26 Apr 2009

Ben Stein’s Expelled

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A few years ago, when I was a college professor at Hillsdale (where a large fraction of the student body was very interested in Intelligent Design), I spent a lot of time reading in this area. My conclusion was that (a) the vast vast majority of people who subscribed to ID were Christians who had already rejected the orthodox Darwinian account on other grounds, and (b) the prominent evolutionary biologists who said things like “evolution is a fact as well established as gravity” were bluffing. But as with most heated disputes that get people yelling at each other, a lot of the problem was in their framing of the dispute; each side was misunderstanding the claims of the other.

Anyway I recently watched Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which you can watch instantly at Netflix. My first thought is, “I can’t believe he interviewed all those big guns in the various fields, and managed to produce an entire documentary in which the new viewer would walk away with not a single major argument over which the ID debate rages.” The beginning of the movie focuses on people who were allegedly blacklisted by their professional peers because they had the audacity to discuss ID in a sympathetic light. (Tim Swanson points me to this site claiming that this sob stories are deceptive.) Judging just from the interviews in the movie, I got the sense that a few of the people seemed as if they had been railroaded, but a few other ones seemed to have a martyr complex, so I was suspicious.

The most hilarious thing in the movie–and which perfectly epitomizes the huge waste of time in this debate–is that in the final encounter, Richard Dawkins literally gives up the whole game to Stein, and then Stein manages to come back and (almost) surrender to the other side. Naturally, neither man seemed aware of how poorly he had played in their match. Argh.

In order to explain my observation, I’ll give a very quick background: Contrary to what you may have heard, the proponents of ID do not necessarily even dispute the theory of common descent. For example, I am pretty sure that Michael Behe (who coined the term “irreducible complexity” and loves talking about the “outboard motor” of a bacterial flagellum) is perfectly happy to concede that all living cells today are descendants from a single cell that was the only living thing billions of years ago. But what Behe (and other IDers) dispute is the standard neo-Darwinian claim that it was random mutations and natural selection alone that could have transformed that first cell into all of the things we see today in biology.

In particular, the IDers reject the standard claim that “nobody directs evolution” or that “there is no designer when it comes to life.” They think that this is a completely unwarranted leap beyond what the brute facts of biology tell us. The ID people think that the hard, scientific facts leave open the possibility–and in fact render it the most likely explanation–that something intelligent must have been involved to produce the current mix of life forms. Obviously, most IDers think that intelligence was in the mind of God, but strictly speaking ID theory itself does not get into the identity of the intelligence.

In opposition to ID, the standard Darwinian response has been to (a) dispute the particular “impossible” leaps that the IDers say foil the random mutation / natural selection story, (b) go even further and claim that the very notion of discussing an intelligent designer is unscientific and out of bounds, and (c) speculate that ID is really just a smokescreen for Bible-thumping Christians to smuggle Genesis back into the classroom and label it “science” instead of religion.

OK I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of this position. Like I said, a few years ago I got sucked into the debate and it was a huge time suck. (Not to mention, it convinced many people that I was crazy and/or an idiot.)

But I don’t have to discuss the pros and cons of the case, because Dawkins and Stein each validated the strongest charges of each other (and without realizing it). In the final scene, in a moment of graciousness Dawkins concedes that OK there could be an intelligent designer of terrestrial life, but only if life evolved on other planets (through the undesigned Darwinian process) and then those life forms designed and seeded life here on earth.

At that point, Stein had won. Had he really understood the ID position and the philosophical issues flying around in the debate, he should have said, “I am sorry to inform you, Dr. Dawkins, but you just declared Michael Behe and William Dembski the undisputed winners, and Eugenie Scott the clear loser. For Scott and the other “consensus” scientists have been saying that the very notion of looking for “motives” and “design” in biology is not just wrong, but unscientific. You have just shown that this is silly. If indeed aliens designed the first terrestrial cell and planted it here billions of years ago, then it would naturally take human scientists to uncover this fact and study it. We wouldn’t rely on philosophers and theologians to flesh out the theory of alien seeding.”

But alas, that’s not what Stein said. Rather, he muttered something like, “So you’re not against design, just a particular kind of designer.” Now actually, that was a decent point–i.e. Stein was highlighting that the Darwinians were bluffing when they categorically stated that design per se was unscientific–but he nonetheless confirmed all of the atheist biologists’ suspicions that the IDers really were after confirmation in God designing everything.

Final point: I could not BELIEVE Stein spent a large chunk of the movie exploring Nazi death chambers. I don’t know what the point of that was. Anybody who was convinced of the merits of ID didn’t need to see “where evolutionary theory takes us,” and opponents of course would just go ballistic at such a blatantly emotional ploy. It would be like a pro-Darwin documentary spending time on the Inquisition to show the “logical conclusion” of Intelligent Design theory.

26 Apr 2009

God and Government

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A colleague in Nashville (who is also an Austrian and a Christian) and I have been discussing the well-known passage in Judges (17:6) that says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

I think most American Christians believe that this passage condemns anarchy, i.e. a lack of what we all mean today by the term “government.”

But my colleague and I have been wondering if that’s a misreading. For sure, God certainly doesn’t seem to think that the absence of an earthly king is a problem. He famously warns the Israelites when they ask Him to choose a king over them (I Samuel 8):

10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle [b] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. 22 The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

So it’s clear that God may have thought it was important for the Israelites to have human judges but not a (human) king. I find this fascinating since I have mused on how a completely free market in law might function.

Incidentally, there is a more succinct way to handle the issue, found in Deuteronomy. The typical Republican Christian is right when he thinks, “You can’t have people just doing whatever is right in their own eyes!” And indeed, Moses tells the Israelites (Dt 12) that when they cross into the Promised Land:

8 “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes—9 for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you.”

OK, but then how should they behave? He explains in Dt 13:

17 So none of the accursed things shall remain in your hand, that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of His anger and show you mercy, have compassion on you and multiply you, just as He swore to your fathers, 18 because you have listened to the voice of the LORD your God, to keep all His commandments which I command you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the LORD your God.

So it’s certainly true that you can’t have “anarchy,” meaning people doing whatever the heck they feel like. But from that it does not at all follow that those who believe in the God of Moses should establish and obey human political rulers, certainly not as they exist in our modern nation-State, which in practice has truly been institutionalized evil since its invention.

25 Apr 2009

The League of Monetary Cranks…

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…has been established by Scott Sumner, my favorite new blogger. In his latest post, he points out that the author of the leading monetary textbook, Mishkin, is in fact a “monetary crank” because “[t]he sine qua non of a monetary crank is the bizarre belief that even depressions featuring zero interest rates can be magically cured by printing money.”

Exactly. Mishkin–and all other orthodox theorists operating within the aggregate demand paradigm, and that includes most Chicago school guys as well as MIT’ers–are indeed monetary cranks. The WSJ op ed pages, as well as blogs that promise to make the world better through small steps, are chock full of the idea that printing green pieces of paper can help the economy re-coordinate itself after a massive disruption in the physical capital structure. What cranks!

The funny part, of course, is that Sumner is merely trying to show that his own theory–that the Fed caused the crisis by being far too restrictive up until last September–is actually very close to orthodox opinion. So Sumner is really saying, “You’re calling me nuts? Look, if I’m nuts, then everybody in the profession is nuts!”

That’s right, Dr. Sumner, welcome to the Austrian’s world.

25 Apr 2009

Murphy Interviewed on New Book

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I’ve been doing tons of these, but this one is fairly long so it gave me time to give complete answers to the questions. In the beginning my words are a little distorted, but I think it gets better a little way into it. (I was hearing feedback on my phone in the beginning, not sure why.)

24 Apr 2009

Toward a Review of Tom Woods’ Meltdown

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I always thought it was funny when people would use that phrase; e.g. I have a book called Toward a History of Game Theory. I think it means, “If I weren’t so lazy I would write…” For sure, that’s what it means in this blog post.

Flat out, Tom’s book Meltdown is freakin’ sweet. I had trouble getting through the first chapter or two, not because of anything Tom did, but just because I am so sick of talking about Paulson, MBS, Greenspan’s rate cuts, etc.

But after getting through that necessary drudgery, the book was (is) awesome. I am in amazement at how much great economics and obscure history Tom was able to weave into this thing. E.g. he very quickly but elegantly dispatches with typical objections such as, “Well if it was all the Fed’s fault, what about the panics before 1913?” and “Doesn’t the depression of 1937/38 vindicate Krugman?”

But beyond all that, Tom is just a wonderful writer. I periodically put the book down and just imagine hundreds of thousands of people reading the paragraph I just read, and I think, “Wow, that is so great that Tom just shot that into so many minds. Awesome.”

Not that this is even the best passage I’ve come across, but it’s where I am in the book and it illustrates what I mean:

If we want a repeat of [the Depression] years, or if we’d like to share the fate of Japan for the past 18 years, we should listen to Paul Krugman and implement exactly the same policies that gave the world these two disasters. On the other hand, we might for once permit ourselves a heretical deviation from the Official Version of History (TM), cease waving incense before the Great Presidents we are taught to admire, and consider the possibility that the government’s efforts to fight depressions may in fact have lengthened them. Let’s spare ourselves the ordeal of a ten-year depression–and the added indignity of being told ten years from now that it was the government’s brilliant plan that eventually rescued us.

In short, if you have been on the fence about ordering Tom’s book–maybe you think that his buddies at LRC are exaggerating its quality–let me go on the record and say believe the hype. If you have a leftist friend who thinks deregulation caused our woes, and your friend is willing to read one book on the matter just to humor you, go ahead and give him Meltdown. (Just make sure it’s Tom’s Meltdown, since there is some liberal collection of essays with the same title!)

24 Apr 2009

Potpourri

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* Robert Wenzel tells us “the next big thing” in the financial world. (I think he means, the next big thing after Bernanke’s balance sheet.)

* The principles of Walt Disney’s success [pdf].

* The 1870s depression wasn’t so bad after all (HT2 Tom Woods).

* This guy says what everyone needs to be saying: It is immoral and illegal to torture people, even if you work for the government and even if you have lawyers telling you it’s OK. (Note that I’m not saying Obama or the AG should prosecute anybody for these actions–and if you consider yourself an extreme skeptic of government actions to “make the world a better place,” I invite you to really put your views to the test when it comes to the federal government punishing itself for violating rights.) Before 9/11, it would have made a good Onion headline to say, “Torture: How much is too much?” But that’s basically where we are now, here in the shining city on a hill, land of the free, home of the brave. Anyway, let me get off my soapbox and give an excerpt from the linked article:

Today the Washington Post features yet another screed…arguing that the torturing (once again using the Orwellian term “enhanced interrogation techniques”) of prisoners has been so effective that we cannot possibly give up this weapon in our arsenal. Thiessen asserts self-justifying, unverifiable McCarthyite claims regarding the efficacy of torture. Now I am highly skeptical about this — nothing written by professionals in the field suggests to me that this is true….

But in the end, I think this is not an avenue worthy of argument. I actually don’t give a sh*t if it’s effective. It’s wrong, barbaric, dehumanizing, and altogether unworthy of how a great people and great nation would act. We don’t eschew torture for utilitarian reasons — we do it based on our deeply held belief in our principles, in the rule of law, the dignity of man, and our shared common humanity. We don’t resist the use of torture because it is the easy thing to do or because we are not under threat or not afraid. We resist it because we believe at a core level that some principles are sacrosanct even if we may face risk or even death at the hands of fanatics — we stand by the essential tenet that we mustn’t become monsters in order to defeat a monster.

24 Apr 2009

TARP, a Criminal Enterprise

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So says Larry Kudlow (HT2EPJ). Some strong words indeed for a CNBC article:

Is the whole TARP plan a criminal enterprise? Sounds farfetched, I suppose. But after reading about Special Inspector General Neil Barofsky’s report, it may well be that TARP is just one big criminal problem.

I know, let’s play a game! I’m going to give you two quotations from economic analysts from last year, before the TARP had been approved. One of them is Kudlow, and the other is some other guy. Can you guess (a) which is Kudlow and (b) who the other guy is?

Economist #1 on TARP, from September 30, 2008:

The Paulson bailout failed in the House. If it isn’t a death blow to the plan, it should be. This is not an economic plan: it is a heist….The economics behind it are nonsense, but we are naïve if we spend much time even considering the “arguments” for it. This is a money and power grab, pure and simple….Because of all the mumbo jumbo thrown around to show why the plan is necessary, some very sharp academic economists are in a tizzy trying to treat this as an extra-credit question, rather than a crime scene.

Economist #2 on TARP, from September 27, 2008:

The single-biggest mistake in the Paulson bank-rescue-plan marketing effort has been the failure to explain clearly how taxpayers are going to recoup $700 billion used to buy toxic assets at auction in order to unfreeze the banking system. In other words, folks don’t understand how taxpayers will be paid back, and may actually make profits, which will enable the new government debt to be erased after the Treasury bank-rescue is completed.

Here’s the key point: Any loan package bought by the Treasury will be 100 percent taxpayer owned. Period.

24 Apr 2009

Local Communities Start Printing Own Currency

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A few people have mentioned this to me; here’s a USA Today article (so it must be true):

A small but growing number of cash-strapped communities are printing their own money.

Borrowing from a Depression-era idea, they are aiming to help consumers make ends meet and support struggling local businesses.

The systems generally work like this: Businesses and individuals form a network to print currency. Shoppers buy it at a discount — say, 95 cents for $1 value — and spend the full value at stores that accept the currency.

I’m not really sure how to process this. I think it is just an elaborate form of coupon clipping, but it surprises me that it has taken off.