Archive for June, 2010



June 9, 2010

GMU Econ Professor Flunks Both Philosophy and Statistics

June 9, 2010

I had the pleasure of reading this gem from Nate Silver over at, where Nate friggin’ shit-cans the hell out of a libertarian ideologue from GMU. Silver’s is a response to a “study” done by economics professor Dan Klein, who is the author both of the aforementioned study and this op-ed in the WSJ, and who also just happens to be the editor of the journal in which his own study initially appears. Since I’m heading into the mountains for the next two days, I figure I’d better write something interesting tonight. Why not then feed my own boot heel to Herr Professor Dan Klein from the philosophical left. (Howard, this is for you.)

Here’s how Klein’s WSJ article begins:

Who is better informed about the policy choices facing the country—liberals, conservatives or libertarians? According to a Zogby International survey that I write about in the May issue of Econ Journal Watch, the answer is unequivocal: The left flunks Econ 101.

Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents’ (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. We also asked the respondents about their political leanings: progressive/very liberal; liberal; moderate; conservative; very conservative; and libertarian.

Actually, what he should write is that the left flunks libertarian economics 101, which isn’t all that surprising, since many on the left aren’t economically libertarian (though, actually, a surprising number are). If his respondents are playing the game correctly, only libertarians should do well at libertarian economics. It’s an idle curiosity that the “very conservative” ended up faring better than the libertarians.

Here’s a sample of one of his questions, pulled from his op-ed:

“Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.” People were asked if they: 1) strongly agree; 2) somewhat agree; 3) somewhat disagree; 4) strongly disagree; 5) are not sure.

Basic economics acknowledges that whatever redeeming features a restriction may have, it increases the cost of production and exchange, making goods and services less affordable. There may be exceptions to the general case, but they would be atypical.

Since this is the question that Klein himself cites, he presumably finds it representative of the strength of his study. But if this is his understanding of basic economics, he either needs to revisit his own discipline or, if this is what his own discipline holds, his own discipline needs to rethink its suppositions.

It should be patently obvious that all restrictions on housing development do not make housing less affordable. Some restrictions plainly can’t do that, like this restriction: a restriction on making housing less affordable. If you restrict making housing less affordable, then it cannot be the case that this particular housing restriction makes housing less affordable. Maybe it shifts resources in another direction, maybe making something else less affordable, but it doesn’t make housing less affordable. That’s not economics. That’s logic, which Klein apparently fails pretty miserably.

To add insult, some restrictions on housing development may even make housing more affordable, like this restriction: price stabilization and/or rent control.

Oh sure, it can be demonstrated that if you have price stabilization and/or rent control in one sector of the market, then you’ll have price inflation in another part of the market — or, alternatively, you may cause price inflation in a different market altogether, resulting in, possibly, price shifting throughout the market (so maybe cheese gets more expensive, or maybe the quality of the housing decreases) — but if you really stabilize housing prices, you’ll have stable prices, which will make housing more affordable. Ask any New Yorker living in a rent stabilized apartment whether their housing is more or less affordable with rent stabilization. Care to wager a guess at the answer?

I might be accused of switching from housing development to housing simpliciter here, but there are plenty of programs that require affordable housing development to accompany any other real estate development. If you have a requirement that every $5 million house built also pump in subsidies to 20 low-income houses, you’ve made housing more affordable.

So if some crackpot economist comes at you with some cockamamie bullshit about how rent control makes housing less affordable, or about how price controls or subsidies make that particular product less affordable, tell them that they don’t understand what they’re saying, that they don’t understand the nature of the mechanism.

This points to another problem with this question, and one that Nate only picks at loosely when he calls the questions “ambiguous.” The questions are not just ambiguous, they’re loaded. They’re written in such a way that if you support the unfettered free market, then you will fare well as knowledgeable about economics. If, for any reason, you support some sort of market intervention, even to correct for a market failure, you fail the question. As it happens, those who are proponents of some market interventions, maybe even to promote the general welfare, tend to lean left and therefore cannot do well on this exam.

I have many other criticisms of the piece as well, and there’s quite a bit more to say about most of the questions in the original “study,” but the night has gotten away from me and, alas, I have to attend a conference.

In other news, philosopher Brian Leiter asks this provocative question about a different economics professor:

Is David Rose the Most Ignorant Economics Professor in the Country?

Quite possibly:  “[C]onsequentialist moral reasoning has been gaining legitimacy since the 1930s and it began to heavily influence legal ethics after the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971.”

Frankly, I can’t hold economics professors too terribly accountable for their poor fielding of philosophical questions, and I personally might have given Rose a pass on this line (particularly given his slight qualifier a few lines down), but it does raise some questions about his understanding of the history of philosophy.



June 8, 2010

Philosopher’s Carnival is up.


Advanced Agnotology

June 7, 2010

Here’s some light reading for your evening, cross-posted from Crooked Timber. On the Cuccinelli/Mann affair:

First and foremost, public accountability in matters of science is crucial.  Somewhere in that pile of grant applications, letters, and emails, surely, is “smoking gun” proof of Michael Mann’s wrongdoing; indeed, I suspect that Attorney General Cuccinelli is looking for, and will find, the legendary “bwah hah hah” diary entry in which Mann writes, “Today!  Today is the day that I will perform the ‘trick’ that hides the decline!  And then the entire planet will kneel before Zod as I institute ‘cap and trade’ socialism around the world.”  There is also a rumor that the files contain a valuable photograph of Mann and colleague Phil Jones rubbing their hands together in glee, as well as a LOLcat captioned, “IMIN UR NATUR / HIDIN TEH DECLINE.”  Finally, and most importantly, if the files turn out to weigh the same as a duck, they must be made of wood, and I’m sure you can all draw the obvious conclusion from that.  So yes, the public needs to know.


Time, As Told by a Psychologist

June 6, 2010

From the Cowpattie

June 6, 2010

Here’s more on Sam Harris and his ridiculous claims about moral philosophy. This time, from Lena Groeger, an apologist for Harris, who tries to position Harris as a well-intentioned gadfly.


Open the Border

June 6, 2010

My philosophy colleague, Mike Huemer, has an op-ed in the Daily Camera. I’m sure it will stir up all sorts of nuttiness.

According to government estimates, 11 million people presently reside in the United States illegally. This number is up 27 percent since 2000. What should be done about this apparent problem? Demands that the government “secure the border” are increasingly prominent, with many calling on other states to follow Arizona`s lead.

I have a different proposal: America should open the border, and grant amnesty to the 11 million undocumented residents. My argument is not that immigration benefits America, though that is true. My argument is that U.S. immigration policy is fundamentally unjust. It disregards the rights and interests of other human beings, merely because those persons were born in another country. It coercively imposes clear and serious harms on some people, for the sake of relatively minor or dubious benefits for others who happened to have been born in the right geographical area. The question Americans should be asking is not “What is best for current citizens?” but “What right do we have to exclude others from the same freedom and opportunity that we were given by an accident of birth?”

My premises are simple. First: it is wrong to knowingly impose severe harms on others, by force, without having a good reason for doing so. This principle holds regardless of where one`s victims were born or presently reside.

Second, the U.S. government, in restricting immigration, knowingly and coercively imposes severe harms on millions of human beings. Consider a simple analogy. Marvin is desperately hungry and plans to travel to a nearby marketplace to buy food. Sam intentionally stops Marvin and coercively prevents him from reaching the marketplace, knowing that this will prevent Marvin from obtaining food. Sam did not cause Marvin to be hungry to begin with. But when he coercively intervenes to stop Marvin from obtaining food, Sam becomes responsible for what results. If Marvin dies of starvation, Sam will be responsible for the death.

That is the behavior of the U.S. government. The government hires armed guards to stop people from crossing the border, and to forcibly expel those who are found residing in the country without permission. The U.S. government knows, when it does this, that many of these would-be immigrants will suffer severe poverty, oppression, and greatly diminished life prospects as a result. The government is therefore responsible for these consequences, just as Sam would be responsible for Marvin`s starvation.

Third, the U.S. government has no good reason for imposing such harms on potential immigrants. Immigration restrictions are typically defended by the claim that immigrants “steal American jobs” or dilute American culture. Now consider this analogy. After stopping Marvin from reaching the marketplace and thus causing Marvin to starve, suppose that Sam tries to defend his action by saying that it was necessary to prevent Marvin from competing with other buyers in the marketplace and thus driving up the price of bread. Or suppose Sam argues that his action was justified because Marvin has a different culture from most of the people already in the marketplace. Surely these justifications would not succeed. The desire to limit marketplace competition or cultural influence is not normally an adequate reason for coercively imposing serious harms on other people.

From these three premises, it follows that U.S. immigration policy is morally wrong. This typically goes unnoticed in the immigration debate, because most Americans are prejudiced against foreigners, in the same way that we were once prejudiced against blacks. No one today would dream of arguing that the government should stop white people from hiring blacks, so that blacks don`t “steal white jobs.” But we are not bothered by the prejudice displayed in arguing that the government needs to stop Americans from hiring foreign-born people so that the foreign-born don`t “steal American jobs.” This can only be because prejudice based on nationality has outlived prejudice based on race. But neither attitude is morally defensible.

Michael Huemer is a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.


Hair Club for Men

June 4, 2010

It appears that one effect of climate change on at least a few otherwise imperiled pacific islands is not to sink them, not to shrink them, but to grow them… like hair, or bananas, or chimpanzees:

Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji used historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images to study changes in the land surface of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years. During that time, local sea levels have risen by 120 millimetres, or 2 millimetres per year on average.

Despite this, Kench and Webb found that just four islands have diminished in size since the 1950s. The area of the remaining 23 has either stayed the same or grown (Global and Planetary Change, DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.05.003).

This is all very interesting given Tuvalu’s shenanigans at COP 15.

At its highest point, Tuvalu stands just 4.5 metres out of the Pacific. It is widely predicted to be one of the first islands to drown in the rising seas caused by global warming. Yet Arthur Webb and Paul Kench found that seven islands in one of its nine atolls have spread by more than 3 per cent on average since the 1950s. One island, Funamanu, gained 0.44 hectares, or nearly 30 per cent of its previous area.

Holy smokes. That’s pretty interesting. Turns out, climate change is good for you. Which raises  a further very interesting point: what if it is good for you, or at least good for many or most? I pose that question, among similar such conundra, to my students at least once a semester.

Seems to me that it doesn’t make one silly bit of difference if it results in a net gain or a net loss for humanity; or for life; or for the earth, however conceived. Seems to me that we still should be concerned with our actions, and that climate change serves basically as a proxy for concerns about reckless behavior.

Carry on.


Arizona Goes off the Deep End

June 4, 2010

…with some citizens insisting that black and tan faces of children on a school mural be made “more white.” Wonkette has the (this time, quite serious) commentary.

And to think, Prescott is actually a pretty progressive town by Arizona standards.


Empathy and Meat

June 3, 2010

For many years now I’ve been suggesting that you don’t have to love nature to be green; and by extension, that you don’t have to love animals to be a vegetarian. Peter Singer himself says as much in his introduction to Animal Liberation. Many other ethicists presumably feel the same way. I’m even writing a book about it, tentatively titled The Wicked and the Wild: Why You Don’t Have to Love Nature to be Green (coming out with the University of Chicago Press sometime in 2011). And yet, it turns out that, at least descriptively speaking, empathy is what sets vegetarians apart from the rest of the nonvegetarian population.

The hypothesis behind this study is based on the observation that Vegetarians and Vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds. Assuming that Vegetarians and Vegans – because of their underlying moral philosophies – show greater empathy towards animal suffering, it is very well possible that these differences in empathy extend beyond the animal domain and show up as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards other humans also; even at a neurological level.


The first main finding of this study is that, compared to Omnivores, Vegans and Vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

A worrisome thesis indeed. Maybe I need to revise my subtitle.

Or, on second thought, maybe not, given that my hope is to inspire the non-empathetic among us to acknowledge that even if they don’t maintain the right psychological apparatus–and perhaps possess the apparatus of selfish bastardism, for instance, among many other psychological pathologies that would leave a person feeling that she can run roughshod over the earth–they still need to respect the basic tenets of environmentalism.

The true test will be whether I can persuade the sociopath that he needs to start advocating on behalf of the earth. I don’t expect much success on that front, so I’ll settle for the fence-sitters, the urbanites, and the otherwise environmentally disinterested progressives.