Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why not help more people

There's a phrase people trot out when they want to justify a big-scale project that attempts to help people. It sounds like this:

If we just help one person, it'll all be worth it.

As an econ nerd, I cringe every time I hear it. That's not because I think helping people is overrated or an unworthy goal. Sometimes this cornball phrase is used for a project that saves people from dying. That's an important thing to do.

But what was the opportunity cost?

That is to say, could the resources that went into this project likely be used for alternative projects? Were those alternative projects likely to get off the ground, and if so, how many people would they have helped, and in what ways?

Some comparisons are hard evaluate. For example, is it more important to prevent five violent rapes or one domestic violence murder? There's no empirical way to make that comparison.

Perhaps some projects that help very few people are worth doing, but ignoring a cost-benefit analysis robs people of a chance to strategically maximize the amount of good they do.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Reclaiming social liberalism from the jerks

Freddie deBoer at the Daily Dish has written the most important short essay on the thorny transformation of social liberalism of this year, from the perspective of someone in the trenches.

It's hard not to share the entire thing, but here's the two paragraphs that stab the heart of the matter

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.

DeBoer is still a proud supporter of social justice causes and beliefs, but sees the actions of the modern activists as alienating and puritanical.

Suppose you’re a young college student inclined towards liberal or left-wing ideas. And suppose, like a lot of such college students, you enjoy Stephen Colbert and find him a political inspiration. Now imagine that, during the #CancelColbert fiasco, you defended Colbert on Twitter. If your defense was noticed by the people who police that forum, the consequences were likely to be brutal. People would not have said “here, let me talk you through this.” It wouldn’t have been a matter of friendly and inviting disagreement. Instead, as we all saw, it would have been immediate and unequivocal attack. That’s how the loudest voices on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook act. The culture is one of attack, rather than of education. And the claims, typically, are existential: not “this thing you said is problematic from the standpoint of race,” but rather “you’re a racist.” Not “I think there’s some gender issues going here that you should think about,” but “you’re a misogynist.” Always. I know that there are kinder voices out there in socially liberal circles on social media, but unfortunately, when these cyclical storms get going, those voices are constantly drowned out.

Exactly. There is no complexity or room for growth with modern social justice warriors. One is either completely on their side and uses every pre-approved term and label, or they are a racist, misogynist, homophobe etc.

The anecdote to these simplistic black and white thinking was well-articulated by Jay Smooth, a young modern activist himself, who said it's important to make the distinction between saying someone is a racist, or something particular that they said was racist.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Being lazy is not a virtue

A German writer, Patrick Spaet, is convinced that hard work is a fetish and we should be more open to financing the lives of everyone else. In part because modern technology replaces a lot of physical labor and also because rewarding people who work is a mistake. For example, Spaet writes:

This situation is all the more schizophrenic in that we take every opportunity every day to escape toil and work: who voluntarily uses a washboard, if he has a washing machine? Who copies out a text by hand, if he can use a photocopier instead? And who mentally calculates the miserable columns of figures on his tax return, if he has a calculator? We are bone idle, and yet we glorify work.

But his entire premise suffers rests on the fatal assumption that jobs exist to keep people busy, something I have pilloried here for years. No, the point of work is to be productive, and people who are capable of being productive but opt not to are looked down for leeching off the labors of others.

That's not just right wing resentment of people on the social safety net, but also left-wing hatred of rich kids and workers in the finance industry, who they do not see as making any real contribution. These resentments have flaws - there really are people on the social safety net who are unable to work, and finance does have an important role in society that requires long hours of office work - but even with those flaws the resenters have a fair point in principle.

Spaet is right that technology makes people more productive, but his flaw is in thinking that it would be acceptable to compensate for technological advances by reducing labor until productivity breaks even with the past. That would leave several billion people in avoidable poverty so that nose-crinkling anti-capitalists like himself can get more leisure time. It's easy to look down on growth when you're not poor.

People want a higher standard of living, including people who already live comfortably. I can respect someone wanting to work less and live a simpler lifestyle, such as a European household compared to an American one, but that's different from Spaet's sci-fi utopian fantasy where work is entirely optional. We all benefit from productivity, not mindless toil, and the distinction is important.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hamburger robots need to be addressed

Plenty of people have mocked the ridiculous proposal to create a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers by showing pictures of international McDonald's order kiosks that replace workers in countries with expensive labor.

The economics are straightforward here: Business owners have to decide if a task will be completed by a worker, a machine or a combination of the two. More robots and machines means fewer jobs for humans, but that is a consequence of technology and progress. We want production to be more efficient, as that brings down costs and frees up people to work in other fields, so in the long term it's good to replace workers with machines. In the short term, it can be bad for individual workers who lose their jobs.

Automating jobs with machines requires capital investments and may naturally be more expensive than hiring humans, but as labor costs go up, it becomes more and more tempting to replace workers with automation. This is bad thing overall, as jobs are automated not because it's efficient but in response to a political constraint. It doesn't save the customer any money by bringing down prices.

See the difference? The first example is beneficial to society overall, but the second one is not.

Modern technology allows us to automate more and more jobs, including ones we thought could never be replaced. Fast food cashier is once one of those jobs, and now those workers should be concerned about being replaced by machines.

Okay, so there will still be people out back making the food, right? Well, not always.

A company just invented a machine that makes hamburgers from scratch, with a full-cooked and packaged burger coming out ready to eat every 10 second.

Momentum Machines cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas told Xconomy his "device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them." Indeed, marketing copy on the company's site reads that their automaton "does everything employees can do, except better."

That doesn't mean that every company will buy a hamburger robot, but it does mean those robots will become a real consideration in the future.

Hat tip to Nate for the link.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Progressivism has betrayed the secular movements

The problems with the atheism and skepticism movements are not sexism or racism, but their marriages to left-wing progressivism.

A year and a half ago I wrote about the idea of liberal cannibalism, saying, "If you lock enough liberals in a room together they will start to eat each other."

My example at the time was anti-capitalist rhetoric being lobbed at the Human Rights Campaign from the left during its fight for gay marriage, but that same problem is front and center with the ongoing civil war in the atheist and skeptical movements. The two movements have a lot of overlap so I will just refer to them as the "secular movements."

The secular movements have allowed progressive politics to flesh out a lot of their approaches, languages and choices of targets, and in my opinion this has weakened and compromised their missions. It's also set the stage for a civil war launched by social justice advocates.

But, let's be honest here: The flat-out truth is there is something very liberal about the missions of the secular movements. They want to radically change the role religion plays in modern life, and they want science to be held above faith. They also want to dethrone quacks and fools who trick people into believing things that aren't true, even when those quacks and fools have good public reputations.

Conservatives also tend to be more religious, and are very public about their religiosity. Progressives are also on the right side of history on issues like gay marriage, and the major arguments against gay marriage are religious in nature.

Coupled with overt anti-science boasts from conservatives, it makes sense that the secular movements would end up being more progressive and less conservative. However, that doesn't mean every approach and decision from secular activists must be made from a progressive mindset.

One of the greatest virtues the left has is its ability to question authority and tradition. Unfortunately, two of its greatest flaws are failing to question some of its own sacred cows and irrationally rejecting old ideas that have no worthy replacements (capitalism, hygiene, animal testing, chemical fertilizers, etc.).

Notice how much more attention climate change deniers get from the secular movements than denial over the consensus for free trade or against rent control policies, even though all three are major issues of our time marked by a high level of public ignorance, and failure to understand all three leads to poverty and death.

Prominent skeptics I like, such as Dr. David Gorski, will do a take-down on the notion that the anti-vaccination movement is left wing, but no one wants to talk about how one in four registered democrats are creationists (and not too long ago is was nearly one in three) and creationism is a lot more bipartisan than people realize. Battles are being picked and right-wing science denial isn't just a bigger target, but a more tempting target.

It's telling that "Friendly Atheist" blogger Hermant Mehta chose this example when asking people to be more skeptical of alleged false quotes used by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

If a pastor or right-wing conservative did it, we’d be calling them out on it immediately. Tyson doesn’t deserve a free pass just because his intentions are pure.

This implies that he believes his secular audience would have more zeal swarming on a right-wing conservative than a left-wing progressive public intellectual for the same act. Isn't that a problem?

At the least, it's a failure to the mission of secular movements that want to defeat ignorance from every corner.

Arnold King proposed in his three axes of politics theory that left-wing progressives tend to view issues on an oppressor-oppressed axis. The civil rights struggle in the 1960's was about whites using their political power to make life harder for blacks. Left-wingers often believe the drug war was created to keep blacks down.

That's not to say this is the wrong way to look at things. Sometimes the oppressor-oppressed axis is the only view that makes sense. I have a hard time seeing the civil right's movement any other way, but as a libertarian I see the drug war along the lines of a different axis, one of freedom and security, with well-meaning but flawed approaches. If you only use one axis for every problem, you will fatally misunderstand some issues.

That perfectly describes the ongoing, frustrating social justice civil war within the secular movements. Young, furious thin-skinned left-wing extremists have been poisoning the secular movement from within and routinely howl like coyotes. Simply put, they see racism, sexism, oppression and rape culture under every tea cup and salad fork, and they stomp and yell every time they think they've found some more.

For example, since more men are prevalent in the secular movements, they think there must be an evil force behind it like sexism. When they see a white male, even a gay white male, in a leadership position within the movement, their inner bell hooks comes pouring out. Hence the hatred for Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

They aren't willing to accept other explanations, like that there may be something about secularism movements themselves that attracts more men than women, such as 
telling people to their faces that their deeply-held beliefs are wrong. So, the critics turn to what they know: Oppression! Next comes the purges and the inter-movement cannibalism.

All because they limit their thoughts to that single oppressor/oppressed axis.

A lot of these critics are social misfitsperpetual victims and crybabies who exist in a perpetual state of outrage and are quick to pile on women in the secular movements who disagree with them. These kind of shenanigans would never fly in a movement that wasn't wormy with progressivism. The bomb-throwers would be laughed out and excommunicated in a heartbeat, but instead here they are presented as if they have something wise and important to tell us.

I'm not saying that atheists need to advocate for low taxes, or let up on fighting for gay rights. There's plenty of right-wing malarkey and anti-science to fight. There just needs to be a little more self-examination when progressive ideas like affirmative action are eagerly swallowed. The attempts to purge Richard Dawkins need to be recognized as a consequence of unquestioned acceptance of a leftward mindset, not of a movement full of bigots.

Don't forget, when the extremist leftist in our ranks have to choose between the secular movement and their social justice instincts, they choose social justice. Look at skepticism over sexual assault allegations or how the Yale Humanists jumped on board The Good Ship Liberal when they went sailing against Ayaan Hirsi Ali for being critical of Islam

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Everyone's mental stumbling block

If you don't struggle with this, you're not using your brain right.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A college administrator nails free speech

One of the criticisms lobbed at old-school journalism is that corrections never get as much attention as the original stories. Well, that rule applies to the blogosphere as well and I want to do my part to give an important update.

I also want to give credit to a college administrator for bucking the trend and making a real contribution to the public discussion of free speech.

Last week a letter to students from U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks drew ire from first amendment circles because it seemed to say that he thought free speech needs to be civil. Well, Dirks read that criticism and issued a second statement to clarify his position.

My message was intended to re-affirm values that have for years been understood as foundational to this campus community. As I also noted in my message, these values can exist in tension with each other, and there are continuing and serious debates about fundamental issues related to them. In invoking my hope that commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other, I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined both by this campus and the American Association of University Professors.


I'm used to seeing college administrators go the wrong way on free speech issues, and Dirks made some great nuanced points.

Hat tip to free speech crusader Ken White for the link.