12 Oct 2014

You Can’t Ruin God’s Plan

Religious 20 Comments

Because I was raised Catholic (and thus lack detailed knowledge of the various Protestant sects), I am not confident in describing my current Protestant views with quick labels. A lot of what people mean by “Calvinist” applies to me, but then again on certain doctrinal issues I think that both the Calvinists and their opponents are making correct statements, but erroneously believe that their positions are mutually exclusive.

In any event, one of the hardest things for me to come to grips with, is the fact that in a certain sense God causes evil people to do what they do. This jumped out at me many years ago when I read the (familiar) story of Moses and the 10 plagues and (for the first time) realized that God was NOT up in heaven, really hoping that that stubborn Pharaoh would capitulate and let the Israelites go, without having to “force God’s hand” and make Him continue to up the ante.

What destroyed my original, childhood view of the story was this simple line: “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.”

Now there is a lifetime (and then some) of theology and philosophy packed into that line; I’m not even going to bother trying to dip into it here. (I highly recommend GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday in this vein.)

What I do want to point out is something that is very reassuring, rather than perplexing, that comes from this perspective. Specifically, when you recognize that God is in complete control–even over “the bad guys”–then you can relax. YOU CAN’T RUIN GOD’S PLAN. I know everybody (who believes in the God of the Bible) knows this, but I bet most of you are like me and occasionally slip and start worrying over your personal shortcomings, and how you’re letting everybody down. But to repeat: Stop worrying. YOU CAN’T RUIN GOD’S PLAN. You lack the power to do so.

It’s not merely that it is incorrect to worry in this way. It’s impudent to do so. If you are at all worried about the fact that you freely chose to sin this morning, because of the negative consequences of your free choice, then you are saying God wasn’t smart or powerful enough to do something to offset it.

Don’t misunderstand me; you should still try to stop sinning, and to freely choose to obey God’s commands. But the point of doing so (it seems to me) is not that this will promote earthly happiness; God is in total control and already designed every moment in the universe’s history. Rather, the point of you obeying God is so that your relationship with Him can blossom. Deep down, you know that if you constantly reject His viewpoint and make a mockery of all He holds dear, then you and He can’t be very close friends (if you’re thinking of Jesus) or you can’t feel like a good son/daughter (if you’re thinking of God the Father).

09 Oct 2014

Taxes Are Theft?

Foreign Policy, Libertarianism, Shameless Self-Promotion 81 Comments

…he asked innocently. I am guessing I will have more to say on this topic, but here’s the first swing. Notice this part where I point out something ironic in Sumner’s discussion of Hiroshima:

It’s also interesting that we can use Sumner’s rhetorical device against him. Notice in the beginning of his passage, he says that people who label the a-bombing of Hiroshima as terrorism “use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent.” Well gee whiz, Sumner says that as if it advances the debate on rhetoric by one iota. But why should we think that? If a-bombing kids is acceptable, why can’t we bash people with a crude cudgel if they’re advancing a really monstrous argument? There’s good cudgel-bashing and bad cudgel-bashing, right?

08 Oct 2014

Milton Friedman Bask

All Posts 48 Comments

Did Friedman ever write directly on a carbon tax in the context of climate change? I’ve seen people cite general principles he had, but did he ever himself take a stand on carbon taxes (or other government measures) to mitigate climate change?

08 Oct 2014

Krugman the Shill

Foreign Policy, Krugman 7 Comments

[UPDATE: I keep forgetting that not everyone grew up in a household that had succumbed to the British invasion. I didn't write the Krugman tribute song from scratch; I parodied this Buckingham's classic. I love it when Krugman's fans tell me my song "sucks," apparently thinking I wrote the whole thing. They need to realize they are giving me way too much credit.]

Around the 35 second mark of my tribute, I point out that Paul Krugman is the top in his class:

Today I just saw another vindication of my label.

First, the context: Krugman called George W. Bush the arguably worst president in US history. And it wasn’t just about economics; Bush’s big sin was to lie the country into war in Iraq. OK, fair enough; I have no problem hammering Bush on foreign policy like that.

But what was odd is that Krugman never said a word about Obama’s foreign policy, even as more and more progressives (especially Glenn Greenwald who was heroic in this respect) have pointed out that Obama is actually worse on civil liberties and foreign policy than Bush, in several dimensions (though not all dimensions, to be sure). When I say Krugman “never said a word,” I don’t mean that as a rhetorical device; I literally could not remember him ever saying a single thing about Obama on NSA spying, drone assassinations of people on the secret kill list, new bombing campaigns, etc.

Well in Rolling Stone Krugman has an article defending Obama’s entire presidency. “Aha!” I thought. “Now Krugman will have to speak up.” And here’s how he threaded the needle:

So far, i’ve been talking about Obama’s positive achievements, which have been much bigger than his critics understand. I do, however, need to address one area that has left some early Obama supporters bitterly disappointed: his record on national security policy. Let’s face it – many of his original enthusiasts favored him so strongly over Hillary Clinton because she supported the Iraq War and he didn’t. They hoped he would hold the people who took us to war on false pretenses accountable, that he would transform American foreign policy, and that he would drastically curb the reach of the national security state.

None of that happened. Obama’s team, as far as we can tell, never even considered going after the deceptions that took us to Baghdad, perhaps because they believed that this would play very badly at a time of financial crisis. On overall foreign policy, Obama has been essentially a normal post-Vietnam president, reluctant to commit U.S. ground troops and eager to extract them from ongoing commitments, but quite willing to bomb people considered threatening to U.S. interests. And he has defended the prerogatives of the NSA and the surveillance state in general.

Could and should he have been different? The truth is that I have no special expertise here; as an ordinary concerned citizen, I worry about the precedent of allowing what amount to war crimes to go not just unpunished but uninvestigated, even while appreciating that a modern version of the 1970s Church committee hearings on CIA abuses might well have been a political disaster, and undermined the policy achievements I’ve tried to highlight. What I would say is that even if Obama is just an ordinary president on national security issues, that’s a huge improvement over what came before and what we would have had if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won. It’s hard to get excited about a policy of not going to war gratuitously, but it’s a big deal compared with the alternative.

I refer you back to my music video, around the 35 second mark.

06 Oct 2014

If You Can’t Trust the BLS, Who *Can* You Trust? Grocery Store Edition

Inflation 56 Comments

I don’t often harp on this topic–though many of my correspondents get mad at me for “ignoring” it–because it looks like I’m moving the goalposts. Having said that, has anyone noticed how the amount of food is getting cut way back in the packaging at the grocery store?!

I get sushi a lot, in a package from the deli counter. They charge the same price as they did a year ago. Except, a year ago you got 10 pieces of sushi, now you only get 9. Same price. Someone do the algebra on that to check, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than a 2% increase.

Or how about the packets of pre-cooked and cut-up chicken that I buy, to sprinkle on my salad? (As lazy as you think I am when it comes to food preparation, double it.) I didn’t measure it, but I would not be surprised if they reduced the amount of actual chicken in the package at least 25% from a year ago, and I think they charge roughly the same price. Again, someone get out a calculator, but I think that’s above 2%.

Now yes there are more goods in the economy than the two things I often buy at the grocery store, and yes in theory the BLS takes unit prices based on weight into account and they are up at night worrying about how to correctly make hedonic adjustments to be as accurate as possible. I know all that, I just don’t trust them, sorry.

05 Oct 2014

Another Miraculous Post

Religious 47 Comments

Last week we talked miracles. I managed to upset both atheists and Bible-believing Christians, which tells me to persist in this line of thinking.

==> For the standard Christian who gets nervous that I am somehow diminishing God’s magnificence, let me make sure you at least see where I am coming from. In my view, what I’m saying renders God far more glorious and brilliant than the standard interpretation.

At least in the standard evangelical Protestant view, everything that happens is the outcome of God’s will. It’s not as if Nature is chugging along, doing her thing, and then God says, “Whoa whoa whoa, I am going to intervene here to change things so that My desires are satisfied. I was getting a little uncomfortable with how things were going, but eventually I had to act in history, because I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

On the contrary, I think it’s more accurate to say (in the standard evangelical Protestant view) that every single moment of existence in the history of the universe is exactly what God wants to happen, all things (including His preference for a universe where humans have free will) considered.

Now, one of the things God wants (apparently) is for the physical universe to be comprehensible to us. So He made its constituent parts obey (apparently) simple laws, at least in the cases that we have scientifically studied.

So: If God wants, say, Jesus to be born to a virgin mother, there’s no question that He has the power to do it. But I am arguing it would be more impressive if He did so without making the cells involved violate any of the “normal” rules that modern scientists have codified. Yes, it would take a crazy bunch of “coincidences” of the environment (Mary’s DNA, her diet growing up, solar radiation she may have received that caused a mutation…??) in order for this to happen–it’s a miracle, after all–but I think it would actually be more impressive, it would be more an example of God showing off just how ridiculously clever and creative He is, if He could generate such an outcome in the physical universe, without the molecules involved doing anything except obey the “normal” laws of physics.

Consider: If Shakespeare has to tell a wonderful story of court intrigue, is it more or less impressive if he does it in iambic pentameter? If you manage to pull off a feat with more constraints, that makes the achievement more remarkable. It in no way diminishes the grandeur of the Author.

==> For the standard atheist who prides himself on being rational and scientific, let me point something out. Numerous such critics have asked me things like, “But Bob, why do all these miracles only happen thousands of years ago? Why don’t we observe them today, when we can study them?” In response to that, I note:

* I’ve testified that I’ve personally experienced miracles. You guys didn’t say, “Oh gosh, I had always thought miracles were just something that allegedly happened thousands of years ago, and that solidified my atheism. Now that you’re telling me I was wrong, I will be a good Bayesian and update my views.” Of course not. You confidently told me I was nuts and/or erroneously jumping to conclusions about mere coincidences.

* I’ve talked to people who had their faith greatly strengthened when miraculous things happened, such as a loved one having brain cancer suddenly going into remission where the doctors flat out said, “I can’t explain this. But, as of right now, he’s apparently better.” But there’s no point in me even bringing this up; you guys “know” that the people either were lying to me, were confused about what happened, or just got lucky.

* Suppose I could show you an example of a reproducible effect, some action that humans could take that would (say) cure a disease even under conditions of a controlled experiment. Then that would finally give you the evidence of God that you seek, right? No, of course it wouldn’t. You would label the action “modern medicine.”

Now note, I haven’t in the above steps proven that there is a God who loves us and sent His only Son to die for us. No, I’m attempting the much more modest of goal of showing my harsh critics that their position is non-falsifiable. No matter what the evidence is, they would think it lacked any sign of a miracle.

This comment from last week’s discussion was wonderful; it epitomizes the pattern I am describing. According to that commenter, either (A) Jesus’ resurrection cannot be explained by modern science, and so it must not have happened, or (B) Jesus’ resurrection can be explained by modern science, so it is not a miracle. Either way, he “knows” Christianity is false, and he thinks he has come to this conclusion through an empirical investigation. But no, since he has framed the dichotomy in this way, it isn’t an empirical investigation at all; no matter what the evidence is, he already has an “all roads lead to agnosticism” flowchart.

Last thing: I realize it will do little good for me to say it, but let me just make it official: I am NOT here claiming that I have empirically demonstrated anything about the reliability of the gospel accounts. I realize that an agnostic/atheist could understandably scoff at some of the alleged events contained in these books. What I am trying to get the agnostic/atheist to see is that your worldview is far more a priori than you probably realize.

04 Oct 2014

McCarthy on Secession

Foreign Policy 17 Comments

Dan keeps surprising me. Here’s his article responding to libertarians who had hoped Scotland would secede. I have neither the time nor the knowledge of history to do anything more than drop my jaw at this line: “Successful Southern secession would have entailed results even more illiberal than the outbreak of the Civil War, which is saying a lot.”

04 Oct 2014

Potpourri

Bitcoin, Potpourri 8 Comments

==> I realized I haven’t been mentioning it here, but I’ll be speaking in Brooklyn on October 11 with a bunch of other people, including Naomi Wolf and Tom Woods. Here’s the info, and I think if you type in “MURPHY” you get a discount.

==> Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on the internal rate of return on Social Security for various groups.

==> Here is a great Scott Sumner post that makes sense of what at first seem like hard-to-explain market outcomes.

==> Speaking of Sumner, this guy Matt Bruenig’s latest volley is laugh-out-loud funny. His style is like Walter from the Big Lebowski; Bruenig is acting like he’s so outraged at Sumner’s posts. I’m not saying Bruenig is making good points; I think I probably 85% agree with Sumner on the substance. But the post is funny, for this genre at least.

==> Mattheus von Guttenberg took me to the woodshed over my interview with Tom Woods (where we talked about Bitcoin). He sent me this article, and here is (I gather) the part where he thought I was being too wishy washy with Tom:

When I point out that Bitcoin necessarily must have a use value, people will frequently demand to know what it is. What could possibly compel people to spend hard-earned fiat money in exchange for digital tokens? Usually I suggest social purposes. Bitcoin – being a scarce, digital good – is unique in that creation of one requires solving cryptographic puzzles of increasing difficulty. Thus, in the early days, before Bitcoin had either money prices or exchanges – in Menger’s words, “organized markets” – the only way to acquire Bitcoin was from a friend or to download the client and mine Bitcoin directly. The protocol’s newness and its underground nature enabled Bitcoin to become a status symbol. Cypherpunks and hacktivists – those closest to understanding the value proposition it offered – began to acquire them and mine them (and report their electricity/mining costs on message boards), and from there eventually Bitcoin spread to other markets and social groups. That’s it. The regression theorem does not admit of quantitative tests (ie, “how much” value a certain item or commodity requires before mass acceptance) – it simply states the necessity for prior direct value. This social status value Bitcoin acquired is real. It is a value accruing to whosoever desires it. Hobbyists place value on all sorts of bizarre goods many people would never think to acquire. Even objects of pure fads like Beanie Babies offer real, legitimate value: they offer the value of social inclusion or of being “in the know.”

Historically, while this account suffices to describe Bitcoin’s launch into becoming a medium of exchange, it doesn’t quite answer the question as to why Bitcoin units are individually valuable to users. The answer to this is straightforward. Bitcoin as a payment system is valuable; it renders amazing services nothing else can. The only means to use the payment system, however, is through the use of Bitcoin units. Therefore, as the units themselves are scarce, required means of action, they command a market price. Users are willing to purchase digital space on a ledger in order to take advantage of the manifold benefits they enjoy. The network cannot transfer dollars, euro, or yen. It can only move Bitcoin.

Understanding the Bitcoin units in the larger context of utilizing the Bitcoin network brings clarity to confusion. There is no contradiction or paradox in Bitcoin becoming money; it emerged as a scarce, digital item, which became a good (when scores of people began acquiring and discussing them), and then proceeded to become a medium of exchange (when it was used to indirectly purchase pizza). Whether it becomes liquid enough to crowd out the rest and become money to everyone will have to be seen, but it should be apparent that, from an Austrian perspective, there is no problem whatsoever with global Bitcoin adoption.