Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tiny Church

A very small chapel, along the roadside. It's maybe 6 by 10 feet. But it has pews and a lectern, in case you want to have a service for everyone in your car.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Only Three Words

If you are a child of God, you are my brother and sister. I have family of every race, creed and ideology. We must ensure #blacklivesmatter doesn’t morph into #blacklivesbetter
Terry Crews. Twitter.
In the same way that much of the debate over "Black Lives Matter" appears to be over whether it means "Black Lives Matter (as much as anyone's)," or "Black Lives Matter (more than other lives)," one can note that "Black Lives Better (than they are now)" is not the same as "Black Lives Better (than everyone else's)." A call for improvement is different than a call for superiority. It's worthwhile to keep in mind that slogans are sound bites, not substantive policy proposals. After all, each of these are only three words.

American society has, for much of its history, operated on a policy of cost-shifting; the mainstream (or, if you prefer, the power élite) has enjoyed the benefits of a growth in access to resources and wealth in part by shifting the costs of those gains to others. Whether that was the practice of slavery, denying property rights to the native population or open discrimination against immigrants, leaving others to hold the bag was commonplace. (Although it is worth noting that "commonplace" is not the same as "widely acknowledged" or even "generally understood.") One can imagine that a side effect of this understanding, especially coupled with an unwillingness to see the people who benefited from (and perhaps even drove) such policies as deliberately Evil, is the idea that this is simply part of Human Nature; "Power oppresses," as it were, "and absolute power oppresses absolutely."

It's recently become trendy to say: "When one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." And the general intent is to paint the formerly privileged as seeing others manage to reach the same level as a form of injury. But if it's understood that "privilege" is the byproduct of oppression, and "equality" means that the shoe is now on the other foot, the comparison may seem to be more apt. In other words, it's one thing if the pie becomes bigger so that the people who had small slices now have larger ones. But if the larger slices are divided up and handed out to those with less, that may feel more legitimately like a wrong.

I recall this quote from a voter in New York in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential Election:
I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist. But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, "You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk." And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty. Like I said, I feel it's going to be - they're going to feel it's payback time.
The idea that a society moves from a state where different groups prey upon one another to a state where they cooperate with each other depends on a sense that humanity is capable of making noticeable (and somewhat even) moral progress. People need to be able to both forgive and accept responsibility for past wrongs. If, instead, people believe that humanity simply moves through cycles of different groups ascending and declining, ascendancy is something to be celebrated, but decline is something to be feared, because it means that the bills for all of the abuses of that prior ascendancy are going to come due, and only remaining on top allow the pain (justified or not) to be avoided.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Bad Ideas

Harper’s Magazine will publish, in its October 2020 issue, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by a number of writers and academics. One of the key points that it makes is as follows:

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.
I suspect that the audience people perceive need to read this (which may or may not be the target audience of the letter) will find that unconvincing. There could be multiple reasons for this.

The first could very well be that it hasn’t yet been shown to work. For the person who believes that exposure, argument and persuasion have yet to fully realize “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” after 244 years, there has to be some rationale given as to why today is so different. What about people has changed such that the bad ideas that survived being exposed, argued and persuaded against for all that time are now suddenly vulnerable?

The second might be a disagreement on the nature of “bad ideas.” To a degree, the point behind the marketplace of ideas is that there are no clearly wrong ideas. A “bad idea” may be one that doesn’t suit the moment, or doesn't meet people’s needs, but those are different than openly harmful. In the marketplace metaphor, people knowingly peddling “attractive nuisances,” in the sense of things that are actively dangerous yet outwardly desirable, are rare to non-existent.

In Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore, in The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum (who is, interestingly, not a signatory to the letter) notes that “‘Democratic government, being government by discussion and majority vote, works best when there is nothing of profound importance to discuss,’ the historian Carl Becker wrote in 1941.” People don’t commonly think of high-stakes moral issues as being “nothing of profound importance.” In order to push people towards being more accepting or discussing things in the marketplace of ideas, it’s not enough to call for that discussion. People have to also understand that losing the debate is an acceptable outcome. I’m not sure that one would find widespread agreement with the statement “People are generally united in their answers to important ethical questions.” And even that presumes that people are united in their understanding of what the important ethical questions are.

When Karl Popper described the Paradox of Tolerance (“In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”) he noted: “I do not imply for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would be most unwise.” But this does not itself offer a test that can be applied to determine which intolerant philosophies can be countered by rational argument and/or kept in check by public opinion. A universal and unwavering commitment to a norm of open debate and toleration of differences would imply that it is at least somewhat self-evident, or otherwise clearly established, which ideas are objectively bad.

If one actually believes in morally impermissible ideation, a reliance on exposure, argument and persuasion must then be seen as infallible routes to preventing their adoption. If failure is unacceptable, then it must be impossible. And history argues against that interpretation. In a society in which people commonly refer to their fellow citizens as unintelligent, undiscerning and/or unethical, I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to presume that people will conclude that bad ideas are doomed to failure and lack of adoption simply because they are bad. While it's true that a culture of ideological purity may sanction some people who do not deserve sanctioning, as long as the stakes are high, their sacrifice will be seen as an acceptable price.

The Enemy of the Good

The Atlantic's David Graham has outlined the backlash to the way the Trump Administration has implemented the Paycheck Protection Program. In short, the legislation was written with significantly broader eligibility requirements than many would like, and this has triggered withering criticism that the PPP has enriched the already wealthy while ignoring "the people." In the end, Mr. Graham concludes: "The backlash against a successful government program is why the United States can’t have nice things."

I would disagree with this assessment, although perhaps not on the merits. It's true that there appears to be an expectation that government can, and therefore should, perfectly calibrate the assistance it gives, so that only the "deserving" are aided. (This is something that predates the PPP. And it's valid to be critical of the fact that when it comes to individuals, there seems to be a greater willingness to err on the side of withholding assistance.) And it's true that widespread criticism of government missteps tends to lead to an ethos of "don't just do something, stand there;" if only the perfect is at all acceptable, then nothing will happen until the people in charge of crafting it are convinced that it is absolutely above reproach. But in that, the backlash is a symptom, not the disease. The United States can't have nice things because it doesn't want nice things; it only wants perfect things. And it believes that it can get them. If only the perfect is an acceptable alternative to the status quo, then the status quo will tend to reign, because the perfect is difficult to attain in a world in which people themselves are commonly, if not universally, imperfect. If sweeping legislation must be quickly written and enacted while also complying with a specific, and often complex, understanding of the demands of justice, or be otherwise panned as worse than having done nothing, doing nothing becomes a very attractive option.

To a certain degree, having nice things requires accepting at least some of what one has as "nice." Being able to compare a real item, be it a physical item like a car or a more abstract item like legislation, to an ideal is a recipe for disappointment, because ideals, by definition, are freed from the requirement that they operate in the real world and be implemented by real people. They can simply be called in existence, and assumed to be workable. And if unexamined, idealized, conceptualizations of items become the definition of "nice," then nice things will become vanishingly rare, by any standard. Because the nice things that pass reality's muster won't measure up, and the ideals are unlikely to ever be anything other than ideals.

Monday, July 6, 2020


Systemic racism doesn't just hurt individuals and limit their opportunities — it also creates a lasting drag on the economy, writes Atlanta Fed chief Raphael Bostic, the first Black president to lead a regional Fed bank.
Fed examines racism's economic toll
Unfortunately, it's not much of an examination. While A Moral and Economic Imperative to End Racism does note that racism means that people impacted by it contribute less to the economy than they could have otherwise, that simple observation seems fairly straightforward. It's fairly easy for anyone to claim that someone languishing in long-term unemployment would be contributing more in a well-paying job.

But it seems unlikely that if the United States actually needed greater economic contributions "in the form of work product and innovation" from it's citizenry, that it wouldn't have found a way to put its currently excess labor force to work and realize those contributions. The problem that racism causes for a national economy isn't that it lowers GDP. If anything, it's that the discontent that a skewed distribution of poverty creates siphons resources away from more productive uses. Between police overtime and insurance claims for burned-out vehicles and buildings, there are clear expenditures that would have been better spent on more productive activities. But while the Glazier's Fallacy might state that the money spent replacing cars is poorly spent overall, the simplest answer to that is that if the protestors would simply accept their lot, there would be no need for added expense. And even so, it's a shift of economic activity, rather than a straightforward drain. And so the idea that systemic racism is a drag on the economy is not as clear-cut an idea as it might seem.

Because the demand for labor, goods and services is not infinite, racism doesn't have to mean that a society is willfully leaving money on the table, simply to spite some or another sector of the populace. If there is a presumption of rationality, then growing the demand for people to contribute work product and innovation is how one defeats racism. And if there isn't a presumption of rationality, then pointing out a hit to GDP is unlikely to work in the first place.