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“Good Corruption”

Thomas Edsall:

Covering Baltimore politics some 45 years ago, I was struck by how newly empowered ethnic groups used political power to acquire economic power, often dodging city laws and rules to benefit favored constituencies with city contracts, engineering and architectural awards, bond counsel, and so forth. These deals made headlines. But there was a degree of ambiguity to this so-called corrupt activity – it might even be called “good” corruption, which it famously was by George Washington Plunkitt, the turn of the century Tammany Hall enthusiast who coined the phrase “honest graft.” Politicians representing ascendant ethnic constituencies skirted legal and regulatory systems purposely designed by powerful entrenched interests to block emerging competitors.

Johnson, Ruger, Sorens, and Yamarik:

We use data on corruption convictions and economic growth between 1975 and 2007 across the U.S. states to test this hypothesis. Although no state approaches the level of government intervention found in many developing countries, we still find evidence for the “weak” form of the grease-the-wheels hypothesis. While corruption is never good for growth, its harmful effects are smaller instates with more regulation.

Note: I still think the earmark ban is a good thing.

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Jason Sorens:

Via Eric Crampton:

Originally posted on orgtheory.net:

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected…

View original 148 more words

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The New York Times

The editorial board of the New York Times has supported liberty twice in the past few days. First, there was the editorial calling for a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

On July 27, the board supported Senator Patrick Leahy’s bill to reign in the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records “and bring needed transparency to the abusive spying programs that have tarnished the nation’s reputation.”

Both positions are good ones (even if Leahy’s bill may be weaker than one might like). Of course, it won’t be long until the editorial board makes me grit my teeth again.

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I know of quite a few people who harbor rather dark conspiratorial theories of how government works. There is this sense that the government possesses some malevolent genius and the technical expertise to execute the most complex strategies with speed and accuracy. Yet, I always respond: “show me the evidence.” There is ample evidence of sloppy, buffoonish, and ham-handed behavior and unintended consequences, often cloaked in arrogance and obscured by the opacity of thousand-page statutes. Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone too much cause for relief. A bully with an IQ of 80 is still worrisome. And government can still cause a lot of damage through its inattentive and sloppy actions. There is a reason why a common response to mediocrity is: “close enough for government work.”

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I predicted Oklahoma would win its case against federal exchange subsidies. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has now ruled against the government on this issue. For more on this breaking news story, check out Jonathan Adler at Volokh.

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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.”

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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.

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