Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Constitutional Question

One argument used to justify the Administration's violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the claim that such surveillance is part of defense activity, that the Constitution makes the President commander in chief of the army and navy, hence that he has complete freedom in how he conducts defense activity, hence that he cannot be restricted by FISA.

But the Constitution also says that:

"The Congress shall have Power To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;"

So if surveillance is part of the activity of the army and navy, Congress is entitled to make rules regulating it--for instance FISA.

Am I missing something?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Theists, Atheists, and Pattern Recognition

I see a red pen sitting on my desk, between my keyboard and my computer. How do I do it?

The answer cannot be as simple as "my eyes send me the information." What is incoming from my retina is not a description of the world, with pens and keyboards, but a pattern of colors, the contents of my visual field. Figuring out that the reason part of that pattern is red and part brown is that I am seeing a red object of particular shape and size sitting on a brown surface requires my brain to analyze that pattern and deduce from it what I am seeing. As A.I. researchers discovered when they tried to program computers to make such deductions, it isn't easy. We are able to do it only because evolution has provided our brains with very sophisticated pattern recognition software, probably incorporating a good deal of information about the nature of the world around us, hence the likely meaning of the patterns we see.

An analogous process occurs when we use all of the information available to us to form a picture of the world--not merely what is where in the visual field but what the universe is like and why. We are trying to construct a pattern, a picture of reality, which makes a reasonably good fit to the available facts. The fit is unlikely to be perfect, both because we may not get the pattern quite right and because some of the "facts" we are fitting may be wrong. And the process of constructing the pattern involves nothing as simple as formal logic. Just as in seeing, we are using pattern recognition software created by evolution and incorporating beliefs about the nature of reality—true or false—that led our ancestors to reproductive success.

Pattern recognition need not give an unambiguous result. In one familiar example, the same black and white picture can be seen either as a vase or as two faces. In another familiar example, a paranoid may have a picture of the world that fits all of the data available to him, with apparent inconsistencies explained by the plots of his enemies.

Which gets me back to the discussion of religion in my earlier post. Some people, trying to make sense of the world around them, construct a pattern that includes some sort of god. Others construct a pattern that doesn't. Neither pattern is the result of rigorous deduction from the data or anything close, so it isn't surprising that atheists cannot prove theists wrong, nor theists prove atheists wrong.

That does not mean that logic can tell us nothing at all about the subject. Some patterns are inconsistent with enough data to make it very unlikely that they are correct, or close to correct; one can climb Mount Olympus and observe the absence of the Olympians. But I think it is clear from a very large number of arguments conducted by many people over many centuries that one cannot, on that basis, reject either all versions of a universe with a god or gods, or all versions of a universe without.

George Bush v Mohammed ibn Tugluq

Ibn Battuta, the famous 14th c. world traveler, spent some time as a judge in the service of Mohammed ibn Tugluq, the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Delhi. At the end of his description of that part of his life, he has two summary sections, one listing good things about his boss, one bad things.

One of the good things involved an incident where the Sultan slapped a young man under circumstances where he had no legal right to do so. The young man went to law. Mohammed ibn Tugluq made no attempt to block the legal procedings. The court found in the plaintiff's favor, ruling that he had the right either to monetary compensation from the Sultan or to repay slap for slap. He took the second option, slapped the Sultan and, Ibn Battuta tells us, he himself saw the Sultan's turban come off and fall to the ground.

Reading the account, two things are clear. One is that Ibn Battuta believed that the Sultan acted properly, that rulers ought to be under the law just like other people. The other is that he did not expect rulers to act that way, hence regarded doing so as particularly creditable.

Some years ago, George Bush confessed to multiple felonies committed both by himself and some of the people who work for him—interceptions of phone communications without the warrants required by FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, written to regulate just such interceptions. Under the act, either making such an interception or knowingly using information obtained by such an interception is a felony punishable by up to five years and ten thousand dollars. By Bush's own account he had himself committed the latter felony and lots of people at NSA had committed the former.

For some reason, none of them have been charged.

Somewhat later, it came out that U.S. phone companies had turned over to the government massive amounts of customer information in violation of a different federal law. A few of the customers sued. The administration is currently attempting to get Congress to pass legislation that will immunize the phone companies from liability.

One can't expect all rulers to live up to the high standards of the 14th century Sultan of Delhi.

How Will Clinton and Obama Vote on ...

Congress is considering legislation that would modify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make the illegal interceptions the NSA has been making since 9/11 legal and immunize the phone companies against civil liability for turning over to the government phone records in direct violation of federal law.

Has either Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama said how she or he will vote?

They have a problem. Lots of people, including both me and, I presume, many liberal Democrats, are unhappy about legislation designed to protect companies from the consequences of deliberately breaking the law. Liberal Democrats are likely to be particularly unhappy about doing it to benefit phone companies, prototypical examples of big, hence presumptively evil, corporations. And liberal Democrats aren't all that enthusiastic about the War on Terror. Voting in favor of the legislation in its present form, instead of supporting Senator Dodd in his attempt to force the removal of that provision from the legislation will, I expect, cost votes in the Democratic primaries.

But it isn't enough to get nominated; the candidates also want to get elected. Liberal Democrats will vote for the party's nominee, whichever it is; they have nowhere else to go. To win the election, the Democratic candidate has to get votes from people in the center. Presumably that's why both candidates, and the Democratic congress, are unwilling to come out clearly against the Iraq War.

Voting to block legislation which, its supporters will claim, is designed to protect patriotic American companies from having to pay massive damages for helping fight terrorism, may be a bit risky. It will be interesting to see what the candidates do.

On a slight tangent ... . I recently found out that the named plaintiffs in the class action suit against the telephone companies include both one of my colleagues and my ex-Congressman.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Adam Smith on Laptops in the Classroom

Professors have a mixed view of student laptops in the classroom. They are useful tools for taking notes and, if connected to the internet, can also be used to quickly research things relevant to classroom discussion while the discussion is going on. But they can also be used to exchange email or instant messages, view pornography, play games, do any of a wide variety of things unrelated to and distracting from what is supposed to be going on in the classroom.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a class taught by a colleague who did a brilliant job of keeping his students' interest and attention—and mine—while covering material usually considered less than entrancing. I was at the back of the classroom and so could see quite a lot of laptop screens. With one or two brief exceptions there was no color on them, which I took as evidence that they were being used to take notes, not to browse the web or play games.

It occurred to me that the question of whether to permit students to use laptops connected to the web during class was merely a new variant on the older question of whether class attendance should be compulsory. In this context as in others, the net lets one be physically in one place, virtually in another, physically attend class while corresponding with your friends or reading the newspaper. There are, of course, other ways of doing that—some of us remember reading concealed books during boring high school classes, or simply retreating into thoughts unrelated to what we were supposed to be learning—but the new technology provides a more convenient tool for the purpose.

On the subject of compulsory attendance, I cannot improve on the words of Adam Smith:

No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.

(Wealth of Nations Book V Chapter 1 Part 3 Article II)

As demonstrated by my colleague.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Ron Paul Affair and Libertarian Culture Clash

There are a lot of different things going on in libertarian reactions to Ron Paul in general and the quotes from the Ron Paul newsletters in particular. One of them, I think, is a culture clash between different sorts of libertarians, signaled in part by Virginia Postrel's use of "Cosmopolitan" and other people's reaction to it, in part by the language used by people on both sides.

Loosely speaking, I think the clash can be described as between people who see non-PC speech as a positive virtue and those who see it as a fault--or, if you prefer, between people who approve of offending liberal sensibilities ("liberal" in the modern sense of the term) and those who share enough of those sensibilities to prefer not to offend them. The former group see the latter as wimps, the latter see the former as boors.

Let me offer, as a simple example, possible reactions to the following sentence:

"According to FBI statistics, more than a third, perhaps more than half, of murderers are black, even though blacks make up only about 13% of the U.S. population."

As it happens, the statement is true; the "perhaps" reflects the number of murderers whose race is unknown. The question is how different people would react to it. The answer, I think, is that one group of libertarians would prefer not to state it and, if stating it, would be inclined to qualify their statement in order to make it clear that they were not racially prejudiced. A different group would state it with mild glee, in order to make it clear that they were not PC, not constrained by what they view as ideological commitments to shade the truth when it contradicts fashionable opinion.

I think this difference shows up in the strength of the condemnations of the newsletter quotes, a strength appropriate in terms of current conventions of what one does or does not say but exaggerated, I think, in terms of the literal content of the quotes. In that respect it reminds me a little of the flap some years ago over H.L. Mencken's diary, although that was a more extreme case—labeling an author racist for using currently unacceptable language despite evidence that he was less, not more, racially prejudiced than most of us.

In what sense were the quotes "racist?" While I may have missed something, I do not think any of them either asserted innate inferiority of blacks or hatred of blacks qua blacks. What they did was express a derogatory opinion of particular blacks--Watts rioters or muggers--in a gleeful fashion. They were thus likely both to appeal to racists and to offend liberals—more generally, to offend people who accepted current conventions of acceptable and unacceptable speech. My guess is that both effects were intentional

I myself have somewhat mixed feelings on issue of being deliberately non-PC. On the one hand, I find it disturbing that, in our society as it now exists, true statements about certain questions are likely to result in serious negative consequences for those who make them, with the forced resignation of the president of Harvard the most striking recent example. On the other hand, I think offending other people for the fun of it is both rude and counterproductive.

Which gets me to what I suspect is another difference between the two groups—for simplicity I will label them "wimps" and "boors"—their attitude to those who disagree with them politically. The wimps, I suspect, have friends they respect who not only are not libertarian but are well to the left on the political spectrum, hence wimps are likely to think of their opponents to the left as reasonable people who are mistaken. The boors are likely to see opponents to their left as stupid or evil. On the other hand, the boors are rather more likely to have friends who are conservatives, even kinds of conservatives, such as religious fundamentalists or neo-confederates, whom the wimps disapprove of. So in that case the pattern may reverse, with the wimps seeing those they disagree with as evil or stupid, the boors seeing them as holding some mistaken views.

No doubt all of this is an oversimplification of a complicated situation, and no doubt exceptions to the pattern I describe could be found in both directions. But I think it has a good deal of truth to it.

All of which reminds me of an old piece by Murray Rothbard, on crucial questions that divide libertarians, in which he accused me of failure to hate the state. He was correct. I don't view the state as a diabolical plot by evil people to exploit innocent victims, merely as an understandable and unfortunate mistake. In that regard, at least, I am a wimp, not a boor.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

More on Religion

My post on religion seemed to interest a fair number of people, so I thought it would be worth doing another one, summing up my view of the situation.

I think it is unlikely that any particular one of the standard religions is correct in the form in which most believers hold it—a form which includes belief in the falsity of all of the competing religions. In that form, at most one religion can be true—I'm oversimplifying a bit, since there are probably some religions which aren't inconsistent with each other, but most are—so the odds that any particular religion is true are low.

There are then at least three interesting possibilities:

1. All religions are pretty much entirely wrong; there are no gods. This is my view, as it happens, but in this post I want to argue that there are alternative positions that reasonable people might hold.

2. One of the existing religions is correct, or very close to correct, in the form in which most believers hold it. There is supposed to be a tradition of Mohamed saying that, at the day of judgment, his followers would be divided into a thousand sects of which only one would have the truth; I see no logical reason why that couldn't be the case. If it is, the odds of getting the right religion are low. On the other hand, some versions of some religions hold that it is sufficient to get close, which would improve your odds a bit.

3. There is a true religious belief and some, perhaps many, perhaps even all, religions imperfectly reflect it. This makes sense if the reality in question is sufficiently hard for humans to understand that a completely correct account of it would be incomprehensible to them. It corresponds to Haldane's speculation about the physical world, which I mentioned in my earlier post. To me, this alternative is the most interesting and plausible of the versions in which religions are not simply all wrong.

Some critics might object that if my third alternative is correct then almost all religious believers are wrong, and if they are all wrong, what reason do we have to believe there is anything to religion at all? The obvious response is to try to apply the same standard to our understanding of physical reality. In my previous post I offered the example of light. Its behavior can be understood as either a wave or a particle, two explanations which appear inconsistent to our intuition.

In that case, we now know enough to write the equations for an explanation consistent with all of the evidence. But from the standpoint of someone living before the discovery of quantum mechanics, or someone living now who, whether or not he knows quantum mechanics, doesn't intuit it, the situation is very much what I have described for religion. There is a reality out there, we have two inconsistent pictures of it, and both are in part true.

The same holds in lots of other areas. Consider economics. Writing as an economist, I frequently treat economics as if it were the full description of human behavior, but obviously it isn't; indeed, I have one article which tries to use evolutionary psychology to explain patterns of behavior inconsistent with economics. Human beings routinely deal with complicated realities through models that have enough truth to be useful and are simple enough to be usable. There is no particular reason why, if there is a "religious reality" out there—if, for instance, there is something reasonably describable as a god (or gods)—it shouldn't fit the same pattern.

We are left with the problem of how to decide between my first and third alternatives. At one time I thought I had an answer to that, a proof that the existence of God was less likely than the non-existence of God. The argument, which I created when I was about nine, depended on Occam's razor, the idea that simpler hypotheses are to be preferred to more complicated hypotheses. A universe with God includes, as a subset, the universe minus God. Hence the theist picture has to be more complicated than the atheist picture, hence it is less likely.

There are two problems with this purported proof, as I eventually realized. The first is that the "universe minus God" might not be an internally consistent picture; some features of the universe might depend on the existence of God to work. The second is that there is no good reason, at least none I can see, to think that Occam's razor applies to the nature of the universe. It's true that simpler hypotheses are, ceteris paribus, easier to work with—but the question here is not which picture is easier to understand but which is true. And it seems plausible that simple things are more likely to come into existence than more complicated things, again ceteris paribus. But it is hard to see how that is relevant to the universe, with or without a God.

All of which leaves me with the point I made in my previous post. Humans have very good pattern recognition software and routinely use it to solve problems that we could not solve by anything describable as logical deduction—most obviously, the problem of deducing from the data coming from our retinas the contents of our visual field. Our eyes don't see objects, they see patterns of colored light. By the time that information reaches our consciousness, it has already been heavily processed.

Humans use their pattern recognition software to make sense of the world around them, and different people get different results. Since we don't have enough data to uniquely determine the pattern, the best guess someone accepts often depends, in large part, on what he is told by the people around him. That is quite obviously true with regard to our beliefs about the nature of the physical world; none of us has enough first hand data to recreate most of what we believe about it, so we are dependent both on second hand data and on the results of other people's analysis. It isn't surprising if, for those people who believe that there is a religious reality out there, the particular version they accept depends in large part on the beliefs of the people around them.

What about the larger question--alternative 1 vs alternative 3? Once one sees the alternatives as "some version of the atheist world view is true" vs "some version of the theist world view is true," the arguments for atheism become less compelling, since most of those arguments are attacks on particular versions of the theist world view. One is left with the question of which picture one finds more convincing. I observe that different people, even different intelligent and apparently rational people, reach different conclusions.

One further point. In the comment thread to my previous post, I suggested that the quote from Sam Harris on witchcraft that a commenter had offered reflected a pop history view of the subject—witchcraft persecutions driven by the Catholic church's religious beliefs—and that that view was inconsistent with the historical evidence. The commenter responded that the argument Harris was making didn't depend on the historical accuracy of his historical example, which was true.

On the other hand, the reliability of Harris's view of the world as a whole—or mine—does depend in part on the accuracy of the data on which it is based. If his world view includes a history in which religions have been consistently hostile to reason, that makes him more likely to construct a pattern in which religion is simply superstitious, irrational nonsense. If that history is false, as I think it is, that is a reason to distrust the pattern he has built. If the actual historical story shows religions and religious people sometimes sensible, sometimes not, sometimes attacking reason, sometimes supporting it—behaving, in other words, not all that differently from non-religious people and institutions—that weakens the grounds on which his conclusion is based.

My own conclusion, as before, is that I do not think God exists. But neither do I think that conclusion so obviously true that all reasonable people ought to accept it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ron Paul, Libertarianism and the Constitution

A number of the libertarian critics of Ron Paul argue that he isn't really a libertarian at all, merely a supporter of states rights. While this could be true, I find the evidence offered unpersuasive. It takes two forms, for each of which I offer an example:

1. Ron Paul introduced a bill to legalize raw milk--but only where it was not in violation of state law.

2. Ron Paul argued against the decision in Lawrence, on the grounds that the Constitution said nothing about a right of privacy or a right to engage in homosexual sex, hence Texas had a right to make a law against sodomy.

The obvious explanation of the first case and similar evidence is that Ron Paul was a federal legislator, not a state legislator; his job was preventing violations of individual freedom by the federal government. The fact that he didn't also try to prevent violations of freedom by state governments is no more evidence that he supported them than the fact that I'm not currently in North Korea trying to overthrow its government—or even contributing money to such a project—is evidence that I support that particular oppressive government.

The second case raises a more complicated issue. Quite a lot of libertarians express support for and admiration of the U.S. Constitution. Timothy Sandefur, in the course of attacking Ron Paul, wrote that in order to be a libertarian: “You don’t have to be an Objectivist (or a Christian or a whatever), but you do have to believe at least in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.” In response to my objection that the Constitution was in some ways non-libertarian—for instance, it explicitly forbade ending the slave trade prior to 1808—he backed off from his original statement. But it does, I think, reflect an attitude common in the libertarian community.

The problems with claiming moral authority for the Constitution were pointed out long ago by Lysander Spooner. But there remains the weaker claim that the Constitution sets up a structure of government favorable to liberty and should therefor be supported by libertarians. From this standpoint, when Ron Paul argues that the state of Texas has the right to ban homosexual sex, he is describing its legal right under a legal structure he approves of, not its moral right. There is nothing inconsistent, so far as I can see, with both believing that the courts ought to interpret the Constitution literally and also believing that some of the things which will be held constitutional if they do so are violations of individual rights not protected by the Constitution, and should be opposed on those grounds.

What did Paul actually write about the case? "Ridiculous as sodomy laws may be, there clearly is no right to privacy nor sodomy found anywhere in the Constitution. There are, however, states’ rights – rights plainly affirmed in the Ninth and Tenth amendments." That seems consistent with the interpretation offered above and inconsistent with the view that Ron Paul approves of sodomy laws as long as they are at the state level. Pretty clearly, what he is saying is not that he approves of them but only that they are not in violation of the Constitution.

Is he right? So far as the grounds the courts actually used for the decision, I think he is, that both that case and Roe were examples of the Court reading into the Constitution what they thought ought to be there, not finding in it the intent of the original authors. One might argue that those decisions could be defended as following from the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, but I think that too would be a considerable stretch.

One of the issues that I do not think I have seen seriously discussed in libertarian literature is the tension between support for strict interpretation of the Constitution and support for libertarian legal outcomes. I'm curious, for instance, as to Tim's view of Justice Field, whom I once described as "Earl Warren in a White Hat." He was a very influential 19th century Justice who, so far as I can see, first decided what ought to be in the Constitution and then went looking for ways of persuading his colleagues that it was really there, at least implicitly. On the whole, his modifications were in a libertarian direction. Should we approve?

What I find strikingly missing in the argument that Ron Paul is not a libertarian is evidence that he actually supports state laws against sodomy, or against drug use, or supports other such violations of individual rights. There are lots of strongly stated claims that he supports, or does not oppose, such, but they all seem to depend on deduction from the arguments I have discussed above.

The one exception is abortion; he not only pretty clearly approves of state laws against it, he supports federal legislation that would, in effect, ban it; to that degree he violates, as Sandefur has correctly argued, his own support for states rights.

While this is evidence that Ron Paul is not a consistent supporter of states rights, it isn't evidence that he isn't a libertarian, because some libertarians regard abortion as a violation of the rights of the fetus; it is, I think, a minority position, but not one inconsistent with being a libertarian.

I should add that I would not want this post to be taken as an endorsement of Ron Paul. Various of the critics have offered pretty convincing evidence that, at least as represented by material that went out under his name in connection with his newsletters, he held some strikingly nutty views, and I think his own statements suggest a somewhat weaker version of the same conclusion. The nutty views, however, concern supposed conspiracies to violate our rights. On that basis at least, while he may be a nut, he's a libertarian nut.

P.S. (added in revision). I came across a pretty good defense of Ron Paul with regard to the newsletter issue webbed by James Harris. He argues that the offensive material in the newsletters was written over a period of only a few years, that it's believable that Ron Paul was not responsible for it, and that it's inconsistent with a much larger body of his writing and speaking.

Relative vs Absolute Wealth and Revealed Preference

In class today the question of concern with relative wealth came up and one student mentioned an article according to which a majority of people said that given the choice between two alternatives, in one of which their absolute wealth was higher but other people's was higher still, they would prefer the alternative with lower absolute but higher relative wealth. I don't have the cite so can't give the actual numbers for the alternatives.

Economists prefer to measure preference by actions rather than words. It occurred to me that we have such evidence for this question. Lots of people choose to migrate from one society to another. If you go from a rich society to a poor society you are likely to substantially increase your relative position, since you will bring with you both wealth and human capital that are high compared to the average in your new home. If you go from a poor society to a rich society, the opposite can be expected.

I don't have data, but my impression is that migration from a poorer to a richer society is much more common than migration the other way. If so, that provides evidence, at least for the alternatives that migrants face, that absolute wealth is more important than relative wealth.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Problem with Nash Equilibrium

I've been teaching a little game theory in a course that surveys a variety of analytic methods of possible use to lawyers, and it occurred to me that a problem with the idea of Nash Equilibrium in oligopoly, which I have discussed in the past, is actually a more general problem.

The idea of Nash equilibrium is for the player of a multi-player game to observe the strategies all other players are following and then choose the strategy that is best for him given what they are doing. In other words, he freezes their behavior, assuming they will do the same thing whatever he does.

The problem is that my choices affect what choices are available to you. It is not, in general, possible for all other players to keep doing the same thing whatever I do--some of the things I might do would make things they might be doing impossible. Hence in defining Nash equilibrium we must implicitly assume, not that other players don't react, but that they react in some specified way, something we can describe as following the same strategy in the differing conditions corresponding to different choices I might make. There is no theoretical basis for deciding what that specified way is, hence Nash equilibrium is not clearly defined.

Consider an oligopoly. Each firm is producing a quantity and selling it at a price--all at the same price if the goods are perfect substitutes. If one firm changes the quantity it produces and sells, it is no longer possible for all the other firms to keep selling the same quantity as before at the same price as before.

We might define a strategy as a price and assume that when I change my price everyone else keeps the price he is charging the same. The result is Bertrand competition. As long as price is above cost, it pays a firm to charge a penny less than everyone else so as to expand to the whole market, or at least as much as it can produce--for simplicity assume constant costs. So the equilibrium is price equal cost.

Alternatively, we might define a strategy as a quantity and assume that when I change the quantity I produce everyone else keeps his production constant; price then adjusts to the price at which total quantity demanded equals our summed production. The analysis of that problem is more complicated and yields a different result.

This is not a matter of having multiple Nash solutions, which is also a possibility. It's a matter of not knowing what the Nash solution is until you make an essentially arbitrary definition of a strategy.

I wouldn't be surprised if all this is familiar to people who spend more of their time than I do on game theory, but it isn't mentioned in the text I use and, off hand, I don't remember seeing it in other texts.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Atheism and Religion

A correspondent points me at a lecture by Richard Dawkins and two by Sam Harris, attacking religion in pretty strong terms. I'm also an atheist, but I think there are a number of problems with their arguments:

1. Dawkins describes religious belief as due entirely to faith and almost entirely inherited from one's parents, scientific belief as due to rational and skeptical investigation. In doing that, he is implicitly comparing the average religious believer with the professional scientist--indeed, with the upper end of professional scientists. The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer--both of them hold their beliefs not because of rational investigation but because the people around them told them those things were true. And religious leaders, at least some of them, offer arguments for their positions which are based on more than just faith, whether or not those arguments are correct--offer the evidence of miracles, rational arguments such as those of Aquinas, and the like. It's true that there is more rehashing of old arguments and less new argumentation in religion than in science--but then, religion is an older project than science, so presumably more of the relevant arguments have already been made.

If, after all, everyone got his religious beliefs from his parents, it's hard to see how multiple sects could come into existence. At some point someone, Luther or Calvin or the founder of one or another of the multiple Islamic sects, concluded that his parents' view was wrong, produced his own, and persuaded others to follow it instead of their parents' views.

2. Dawkins complains about four year old children being labelled "Christian," "Muslim," "Hindu." What he is ignoring is that religious labels identify communities as well as systems of belief. For many people the communal identification--"I am a member of this group"--is probably more important than the belief; there are surely lots of members of one Christian denomination or another who could not adequately explain the difference in beliefs between their denomination and others. Seen from this standpoint, it makes as much sense to describe a four year old child as "Christian" as it would to describe her as "French."

I'm reminded of the story of the visitor to Northern Ireland who is asked by a local whether he is a Protestant or a Catholic. He replies that he is a Jew. To which the local responds with "Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?" The religious labels here have become primarily identifications of which faction you are a part of, not of what you believe.

It's tempting to blame religion for a good deal of past violence, but it isn't clear if the fundamental cause was religious beliefs or the tendency of humans to identify with groups. There's been lots of violence between Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims, but also between English and French or French and Germans. And the USSR, whose official religious doctrine was atheism, was also one of the most murderous states in history.

3. Harris, and I think also Dawkins, points out that there are lots of different religions, they disagree with each other, so they can't all be true. That's a persuasive argument against many religious positions taken literally. But it's not a very persuasive argument against religion in general, because there is an obvious rebuttal.

One of the speakers, I think Dawkins, quotes J. B. S. Haldane's speculation that the universe may be too complicated for us to understand. Similarly, it might be that religious truth is too difficult for us to fully understand. If so, different religions might each be giving a partial and imperfect view of the truth, narrowed down to what a human can make sense of.

Consider, for an obvious analogy, the scientific view of the nature of light. A critic could argue that some scientists describe light as particles, some as waves, and they cannot both be true. The response is that they can both be true--we can write down a mathematical description of light that is consistent with all of the experimental evidence. What we can't do is to clearly intuit that description. We can intuit the wave version, we can intuit the particle version, to our intuition they seem inconsistent, but in fact each is a partial description of a single consistent reality.

Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to. Part comes from weaknesses I can perceive in the foundations for my own view of the world. At some point, I think, each of us is using the superb pattern recognition software that evolution has equipped us with to see a coherent pattern in the world around us--and since the problem is a harder one than the software was designed to deal with, it isn't that surprising that we sometimes get different answers.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Ron Paul Affair

You can find an extensive set of links to libertarians discussing it at Timothy Sandefur's blog. My only contribution has been to take issue with some of Timothy's less defensible arguments, including his claim that the central feature of the views of Rothbard, or at least "the Rothbardians," by which he means Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute people with whom Ron Paul has been associated, is moral relativism.

I'm not a fan of Murray Rothbard, and the Mises Institute people are not fans of mine, as those readers who have been involved in libertarian back and forth may already know, but a moral relativist Rothbard wasn't and Tim's attempt to defend the claim that he was "at best equivocal" on that point I take as evidence of the corrupting effect that Objectivism can have even on a reasonable person, which Tim seems to be.

I thought the most perceptive post on the whole matter was one by Ross Douthat on why members of political fringe groups tend to have, and tolerate, and sometimes absorb ideas from, nutty friends.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Thoughts on the Gift Giving Puzzle

[Warning: Economic jargon ahead. Without it the post would be even longer]

Economists, especially those familiar with Gary Becker's analysis of altruism, find the practice of giving gifts puzzling for two different reasons.

If, as a Becker altruist, I take your utility as one of the things I value, the obvious way to increase it is by giving you money and letting you spend it. While there are exceptions, in most other contexts we assume that each individual knows what is in his interest better than others do. Gifts, however, are usually things, not cash.

Becker altruism implies, roughly speaking, that from the altruist's point of view there is an optimum division of the combined income of altruist and beneficiary between the two, a division that maximizes the altruist's utility. If the beneficiary already has more than his share, the result is a corner solution--no transfer. If he has less, the altruist transfers money to him until that division is reached--that being the point at which an additional dollar of transfer costs the altruist as much in lost utility from his own reduced consumption as it gains him in increased utility from the beneficiary's consumption.

One implication of this is that, when transfers occur, they should be large. How likely, after all, is it that my beneficiary's share of our combined income, adding up to many tens of thousands of dollars, will be precisely five dollars less than the optimum? Yet gifts are usually small.

I think I have a possible solution to these puzzles, but explaining it requires a digression.

Economists find it useful to think of utility as a single thing, combining all sorts of values. But as individual actors, it doesn't feel that way. When I decide whether or not to have an ice cream cone, my behavior can be modeled as an attempt to maximize the present value of my utility stream, trading off pleasure today against the negative consequences of present calories for future welfare. But what it feels like is more a conflict between two me's, a short term pleasure maximizer and a long term utility maximizer, with the latter using various stratagems in attempting to control the former.

Suppose what the altruist values is not the welfare of the beneficiary as economists define it--the present value of his utility stream--but his happiness, his current happiness, making the gift giver the ally of the short term me. Give me money and the long term me might insist on putting it away for our old age. Give me a box of candy and there is nothing to do with it but eat it.

This also explains the small size of gifts. I can use an almost unlimited amount of money to provide for my old age or to insure against medical risks. But there is a fairly low limit to how much candy I can eat--more generally, to how much happiness you can provide for me today by giving me stuff. And if your utility function exhibits declining marginal utility for my happiness, that effect can be expected to show up much faster than if it exhibits declining marginal utility for my utility.

The final question is why humans might have this sort of modified Becker altruism. Becker has offered an interesting evolutionary explanation for altruism. The environment we evolved in did not contain savings accounts, annuities, insurance policies. Given the constraints of that environment, short term benefits may have been all it was practical to produce or observe. Hence we may have ended up as altruists targetting the current value of happiness rather than the present value of utility.

[Curious readers can find a summary of Becker's analysis of utility in the chapter of my Price Theory devoted to love and marriage. Look for the subhead "The Economics of Altruism."]

Friday, January 04, 2008

Fraud-proof Voting: A Simple Proposal

I've been thinking, off and on, about whether it would be possible to design a voting system that would not be vulnerable to fraud. I think I have a simple answer.

Each voter, before he comes to the polls, obtains a 20 digit random number--by rolling dice, a computer program, or whatever. Once he gets into the voting booth he enters the number into the machine along with his votes; the machine prints out a document certifying that that is his number and records his votes, his number, but not his identity. It might be useful for him to be provided with a sheet of paper with his name on it, which he inserts into the voting machine and gets back with his number stamped on it.

Once all the votes are in, they are posted--all of them--to the web, labeled by number. Any voter can then check his number to see if his votes are correctly recorded. Anyone can download the votes--to a suitably large hard drive--and add up the totals for himself.

The only serious opportunity I can see for cheating with this system is to record all votes cast accurately but also record an additional hundred thousand votes with made-up numbers that correspond to no voter. To prevent that, poll watchers provided by anyone interested keep count of the total number of voters.

One possible problem with this system is that it makes vote buying easy, since the voter can prove how he voted to the buyer. But that's already true of absentee ballots, which are widely used, so is not a problem vis a vis current alternatives.

Have I missed anything?