October 4, 2017

On Epistemology

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:38 pm

We are living in a post-truth world. Belief in a universal, knowable truth has given way to truth as multiple, personal and subjective. What is true for me may not be true for you. Post-modernists argue that even scientific laws are contextual and culturally derived.

The amount of pseudo-science, conspiracy theorizing, and outright rejection of empirically verifiable facts is killing us. Too many people believe that everything is political, everyone is biased, “they” are keeping secrets from us, no one has integrity, everyone has a hidden agenda and the whole system is rigged. In this mindset, there is no source of truth except me and my tribe.

This is bullshit.

How do we decide what we believe? And how should we decide what we believe?

Herewith, then, is my epistemology.

Values are values, facts are facts. We will all disagree about our personal values and what gives meaning to our lives. We will all have different religious (un)beliefs. But facts can be measured and validated by both liberals and conservatives. They are not opinions, but can be empirically determined.

Any engineer with the right resources can measure the torque a 747 wing can withstand, the lateral tensor strength of a column in the World Trade Center, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, the degradation in tensile strength of steel at that temperature, etc. In fact, many engineers know these facts. Math is not subjective, and the structural analysis of the World Trade Center collapse has been reviewed repeatedly by architectural and structural engineering graduate departments all over the world. They come to the same conclusion, because physics is not culturally determined, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

Things that are not facts include Youtube videos, which have been used to “prove” that we never landed on the moon and that Obama is a lizard alien. (I am sure that Obama is not a lizard alien. I am still undecided regarding Mitch McConnell.) Video is notoriously unreliable, especially when coupled with a compelling voiceover. Even if it is not tampered with, selective editing, lighting, point of view and other effects I’m not qualified to opine upon make them a poor substitute for quantifiable facts.

Speaking of which, compelling narratives aren’t facts. We have evolved to be storytellers, and we love telling and hearing stories. We form our deepest held beliefs based on stories. But good stories may not be true, and they certainly aren’t facts. It is tempting to believe in untruth because we want good stories to be true stories.

It’s a big world. Anecdotes and hearsay stories are not facts. They can’t be verified, and even if true, as the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdotes. Yes, a true anecdote is a fact. But conclusions regarding how the world works can’t be based on a single fact. We need a wider lens.

I have no doubt that some children have developed autism following a vaccination. But of course many children develop autism when not preceded by a vaccination. And vastly more children don’t develop autism following a vaccination. Correlation does not imply causation (cliche I know, but true).

We can easily jump to conclusions based on our narrow experience of the world. It is easy to think that our little slice is what matters and that the rest of the world looks just like what we have experienced. How arrogant of us to presume that because we are attracted to the opposite sex that the same must be true of everyone! How arrogant to discount the truth that trans people tell of their lives because it is not what we have experienced! How arrogant to believe that blacks are treated fairly by the justice system because it has treated us fairly! But truth is much bigger than our personal experience and it is very presumptuous of us to believe that we are the center of reality.

One fact is not enough. We need to determine truth based upon a universe full of facts.

Credentials matter. The logical fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority) is when we point to the opinion of an authority as truth by virtue of their status. Logical arguments must stand on their own, and are not true because some third party says so. The problem with this in day-to-day life is that we aren’t all structural engineers, epidemiologists or climate scientists. I can’t replicate NIST’s analysis of the World Trade Center collapse, the CDC’s epidemiological studies of vaccinations or NASA’s climate modelling. So we have to rely on the opinions of authorities. But which ones?

I am an IT strategy consultant in the area of data governance. I spend hours of my life reading dry industry articles, watching boring webcasts, and talking to clients about solutions to their real-world problems. I have specialized because I have no choice. I can’t be of value to clients unless I have the deep knowledge and experience they require. They choose me over competitors because of my credentials and reputation, and as soon as I let up I will be unemployed.

I would never pretend to be an expert outside of my field. To do so would be fraud. And yet anyone with a laptop and wifi connection can advocate for any opinion in any field based on any rationale or none at all. And such is their right. But the Dunning Kruger effect is real. The more one knows about a subject, the more reluctant one is to make bold assertions.

Since I can’t be an expert in all things (I’m lucky if I’m an expert in one), I rely on experts in their fields. But never just a single voice in the wilderness. I look for consensus among authorities. Such a consensus among experts, if not absolute unanimity, exists for 9/11, the safety and necessity of vaccinations, and global warming.

There is an anti-intellectualism in the US and elsewhere that is 180 degrees in opposition to my view on authorities. It seems many people view expertise and education as invalidating their opinions. They believe that experts are somehow “in on it” as part of the establishment. And if many experts agree, then that is viewed as de facto evidence of a conspiracy. The anti-intellectualists are free to choose this as their epistemological foundation, but think about the outcome of this belief: they are forced to rely on those who know the least with opinions that have not been checked or validated by anyone else. They have chosen ignorance over knowledge. Such is their right, but it reflects more on their psychology, in my opinion, than on the subject they are debating.

Truth doesn’t care about us. The US has elected a President who was clearly unqualified, besides being a narcissist, serial sexual abuser and profligate liar. How could this happen? Trump told people what they wanted to hear. A large segment of the US electorate (although not a majority) wanted to believe that trade deals and immigrants have taken their jobs, that a wall would stop illegal immigration, that repealing and replacing Obamacare would give them better and cheaper healthcare, and that the preceding two administrations were “stupid” but Trump alone would solve all their problems. Trump told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and they believed him in spite of all the signs that they were being conned. Most of them still want to believe, even in the face of the gross incompetence of the Trump Administration.

But Trump was lying. (It’s unclear whether consciously or not; he may actually believe his own con.) We tend to believe things that we think should be true, or that we want to be true. But truth, whether in economics, climate, disease or foreign affairs, really doesn’t care what we want to be true.

No one can keep a secret. Lastly, so many conspiracy theories depend on, well, conspiracies. But any theory that depends on large numbers of people keeping secrets defies human nature. Maybe small numbers of conspirators, say a dozen or less, can keep a secret. But to fake the moon landings, or blow up the World Trade Center towers, would require hundreds or thousands of conspirators, any one of which could sell their story for millions if they came clean now. Secret societies controlling the world economic system would require participants in hundreds or thousands of investment banks, exchanges and regulatory bodies. The closest thing to a secret society I can think of are the Scientologists, yet we have hundreds of ex-Scientologists spilling the beans about Xenu, abuse and Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes. Humans are not evolved to keep secrets.

* * * *

So this is my epistemology, or at least part of it. I have not addressed my religious or moral epistemology, which would take another post or ten. Let me just say that once we step beyond the world of empirical facts we enter a completely different set of epistemological guidelines. But in the world of empirical reality, this is how I decide what is true.

May 19, 2012

Polyamory v. Same-Sex Marriage

Filed under: Politics,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 10:19 am

An argument against same-sex marriage is that it is a slippery slope from there to the legalization of polygamy (or more technically, polyamory) and incest. While I am in favor of same-sex marriage, I am not in favor of legalizing polyamory. (We’ll save a discussion of incest for another time.) So am I just imposing my own personal morality on others, and does that make me a theocrat just like the worst of the Christian Reconstructionists?

Any law or legal regime instantiates a moral viewpoint. There is no such thing as a morally neutral legal system. So the question isn’t whether a law imposes morality, but whose morality. Majority rule is supposed to make sure that laws implement an ethic that is widely held, but we put limits on majority rule so that the majority can’t violate the rights of the minority. Minority rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which is where the Establishment Clause comes in. The Establishment Clause requires that the ethics implemented in laws be justified based on universally applicable secular arguments, not sectarian ones.

My argument against the legal recognition of polyamory as marriage while recognizing same-sex marriage is based on secular moral arguments. As a veteran of the same-sex marriage debates, I would define marriage as mutual, chaste and committed (at least in intent if not fully realized), all of which apply to same-sex marriage but not polyamory. It’s not mutual, because there’s usually at least one person in the marriage who would prefer monogamy. It’s not chaste, because the participants have not committed to “forswear all others” since additional spouses can always be added. (Do members of a polyamorous marriage date? I guess they must, otherwise how would new spouses be “courted”.) It’s not committed…how many polyamorous marriages are celebrating their 20th anniversary?

Of course there is also a purely secular argument against the government recognizing any form of marriage, and leaving it as solely a private legal contract. This would allow people to define marriage for themselves depending on the contract that formalizes it. So evangelicals could have “covenant marriage” contracts, but the godless heathens (joking!) could have no-fault divorce written into their contract. I actually would be fine with this. My only issue with this approach is that I don’t think there’s anyway to get from here to there politically, so it’s somewhat moot. So for purely practical reasons I’d go with legalizing same-sex marriage while excluding polyamory.

But the bigger point is that my definition of marriage isn’t arbitrary…it’s based on a secular ethical rationale that would be universally applicable. This is not true when defining marriage as only one man-one woman. It’s impossible to justify this definition without resorting to a very particular theology. The utilitarian arguments fall apart on closer inspection, leaving same-sex opponents to rely on their interpretation of the Bible. Even if this theology is held by a majority of Americans (or North Carolinians — see Amendment One), it is violating the Establishment Clause because it enacts a religious ethic, not a secular one. That’s why the role of the courts is so important with same sex marriage.

December 26, 2009

From Whence the Perpetual Budget Deficit?

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:52 am

We have a persistent federal budget deficit because Americans consider themselves consumers, not citizens. Hence, we want what we want. And what we want is stuff. We want stuff from the government. So no one wants any middle-class entitlements cut, or a smaller army and less interventionist foreign policy, or poorer schools. We want the economy to always grow, the prisons to be full, and the freeways to be traffic-free.

And as consumers, we want to pay as little as possible for all this stuff. No one wants taxes to increase, and any tax cut is a good tax cut because it means we get our stuff for less.

Most politicians get elected by promising us more stuff for less money. It used to be the Democrats that promised to give us more stuff without us having to pay higher taxes. So they financed increased spending and people were happy. Then the Republicans started promising us that the same amount of stuff would cost less. So starting with Reagan, they kept cutting taxes without ever quite managing to cut spending (actually, Bush dramatically increased spending). And the electorate is happy. The same stuff, or better yet, more stuff, for less.

The debt has grown under both Republicans and Democrats, but I would argue it has been far worse recently under Republicans. Just look at the national debt at the beginning and the end of each administration. Clinton ended with a surplus, but Bush blew a hole through that by giving huge tax cuts. Obama’s stimulus and TARP are not paid for, because we’re in a recession and increasing taxes would hurt the economy. It’s basic Keynesian economics that is working as it should. But the health care reform package is paid for. So between Republicans increasing debt because of tax cuts or Democrats increasing debt because of spending, I think the Democrats have been more responsible over the past 30 years.

But neither is ideal. If you want to solve the problem, then that means we have pay for what we get — every increase in stuff the government provides needs to be matched by an increase in taxes. I would be happy with a system where every year the marginal tax rates floated to precisely match the spending, as long as there was an out for economic stimulus during recessions. People wouldn’t like paying more taxes or getting less stuff, but they’d be forced to choose what government spending was worth paying for. You want to give corporate farmers subsidies? It will cost you another $x in taxes. You want to send casual pot smokers to prison? It will cost you $y.

But I would argue this alone isn’t enough. People have to see themselves as citizens, not consumers. A consumer wants what they want for as little as possible. A citizen realizes that we’re all in this together and we have to make decisions for the good of the whole country, i.e. the common good. So maybe I don’t benefit directly from a given government program, but it makes our country a better country, and is therefore worth paying for.

Of course Tea Partiers will argue that I just want to pick their pocket. That’s because they view themselves as consumers, not as citizens. They seem not to care about the well-being of the country as a whole, just their personal bubble. They don’t want to pay for stuff that they benefit from every day, like an economic system that has produced the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of humanity. They’d be happy to have poor people die in their homes from treatable diseases instead of helping to pay for their health care, because they are not members of their tribe.

But we are all in this together. And “we” in the United States means people that don’t look like us, speak like us, or worship like us. So it can be very difficult to think of the entire US as “we”, but to be a citizen demands exactly that. It means we not only pay for the stuff we get, but help pay for stuff that other people get because the common good, the well-being of the entire country, demands it.

March 12, 2009

My Politico-Religious Journey

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 5:34 pm

A few days ago, Hilzoy brought to my attention the latest fad among wingnuts. It appears all the cool kids on the right are talking about going Galt. Boy, this brings back some memories.

You see, I was once a libertarian. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

Like many college students, I read Ayn Rand when I was in college, which like the gateway drug that Rand is, led me to read some books on libertarianism, and I was hooked. There is something so perfect about libertarianism, especially when viewed through a Randian lens. Poor people are poor because of their laziness and moral defects. Rich people are rich due to hard work and virtue. Government bureaucrats are leeches trying to take what is not theirs. In the end, there is justice: everyone gets what they deserve, not in some after-life, but here and now on this earth. How romantic. How perfect.

Yes, but.

Libertarian thinkers have added to this a whole theoretical edifice explaining how free markets can price anything and everything can be privatized all to the ever-increasing welfare of the virtuous citizenry and to the detriment of the shifty poor and controlling government autocrats. Through college and business school I was enamored of this ideology. This was how the world should work, and if it didn’t, it was because vested interests were depriving us of our freedom. Capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Yes, but.

There was another ideology running through my college and grad school years. I had been raised and confirmed Lutheran, but was wandering in the desert during those years. I had many late night conversations about God and religion, and read a smattering of books on theology. I had several of what I would call conversion experiences, except that they didn’t really lead to any enduring conversion. It was all rather cerebral. But there was something profoundly true to me about all this Christianity stuff.

The Christianity I knew had nothing to do with today’s moral judging from the religious right. It didn’t depend upon a church hierarchy throwing around its weight in the name of ecclesiastical authority. It wasn’t defined by the drama of today’s fights over gay rights or attempts to sneak creationism into the schools. There was no political grandstanding. It was a deeply humble, self-emptying, other-serving Christianity.

Still today, the Christianity I know is virtually invisible to those not looking for it. The leaders of my denomination issue a stream of press releases about the need for relief for disaster victims, funding for food stamps, or services for the homeless. There are always urges to do more for the hungry around the world. Micro-credit, mosquito nets, schools, health clinics, water projects, goats (yes, goats!) for the global poor. But none of it ever makes headlines. The AA meeting in the church basement isn’t newsworthy. But there it is all the same.

As an adult, I had to decide between these two ideologies. I tried to reconcile them, and thought I had succeeded for awhile. But I was once asked to sign a petition to “end world hunger”. I wouldn’t sign it because it went against my libertarian ideals. Later, I thought about that decision. How could any Christian not lend their voice to the effort to end world hunger? What about the least of these? I came to realize that this world, the real world, the one we’re stuck with, isn’t just. There are both poor and rich who do not deserve to be so. Even the best of us are not quite as noble as Ayn Rand would have us believe, and the worst are not quite as evil. Markets themselves are sustained and thrive because of government regulation, not in spite of it. There are things none of us can do alone, and which we must come together to accomplish through government. While we must always be on guard against the excesses of government, we all need government to do what only it can.

This need for government isn’t just pragmatic, it’s also moral. A Randian libertarian utopia would rapidly turn into a morally unjust dystopia. And I don’t speak of morality the way the culture warriors do, but the way the Christianity I know does. I’m not talking about sex, drugs or wardrobe malfunctions, but morality as a glimmer of the Kingdom of God. Without that kind of moral justice, we would live in a world where power begets more power, disregard for others is rewarded, and justice isn’t available for those without the ability to pay for it.

So I am now a political independent, but in the current environment aligned mostly with Democrats. And my religious wanderings have brought me to the religious home I left as a teenager. And Ayn Rand is left where she belongs: to gather dust.

January 29, 2009

More On Economics

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:24 pm

In my last post I glossed over some important fine points of economics. Admittedly, I was recounting what I had told my son, and I did not get into any of these details with him. But some of these nuances are very relevant to the current debate on the stimulus bill. Hence, lest anyone think I’m just painfully ignorant of some of the complexities of economics, I will address them here.

First is the value of monetary policy. Hard-core Keynesians believed they had the keys to the kingdom back in the 60s and 70s. We all learned beginning in the 80s that monetary policy is perhaps more important than fiscal policy to the successful management of the economy. The distressing fact, though, is that monetary policy has run out of juice in our current financial crisis. Interest rates are about as low as they can go, and we are still seeing a massive contraction. We need another dial to turn besides interest rates if we are to turn around the current economy. That’s why everyone has discovered Keynes all over again.

Secondly, as Megan McCardle points out:

Though you wouldn’t think it from the really quite shocking incivility emanating from the pro-stimulus side, the empirical evidence that this [fiscal stimulus] works in a large industrial economy like ours is basically nonexistent. The problem is, we have very, very few examples to test on: America during the Great Depression, and Japan in the 1990s. And neither America nor Japan managed to stimulate their way out of their troubles. You can argue–and many do–that this is because we, and they, didn’t stimulate enough. That may be true. But unless you can forward test your theory, it’s a just so story . . . as we just painfully found out about the “It was all the Fed’s fault” narrative of the 1930s banking collapse. There is no excuse for calling people who question your highly theoretical model fools and charlatans.

I am not nearly as dismissive of the empirical evidence for fiscal stimulus as McCardle is, but it’s been almost 30 years since I took macroeconomics in business school. I would much rather leave teasing apart the data on this to the professionals.

Speaking of professionals, President Obama has some pretty damn smart ones working for him. The consensus of economists both within and without his administration seems to be that we need a good Keynesian fiscal stimulus, putting forward the argument I make in my previous post. So I appreciate and respect the nay-sayers like McCardle, Mankiw and others, but for now I’m rooting for Obama and the Dems. We elected them to solve this mess, and they are on the hook. We gave the Repubs a shot, and they ran us into a ditch. Let’s hope the Dems can get us out of it. And if Keynesian stimulus is the tool they choose to do it with, God bless ’em.

January 28, 2009

Economics a 15 Year-Old Can Understand

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:52 pm

My younger son was asking me about the stimulus package, the criticism of it, and what I thought. I walked him through some basic economics and explained what kind of stimulus we need and why. Nothing I said was profound, or innovative, or insightful. It was very basic. But I can’t help wondering how many bloggers, television commentators, and even politicians know this much. Listening to the conservative critiques of the stimulus bill, it would seem not many. So herewith, the explanation I gave to my 15 year old son.

In the 19th century the US went through a regular series of panics. Demand, for whatever reason, would dip, so production would slow and workers would be laid off. This caused everyone to start saving more and spending less, either because they were unemployed or worried they soon would be. Lower spending meant decreased demand, which lowered production, caused more workers to be laid off, and the cycle continued spiraling down.

The same thing happened in the Depression, triggered in that case by the collapse of a stock market bubble, which froze credit and caused banks to fail. People lost their savings, so they stopped spending, which lowered demand, which slowed production, put people out of work, and we were into the same old vicious cycle, but on steroids.

This is eerily similar to what we are seeing today, except that our bubble is in housing prices and investments backed by home mortgages.

Mainstream economists, following Keynes, understand that something has to break this cycle to stop a recession from becoming a depression. So the spender of last resort is the government, the one entity able to borrow lots of money and with incentives to do something to benefit the economy as a whole. Paraphrasing Lincoln, government allows us to do together what none of us can do individually. During a recession, the government spends more than it takes in, which compensates for the drop in consumer spending, prevents production from dropping and workers from being laid off, and thereby stops the vicious cycle. This is the classic Keynsian stimulus.

Cutting taxes doesn’t have the same affect as increasing spending. If you cut personal taxes, you put more money in the pockets of consumers, but in the middle of a recession they will likely save most or all of the tax cut, and hence not increase demand. Similarly, cutting business taxes puts more money in business owners’ hands, but if no one is buying, businesses can’t spend that money to expand, increase production, and hire workers.

What we need is spending, and 100% of government spending gets, well, spent.

If the government is going to spend more to stimulate the economy, then it should spend money on things that are worthwhile. Since we’re in a recession, it would be even better if government spent money on things that would boost productivity, which in the long term increases economic growth. Infrastructure. During the Depression it was dams, water projects and power lines. Today it’s much of the same, plus things like electronic medical records and high-speed rail.

But then the government debt is increasing, and that’s bad, right? Of course. During good times we should be paying down the debt, saving up for a rainy day when the government needs to engage in deficit spending. Unfortunately, Bush magically turned a budget surplus into a deficit. Instead of saving for a rainy day, we’ve been running up more debt. But now we have no choice — we are in a deep recession, and have to deficit spend to keep it from getting a lot worse. Once the economy turns around, we need to go back to fiscal responsibility — running surpluses in good times to make up for deficits in bad times.

So this is why all the mainstream economists agree on the shape of the stimulus bill. Which isn’t to say that the political process isn’t throwing some garbage into the bill. We need to hold Congress accountable for focusing spending on things we really need and that will stimulate the economy. But for the most part, the need for a bill and its general outlines are not in doubt.

Except by, apparently, Republicans.

November 1, 2008

Official Ergo Dubito Voters’ Guide

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 pm

Since I’m in the blogging mood, I thought I’d follow up my last post with the gory details regarding my votes this year.

Political Offices

I’m registered as a Decline to State, but for quite a few election cycles have been voting reliably Democrat. While there are some Democratic policy positions I’m not wild about, the GOP has been taken over by pod-people. Hence, I’m voting straight Democratic party line again this year:

  • President: Obama. He is an incredibly eloquent speaker, especially when he gets into his Black Preacher mode, but that isn’t what sold me on him many months ago. When you listen to him explain his positions in interviews and debates, it is clear that he is a very thoughtful, analytical person. Despite the rhetoric from the McCain campaign, he has a record of being very cautious, and more center-left than extreme liberal. After the last eight years, he is just what America needs.
  • US Representative: Schiff. He is the incumbent Democrat, and has done a good job with one exception: Schiff voted against the original financial rescue plan in what seemed to be a craven pander to liberal dislike of Wall Street. However, he voted for the revised bill a week later, so somewhat redeemed himself.
  • CA State Senate and Assembly: Liu and Portantino in what are admittedly straight line party votes. The California Republicans are almost exclusively pod-people, so it’s not a hard call.


We have to vote for judges in California in non-partisan elections. I have no idea who these people are, and I really don’t care to find out. So I outsource my decision-making to the LA Times under the assumption that they’ve done the research.


I consult several different sources for my votes on propositions, but generally am predisposed to vote No. Propositions have been over-used and abused in California and generally are a poor substitute for legislation by, you know, the Legislature. Having said that, here are my votes:

  1. High Speed Rail Bonds: No. A lot of smart people are in favor of these bonds, but I’m just not seeing that this is the infrastructure we need to be borrowing money for.
  2. Farm Animal Confinement: Yes. The LA Times is worried this will drive the egg business out of California because of the added cost of providing hens room to turn around. But then the South was worried about the economic impact of ending slavery 150 years ago too.
  3. Children’s Hospital Bond Act: Yes. Despite California’s dire budget situation, this money is needed to provide health care for kids on S-Chip and MediCal. The US health care system is totally dysfunctional, but we can’t stop investing in facilities to care for the least among us.
  4. Parental Notification for Teenage Abortions: No. My views don’t fall easily into the simplistic pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy, but this is just a really bad idea. We keep voting it down, and it keeps reappearing on the next ballot.
  5. Nonviolent Drug Offenses: No. A drug habit does not excuse someone from stealing to feed their addiction. Addicts need drug treatment, but they also need to be accountable for their actions, drug habit or not.
  6. Police and Law Enforcement Funding: No. A poster-child for all the problems with legislation via propositions. If it’s a good idea, let the state legislature pass a law.
  7. Renewable Energy Generation: No. Sounds good, but environmental groups are against it.
  8. Same-Sex Marriage Ban: No.
  9. Victims’ Rights: No. The purpose of our legal system is not to facilitate vengeance on the part of victims. In fact, an objective of the legal system is to replace the victims’ desire to exact vengeance with something else entirely: justice. This is a terrible idea funded by a guy with way too much money.
  10. Alternative Fuel Vehicles Bond: No. Again, sounds good, but my sources all say it’s just a T. Boone Pickens enrichment scheme.
  11. Redistricting Reform: Yes. We desperately need to change our screwed up partisan redistricting system, and the state legislature would never reform it on their own. Poster child for why we need ballot propositions.
  12. Cal-Vet Bonds: Yes. Homes for vets in this economy? How could we say no?
  • R. LA County Transportation Sales Tax: Yes. Opponents to an increased sales tax argue it will hurt economic growth in LA County, but this ignores the tremendous cost traffic and long commute times impose on us all. Improving transportation in LA is vital to our continued economic well-being.
  • TT. Pasadena Unified School District Bond: Yes. We are under-investing in our public schools and desperately need to turn it around.

Lost in all the above are my sense of which of these races really matter. Let me just note that we have signs for Obama and TT in our front yard, and I am volunteering for the No on Prop. 8 campaign.

No on Prop. 8

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 2:33 pm

My brother has made his argument against California’s Prop 8, and in so doing has shamed me into posting my argument against it as well.

Let’s make a distinction between two types of arguments for/against gay marriage: utilitarian and religious. It seems to me that all of the arguments against gay marriage and in favor of Prop. 8 are implicitly or explicitly religious. Prop. 8 proponents say that gay marriage violates the sanctity of marriage, that it condones immoral behavior or that it is an assault on traditional values. All of these, at their core, are moral arguments based upon religious belief. Now, there is nothing wrong with religion informing moral judgments — my beliefs in favor of gay marriage are similarly rooted in my religious faith. (I can easily spend hours debating the exegetics of Romans 1, if anyone is interested.) But in a pluralistic society as ours, moral judgments based solely on religious beliefs have no place as a basis for our laws. In a secular society, laws must be based on utilitarian, non-sectarian arguments. If religious judgments can’t be translated into utilitarian arguments, they belong in the church but not in the law books. We don’t need to rely on the Ten Commandments to tell us that laws against murder are a good thing, but finding a secular rationale for banning same-sex marriage is far more problematic.

So what are the utilitarian arguments against gay marriage? I can’t think of one, while there are many utilitarian arguments in favor. If society is better off due to the stability of legally recognized unions between a man and a woman, the same benefits accrue from the stability of unions between same-sex partners. Societal recognition of marriage is an incentive to form long-lasting, mutual, chaste relationships instead of short-lived sexual liaisons. Do we think society is better off with monogamous heterosexuals but promiscuous homosexuals? It makes no sense.

Our laws should reflect the world as it is, not as we think it should be, and gays and same-sex unions have always been with us and always will be. Legalization of same-sex marriage acknowledges this fact, and accepts that state recognition of these marriages is a simple question of fairness and equity. Implicit in the opposition to gay marriage seems to be a desire to rid the world of gays. Once we admit this is impossible (and not even desirable), acceptance of gay unions is unavoidable.

Our country was founded on the Enlightenment principles of equality and freedom. These principles often come into conflict with various religious beliefs (hence the Establishment Clause), but we have stuck with them, again, for utilitarian reasons. They work. They are a foundation for a moral society in the midst of competing religious beliefs (and unbeliefs). They have allowed the richest nation on earth to prosper. Could there be any greater test of the principles of equality and freedom than to allow all people to marry whom they wish?

16,000 same-sex couples have been married in California, and there are no riots in the streets, no same-sex orgies in our schools or workplaces, no collapse of family values. Object to homosexuality on religious grounds if you must, but don’t attempt to embed those religious beliefs in our laws at the expense of equality and freedom, at the expense of the very basis upon which our country was founded.

Vote No on Proposition 8.

June 29, 2008

Niebuhr Predicts the Iraq War

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 12:15 pm

I’ve started reading Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. it was written in 1932, but I am amazed at how incredibly relevant he is to the events of our day. Niebuhr writes*:

The economy of nature has provided that means of defense may be quickly transmuted into means of aggression. There is therefore no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power. Even in the emotions, attitudes of defense and aggression are so compounded that fear may easily lead to courage, and the necessity of consolidating the triumph won by courage may justify new fears.

[The U.S.], seeking to maintain her hegemony in [Iraq], speaks with monotonous reiteration of her need of security. She typifies the human spirit with its curious mixture of fear of extinction and love of power. Power, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power. Thus nature’s harmless and justifiable strategies for preserving life, are transmuted in the human spirit into imperial purposes and policies. So inextricably are the two intertwined, that the one may always be used to justify the other in conscious and unconscious deception.

As you may have gathered, Niebuhr was not actually speaking of the U.S. and Iraq, but of France and Europe in the period between the two world wars. But when we look at the original decision to invade Iraq, the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack, or Bush and McCain’s desire to maintain U.S. bases and troops in Iraq indefinitely, Neibuhr’s observation fits like a glove.

So what is Niebuhr’s solution to this human tendency to pursue aggression in the name of self-defense? I don’t know — I haven’t gotten that far yet. But it seems to me that awareness of the problem is the first step towards healing.

* Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 42

April 9, 2008

Free Tibet

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:35 pm

Friend and colleague Ed Murphy spent today in San Francisco protesting for a free Tibet. He invited me to join him, which I considered, but ended up demurring not because it’s not a worthy cause, but it just isn’t my cause. But to assuage my guilt, let me address a question my son asked me last night: why should we protest for Tibet?

It is a simple issue of self-determination for a people suffering under ethnic, cultural, economic and religious oppression. From Chris McGowan, writing at the Huffington Post:

The Tibetans are ruled by the Beijing government; they have no freedom of speech, political autonomy or self-determination. The “freedom of religious belief” line is equally ludicrous, and somehow it doesn’t harmonize with Tibetan Buddhist monks being forced to attend “re-education” classes that (surprise) denounce the Dalai Lama and praise Chinese rule.

Abrahm Lustgarten, also at the Huffington Post, puts it this way:

China has consistently pursued a policy of “taming” its far-flung western regions through economic and ethnic assimilation. It has crafted tax incentives to encourage Han business owners to move west from eastern cities and has loosened migration rules. “Go West, Young Han” is the clarion call of the times. Chinese state-run firms have staffed large construction projects such as the railway and even local road building with Han Chinese contractors and crews, who send their earnings home.

All the expansion and wealth that has streamed into Tibet has benefited Tibetans very little. Even after decades of investment, the illiteracy rate remains four times that of neighboring Sichuan province, and there are one-fourth fewer vocational schools per capita than in the rest of China.

Tibetans have been resisting this state of affairs recently, resulting in a harsh crack-down by the Chinese military. In the words of the Dalai Lama:

I am very much saddened and concerned by the use of arms to suppress the peaceful demonstrations of Tibetan people’s aspirations that have resulted in unrest in Tibet, causing many deaths, and much more casualities, detention, and injury. Such suppression and suffering are very unfortunate and tragic which will reduce any compassionate person to tears.

Read the Dalai Lama’s full statement regarding the current situation in Tibet and beyond here.

Our American principle of political, economic and religious freedom is meaningless if we look the other way when it is denied to others.


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