American ungenerosity – part I of II Saturday, Feb 20 2010 

In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

How do we end child labor? Friday, Feb 12 2010 

I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?

One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.

So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.

Where I stand Tuesday, Feb 9 2010 

I often get asked about what I actually advocate. People elsewhere say I criticize a lot of things but do not offer any suggestions or alternatives. I admit this is true enough. So, for those interested, here’s a little bit of my personal philosophy, along with links to posts I have written in the past to get a more in-depth understanding.

First of all, let me say I consider myself a libertarian. Particularly, I would say I am strong civil libertarian; I believe firmly in civil liberties and negative rights. For example, I believe it is the right of women to get abortions, that people should be allowed to sell and purchase organs for medical purposes, that the state does not have the right to murder its citizens (e.g. in capital punishment), that people have the right to speak their mind, that pornography should be legal for adults, that the War on Drugs is misguided, that gay rights should be observed, that torture is never right, that social rights are among the most important of our rights, and so on. I believe there are strong deontological justification for these beliefs, though I recognize utilitarians might say the same about their own moral theory (I consider myself a deontologist).


If you look at a political compass such as the one above, I would say I’m close to the bottom on it. As such, I consider myself a libertarian, actually fairly close to anarchist. I find it highly questionable that states contain legitimacy and that “social contract theory” may very well be a bad theory. I believe all authority should be presumed illegitimate and that it is up to those who wield the authority to prove that it is legitimate (including even non-statist authority). So I find states to be illegitimate by assumption, as they are the very essence of an authoritarian institution. Too borrow the words of Marvin Harris, “In many ways, the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.” In this way I am suspicious of states and their exercise of power.

So how do I reconcile these beliefs with my economic beliefs? First, where do I stand on economic issues? I think it’s hard to say, but I think I might consider myself a centrist. I recognize the limitations that completely free capitalistic markets have (so I’m not far-right), but I am also somewhat suspicious of leftist economic theories (e.g. that workers should own the means of production), particularly for a lack of empirical support (so I’m not far-left). (By “left,” I mean the traditional understanding of leftism, not how “leftism” is defined in American politics, e.g. the Democratic Party. Here I mean the left that opposes both government and completely unregulated and private corporations running the economy.) When it comes to economics, I prefer to observe the way it’s practiced and comment on that. For example, I observe that all modern and highly developed economies (i.e. the West) have achieved this through radical violation of free market principles. I observe that America has never been “free market,” despite claims by some on the right, and that it is actually a strongly state capitalist society that is defined by a sort-of “lemon socialism” and is involved in the market quite heavily. I also believe that decisions guided solely on profit-maximization (i.e. the profit motive) and self-interest (or egoism) are not in the best interest of society and lack moral justification, just as classical economists like Adam Smith and others keenly pointed out in their time. So if free and unregulated markets do not always lead to efficient or desirable outcomes and if the theories of the libertarian left are questionable, what alternative can we turn to? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this. If I were that smart, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. I recognize that state capitalist systems have become abundantly wealthy, but also that there exist profound inequalities and sharp disparities within these systems, which breed conflict and economic inefficiency. Often, state power is wielded to the benefit of large corporations and the business class; I believe that if state power is to be used, it should be used to correct for obvious market failures (e.g. in climate change) and ensuring the most disadvantaged within society are afforded some protection.

Finally, I strongly support the anti-war movement and believe we ought to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy. I believe the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War were not only mistakes but also fundamentally wrong. I believe that jingoism is dangerous and that we should apply to ourselves the standards we apply to others. As far as Middle Eastern politics are concerned, I believe that we ought not to be so confrontational with Iran and that we should stop supporting Israeli war crimes (and I applaud the efforts of SCSU student Amber Michel and SCSU professor Fouzi Slisli to raise awareness for this issue).

The death of a hero Wednesday, Feb 3 2010 

On January 27, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. Howard Zinn was a historian and a professor of political science at Boston University and a great inspiration to the anti-war movement. Writing for the New York Times, Bob Herbet writes that Zinn “was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it.” Zinn was an outspoken intellectual who championed liberty and the author of what I consider his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States.

A People’s History is a revisionist examination of American history, from the perspective of working people, of war resisters, of suffragists, of the black minority, of the indigenous populations—in other words, the people who have shaped America, the people whose voices are often overlooked in history. The painting of America as “exceptional” is replaced by the sober reality of the America’s massacres, invasions, secret bombings, assignations, coups, and brutal domestic repression. It becomes evident that what we call “civilized society” today is a product of popular struggles, won by the efforts of ordinary people. These are “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”

That’s the central message you can find in Zinn’s The People Speak, which was shown on History and which I had wrote about in December when it aired. The People Speak tells the story of America through the history of dissent and resistance and activism. It examines the role of ordinary people who rose up in opposition to state violence and oppression. It evinces the point that democracy comes from the bottom, not from above. If there’s a message it gives, I think it is that what lies ahead is largely up to us.

In a recent interview with Big Think, Zinn stated that he wants to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality … I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn’t have before.” That’s certainly how I’ll remember him.

A comment on the recent Supreme Court decision Saturday, Jan 23 2010 

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations (and labor unions) can spend unlimited amounts of their money on elections. Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can run campaigns. Many have lauded the decision as a great defense of First Amendment rights.

Is it? “Freedom is awaking from its coma today,” declares conservative Rush Limbaugh. Dr. Spagnoli, writing on his blog, states, “there’s no reason to deny corporations [free speech].” This is because “free speech [is a human right],” he says. I agree with Dr. Spagnoli, free speech is a human right. But are corporations humans?

As it happens, corporations are not people. They are social constructs, entities created to carry out specific functions. However, as I discussed in a earlier blog post, Are corporations individuals?, corporations slowly became considered “persons” through a series of judicial rulings. There is no law that says corporations are humans. It’s not anywhere in the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War to give rights to people, specifically the newly freed slaves. It declared, “No State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It affirmed the rights of people. It was there to protect blacks from the evils they had endured under the brutal regime of slavery that had oppressed them for centuries.

Well, corporate lawyers were very savvy, and they began to say, “look, corporations are persons.” Corporations deserve the protection that was meant for freed slaves. In fact, when you look at the history of it, it’s very perverse. According to work done by Doug Hammerstrom, of the 150 cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment heard by the Supreme Court up to Plessy v. Ferguson, only 15 involved blacks. The other 135 were brought by corporations. This is the exact opposite of what we would expect to happen. However, through a series of activist decisions by judges, which has no basis in law, corporations gained personhood. Richard Grossman proclaims, “600,000 people were killed to get rights for people, and then with strokes of the pen over the next 30 years, judges applied those rights to capital and property, while stripping them from people.”

So now they can say corporations deserve the rights of flesh-and-blood persons, like the right to free speech; the ability to sue others; the right to “life, liberty, or property”; the right to own other businesses; the right to run campaigns; and so on. But there’s nothing inherent to a corporation that says its a person and deserves the rights of flesh-and-blood people. That’s only come about through very perverse judicial activism (e.g. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad). Moreover, there’s nothing in economic theory that says corporations ought to be treated as persons. That corporations should run campaigns has got nothing to do with capitalism. There’s nothing about efficiency that says corporations should be allowed to do this. In a free and competitive market, it wouldn’t happen.

Anyone who argues that corporations should be treated as persons and have the same rights would also have to accept that corporations should also then be allowed to run for office, hold office, to vote in elections, and so on. But no one agrees with that and for obvious reasons. Moreover, Dr. Spagnoli does not say that only corporations should have the rights of persons. He also says, “corporations, trade unions etc.” should not be denied the right to free speech. Well, what does “etc.” constitute? If a corporation is a person, why not a sports team? Can a townhome association be considered a person under the Fourteenth Amendment? Why not?

What happened before corporations were granted the rights of persons? They were chartered by the state to carry out some function that was meant to serve the public good. They had a specific charter, their shareholders were accountable, they had limited rights, they were regulated, and so on. That they should be running campaigns was completely unfathomable, particularly to the Founding Fathers, who were vary wary of corporate power. Within this framework, corporations had moral obligations to the communities they served. With judges granting corporations personhood, however, the moral obligations we ascribe to flesh-and-blood persons was not ascribed to corporations. The moral obligations and social responsibility that corporations have, according to people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, is to serve their own interests. The only obligation corporations are to have is to maximize profits. These are not the same type of moral obligations we think flesh-and-blood people have. Most decent people, ignoring extreme ethical egoists, believe we ought to consider what happens to other people, that we have an obligation not to harm others, that we should not rape the environment, that we should not ignore grave injustices, that we should treat flesh-and-blood people as ends rather than means, and so on. Even those who support corporate personhood do not ascribe these moral obligations to corporations. These are very special types of “persons” indeed.

Should people have the right to free speech in a democracy? Yes. Are corporations people? No.

Haiti Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

Please see this post from The China Rose blog for information about the recent earthquake in Haiti, as well as relevant context to the tragedy and Haiti’s history of poverty and instability. As Haitian streets run with blood and its air fouled by the stench of piled-up corpses, let this tragedy remind us of the human suffering that exists in the world and serve as an opportunity to learn something about the history and lived realities of Haitians, which has got little to do with “bad luck.” For those of us with money, a donation cannot help the hundreds of thousands now feared dead, but it could make a difference for the poor masses of Haiti, who lived in extreme poverty and on less than a dollar a day even before the earthquake struck.

While the tragedy in Haiti is almost universally recognized as such, the response from right-wing extremists (or is it mainstream?) has been rather shocking and saddening. Rush Limbaugh, for example, claims President Obama’s response to the disaster will be used to “burnish” his “credibility in the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made to order for him. That’s why he could not wait to get out there” to offer support for the those devastated by the disaster. And while the right will continue to decry government spending as “inefficient” and “evil,” the Haitians rummaging through the debris of what was once their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their places of worship, I’m sure, think quite differently of it. Meanwhile, as Limbaugh is busy throwing political jabs at Obama’s offer to provide relief to those enduring the pangs of sudden and utter disaster, Pat Robertson, the voice of conservative Christianity, claims that the earthquake (and the rest of Haiti’s ills) was a consequence of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made over 215 years ago to liberate themselves from France’s colonial rule.

Robertson, who also claims the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment on Americans for being too secular, claimed on the Christian Broadcasting Network‘s The 700 Club, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”

Mr. Robertson would do good to first read some history. First, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was well before Napoleon III’s time. Instead, the Haitian slaves spent most of their time fighting the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte (i.e. Napoleon I). Napoleon III was not yet born by the time Haiti gained independence in 1804. Robertson’s ignorance of basic historic facts reflects the level of thinking required to make such bizarre and perverse statements. But, “You know, … whatever.” As for this “pact to the devil,” Robertson again faces a contradictory reality. According to Jean Gelin, a Haitian pastor who commented in 2005 on this supposed pact, “One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground.” However, Gelin continues, “it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson, however, for making at least one true statement. It’s true “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” What happened is what’s been described as “the greatest of all the slave revolts,” which “forever altered the fate of black people in the Americas.” This “pact to the devil” that liberated Haiti from its racist overlords was really what normal people call Enlightenment thinking. That the Haitian Revolution closely followed the American and French revolutions is no accident of history. The great leaders of the Haitian Revolution, like Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took seriously the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They believed, as their contemporaries in this Age of Reason did, that power lies in the people, not kings and nobility. They challenged the religious orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings. These were the true roots of liberation theology—an understanding of Christianity that stresses the scriptural teachings of freedom, social justice, human rights, and supporting community—a striking contrast to Western and conservative understandings of Christianity, to be sure. That Mr. Robertson “might not want to talk about it” is understandable.

However, this Haitian revolution went beyond “the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French and American revolutions,” writes Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Instead, continues Bellegarde-Smith, the Haitian Revolution that Robertson describes as “a pact to the devil,” was based on the “universal freedom for all humankind.” That slaves could rise up and overthrow the slave regime in the 1790s, the first time in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps in the history of the world, indeed was nothing short of a great inspirational source for those still suffering under the grips of slavery and those wishing to liberate them, from Fredrick Douglass in the United States of America to Simón Bolívar in South America.

Once again, “Even in its hour of utter devastation,” to again quote Cunningham, “Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, teaches the rest of the world some valuable truths.” The question is if anyone’s paying attention.

So much ado, but about what? Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

I get tired writing about global warming (read: anthropogenic climate change). As far as I am concerned, the main conclusions are settled. The main conclusions that I’m talking about is the mainstream consensus outlined by the IPCC and supported by every major academy of science in the world and virtually every scientist publishing research on the matter. The consensus is that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, that this climate change has adverse effects, and that the effects are going to worsen if we continue down the “business as usual” path. That’s settled, no question about it. I would like to leave the quibbling over minor uncertainties, model improvements, and further refinement of the theory to the more capable scientists who publish legitimate research in the technical literature. I find myself, however, having to defend against the main conclusions of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, because people find opportunity to attack it whenever it becomes politically convenient. That’s essentially what we call partisanship (i.e. hackery). These people like to pretend they are engaging in some sort of scientific inquiry, so label themselves “skeptics.” But we know this is not true—the real skeptics (e.g. Lindzen) are few and far between—so I label them “septics,” borrowing the term from William Connolley, who explains the meaning on his blog.

Again, we find the septics at the SCSU Scholars blog making a bunch of ado, in their regular fashion. But about what? Essentially, nothing. Dr. Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, using a satirist’s Web site for reference (though, be careful in pointing out the fact, or you’ll be accused of ad hominems), complains about the use of principal components analysis (PCA)—a statistical procedure used in the analysis of data—in a 1998 paper written by Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (hereafter referred to as Mann et al.). The problem for Dr. Banaian lies in the fact that, as he explains it, “PCA is a technique that, in the social sciences, has been found to be highly sensitive to the inclusions of new proxies.” This might be true, in part, he says, in the natural sciences, but he’s not really sure, probably, in part, because he hasn’t read about it. That might be a wild supposition, but given that the professor even admits to us that he hasn’t even bothered to read the paper he criticizes, it’s not beyond legitimate possibility. This, he says, “increases my skepticism,” though “septicism” probably would have been more fitting.

I try to point out to the professor that the Mann et al. paper, the basic conclusion of which is that contemporary warming is anomalous (differing from previous warming), is valid and supported by virtually the entire scientific community that’s spoken on the issue, including those scientists who have published criticisms of the Mann et al. paper. Dr. Banaian says Mann et al. are wrong, I say they are correct. I better provide some evidence, right? One might reasonably make that assumption, so I link to a report done by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which concluded, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) … that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years … has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence …” Summarizing the report, Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, writes that the the NAS “affirms [the] hockey-stick graph,” while Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a critic and pretty close to being a skeptic himself, writes, “the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.” In addition to the NAS report, I linked to two peer-reviewed articles that support Mann et al.‘s use of PCA and the accuracy of their reconstruction of past temperature. The first paper, by Wahl and Amman (2007), is a response to McIntyre (who Dr. Banaian later appeals to) and McKitrick. Wahl and Ammann say, “the Mann et al. reconstruction is robust against the proxy-based criticisms addressed. In particular, reconstructed hemispheric temperatures are demonstrated to be largely unaffected by the use or non-use of PCs to summarize proxy evidence from the data-rich North American region.” Moreover, I provide a link to a blog post written by climate scientists discussing McIntyre and McKitrick (the people the aforementioned satirists relies on) and the various “false claims” they make regarding Mann et al.‘s use of PCA.

Well, one might think this is all well and good. Science, after all, is an objective field in which one can appeal to evidence, and the evidence can be judged on its merits. If someone has a differing point of view, they can provide the scientific evidence to support it. So it would be reasonable to assume that evidence should be welcomed when there’s a contradictory claim. It helps you evaluate the claims being made. But it’s dangerous not to drink the Kool-Aid. The cost of not jumping on the politically-convenient (but scientifically-bankrupt) bandwagon of the septics is that I get derided for posting “a link dump”—because contradictory evidence isn’t welcome. Instead it constitutes “linking dumping” to “the cross-referencing, daisy-chain-refereeing bunch from the Mann gang.” I never link to Mann nor anyone from his “gang,” but these types of facts are not supposed to matter. (Although, even if I had linked to Rutherford et al., which includes Mann, and the defense they provide for the methods used in the Mann et al. paper, so what?) I ordinarily would not think much of this; it’s the typical rhetoric the septic retches up whenever confronted by an “inconvenient truth” (science). The thing is, you don’t typically see the type of anti-intellectualism displayed among self-professed scholars. The septics I usually speak with on a near-daily basis, though their rhetoric is virtually identical, don’t usually come from academia. Perhaps that says something. But when you get accused of being a “pedant” trying to enter “Valhalla,” I think this says something quite serious about the culture of this so-called “skepticism,” which has always had at its roots a derision of science and an acceptance anti-intellectualism. I personally find it to be pretty dangerous.

But let’s say we ignore the rhetoric and accept Dr. Banaian’s argument. Does it mean anything? It means nothing. We’re talking about a 1998 paper that has been updated by the authors and commented on multiple occasions over the years, and further supplemented by numerous, independent research that has all come to the same basic conclusions that Mann et al. came to in their paper. Any suggestion that the Mann et al. paper is crucially relied on to support the basic conclusions made by the IPCC or even that contemporary warming is anomalous is transparently absurd. So even if Mann et al.‘s paper was invalid (though it wasn’t), it says nothing about our understanding of climate reproduction or contemporary warming. The so-called “hockey stick” graph that appears in the Mann et al. paper is but one of many “hockey sticks” that exist in the literature on climate reconstruction. See, for example, this image put together by Robert Rhode; a similar image is found in the IPCC’s latest report (Chp. 6 of the WGI contribution) and elsewhere. Mann et al.’s (1999) graph is the plain blue line in Rhode’s image.

The literature on the issue is robust. Contemporary warming is anomalous—unprecedented within the past 1,000 years. The cause is explained by the theory of anthropogenic climate change. We can and should dismiss the feverish rhetoric as ado about absolutely nothing.

Democracy vs. libertarianism Monday, Jan 11 2010 

One of the problems that ideologues of any persuasion probably run into is the problem of democracy. What do I mean by “the problem of democracy”? What I mean by this is that the democratic majority often does not adhere or conform perfectly to the ideology that a person or group may have. This can be a problem for the ideologue if he or she professes to be a democrat (a supporter of democracy). So, for example, the libertarian may decry the government’s role in society, despite the democratic majority wanting social programs or government regulation. Thus, any claim that we should wipe out social spending is inherently anti-democratic in this sense. My previous post on government involvement touches on this issue. Of course, the ideologue can bypass this “problem” if they do not profess to be democrats. Instead, we should simply implement the policies of our ideology, no matter how much the public is opposed to it. That is, we become authoritarians. For the libertarian or the anarchist, this is inherently paradoxical. We cannot claim to be libertarians and authoritarians at the same time—the ideas are necessarily opposed to each other. It is not possible to authoritatively implement our policies in the name of libertarianism, for example. That isn’t to say no one has tried; for example, Augusto Pinochet, in his brutal dictatorship over Chile, enacted free-market reforms in the name of “liberating.” We know that’s hypocritical, and we understand the perversity in his understanding of “liberty.” Here, “liberty” means liberty for the corporation, not for the people. Thus, the ideas of libertarianism and anti-democratic measures are incompatible.

How can the ideologue cope with “the problem of democracy”? How can we accept certain principles that the majority rejects, yet still call ourselves “champions of democracy”? I have two suggestions, and others are welcome. First, be what could be called a philosophical ideologue (cf. philosophical anarchism). That is to say, you keep your beliefs in whatever ideology you choose, but you accept the majority’s opinion as the opinion that should be adhered to. So, for example, if you’re against social spending, but the majority supports it, you continue to believe that social spending is wrong but accept the majority’s choice as the will of the people. For some, this might seem like an unpleasing solution, which I accept. It does seem contradictory to accept the choice but at the same time to not accept the choice. It would seem as if we are not truly adhering to our ideologies (that’s a common argument against anarchists who do not support the overthrow of the state—they’re not real anarchists). Do we or do we not accept that argument? The other thing I suggest is that we teach or advocate our ideology in a way that is not anti-democratic. We explain our philosophies (non-coercively) to others in the hopes that they will accept them. In this way, we can influence the outcome of the democratic choice without resorting to authoritarianism.

I accept that others may not accept this. They may say we have to cling to our ideologies, no matter what. We must reject the democratic majority. They may not say it in this way, but it is what they’re saying. I reject this argument and find it to be dangerous. Over ideology, I am a democrat.

P.S. This is a further exploration of a concept that Dr. Spagnoli explores on his blog in a post titled “What is Democracy?” In it, he explains, “Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity . . . Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. . . . France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.” The parallels to contemporary foreign affairs are obvious enough. Claims Dr. Spagnoli, “Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination).” The question being raised is, “are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way?” Likewise, I raise the question if libertarians are allowed to impose or enforce libertarianism in an authoritarian way. I say no.

Is the government inefficient? Sunday, Jan 3 2010 

I found this passage somewhere on the Internet, unknown author:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the U.S. Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built and maintained by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve System. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the U.S. Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house that has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuable thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the Internet, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because government can’t do anything right.

What this passage is getting at is the myriad functions that government serves— sometimes unbeknown to the general public—and it only begins to scratch the surface. It would, I think, be pretty safe to say government is responsible for or at least crucially linked to the development of modern society, not free markets. That’s just a descriptive statement, and I believe the main point of the quoted passage. There are some, like those “on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums,” who bemoan government and its supposed inefficiency, yet take for granted all the things it provides them (like roads and police protection).

The question, really, is an economic one. One issue that arises concerns what are called public goods. In technical terms, a public good is any “good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.” All non-rivalrous means is that when one person uses that good another person is not restricted from also using that good (e.g., when I log on to the Internet, this does not preclude you from doing the same). All non-excludable means is that no one wanting access to the good can be reasonably denied access to that good. A decent example might lighthouse beams that provide light to ships, regardless of which ship it might be (that is, it’s difficult to exclude other people from seeing this light). As the Wikipedia article points out, “there may be no such thing as an absolutely non-rivaled and non-excludable good; but economists think that some goods approximate the concept closely enough for the analysis to be economically useful.” (The economic idea of public goods, by the way, was developed by Paul Samuelson, the pioneering Nobel laureate who died just three weeks ago.)

The problem that arises is that public goods are not produced efficiently in “free markets.” They’re under-produced. This causes what is called market failure; the market does not operate efficiently. The reason for this is because you can’t make a profit off of it, or not very much the closer the good approaches the concept of a public good. If a good produces a benefit to society that the creator of the good cannot profit from, there’s little economic incentive to produce such a good. That’s standard neoclassical economic theory, anyway. The idea is tied to what are called externalities. A positive externality is something people benefit from, e.g. clean air, but those who benefit from it don’t necessarily have to pay for it. An example I get from Milton Friedman, the great free-market thinker, is that when I plant a pretty garden in my front yard, other people get to experience the benefit of it without having to pay or do any work for it. Again, these are under-produced in free markets, according to standard theory, because there is not enough economic incentive to produce these things.

Well, one solution has been to have the government produce goods for public use, which is where the entire passage quoted above comes from. The result is that we all get to benefit from government involvement in the market place. I get the ability to tell the precise time because the government has taken the initiative to keep accurate account of time—something theory tells us profit-maximizing corporations would be unwilling to do.

At the same time, however, as the story above illustrated, people still bemoan government and its attempts to provide for the public good. The market is great, it will provide us all the things we need, and it will do so efficiently, they might say. The socialist might respond by pointing out that this is not necessarily true, and point to things like externalities and asymmetric information, which exist nearly everywhere, and conclude the market rarely works efficiently. For this reason, we need the government to provide for the public good, particularly when the unfettered market cannot. The right-winger (if they’re not Austrian) might concede that things like externalities and asymmetric information exist but posit that the government still ought not get involved because that would constitute an abridgment of our freedom, is coercive, evil, etc. The question becomes harder. Indeed, for many the question is not only economic but also ethical. At this point, I think most people begin to ask what the right balance is between market forces and government involvement. The question is left unanswered and, in mind, the answer remains to be seen.

United States vs. the world Saturday, Dec 26 2009 

It wasn’t very long ago that I saying President Obama would probably be a centrist president. (Maybe not on this blog, but my comments are elsewhere on the Web.) The wild claims about socialism and radical shifts in policy were just that—wild claims. Most of the Republicans are scared out of their boots and most Democrats seem dissatisfied. He’s continued Bush’s Patriot Act, FISA, illegal spying, destruction of the Fourth Amendment, and so on. He’s continued the unwise bailouts of those responsible for our current financial crisis. And perhaps worst of all, he has kept the hawkish policy of his predecessor, now recently expanding the war in Afghanistan and has continued the illegal policy of extraordinary rendition, black sites (including the black jail), and ignoring Israeli crimes. All of this was expected, of course. Putting aside all the wonderful rhetoric (“Hope!” and “Change!”), Obama’s policies were recognized as nothing more than underwhelming. He’s a centrist president. (Here I am keeping myself, of course, to the American political lexicon. In American politics—where Democrats represent the “left” and Republicans represent the “right”—he is “centrist.” To the rest of the world, he remains a rightist.)


(Click for larger image. Author unknown.)

On a more specific level, Obama has continued his racist and imperial policies as they relate to Latin America. I wish to specifically talk about Honduras and the recent military coup that occurred there. For those unaware (which would be unsurprising, given the American educational culture), there was an illegal coup d’état in June of 2009 that ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. After the military coup had removed Zelaya from the country, the Honduran congress voted to put Roberto Micheletti in power, with no other government in the world recognizing his presidency.

Naturally, of course, the neoconservative right hailed this military coup as a “defense of democracy,” a “democratic coup,” and so on. Janet from SCSU Scholars acclaimed it as a “legal election.” The rest of the world had no illusions and harshly condemned the illegal takeover of the country. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the historical role of scholars has been to acquiesce to power, authority, state doctrine, and so on.

The rest of the world, that is, with the exception of the United States. While Obama certainly mimicked what the OAS and the UN were saying regarding the illegal coup, he was the only one to keep his ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in the country. This is the same Llorens who called the elections under the illegal coup as “a great celebration of democracy.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS at the time declared Zelaya’s return to his country “foolish and irresponsible.” The British scholar Gordon Connell-Smith aptly points out, “While paying lip-service to the encouragement of representative democracy in Latin America, the United States has a strong interest in just the reverse,” apart from “procedural democracy, especially the holding of elections—which only too often have proved farcical.” While it’s certainly true there were procedural elections, which the U.S. supported in contrast to much of the rest of the world, the U.S. continued to refuse to demand Zelaya’s return to power and still refuses to speak even one word about the human rights abuses occurring under Micheletti.

This isn’t to say the precedent isn’t there. The countless Latin Americans murdered, tortured, or disappeared speaks volumes to the U.S.’s long and historic role in intervening in the region for its own (read: business’s) interests through dismantling left-wing democracies and installing right-wing dictatorships. The history is clear enough that it does not bear repeating here. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Obama administration has opted to support (and played an important role in) the illegal overthrow of the left-wing Zelaya, ignore the atrocities of the current government, and support the right-wing “election” occurring just recently.

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