Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Anglosphere Challenges the Left

Arnold Kling argues, on Tech Central Station, that the American Left has retreated from the the traditional (or anti-traditional)Anglosphere flexibility in forming and dissolving partnerships of opportunity that has propelled America and the other inheritors of this English propensity to success with democratic governance and free markets:

The long first chapter of writer James C. Bennett's new book, "The Anglosphere Challenge," is a fascinating combination of cultural anthropology and technological prognostication. It led me to reflect on a number of issues.
1) Our Anglospheric culture, as Bennett calls it, enables people to form and break relationships easily. In economist's terms, the costs of entry and exit are low.
2) The ability to formulate and dissolve partnerships is very important in the real world of business, yet it receives relatively little attention in business school, much less in economics.
3) In the 1960's and 1970's, a book with the ambition, scope, and intellectual power of The Anglosphere Challenge would have been written by an academic.
4) Today's political Left is focused on group solidarity rather than on building a coalition.
Bennett takes the view that free entry and exit are characteristics of the culture of ancient England. The English were able to form relationships across tribal and religious boundaries. Unlike the states of continental Europe, the English obtained
law and order without a strong central monarch. They developed the pragmatic, evolutionary common law, as opposed to a top-down imperial code of law.

In Bennett's view, the cultural characteristics of easy entry and exit are the foundation of both democracy and the free market. The ability of citizens to form relationships that cross tribal or religious lines is the key to developing modern social institutions.

After reading Bennett on the importance of fluid relationships in the social, economic, and political sphere, one might be more skeptical about the nation-building project in Iraq. That country strikes me as one where loyalty to a clan or religious group is likely to supercede the ability to form a political coalition or a business relationship. If so, then democratic institutions will be difficult to establish.

I see some problems with this analysis. The Democrats are still a coalition oriented party, it is just that they are bleeding profusely from one segment of that coalition, the great, unwashed Middle, or the swing voter. Kling gets the analysis wrong when he positions group solidarity against coalition building. Coalitions are temporary working relationships between groups, so coalitions assume tribal groupings of like-interested individuals. The Republicans have their tribal interest groups also, and suffered in the past from their ability to wed them together into a majority. The success or failure in this process is in the ability of the ruling interest groups to be able to bend and flex just enough to stitch together a coalition of the core interest groups and a majority of the unaffiliated middle.

I see it as a life cycle process of birth, growth, maturity(dominance) and senescence(decline) that political coalitions go through. Coalitions gain strength during the growth period when they have more to gain than to lose by being flexible in their ideological commitments. The young, creative and energetic people are attracted to the revolutionary nature of the ascendant coalition, and they bring to it their acute view of social realities as they exist at the present, unencumbered by a lifelong commitment to the existing paradigm. These young people will become the leaders of the coalition in its phase of mature dominance of politica power.

Once coalitions achieve the pinnacle of power, the interest groups become entrenched and have more to lose than to gain from reform of the status quo. A reactionary "bunker mentality" sets in. Flexibility of commitments is lost. The middle drifts away.

One odd set of bedfellows present in the current Republican coalition, unacknowledged by the media and the party leadership, is that between religious conservatives and secular libertarians/conservatives. The current Red/Blue state dichotomy does not acknowledge any commitment of the secular to the Red side. Indeed, neither set of party leaders can imagine any reasons why secularists would do so. Here are some of my reasons for doing so:

  1. The Right is more committed to religious freedom and expression than the Left. Many secularists on the Left, having benefitted from Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that have denied the power of local religious majorities to promote their religious views coercively through the public school systems, have been increasingly pushing for the legal system to totally ban any expression of religious sentiment in any context that can even remotely be tied to the public domain, in a misguided attempt to keep the genie of "theocracy" firmly in the bottle.
    This is an unjust and thoroughly misguided notion. In a nation that is predominantly religious, it denies freedom of expression to the majority of citizens. At the same time it is extremely dangerous to secularists to establish a precedent that the party in power should selectively regulate and suppress religious expression. With this standard in place, a resurgent religious majority can easily use the precedent to turn the tables in their favor. As the saying goes, "payback's a bitch!"
  2. Outside of religious considerations, secularists are no different from any other Americans as to where their interests lie. Secularists have no personal interest or stake in the disproven, irrational and outright dangerous ideological commitments of the Left. The accomodation and appeasement of Islamic theocrats should be the last consideration any clear thinking secularist should pursue, but unbelieveably the ossified minds of the Left cannot let go of their paranoical fear of American Christian power as the ultimate danger. Secularists have no economic interest in the neo-communistic leanings of the anti-globalist, anti-capitalist, environmental shamanism of the recalcitrant Left.

I invite other Right minded secularists to add your reasons to this list.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Shameless Rant

[Spoiler: If you would rather read how a talented professional approaches this topic, read Harvard Hysterics]

Last week Dr. Larry Summers, HDWIC* of Harvard, had the shocking temerity to suggest that just maybe there might, potentially, possibly, be a chance that fewer women than men pursue careers in science and engineering because woman and men just maybe might, potentially, possibly, be, you know, well, different.


One female scientist in the audience, apparently wholly unaware of either irony or the vapors, claimed she had to leave before blacking out or throwing up.

Today, NPR devoted an entire segment to investigating whether "scientific evidence" supports Dr. Summers reckless assertion. Conclusion? The Studies (third person omnipotence demands capital letters) just maybe might, potentially, possibly show there is such a difference.

Except that they do not, they cannot, because Culture, which exists entirely outside of context, and which has absolutely nothing to do with the humans inhabiting said culture, is responsible for everything. Including the ruthless suppression of all those budding female scientists and engineers. So all Right Thinking Progressives have to do is Fix the Culture.

In assessing arguments, it is helpful to look for the implicit assertions. Every argument has them; otherwise, we would run out of time just describing the territory. However, some implicit assertions are more de facto justified than others.

Among those that do not belong in the "more" category is NPR's implicit assumption that The Studies are the only means to discern reality. The great unwashed We cannot, will not, must not, draw any conclusions from living that thing called life.

But since I somehow forgot to succumb to last fall's pledge drive, I am not a dues paying member of the NPR elite. So I shall break some rules, and use The Study called Life to make some observations:

  • Inclination and ability are two different things. An infinite amount of the latter vanishes in the paucity of the former.
  • There is no such thing as an ubermensch. Strengths in some areas are always balanced by weaknesses in others. For just one example, being very analytical and emotionally intuitive are mutually exclusive.
  • Common mode phenomena are real. By that I mean that to the degree a behavior pattern is independent of culture, it is unaffected by culture. In a small, little known book entitled "Women's Place in Language," the linguist Karla Labov started off showing how the very structure of English uniquely worked to oppress women. Clearly, in posing such a hypothesis, a counterexample is of inestimable value. Sadly for her hypothesis, she discovered there isn't one. Every recorded language oppresses women. That is a common mode factoring culture out of the equation, meaning language structure betrays an underlying reality.
  • Evolution is real, and affects every element of our being. Men and women are so physically different, and face such divergent challenges, that suggesting such differences can go unreflected in our brains demands considerable proof. Oddly, the demographic most inclined to put credence in the Theory of Evolution is the most likely to deny its effects on humans. And, just as oddly, the reverse is true.
  • Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of results.

To which I will add some personal experience. In a previous life, I was an instructor pilot for both the Air Force and the Navy, and was able to instruct both male and female student pilots. Now I know this does not qualify as A Study, but certain patterns were very hard to ignore. Such as:

  • Male and female graduation rates were essentially the same.
  • Women were significantly underrepresented in the top half.
  • In the flight regimes requiring a certain degree of physical courage (close formation flying, aerobatics), virtually all women were less aggressive than virtually all men.
  • Of the relatively few women placing high enough in their classes to have a choice, virtually none selected fighter aircraft.

Do you see where I am going with this? Life is itself A Study. It shows that there might, potentially, possibly, be a chance systemic differences between male and female inclinations and abilities lead women to be a very small portion of fighter pilots.

Just as maybe there might, potentially, possibly, be a chance differences in inclinations and abilities lead few women to become engineers and scientists.

To arbitrarily conclude otherwise is to be antihuman and dismissive of reality.

*HDWIC: Head Dude-person What's In Charge

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Judeo-Christian Values for Dummies II - The Rabbi Punts

Dennis Prager follows up with the second installment in his series to explain Judeo-Christian values to the masses. I applauded this effort after his introductory essay, believing that he would be making the case based on a rationale that could cross the divide between religious and secular thinkers. I take it back. Prager's second installment reiterates the tired litany that morals are not possible without God:

For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.

Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), "good" and "evil" are subjective opinions, not objective realities.

In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" ("Do not kill" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral "facts" if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.

How does Prager imagine that such an argument can win over the secular audience? If right and wrong cannot be derived from reason or the human heart, then what faculty does he expect the secular person to utilize to be won over by his argument?

Prager wants to have it both ways. He spends many hours a week on his radio program using rational arguments for promoting his position on moral values, yet he will dismiss any secular person who would use reason in defense of his values, even if those values are in agreement with his! According to Prager, I should distrust even his arguments if I do not believe in God. So why does he spend so much time presenting them?

Prager argues that values either are objectively based, or "factual", or are a matter of subjective opinion. Why are these two forms of establishing morality mutually exclusive? They are not. Opinions are to a large part guided by experience, they have to explain factual occurences. They are rarely spun purely out of fantasy or desire, with no accounting for reality. As faulty as they can be, opinions formed by reason and guided by the heart are the best faculties that humans have for developing an accurate, close approximation for the factual world as a human can get.

Prager's argument rests on the assumption that God's will can be accurately known. If his argument for Judeo-Christian values relies on a belief in the Judeo-Christian scriptures as a revelation of God's word, then his essays should be trying to prove to the unbeliever that this is so. He derides the ridiculousness of the positions taken by animal rights crusaders, as if the unreasonableness of their values alone should prove to everyone why they are in the wrong. But a God based argument can only be based on God's word. He should be citing scripture to prove that their position is not in accordance with God's morality, but he doesn't.

Years ago, I debated this issue at Oxford with Jonathan Glover, currently the professor of ethics at King's College, University of London, and one of the leading atheist moralists of our time. Because he is a man of rare intellectual honesty, he acknowledged that without God, morality is subjective. He is one of the few secularists who do.

So what? What is so bad with the subjective? Humans can only act from a subjective stance. Even given God's word, humankind has interpreted it in many different and opposite ways, based on subjective feelings. God was used to justify and condemn slavery, and today is used to justify and condemn capital punishment. The objectivity that Prager touts as his basis for morality is a fiction, a view distorted by his own subjective biases.

Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is "It's between a woman and her physician." There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely "between a woman and her physician."

Prager pulls a fast one here. Though championing conservative values, he is pro-choice on abortion. But apparently it is better for people to differ on what God's values are but agree that they come from God, than to agree on values but not agree on the source of the values. How can these values be factual, be objective, when two people who agree on the text from which these values are based, and agree that the text is the inspired word of God, differ on such a fundamental question as to whether it is permissible to take the life of an unborn child? How can such values be differentiated from subjectively derived values? They can't because they are subjectively derived.

And to those who counter these arguments for God-based morality with the question, "Whose God?" the answer is the God who revealed His moral will in the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians -- and no other people -- regard as divine revelation.

Now Prager is arguing from authority - his. If he were a Muslim he would have answered the God of the Koran. So much for objectivity. The question is valid: which of the many traditions that claim to represent God's truth should one follow? Prager's answer is much like the answer given by an old woman to te scientist, who after hearing her tell him that the world rested on the back of a turtle, and having asked her in reply what the turtle rested on, responded "Oh no you don't! It's turtles all the way down!" Why, Dennis? Why that god?

Monday, January 17, 2005

Blessed are those who have not seen

The Edge Foundation, an online forum for scientists and intellectuals to share their thoughts on philosophical, artistic and literary issues, has published replies from 120 contributors to their 2005 annual question: "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" The conributors are a who's who of scientists, scientific popularizers and other creatures of the secular intelligentsia.

Asking such a question of people used to looking at the world with an eye for certainty would provoke, one would think, a bold excursion into the murky seas of the great, wooly questions of eternity, such as god, existence, free will, and all that. Disappointingly, many of the respondents chose the opportunity to merely plug their own pet theories, or to defend a long held dogma, as with this terse response from Richard Dawkins:

I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.

It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

Tell us something we didn't know about your ideas, Richard!

By responding to the question with theories from their current area of research or speculation, many of these thinkers implicitly confirm the theist critique that science is a faith. One scientist, Seth Lloyd of MIT, does so explicitly:

I believe in science. Unlike mathematical theorems, scientific results can't be proved.They can only be tested again and again, until only a fool would not believe them.

I cannot prove that electrons exist, but I believe fervently in their existence. And if you don't believe in them, I have a high voltage cattle prod I'm willing to apply as an argument on their behalf. Electrons speak for themselves.

A few scientists take the bait and "go deep", sharing their thoughts on the implications of faith on the big question - God. Tor Norretrandrs, the author of The User Illusion, gives this perspective:

I believe in belief—or rather: I have faith in having faith. Yet, I am an atheist (or a "bright" as some would have it). How can that be?

It is important to have faith, but not necessarily in God. Faith is important far outside the realm of religion: having faith in other people, in oneself, in the world, in the existence of truth, justice and beauty. There is a continuum of faith, from the basic everyday trust in others to the grand devotion to divine entities.

Recent discoveries in behavioural sciences, such as experimental economics and game theory, shows that it is a common human attitude towards the world to have faith. It is vital in human interactions; and it is no coincidence that the importance of anchoring behaviour in riskful trust is stressed in worlds as far apart as Søren Kierkegaard's existentialist christianity and modern theories of bargaining behaviour in economic interactions. Both stress the importance of the inner, subjective conviction as the basis for actions, the feeling of an inner glow.

One could say that modern behavioral science is re-discovering the importance of faith that has been known to religions for a long time. And I would argue that this re-discovery shows us that the activity of having faith can be decoupled from the belief in divine entities.

So here is what I have faith in: We have a hand backing us, not as a divine foresight or control, but in the very simple and concrete sense that we are all survivors. We are all the result of a very long line of survivors who survived long enough to have offspring. Amoeba, rodents and mammals. We can therefore have confidence that we are experts in survival. We have a wisdom inside, inherited from millions of generations of animals and humans, a knowledge of how to go about life. That does not in any way imply foresight or planning ahead on our behalf. It only implies that we have a reason to trust out ability to deal with whatever challenges we meet. We have inherited such an ability.

Therefore, we can trust each other, ourselves and life itself. We have no guarantee or promises for eternal life, not at all. The enigma of death is still there, ineradicable.

But we a reason to have confidence in ourselves. The basic fact that we are still here—despite snakes, stupidity and nuclear weapons—gives us reason to have confidence in ourselves and each other, to trust others and to trust life. To have faith.

Because we are here, we have reason for having faith in having faith.

This is as close to a formal definition of the secular creed as you are going to get. So what does it tell us about the differences between the secular and the religious mind? In a way, it says that they are very similar. Both minds have a need to believe in truths that are beyond the realm of proof. The main difference may be that the secular mind, when faced with the mysterious workings of the universe, asks "how". The theist mind, when facing the same mysteries, asks "why"? The secularist assumes a mechanistic universe with no purpose, the theist assumes a personal hand with purpose behind the mechanics, and wants to know his place within that purpose. Indeed, in attempting to discern the "how", it seems the secular mind has faith that the answer will definitively rule out the need to ask "why", as in this response from computer scientist Jordan Pollack:

I believe that that systems of self-interested agents can make progress on their own without centralized supervision.

There is an isomorphism between evolution, economics, and education. In economics, the supervisor is a central government or super rich investor, in evolution, it is the "intelligent designer", and in education, its the teacher or outside examiners. In economic systems, despite an almost religious belief in Laissez-Faire and incentive-based behavior, economic systems are prone to winner-take-all phenomena and boom-bust cycles. They seem to require benevolent regulation, or "managed competition" to prevent the "rich get richer" dynamic leading to monopoly, which leads inevitably to corruption and kleptocracy. In evolution, scientists reject the intelligent designer as a creationist ruse, but so far our working models for open-ended evolution haven't worked, and prematurely convergence to mediocrity. In education, evidence of auto-didactic learning in video-games and sports is suppressed in academics by top-down curriculum frameworks and centralized high-stakes testing.

If we did have a working mechanism design which could achieve continuous progress by decentralized self-interested agents, it would settle the creationist objection as well as apply to the other fields, leading to a new renaissance.

This discussion begs another question, and possibly a new area of research - are secular and religious minds different in some basic, biological or developmental sense? If belief is such a basic property of the human mind, what accounts for the different ways in which minds settle on the object of belief? In religious cultures, what factors account for the existence of atheism among a minority? In secular cultures, what factors account for the persistence of religious belief among a minority? Any pet theories?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Several days ago, a member of my extended family (who I shall call Dianne, because that is her real name, and she has nothing to hide) forwarded a point paper about Social Security to me, among others, with the goal of getting a good take on whether to participate in Moveon's petition campaign. By the time I was done, I realized that my response to her could benefit from the hive mind of the websphere.

While I would love to think I completely and accurately crystalized the issues surrounding Social Security privatization, I am sufficiently in contact with reality to know that isn't likely to be the case.

So, by all means, blast away at my shortcomings. I have referred her to the Daily Duck to see the results.


I actually pay a fair amount of attention to the Social Security issue, and I found virtually everything says is either misleading, or woefully ignorant. So, within the category of being careful what you ask for, here is a point-by-point rebuttal of’s “analysis.”

First, a quick survey of the Social Security landscape:
  • SS is funded by a 12.4% tax on wages, up to $90,000/yr.
  • SS payments are indexed against wage growth, not inflation.
  • Roughly 40 years ago, there were about 7 wage earners/retiree; within the next 20 years that ratio will reduce to approximately 3:1 (I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but they are close)
  • When SS started, those surviving to 65 lived, on average, another seven years. Today, those who live until 65 live an additional 20 years
  • At the moment, wage earners pay more in SS taxes than is paid to retirees. The difference is invested in US Treasury bonds.
  • Around 2018, the trends above mean outflow will start to exceed income.
  • Sometime between 2042 and 2047, the surplus available in 2018 will be exhausted
  • The inexorable conclusion is—absent change—benefits to retirees will decrease by roughly 30% when the surplus is exhausted

Using those bullet points as a basis, following is my response to the email:

Social Security provides monthly benefits to some 44 million Americans who are retired, disabled or the survivor of a deceased parent. It provides most of the income for older Americans--some 64 percent of their support. It has lifted generations of seniors out of poverty.

Yes, but through a Ponzi (aka pyramid) scheme that would be strictly illegal if the government was not sponsoring it. And like any Ponzi scheme, it will fail when the number of those paying into the scheme does not greatly exceed the number drawing from the scheme.

Tellingly, and typical for the left, it makes the automatic assumption that only the state can adequately provide for people. Just because SS has prevented poverty in old age does not mean the state is the best solution. Further, such a statement completely ignores the fact that our current SS system penalizes virtue: the better you provide for your own retirement, the less SS income you see because of your higher tax bracket. This is a case of triple taxation. The first taxation is on the income, the second is on the proceeds from saving, and the third is on the reduced SS income compared to someone who did not save.

In other words, the current SS system abets moral hazard by paying people not to provide for their own retirement.

Social Security is not in crisis. That is an outright lie perpetrated in order to create the urgency for radical changes. Under conservative forecasts, the long-term challenges in Social Security do not manifest themselves until 2042. Even then Social Security has 70 percent of needed funds. That shortfall is smaller than the amount needed in 1983, the last time we overhauled Social Security. George Bush's Social Security crisis-talk is an effort to create a specter of doom -- just like the weapons of mass destruction claim in Iraq.

It is not actually in a crisis yet. But as I noted above, the crisis is out there, and the measures required to deal with it only get more drastic with time.

Just because a crisis doesn’t actually occur for some time does not mean it isn’t manifestly obvious now. And if it is manifestly obvious now, does that not also mean that, in some sense, the crisis exists the moment one perceives its eventuality?

In 1983, we did not overhaul Social Security—we jiggered a few numbers to push off the day of reckoning. Only twenty years later, we are facing the same problem, only bigger, and with a worse wage-earner to retiree ratio.

Pres Bush’s crisis talk is actually a case of political heroism—he is taking on a difficult problem that has long been termed the “third rail” of American politics. Finally, whatever one thinks of WMD and Operation Iraqi Freedom, that is a classic example of false analogy. Much more on point would be the residents of Banda Aceh looking at the ocean receding and deciding there is no need to run. After all, the tsunami isn’t here yet.

Phasing out Social Security and replacing it with privatized accounts means one thing: massive cuts in monthly benefits for everybody. Social Security privatization requires diverting taxes used to pay current benefits into privatized accounts invested in risky stocks. Without that money Social Security benefits will inevitably be cut -- some proposals even cut benefits of current retirees. These benefit cuts are inevitable, since diverting Social Security money into privatized accounts means less money to pay current and future benefits.

SS privatization does in fact mean increased government borrowing to cover the transition costs entailed in moving from a Ponzi scheme to a soundly based SS system. With respect to Ponzi schemes, there are two critical things to remember: there is no easy way out, and the longer one waits, the faster it gets harder. It is also important to keep in mind that government borrowing to finance transition costs is akin to investing now in repairing a failing roof—the borrowing required to fix it must be considered with respect to the borrowing eventually required by failing to fix it. Just as with a failing roof, doing something costs less than doing nothing, and any fair analysis will consider the cost of inaction.

The line about risky stocks is a red herring. Over any forty-five year span (from when a person just enters the work force until retirement) there is no such thing as a loss in the stock market. Secondly, any even half-intelligent portfolio is going to move to lower risk investments as the worker approaches retirement. Finally, and most importantly, over any historical forty-five year span one could choose, the risk of stock market returns being less than US Treasury bonds—the true benchmark—has been precisely zero.

The line about cutting benefits is also misleading. Some proposals include indexing SS benefits to inflation instead of wages. Doing so accomplishes two things. First, it allows economic growth to help solve the shortfall; right now, wage indexing factors growth right out of the equation. Secondly, because SS is ultimately a Ponzi scheme, indexing SS to wages transfers additional wealth from wage earners to retirees beyond what prices in the economy warrant: not only do retirees become relatively better off while wage earners become relatively worse off, wage indexing increases moral hazard by increasing the attractiveness of not saving.

Every serious privatization proposal raises the Social Security retirement age to 70. That might be fine if you're a Washington special interest lobbyist but it is incredibly unfair to blue-collar Americans with tough, physical jobs, or for African Americans and Latinos with lower life expectancies.

This reminds me of a famous joke regarding a headline only the New York Times would carry: WORLD ENDS, WOMEN AND MINORITIES HARDEST HIT

People are living far longer, healthier lives in retirement now than when SS started. Failing to take that into account requires justifying to those paying for SS—wage earners—why they should be financially worse off in order to subsidize retirement for people who could otherwise work. Absent privatization, there are only two ways to deal with the SS Ponzi scheme: reduce the benefits to retirees, and/or increase the retirement age.

OK, I lied. There is a third, and likely unavoidable, way. Significantly increase the payroll tax. Doing so decreases the amount of money people have to fund their own retirement while simultaneously increasing moral hazard—failing to privatize SS makes it easier for people to not do precisely what they should: save for their own retirement.

Privatization means gambling with your retirement security. There is probably an appropriate place for a little stock market risk in retirement planning -- but it isn't Social Security. Privatization exposes your entire retirement portfolio to stock market risks -- and the risk that you'll outlive any of your savings at retirement. You can't outlive your Social Security benefit.

As I noted above, the real risk to assess is the likelihood the return from the stock market over a working life will be less than that from US Treasury bonds. Historically, that risk has been nil. And, as anyone who has done any retirement planning at all knows, prudent risk changes with age. The only way your entire portfolio, intelligently diversified, could be exposed to significant risk is if the entire economy tanks. In that case, there won’t be enough wage earners, or wages, to fund any sort of income transfer, either.

So who does benefit? Wall Street. Giant financial services firms have been salivating for decades over the prospect of taking over Social Security. Wall Street would make billions of dollars in profit by managing the privatized accounts -- money that would come directly from your benefits.

This is what journalists call the “nut graph,” the part of the story containing the point of the whole exercise. The Left simply cannot abide that all-purpose bogey, Wall Street, making money.

Giant financial services would, in fact, make money. They provide a service, after all. But the point to consider is not whether Wall Street would make money, but rather whether individuals would be better off with the net gains financial services firms produce compared to that available from US Treasury bonds. There is simply no way to look at the US economy and conclude the people are better off putting their money in US Treasury bonds than investing the same amount of money in our economy.

Action is urgently needed today. President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress are joining forces with the financial services industry for a major campaign to convince the public there is a major crisis and pressure members of Congress to vote for privatization. Action is needed now before it is too late. Please sign MoveOn’s petition to protect Social Security at the link below.

Yes, action is needed. But not the kind Moveon is advocating. Failing to do anything—does Moveon have anything in mind other than whistling past the graveyard?—ensures we will ultimately have to resort to increased retirement age, decreased benefits, and taking far more from wage earners to support retirees. Moveon, like all left-wing organizations, is fundamentally dedicated to making individuals dependent upon the state, equalizing outcomes by penalizing virtue, and has utterly no grasp on moral hazard.

President Bush, in contrast, intends to give people more control over their financial lives and reward virtue, all while taking advantage of far greater returns compounded over time.

The analytical bases I listed at the beginning are not a matter of debate. They are every bit as inevitable, and irrevocable, as gravity.

Doing nothing is the choice of fools.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Good Old Days

Our friend Andrew Nixon, on his excellent blog "Think of England", writes a fascinating account about the growth and demise of English hooligan culture. Please read it in full. The story of tribal affiliation among young males is an age-old story, but what is interesting in this case are the reasons for its demise:

Anyway, that all stopped in the early 1990s, and it’s no longer a problem in Britain.What killed it? Partly better police intelligence, but the main reason was a cultural shift.

The old days of the terraces – firm breeding grounds where you could stand where you liked and get yourself into little gangs to sing abusive songs, have gone. Big grounds are required to be all-seating. Football is now, in very sense, ‘multicultural’. Sky television bought the rights to football coverage in 1992, called Division 1 “The Premiership” and glammed it up like the NFL. There are more women, children, middle-classes and ethnic minorities going than ever before – a football match is basically much more like an American sporting occasion.

Chelsea FC – once home of the Headhunters – are now owned by a Russian billionaire, managed by a Portugese coach and have only two or three English players, and their fans are the richest and poshest in the country.

And the few remaining pockets of hooligan culture in England are now in the backwaters and the lower divisions, where the glamour and gentrification has yet to penetrate (Cardiff, Millwall and Stoke are the worst).

So a crucial factor for the success of tribal male gang culture, exclusivity, was removed when English football fanship became, as we say here in the States, a "family" activity. Andrew makes a comparison between hooligan culture and the saga of organized crime in America, especially in respect to the nostalgia being expressed for it:
In much the same way that America’s Italian hoodlums have become lionised in celluloid, time seems to have diminished the genuine feelings of fear and loathing the football ‘firms’ of the 1980s inspired, and replaced them with a romantic notion that these were merely loyal gangs of Merrie Men expressing their masculinity. And a key myth is that hooligans only ever hurt each other, leaving innocent bystanders alone.

The main difference, of course, between English hooligan gangs and the Mafia is that the former was purely a "non-profit", or recreational affilitation. The firms were in it for the excitement, the thrills that the peak experience of group violence bring to the young male psyche. A better analogy from an American standpoint would be the growth of motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels in the 1950s and 1960s, or Gangsta Culture, a movement originating with black drug gangs in major American inner city neighborhoods such as Los Angeles or Chicago and spread by the popularity of Gangsta Rap, and resulting in local wannabe copycat gangs in smaller cities, among blacks and even middle class or affluent white males with no connection to the drug trade.

One nit to pick with Andrew's account:

In the late 1970 and throughout the 1980s, football crowds were almost exclusively white, working-class men.Within those crowds were pockets of bored, disaffected youths who gradually got themselves in gangs ('firms') with the intention of engaging in tribal warfare with firms from other teams.

It is pretty standard to see such men as being disaffected from society. From Merriam Webster Online, disaffect is defined as "to alienate the affection or loyalty of", suggesting that, through neglect or active discrimination, society has failed to earn the loyalty of these young men. I think that, contrary to this widely held assumption, such behaviors are more akin to the default social behaviors that young men will engage in if not actively coerced out of by the process described as "socialization". Call it the "Lord of the Flies" hypothesis. The kind of pro-social behaviors that we deem normal need to be driven into young men through an active conditioning process, much as a wild horse is "broken" into obedience to human masters. These young men, rather than acting out of some rage brough about by a feeling of being excluded from society, were instead acting from a sense of total freedom, of feeling that they have "the run of the place".

We'd all like to believe that the natural instinct of people, especially males, is to be good and to get along with others in society. It is amazing to ponder the extent to which we all promote this faith, in contradiction to actual experience.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Communism: The Gift that just won't stop taking

The demographic trends throughout the industrialized world are longstanding and undeniable. Wherever modernization has allowed people to purchase, rather than create, their sustenance, plummeting birth rates have followed.

This is true across all societies and religious groups. Even the Mormons, who make unbridled procreation a plank of their theology, have seen their fertility rate drop from roughly 5.5 children per woman to about 2.6 today.

However, despite the fertility rate ranging from slightly to well below replacement throughout the West, natural population size will remain reasonably stable over the next 20-40 years. A post WWII surge in births, combined with a significant increase in average life-span over the last 50 years, means that, for the medium term, populations will grow older, but not drastically shrink.

Excluding for the moment any notion of causes to this problem, how great the problem is, or any potential solution, the long term population trends are fundamentally dependent upon just one thing. How many children women choose to have.

Not so with Russia, The Sick Man of Europe.

Russia looks to be in a three way vise, squeezed between female reluctance, female sterility, and the only example of declining life span the world has ever known that hasn't been accompanied by plague or war.

Here are a few bullets to outline the problem:

-- In the last 13 years, the Russian population has declined by 3%, from 148.7 to 143.8 million.

-- It is only the return of expatriates, a pool by now largely empty, that has stopped this being worse. "Tabulated deaths have outnumbered births by 900,000 or more in Russia in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002, by nearly 900,000 in 2003, and by over 420,000 in the first half of 2004. In all, between the eve of 1992 and the summer of 2004 the Russian Federation evidently recorded 10 million more burials than births."

-- Russia's total fertility rate (average total live births/woman), hovering just over 2 births/woman throught the late 1980s is now at 1.17.

-- Predictions of Russian population range from -560,000 to -840,000 people per year between now and 2025. Below are some reasons to think this range optimistic.

Okay. That is one squeeze, one that could, in theory, rapidly change as the shockwaves from the collapse of the Communist utopia subside. With less turmoil and better material prospects, women could quickly return to more bountiful birth rates.

Maybe not. Probably not.

All women, where able, choose to limit births to fewer than they could physically attain. In the West, various contraceptive means are the rule, with abortion being a method of last resort. Most women in the West have never had an abortion; very few more than one. And, particularly over the last 30 years, almost all have been under medically advanced conditions.

Not so in Russia. The Worker's Paradise was such a failure that abortion was the only alternative available, given the dearth of far cheaper and safer alternatives. Instead, Russian women, on average, have two abortions for every live birth.

Given the noteworthy standards of the Communist and post-Communist health care system, the reliance on abortions has led to a female infertility rate somewhere between two and four times the 7% rate in the US.

The final clamp in this three-way vise is the unprecedented peacetime decline in life expectancy--nearly five years for Russian males. Cardio-vascular disease has skyrocketed, as have all the consequences from the peculiarly Russian affinity for consuming oceans of vodka.

As a result, Russia has lower male life expectancy than regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Just a little perspective

Russia is a vast country, spanning 11 time zones, with a total land area more than twice that of the continantal US.

And half the population, with that population destined to decrease somewhere between significantly and precipitously.

In other words, large parts of Russia are destined to be virtually devoid of humans. Someone call Paul Ehrlichs office, stat.

This is the part of the essay where the answer to the Why question is supposed to appear.

Some commentators emphasize the self-centeredness of secularism as the cause. Others note broader, long term, and widespread economic influences. Still others look to variations within the overall trend and find correlations with tax and childcare policy.

But all those discussions take place within societies that have no barriers to the pendulum swinging the other way.

Russia is different, and Communism is the reason. I spent a brief period in the Soviet Union, and can confidently state from first hand experience that it is the most pervasively awful place I have ever been. The place is permeated with a miasma of crushing mediocrity that must, ultimately, grind down Russians in a way that would be alien even to the poorest parts of Africa.

Certainly Communists and their fellow travelers have much to answer here.

Do secularists?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Judeo-Christian Values for Dummies

Dennis Prager has taken on the task of explaining Judeo-Christian values to the masses, including Judeos, Christians, and Atheists alike:

With this first column of 2005, I inaugurate a periodic series of columns devoted to explaining and making the case for what are called Judeo-Christian values.

There is an epic battle taking place in the world over what value system humanity will embrace. There are essentially three competitors: European secularism, American Judeo-Christianity and Islam. I have described this battle in previous columns.

Now, it is time to make the case for Judeo-Christian, specifically biblical, values. I believe they are the finest set of values to guide the lives of both individuals and societies. Unfortunately, they are rarely rationally explained -- even among Jewish and Christian believers, let alone to nonbelievers and members of other faiths.

While I find this an admirable project, and will try to follow each installment at the Daily Duck, there are a few questions that immediately come to mind. Why should the majority of Christian and Jewish believers need to have their own values explained to them? Are the churches and synagogues, cathechism classes and Sunday schools doing so poor a job, or is it just that Dennis Prager thinks that since many Jews and Christians don't seem to abide by them, then obviously they haven't had these values explained to them? Or is it that, by the nature of the values being commanded by God, that understanding them is optional, but obedience mandatory? Do God's wishes have to be found rational by human standards? Is Prager's project an attempt to substitute reason for faith?

Another nit to pick is this assumption that the battle of values systems necessarily must lead to a single set of values triumphing, with the world embracing it over the others. I find that outcome highly unlikely. More likely is a continuation of multiple values systems existing in a state of tension, evolving and mutating with new social, economic and technological realities over time.

To continue:

So this is the beginning of an admittedly ambitious project. Vast numbers of people are profoundly disoriented as to what is good and what is bad. Just to give one example: Take the moral confusion over the comparative worth of human and animal life.

The majority of American students I have asked since 1970 whether they would save their dog or a stranger have voted against the stranger.

A Tucson, Ariz., woman in late 2004 sent firefighters into her burning home telling them that her three babies were inside. The babies for whom the firemen risked their lives were the woman's three cats.

The best known animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), funded by the best educated in our society, has launched an international campaign titled "Holocaust on your plate," which equates the barbecuing of millions of chickens with the cremating of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. To PETA and its supporters, there is no difference between chicken life and human life.

Only a very morally confused age could produce so many people who do not recognize the immeasurable distance between human and animal worth. We live in that age.

We do in large measure because values based on God and the Bible have been replaced by secular values. The result was predicted by the British thinker G.K. Chesterton at the turn of the 20th century: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."

His last paragraph convicts secularism for the sins of moral equivalence between human and animal life. Why does he think that such a values confusion requires athiesm as a necessary precondition? By his own admission most of the students he has asked whether they would save a stranger or their dog would choose to save their dog. But Americans are believers in God by a margin of from 4 to 1 up to 9 to 1, depending on which poll you consult. So, even if every atheist student he interviewed chose their dog over the stranger, it would mean that upwards of 50% of the remainder who chose their dog were religious.

To answer Chesterson's "prediction" - it is not that the nonbeliever will believe in anything, but that he will believe in something other than God. Chesterson's statement gives the impression that the unbeilever is some fickle, untethered, gullible hick in the big city of dubious philosophies, falling for the spiritual equivalents of the shell game or the Brooklyn Bridge scam. Of course, such secular scams are out there - communism, junk science faiths like environmentalism or Gaia worship, Scientology, etc. But more often than not the "anything" is a theistic or spiritualistic scam foisted upon believers - cults such as the People's Temple, Hare Krishnas, or good old fashioned Christian scams such as faith healing or Elmer Gantry preach and fleece traveling Gospel shows. Chesterson thinks that believing in God is some kind of single, unified concept, but it is the supernatural world, or God, that can literally be anything to the believer. There is no feedback loop to correct religious faith. At least secular systems have to deliver physical results or be discredited by their failure.

What is needed today is a rationally and morally persuasive case for embracing the values that come from the Bible. This case must be more compelling than the one made for anti-biblical values that is presented throughout the Western world's secular educational institutions and media (news media, film and television).

That is what I intend to do. Events in the news will compel columns on those events, but I do not believe that anything I can do with my life can match the importance of making the case for guiding one's life and one's society by the values of the Bible. As a Jew, by "biblical" I am referring to the Old Testament, but this should pose no problem to Christian readers, since this is the first part of their Bible as well. Indeed, as the greatest Jewish thinker, Maimonides, pointed out over 800 years ago, it is primarily Christians who have spread knowledge of the Jews' Bible to the human race.

I applaud Prager for making a rationally persuasive case for his values. The irony is that by making a persuasive case that a secularist can embrace, he necessarily will be defining a values system that can stand on purely secular grounds.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Drinking Life

Theodore Dalrymple, the ever-depressing chronicler of the dark underbelly of British social life, bemoans the rampant drunkenness that defines much of British youth culture, and the insane lengths to which the government will go to deal with the problem without holding individuals responsible for their own behavior:

That the British are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any British town or city on a Saturday night - or indeed, almost any night - will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.

The Government, whose solution to any social problem is to make it worse, now proposes that the British, having conclusively proved that they cannot (or rather, will not) control themselves, should be granted even more licence to make a public nuisance of themselves whenever they feel like it, which is often. They will henceforth be able to drink in pubs and bars at all times of the day and night, 24 hours a day, instead of just most of the day and night. If there were shares in debauchery, I'd buy them now.

Of course, the Government claims to believe that, by allowing drinking establishments to open 24 hours a day, it will reduce public drunkenness. If it really believes this, it is a terrible indictment of the British nation: that it can allow itself to be led by such a collection of hopeless fools. As to the suggestion that we might develop here the kind of civilised Mediterranean café culture if only drinking outlets were open long enough, you might as well preach the comforts of the igloo and the tastiness of whale blubber to the Masai of Kenya.

I find it hard to accept Dalrymple's depiction of British life without a grain of salt. Certainly it is not as bad as he makes it out to be in all places. Based on accounts of inner city crime from America in the 1970s, many Europeans got the impression that America was awash in murder and mayhem. But I've read enough accounts of the downward slide in British manners to not accept that such behaviors are a serious problem.

Certainly the government's response to the problem is laughable, and a perfect example of a misplaced faith in the power of the carrot over the stick as a motivational force in human nature. It is as if firemen decided to pour gasoline on fires instead of water, under the impression that the fire would soon get its fill and go out voluntarily. It is the same mistaken thinking behind the "self esteem" movement in education, which posits that success can be bred into a student by praising failure.

Of course, if people were self reliant and accountable for their actions, how would government bureacrats sell their indispensability to the electorate?