Monthly Archives: February 2014

The free market case against philanthropy

My most recent Salon piece argues against philanthropy because it makes waaay more sense for the government to provide these services (like virtually every other developed country). But there is also a free-market against philanthropy. If you believe markets are awesome and perfect and sacrosanct and what not, than it makes way more sense for Bill Gates to be working at Microsoft than doing philanthropy. Ditto for all of the other philanthropists. If you are a market fundamentalist, you think market activity is superior to non-market activity. So why not delegate non-market activity to bureaucrats, and leave Bill Gates to create wealth with Bing? (lolol).

To put this another way, it seems like having Bill Gates spend his time fighting malaria is like having Tom Brady mowing the field.


William Saletan is wrong on MLK (and William Barber)

Sorry Will! When I was researching my previous post on Will’s post on Creationism, I stumbled upon his post about the Tim Scott- William Barber controversy. What drew me initially was his vulgar-MLKism*. Saletan writes,

We can argue all day about the Tea Party, Republican policies, and what Martin Luther King would have stood for today. To me, the core of his message was the right to be treated as an individual. His dream was, in his words, a nation in which his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Tim Scott has that right, too. Everyone does. If what you want is the advancement of black people, and all people, take the trouble to get to know each person before you dismiss him. If you’re going to criticize him, at least criticize him as an individual. You owe him that.

I want to address the Scott-Barber dispute later, building off this point. Was MLK’s core mission really the right to be treated as an individual? The first problem with this is that he was a very religious man, and religion is skeptical of liberal claims of individualism. The religious sentiment, at it its core is the idea that we are all part of something far deeper and more meaningful than ourselves. We see MLK expressing that sentiment in his speech at Morehouse College,

First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The individual or nation that feels that it can live in isolation has allowed itself to sleep through a revolution. The geographical togetherness of the modern world makes our very existence dependent on co-existence. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. Because of our involvement in humanity we must be concerned about every human being…

All of this amounts to saying that in the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the very speech Saletan cites, the famous I Have a Dream Speech, Martin Luther King argues,

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

I would never condense MLK to one core principle. He has deep and profound thoughts on religion, economics, race, politics and non-violence. His thought changed during his lifetime. To vulgarize him as someone whose core message “was the right to be treated as an individual,” is belied the numerous references to “brotherhood,” throughout his speech (and life). Saletan is bolstering a weak argument with a *bad* appeal to authority.

Now, to the argument at hand. Saletan is criticizing William Barber for his statement in a speech about MLK,

The extreme right wing down here finds a black guy to be senator and claims he’s the first black senator since Reconstruction, and then he goes to Washington, D.C., and articulates the agenda of the Tea Party.

Saletan begins his response by arguing, “Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party.” I’m reminded of Galbraith’s advice for debating Milton Friedman: whenever he said, “let’s suppose,” stop him and say, “let’s not.” Whenever someone says, “let’s set aside,” you can be reasonably sure they are about to beg the question. And so it is here. Saletan argues that,

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the policy disputes between Democrats and the Tea Party. You may think, as I do, that most of the Tea Party is wrongheaded, and that much of it is unhinged. But that’s not the point here. The point is that William Barber has never met Tim Scott. And none of Barber’s reported comments address Scott’s legislation or his career.

To put it in terms any NAACP leader should understand, Barber has prejudged Scott. He has prejudged him as a puppet based on the senator’s color and his party.

Well, if you set aside what you know about the Republican party, Saletan is right. But we know a few things about the Republican party that are relevant to judging Barber’s assertion.

1) It has halted the Medicaid expansion whenever possible, leaving millions of minorities without healthcare

2) It has savagely attacked President Obama with racially-charged language

3) It has fought against extending UI, to the detriment of the millions of black long-term unemployed

4) It has fought against expanding educational opportunity

5) It has viciously attacked attempts to raise the minimum wage

6) It has cut important parts of the social safety net

7) It has, whenever possible, attempted to reduce minority turn-out for elections

I’m not even looking at the Nixon/Reagan/Bush years. When assessing Scott, a far more relevant quote from MLK comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he talks of, “a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” Looking at Scott’s record, this appears to be a very legitimate worry. 

Scott is against counter-cyclical deficit spending (this is code for cuts to the social safety net). He wants to cut taxes (read: cut spending on the safety net). He wants to deny food stamps to people who lost their job because they were a member of a union. He wants to make English the official language of the U.S. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He is against common sense regulations on guns. He declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus. He has not condemned the war on drugs.

In a class-based society the interests of class will often trump the interests of one’s racial group. Sometimes they will not. Tim Scott has placed the interests of his class (he owns an insurance company) over the interests of African-Americans broadly.** Given all of this, Barber’s judgement (he need not reference Scott’s record to be aware of it) does not seem premature, but rather apt.

* Freudianism, Darwinism, Nietzscheanism, Platonism, etc which involves making profound and deep thinkers banal and simplistic. 
** The Democratic Party is shit on these issues as well.

Peter Singer is at least one century ahead of us morally

I realized this this weekend reading his work. He started his career railing against speciesism with his brilliant Animal Liberation. At some point he must have realized that in a world still rife with sexism, racism and classism, the debate over speciesism would have to wait. So his most recent book (The Life You Can Save) is just a plea for us to give a little more of our money to help poor kids. Given how little rich people give, I’m guessing the speciesism debate will come into vogue in 2214.

William Saletan’s understanding of creationism is deeply deficient

I’ve written a lot about creationism and its genesis, which I see as a desire, deep in this country, to avoid complexity and ambiguity. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because the scientists who espouse it “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He’s dead wrong. Creationism is merely part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism,” an absurd and dangerous idea, Christian doctrine. Saletan believes that a magical 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.

I think this is a well-placed dissemblance forwarded to obfuscate the deeply political motives of the creation movement:

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.

Can one be a good creation scientist? 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.

I’ve been told by more than a few science people that this isn’t true, and I think I can prove it. For instance, in order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating, which seems to me very important for other areas of science. I’m sure this isn’t the only instance where creationism bleeds into other parts of science (I doubt you can do biology, paleontology or astronomy properly, to name three).

I’ll end this blog post with this story from Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). I humbly request Saletan consider it when next writing on creationism: 

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but … well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not—at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth—or at least at the same time—and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought—that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

That, Mr. Saletan, is not someone who has compartmentalized their creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which they see the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect) do you really believe this is a small deal for these scientists? I suspect very much the opposite.



If conservatives aren’t funny, are they wrong?

I’m in the final editing process of a piece for The Atlantic about whether conservatives can be funny. It’s been a long time in the making, so I’m really excited to get it out there. Today at the gym I was watching the Nantucket Film Festival’s Comedy Roundtable 2012 with Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey and Bill Hader.* At one point in the discussion (around 15 mins) Carrey interrupts and asks what makes something funny. After some discussion (at 18 mins), Ben Stiller says, “the truth.” I don’t want to give away my take coming up, but if “truth” is funny, and someone is arguing that conservatives aren’t, isn’t she saying that conservatives can never say anything true? Is that a proposition she wants to accept? Can she avoid arguing that?

P.S. Not going to lie, neither of these roundtables are particularly impressive. Far better is Talking Funny

* They’ve done two and so far had no female panelists and Rock was the only black one. In a very embarrassing moment in the 2012 one, the panelists are asked to name a female comedian they admire and Hader forwards Wiig. She is the only female comedian mentioned in the entire round table. **

** This is, of course, absurd. I regularly go to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and frequently see hilarious female comedians. Off the top of my head, Amy Shumer, Kathleen Madigan, Aubrey Plaza, Maria Bamford, Natasha Leggero…


Edit: I realize that if you don’t know what I’m writing about, these questions sound logically absurd. That is, many, if not most truths, are not funny. What I mean by my question is that, if there is truth in conservatism, than it could most certainly be expressed in a funny way. So is the idea that conservatives can’t be funny just a sneaky way of saying, “facts have a well-know liberal bias”? Is it hubris?

Interviews with the governors and economists working on the GPI

Lew Daly and I have a new piece on The New Republic examining states implementing the Genuine Progress Indicator. Because the piece is meant for a broad audience, some of the finer points had to be brushed over. This piece explains some of the more wonky questions about GPI.

1. Why not GDP?

A lot of people argue that “GDP is a bad indicator.” It’s not; it’s a very incomplete indicator. Think of baseball statistics. A player’s batting average tells you an important fact about a player—what percentage of the time at bat he gets a hit. That’s important to know. But it’s not the only thing to know. A power hitter may have a low batting average, but he may drive in a lot of runs, so it’s important to consider RBI (Runs Batted In). If a player gets a lot of walks, his batting average won’t reflect that, you need to look at her OBP (On Base Percentage). A player may get a lot of doubles and triples, but her batting average won’t consider those any differently than a single. For that we would need the player’s slugging percentage.

Any coach who judged his players purely on their batting average would be at a competitive disadvantage to a coach who judged players on a wider collection of metrics. GDP is like a batting average, it tells you something very specific and very important, but it fails to capture the full performance of an economy.

2. Okay, so what is the Genuine Progress Indicator?

The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) includes 26 indicators to give a broader picture of the sustainability of growth.

When the GDP is compared with the GPI, we discover that much of the “progress” over the past several decades is illusory:

3. Why?

It varies by state. So far, the states that have implemented GPI have discovered that much of their economic growth came at the expense of the other components of GPI. Their workers have longer commutes, they have depleted natural resources, volunteerism and free time have declined and income gains have been unequal. It’s like discovering that a star player has a high batting average, but rarely advances runners and frequently strikes out in key situations. Maryland, for instance, has seen its economic component increase dramatically, while social and environmental indicators have remained flat or declined.

4. What should we do about it?

I spoke with policymakers and economists to get their thoughts on implementing GPI.

Anthony Pollina, who crafted the legislation to develop Vermont’s GPI in 2012 discussed why legislatures need to take interest:

“We make policies the same way every year and we make the same mistakes every year. We cut programs and deny the fact that we are hurting people and undermining their well-being. The GPI can put a halt to that… The GPI is a brand new concept for most people and it’s a brand new way of making policy and looking at policy. We tend to make policy the same way every year and we make the same mistakes, cutting programs and undermining well-being… What the GPI is going to do, for instance looking at the environmental impacts, it’s going to force policymakers to recognize problems with the way they’ve been doing things. A lot of policymakers choose not to recognize problems because when you recognize a problem you have to start to fix things.”

Cylvia Hayes, First Lady of Oregon told me why she decided to push for GPI:

“You can’t effectively govern a state in a two-year biennial budget cycle… As a person in the sustainable development field you have two problems. One is, we’re measuring the wrong thing, and two, you’re measuring things on such a short time horizon that you can’t actually see the full costs and benefits of policy decisions. So we’re integrating the GPI with a ten-year budget plan outcomes metric and then begin to make explicit what our policy and state budget decisions will mean to all three capital accounts (our physical capital, human capital and environmental capital)…. The intent in Oregon is to use the GPI to craft the state budget. Oregon has a long history of working up alternative metrics we had the Oregon Progress Board… but one of the reasons it didn’t move the dial is because it wasn’t attached to state policy decisions and state budget decisions… We worked with a group of graduate students and an ecological economist at Portland State University. We have a rudimentary GPI, now we are hiring a person to oversee the implementation of GPI. The first part of that will be updating the GPI, making it more rigorous.”

Bernie Sanders, Senator (VT) told me why he thinks the federal government needs to look at GPI:

“I think it is enormously important. GDP tells us about the economic growth we see as a nation, but it doesn’t tell us anything about who benefits from that growth… What we have got to do is come up with an approach that tell us how we are doing as a nation in terms of well-being for our people… Who is benefiting from economic growth, that’s the first thing that GPI tells us. Secondly, and more importantly, if someone builds a coal-burning plant and that creates economic growth, GDP measures that, but if that creates global warming, GDP doesn’t measure that… You can create jobs having one guy dig a ditch and another guy fill in that ditch… but what the GPI does is it gives us some guidelines as to what our priorities are as a nation…”

Eric Zencey, author most recently of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy and a key architect in Vermont’s GPI program, told me how he convinced Vermont legislators to look into GPI:

“It just makes such good common sense… some of us hung around the capital and talked it up a little bit… We got attention because if you can get out there and say, ‘we oughta measure what matters,’ it’s hard for someone to say we should measure what doesn’t matter… Sound business practices include subtracting costs from benefits… this is just double-entry bookkeeping to the economy as a whole… Another factor in the acceptance of GPI was that the legislature had committed to doing outcome-based budgeting… if you are going to argue that programs have to be evaluated against the outcomes they produce than you have to some larger strategic sense of what you want those outcomes to be. GPI is outcomes at the macro level.”

5. Right, right, but let’s get wonky. How do we take this from an idea and actually implement it?

John Kitzhaber, Governor of Oregon, gave me the nitty-gritty about how to implement the GPI with budget decisions:

“If you invest in at-risk kids you can’t show the ROI [Return on Investment] in two years, but you can sure show it in five or six years. So we became intrigued about how we could not just adopt the GPI but make it an effective driver for policy and budget decisions….The holy grail of GPI advocates is making it more than an academic tool but to integrate it with policy. So first we’re creating a website to inform people of what this is… and we also want to see what elements of GPI we could integrate into our 2015 – 17 budget as pilots. One area where we could get good outcomes is at-risk kids. We need to start small, but what elements could we integrate in 15-17 and then what can add into the 17-19 budget. When I leave office and hand over the 19-21 budget hopefully by that time we’ve institutionalized the trajectory of using these metrics to guide budgetary policy…Most of the interest I’ve seen has not been legislative leadership, but governors and budget-makers, people on ways and means committees. It also has to be an educational initiative, that’s the importance of the website… It’s very important to get governors behind this…

Doug Hoffer, Vermont State Auditor, talked to me about how his office will use GPI for performance audits:

“My office only conducts performance audits (having contracted out for the mandated financial audits) so there may be opportunities to use the GPI as we go forward. The process of performance auditing is defined by GAGAS standards but the choice of audit topics and the definition of objectives allows for some discretion. To the extent we measure program performance against legislative intent, it may be possible (this being Vermont) that GPI values are explicit or inferred. Our only constraint would be the quality and reliability of the data used in our analysis. We are not allowed (nor is it prudent) to make findings and recommendations without sufficient supporting evidence. In any case, I look forward to using GPI metrics as circumstances permit.”

Eric Zencey tells me about standardization,

“GPI 2.0 includes some additional tweaks that cover things that are front and center for other states, some researchers in Hawaii said, ‘this is very East-coast centric’ and Utah said, ‘what about water security and range-land?’ So GPI 2.0 will include some of those things. There is a high level of cooperation among states. I see this GPI summit group like the American Society for Mechanical Engineers which sets standards… There are some elements of GPI that are science-based, other parts, it’s arbitrary, it just matters that we all do it the same.”

6. Okay, but can this get bipartisan support?

John Kitzhaber tells me that Republicans are interested in his state,

“The GPI can get public bipartisan support when it moves from the academic to the practical. We have to show the practical applicability…I’ve very committed to make it happen, we can’t have any false starts…For example the business community and a lot of Republicans in the business community are very interested in early-childhood education. They understand there is a big ROI there. If you can show that by more exclusively connecting the consequences of our budgetary and policy decisions to downstream costs, whether those are depletion of natural capital or driving up the cost of the social safety net becomes more resonant.”

Eric Zencey tells me how GPI can make the government more efficient,

“We had a Republican governor before Peter Shumlin and he brought to a Democratically controlled legislature a proposal [Challenge for Change] that would improve the efficiency of the provision of government services. When I started talking about GPI, at first they pushed it aside; I wrote back and said, ‘everything you hope to accomplish is easier under a GPI.’ An aide wrote back to me and said, ‘you just moved up on the list.’ The aide noted that this could make sure that Challenge for Change did not become a just an axe.”

7. What about the federal government?

Eric Zencey talks about the institutional memory in the federal government:

“There was interest from the BEA and there is institutional memory; they know GDP is a flawed measure… Absent federal action, GPI is going forward like other important initiatives are, a state-by-state level. I don’t think we’ll need all 50 before we get action… when somewhere between 30 and 35 states are compiling and using it.”

Cylvia Hayes tells me about trickle-up leadership:

“I think that, unfortunately we are at a point in this country that the federal governance structure is so flawed that we aren’t going to significant breakthrough leadership on any of the big issues in front of us. One of the reason’s John decided to run again was because of the notion I call trickle-up leadership. We believe that states are the innovation labs right now and that if we can have state and multistate regional collaboration on bold and innovative policies on a whole host of issues from energy and climate to poverty eradication, that will provide an opportunity for trickle-up and trickle-out leadership.”

John Kitzhaber talks about critical mass:

“We have a working relationship between Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia… If we can work with Washington, which is interested in this and bring California on board, we can get a critical mass…I see it coming out of D.C. but I see D.C. responding to states…”

Bernie Sanders talks about his goal:

“I’m very proud that Vermont and Maryland are moving forward… all of which is terribly important in helping us to gain information about what it takes to make us a happier, healthier society…What Vermont and other states are doing is exactly the right thing… I’ll be introducing legislation soon to bring the GPI to the federal government.”

8. Okay, but we can’t measure happiness! Isn’t this just a pie-in-the-sky idea?

Cylvia Hayes explains why Bhutan has been unfairly characterized:

“When John and I went to Bhutan the newspaper here was critical of it, but what was interesting was the positive response defending the concept… there is a hunger for it, but the happiness frame was unfortunate because it tends to get trivialized. But when you look more deeply at what Bhutan is doing, it’s not trivial at all. They are attempting to run policy and infrastructure decisions through a triple-bottom line, much more comprehensive set of metrics that gives a much fuller account of the what the effects of the policy will be. That, a tool like that, should be attractive regardless of your party affiliation if you are interested in making wise public decisions with your public dollars.”

Eric Zencey talks about why GPI is serious,

“They try to associate GPI with something it isn’t then attack the thing it isn’t. GPI isn’t that flakey happiness… we’re not measuring happiness. They are both alternative indicators and they both have arguments for them, but this is not the gross happiness indicator. There have been attempts to throw smoke and throw sand.”

Is my characterization of New Atheism a straw man?

I backed away from it a tad when I published my first piece, mainly because the criticism was so vehement. I noted that the syllogism with which I started may have been strong and probably doesn’t represent all thinking on this issue. Well, I think it does again. Partly because I had lunch with a friend who re-assured me that I was not crazy, and party because of a new tendency in intellectual debates to basically say something, but hedge just enough to not come out and say it. But your audience figures it out.

So, on the NA. There are two ways to go about my political critique: a strong and weak. The weak argument is that that New Atheists tend to downplay political and economic tensions and overemphasize religious ones. This seems to me almost axiomatic, and can be seen most clearly by looking at how they talk about the Middle East. The second is that NA have a weirdly Utopian and summarized in the deliciously revealing Steven Weinberg quote, oft-cited by NA, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” This, I think is our fundamental disagreement. It stems from a very silly but very Western middle-class mindset, which I have seen too many times to count. It’s the idea that there is a way that we can structure society in a way that makes everyone happy. You see it on the Beltway, it’s the heart of Reaganism (cut taxes for the rich, grow the economy for the middle class, no one loses) and it’s why Obama is fucking up so dreadfully. You also see it in a lot of wealthy philosophers, like Wittgenstein, who want to ignore class conflict and instead look to the weakness of language. And the NA have embraced it roundly. Instead of seeing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one over land and resources, it’s about that damned religion! 9/11 wasn’t retribution for centuries of intervention in the Middle East, it’s that damned religion!

I used to think that the goal here was to obfuscate power structures. That’s the result, but the motivation is more benign: to portray the world as getting better, with religion being the main problem. Why? Because then you deny the fact that liberal capitalism isn’t quite as awesome as we thought. Want proof that this is the goal? Read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels. It’s basically a defense of free trade and liberal capitalism (and a shitload of Kant).

Okay, so, back to the original syllogism. I said,

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

I added,

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.

So first off, I’m a polemicist, so I allow myself rhetorical and literary flourishes (for instance, I say the fundamentalists have “weaponized Christianity”) intended to make my writing more enjoyable. If the malaise of our day is to cloak one’s argument in qualifiers to protect oneself, I prefer to go a step further to provoke latent conflict. This is because I believe that our society tries to hide conflicts I would much rather have out in the open.

Is my syllogism true? It’s worth noting a few things. First, when a NA does a debate or writes a book, they are prioritizing attacking religion over anything else they could be doing (say fighting deprivation). That means they attach important significance to the consequences of religion. If they thought economics were the problem, they might spend more time talking about it. Second, let’s look at the propositions:

Hitches debated against the proposition, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.”
Grayling debated for the proposition, “The world would be better off without religion.”
Dawkins debated for the proposition, “This House Believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century”
Sam Harris debated the proposition, “Religion and Politics: The End of the World?”

A few caveats are probably necessary. For instance, much like I don’t choose the titles for my pieces, these men (I don’t know of any women that are super prominent in the NA movement, for good reason) probably don’t choose the titles for the debates. Sometimes they want to amend them. But they are willing to stand by them. The titles are meant to be provocative, certainly, but I think they indicate that the NA are happy to stand by the ideas I’ve attributed to them.

Final note: On the term “New Atheist.” It’s not meant to really describe every atheist, merely a zeitgeist in the atheist movement (I’m well aware these men do not agree on everything, but they are similar enough to note their common ground).


Conservatives hate conserving things

There was a time when “conservative” meant something. It meant respecting tradition, it meant opposing sweeping and rapid change to society, it meant fearing the rise of materialism, it meant emphasizing the importance of community, it meant strengthening families and it meant preserving the environment. Today, conservatism is a series of dogmas aimed at enriching the already fabulously wealthy and strengthening existing power structures. It also means opposing literally any reform Obama proposes. I think Obama should just start proposing everything Republicans cynically put forward as an “alternative” and force them to admit that they despise the very idea of governing. 

States are ditching GDP

Co-Authored with Lew Daly

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought informs Loonquawl that the meaning of life is 42. Loonquawl exclaims, “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?” Deep Thought replies, “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” In much the same way, Americans talk about GDP growth without ever wondering what GDP actually measures. We all know the answer, but most of us don’t know the question.

GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, measures the market value of all goods produced within a country. It was first developed in the heart of the Great Depression, a context of dramatic declines in economic activity and scarce information about what was happening. When the architect of GDP, Simon Kuznets (who later won the Nobel Prize for this work), presented his first report to Congress, he warned against expecting GDP to answer the most important questions for a country: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.” Later, he wrote in The New Republic, “goals for ‘more’ growth should specify of what and for what.” To quote Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” Kuznets’s concerns were not heeded, and GDP growth increasingly became the primary standard for measuring a society’s economic progress and standard of living.

In the wake of the Great Recession, Americans have become cognizant of the fact that GDP bears little connection to their well-being, and many states are working together to implementalternative measures that more accurately reflect the progress of human well-being. One such measure is theGenuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which assesses 26 variables related to economic, social, and environmental progress. Economic indicators include inequality and the cost of unemployment. Environmental indicators include the cost of water pollution, air pollution, climate change, wetlands depletion, forest cover change, and non-renewable energy resources. Social indicators include the value of housework, higher education and volunteer work as well as the cost of commuting and crime.

Two states, Maryland and Vermont, have officially adopted GPI (Maryland through administrative action by Governor Martin O’Malley; Vermont through a bill passed by its legislature). Oregon and Washington are also moving toward adoption of the GPI in some form. At a recent national summit for “GPI in the States,” organized by the policy think tank Demos, delegations from 20 states, including researchers, advocates, and public officials, met in Baltimore todiscuss implementing GPI in their states. O’Malley went to the heart of the issue in a powerfulkeynote address:


To make genuine progress, we must be willing to adopt a more holistic definition of progress itself.  To seek an honest assessment of whether our graphs are moving in the right direction – or in the wrong one. A system without feedback eventually fails. And our country, our states, our cities – they are all systems.  Life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. Period. Full stop. Perhaps, there is no better description of the intent of GPI. Its purpose is to further the conditions that are conducive to life.


In a recent interview, reflecting on Maryland’s leadership with the GPI, O’Malley noted that, “In drafting a Constitution to form ‘a more perfect union,’ our founding fathers identified justice, tranquility, security, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty as necessary components for achieving that goal.” O’Malley noted the irony that, “more than 200 years later we do not formally take stock of any of these in evaluating our nation’s prosperity.” Already, GPI is influencing the development of new green growth and clean energy programs in Maryland. The state has established new goals that affect GPI but not Gross State Product (GSP, a measure of state economic output), such as reducing infant mortality, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and planting more cover crops (crops that improve soil fertility).

Policy development using GPI is in its relative infancy. As with any new measurement framework, there are implementation challenges. The Gund Institute of the University of Vermont recently released an initial set of estimates under the state’s new GPI law, and many legislators from both political parties are interested in applying the new metrics to policy. Anthony Pollina, who crafted the legislation to develop Vermont’s GPI in 2012, told us, “We make policies the same way every year and we make the same mistakes every year. We cut programs and deny the fact that we are hurting people and undermining their well-being. The GPI can put a halt to that.”

Under Governor John Kitzhaber, honored by Governing Magazine as a “public official of the year” for his bipartisan achievements, Oregon is developing a ten-year state budget plan which will be integrated with GPI. He told us that many of the Republican concerns in his state aren’t adequately measured by GSP, citing growing support for early childhood education as an example. “GPI can get public bipartisan support when it moves from the academic to the practical,” he told us. “We have to show the practical applicability.” With GPI and related approaches, some public costs can be better understood as smart investments. “By more exclusively connecting the consequences of our budgetary and policy decisions to downstream costs, it becomes more resonant,” Kitzhaber argued.

Alternative measures of progress are getting significant traction internationally. The Human Development Index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, literacy and Gross National Income (GNI) per person, is now widely used and increasingly influential in policy debates, particularly in developing countries. More recently, the United Nations introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) in 2012, which measures human capital and environmental capital as well as physical capital to determine the sustainability of growth.

But the U.S. government has lagged behind states and the international community. Eric Zencey, who was influential in bringing GPI to Vermont, argues that if states begin to use GPI it will put pressure on the federal government to do the same. “GPI is proceeding the way other important movements have, on a state-by-state level,” he said. “We don’t need all 50 states to adopt it before it becomes clear this needs to be done at the federal level.” Senator Bernie Sanders believes that federal action along these lines is critical for our future and said that state-level initiatives are “enormously important,” in prodding the federal government into action.

There are signs that the government is moving in that direction, notably the HHS-funded panel investigating measures of well-being and a recent report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that examined the limits of GDP and suggested a review of the national accounting system. The National Research Council has investigated methods for including environmental values in the national accounting system.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy said that GNP “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” We ignored those words then, and instead rushed headlong toward an unsustainable future. Only now, nearly half a century later, are we beginning to heed them.

Originally published on The New Republic.


Ken Ham is a crazy-pants

In a much-hyped event live-streamed last night, “Science Guy” Bill Nye set out to defend evolution in a debate with Ken Ham, the CEO of Kentucky’s Creation Museum. But there was a fundamental problem: Ham’s young-earth creationism is not a religious belief, and it certainly is not scientific. To put it bluntly, it is quackery.

To understand Ham’s view, we need a brief history of how the Bible is interpreted, and where his radically new heuristic comes from. As Paul Fry notes, literary theory or the study of texts (hermeneutics) was originally developed to interpret the Bible. Interpretations have always been based on contemporary events and politics; for instance, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism were based on an attempt to placate the Roman empire. Biblical literalism as an interpretative method can be traced back to Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Catholic Church and his use of Scripture to undermine their authority. Martin Luther’s democratic mission later combined with the tenets of the scientific revolution and fundamentalist politics to produce biblical literalism, the idea that the Bible is a series of testable assertions that can be proven or disproven and that a layman can read and understand the meaning of Scripture.

Biblical literalism is absurd, but it is simple. The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

Because Ham’s claims are clearly unscientific (he denies radiometric dating, claims that the Earth is 6,000 years old based on incomplete genealogies and argues that the flood explains tectonic shifts) we must call them what they are: quackery. H.L. Mencken noted that human progress “tends to go too fast — that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men.” Because of this, he worried that, “the average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simple nonsense.” This attitude was on display throughout the debate, when Bill Nye would accept ambiguity and Ken Ham simply substituted ambiguity for absolute and uncompromising and entirely unfounded certainty.

Creationism is a fraud. It is like witchcraft, the 9/11 conspiracy theory or homeopathy; it is a closed system, one that reason cannot penetrate. Nye’s decision to debate Ham and the decision to even air the debate was absurd. Bill Nye accepted the debate assuming he was debating about evolution; he was not. Rather he was debating a political issue. As Ken Ham has said elsewhere,  ”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.” The Discovery Institute, which touts creationism with a different name (intelligent design), has espoused much the same opinions. Like all fundamentalist movements, they seek to explain all the world’s ills from one source. Barbara Forrest writes, “The ID movement developed out of the rejection of evolution by people who believe that the moral ills of the modern world have been caused by Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea.”

Both organizations (Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute) are intimatelyintertwined with right-wing political causes. In the debate, Ham mentioned these ideas, noting that the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. The goal is not to defend the absurd idea of young-earth creationism, but rather biblical literalism, the ideology from which fundamentalists draw their strength. If evolution is true, if the Bible cannot be interpreted literally, then women can preach and seek abortion and gays can wed. Throughout its history, religious fundamentalism has been a force to mobilize and defend far-right causes — creationism is merely a “wedge” to expose children to fundamentalist beliefs.

Throughout the debate, Nye made the observation that Ham was essentially a cultish leader; he asked frequently why Ham’s followers would “believe him instead of what they could clearly see before his eyes.” Ham admitted that, “No one will ever convince me that the word of God is not true.” Unlike evolution, which would be easily falsifiable (As J.B.S. Haldane noted, all it would take to disprove evolution is “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.”) Creationism is not falsifiable. Debating a creationist is like debating a 9/11 conspiracy theorist; one enters an alternate realm, one that is entirely self-reinforcing and impenetrable.

As Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922,

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

I have deep and profound disagreements with those who call themselves New Atheists. I worry with Rabindranath Tagore that, “material advantage … has tempted the modern man away from his inner realm of spiritual values,” and that these New Atheists, are the type of “precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical … driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and are themselves enveloped by the flame.” But to degrade and exploit religion, as Ken Ham does, is appalling. It brings us no closer to an understanding of the deep questions that we struggle with. He and his ilk have no place in our intellectual life. I propose, with Stephen Jay Gould and the Catholic Church, that we recognize that religion and science are two entirely different realms.

As Martin Luther King Jr. argued, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”

Originally published on Salon.