Archive for August, 2012

Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?

August 28, 2012

I recently heard a talk by Gary Brill , who teaches psychology at Rutgers, discussing studies showing religious believers are happier than nonbelievers.

 Defining happiness can be elusive – a feeling that one is happy? Perhaps a more useful concept is well-being, or flourishing, which describes an entire life rather than just one emotion.

Anyhow, Brill did discuss data showing religious believers report greater happiness, suffer fewer psychological disorders (unless you count religious belief itself), recover better from setbacks, cope better with stress, and even have better health and longevity. Religion often does entail rules against harmful behaviors; and imparts a sense of meaning and purpose to life. All this contributes to a positive mental outlook which might affect our immune systems (thus further explaining the health effects). Brill noted that while fervent religious believers get these benefits, weak or conflicted believers are worse off than nonbelievers.

Morality (and feeling moral) is also important to us, and we’re constantly told that religion gives us morality. However, studies have shown that the actual moral behavior of religious believers is no better than for nonbelievers. Furthermore, there is no sign of moral breakdown in those European countries, particularly Scandinavian, where religion has almost vanished from people’s lives. To the contrary, these are among the world’s most orderly societies, with lower social pathologies like crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., than in Godly America. (This shows, yet again, that basic morality is built into us by evolution, part of our adaptation of living in groups where social cohesion was vital for survival. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from our human nature.)

Another factor in positive psychology is one’s relationship with truth and reality. We want to feel we are effective agents in negotiating our way through life’s reality. Brill invoked a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick: Imagine a machine that simulates pleasurable experiences, producing sensations and emotive feelings identical to the real thing, or even better. Would you spend your life in the machine? Most people say no. They value truth and reality. This too comes from our evolutionary heritage: for our ancestors, distinguishing reality from illusion could well be a life-or-death matter.

 And of course there is obvious dissonance between this truth tropism and religion. Some of us reject the Nozick machine of religious faith, and prefer living in the real world. Must this mean sacrificing the well-being that religion confers, as described above?

Certainly not.

For all those mentioned studies, you have to be careful what effects are really being measured. As Brill elucidated, a key problem is that these tend largely to be studies of Americans. And when it comes to matters religious, American exceptionalism is very real. Brill showed stunning results from a survey asking, “Are you sure God exists?” About 60% of Americans said yes. But in other advanced countries, the yes percentages were so tiny that that belief could be considered eccentric.

 (An aside: Why America is so religious is much debated. One thesis (beloved of the Left; click here) is that European social welfare systems are so protective that people feel no more need for divine help, in contrast to “harsh” America. I think that’s nonsense. While religion does thrive in poor benighted environments, Americans don’t have materially harsher existences than cosseted Europeans. The real difference is the First Amendment which, unlike in Europe, keeps government’s stultifying hands off religion, and forces churches to compete with one another. That free market in religion has (as free markets are wont to do) made a far more vibrant, dynamic, and user-friendly religious scene in the U.S.)

Anyhow, America’s unique religiosity has a big effect on the happiness studies. People want to fit in; to belong; to meet societal expectations. In America, that means religion. A key element of well-being is social connectedness; we are deeply social animals (again the evolutionary result of living in groups that had to hang together). What the studies really show is that it’s the social and fellowship aspects of religious participation that confer the benefits – not so much the private, inner belief. Socially isolated believers don’t get those benefits.

So, in America, it’s hardly surprising that the religious believer far more easily taps into all the well-being benefits of fitting in with other like-minded people, than does the nonbeliever, who more often feels like a pariah. No wonder religious folks tend to be happier; but, again, it’s not religious belief per se that causes this, it’s the social penumbra of religious participation.

That’s harder for nonbelievers to replicate, but by no means impossible. You just have to work a little more at it. Humanist groups are scarcer than churches, but they exist. And understanding that our life on Earth is the only one we get makes improving that life, both for oneself and others, the central humanist value. That is all the purpose and meaning anyone needs.

 And the rewards of the humanist path are actually greater. One can thereby live authentically, without that annoying tension between belief and reality. For human beings, bio-engineered to care about truth, living in the real world is better than religion’s fantasyland.

What Money Can’t Buy?

August 22, 2012

Scandals everywhere. All about money (or sex, as in Penn State; or was that really about money too?). Is money the root of all evil?

 In truth it was one of our greatest inventions. Barter works fine if each party has something the other wants. Otherwise, it’s far handier if you can sell your stuff for cash you can use to buy anything. This enabled the division of labor, with people specializing in professions – one of civilization’s killer apps.

I’ve written before about greed. It may seem puzzling that a billionaire wants even more – how many mansions and yachts can one use? But that’s not the point. It’s the playing of the game; money is the scorecard. And wealth confers power and status, which humans are biologically programmed by evolution to crave – especially males, to attract more mating opportunities. (Aristotle Onassis said that if women did not exist, all the money in the world would be meaningless.)

The recent supposed “crisis” of capitalism has intensified concern with issues of money –inequality and greed. The cliché is that money can’t buy happiness. Tell that to the world’s billion or so still subsisting (or not) on less than a dollar a day. In fact, money buys a lot of things that make life more pleasant. And longer.

But, beyond a certain point, does it confer greater happiness? Some studies say no. This partly reflects what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the “Adaptation Effect.” You adapt psychologically to whatever socio-economic niche you happen to occupy, which you now expect to occupy; and anything merely expected gives no special satisfaction. Win the lottery and you’ll soon adapt to that higher niche. You may not feel happier; yet your quality of life has improved in a thousand ways. Does that not count for anything? Rather, for the world as a whole, surely it’s good if more people can afford better living.

True, pursuit of money for its own sake, rather than for what it buys, may actually degrade quality of life by detracting from pursuit of other desiderata (friendship, love, wisdom, etc.). Yet chasing wealth, for whatever reasons, is the chief motivating factor for all the efforts ever made to improve our lives. Until every human has such a good existence that no further gain is feasible, we should not denigrate the moneygrubbing that fuels such improvement.

In How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, Robert and Edward Skidelsky invoke a 1930 Keynes essay foreseeing increased future productivity so people need work only 15 hours a week to maintain their standard of living. We’ve gotten the higher productivity, but don’t work less. The Skidelskys wonder why people don’t claim all that added leisure time. Well, maybe they’re not satisfied to “maintain” a 1930 living standard! We do value leisure, but are motivated to work to afford better leisure activities. Besides, most people’s sense of identity is in their work, not their leisure. They don’t want to be like the useless, frivolous Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

Then comes philosopher Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.* (It ought to be What Money Shouldn’t Buy.) Sandel decries a world where it seems everything is for sale; he doesn’t want poor people selling kidneys to rich ones, for example. Many would indeed see an “ick” factor here.

 But that ignores the fundamental logic, and virtue, of all free market transactions: people buy and sell to each other only when it makes both better off. You can argue that the impoverished kidney seller is not really a free agent in the transaction because his poverty leaves him little choice. Perhaps so. But this is condescending elitism of the worst sort.

Nobody is ever totally free; everything we do or choose is constrained by a myriad of factors – economic, social, cultural, psychological, physical. Poverty is just one such constraint. Still we try to do what improves our circumstances. Thus the kidney peddler may be constrained by dire poverty, but given that reality, he judges that selling the kidney will improve his situation. He needs the money more than the kidney. Where does philosopher Sandel get off telling him he shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice for himself? And what about the other guy who may die if he can’t buy the kidney? Do Sandel’s moral scruples leave either of them better off? No, they do not.

In fairness, Sandel effectively argues that allowing such sales is bad for society; and that’s a legitimate concern. Certainly society may limit freedoms that harm third parties. But are kidney sales anybody’s business but the buyer and seller? Well, you might argue that a society permitting this is in some sense a worse society for everyone. That selling kidneys for money somehow uglifies society, or somehow degrades human life, etc.; again, the gut’s “ick” response. But these are all subjective judgments with no basis other than feeling. Not good enough.

To feel there’s something inherently grubby about selling anything for money is an irrational prejudice. The existence and use of money is a good thing, not bad. Ability to buy and sell things makes people more free. That’s why it’s called a free market. It means having more opportunities to engage in exchanges that make people better off – and kidney sales are in fact a perfect example. Anything that hinders such transactions makes people worse off. If you disallow kidney sales, the seller can’t ameliorate his poverty, and the other fellow will die (the ultimate in being worse off).

Sandel has forgotten what may be the first principle of moral philosophy: whether something is good or bad depends on how it affects the well-being of creatures capable of feeling. The parties to the kidney sale strike a deal because it improves well-being for both. It may put Sandel’s sensitive moral nose out of joint; but I don’t see how his personal feelings come into the matter at all.

*Confession: I have only read reviews, but I did read Sandel’s book Justice making similar arguments.

Romney’s Medicare Speech: First Draft

August 19, 2012

My fellow Americans:

Our opponents want this election to be about Medicare, because frankly, they’ve done great in the past exploiting this issue by dishonestly scaring people. They’re trying it again. We think the real issue of this election is the economy, its future, and government’s role. But Medicare is in fact a big part of all that. And it can be a complicated and confusing issue. So let me try to address it with absolute clarity.

They say we Republicans have always wanted to destroy Medicare, and want senior citizens to suffer. Like we’re inhuman monsters. Now they’ve actually got an ad showing a granny dumped out of a wheelchair and over a cliff by Paul Ryan (if you don’t believe me, click here.) Come on. As if the Medicare drug benefit wasn’t enacted by Republicans! (Fiscal insanity, but never mind.)

But here’s the thing: they promise to protect Medicare, but refuse to say one word about paying for it. So how can you believe them? The truth is that, with medical costs continuing to rise, life expectancy continuing to rise, and baby boomers flooding into the system, Medicare is going bankrupt, and there’s no frickin’ way the country can keep paying for it without big changes. No frickin’ way. Democrats who promise otherwise are simply lying. It’s a promise they cannot keep.

Now, my running mate, Paul Ryan, has suggested a plan to fix Medicare and save it from bankruptcy. The Democrats tell you this plan to save it is actually a plan to destroy it. But since they have no plan to save it, they’re the ones who’d actually see it destroyed.

About Mr. Ryan’s proposal, there are three basic things you want to understand:

First, for people now on Medicare, there would no change. For anyone over 55 – also no change. Nobody’s Medicare would be “taken away,” and Democrats who say so are simply lying. Any changes would affect only people more than 10 years away from retirement.

Second, Democrats have criticized the details of Ryan’s plan. Fine. We’re not wedded to the details. What we Republicans actually want is not to shove that plan down the country’s throat, but instead it should be a starting point for serious bipartisan efforts to come up with a plan to save Medicare that most reasonable people can agree on. You know, Obamacare was shoved down the country’s throat, by the Democrats, without a single Republican vote in either house of Congress. And look how much recrimination that caused. We don’t think that’s the right way to do major legislation. So, again, we’ve come forward with a proposal to save Medicare; and we call on the Democrats to give us their plan. Then let’s talk and come up with a solution that’s best for the country.

But so far, all they want to do is play politics by making Republicans into bogeymen and scaring people.

Meantime though, Mr. Ryan has already gone in the bipartisan direction – his Medicare proposal was actually worked out together with a Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, so it’s the Ryan-Wyden plan. And very basically, what we’re trying to do is to introduce an element of competition and consumer choice. We think that’s the only way to hold down costs. Have you looked at your medical bills, that your insurance or Medicare pays? They’re astronomical, mainly because you the consumer are not paying. Hospitals and doctors have no incentive to hold costs down or satisfy customers with good service, if the customer isn’t the one paying. They can bill whatever they want, and Medicare pays. No wonder it’s going broke.

Now, there is a third basic point. Again it’s something the Democrats refuse to be honest about – and I wish I didn’t have to either, because I realize it will lose me votes. But I have to tell you the truth, and the plain truth is that Medicare can’t be saved from bankruptcy without somebody paying more. One plus one can’t equal three. You know it’s the truth, so I’ll even repeat it: somebody will have to pay more (or get smaller benefits).

 The Democrats tell you that we Republicans want to screw the poor and the needy, and protect the fat cats at their expense. So let me be crystal clear: not on my watch. When I say somebody will have to pay more, I’m talking about people who can afford to pay it. Especially (but not only) the richest. Read my lips: people who cannot afford it will not have to pay more and will not get smaller benefits. Period.

But, yes, Americans who are better off will have to pay more and will get reduced benefits. For Americans who are in that category – and let’s be clear here too; thanks to our wonderful free market economic system, the majority of Americans are in that fortunate category – you will have to pay more. And I want to say this to you: if you agree that Medicare should not be saved from bankruptcy at the expense of the poor and the needy, then somebody will have to pay more, and the unavoidable reality is that that means you.

 Look, nation, we have a choice. Either we have a country whose economy is wrecked by an exploding and bankrupt Medicare program, and a resulting explosion of debts we can’t pay; or we pay more of our share to save the program, save the benefits for the neediest Americans, and save our whole frickin’ economy. I think we can afford to do this – and cannot afford not to.

That’s our choice. The Democrats don’t want you to understand this, but I do. And if you can’t accept this, if you cannot face reality, then vote for them.

And God bless America, because you’ll need it.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and $465

August 16, 2012

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;

Give me a $465 application fee.

That’s right – President Obama’s new program of work permits for young undocumented aliens requires a $465 application fee.

For that you don’t get permanent status; no path to citizenship; no right to travel abroad; no guarantee the next president won’t revoke the program; or even that your application will be granted. You have to prove, among other things, that you arrived here before age 16. Good luck on that.*

But what is guaranteed is that the immigration gestapo will now have your name and address on file, the easier to deport you and yours, if they find some technical violation, which is all too frequent.

In fact, deportations have been stepped up under Obama. And it’s not just bad people. Many who are good citizens in all but name, assets to their communities, have been uprooted; children, born here and hence U.S. citizens, have had parents deported away; decent lives destroyed. The senseless horror stories go on and on.

If Obama’s new program was such a good idea, why did he wait till his fourth year? (Politics perhaps?) And why financially torture these people with a $465 fee? What a disgrace.

America has its head up its rear about immigration. A nation built by immigrants now views any would-be migrant with suspicion and hostility. Heck, we don’t even welcome tourists any more, who want to spend money here. When did you last need a visa to visit another country? But the U.S. subjects many tourists to a tortuous and costly visa ordeal that sometimes ends in no visa. What a disgrace.

And we need immigrants. They contribute more economically than they consume. They revitalize the country. High-tech businesses are hurting for help because foreign-born whiz-kids can’t get visas. We do have a program to let in entrepreneurs who want to build businesses – but it’s often a case of “you didn’t build that” because, guess what, we make it so difficult that many give up and take their talents elsewhere. We do let people come here to study but force them out once they get their degree. How crazy is that?

And those willing to risk their lives crossing a desert, or in a ramshackle raft – I want them here. Those courageous people have more of the personal qualities that made America great than a lot of folks born here. Sending them back breaks my heart.

* Bureaucracies can be sticklers. The Postal Service has refused to honor the insurance on some registered parcels they admit were stolen, because I couldn’t “prove” to their satisfaction the value of the customer orders I was shipping.

Paul Ryan: Game On

August 12, 2012

My first thought: “Romney’s out of his f—ing mind; how the Dems will demagogue and demonize this!”

My second thought: “All right! Game on!”

 Because Ryan clarifies what this election should really be about.* Paul Ryan is the one pol, above any other, who is all about that issue: America’s fiscal and economic future.

Nominating Ryan does play to the Democrats’ worst instinct of painting Republicans as heartless scrooges who “want to take away your Social Security and Medicare.” While Dems will protect those programs. With what money, nobody knows. (A 1000% tax rate on millionaires?)

Paul Ryan has outlined a fiscal path toward economic sanity that would, yes, reform such programs, which every responsible observer recognizes are otherwise unsustainable. Frankly, I would do it somewhat differently than Ryan, taking bigger whacks out of affluent people (like me) than needier ones. But at least Ryan had the cojones to tackle this issue and actually put a plan on the table, that recognizes reality. His plan can be debated. We need that debate. Instead, the Democrats only see Ryan’s plan as a club for beating Republicans, while still selling the fantasy that these social programs can just go on forever, unchanged. (One local Dem candidate, reacting to the Ryan pick, said, “We must not play politics with the future of Medicare.” Wrong – that’s quintessentially a political issue the nation must decide.)

Ryan, in his introductory speech as running mate, defined what’s at stake. We can face reality, defuse the debt bomb, and have a bright future of economic progress. Or we can continue in the La-La Land of mounting fiscal irresponsibility, leading us over an economic cliff.

Ryan was dead-on in saying that if President Obama isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. And Obama refuses even to acknowledge the problem. (No, it’s not undertaxing the rich.)

Let me be specific. The U.S. can get away with a lot because the Dollar is still the international reserve currency, and we can finance our trillions in debt at rock-bottom interest rates because the markets still think it’s the world’s safest. But those conditions can change, and they will, when/if it becomes clear that our borrowing vastly outstrips our ability to repay. Then interest rates will spike up, and we’ll be eaten alive by the cost of financing our past debts, never mind new ones (which, in consequence, will also explode). Higher interest rates will furthermore crush our economy; while a plunging Dollar makes everything we import more expensive. And those social programs? Bye-bye. But there is good news: now we’ll be more competitive against China – because our real-dollar wages will be that low.

 There is still a way out, but the exit is closing, as we continue sleepwalking in La-La Land. That’s why Paul Ryan is such an important political figure, and why putting him on the ticket is such a thunderclap. I just hope Romney himself can emulate Ryan’s force and clarity.

So let’s have the debate. Let the Democrats try one more time to sell their old snake oil of a free lunch. Let the voters choose our fate. Game on.

* Both sides have been criticized for recent ads. Obama was accused of killing the 1996 welfare reform’s work requirement. Romney was accused of killing a woman (her husband lost health insurance). Romney’s ad may be arguable as to accuracy, but that’s a political argument. Obama’s ad is inaccurate on the facts, but more important, this goes beyond political argument – to a new low I didn’t think possible (and I thought a lot was possible). I would rather have a president willing to close uneconomic businesses, so people lose jobs, than a president willing to call his opponent a murderer for that.

Free Pussy Riot

August 9, 2012

Pussy Riot (Igor Mukhin)

Pussy Riot is the name of a Russian feminist punk band. They picked the wrong country for feminist punk banditry.

On February 21, they performed a ditty called “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out.” In a mostly empty Moscow church. The whole thing lasted less than a minute. For this, three of them – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich – were charged with “hooliganism” and thrown in jail, where they still remain. Their trial has now concluded, and they await sentences. Prosecutors, showing “leniency,” are seeking “only” three years, not the seven year maximum.

Being a prisoner, and an opponent of Putin’s gangster regime, can be a deadly combination. Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer, who uncovered evidence of a massive fraud by government officials, was ordered to jail by those same officials. He died there. “Natural causes” – naturally.


Of course, Magnitsky was into serious stuff. The regime couldn’t feel seriously threatened by the likes of Pussy Riot. But that’s just the point it’s making with this ferocious prosecution — no impertinance against it, howsoever feeble, will be tolerated. This is police state maximalism.

And persecuting Pussy Riot gives the regime a twofer. Not only intimidating opposition, but painting themselves as guardians of public decency by keeping down these louche traducers of conventionality.

I previously wrote of the Putin gang’s legal persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And now they have started a prosecution against Alexei Navalny, the blogger who was so prominent in the recent anti-Putin demonstrations. They’ve charged him with stealing lumber, of all things. Funny how the justice system is so assiduous in finding and punishing (cooked-up) wrongdoing by regime nuisances, but never notices the monstrous criminality of its own gangsters.

Rule of law is a key principle of the modern humanistic world. That makes it especially sickening when regimes like Russia’s (and China’s) pervert it by wrapping themselves in thoroughly phony legalism as a tool for crushing opposition. These are quintessentially lawless regimes.

The Pussy Riot gals must have known what they were in for. They are heroes in the great tradition of courageous dissent and civil disobedience against evil. By bringing the regime’s beastliness down upon themselves, they are focusing a merciless spotlight on that beastliness. According to The Economist, the husband of one Pussy Rioter says she “understands what she is suffering for.” And at the trial’s end, each of them made a statement unblinkingly describing the regime’s disgracefulness – and each was, according to reports, loudly applauded.

Putin the Killer

May Pussy Riot be free – and Russia’s greatest criminal, Vladimir Putin, wind up in the prison cell where he put them.

UPDATE 8/17 — The 3 women have been sentenced to 2 years each in a labor camp.

Speculators, Money Changers, and Money Lenders

August 3, 2012

“Speculators” are a favorite scapegoat of conspiratorialists with the economic understanding of kindergarteners. They imagine these villains glomming ill-gotten profits by driving up prices of commodities like oil, solely to line their own pockets.

 If only money-making were so easy.

A speculator bets on a commodity’s future price. Obviously, he must bet with someone – who thinks he’s wrong. Sometimes he wins. Sometimes not. It’s a risky business.

The Hunt Brothers tried to corner the silver market in 1979-80. They actually seemed to succeed for a time, and silver’s price rose vertiginously. Then it collapsed, and with it the Hunts’ fortune. (I made a fair bit buying and selling silver coins through the run-up, and sold off my biggest stash the day before the peak.)

Speculation serves a legitimate, in fact useful, market function. The whole thing started with farmers needing money to finance the next crop. They could do so by selling that future crop in advance. That’s a futures contract. If you believe prices will rise, you might profit by buying one. Of course, again, you’d have to buy it from someone – someone less optimistic. Every bet has a loser.

But the virtue of such speculation is to lubricate commerce, through incorporating future expectations into today’s prices. If you expect higher prices, why sell now for less? That, absent futures trading and speculation, can paralyze markets. Further, speculation transfers risk from those less willing to bear it to those more willing. By selling his crop in advance, the farmer locks in the price and no longer has to worry about prices falling. The speculator has bought that worry.

Oil is again the perennial poster boy. But if oil prices rise, it’s not because speculators can somehow force them up so their bets pay off; instead, they are making bets on likely future price levels based on all relevant available information, affecting supply and demand. Thus, insofar as speculation moves prices to incorporate perceived economic reality, that’s a good thing. And if speculators turn out to be wrong, they take a beating.

Demonizing “speculation” has a long history, too often linked with anti-Semitism. I’ve just been reading about how Jewish bankers, financiers and commodities traders were vilified in nineteenth century Europe for their market activities. Further back, we read of Jesus chasing the “thieving” money changers from the temple.

This is yet another moral issue the Bible simply gets wrong. Who were these money changers? Just like those little shops today where you can exchange Dollars for Euros. They provide a service; they charge a small fee, to cover their overheads (rent, wages, etc.) and make a tiny profit. Without that, who would provide the service? So – like almost all business and commerce – it’s win-win. Why does anyone think it’s somehow immoral to be paid for a service?

 Yet Biblical people did resent paying for something they couldn’t see or touch, and that ignorant mentality still infects economic attitudes. Another example is charging interest, which Biblians also hated. If you like borrowing, do you think it should be free? Who would make loans? Isn’t charging interest a perfectly reasonable compensation for the use of the money while you have it, and the risk of nonpayment? Yet the senseless ancient prejudice against charging interest endures; Muslim financial institutions tie themselves in knots structuring loans to pretend no interest is incurred (as if Allah would be fooled).

We also hear of “obscene” interest rates charged by “payday” lenders “preying” on the poor. A modest fee on a one-week loan equates to a big annual percentage. But how about the overheads, especially for security, for a business stockpiling cash in a dangerous neighborhood? And the obvious risk of nonpayment? Bottom line: do they make huge profits on their supposed predatory loans? Of course not. It’s a highly competitive business; they earn just enough to stay in business – and provide the service. Would the poor be better off without the opportunity to purchase this service? Of course not.*


Athenian Tetradrachm; from Classical Numismatic Guild

And as for those Biblical money changers, they faced another business risk: getting stuck with a phony coin. That’s why so many ancient silver coins bear chisel marks, to assess purity. Those money changers too were making an honest living by providing a valuable service. It’s Jesus who should have been chased away.

*A mindset of concern for the poor, when coupled with hatred of business and disregard of economics, actually hurts the poor.