Monday, December 31, 2007

Our interests are diverse and no politician can really fight for all of us

Pigs Don't Fly: The Economic Way of Thinking about Politics
by Russell Roberts* December 3, 2007
Pigs Don't Fly
Politicians are just like the rest of us. They find it hard to do the right thing. They claim to have principles, but when their principles clash with what is expedient, they often find a way to justify their self-interest. If they sacrifice what is noble or ideal for personal gain, they are sure to explain that is was all for the children, or the environment or at least for the good of society.
Pigs don't fly. Politicians, being mere mortals like the rest of us, respond to incentives. They're a mixture of selfless and selfish and when the incentives push them to do the wrong thing, albeit the self-interested one, why should we ever be surprised? Why should be fooled by their professions of principle, their claims of devotion to the public interest?
We call politicians our representatives and they often claim to be fighting for us. But when we think about it, we understand that our interests are diverse and that no politician can really fight for all of us. Inevitably, our interests and desires clash and politicians are forced to choose between the general interest and the special interest. Which wins?
The answer depends on the constraints facing the politicians. So politicians in a system with meaningful elections and competition are more likely to pursue policies that please the general public. Dictators have more range to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the people.
The Logic of Political Survival, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson and Jame Morrow, looks at how the level of electoral accountability affects political outcomes. Bueno de Mesquita discusses the intuition behind the theories in the book in this EconTalk podcast.
For better or worse, it is an unavoidable reality that even when politicians are constrained by real or potential competition, they still have wiggle room for pursuing their own self-interest because the level of knowledge among the electorate is imperfect. The electorate can be misinformed. Or rationally ignorant. It's costly for voters to be well-informed. That gives politicians, even in a democracy, the chance to pursue special interests at the expense of the general interest.
EconLog blogger Bryan Caplan explores these issues in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
Bootleggers and Baptists
This wiggle room for politicians in a democracy leads to some strange outcomes. It allows politicians to do the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time. How is that possible? We shall see below. Even stranger, the imperfect information available to voters can even allow politicians to do the wrong thing and pass it off as the right thing if we're not paying close enough attention.
Bruce Yandle uses bootleggers and Baptists to explain what happens when a good cause collides with special interests.
When the city council bans liquor sales on Sundays, the Baptists rejoice—it's wrong to drink on the Lord's day. The bootleggers, rejoice, too. It increases the demand for their services.
The Baptists give the politicians cover for doing what the bootleggers want. No politicians says we should ban liquor sales on Sunday in order to enrich the bootleggers who support his campaign. The politician holds up one hand to heaven and talk about his devotion to morality. With the other hand, he collects campaign contributions (or bribes) from the bootleggers.
Yandle points out that virtually every well-intentioned regulation has a bunch of bootleggers along for the ride—special interests who profit from the idealism of the activists and altruists.
Yandle discusses his theory of regulation in this podcast. You'll also find additional readings on the theory there.
If that's all there was to Yandle's theory, you'd say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But it's actually much more depressing than that. What often happens is that the public asks for regulation but inevitably doesn't pay much attention to how that regulation gets structured. Why would we? We have lives to lead. We're simply too busy. Not so with the bootleggers. They have an enormous stake in the way the legislation is structured. The devil is in the details. And a lot of the time, politicians give bootleggers the details that serve the bootleggers rather than the public interest.
Russell Roberts is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He is the Features Editor of the Library of Economics and Liberty and the host of EconTalk. For more articles by Russell Roberts, see the Archive. Copyright ©: 2007, Liberty Fund, Inc.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You cannot silence your inner chatter by making others quiet

Silence yourself, not others! Pramahamsa Sri Nithyananda, ET 13 Dec, 2007
In the olden days, people in India did not stitch clothes after sunset. This is because all stitching was done by hand with a needle. In the dim candle or kerosene lamp light it was not possible to see properly and one could get hurt by poking the fingers with needle. Even now in India, some people will not stitch with a needle after sunset. Even seamstresses and tailors will not do it, though we now have electricity and lights. They may not even stitch using machines!
When we don’t have the necessary understanding of a practice, it becomes a dead rule, a superstition. With understanding, any rule can become a technique, a tool that helps us to lead life happily. With deep understanding, it will dawn upon us that all rules were basically created to help people live blissfully and happily. The rules were meant to ensure that you were in peace with yourself and the others around you.
Today, we have forgotten the basis for these rules. We create hell for ourselves and others with these rules. There are people who truly believe that meditation and prayer will save their lives. They have been told so!
They fuss a lot before they begin to meditate at home. They silence the children and all others around. They turn the whole household upside down. All for the sake of ten minutes of meditation!
Let us see how the meditation proceeds. The moment meditation begins, they doze off!
After a minute or two, they will start swatting mosquitoes. A couple of minutes later, a major itch manifests on some part of their body. Then, the back will begin to ache. Enough is enough, they decide, “I will continue this tomorrow. It is enough for today.”
Meditation is done for the sake of peace and silence. Why meditate at all, if inner awareness cannot be created? It is like a speaker trying to silence the listeners by out-shouting at them. Will it help?
If the listener is not interested however much one shouts, it is of no use. You cannot silence your inner chatter by making others quiet. You need to become silent, not others. We follow rules and tradition blindly. That is why religion has such a powerful hold on us. Let us awaken to the powers that are within us! Nature has endowed us with unimaginable energy to be free. Be alert, awake and reach for this liberation!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions

Faith vs. the Faithless By DAVID BROOKS NYT: December 7, 2007
Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and the author of “American Gospel,” which describes the history of religious liberty in the United States. Richard John Neuhaus is the editor in chief of First Things and the author of “The Naked Public Square,” which is about efforts to banish religion from public conversation. Yesterday, Mitt Romney delivered a speech that artfully blended the centrist Meacham and the conservative Neuhaus.
From Meacham, whose book he has read twice, Romney borrowed the language of America’s political religion. He argued that beneath the differences among America’s denominations there is a common creed, a conception of a moral order described in the Declaration of Independence, and lived out during the high points in the nation’s history. He recounted Sam Adams’s plea for unity in a time of crisis, and how his own father’s commitment to the basic American creed caused him to march with Martin Luther King Jr.
From Neuhaus, Romney borrowed the conviction that faith is under assault in America — which is the unifying glue of social conservatism. He argued that the religious have a common enemy: the counter-religion of secularism.
He insisted that the faithful should stick stubbornly to their religions, as he himself sticks to the faith of his fathers. He insisted that God-talk should remain a vibrant force in the public square and that judges should be guided by the foundations of their faith. He lamented the faithlessness of Europe and linked the pro-life movement to abolition and civil rights, just as evangelicals do.
It is not always easy to blend an argument for religious liberty with an argument for religious assertiveness, but Romney did it well. Yesterday, I called around to many of America’s serious religious thinkers — including moderates like Richard Bushman of Columbia, and conservatives like Neuhaus and Robert George of Princeton. Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about the speech, some of them wildly so.
Before yesterday, most pundits thought Romney was making a mistake in giving the speech now. But in retrospect, it clearly was not a mistake. Romney didn’t say anything that the Baptist minister Mike Huckabee couldn’t say, and so this one address will not hold off the Huckabee surge in Iowa. But Romney underlined the values he shares with social conservatives, and will have eased their concerns. Among Mormons, the speech may go down as a historic event. And yet, I confess my own reaction is more muted.
When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.
  • The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.
  • The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?
In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.
Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus

Jaynes introduces his theory by making reference to the Iliad, in which there is almost no description of interiority and subjectivity, or of conscious decision-making; instead, all the characters act at the promptings of the gods, who give them commands that they obey without question. Jaynes suggests that we take these descriptions literally, that this was the way the mind worked for thousands of years of human history. After the opening section of the book, where he quite interestingly discusses a range of philosophical issues having to do with the nature of consciousness and its relation to language, Jaynes supports his argument almost entirely through an analysis of ancient texts and of archaeological discoveries.
Where to begin in discussing such a suggestive, even if overly simple and overly totalizing, thesis? First of all, Jaynes argues that language is a prerequisite for consciousness, rather than the (common-sensical) reverse. This seems to me to be unarguably true, if we mean reflexive, or second-order consciousness. His arguments for this thesis, coming out of the tradition of Anglo-American empirically-grounded psychology, are interesting precisely in their difference from deconstructionist, and other Continental philosophical, arguments to much the same effect. This is useful because Jaynes thereby is able to point to the (relative) primacy of language in the human mind, without getting lost in those rather silly skeptical paradoxes that the deconstructionists are partial to.
Second, I find incredibly valuable the way Jaynes presents his picture of the schizophrenic, pre-conscious “bicameral mind” as a mechanism of social control. The bicameral mind arises, according to Jaynes, in tandem with the development of agriculture and the creation of the first cities (i.e. the first stirrings of “civilization” in Mesopotamia, and perhaps also Egypt, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley, at around 9000 BC). Its purpose is to ensure obedience and social harmony; it entails, and enables, the creation of vast, rigid, theocratic hierarchies, such as existed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt (and also, much later, in the Mayan cities of the Western Hemisphere, and in other civilizations around the world). This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus infecting, even as it created, the human mind.
In describing the passage from bicamerality to self-consciousness, Jaynes is really proposing a genealogy of different regimes of language and subjectivity, in a manner that resonates with ideas proposed by Deleuze and Guattari at around the same time (see especially the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus). For Jaynes as for Deleuze/Guattari (I assume that Jaynes was unacquainted with D&G’s work, and vice versa), a “despotic” regime is displaced and replaced by a passional, subjectifying one. (I need to be a bit careful here, because I don’t want to merely translate Jaynes’ terms and arguments into deleuzoguattarian ones. The specific interest of Jaynes’ book is how he defamiliarizes the bicameral mindset, shows how it cannot be reduced to the categories that we, subjective people, take for granted)...This entry was posted on Monday, March 22nd, 2004 at 8:49 pm and is filed under Books, Science. RSS 2.0 feed.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The premises of modern science themselves are based upon Christian metaphysics

D'Souza said (see Part 5 of the debate):

"The premises of modern science themselves are based upon Christian metaphysics:
the idea that the universe is rational, it obeys laws, these laws are accessible to our human minds. There is no Darwinian reason it must be so. Yes, we evolved, and I agree with Dan [Dennett] about this. But we evolved to survive, if you will, in hunter gatherer primitive environments. We did not evolve to figure out the rotation of the planets. We did not necessarily evolve to figure out the theory of relativity. So evolution can tell us why we survive and why we adapt. But evolution can't tell us why we believe certain things to be true."

D'Souza vs. Dennett: The Aftermath from Zaadz: ~C4Chaos' Blog (Crossposted from

Sunday, December 02, 2007

We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise?

15. While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby. At the time of Augustine, the incursions of new peoples were threatening the cohesion of the world, where hitherto there had been a certain guarantee of law and of living in a juridically ordered society; at that time, then, it was a matter of strengthening the basic foundations of this peaceful societal existence, in order to survive in a changed world. Let us now consider a more or less randomly chosen episode from the Middle Ages, that serves in many respects to illustrate what we have been saying. It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish ...”.12 Contemplatives—contemplantes—must become agricultural labourers—laborantes—he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict. Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labour. In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish.13 Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?
48. A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too.40 As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

ENCYCLICAL LETTER SPE SALVI OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF BENEDICT XVITO THE BISHOPS PRIESTS AND DEACONS MEN AND WOMEN RELIGIOUS AND ALL THE LAY FAITHFUL ON CHRISTIAN HOPE Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 30 November, the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, in the year 2007, the third of my Pontificate. Spes Salvi

Saturday, December 01, 2007

I forcefully stand against the very dangerous philosophical idea of a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer/Taylor

Upon a bridge we see with new eyes, we feel with a new consciousness. And we do so for the very first time, in part, because a bridge usually elevates us slightly allowing us to have an overview of the whole, an overview of the interconnected parts and events, an overview of the ‘where from” and the “where to”...
But to actually move slowly across a bridge; that is one of the most unique experiences we can have as humans. One feels as if part of a primordial connecting power and desire which we humans possess at our core. We feel the beginning of a voyage, a departure, and sense that there is a new and unknown destination over there, on the other side of things. Of course, sometimes bridges are small, so we actually see the other side! But we also recall how very short bridges bridge what are monstrous abysses! Sometimes it even takes time to cross a bridge, some even many minutes! In this respect, bridges also link us to our temporality: for our very lives are like bridges between our births and our deaths. And in the in-between of our lives, in that unique expanse which is living, we may actually become experts in bridging itself by reflecting on what a bridge is and does.
But this is no easy task, for as with many other over-used things of our lives, we use them and only realize what they are, what they could be and what is their essence, when they actually fail to provide the use they were intended for. Recently a bridge collapsed in Montreal killing several fellow Canadians; it was then that bridges came to our public attention. But it is not that type of attention we seek here. We wish for a reflective type of attention.
Bridges we mostly go into in order to get to our destination. Infrequently we pause to consider in wonder what a bridge actually is. Actually, more and more given our traffic realities, it is quite unsafe to even stop at a bridge! And though I could not begin to tell you how to build a bridge, I have been fascinated by their multiple forms and the underlying symbolic nature for many years. As a matter of fact, I have dedicated many years to trying to understand how one could build bridges in a metaphorical sense between diverse areas of human understanding and experience. This is in part what comes about when one purposefully seeks to become a T or Ω-kind of person who, as I have argued elsewhere, takes up a form of life in which overspecialization is moderated by a permanent Socratic search for a deeper understanding in other non-specialized areas as well. The very letter omega (Ω) is, in fact, like a bridge...
I hope now you can sense why some of us are deeply interested in bridges and, more specially in bridgers. But at the same time, we seriously seek to reject a naive form of bridging which is dangerous to our very health! This is the reason why I forcefully stand against the very dangerous philosophical idea of a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer/Taylor, and instead more realistically consider bridging as a healthier and more prudent alternative for those who are truly interested in connecting the diverse.
Fusing dangerously seeks to do away with difference, bridges connect in separation. For to bridge is pleasurable in-and-of-itself and one must seek to protect bridgers from the excesses of those parties who care little for bridges and their beautifying presence. It would be very odd that those who did not bridge actually were happier than those who risked bridging; though as things stand, the non-bridgers swear to be the happiest in their smug alleged self-sufficiency. In contrast, when you bridge you gain a dual bilingual reality even if others decide to remain monist and unilingual. To those we could apply Wordsworth’s striking words: “dull would be he who could pass by.” Many are dull and the adventure of bridging must not be tainted by such dullness.