Archive for April, 2015

Slavery and American Capitalism

April 29, 2015

imagesRecently I presented a book review talk at the Albany Public Library; the book was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Before being asked to do this, I well remembered the review in The Economist. It concluded, “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” I said to myself: Whoah!

And I also remembered what happened next — something I’d never before seen in The Economist. An “editor’s note” appeared, apologizing for, and withdrawing, that book review. images-1Particularly regarding those quoted final lines, the editor said there had been widespread criticism, and rightly so; that the great majority of slavery’s victims had been blacks, “and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”

Thus spake The Economist. If you’d like to see my review of the book, I have uploaded the text (unsuitably long for a blog post); click here. Mostly, it’s a portrayal of slavery. Warning: not a pretty picture.

Presidential Politics

April 24, 2015
"Season 2"

“Season 2”

After two decades of Clinton wars, Bush wars, and Obama wars, will we really elect Hillary Clinton and extend this baneful syndrome of half the country hysterically hating the president? We may get it in any case, but wouldn’t this be just asking for it?

She herself once spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons. Sure, there was opposition; but that was exactly the kind of hyperbolic language feeding the syndrome.

Emailgate does too, going to the heart of why so many people distrust Hillary. She says the e-mails not made public were personal, but we have only her word for that, with no independent review.

"I did not have inappropriate email with that server."

“I did not have inappropriate email with that server.”

What could she be hiding? Plenty — like conflicts of interest between her public duties and contributions to her foundation, some from influence peddlers and sleazy foreign governments. This spits in her detractors’ faces. Gad, what would her presidency be like?

Better than Obama’s at least. There’s hope of ameliorating the calamitous global unraveling for which he can partly be blamed. I’d rather have Hillary in the White House when Putin makes his move on the Baltics. One might also dream that a pragmatic Clinton, loath to leave a legacy of economic disaster, might force her own party to face fiscal reality.

Which brings me to Chris Christie’s recent call to raise eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare (and cut off Social Security for high earners like me). “Through its unwillingness to address our biggest challenges in an honest way,” Christie said, “the Obama administration has put us on a perilous course for both our short-term and our long-term futures.” He added that politicians “don’t believe that the American people have the appetite for hard truths. Once again, they underestimate the people that they serve. Americans not only deserve fairness, they deserve the honesty of their leaders.”

Unknown-1Christie must have read some of my past blog posts. He’s being incredibly gutsy. We know the kind of attacks Democrats will lob (remember the ads showing Paul Ryan dumping granny over a cliff). Let voters choose between such demagogy and a forthright reality-based set of proposals like Christie’s.

There’s also much to like in Marco Rubio’s candidacy.



Republicans too often needlessly invite the granny-over-the-cliff trope, appearing as though uncaring toward less affluent citizens. Rubio does not, and is a poster boy for how sensible conservative policies can benefit the whole country, including the disadvantaged. One line in his 2012 convention speech really impressed me: calling out the fallacy that every dollar in a rich person’s wallet is taken from a poor one’s, a notion which underlies much economic quackery. Rubio’s insightfulness is refreshing.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

April 20, 2015

UnknownDaniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow says there are two distinct systems operating inside your skull. “System 1” gives quick, intuitive answers to questions confronting us, utilizing thought algorithms rooted deeply in our evolutionary past. “System 2” is slower and more analytical, used when we actually (have to) think, as opposed to just reacting.

imagesBecause you utilize System 2 consciously, whereas System 1 works unconsciously, you tend to see yourself embodied in System 2. We do like to believe we do our own thinking, rather than having some black box, to which we have no access, just handing us answers. But the latter is closer to the truth, most of the time. In fact, as Kahneman stresses, System 2 is lazy, hence often glad to just accept System 1’s answers, not even realizing it.

This comports with Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor in The Righteous Mind: System 2 is a rider on the back of an elephant that is System 1. images-1We imagine the rider is in charge. But mostly the rider is really working for the elephant, rationalizing the elephant’s choices.

All this would be fine if System 1 were totally rational, but of course it’s not, and books like Kahneman’s have been taken as debunking the very idea of our being rational creatures. Unknown-1Kahneman uses the term “Econs” (perhaps short for homo economicus) for the hypothetical people who behave as economic theory says. As opposed to – well – “humans,” who do not.

One key example of how System 1’s decisional algorithms are irrationally biased is undue loss aversion, weighting potential losses more heavily than equal potential gains. Unknown-2If offered a coin flip bet paying $10 for heads but costing $6 for tails, most people will refuse; the 50% chance of winning $10 is not enough to compensate for the fear of the pain of losing $6! Lab experiments consistently confirm many permutations of this irrational bias.

We don’t often encounter coin flip bets, but this bias infects many aspects of human behavior – like investment decisions – as well as public policy. Case in point: GM food. Europeans in particular are so averse to potential risks (an extreme “precautionary principle”) that the truly small (indeed, mostly imaginary) risks of GM foods blind them to the truly large benefits.

Meanwhile, the idea that humans aren’t rational has entered political debate, as an argument against market economics, which supposedly is premised on rational economic behavior (homo economicus again).

Here’s what I (System 2) think. Obviously, we don’t behave with perfect rationality. But rationality isn’t either/or, it’s a spectrum, and on the continuum between perfect rationality and perfect irrationality, we’re far toward the rational end. Our entire civilization, with all its complex institutions and arrangements, is a supreme monument to rationality. Unknown-3And as individuals we behave rationally most of the time – overwhelmingly. If you want toast, you put bread in the toaster. That’s rational – as distinguished from, say, praying to a toast god. (And we’re getting ever better about this.) Furthermore, your preference for toast over cereal is a rational choice, based on your long experience of what is most likely to please you. You even know how toasted you like it.

And even when we default to System 1, that is not irrational. Let’s not forget that System 1 evolved over many eons not to lead us astray but, instead, to help us cope with life’s challenges (thus to survive and reproduce; for instance, a loss aversion bias made a lot of sense in an environment where “loss” could well translate as death). So – for all its biases and quirks, extensively explicated by Kahneman – System 1 also has a lot of virtues. In fact we simply could not function without it. If we had only System 2, forcing us to stop and consciously analyze every little thing in daily life, we’d be paralyzed. Thus, utilizing our System 1 – faults and all – is highly rational.

The same answer refutes the critique of market economics. We are far more rational than not, in our marketplace choices and decisions concerning goods and services. Market actors are fundamentally engaged in serving their desires, needs, and preferences, in as rational a manner as could reasonably be expected, even if imperfect. (See my review of Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist.) Allowing that to play out, as much as possible, is more likely to serve people’s true interests than overriding their choices in favor of some different (perforce more arbitrary) process.

Kahneman was informative about a topic of perennial interest – how people form and maintain beliefs.* Here again, while we fancy this is a System 2 function, System 1 is really calling the shots; and again is reactive rather than analytical. System 1 jumps to conclusions based on whatever limited information it has. Kahneman uses a clumsy acronym, WYSIATI – System 1 works as if “what you see is all there is” – i.e., there’s no additional information available – or needed. System 1 is “radically insensitive to both the quality and quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.”

Unknown-4What’s most important to System 1 is that the story it creates be coherent; it’s averse to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and hence hostile to any new information that doesn’t jibe with the story it has already created. Indeed, it is paradoxically easier to construct a coherent story the less you know – fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Experiments have shown that subjects exposed to only one-sided information – and who know that that’s so – nevertheless show greater confidence in their resulting judgments than do subjects getting both sides. We have a great ability to ignore our ignorance!

At the risk of sounding smug, I have always sort of recognized this and consciously try to avoid it, by adhering to what I call my ideology of reality. That is, I try to let my perceptions of reality dictate my beliefs, rather than letting my beliefs dictate my perceptions of reality. I am not a perfect “econ,” but I think I am one of the more econ-like humans around.

* An aside: humans are pre-programmed for belief. Is that a lion lurking? The believer loses nothing if he’s wrong. The skeptic, if he’s wrong, may be lunch. Thus belief is the preferred stance, and people readily believe in UFOs, homeopathy, and God.

Announcing My Candidacy For President

April 16, 2015

images-1I am announcing my candidacy for President of the United States.


Middle Class.

Renewing America’s Promise.



Common sense.images


Did I mention Middle Class?

A new direction.

Investing in our future.

Fight for you.

The America I love.

A helping hand.Unknown-2

Not big government but smart government.

Our neighbors.

An America that works.

Our kids.

Across the partisan divide.

For all Americans.images-1

Our grandchildren.

Best days are still ahead.

Our planet.

Middle class.

God bless America.








Spiritual But Not Religious – Sam Harris’s “Waking Up”

April 11, 2015

Unknown-5The phrase “spiritual but not religious” irks believers and atheists alike. Sam Harris’s latest book Waking Up is subtitled A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. He gained fame with books bashing faith and promises he won’t do it in this one (but is unable to refrain).

Harris says most of us see life in terms of pleasure versus pain – but there can be more – a deeper contentment grounded not in transitory well-being but rising above that. The key is that the self is an illusion, and only by getting out of it can one access that more fundamental state. Unknown-1We must break from “being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves”* and wake up from the dream of being a separate self.

How? By mindfulness meditation. Harris says that “how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes.” Recently I similarly discussed how happiness is shaped by how you choose to allocate your attention and contextualize experiences. Harris goes further and prescribes “overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.” In other words: not just choosing which aspects of experience to focus upon, but stepping out of the whole web of experience as mediated by a seeming self.

images-1Despite calling the self an illusion, Harris is emphatic that consciousness is not illusory; even thinking about the question proves the reality of the conscious experience. (Cogito ergo sum!) But it’s hard to see how the one can be deemed illusory and the other not. Our (present) inability to understand how consciousness arises, Harris insists, does not gainsay the phenomenon’s reality. (Consciousness must arise somehow from the information processing among the brain’s neurons; there is no other possibility that makes any sense.) We know consciousness is a real phenomenon because we all experience it. Why wouldn’t that apply to the self as well?

But I do recognize how problematic the concept of the self is, and have written about this. Harris argues that one can be conscious without a sense of self, and that while consciousness is undeniable, any penetrating effort to put one’s finger on the self ultimately fails. He strangely omits quoting philosopher David Hume that introspection could never enable him to catch hold of his self. The problem is that he was using the self to search for the self. Similarly, one can’t see one’s own eyes (except in a mirror). But we know they’re there because of the perceptions we get through them. And such perceptions must of course somehow be registered. Consciousness enables that. And a sense of self is a kind of meta-consciousness enabling us to perceive and experience that which is registered.

Unknown-3After all, we evolved a self for logical adaptive reasons. A self that cares about what happens to it is more motivated to act for its survival than a bare consciousness more neutral toward its existence and experience.

And the sense of self, the internal chatter, is not as continuous as Harris says. In fact, it disappears in many circumstances, not just meditation – when one is absorbed in a book, or drama, or task. Indeed, we even speak of “losing oneself” in them!

Furthermore, when Harris asks you to step out of your normal mode and view your experiences from a place apart, as it were, what actor would be doing that if not your self? What “you” is he talking about? This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Harris’s book: the contradiction between the idea that “an egoic self doesn’t exist” and the idea that we can attain some desirable state (“happiness,” “contentment”) by grasping this – when it can only be the egoic self that does the grasping and, moreover, experiences the desirable state. If the self is an illusion, wouldn’t the contentment be equally illusory? If there is really no self, why does it even matter whether that illusion feels good or bad? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

Unknown-2Harris acknowledges that no human being can actually achieve the detachment from self that he prescribes except, at best, on a fleeting, momentary basis. Thus he says the goal “is not some permanent state of enlightenment . . . but a capacity to be free in this moment.” Do that, he asserts, and “you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.” Really? I don’t think so. Nirvana for a brief moment might be nice, even eye-opening, but what about the zillions of other moments during which one remains trapped in what Harris reckons to be an unsatisfactory state? He acknowledges this problem but seems to think that even momentary glimpses of the alleged deeper reality somehow change everything.

But in any case, I don’t see the basic point. Even if Harris is right about the self being an illusion, I don’t understand how grasping this helps us live better. I’m not rejecting the evidence Harris presents that meditation somehow can make practitioners feel good. But I question whether something is happening other than the changed understanding he stresses. How, exactly, does seeing the self as an illusion, and (briefly) experiencing consciousness without it, enhance the experience of life? Harris keeps saying it’s so, but never actually explains why and how. Frankly, I very much like having a self.images

And as for spirituality without religion, I quite simply prefer life without religion.

* Harris questions why we’re always announcing our thoughts to ourselves. Reading that at an airport, I looked up from the page and saw a pretty girl. “She’s cute,” I duly told myself. Why, indeed? Obviously I already knew it before putting it in words. But words are the medium by which we register and process thoughts. That’s just how our brains work.

Indiana, Discrimination, and Progressive Intolerance

April 6, 2015

Unknown-1Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South, tells of an Alabama doctor who relocated by car to California. His trip was an endurance ordeal because nowhere along the way could he get a meal or a room.

That is discrimination.

It’s what the 1964 Civil Rights Act addressed. The argument at the time was that restaurateurs and hoteliers shouldn’t be forced to serve people against their will. But that freedom was deemed overridden by the rights and interests of the victims of such discrimination, and the greater public interest. A reasonable societal decision.

imagesNow we’re told it’s the same issue of discrimination when a photographer or florist doesn’t (for religious reasons) wish to service a gay wedding. But recalling that Alabama doctor, I don’t think it’s comparable. Are they likely to be the only photographer or florist in town? (And would you want your wedding photographed by someone forced to do it?)

The great irony is that, after gays fought intolerance for so long, now the tables are turning, with the intolerance going in the other direction. Gays now have the right to marry, in most places. Must they also have the right to demand service from even religious objectors to gay marriage?

I support gay marriage, and reject Biblical teachings against it as vile nonsense. But I also accept the right of other people to think differently, and to live in accordance with their beliefs. I tolerate the foibles of my fellow humans, wanting everyone able to live as they choose.

“Tolerance” was long actually a liberal shibboleth, but for them it’s never a two-way street. Bible thumpers are required to tolerate gay married couples in their neighborhood. images-1But gays, and their political allies, should likewise be tolerant toward others who don’t share their perspective. That latter kind of tolerance is in short supply. Now viewpoints that, not long ago, were in the majority, are anathematized as bigotry. On this standard, President Obama, until 2012, was a bigot.

The word “progressive” was embraced to sidestep the bad odor of “liberal.” But “liberal” is a perfectly honorable word – and it’s right that “progressives” eschew it because they tend to be, in the strict sense, illiberal.

That they have their heads up their asses on such matters is exemplified by our Governor Cuomo who, in an excess of political correctness, curtailed state travel to Indiana.* images-3Yet he himself plans to travel to Cuba. Similarly, some businesses were shunning Indiana – while cheerfully continuing to do business with China. Is Indiana really worse on human rights than Cuba or China? Is gay marriage even allowed in those countries? If I were gay, I’d rather live in Indiana. (Heck, if I were anyone I’d rather live in Indiana than Cuba or China.)

This issue goes beyond forcing people to take wedding pictures against their religious beliefs. I’ve written about Brendan Eich, forced out as head of a major company, because he had supported a California ballot referendum (which passed) against gay marriage. images-4Isn’t this – people made pariahs, even losing their jobs – because of their beliefs – precisely the “McCarthyism” that lefties spent half a century beating their breasts about, as the crime of crimes? How did they so grievously lose their way?**

Our society has undergone a great change, very swiftly, on our attitudes toward gay people. But it’s hard for some people to get with the new program, especially if their religious beliefs come into the matter. I don’t think the correct approach is to browbeat those people, demonize them, and coerce them. That can only aggravate animosity. A softer approach would be better.

* Connecticut’s Governor did likewise, despite Connecticut itself having a “religious freedom” law almost identical to Indiana’s.

** See the comments on my post about Eich for a good illustration (“Rob”) of tortured lefty thinking.

John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

April 1, 2015

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.