Franken is Minnesota’s next senator Tuesday, Jun 30 2009 

Sorry for the lack of activity on this blog as of late. I have just a quick post about the new Senate outcome. I should have a new post coming soon after this one.

The Minnesota high court ruled today that Al Fraken should be its next senator. The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed Norm Coleman’s appeal of a lower court’s decision that also favored on Franken’s side. Coleman’s concession puts an end to nearly 8 months of appeals by both candidates over the closest and costliest race in the history of the Senate. This is, of course, after Coleman said Franken’s earlier appeals were irresponsible, costly, not what Minnesotans wanted, etc.

This now puts the Democrats in the Senate at 60, which is the amount necessary to override a filibuster. How often this might occur is far from certain. It should certainly be interesting to see how things play out from here.

Is education inferior? Thursday, Jun 11 2009 

Today in my intermediate microeconomics class with professor Nathan Hampton, we were discussing income elasticity where the topic of inferior and normal goods came up.

First some explanation. All elasticity means is how sensitive people are to changes as measured through percent changes. It measures how responsive people are to changes in price, income, prices of other goods, etc. So when we talk about income elasticity (of demand), we’re talking about how consumers change their buying behavior when their income changes (mathematically, this can be represented as %ΔQuantity/%ΔIncome). Typically, when incomes increase, so does demand for a good. That good is called a normal good. If, however, your demand for a good decreases when your income increases, it is called an inferior good. It does not have necessarily anything to do with the quality of that good—it simply means, as an objective observation, quantity demanded goes down as income increases. (Think about goods such as cheap beer, Spam meat, ramen noodles, or public transportation.)

Dr. Hampton made the claim today that college education is an inferior good. This would mean that as people’s incomes increases, demand for college education would decrease. The reason for this, he posits, is that as people graduate, their incomes rise because of employment and they no longer have a need for an education. I disagree with this analysis. It certainly might be observed that a college graduate’s income rises but his demand for a college education does not. I do not think this means, however, that college education is an overall inferior good (it may be for a college graduate, but there are more people to consider). There may be people in an economy who previously were incapable of attending college because of budget restraints, but are now able to attend college because their income rose. And this is generally the case when incomes rise.

The price for a year of college education in 1970 was $2,530. In 2007, it was $27,560. Even with this radical price increase, however, college attendance in 2007 was much higher than in 1970 (nominally and relatively). The reason for this (among some others) is because incomes have also increased since 1970, and thus more people have “demanded” college educations. This suggests to me that college education is not an inferior good, but is in fact a normal good. My analysis could be wrong for various reasons, but I think I’m right.

The state, revisted Wednesday, Jun 10 2009 

One of the books I decided to read this summer (before taking summer courses) is a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977) written by anthropologist Marvin Harris.

The book discusses a whole range of topics relating to the origin of culture (origin of agriculture, origin of warfare, origin of male supremacy, origin of the state, origin of food taboos, origin of hydraulic despotism, origin and consequences of capitalism and the industrial bubble, to name a few). The main theory revolves around the idea that humans react to their natural surroundings. Much of our actions revolve around a cost-benefit analysis based on ecology, intensification, and reproductive pressures. Obviously I cannot do the book justice here, so I suggest you read it, especially if you’re interested in the origin of culture, economic incentives, the effects of statism, and about the current-day modes of production that also influence human behavior. I can guarantee the book will make you look at certain things differently–it certainly did for me.

A refrain one notices later in the book is that the rise of the state has coincided with the abysmal treatment, pauperization, and stratification of human beings (i.e. “the descent of the world from freedom to slavery”). This has been the case for most of human history; only very recently have people begun to gain rights and control their governments (and not in all places). Harris warns his readers that to think the current form of the state is permanent and inevitable is both folly and dangerous.

Last month, I quoted a passage in the book about the rise of the state, which can be read here. There is another paragraph about the state that I would like quote, appearing in the chapter about hydraulic despotism on page 235:

Western observers have always been astonished by the static or “stationary” nature of these ancient dynastic systems. Pharaohs and emperors came and went decade after decade; dynasties rose and fell; the life of the coolies, ryots, and fellahin, however, went on as always, just a notch above barest subsistence. The ancient empires were warrens full of illiterate peasants toiling from morning to night only to earn protein-deficient vegetarian diets. They were little better off than their oxen and were no less subject to the commands of superior beings who knew how to keep records and who alone had the right to manufacture and use weapons of war and coercion. The fact that societies providing such meager rewards endured thousands of years—longer than any other system of statehood in the history of the world—stands as a grim reminder that there is nothing inherent in human affairs to ensure material and moral progress.

Human rights and responsibilities Monday, Jun 8 2009 

A few days ago, Filip Spagnoli, who works in research and statistics at the Belgian Central Bank and who has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Brussels, wrote on his blog about the relationship between the recession and unemployment. Dr. Spagnoli’s contention is that the recession has caused unemployment, and unemployment is the violation of the human right to work. I challenged this notion of the right to work on the grounds that it is a positive right, which violates the negative rights of others, and because it is reasonably impossible to assign blame to an individual.

Today, King Banaian, the chairman of the SCSU economics department, discussed the issue about violators of human rights on his blog. Dr. Banaian, quoting William Easterly, argues that poverty cannot be a human rights violation because there is no clear violator and because the definition of poverty is not precise. Moreover, he argues poverty is largely the result of violations against property rights.

I agree with the professors here. When a person murders another, we blame the murderer for violating the other person’s right to life. When a person becomes unemployed (or impoverished) who is it that we blame, that we place responsibility on? Dr. Spagnoli’s response is that finding a single violator is “too simplistic” and that human rights violations are “often much more complex, i.e. the result of social pressures, traditions, mimetism, power structures etc. I think it’s fair to say that ‘traditions’ can cause rights violations. So why not the ‘economy’?”

This is indeed a moral question, and the question is to whom (or what) do we assign blame and responsibility. Can we say an economy or a society is immoral, or do we instead say individual actors within these structures act immorally? If the former, how do we possibly change these structures (to correct the problem of human rights violations) without taking individuals into consideration? Can we change economies or societies without changing the individuals within those structures? (And I am immoral for merely participating in the market capitalistic mode of production, which Dr. Spangnoli contends causes this humans right abuse?) The problem with Dr. Spangnoli’s argument is that he wishes to blame ways of thinking (e.g. traditions, memes, social ideals, mores). I think it is much more helpful to blame individual actions that might result from these ways of thinking. If that is the case, though, I am immoral for participating in our capitalist mode of production which propagates unemployment.

This is why I do not find it proper to think of employment or wealth as human rights. To argue one has the right to wealth or employment implies the forcing of others to distribute wealth or to employ. Some might find this perfectly acceptable. Others, like myself, see it a violations of negative rights, which implies people have the right not to be subjected to the harmful actions, interferences, or restraints of others (which is always wrong). On the other hand, positive right implies all people are entitled to things like wealth, employment, health care, social security, etc. and that the absence of these things from any person is a human rights abuse. In this sense, liberty comes from the ability and access to resources to “achieving self-realization,” which often implies it comes from above, from the state, from the allowance of some power structure. I find this to be a perversion of the definition of liberty.

Sotomayor fuss Saturday, Jun 6 2009 

I find all the fuss about Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s pick as the replacement for the outgoing Justice David Souter, very interesting. The fuss is over how objective she could possibly be because she is a Hispanic woman who grew up in the Bronx (clearly a first for the high court). Republican Senator Jeff Session proclaims, “Although we sometimes take our heritage of neutral and independent judiciary for granted, the truth is, this great tradition is under attack.”

How does Sotomayor’s nomination for the Supreme Court constitute an attack on its integrity and tradition? Well, Sotomayor is supposed to be the exception, and the exception proves the rule. What’s the rule? The rule is that Supreme Court justices, who have all been white men with four exceptions, are neutral and completely independent thinkers. Sotomayor, because she is not a white man, is an attack on this rule (just as Justice Ginsburg was before her).


(A political cartoon appearing in an Oklahoman newspaper on June 2.)

Had President Obama nominated a white man, there would be no question about what kind of impartiality he would bring to the court because of skin color or sex. There was certainly no question when John Roberts was nominated by President Bush in 2005. So the latent assumption is that white men, perhaps by virtue, bring no subjectivity because they are white or because they are men. For the people who make this assumption, including the media, it never even crosses their minds that white men also have lived experiences that influence the way they think, what kind of assumptions they make, their perspectives, and ultimately how they judge. That Sotomayor’s lived experiences are not at all similar to the white man’s is frightening to them. They see it as an “attack,” an affront on justice.

What I find truly frightening is how broadly these beliefs are accepted.

Abortion: a woman’s absolute and inalienable right Wednesday, Jun 3 2009 

With the murder of George Tiller over the weekend, abortion is no doubt a topic on the top of many minds. Dr. Tiller was one of three doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions before being gunned down by Scott Roeder at his church in Wichita, Kansas (see my post about his murder and right-wing terrorism here). There is no question that Mr. Roeder’s action was a heinous and cowardly act of violence that should never be tolerated. More disputed is the right a woman has to an abortion.

In my previous post, I noted that abortion “is and should always be an inalienable right for women.” A commenter named Roark disputed this assertion. I had said, “So-called ‘pro lifers’ ignore the actual life involved: the mother’s.” Roark responded by saying, “Talking as if the womans life is the only ‘actual’ life involved is absurd” because “babies are not pieces of meat that should be arbitrarily destroyed.” But that is a strawman. I never made any such argument, and never would. But I would first like point out Roark’s use of the word “babies.” He also later stated, abortion is “destroying the life of a child.” This is an emotional ploy (fallacy) used by “pro lifers” because the word “baby” or “child” elicits more of a response than using words like “fetus,” “embryo,” or “zygote.” Babies and children are none of those. Babies and children are actual human beings, born and physiologically and physically independent of the mother. Having an abortion is not the same as killing an infant.

So now the argument becomes “fetuses, embryos, zygotes, etc. are all life and so have rights and cannot be aborted.” This is what, I think, Roark meant when he replied that a mother’s life is not “the only ‘actual’ life involved.” This is very true. I misspoke: a mother’s life is not the only “actual life involved,” but the only actual human being‘s life involved. Zygotes are a form of life, yes. But they are not human beings. That’s an important distinction that must be made. So, does the fact that fetuses (etc.) are alive mean they now have the same rights you and I have? The answer is no. Many things are alive: trees, squirrels, weeds, cattle, etc. are all just as alive as you and I. The fact that something is alive does not transfer it human rights. As we see, it is the quality of being a human being that transfers you these rights. And this is broadly consistent with the Constitution of the United States. A fetus (etc.) is not a human being and does not have the same rights you and I have. This is why Roark’s argument that we imprison people for violating others’ rights is a faulty one for arguing against abortion. The fetus has no right to exist in the woman against her permission. (Yes, fetuses are potential human beings, just as acorns are potential oak trees. No one argues, though, that acorns are oak trees.)

But let’s be generous and assume fetuses, zygotes, etc. are human beings that have the same rights you and I do. (If we make this assumption and still affirm a woman’s right to an abortion, then our argument becomes even stronger.) Even now, can we claim that a fetus has the right to exist inside the woman against her will? Again, the answer is no. There exists no right to live inside another human being. A woman cannot be said to be violating anyone’s rights by having an abortion because there is no right to live by the efforts of others, there exists no right to enslave. We can easily engage in a thought experiment to demonstrate the truth behind this statement: Let’s assume some future technology allows sick patients to be medically connected to healthy individuals, thus keeping the patient alive. Would it be legally acceptable, moral even, to connect these patients to unwilling individuals so that they may be kept alive? Here we are talking about saving the lives of actual human beings but at the sacrifice of the body rights of others. Can anyone legitimately defend this? I believe not. There exists no right to live inside another person, and so a woman has the absolute and inalienable right to an abortion.

Right-wing terrorism: the murder of a doctor Monday, Jun 1 2009 

Religious and political extremism exists in all shapes and forms. A sad realization of this fact took place just yesterday, when Scott Roeder shot and killed George Tiller outside of his church in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Tiller was one of three American doctors who performed late-term abortions.

Roeder has been described as an extreme anti-government right-winger who adheres to religious fundamentalism—the Christian sort. “The anti-tax stuff came first, and then it grew and grew. He became very anti-abortion,” said his ex-wife. After becoming associated with anti-government groups, he became “very religious in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way,” she explains.

This is not the first time that violence has been used against Dr. Tiller. He has been a high-profile target for violent extremists throughout the years due to his practice. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by one Shelley Shannon, also a Christian “pro-lifer.” His clinic has been vandalized on numerous occasions, including being bombed in 1985.

These and this latest act of cowardly violence should be called what it is: terrorism. The term “terrorism” and “terrorist” cannot and should not be ascribed only to Muslims, a common practice by the media (you won’t hear the media call Roeder a terrorist). Violence in the name of Christianity is just as wrong as violence in the name of Islam, or any other religion or creed for that matter. All aggressive violence must be firmly rejected and opposed on all grounds. There can be no room for it in a civil, just, or moral society. Dr. Tiller’s church, the Reformation Lutheran Church, expounds: “We must always strive to engage in peaceful discussion. Our faith calls us to this. Our humanity demands it.” Earlier, President Obama stated, “I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.” I could not agree more with the church or the president.

To cloak these deeply violent and anti-women beliefs with terms such “pro life,” “culture of love,” “righteous,” “Christian,” “Summer of Mercy,” is not only completely hypocritical, but also vastly disingenuous and truly Orwellian. The “pro-life” slogan, a particularly popular albeit empty slogan, is a contradictory one. It is a sham. So-called “pro lifers” ignore the actual life involved: the mother’s. (“Pro choice” is equally empty.) A woman’s body does not belong to men, the Church, or the State. They are not our breeding pigs. We cannot treat them as such. Abortion is and should always be an inalienable right for women.