of God; both are persuasive only to people who already believe. Also, is the omniscient, omnipotent Abrahamic God really "modern"? Deists like Lord Herbert of Cherbury were beginning to move away from that concept nearly four centuries ago. Newton and Locke followed in his footsteps. Washington, an outwardly observant Anglican but also a Freemason, always couched his utterances with regard to deity in terms more reminiscent of Masonic ritual than of the Anglican service. Yet such deists were not atheists of the Dawkinsian stripe. They believed the universe had its Great Architect and that his handiwork was made manifest in the order and symmetry of nature. They further believed that Christianity brought great benefits to society, and tried in some cases to 'reform' it in ways that eliminated those parts they considered superstitious and backward. Examples of these efforts are the Jefferson Bible and the Franklin/Dashwood Prayer Book. Are these not more 'modern' strains of belief than the caricature presented by Rand?

And has not Randism been almost from the start yet another illustration of the Chestertonian axiom? Maybe it is not quite as outlandish as flying saucers but it is assuredly a cult of the type that substitutes itself for more conventional religion. Ayn Rand herself was almost the model of the autocratic prophet, excommunicating from the fellowship of the faithful any who dared (however meekly) to question her pronouncements. In this respect she belongs amongst the ranks of such charlatans as Freud, Jung, Crowley, or Hubbard.

As for Randy's observation about what it means to be an atheist, I suspect it means different things to each atheist in the same way that being a Jew or a Christian means differing things to each Jew or each Christian. We can only evaluate the belief of such people based on their own testimony. But what we must note is that many of these disputants come in an odd way to resemble all they deplore about their adversaries. We need only contemplate the example of Christopher Hitchens, who is every bit as obnoxious in his own way as Pat Robertson is, or the late Jerry Falwell was, in theirs respectively. The fervency of the undoubting atheist is no less troubling than the fervency of the undoubting Christian, Muslim, etc.; both have been, and still are, rationales for the most appalling cruelties."

Obama as Kitsch

I'm horribly late, but this is the best piece I've seen on the mass psychology of the Obamanon - Obama as egalitarian kitsch. The author first quotes Milan Kundera:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

And he uses that as a springboard to explain Obama's power:

What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Because kitsch is the willed absence of doubt, it acts as a neatly closed emotional system, impervious to skepticism and hostile to introspection--herein lies its political genius. Through propaganda, kitsch arouses revolutionary ardor and imposes totalitarian control. Kitsch fires up the rabble and cows the mass.

I don't know much about the author, but he was granted more eloquence at birth than a dozen average writers combined.

There's More to Economics than Macro

Gregory Clark calls out economists as failures in an interesting piece over at the Atlantic's business section:

The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1. What is the multiplier from government spending? Does government spending crowd out private spending? How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s. There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years.

I find this an extremely frustrating line of argument. Look, you'll get no arguments from me that modern macro has not been a beacon of light in the financial turmoil. But the idea that somehow the failure to predict, or solve, banking crises somehow discredits all of economics, from industrial organization to labor and everything else, is bizarre. Really, Greg, do you think your excellent book on economic history has been revealed as rubbish because GDP might decline 5%? Nonsense.

Or, as Will Wilkinson (who has been on fire lately) put it: It's macro that's embarrassing.

Pace of Estimate Changes Exceeds Estimates

The Washington Post published an article today with the headline "Scientists: Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates". From that, you might get the idea that, you know, the actual pace of climate change, say temperature, was exceeding the estimates. You'd be wrong:

CHICAGO, Feb. 14 -- The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.

"We are basically looking now at a future climate that's beyond anything we've considered seriously in climate model simulations," Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

So what they really mean is that the estimates themselves are likely to be low. Now, that may be truly bad news; I don't know much about climate science. But it isn't the case that the actual pace of climate change has exceeded anything, and headlines to the contrary are misleading and annoying.

Immigration as Stimulus

Actual, certified Thinker endorses Arthur B.-Curunir plan on fighting the recession:

Leave it to a brainy Indian to come up with the cheapest and surest way to stimulate our economy: immigration.

“All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here. And we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.”