What do economists REALLY want?

captureThose that read my blogs here might have picked up on my dismay that so much of society and politics seems increasingly indifferent to evidence and expertise as a way of determining what is true and what is not…what is workable and what is not. It seems that many people’s political or religious ideologies or simple gut feel is as high a bar as they need or want to make every decision or to define every position.

There are issues, though, that are very important where we really should seek out the experts and the evidence to make sure we are not going down the wrong road. It takes some effort to seek evidence though. It is well documented that we shun evidence contrary to our existing beliefs and seek out information that supports our beliefs. This evidence filtering is known as “confirmation bias” and is why those that watch Fox News and MSNBC stick with their respective cable channel. [Note: I don’t claim that each of those sources are similarly biased] It is unpleasant to confront disconfirming evidence because it doesn’t give a hoot about how good you feel or what you believe. Richard Feynman famously said in a lecture

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Nobody likes to be wrong.

Now let’s look at U.S. economic policy. This is a matter of great import. Candidates will have you believe that the other person’s plan will lead to either a bread-line socialist state or a plutocracy consisting of aristocrats and peasants. To be sure; there is a lot at stake. Economic policy has a significant impact on the economy, jobs and the financial well-being of you and me. Look what happened post-9/11, post-banking, post-housing and the like. When the economy suffers, the population suffers. Economic policy is too important to leave to ideology or gut feel. We need to seek out experts and heed their advice whether it jives with our beliefs or not.

I do not plan on making this a treatise for or against any one candidate’s policies.  Instead I want to relate an interesting story spearheaded by the folks over at Planet Money back in the 2012 presidential election cycle. They sought out some well-credentialed economists, put them in a room and had them hash out a dream candidate with an economic plan with the best chance of improving the economy. If, as is said continually, the economy is “issue number one”, then wouldn’t we want to take a serious look at that dream candidate…or at least the policies? Well the results might surprise you. The dream candidates economic plan, agreed on by this amply qualified gaggle of econo-warriors [ed. I can’t find the link to the list of economists any longer], has six major points. They are:

One: Eliminate the mortgage tax deduction, which lets homeowners deduct the interest they pay on their mortgages. Gone. After all, big houses get bigger tax breaks, driving up prices for everyone. Why distort the housing market and subsidize people buying expensive houses?

Two: End the tax deduction companies get for providing healthcare to employees. Neither employees nor employers pay taxes on workplace health insurance benefits. That encourages fancier insurance coverage, driving up usage and, therefore, health costs overall. Eliminating the deduction will drive up costs for people with workplace healthcare, but makes the healthcare market fairer.

Three: Eliminate the corporate income tax. Completely. If companies reinvest the money into their businesses, that’s good. Don’t tax companies in an effort to tax rich people.

Four: Eliminate all income and payroll taxes. All of them. For everyone. Taxes discourage whatever you’re taxing, but we like income, so why tax it? Payroll taxes discourage creating jobs. Not such a good idea. Instead, impose a consumption tax, designed to be progressive to protect lower-income households.

Five: Tax carbon emissions. Yes, that means higher gasoline prices. It’s a kind of consumption tax, and can be structured to make sure it doesn’t disproportionately harm lower-income Americans. More, it’s taxing something that’s bad, which gives people an incentive to stop polluting.

Six: Legalize marijuana. Stop spending so much trying to put pot users and dealers in jail — it costs a lot of money to catch them, prosecute them, and then put them up in jail. Criminalizing drugs also drives drug prices up, making gang leaders rich.
So! What are the chances of that dream candidate being elected? Exactly zero…and least in today’s climate. It’s not that the ideas are without merit. In fact, I have warmed to every one of them depending on their implementation. If you start to research these proposals as I did, you may find that the upsides and downsides of each of them does not comport with your ideology or gut feel (they didn’t with me). They are worth pondering. What do you think?

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Trump and the “Johnson Amendment”

Donald Trump recently made it part of his campaign platform to allow churches the ability to speak for/against candidates and freely engage in political lobbying. Many things…often conflicting things…tumble from Mr. Trumps lips and we’ve no way of knowing whether this is truly a important issue for him or whether it is pandering to some evangelicals. What I am sure he doesn’t understand is that he would have to strip religious institutions of their tax-exempt status…and least if he is playing by the rules as intended. Of course Mr. Trump never feels the need to follow [or even understand] the rules. NO tax-exempt organization is permitted to engage in political lobbying. The restriction is not limited to religious institutions. Below is a piece I wrote on this subject back in 2012 (with minor updates). …… Continue reading

Posted in Donald Trump, Islam, morality, Politics, religious liberty, Taxes, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Criticizing Faith vs Criticizing the Faithful


Not long ago, my Google news feed was seeing frequent references to an exchange between actor/director Ben Affleck and neuroscientist Sam Harris when both appeared on the popular HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher”. I suspect that this recent exposure is because of the involvement of the very popular actor going on an anti-racist tirade against the featured guest Mr. Harris. The exchange occurred during a segment where Mr. Harris and Mr. Maher suggested that Islam has more pernicious features than other popular religions.

Continue reading

Posted in bigotry, Debate, ethics, Islam, morality, muslims, racism, Religion | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reviewing Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal“Why not believe in God? What have you got to lose?” So goes the common presentation of one of the more recognizable philosophical arguments for…in this case…believing in the god of Catholicism. This is commonly referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” and takes its name from the 17th century mathematician-physicist-philosopher  Blaise Pascal. Let’s set aside that this was specifically forwarded to support his Catholicism; this is commonly co-opted to support any theistic faith…but it fails under scrutiny. Continue reading

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Truth Matters

Definition

I maintain that truth matters…a lot.

There should not be too much controversy in such a statement, right? …but what IS truth? How do we define truth? How do we vet truth? How do we identify that which is UN-true?

I am of a mind that it is only in the field of mathematics where we can…really and truly…claim absolute truths even exist. At one level, that makes perfect sense. We humans invented the rules of mathematics just as we invented the rules of checkers. That two plus two equals four is true because we say it is true. (If you’d like to burn up some time on an existential idea; try asking yourself whether “two” even exists absent a thinking mind to contemplate the concept of “two”) Continue reading

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Who Has Moral Authority?

Preacher

I have long felt that being a good person is the most important trait that a person can possess. If you are not good to other people, it doesn’t matter much how smart, or strong, or funny, or hard working, or successful, or talented you are. If you don’t care for your fellow homo-sapien and the rest of sentient life on this planet, one will still come up short in the area that matters most. …at least in my opinion.

Like many; I’ve taken something of a journey in my quest to understand ethics and morality (I will use those terms interchangeably). Many would described their own journeys as “spiritual” in nature…a spiritual journey. It would be fair to characterize my own journey as spiritual also, but it has led me to dismiss actual “spirits” as being players in defining ethics. Continue reading

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American Exceptionalism – Not A Fan

We We're Number Onehave all heard the term “American Exceptionalism”, but what does it mean? Interpretations vary, but it seems that those that seem to consider it a trait of significant import seem to do so from a hard-right Christian position. Fox News talking head Sean Hannity is somewhat famous for his mantra: “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.

This belief is shared by plenty of others. My hearing almost precisely the same sentence tumble from the lips of another of Hannity’s fellow conservative pundits motivated me to put down these thoughts.

I would like to unpack Hannity’s exhortation, but I need to start with my own position on exceptionalism. That is: For us to make the claim of our being exceptional, we actually have to be exceptional prior to making that claim. [Call me crazy] Continue reading

Posted in Intelecualism, Politics, Religion | Tagged , | 5 Comments