Summer Reading

I have not read something new on the New Deal in some time, so I turned with some anticipation to Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times as one (of many) books I am reading this summer. It is a wonderfully interesting analysis that devotes a good deal of coverage to the New Deal’s accommodations with Southern Democrats. A sample quote:

“In embracing features of planning that had been identified mainly with the radical program of the Bolsheviks, in supporting features of corporatism that principally had been associated with Fascist Italy, and in backing the delegation of great power to administrative agencies that regulated the private economy in a manner that had a family resemblance to the active economic project of Nazi Germany, the South helped to show that each of these policies could be turned in a democratic, not totalitarian, direction.”

Of course, Southern legislators who controlled the most important committee chairmanships, extracted a high price:

“As economic legislation advanced, they fortified Jim Crow by making certain that southern employers could continue to draw without hindrance on the still-enormous supply of inexpensive and vulnerable black labor. They did so by ensuring that key New Deal bills on subjects sensitive for the South, such as labor relations, would be adapted to meet the test of not disturbing the region’s racial structure. The main techniques by which this goal was accomplished were a decentralization of responsibility that placed administrative discretion in the hands of state and local officials whenever possible, a recognition in law of regional differentials in wage levels, and the exclusion of maids and farmworkers–fully two thirds of southern black employees–from key New Deal programs” (all quotes, pp. 162-63).

The book could be a bit more critical of the performance on the New Deal programs (for those who are interested, Amity Shaes’ The Forgotten Man provides a pretty compelling account). But the Katznelson volume provides the best analysis I have seen of the role of race in shaping the New Deal and the incredible uncertainty faced by policymakers and citizens during the period in question.

Ron Fournier (National Journal) has a brief but depressing piece on the state of contemporary politics, arguing that “We Don’t Suck as Much!” is the only message either party can deploy as we enter the midterms. The money quote:

This is no way to run a country. When both parties in a two-party system measure themselves not by promises kept and problems solved but by the Pyrrhic victories awarded to least-lousy combatants, you get what we’ve got in this country: Record-low trust in government, a broken political system, and a deeply disillusioned public. These may be the sad legacies of both Boehner and Obama.

All of this reminds me of the French presidential contest of 2002, where one of the slogans was “VOTEZ escroc pas fascho”—“vote for the crook, not the fascist.”

Persons of Straw

Alright, straw men… I guess I have been an academic for too long. Elizabeth Nolan Brown (Reason) observes that many journalists who write about libertarianism are in the business of constructing straw men. They simply do not feel the slightest need to do the kind of research necessary to make credible statements:

Not only do you not have to know the first thing about libertarianism to cover it for major news outlets, it is perfectly fine to a) decline to ask anybody who does know, b) make up your own version of what it is, and then c) lament the terribleness of this terrible philosophy or people you have just created.

Brown illustrates her points by drawing on a recent essay by Damon Linker. I have read a fair amount of Linker’s work and find it quite thoughtful, but that is another matter. The larger point seems quite correct: many media commentators (and any number of academics) feel little need to go beyond poorly constructed straw men when arguing against libertarianism.


Many academics I know present one of four caricatures of libertarianism, two of which they find frightening and the other two a bit bemusing. First, there is the libertarianism that is best exemplified by Timothy McVeigh. It can be found where the Christian Identity movement, the Tea Party, and the National Rifle Association overlap. The world they would like to create would end up looking a good deal like Mogadishu (As one of my friends says: “If you like libertarianism, you will love Somalia”). Second, there is the libertarianism that is exemplified by Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko. Here we have the corporate titans, the Koch brothers, and the 1 percent intent on rigging the system to perpetuate massive levels of inequality (“Could we actually get a Gini coefficient approaching 1?”). Third, we have the tinfoil hat libertarianism that fears the conspiratorial “powers that be.” Imagine a combination of 9/11 truthers and Comic Con attendees living in their mothers’ basements. Finally, there are the “smoke-em-if-you got-em” libertarians. These are the libertines who are largely interested in free love and free drugs but are largely apolitical. The world they would create looks a lot like a Grateful Dead concert (or Zuccatti Park absent the “Occupy” placards). Libertarianism is either evil or easily dismissed as an oddity that has no relevance to contemporary politics.

In contrast to these kinds of caricatures, Brown explains:

Libertarians are the ones who tend to both support same-sex marriage and people’s right not to be compelled to work in service of one; to want to get both our bosses and the government out of birth control decisions; and to take free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and personal autonomy very seriously.

None of this sounds too frightening–or too unreasonable–unless you are intent on using the power of the state to impose your own vision on others. Brown’s piece has some links to recent Reason posts that speak to contemporary issues. They may be of use for those seeking to get a better grasp on libertarianism.

This topic is way beyond the official remit of this blog, but what the heck, I’m hoping we’ll get some interesting comments on it.

I’ve been trying to grasp the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion stated in the title of this post. My reasoning follows.

Define atheism as “the view that spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, probably do not exist.” Define agnosticism as “the view that it is not possible to know with certainty whether spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, exist or not.” Finally, define theism as “the view that at least one spiritual or supernatural entity, such as God, probably does exist.” (The excluded category is the view that a supernatural entity, such as God, is equally likely to exist and not to exist. I’m not sure what to call this view.)

So what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism? I do not believe that any atheist would reject agnosticism as defined here. Is there any atheist who would say with 100% certainty that God does not exist? If so, please comment with a citation. I’m not aware of one.

The more controversial statement is that most theists are agnostics. Certainly, some theists would claim that they know with 100% certainty that God exists. But I wonder if they would maintain that view if they thought about it for a moment. The only way that we can be 100% certain about any proposition’s truth is that the proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false. If God is said to exist necessarily, that means that it is logically impossible for God not to exist, that God exists in all possible worlds. We cannot be 100% certain about the existence of any object of human experience, because it is always possible, however unlikely, that our experience is mistaken. But logical necessities are true by definition, i.e., features of human grammar, not entities, not objects of human experience. However, theists believe that God is an object of human experience, an entity, not a feature of human grammar. Therefore, God cannot be a logical necessity (this is the reason why the ontological argument doesn’t work). It is therefore possible, indeed plausible, that most theists realize that they can never be 100% certain of God’s existence, and therefore that they accept agnosticism. Now, some theists will probably reject the premise that human experience is fallible. They may assert that some type of human experience, such as faith, is infallible and can therefore generate 100% certainty. This claim, of course, is impossible either to prove or to refute. So I cannot claim that all theists would, on reflection, accept agnosticism as defined here, but I think that most would.

So “agnosticism” doesn’t seem to be a very useful category, if it can encompass atheists and theists. Is there another definition of the term that would be more useful? According to Wikipedia, here are some other definitions of agnosticism:

“Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

Well, again, who would disagree with that, besides hardcore fideists?

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.”

Again, I know of no atheist who would not be agnostic by this definition.

Agnostic theism – The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.”

Again, how many theists would really disagree with this, if “know” means “know with 100% certainty”?

Ignosticism - The view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable.[19] A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept ‘a deity exists’ as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.”

If these guys are professional philosophers, this must be a total bastardization of their claims. The claim that “at least one entity not bound by natural laws exists” is obviously not logically impossible. It’s not self-contradictory. There may be some definitions of deities that are self-contradictory, like “a deity is a square triangle,” but to show that meaningless claims about meaningless entities are necessarily false is not to prove that no supernatural entity in the aforementioned sense exists.

Strong agnosticism – The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, ‘I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.’”

Again, if “know” means “know with certainty,” who would disagree with this? We’re all (almost all) strong agnostics about everything.

Weak agnosticism – The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until/if any evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, when there is evidence, we can find something out.’”

If “know” means “know with 100% certainty,” then this claim seems obviously wrong. I’ll never be able to know with 100% certainty whether any other human beings exist; what evidence could possibly make me 100% certain that a supernatural entity exists?

But maybe “know” in some of these definitions simply means “be able to assign some probability value whatsoever to the proposition that.” But since supernatural entities are potential objects of human experience, we should be able to assign some probability to their existence, even if we believe we have no experience of them whatsoever. We can at least venture a guess with a very wide confidence interval. Then as more evidence comes in, we can improve the quality of our guess. The strong version of this form of agnosticism doesn’t seem to make sense either, because it does not seem possible for anyone to know with 100% certainty that there will never be any evidence either for or against the existence of supernatural entities.

In the end, I don’t understand how agnosticism isn’t either obviously true and therefore uninteresting or almost incoherent. I should like to abolish the term from philosophy of religion altogether.

Many people are concerned about income and wealth inequality. I am not concerned about economic inequality as such; I care about absolute poverty (how many people live in misery because of wretched physical conditions), and I care about a broad distribution of opportunity (everyone’s having a “fair shot” at economic success), but I don’t see it as a problem if someone earns vastly more money than someone else, just as I don’t see it as a problem that poorer people tend to have more leisure time than richer people. Only those consumed with envy could see economic (or leisure!) inequality simpliciter as a problem, right?

But I actually don’t think people on the left care about economic inequality or leisure inequality or inequality of looks or appealing personalities or anything else of value, in themselves, either. They care about economic inequality because they think it has negative consequences, particularly for political inequality, and because they think it is a symptom of some deeper problem. I disagree on the first count and agree on the second. Let me explain.

Does Inequality Have Bad Consequences?

The fear of the left is that in an unequal U.S., the rich will “buy” politicians to do what they want. As a result, we will get more pollution and more redistribution that flows from the middle class to the rich. The so-called “oligarchy study” (the term “oligarchy” never actually appears in the paper) went viral recently, showing that the preferences of wealthy Americans (and organized interest groups) matter for policy change in the U.S., while, controlling for the preferences of wealthy Americans, the preferences of other Americans make little difference. But wealthy Americans and average Americans actually have similar views on most issues, and where they diverge, the wealthy often have clearly superior views: less likely to loathe immigrants and gays, to fear free trade, to oppose marijuana legalization, and to be narrowly ideological. In addition, the wealthy tend to be more skeptical of taxation and welfare programs than the non-wealthy — your views on whether that difference is problematic may vary according to your views of the welfare state.

Still, let’s assume that the influence of the wealthy on U.S. politics is baleful; does that mean that growing economic inequality would reinforce that baleful influence? It remains unproven whether more inequality will mean that the rich pay more in campaign contributions and get more out in policy terms. The most likely explanation for why the rich are influential is simply that they have similar levels of education and status to politicians and move in the same social circles and care about the same sorts of things. Studies looking at how campaign contributions “buy access” to legislators generally come up with very weak results. To take just one policy example, federal air pollution regulations have always ratcheted up, and air quality in the U.S. is vastly improved relative to 50 years ago, in part due to regulation and in part to technological changes. Rising inequality certainly doesn’t seem to explain these trends.

A bigger problem with the U.S. political economy Continue Reading »

There has been no shortage of corporate enemies in the past few years. There appears to be an ongoing search for firms that can be targeted as representing all that is vile, evil and oppressive. There are some good companies out there, to be certain. For example, Ross Douthat (New York Times) describes one company that has been celebrated for its humane practices. The company

was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course, he is describing Hobby Lobby (“the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1”). While Hobby Lobby appears to have taken the role of good corporate citizen seriously, one should not expect the empirical record to matter much.

One might argue that Hobby Lobby can’t assume the position of “liberalism’s public enemy No.1″ because it is already taken by the Koch brothers. Kenneth Vogel (Politico) has an interesting piece on the behind-the-scenes calculations involving the ongoing attacks by the Senate majority leader.  While Senator Reid’s wild claims (presented in 22 floor speeches since January) are described by staffers as Reid “getting out ahead of his skis,” Vogel describes

a highly unusual election-year campaign against a couple of relatively unknown private citizens whom Reid and his Democrats are seeking to make into caricatures of a Republican Party that, on issue after issue, caters to the very rich at the expense of everyone else.

For those who do not have Senator Reid’s expansive knowledge of Charles and David Koch, Politico has an interesting quiz that provides some useful and odd background information.


The “license Raj” is an epithet often used for India’s byzantine code of rules and regulations on businesses under the central-planning system finally dismantled in part in the 1990s. The Economist applies the term to the United States, which buries entrepreneurs under layers of federal, state, and local red tape. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the gross cost of federal regulations alone amounts to about $15,000 per household per year, and that doesn’t include the accumulated debt of lost growth due to regulation, which may be much higher. And none of that includes the costs of state and local regulations, such as occupational licensing, which has increased dramatically in the last 60 years, now covering up to 35% of the workforce.

The Economist cites thumbtack.com surveys showing that small business owners care more about the burden of regulation than taxation (about two-thirds of them say that they pay their “fair share” in taxes, as opposed to more or less than their fair share). This preference comes as no surprise to me. Apart from the soul-deadening effects of endlessly parsing legalese and filling out form after form, regulation also tends to substitute the grand (or petty) design of a bureaucrat or politician for the price signals the market provides. When regulation limits competition under the pretense of ensuring quality for the consumer, incumbent producers benefit, but potential upstarts lose, and so do consumers. There is a net cost to society. When local governments require construction companies to obtain permits for every little thing they do, rather than simply requiring them to post a bond and pay for any damage they may cause to local infrastructure or neighboring buildings, less desirable construction happens, and the costs of regulatory compliance are also pure loss.

The thumbtack.com ratings of state regulatory environment correlate highly with both Chief Executive magazine’s survey of CEOs on state regulation and with the regulatory index found in Freedom in the 50 States. CEOs of large companies and small-business owners really want the same thing: a streamlined government that works. We’re not as bad as Argentina or Belarus, but here in the U.S., we suffer from plenty of kludge, and everyone pays the price.


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