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Critique of pure Reasoner

Essays and commentary related to topics in Tom Reasoner's "Truth and Beauty" blog

Sunday, July 25, 2004

We don't get to vote on what the truth is

From Nathan Smith's response to my post of 22 July regarding the virtues of technocracy versus democracy:

I do not think it's a good thing that "scientific truths that most laymen do not accept are taught in schools." Even if evolution is true (and I think the theory is full of holes) to override the popular will on this issue is not a price worth paying: millions of people whom the elite considers barbarians and ignores are marginalized and alienated by such undemocratic norms. (If the Founders were alive today, they would be more distrustful of state-run public education than they ever were of standing armies.)

I don't know what Nathan means by "full of holes," (Is chemistry 'full of holes'? Certainly it is not completely understood nor are all its parts agreed upon) but the truth or falsity of evolution is apparently not at issue. Nathan says that to override the popular will on an issue of scientific fact is 'not worth it'. Could we apply this to geography? If we vote that, say, the continent of Asia is imaginary, should it be taught in schools? How about if only one school district votes to teach that, in an area where a sect predominates whose holy text says there is no continent but North America? What if perhaps a majority of people would rather there be no mention of the Civil War in their histry books, considering it to be an apocryphal event? Sure, a bunch of hoity-toity melonhead history professors might come along and lecture people about how their beliefs are contradicted by a mountain of rigorously-attested documentary evidence, but they're just a bunch of elitists!

Only teaching TRUE, relevant knowledge is education, all else is misinformation. One can argue that a cabal of so-called 'experts' is wrong and hiding that fact, but you can't dismiss the evidence because people refuse to believe it. Attempting to teach biology without evolution - the central organizing idea thereof - is a terrible failure of education. Unless all those scientists are wrong.

As for state-run public education versus any other kind in which public treasure is spent, the outcome is irrelevant. Public education money should only be spent teaching things that, to the best of its ability, the government has determined to be true. The way to do that is to ask a council of (hopefully disinterested) subject-matter experts, not to have a referendum. If one worries about abuse of state power, one can insist the expert-choosing process be more transparent. All government activities are ultimately answerable to elected officials.

Even the Supreme Court, in the long run.

Dividend tax cuts

This article of which the following is criticism came to my attention via Nathan Smith's 23 July 2004 post on his blog.

All of Daniel Clifton’s arguments in favor of dividend tax cuts predicate on the idea that dividend income is somehow better than capital gains income or on the completely fatuous accusation that dividend taxes are somehow "double taxes." Let me examine the latter claim first, as it’s easier to dismiss.

I earned a dollar upon which I paid income taxes. I spent that dollar on a soft drink, paying sales tax. The store that sold it pays taxes on the profit it earns from the drink, then Coca Cola pays taxes on the profit it earned from the drink. Then Coca-Cola decides to send that dollar to its shareholder, me, and I pay taxes on it again. Where is the double-tax there? The only clear example is that of me paying both sales tax and income tax on the dollar in the first leg. Now, people try to argue "well, the piece of the corporation that’s ‘paying’ you is really your own property so it’s a tax on what you pay yourself, and that’s not fair." This might be true except that ownership of stock is not like regular ownership - the legal fiction of the corporate person protects one from liability. The entire amount on the line is the price of the stock. If a corporation gets sued for a bajillion dollars, amounting to ten thousand dollars per stock, it doesn’t matter - you are not liable. Since you and the corporations are legally separate, you have to pay taxes on funds transferred from one to the other. There’s nothing "double" about it.

On the other hand, it may be that the large bias in favor of internal investment is a bad thing. That is the premise of Clifton’s primary argument.

His best claim under that rubric is that dividend tax rates in line with capital gains taxes will encourage corporate leadership to pay out funds to shareholders if there’s not an overwhelmingly attractive investment opportunity available. In other words, it discourages investment. Is that good for economic growth? Well, sometimes it is - sometimes it works best to increase consumer spending, sometimes it works best to increase investment. Essentially, the lower capital gains rate encourages saving/investment on the part of corporations and Clifton seems to think this is a bad thing.

Perhaps it is a bad thing - I am biased by the belief that meddling in peoples’ economic choices frequently has unintended and counterproductive side-effects. If that was the case, then perhaps there’s no reason to give people a break on that portion of their income that comes from capital gains from stocks. In this case, however, I think I will break from my regular position. Right now, only established, low-growth companies generally pay dividends, meaning that only those companies who feel relatively certain they’ve encompassed about as much economic activity as they can reasonably expect are going to go ahead and pay out dividends. Everyone else just builds up their corporate assets or buys back stocks until such time as they have the cash for the next ambitious step or have to spend it to weather an economic storm. I also like this because it actually makes companies more accountable as well as more growth-oriented. What if Microsoft accidentally destroyed Lake Washington? Well, they have about $50billion in assets with which to pay for cleaning it - they have the resources to be held accountable. If they had already paid it out, then there would be no way to get that income back from all those liability-protected stockholders who didn’t put enough pressure on their company for accountability.

Clifton’s much weaker claim is that dividends require more honest accounting since the funds have to be paid out to everyone. He opposes this to stock buyback, however, which seems odd to me. With what does he mean to imply companies pay for the stocks? Corporate bonds? Those can pay for dividends just as easily. There are ways to trade holdings with institutional investors, but it’s not like those investors don’t have a strong interest in checking the books, plus resources to do it that individual stockholders can rarely match.

Clifton also says the dividend tax cut is good for stockholders. Brilliant observation. Perhaps the US government should lower taxes further, or even give people credits for buying stocks, plus a shiny medal with a blue ribbon. Or perhaps the interests of the United States encompass all its citizens, not just stockholders. And it’s just perhaps possible the executive director of the American Shareholder’s Association isn’t as concerned with the overall effects of tax policy as he is with the balance sheets of his group.

I find it very curious how much time he spends assuring the reader that dividend tax cuts do in fact encourage issuing dividends compared to how much justification he offers as to why this is a good thing. Overall, I think he’s done very little preaching to anyone but the choir, since he leaves all the most interesting pillars of the argument invoked rather than elaborated.

In conclusion I think it’s likely the capital gains tax advantage is too steep, but I like its existence somewhat. Therefore, I don’t think we need to remove it by treating it like all other income. Now, if one wants to cut income tax rates to spur the economy, then that's a different issue unaddressed by this article.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Pro-choice morality

Yes, the most morally coherent pro-choice position is that fetuses are not people and that abortion has nothing to do with murder, but there is space for the problematic position that fetuses are semi-people so abortion is bad, but not bad like murdering a full-person.  Pro-choice people seem to tend toward this latter view but don't usually articulate it very well, and those who take my position - that fetuses have very little to do with what we care about when we say "person" - tend to sound too harsh for public rhetoric.  It's a life, but it's not a *human* life, we say, and then peoplelook at their ultrasounds and saw "awww, but look at the little fingers".  Alternately, perhaps they listen to their pastor who tells them about brain functioning and hearts beating and the like.

When does the clearly non-human blastocyst become undeniably human?  Well, there's no fact of the matter, since humans develop into their humanity.  If one believed in a soul, one might say "the moment at which the soul cleaves to the body," but it's notoriously difficult to measure the supernatural.  I think a rational place might be the point at which the baby acquires a personality - for which we might establish statistically significant number of days out of the womb.  Jews once named babies eight days after they were born, which made a lot of cultural sense in a time when infant mortality was huge.  Of course, I think birth itself is a better choice.  Whether a baby is premature or full-term, being out in the world entails a period of rapid neurological change that is a necessary precursor to recognizable personhood.  The foundation of all this is the idea that what we care about with humans is personhood capable of the basics: love, friendship, joy, anger, and so on.  Newborn babies aren't capable of these things, granted, but very swiftly they shade into that territory, so swiftly I think it's best to draw the line at birth.  Dogs aren't (and will never be) fully capable of these things so we give them second-tier rights.  If we ever had a super-dog,however, capable of fully-articulated love and friendship, it seems obvious that it would be incumbent on us to extend to that dog the rights and protections we offer genetic humans - because the dog's humanity is in its mind and soul (in the non-supernatural sense).  Judging humanity by genetics is an insult to human love, in my opinion.

Keep in mind your cuticles and hair were once living human cells.  Do we really want to equate them with human life?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Technocrats and Democrats

Commentary from Nathan Smith (whose opinions are germane to this blog as he is a friend of Tom's):

"I think the Kyoto process highlights the disturbing implications for democratic politics of environmentalism, particularly in the case of global warming, which inevitably sets a trend towards global technocracy.  The trouble is: can we trust the technocrats?  Why should we dethrone kings and emperors and then trust enviro-technocrats?"

This is a specific example of a broader difficulty regarding democratic decision-making.   It has often been noted that consensus of belief does not dictate physical fact.  A majority of Americans believe the humanity has been visited by extraterrestrials, but I think most would not regard this in itself as evidence that flying saucers are zipping about.  Likewise do most seem to believe the Bible is literally true - though according to the statistics, a large portion of them would also somehow have to believe in evolution, with which biblical literalism is not readily compatible.

How is it that scientific truths that most laymen do not accept get taught in schools?  It's because we live in the original democratic technocracy - the republic.  Almost all our laws are made by lawmakers.  That's pretty much the entire job - making laws.  Now, most of them are politicians (as opposed to statesmen) as well, but it's a de facto not de jure requirement.

Why don't we just vote on things ourselves?  Well, the truth, is, we're not very informed.  I consider myself very well informed compared to the average person, but you can guarantee that lawmakers know lawmaking a whole lot better than I ever will.  I might be able to bend a certain portion of my free time to studying the crafting, arguing, and negotiation of laws, but it's their whole profession (at least ostensibly).

Likewise I'm not an environmental scientist or a professional economist or a tenured professor of philosophy.  I have interests and a propensity for research that put me in the Nth percentile of knowledge for the pertinent fields, but all of that 'expertise' essentially qualifies me to make a good guess at which experts to trust.  Likewise in the early days of the USA people elected people to office with reputations such that they could reasonably be trusted to make good decisions for constituents who were too busy growing food or hammering iron to examine the minutia.

Trust that I want Greenspan setting the interest rates rather than for the population at large to vote on them.

But technocracy didn't work at all well for even the best communist state, and even elsewhere it has a spotty history.  France's nuclear industry is a technocratic triumph of efficiency, but one need not search far for failures - such as the particular form of the Kyoto protocols.

So technocracy is not a panacea, but neither should the word carry a pejorative ring

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Bush and Afghanistan

I won't consider the 'sniper' issue, since I can't research it for details and veracity.

As far as the use of warlord allies goes - I actually think it was likely the best choice of a constellation of poor ones. It worked, anyway, and with minimal military intervention on our part.

Part three - the distraction from sustaining the new Afghan government and the hunt for Afghan al-Qaeda and Taliban elements - is a powerful one in my eyes. While the administration seemed willing to continue to devote US forces to fighting pockets of holdouts, they definitely did not seem willing to commit a sufficient number of peacekeepers nor expend a great deal of US treasure or reputation to secure strong international investment in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The United States and the world have not lived up to our promises to Afghanistan, and that is why the country is still a mess. A country that the international community has left weak, divided, and alienated is going to be a base for international terrorism.

Tom also notes that almost anyone would have intervened militarily in Afghanistan. I think this is true, though how well or quickly is up for grabs. Overall, I want to give Bush some points on Afghanistan in the initial days because as a military campaign, it seems pretty well executed overall. His diplomacy during that stage wasn't even as crappy as it has been at other times, despite his tendancy to choose his words for a friendly domestic audience without sufficient regard for how those words would be heard overseas, especially in Muslim countries suspicious of US intentions. Foreigners can't vote in US elections, but they can fight US policy. Overall, I give the administration's choice and methods for dealing with Afghanistan a B for the first two months declining steadily to a D or F by the time we were invading Iraq.

Iraq is a different issue that would take more time to address than I have right now, so I'll come back to it

Friday, July 02, 2004

Essences and selves

A river drains a certain mountain valley, over time etching its way sinuously this way and that, not occupying quite the same cartographic location from year to year, and certainly not carrying the same water, yet we would call it the same name. Are we deluding ourselves in thinking it's the same river?

Of course, we're all aware that the river changes from year to year. Last year there was a copse of trees on the side of the river and now it's a farm, and we might remark on how the river has changed. But it's the same river that has changed.

What if there's a powerful earthquake that causes some mountain landslides, changing the course of water flow dramatically? Is it still the same river? It still drains approximately the same area. I think we usually would, especially considering that human engineering projects have generated some of the same sort of catastrophic changes without us changing the name of the river(s) involved.

What if we go back to the ice ages? It'll be pretty hard to identify which rivers we see are the younger (ancestral? analogous? terminology here depends on you favored answer) form of our rivers of today. Should we give them the same names? What about if we go all the way back to Pangaea?

One could argue all day long about this, but it's clear it's an issue of efficiency and preference because there's no fact of the matter, only nomenclature. We need not announce that rivers are nothing more than comforting illusions because there's no river essence to which our names firmly attach. Rivers are real and persistent in ways we care about. Only if one insists on weird forms of river essentialism does any of this become a worry.

Is a man the 'same' man after a severe stroke? An earthquake has happened in his head, dramatically diverting his 'self' all at once. It's more tempting to call him a different purpose with a nice sharp division like that, but I think we'll consider him 'same enough' to carry his old name for similar types of reasons that we'd continue to call the earthquake-diverted river by the same name. Which way is the best way is a matter for moral and social analysis, but there's no fact of the matter to discover out in the physical world.

We are accustomed to vague ideas of the soul that include some sort of essence that carries the core of our being that we care about. When people criticise the hypothesis of the soul or its essentialist analogs, people often feel like the critic is trying to say there's nothing we care about, or what we care about is only a comfortable illusion. Well, one way to make sure the baby's thrown out with the bathwater is to conflate them. SO let's not. Let's agree our individualism exists, our selves exist, there are plenty of good reasons we carry our names from day to day, and none of it requires an "essence" of us.

That said, the above leaves open the possibility of discontinuities that might challenge our judgement in fringe cases. They are moral quandries with no clear right answer, which is uncomfortable. However, it's our duty to try and find the best answer we can instead of holding out for a essence to decide the question.