Monthly Archives: February 2014

The “donor class” and the minimum wage

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a new report estimating the effects of a higher minimum wage, conservatives pounced on the possibility that a minimum wage hike to $10.10 would cost about 500,000 jobs. But much like their reaction to the recent report about the Affordable Care Act, they are jumping to conclusions far too quickly.

First, there are reasons to be skeptical about the negative employment effect. Many studies find no negative employment effects. A recent report by Demos finds that by stimulating economic growth, a minimum wage could in fact create jobs. After all, a worker for one company is a customer for another. Minimum wage workers struggling to make ends meet are more likely to spend, reviving local economies. This is the argument forwarded by billionaire investment banker Nick Hanauer and economists like Joseph Stiglitz. It has strong theoretical support, as well as empirical support; studies show that poor workers are more likely to spend marginal income than wealthy workers.

Part of the problem is that the CBO relies heavily on simulations, rather than the empirical (observed) effects of the minimum wage. Textbook economics would predict job losses; if you make a good (labor) more costly, you reduce demand for it. But the world doesn’t work like a textbook. Workers being paid more may work harder (economists call this an “efficiency wage”). Workers struggling to make ends meet may not be paid in accordance with their ability, because they can’t credibly threaten to leave their job or unionize (they will simply be fired and replaced). The most famous study on the issue, by David Card and Alan Krueger finds that, “Contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model of the minimum wage … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” More recently, these findings were replicated empirically by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester and Michael Reich.

Looking internationally will not help Republicans. Even the right-leaning Economist magazine has argued that a minimum wage hike in Britain, “has done little or no harm” and instead, “Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale—and thus reduced wage inequality.” The U.S. minimum wage pales in comparison to other developed countries; Australia’s is more than double our own. Historically, too, the current minimum wage is anomalous. Adjusted for inflation, it is far lower than the $10.77 a worker would be making in 1968.

But even if some minor job losses materialize, raising the minimum wage is still good policy. The data show that 55% of the people making a minimum wage work full-time and their the average age is 35. Many of these workers are struggling under student debt, or the costs of raising children. These are not simply college students working on the side; for many people these jobs are the only source of vital income. For these poor workers, a $3 raise may be the difference between a Thanksgiving Turkey and empty stomachs.

The minimum wage has potent implications for our national discussion of inequality and upward mobility. Republicans have been paying lip service to the idea of reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility, but so far policy proposals have been sparse. The minimum wage is a perfect solution. It requires little government spending and is unlikely to have any significant effect on the deficit. It certainly doesn’t violate the “no new taxes” pledge. So a minimum wage hike would be the perfect conservative solution to inequality: targeted at working people (rather than the unemployed), minimal bureaucracy and no new revenue for the government. And studies show it would work. Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute finds that the declining value of the minimum wage has been a major driver of increased inequality. Citing the work of David Autor, he finds that more than half of the growing divide between workers at the median and workers at the lowest 10% of the income distribution can be explained by a declining minimum wage.

The CBO isn’t interested in adjudicating studies, but rather creating a consensus, and it generally errs on the side of conservatism. While the effects of the minimum wage on the job market is mixed and uncertain, the effect on upward mobility is not. The CBO estimates that in total, “overall real income would rise by $1 billion” and that a $10.10 minimum wage could lift 900,000 people out of poverty. The report estimates that those making less than $26,300 a year will their real family income increase by $300 dollars, and those making less than $51,400 would see it rise by $200. All told, more than 16 million workers will be positively affected. For many, that might enough to fix a broken dishwasher or afford Christmas presents. However, one group would be negatively affected: those earning more than $182,200, who would see their real family income drop by $700. Given that this classis the most likely to vote and donate money to Republicans, it’s unsurprising that the part will be slow to embrace raising the minimum wage. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent millions aiming to keep the minimum wage low.

Republican opposition indicates just how much the party has been co-opted by the interests of the donor class. While a large plurality of economists and more than 73% of citizens support raising the minimum wage, research by Larry Bartels finds that only 40% of the wealthiest Americans do. When combined with research by Martin Gilens and Kay Lehman Schlozman showing how the wealthiest Americans have a disparate voice in public policy affairs we begin to see why the minimum wage has yet to gain traction: class interests, not economics are driving the debate.

If Republicans are serious about reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility without increasing deficits and killing jobs, the minimum wage is the way to go. Sadly, they have been co-opted by a donor class less interested in good policy than their own economic interests.

Originally published on Salon.

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.

Originally published on Salon.

Are the Republicans serious about mobility?

The GOP’s response to widening inequality has long been similar to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt: “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ’em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce!” But between the fallout over Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark and a resurgence of progressive populism, Republicans realize they need a new, softer approach. It appears they’ve finally found one.

Paul Ryan recently appeared at the Brookings Institute’s “Social Mobility Summit” to announce, “We’re losing not only mobility, we understand that, but whole generations of Americans don’t know what this is.” Eric Cantor told Bloomberg, “All of us want to grow the economy … that means more jobs, upward mobility.” Mike Leewarned last year of an “opportunity crisis.” Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s response to the State of the Union included the line, “The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality…” And in a speech on the anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty” address, Marco Rubio said that “it is this lack of mobility, not just income inequality, that we should be focused on.

“Mobility” is the party’s new mantra—but it’s based on a familiar delusion.

Mobility in many parts of America is abysmal. In some cities, children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Across the country, a child born in the poorest quintile has a 60 percent chance of staying in the bottom two quintiles.

It’s a two-part problem. First, there is opportunity hoarding at the top, wherein the wealthy invest heavily in their children’s education and job prospects, while also passing their wealth on to their children. Then there is stagnation at the bottom, caused largely by reverse trends, economic and racial segregation, awful schools, and poor parents without much money to invest in children.

Why does the “land of opportunity” have such low mobility? Laissez-faire economic policies—massive tax breaks, untrammeled free markets, unregulated free trade, deep cuts to the safety net—have widened the income gap. While Republicans have tried tosever the link between mobility and inequality, research shows that the two issues areintimately connected: Societies and communities with high inequality have low levels of upward mobility. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that had income growth risen proportionally between 1979 and 2007, the median incomewould be $19,000 higher.

Republican pundits have their own theories on these problems, of course. They like to point to the disintegrating family and other social factors, even though a large swath of research suggests this is to mistake an effect for its cause. As for solutions, Ari Fleischer has argued for more (straight) marriage, Ross Douthat prefers chastising single mothers, Charles Murray wants the poor to emulate the values of the rich, and David Brooks wants… well, it’s not clear exactly. None of these proposals are serious about the problem, because being serious about the problem will require doing the one thing that Republicans hate: government spending.

Several Republican politicians have put forward specific policy proposals. Rubio’sbig idea, supported by Ryan, is to make the Earned Income Tax Credit (a tax break for low income workers) a monthly, rather than yearly, program. With the median income of American households $19,000 dollars below what it should be, students struggling under piles of debt, and millions trying to pay off underwater mortgages, such a plan, while welcome, is wholly inadequate. Lee and Rubio have both proposed modifying the EITC for married couples, to eliminate the “marriage tax” (whereby two single people who become married become ineligible for the program or take a benefit cut). However, if they increase the benefit, they’ll have to increase deficits. The only other option is to reduce the EITC for single mothers.

Rubio’s other idea (again supported by Ryan) is revenue-neutral block grants to the states, which means that states would have more leeway in how to spend the funds. “Revenue-neutral” is the key phrase here; if you’re not increasing spending, you’re just shifting around authority at best and sneaking in cuts at worst.

This is the catch-22 the Republicans are facing: The only way to increase upward mobility is more government spending. Schools need more money, unemployed workers need extended benefits, poor mothers need daycare, kids need Pre-K. The best way to be upwardly mobile is to get a job, which is a lot harder to do when Republicans are still criticizing the 2009 stimulus that created millions of jobs. It’s easier to move up if you have health care, but Republicans are cutting Medicaid. Paul Ryan wants to talk education, but Republican governors across the country are cutting education budgets to fund tax cuts.

Ryan argues that the real thing hurting the poor is big government: “Government is a very powerful tool. Too powerful, you might say. Just as it can build and encourage, it can frustrate and deter.” The actual data show that higher government expenditures increase upward mobility. That’s why countries like Denmark have much higher levels of mobility. We find the same correlation at the local level within the U.S.: Higher government spending leads to more mobility.


It is no surprise that the period with the most equal growth and upward mobility was the post-war era, when marginal income taxes on the wealthy topped 90 percent, the government invested heavily in infrastructure and education, and the social safety net was being strengthened, not vitiated. Today, booming countries like China and India are discovering that the government must bolster their middle class with a pension and safety net.

In his book, Social Democratic AmericaLane Kenworthy argues that social democracy—a fully-developed, European-style welfare state—will require the U.S. government to increase revenues by 10 percent of the national GDP, and he proposes a series of tax boosts to get us there. But most Republicans have signed a no-tax pledge, so social democracy is out of the question. If we can’t spend more on poverty, the only other method is lowering taxes on the poor (who, according to Republicans, already pay too little in taxes).

Republicans want a strong, upwardly mobile middle class and a weak government, but the two cannot coexist. Instead, Republicans will have to choose between social mobility and low deficits. Given the party’s obsession with cutting government spending, “mobility” will remain a hollow mantra, nothing more.

Originally published on The New Republic.

Live-blogging a response to my Marx piece

I’ve been tweeted this video more than a few times, so I figured I’d use this President’s day to put down some thoughts (I wrote this up on Monday, just got around to publishing it).

1:00 – Sean doesn’t define capitalism

It’s a 1,000 word piece, I can’t define everything.

1:21 – Molyneux defines capitalism as “respect for private property” and the “non-initiation of force.”

These are contradictory. There is no way to enforce property rights without violence (i.e. the state).

2:14 – Communism when implemented resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people

I’m defending some of Marx’s predictions, not Stalinism or Leninism. Marx and Engels, of course, believed that democracy, not totalitarianism, represented the road to socialism (a revolution of the working class, not a vanguard party).

2:23 – Marx was wrong about the labor theory of value.

I’m daily amazed that the same people who champion Adam Smith will then pillory Marx for accepting the labor theory of value that the former developed.

2:52 – Millions died in agony

Again, because of totalitarianism. Also, I’m not interested in the vulgar parlor game of counting bodies (too common to debates about religion and Marx) but the slave trade and the Belgian occupation of Congo were both wholly “capitalist.”

3:00 – I’m over-afflicted with compassion for the endless victims

Very selective and politically beneficial compassion, but compassion nonetheless. It may be more useful to aim the frustration at Stalin, Lenin and Mao, rather than Marx, though.

3:37 – Cambodia

Perfect example here. Marx spent very little time on how socialism would come about and what it would look like (Capital was supposed to be 12 volumes, only three -four if you include the partial publication of Volume IV by Kautsky – were published). In the manifesto, Marx notes that the distinction between town and country should be eliminated, the KR did so by a violent forced relocation of the people in the city to the town. It strikes me that there is a more humane way to do this. I never really see a logical way to get from Marx’s work to the violence committed in his name (I would countenance one on the teleological view of history, but then Hegel is the problem. Also, my piece is specifically on marxian economics, not his theory of politics or morality).

5:00 – 11:00 – A list of ways that the U.S. is now socialist

I note that the progressive income tax was something Marx proposed, and it was something that did not exist before he advocated it.

Of course, what is so odd about libertarians is that they would almost certainly agree with Marx’s conception of government as a means for the bourgeoisie class to exert power.

It is odd that in a rebuttal of my argument that Marx predicted 2014, Molyneux literally goes through and shows how to varying levels the ten planks of the manifesto have been implemented. It’s incredibly conspiratorial, and would disagree on many, but it seems to prove my point (and appears to come from here).

11:44 – Capitalism means the government doesn’t interfere in private property rights

Here it is again. Always confused when libertarians make this argument. Without the government, you can have no private property, anyone bigger and stronger will just take your shit. Read Hobbes.

11:51 – Government can’t create currency in a capitalist system

Wow, this is getting very crazy.

12:00 – Children are indoctrinated in government schools

Okay, so we’re talking like, an Alex Jones type of character here.

12:45 – Governments create bubbles

Right, because they never happened before the federal reserve

13:00 – Sean is deluded.

Well, he might be right there

13:30 – The federal reserve caused WW2

I pass this assertion to you, dear reader, without comment. Okay, okay, I’ll comment. Milton Friedman, no friend of Marx, argued that the federal reserve’s folly in the aftermath of the Great Depression is that it did not act enough. So…

14:45 – Asserts that I have never exposed myself to opposing views

I interned at the Reason Foundation and the Fox Business Network and described myself as a libertarian from the age of 13 to about 18.

15:00 – Government causes recessions via monetary policy

Google Dutch Tulip Bubble. Very humorous to hear me described as a fundamentalist by a person who ascribes all evil in the world to governments.

15:34 – War on Drugs!

The war on drugs is a terrible policy. But this is an odd segue.

18:15 – Federal reserve is fascist!

Again… No comment

18:39 – The housing market crashed because of government (Community Reinvestment Act)

Not supported by the most comprehensive study of the financial crisis.

19:52 – Government shouldn’t take on debt, because that is a violation of private property


20:29 – Choke back anuerism when struck by [Sean’s] rank insanity

Lots of rhetoric, little argument.

23:38 – Globalization was greater one hundred years ago because you didn’t need a passport, labor was more mobile

I assume he’s talking about immigration controls, not travel. I don’t know the data here. I do know that the mobility of capital and goods has increased dramatically, and I suspect the same is true of labor. Anyone who knows history knows that immigration quotas have been a feature of American society for centuries.

24:00 – Sean lives in cliche

Pull out the plank in thy own eye before examining the mite in thy neighbor’s

25:00 – He views business as a jackal constantly eating up resources

As did Smith, Malthus and Ricardo. Most classical economists felt that imperialism was the invetible result of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

25:15 – Sean has never run a business and nor have most economists

I hear this one a lot. It’s a very silly argument rooted in an anti-intellectual mindset.

26:00 – Businesses satisfy consumer demand

Sometimes. I like what I get does not mean I get what I like.

26:40 – The idea that businesses destroy stuff is absurd

Google ozone layer, smoker’s lungs and Amazon rainforest

27:00 – “I don’t know what that means”

Yeah, I know

27:05 – Businesses don’t eat each other, they compete

Google Comcast and Time Warner.

28:41 – Small businesses are good, but unstable

True, and yes, he is proving my point.

29:45 – Walmart more satisfies people and is environmentally friendly

I like what I get, but do I get what I like? Also, Walmart is hardly a paragon of environmental virtue. Studies show it also depresses local economies when it comes around.

30:00 – Walmart reduces inflation

…By keeping wages low

31:21 – Big banks replace small banks because of politics

Always weird how much libertarians essentially parrot Marx’s theory about the bourgeois overtaking the economy and give him no credit for the idea. Also, again, he’s conceding my point.

32:48 – IPR is bad

Yeah, I know, I’ve written about it. Pretty big red herring though.

36:40 – In a free market if there is an excess of labor, the price of labor will go down, or people will become entrepreneurs

Yes to the first part. The second part is only true if there is enough demand.

37:00 – The progressive income tax does not fight inequality

See Thomas Piketty

To sum up:

This guy mainly just shits on the federal reserve for 30 minutes and occasionally references my article. He does know a lot of multi-syllabic words, which I’m sure will impress many, viewers more interested in style than substance.

I’ve been struck through-out this video of how well my prose stands up. Essentially, this is just a denunciation of the straw man I called elsewhere “vulgar Marxism.”


Do the 1 percent create jobs?

A friend of mine, AJ, posted this on his blog:

Open letter to Jamie Johnson, director of “The One Percent”:

Dear Jamie,

You are an arrogant idiot. Your perception of a “just” America is one that is far from free, and your efforts have hurt the poor much more than they have helped them. You foolishly talked to Milton Friedman in various clips from your documentary “The One Percent”, who gave solid reasoning for why we need wealthy people for job creation. He’s Milton Friedman! You just don’t argue with him when you’re an ignorant “non-economist”–especially disrespectfully. You’ve taken Kanye West as my least favorite person, and I sincerely hope you drop your disposition and ignorance and buy a simple economics textbook. Heck, I’ll buy it if you’ll read it. Let me know.

It’s as good as any example of a tendency I’d like to address again. The idea, at its heart, is whether cutting taxes on the wealthy will create jobs, and therefore the converse, will increasing tax rates on the wealthy (to finance a stronger social safety net) decrease jobs? No. A few reasons here. First you have the Stiglitz argument that Nick Hanauer has adopted: rich people need demand. But more importantly, the amount of investment in the economy doesn’t depend on tax rates, but how much investment there is to be had. At some point, cutting taxes is just pushing on a string. In a depressed economy with little private investments available, it makes sense to make public investments financed by taxes. But even in a non-depressed economy, there is no correlation between economic growth and marginal tax rates on the wealthiest.



I want to plaster this chart up on every subway on the nation, because it shows, empirically, what the left has been saying for decades: cutting taxes on the rich doesn’t stimulate the economy. Why is this important? Well I was talking to my dad over the break, and I asked him why he voted for Bush, given the tax breaks for the rich. Once I established that these tax breaks primarily helped the rich, and hurt him by giving the government less money for say, Social Security or college loans, he told me this:

I just figured that the money being in the hands of someone who could invest it and create jobs, rather than me, who would just consume it.

We now know empirically that this simply isn’t true. For one, my dad can invest, he can easily take out money in the stock market, he could help me and my brother go college (or grad school). More importantly, he can spend! That creates opportunities to invest! That creates jobs! The rich want to place themselves at the center of the economy, but it’s the middle class that is the engine for growth. Don’t forget that.

Let’s talk politics quick. What my father is expressing is a classic example of what Engels would call “false consciousness.” Generally speaking, we would expect people to vote for their class interests, but often they don’t. Thomas Frank proposes that they are swayed by social issues. Steinbeck, proposes aspiration as the motivation (I have frequently invoked this as well). Other political scientists suggest that when material standards cease to become an issue, people vote symbolically (i.e. Bush is just like me!). But all of these arguments understate the extent to which the middle class is entirely unaware how misaligned the interests of the wealthy are with their interests. I find it hard to believe that prejudice against gays, aspiration and symbolism can explain why the middle class would forgo $19,000 in yearly income (how much more money the median family would have if incomes had grown proportionally over the last 30 years). That is, voters have not made rational choices, because they were deceived.

So we are back to the Marxist explanation: the central feature of all capitalist societies is obfuscating class interest and exploitation. As my mother said, “Sean, you should really tell people about this.” So I am. The rich have been screwing you. Your interests are not theirs. It’s as simple as that.

P.S. My ideas on history (and my Christianity) prevent me from being a full-on Marxist, but we really need to start understanding Marx as a classical, Enlightenment economist. This would make our public discussion of his ideas far less prone to the vulgarity * it descends to today.

*Classic sense


John Lennox is an idiot and other musings on intelligent design

Intelligent designers are hilarious, because they have all the blustering certainty and assholery that comes from being really smart and knowing it, without the actually being smart. Most of them come from scientific fields not associated with biology (Lennox, for instance, is a mathematician) and they regularly say hilariously idiotic things. I remember watching Lennox speak and he said, “There were three great thinkers of the 20th century, Marx, Freud and Darwin. Two have fallen, when will the third?” Obviously, only one of those men lived in the 20th century, and Darwin’s theories were pretty well-established within the scientific community before the turn of the 20th century, but we’ll skip over that. Have Marx and Freud fallen? Really!? I know it’s all in vogue to be like, all past Freud or whatever, but what happens here is that Marx or Freud are vulgarized (i.e. oh, Marx thought capitalism sucked and it was doomed and Freud that you could explain all human actions in terms of penises) and then kick the shit out of that vulgarization. To a large extent, this is what the ID community (which is creationism, let’s stop with the B.S.) does to Darwin. But if the idea that Freud and Marx could be dead given that every serious thinker has to grapple with them is absurd, the idea that Darwin could die is even more absurd. To even do biology, you have to accept Darwin’s theories. Important disciplines (paleontology and neuroscience come to mind) rely of Darwinian mechanisms. There are even fields dedicated strictly to a applying Darwinian methods more broadly (i.e. evolutionary psychology). Have we in many ways transcended Darwin? Not quite as much as with Freud and Marx, but certainly there have been modifications, brought about by fields like genetics, neuroscience and paleontology, but broadly speaking, even those who move beyond Darwin (say a Dawkins or a Gould) owe him a huge debt.

Philanthropy! What is it good for? Almost absolutely nothing

Think of the planet’s best human being. Who are you thinking of? Pope Francis? Your parents? Justin Bieber? According to Business Insider, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Because he’s planning to donate $1 billion (less than 5 percent of his massive fortune) to charity. While it’s certainly welcome, philanthropy is far more insidious than it appears at first sight. It tends to lead to fawning press coverage, but little in the way of good reform. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that society’s problems can be solved by the rich and powerful.

In the gospels, there is a story of Christ watching as the wealthy deposit large amounts of their money into the church coffers. Then a poor widow gives two mites, an incredibly modest sum. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” The story is intuitive, because we reward people for their effort; to whom much is given, much is expected.

There’s a very real sense in which it would be hard for Zuckerberg to have done less for the poor. After all, he and his rich Silicon Valley friends regularly use their wealth to lobby for policies that would make them even richer — even if in the guise of social responsibility.

As Chris Rock notes, “behind every great fortune, there is a great crime,” and behind Zuckerberg’s wealth is the relentless monetization of privacy (or, more accurately, the lack thereof). A cynic would be forgiven for wondering if his acts of charity are actually a strategy to placate critics. But, according to Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson, these recent acts of charity should completely silence the critics.

But Carlson’s obsequious flattery is nothing like the unctuous adoration festooned by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their book,”Philanthrocapitalism” — which bears the Orwellian sub-header, “How the Rich Can Save the World.” The authors write approvingly that, “Today’s Philanthrocapitalists see a world full of big problems that they, and perhaps only they, can and must put right.” Maybe, but there could also be a more insidious motive.


As H.L. Mencken writes, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.” While some philanthropists support good causes (like Bloomberg’s fight against Big Tobacco), other pet causes are not so humanitarian. While we may applaud the work of Bill Gates, many philanthrocapitalists, like the Adelsons and the Kochs, have decided that their philanthropic venture will be empowering the Ted Cruzes of the world to wreak havoc. Wealth is power, and concentrated wealth is concentrated power. The most benevolent inventions are also the cruelest.

Even when philanthropy is benign, it is inefficient. In every other developed nation (and the U.S. until recently), everyone, including the rich, pays lots of money in taxes and that funds education, healthcare and daycare. In the U.S., the rich pay significantly less, and charities must beg them for money in order to treat the poor. Hospitals and homeless shelters must dedicate time and energy to wooing billionaires for a pittance.

In his book “The Brothers Karamazov,“ Fyodor Dostoyevsky notes this paradox about liberalism, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” Social democracy, like that practiced by other developed nations, is the solution to the Dostoyevsky problem. Social democracy allows us to love humanity with our taxes and then work on loving each individual person throughout our lives.

Although many on the right (and the sycophantic center) long for the good old days of charity, such dreams are exactly that — profoundly unrealistic. Conservatives, who distrust human nature so profoundly most of the time, place far too much weight on human benevolence when it comes to charity. There simply is no way to ease poverty with charity. For one, charitable contributions in 2011 were only about $300 billion, far below the $707 billion that the government spends on income security and healthcare for the poor. Given the relative weakness of the U.S. safety net already, one funded entirely on charity would be abysmal. And $300 billion is all charitable donations; many donations aren’t aimed at helping the poor, but instead religious or cultural endeavors. One study finds that of the $250 billion given to charity in 2005, only about 30 percent went to aid the poor. Often, “charity” is simply a means to evade taxes. The Walton family, for instance, uses complex “charitable” trusts that end up sending more money tax-free to their heirs than charitable causes.

While government programs like food stamps face strict and rigorous oversight from both the government (GAO) and media (Fox News), private charities face little scrutiny. Government welfare programs are, contrary to popular belief, incredibly successful at reliving poverty and have incredibly low rates of fraud. And these programs must represent the will of the people, rather than a small elite. Social democracy is a huge project, and requires large portions of GDP. (U.S. government revenues as a percentage of GDP is 10 percent lower than the OECD average.) Churches, foundations and other private organizations are simply too decentralized and inefficient to ever provide that level of aid.

Philanthropy has moral problems too. It assumes that those who earn money have the right to keep it, and do with it as they please. We may like it if Bill Gates gives away a few billion, but are we not also forced to accept that he would be equally right to not give away his wealth? The philanthrocapitalist ethos assumes that since markets are good, Gates could only have made the money justly. Wealth is equated with virtue.

At my old school, a business professor used to challenge her students by asking, “Who did more good, Bill Gates or Mother Theresa?” We may be inclined to say Gates, but as Slajov Zizek writes, “The catch is that before you can give all this away you have to take it.” He notes correctly that, “According to [philanthrocapitalist] ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.” Philanthocapitalism assumes the justice of a market distribution and thereby further legitimates the system.

Philanthropy is also profoundly undemocratic. Social programs based in democratic principles work by creating a sense of shared concern for the poor and middle class. We’re all in this together. Like the early church, social democracy is premised on the idea “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Philanthropy assumes a far different relationship between the rich and poor.

Oscar Wilde writes, “Charity [the poor] feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives.” In charity, the rich approach the poor not as equal citizens but rather benefactor and serf. It perpetuates a class society, where the poor and middle class are dependent on the wealthy.

This is the most insidious part of the Davostype conferences (where the rich are surprised to discover inequality exists) and the slavish way Business Insider/Forbes/Fortune treat Gates and Buffet. It is the belief, the disgusting and entirely ill-founded belief, that rich people matter. That we need them. It is they who need us. The rich actually give far less of their already outsize income to charity than the middle class. This shouldn’t surprise us; as G.K. Chesterton noted, “You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man … a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.”

Paul Piff confirmed this with research showing that wealth is corrupting, that the rich are more unethical than the poor (in his words, they are “assholes”). It’s no wonder Paul warned that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Lenin illustrated the concept with a Bible verse from Thessalonians, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Republicans use the verse to chastise welfare cheats, but it’s worth remembering that the rich exist as parasites in our society, extracting far more for themselves than they could ever put in. It is their silly ideas and pet interests that are preventing true reform, their greed poisoning the atmosphere and their love of finance that caused the financial crisis. Philanthropy is predicated on the idea that we need them. Like an emotionally abusive and rapacious lover, they want us to love them because we are dependent on them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Originally published on Salon.

An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument

Salon has posted a riposte to my piece. I (unsurprisingly) find it unpersuasive. Here are some thoughts. Luciano argues that,

While creationism is certainly quackery, I take issue with the idea that it is not a religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief by definition. It is the idea that god created the universe and animals in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This may not be McElwee’s belief, but it is certainly the belief of Ham and millions of other Christians. If McElwee truly believes that young earth creationism is not a religious belief, I challenge him to produce a scientist who rejects the creation account in Genesis, but is nonetheless a young earth creationist.

I think the problem here is that Luciano thinks a statement can either be religious or scientific. I would disagree with him that creationism is religious in the same way I imagine he would disagree (rightly) with me if I said that Lysenkoism was scientific. Religion becomes quackery when it tries to make assertions about the repeatable, observable functioning of the natural world (i.e. a scientific claim).

Luciano notes, “Second, the ‘modern man’ is actually more moral than his predecessors.” I bring this up only because it was only recently that I predicted we would hear this line more often from the new atheist crowd (I address the use of the term NA in a footnote). That’s because NA is not in fact a defense of non-religion, but rather western imperialism. It is the new “Oreintalism” and like the old Oreintalism, it has only the scantest knowledge of the tradition it attacks.

He argues next,

However, the reality is that religion conveys no more wisdom on people than say, Aesop’s fables. But in fairness to Aesop, no one has ever cited his works as justification for irrational hatred and violence. The idea that religion is the only thing keeping people from moral nihilism is easily debunked by the fact that there are millions of people who reject religion yet lead moral lives.

Luciano does not realize that he has given religion the highest of praise! Here is the story of Kassie Neou, a human rights advocate from a Cambodia, during his time in a KR prison cell, as relayed by Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell:  

Captured nonetheless, Neou was tortured five times and spent six months in a KR prison with thirty-six other inmates. Of the thirty-seven who were bound together with iron clasps, only Neou’s hope of survival was rewarded. The young guards executed the others but spared him because they had gown fond of the Aesop’s fables he told them as bedtime stories.

This is the profound impact that a simple story can have on even the most deprived and violent individuals. It is no surprise that Christ, Buddha and Muhammad make ample use of metaphor, parable and analogy. I would argue that the truth’s within Nietzsche, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Christ are at least as important as the truths found in Darwin and Gould, even if the former cannot be tested in any way other than being lived.

Luciano expounds on the violence point by ending his piece with the Weinberg quote I have regularly lampooned: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the sentiment of an educated. white. man. If I persuade my readers of nothing else, I hope to persuade them that the utter humiliation and degradation of deprivation is a far more powerful impetus to evil than belief in the metaphysical. This has been my argument from the beginning, and I stand by it. Religious extremism, and to a large extent, religion itself, is a reaction to the broader political and economic forces within society.

Note: So apparently calling an atheist a “new atheist” is a slur: “First, I have never heard anyone refer to himself as a “New Atheist.” As far as I can tell, it is most commonly intended as a smear by believers and accommodationists – those who believe there is a common ground to be had between religion and science.” It then falls to me to develop a neologism. I think “evangelical atheist” will suffice.*

* I jest of course, “new atheist” is here to stay. It stuck in a way “bright” didn’t and it describes an important zeitgeist. It has been used by neutral sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and atheists themselves.