Saturday, April 27, 2013

Paul Krugman writes:

While the Reinhart-Rogoff fiasco is fresh in our minds, it’s worth recalling the other paper that swept through the ranks of the VSPs, briefly becoming orthodoxy, what everyone knew, until people took a hard look at the data.

In case you don't know, the Reinhart-Rogoff fiasco is the discovery that the empirical data justifying the current fiscal austerity policy is based on... a mistake. R&R forgot to add up one column of data in their Excel spreadsheet.

Krugman points out that basic, old-fashioned economic theory accurately predicted everything that has happened, and told us years ago that repeating the policy of the 1930's would lead to a repeat of the 1930's. Yet all of this was ignored in favor of radical new economic theories that said... well, that basically said what the rentiers wanted to hear.

Krugman also points out that nothing will change. The mere fact that their economic theory has been shown to be unrelated to the facts will have no impact, because they didn't choose the policy based on facts in the first place (or at least, not based on facts they care to share). This is the hallmark of religion and ideology: immunity to disproof by facts. All those libertarians going on about Atlas Shrugged don't seem to understand: they're the bad guys, the ones Francios Antonio spent 27 pages railing against on the radio. They're the ones who want everything to just keep working even while they impose their ideology.

The conspiracy is real. It is a confederation of dunces, of people who choose to believe in an ideology not so much of selfishness as of independence; a fantasy world where the words "no man is an island" have never been written; an alternate reality where the madness of crowds doesn't exist; where people are not social animals with a 250,000 year evolutionary history of complete social interdependence for their survival.

They wanted to believe in the fantasy of complete self-determination. In that way they are no different than Oprah's "The Secret" crowd, New Agers who believe that life is scripted, or Calvinists who believe that God gave each person a fully-formed immortal soul at conception so pure that only laziness allows it to be corrupted by the material world.

It's the same old battle as we have ever fought: the will to believe vs. reality. And at its root is the same old rot: what we want vs what we can have. Selfish desire vs. maturity.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The real conspiracy

Oddly enough, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh won't touch this one. But Matt Taibbi will:

The idea that prices in a $379 trillion market could be dependent on a desk of about 20 guys in New Jersey should tell you a lot about the absurdity of our financial infrastructure.
The Biggest Price-Fixing Scandal Ever
As Matt points out, Libor was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only did the banks make huge bets and then force taxpayers to bail them out when those bets failed; they have been straight-up stealing the whole time. There is no other word for it: this is stealing. If you did this you would go to jail.

Can anyone explain to me why conservatives are up in arms about an alleged conspiracy to fake climate change, but apparently can't care less about an actual (there have been successful court cases! with admissions of guilt!) conspiracy to loot whole nations?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Some thoughts on Islam

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarneav surely didn’t expect to destroy America/Christianity/The West with a few kitchen utensils. Nonetheless, they gave their lives to strike feeble blow. Why?

It starts with hatred. By bombing us they express their anger and encourage Muslims to feel and express anger; by bombed them in return, we create more anger and hostility. This is the goal. The worst thing we could do, from Tamerlan’s perspective, is to forgive; to not respond with violence.

Hatred is necessary, because without hatred, there is understanding and communication. These might sound like good things to you and I, but to the faith of Islam, and thus those who identify with Islam, they are poison.

This is not because Islam is a religion of violence. The next time someone repeats that ridiculous canard, ask them to look up what religion the Hutu were in 1994. It is because Islam is a functioning monotheism. The violence is really incidental: Islam neither profits from, nor is it particularly debilitated by it. Islam, as a faith, can survive any number of invasions, any display of military might, any amount of bombs and bullets. What it cannot survive is modernity.

To understand why Islam cannot be modernized, it is helpful to understand what happened to Christianity when it was modernized. The fundamental difference between Islam and contemporary Christianity is the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that event, you would have been hard-pressed to find any significant social differences. Pre-Reformation Catholicism had everything we complain about in Islam: church/state integration, religious law, violence against reformers/heretics/pagans, and so on.

Catholicism was at that time an all-encompassing world view, in the same sense that we now consider the Standard Model of physics. Sure, there are people who don’t share that outlook, but they know they are in the minority: they are aware that they are outside the mainstream and that their ideas require special defense or explanation. In Dark Age Europe, that was true of atheists and scientists. Their arguments, papers, and books are all wrapped with disclaimers and couched in the hypothetical: “Just imagine if what we all knew wasn’t true…”

Islam, as a pre-modern faith, is also an all-encompassing world view. Science, philosophy, other religions, even empirical evidence must necessarily give way to the truths of the Koran. The point of passing Sharia laws is to publicly demonstrate adherence to this truth; to declare society’s total commitment to the faith. It is not that Muslims want the irrational or harmful effects of Sharia law; it is that they want to maintain the totality, the purity, of their world-view. To allow mundane concerns (such as fairness, effectiveness, or simple practicality) to intervene would be admitting that there is another path to truth. And once you have multiple paths to truth, the gig is up.

Christianity discovered this during the Reformation. Having freed theology from the constraint of the chair of St. Peter, they quickly discovered they had freed it from any restraint. Sects proliferated with abandon; science and reason moved in, winning territory with empirical evidence and logic.

It should be no surprise that democracy flourished in this environment. The currency of democratic governance is reasoned debate; if a priest can simply invoke divine authority, then there is no room for debate. But if you need to convince your fellow citizens with rhetoric (rather than violence or authority), then empirical evidence and logic are really, really handy. Athens and Rome, both ancient democracies, were also polytheistic: this is not a coincidence. When there are many gods, there are many paths to truth and goodness, which leaves room for argument. Your clever new idea can’t be shouted down by the priesthood as immoral simply because it disagrees with doctrine, because other people might disagree with their doctrine too.

A truly monotheistic religion, meaning a complete and encompassing world-view, is incompatible with democracy, science, and modernity. Christianity survived its conflict with modernity by effectively ceasing to be monotheistic. There are many theologians, then and now, who view this as essentially defeat. As much as I disagree with their efforts to re-impose theocracy, I do agree with their diagnosis: Christianity is a pale shadow of its ancient glory. It has been reduced to a personal feel-good New Age marketing scheme.

Post-Reformation Christianity is, essentially, polytheistic, albeit the boring kind. Where the Greeks had pantheons of imaginative gods with fabulous names, Protestantism just has one name for many slightly different gods. While each sect adheres only to its own vision, society as a whole respects all of the various definitions of God – which amounts to social polytheism. You can’t simply shout down gay marriage as immoral, because some Christian priests actually support gay marriage.

Understandably, the Imams do not want to watch Ramadan turned into the biggest shopping day of the year, or the daily call to prayer set to Top-40 muzac. They would like to keep their actual functioning monotheism, thank you very much. The only way they can do this is by rejecting modernity. But rejecting modernity is hard: young people, in particular, like TVs, the internet, vaccines, and all that jazz.

Therefore, the contact between the West and Islam must be cut off, or at least poisoned, so that every idea that creeps in can be rendered impotent against the doctrine of the faith. A permanent state of war, or at least violence, tags every broadcast, every speech, every comment from the West with the red of blood. Think of terrorism like a vaccine: it’s not strong enough to kill the society, but it produces angry anti-bodies that immunize it against foreign ideas.

In this sense George Bush played right into radical Islam’s hands. This should be no surprise, since it is also radical Christianity’s hands: the Dominionists don’t want rapprochement with different ideas anymore than the Islamofascists do. Barrack Obama, with his speeches about understanding and co-existence, is the worst foe the Imams could imagine.

In another sense Bush only did the inevitable: capitalist economies exist to exploit markets, and the Middle East is a market for both buying and selling. As Will Durant noted, whenever a market has been closed to a commercial empire, violence has ensued. He was speaking of American-Japanese relations in 1935 (and we all know how that turned out), but he might as well have been speaking of the East India Company, Admiral Perry, Dole Fruit Company, or Standard Oil of California. When King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud took those gold coins, Islam’s fate was sealed. It would be the irresistible course of history: we would buy and sell. And because we would buy and sell in a modern market, Arabia must become modern. And modernity… is incompatible with true, socially enforced monotheism.

So here we are. Our capitalist economy will not allow us to ignore Arabia; their religious philosophy must necessarily rebuff us. We can try to be nice and understanding, but that just makes things worse; they can try to modernize, but only by surrendering their essential identity as a culture and as individuals. Tamerlan wasn’t just angry over our infidel ways; he was angry because he could not adapt to them and remain true to himself. It is hard enough for immigrants; imagine how much harder when the nature of modern society challenges your entire identity. Fundamentalist Christians struggle with the same problem (look at the recent defections from the Westboro Baptist Church), and, by golly, some of them turn to violence too.

Tamerlan achieved his goal: he chose a course of action that would maintain his identity as a Muslim (a true Muslim, not some wishy-washy reformist moderate). That this required his death should not be viewed as a deterrent; for would not the loss of his identity be a kind of death? And he saved his brother from the infidel, too. A double win. That America now seethes with hatred for Islam is just icing on the cake; it was hardly Tamerlan’s top priority, if he thought about it at all. This was a personal act; the social, political, and religious aspects are merely context. But that context assures us we will see more personal acts like this. And not all of them will be from Muslims – there are plenty of Christians who still have not surrendered to modernity (the Amish are only one example; the entire Catholic hierarchy is another, and what about those White Power guys?). Few of those will choose violence, but then only a tiny fraction of Muslims choose violence. Most just suffer in silence, with the occasional irrational cheer when the underdog scores a hit.

What can committed secularists do? The worst thing possible, from the terrorist’s point of view: understand. Persevere with appropriate responses, eschew jingoism and over-reaction, and keep making cool stuff that other people want. Islam is in its death throes; if it takes 100 years to reform at the cost of millions of lives, it will still be 300 years quicker and less bloody than the Protestant Reformation.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


We have tolerated unreasoning hatred for far too long. We have abandoned the rational for the comfortable, and we have abandoned the empirical for the comfortably insane.

Charles Pierce

The very first question put to the Governor of Massachusetts was "Is this another false flag attack to take our civil liberties away?"

Government, like currency, functions on belief. We believe in our rights, so we act as if we have them; and that action creates them. When we no longer believe, the game is over.

We need to stop giving the people who are ruining it a free pass. Put up or shut up: prove your conspiracy or stop talking about it. Every single claim must be challenged, and the only acceptable defense is empirical evidence.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Libertariniasm in a nutshell

State Rep. Mike Reynolds (R) – Oklahoma City responded to the suggestion that the legislature do something about education with this message:

It is not our job to see that anyone gets an education. It is not the responsibility of me, you, or any constituent in my district to pay for his or any other persons education. Their GPA, ACT ASAB, determination have nothing to do with who is responsible. Their potential to benefit society is irrelevant.

Here we have the perfect example of the libertarian line, and the perfect exposition of it as a religious and moral position rather than a rational or pragmatic one. Read the last line again and again, until you understand the deontological morality behind it. Note how purity is more important than consequences.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The tyranny of choice

One of the maximums I have derived over the years is that choices are bad: options are just another way to screw up.

Case in point: I have a wireless router, and I have a PS3. Plug them in and turn them on and they talk to each other. Great! Except. The router supports multiple methods of connection (G, N, Mixed). The PS3 supports those as well. Left to their own devices, both machines default to selecting the slowest mode. If I restrict the router to only supporting the G method, then my download speed to the PS3 increases by a factor of 50.

Presumably turning off the other modes means some devices might not connect to my router now, so I can understand why the router felt it necessary to default to supporting everything. But can anyone ever give me an adequate answer why the PS3 should look at all its options and choose the worst one?

Of course, if there were only one method, then everything would just work automatically. But then a company couldn't muscle the competition out of the revenue stream. If nothing else explains why the Libertarian fantasy is insane, surely this must. If we let computer corporations build the highways, you'd only be able to drive on roads that matched your car's manufacturer.

Sooner or later governments will recognize codexs and network standards (and even operating systems) as public infrastructure too important to leave in the hands of private corporations. And once the IT industry is brutally oppressed by the heavy hand of government, it will... explode, just like the automobile industry did once government standardized the rules of the road. (And operational design, and safety design, etc. etc. etc.)