Friday, August 31, 2012

Election Economics: We've got our minds on our money, and our money on our minds.

We're all thinking about the economy, why it sucks, and what to do about it.  Here's some data for you:

First, debt. Nancy Pelosi was rated Pants on Fire (No!  Bad Senator!  Bad!) for her graph of who increased the debt by how much.  She fixed the most glaring issue and came up with this one, which still had to be fixed further because it was based on only part of Obama's current administration.  The numbers for everyone but Obama are correct, and I've fixed the Obama numbers, so this graph is right now.

I took the current debt ($16B) and the CBO projections for debt at the end of 2012 under a hypothetical Obama administration, and came up with 55% (dark blue, present increase) and 74% (light blue, increase by 2012) , respectively.  Couple of things to keep in mind:
1) These numbers are percentage increases, and the percentages are of a larger number as we move from left to right on the graph.  1% is more (a lot more) during the Obama administration than it is during Reagan's.
2) These numbers are not shown as a % of GDP
3) With an increase from about $10.6T to about $16T, the swelling of federal debt under Obama has been truly massive.  This is partly his own relatively modest spending increases, partly previous spending committments from W. Bush, and partly reduced federal revenues from the economic downswing and tax breaks.

Here's the net loss/gain of jobs by month (large version here)

That's certainly an improvement from when Obama took office.  There's another view of similar information here.

Now let's look at GDP:

The notch of that "V" is 2009.  GDP is back up and higher than ever.

The Dow Jones has not returned to its historic high, but it's doing quite well:

And corporate profits are at a record high:

And tax rates are lower than they have been in recent history.  So all of those job creators are actually doing really well.  Improvement in jobs tends to come late in a recovery though, and this recovery has been a slow one.  We're the bright blue line labeled as the 2007 recession.

This recession was also particularly deep (I believe the Obama presidency starts at the 12 month mark on this graph, right when employment was in the middle of a swan dive.)

That said, we stopped our economy from hemoraghing jobs faster in the U.S. than some other economies:
The stimulus package in particular is credited with adding somewhere in the ballpark of 1.8 million jobs, depending on who you ask.  See that red line heading back up a full 2 years before the blue one?  As bad as we've had it, things could have been a lot worse.

If you believe in supply-side economics then all of those job creators riding our record GDP, strong stock market, record profits, and low tax rates should turn into a fountain of jobs any day now.  I'm not holding my breath.

We've stopped the bleeding, and things are improving, slowly.  If you're rich you're doing pretty well.  If not, we still haven't made up for the massive unemployment spike from the 08-09 nosedive, and household income is still down by something like $4k/year.

I actually feel pretty good about what Obama has done with what he was given.  Romney appears to be proposing more of the same "let's cut taxes for the rich and wait for the jobs-fairy" plan that has been the GOP party line for some time now.  You know, the same one that Bush used.  I'm not buying it anymore, and I'm not sure why anyone else is.

Henry Blodget lays out the difference between the Obama approach and the Romney approach going forward.  They both have their merits, but my preference is clear.  Private economic activity is still weak, and excessive austerity measures would, in the short term, take the recovery backwards some.  Do you see that downward blip at year 8 on the gray line (Great Depression) above?  That's austerity measures in 1937.  I would not like to see one of those blips on our chart.  Obama's plan perhaps does not go far enough to address our debt issues, and that is worth considering, but let's get this jobs economy rolling again before we get too crazy with the hatchet.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Neil Armstrong represents many things to me.

He was an Eagle Scout.  He was a college graduate at time when that was about as common as graduate degrees are now.  He was a test pilot, a Naval Officer, a Korean War veteran, a teacher, and of course, an astronaut.

In my boyhood mind, he was the astronaut.  I felt an affinity to him because we shared a last name, and I wanted to go to the moon, too.  Some kids changed their answer, from time to time,  to the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up".  My answer never wavered;  I wanted to be an astronaut.  When I finally realized that kids with glasses don't grow up to be astronauts, I stopped knowing what I wanted to be, and I never knew again.

Neil represents another era to me.  He was an All American Hero™ in a day when something like that could be said without irony or eye rolling.  The famous phrase, "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." shows a humility that has receded from our culture.  The Apollo mission was a decade long project that Americans threw their unified will into.  It was wrapped in enthusiasm for scientific advancement, the spirit of exploration, and fear of the USSR - that great and terrifying specter of communism, and godless, evil men.  This was a time when The Future™ was still a vision of flying cars, and gee, weren't we getting close?  A time when Neil Armstrong would meet and marry a woman who was at Purdue studying home economics.  A time when the face of America was a straight, white, male face, and mostly we had not yet grasped that there was any problem with this.

I'm sad that Neil Armstrong is gone.  For better and for worse, all of those other things are gone, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Atheism+ and Richard Carrier: Exclusivity, labels, and names.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that some of Richard Carrier's rhetoric regarding Atheism+ made me uncomfortable.  His description of the values of Atheism + is spot on, and I support that entirely.

Here is the section he adapted from Christine Reese:

"A. Atheism and skepticism should embrace diversity (and not just be a bunch of white guys reading a bunch of white guys). In fact, we should be really keen on expanding our experience and horizons in that regard, aiming to learn as much as possible, and provide resources to help all our comrades in arms.
B. Atheist and skeptic communities should encourage everyone to apply skeptical analysis not just to religion, pseudoscience, and woo, but to socialmoral, and political policies, theories and activists.
C. Considering the history of religion and how it has even warped secular life and thought in countries around the world, atheists and skeptics should spend as much time and energy deconstructing illogical and/or inhumane secular policies and claims as they do actively fighting religiously-based interference. We have to be as critical of ourselves and each other as we would expect anyone to be of religion, so we can be sure we don’t make the same mistakes. We must police the rot within, if we are to stand strong against our foes without.
D. In the field of education, atheists and skeptics should help promote courses and curricula that include logic and abstract thought rather than focusing all efforts on science. We need to train kids with a universal toolkit of skeptical and critical thinking about all issues in their lives, not just the scientific, but the social, political, and ideological as well. And we need to take seriously the effort to push for that and make it happen at the fundamental and national level."
Seriously excellent stuff.  He goes on to list (and expand in detail):
"1. We believe in being reasonable.
2. We believe in being compassionate.
3. We believe in personal integrity."
Also good.  He quotes Jen McCreight's description of the "plus":

"We are… 
Atheists plus we care about social justice, 
Atheists plus we support women’s rights, 
Atheists plus we protest racism, 
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia, 
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism."

Very, very good stuff.   But Richard expresses other sentiments that are really turning me off, not from Atheism+, but from his approach to the matter.  Emily Deitle has already expressed most of my thoughts on the matter in the updated section of her post on the matter.  James Croft, who was among the voices saying "Um, that already exists, and we call it Humanism." has issued a statement of support that is awesome, and mature, and focuses on what matters here - our shared values.

"If Atheism+ is about “walking the walk”, then it really is the walk that is important, not the banner that people walk under. If some people want to walk the same path as I under a different banner, then I’m happy to walk beside them – ultimately we’re heading to the same place."

Yes, yes, yes.

But Richard Carrier also has those troubling sentiments of  "GTFO" and "for us or against us".  He finishes with:
"In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? 
Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid."
No, no, no.  That's a false dichotomy.  Richard was accused of this in the comments, and responded that
"A proper dichotomy does not become a false dichotomy just because you say so. You have to actually demonstrate it’s a fallacy by identifying an excluded middle. So why don’t you try doing that (you know, actually try to make an argument)."
Alright, here it is. Plenty of people support these values, and identify as secular humanists, and do not feel the need to take on the label of Atheism+.  Others may take a different label, or no label.  Some may just consider these things to be part of being a decent person, and find the label unnecessary.   They are the excluded middle.

Lucy Wainright, and others like her who aren't on board specifically because of this rhetoric, are the excluded middle.

People who believe in equality but oppose particular labels, or have a different understanding of what those labels mean are the excluded middle.

Now, part of Richard's point is the same thing that Greta Christina and others are pointing out.  In order to create a safe space and an effective movement for people in groups X, Y, and Z, we must exclude the people who are being assholes to them.  Yes, absolutely.  Carrier seems to be going beyond that, and drawing the false dichotomy that you're either "Yay, Atheism+!" or total douchenozzle.

That sentiment is dead weight on a great movement.  Let's throw it overboard and get this thing off the ground.  It's important to talk to people who do not fully share our values, and not "avoid them."  I reserve GTFO for the incorrigible or disruptive.  For the people who do support our values, insisting that they take our labels is the same selfish, territorial nonsense that James Croft caught and gracefully corrected in himself.  Good on him.  Let's follow suit, and work together with all reasonable, decent people, whatever they may call themselves.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


"Atheism Plus" is here, and I'm in.

For those of you unfamiliar, there has been a rift in the "atheist movement", centered around whether diversity and equality are important issues to us, or if we wish only to promote the obvious-to-all-of-us assertion that gods are not real.

In a way, that description is too generous.  The "atheism movement" generally opposes all sorts of nonsense - homeopathy, psychics, alien pyramid construction crews in ancient Egypt, and so on.  The movement has not genuinely restricted itself to the lack of belief in gods.

Nor should it.  The same skeptical values and thought that have led us to reject bad assumptions about Yahweh and Brahma have also led us to reject supernatural claims in general.  I would list those values as humility, honesty, integrity, and curiosity.  It isn't just a question of skeptical values, though.  Skepticism is also a skill - it's being able to evaluate our beliefs, even especially our dearly held beliefs, based on the evidence.  It's being able to change those beliefs, however personally uncomfortable that might be, when we realize that we were wrong.

Skepticism leads us to reject Big Foot - a creature that would actually be pretty plausible except that there is no evidence for it. That is the standard; we must follow the evidence wherever it goes.  Quantum is thoroughly, maddeningly ridiculous, but we know it is true because the evidence is there.

The atheism community, particularly the New Atheist movement, has been pretty outspoken about the importance of this skepticism.  Religious people are often told that they need to be able to apply these skeptical values and skills, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it means abandoning a belief structure that their entire social and moral life is built around.  A lot of atheists are very comfortable with this narrative, but there's a hypocrisy there, because some seem unwilling to challenge their own dearly held beliefs and assumptions when it comes to questions of social equality.  Some of us mock those who are unwilling to examine their worldview against the evidence, while remaining unwilling to examine our own worldviews against the evidence.  That is what this schism is really about.

I'm not into demonizing people much.  My style is softer than that, which is what I intended to convey with the label "Heretic with a Heart."  I really believe that most of the evil in the world is done by people who mean well, people who are just oblivious to the implications.  It's important to have voices who will deliver the "slap in the face", and it's also important to have voices who will calmly say "I think you're wrong, and this is why."  My voice is the latter.  Many of the voices in Atheism+ are the former, but I agree with their values, so I'm in.

A few posts on the topic:
Jen McCreight (the origin of A+)

Greta Christina

Richard Carrier   (This post is long but includes a discussion of the values of Atheism+)

Carrier's sentiment is a little more "you're either for us or against us" than I'm comfortable with.  I think it's important to treat people as complex beings who can be right about one thing, and wrong about another.  I want to give both credit and blame where they are due.  I want our disagreements to be both passionate and civil.  That can be hard, but it's worth doing.  I'm not in because Carrier has called on people to declare for a side, but because these are my values, too, and I explicitly support them.

Is this our official logo?  I'm not sure.  I also feel like there must be an A++ joke in there somewhere, but I just can't come up with a quip about object-oriented-atheism.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hello, privilege. It's not that nice to meet you.

First, "privilege" is a loaded and misunderstood term.  If you have never read it before, please take the time to read the very excellent Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege.  Seriously, read it and come back.  I'll wait.

Back?  Ok, awesome.  So the first time I noticed privilege was when I noticed it in other people who were in a majority about an issue that I was a minority on.  Privilege is rather easy to see from that side.  I was pagan at the time, and there was a local lawsuit regarding a high school graduation that was taking place at a local megachurch with an enormous cross in the background.  A non-Christian objected and filed suit.  The details of the case are not terribly important.  An electrical engineer that I worked with at the time commented that she thought the whole thing was ridiculous - what was the big deal about a cross?  I tried to get her to imagine what an uproar there would be if Christian parents had to take graduation pictures of the children in front of a 40-foot tall pentacle, but mostly my co-worker just couldn't imagine what it would be like to not belong to the mainstream belief system.  Those thorns were unknown to her, because she had never been pricked by them.

I didn't know it was called privilege back then, but this was the beginning of me realizing that people could act like assholes without meaning to, without realizing it, and with a surprising inability to even have it pointed out to them.  What is being said to them is just so far outside of their worldview that it can't be absorbed;  not easily, anyway.

Apart from the area of religious identity, I've been on the privileged side of privilege.  When Barack Obama was elected president, I was stunned by how emotional Black Americans became.  I knew that they would be excited, obviously, we were making history here, and an obvious stride towards equality.  Still, I was taken aback by the intensity of it.  I asked a black woman to give me some insight.  This is what she said:

"After this, I can tell my children that they can be anything they want to be in this country, and not be lying to them."

It was a glimpse of how little idea I had about what it is to be black in this country.  I still didn't know it was called privilege.

More recently, Elevatorgate broke out in the atheist community.  The setting is an atheist convention, 4a.m.  A female speaker, who had earlier during her talk said that she was uncomfortable with being sexualized at these conventions, was just leaving the bar.  She announced that she was tired, and heading to bed.  A man got on the elevator with her, expressed that she was interesting, that he would like to talk to her more, and asked if she would like to come up to his room for coffee.  She declined, he accepted that gracefully, and that was that.

Later, in a vlog entry, she described the incident and said "Guys, don't do this."  The comments became heated quickly, with women generally saying "Yes, don't do this." and men generally saying "Don't do what? Talk  to women we find interesting?" It became a thing and descended into a lot of name-calling, and I think contributed greatly to the forming of a schism within the atheist movement.  At the core of it all is privilege, or to use a clearer description, the issue is that women and men see this narrative completely differently.

In general, men see a guy who was polite, who asked a question, was told no, and accepted that no.  This is what we're supposed to do, right?  "No means no!"  Ok, got it.  But how do we know what her answer is if we don't ask?  What's wrong with asking a polite question?  And so on...

This was basically my view of the matter when I read about it.  It was expressed by Richard Dawkins, and many others.  Basically, "The guy did nothing wrong, he asked a question.  So what?"

Honestly, I would have dismissed the whole thing right there, except for some people who I trust to be fair-minded about these things blogging in support of the woman.  So I looked deeper.  I started by asking my partner, Aly, what she thought of the whole thing.  Her response was immediate, and echoed what many other women had said.  Basically, "Getting into an elevator with me at 4am and asking me back to your room is not ok." There was some room in Aly's view for context, body language, and so on, but clearly the issue was more complex than a simple invitation, and the elevator setting and late hour both had a lot to do with that.  She described for me what it is like to live in perpetual fear of being raped, which reduced me to tears.  Again, I had no idea that women are living like this.  I mean, was aware that they had to be cautious or something, but... what the fuck?  Ever Mainard illuminates some of this in her stand-up routine, Here's Your Rape:.  A Jezebel article described this routine as being within the realm of acceptable rape humor, for making fun of rape culture rather than rape victims, but I mostly found it horrifying because I've never before gotten to see this from a woman's perspective.
"The problem is that every woman in her entire life has that one moment when you think, 'Oh! Here's my rape!'"
Seriously, W.T.Fuck?  How do we accept a society where anyone has to live like that?

I knew by now that privilege was the label for why I couldn't perceive how painful and difficult it was to be not-me in this context.  It still baffled me some, and I still experience cognitive dissonance about it, but I believe her.  She would know what it's like to be a woman, after all, and I wouldn't.

Last night a friend sent me a link to Schrodinger's Rapist, another post that I really, really highly recommend.  Again, reading through this, I find myself thinking "Are you kidding me?  What's wrong with that?".  But then I scroll down, and I read the comments, and I see all of the women who strenuously agree that this is how they feel about it, and I doubt myself.  I still don't understand it all, and I still haven't reconciled my worldview with theirs, but...

I also know that they're not just being hysterical, or overreacting.  Their position seems foreign to me because they live in a different world than I do, but I believe them.  It contradicts my intuition that I should have the right to strike up a polite conversation with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  Still, I can see that I'm in the position of "privilege" in this context, that there are thorns that have never pricked me, that I am unaware of some things that are very important to the people who are disagreeing with me.  It's cause to pause, to refrain from dismissing, and to really try to understand where they're coming from.

This is where it all starts.  I'm wrong about some things, after all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

To grow, we must examine

A letter from a professor chastising some of his Christian students, and a blog entry from Natalie Reed chastising some of her fellow atheists both remind us of the same thing:

It is important to be willing to consider other viewpoints.

Sometimes an opposing viewpoint is hard to read.  Sometimes the discomfort of cognitive dissonance causes us to shut new ideas out.  Sometimes we feel personally attacked.  Sometimes our assumptions just get the better of us.

I have struggled with all of these hurdles.  I think most of us have.  Kathryn Schulz gives a great TED talk on being wrong, and the challenges involved in even recognizing it.  One of her points is that, while we all know what it fees like to discover that we have been wrong about something (the horror!), the wrong opinions that we still hold feel exactly like being right.  No one is aware of being wrong in the present, because the moment you realize a view is wrong you cease to hold it.  We are only aware of being wrong in the past.  It's a universal problem with human thinking.

"...trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.  This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world."

Statistically, we can be virtually guaranteed that not all of our beliefs are correct.  I don't know how to calculate that, but the odds against must be extraordinary.

Realizing this is a tremendously important part of skepticism, of critical thought.  It is not enough to pat ourselves on the back for the things we have (supposedly) gotten right.  I'm not satisfied that we are simply willing to change our opinions when presented with compelling evidence.  We can acknowledge that some of our beliefs must be wrong, and then endeavor to discover which ones.  I am wrong. I don't what about, but dammit, I'm wrong about something.

Listening to, and genuinely, generously, examining the viewpoints of others is an excellent way to discover some of our own wrongly held views.

p.s.  Her book, Being Wrong, is a joy to read.