Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Malevolent God?

Last week I posted a blog with several quotes by well-known agnostics and atheists. It was a half-serious, half-humorous reply to those who live irreligious lifestyles and encourage others to do the same. One of my commenters insightfully wrote:
I would be curious to know your fuller answer to Mr. Dawkin's quote about the God of the Old Testament. This seems to be one of the hardest questions for Christians to answer, and perhaps the one most commonly asked by the skeptic of the Christian God. How could a loving, creator God destroy his creation? Or suggest, nay command, "his people" to slaughter whole nations?
This is a legitimate and important question to consider. What sort of God is the God of the Bible? Modern popular Christianity seems to present a smiley-face version of God who is ultra-loving and compassionate. Yet, the Old Testament seems to present a clear depiction of God as anything but a "nice" deity. In fact, there are some people who are strongly opposed to the God of the Old Testament because of the things He says and how He acts towards people. As Christians, it is crucial to know who God is, what He is like and whether He is really a good God or not. Is the God of the Bible a benevolent being, or is He malevolent, cruel, vicious and unreasonable? In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, a well-known atheist, writes:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Within that quote, we have a list of accusations that would take volumes of scholarly dissertations to properly reference and debate. His statement, quite frankly, is dynamite. It calls the whole of God's character into question. In considering how to address Dawkins' characterization of God, we first must see if his accusation is actually scriptural. Although his word-choice is deliberately provocative and excessively negative, to a certain degree He does accurately describe the God of the Bible.

-God is a jealous God.
-God does concern Himself even with seemingly trivial matters.
-God does kill people and order the killing of people.
-God does execute vengeance.
-God does establish inflexible rules and require people to abide by them.
-God does hold His own glory and majesty in high regard.
-God does differentiate between people and treat people differently based on their race and gender.

And clearly there are a few parts of Dawkins' statement that are not true:

-God is not unjust. Justice is one of His defining traits and He always renders to each person according to their deeds.
-God is not unforgiving. A desire for man's repentance and reconciliation is interwoven into all of His actions.
-God is not misogynistic, since He does not categorically hate women.
-God is not a bully. Any actions that may be regarded as cruel are always directed towards specific people for specific reasons.

Now that we have briefly examined the validity of Dawkins' claim, let us take a closer look at what Dawkins' is really saying, beneath all the provocative words. Ultimately, Dawkins is saying that the God of the Old Testament is unpleasant because He is self-centered, immoral, violent and unreasonable. Even supposing that Dawkins is correct, why does that matter? Even if God is unpleasant, does that have any bearing on whether God actually exists, or whether Christianity is true? None, whatsoever. Hitler and Napolean were certainly self-centered, immoral, violent and unreasonable men, but no one is denying their existence because of that. Therefore, if his statement is meant to be an argument against the existence of God or the veracity of Christianity, it lacks any merit.

What then is Dawkins trying to claim? Is he saying that supposing God really exists, that He is not a good God worthy of worship or obedience? This seems to be a more reasonable understanding of Dawkins' stance. By appealing to our moral sensibilities as modern, enlightened people, he is attempting to defame God's character by arguing that the Christian God (if He exists), is quite a horrific and evil sort of god. And what is his basis for such a claim? It is a moral claim, yet the moral basis for it is unspecified.

If he is arguing against violence, unreasonability and self-centeredness simply because of his own personal opinions, then he is making a faulty appeal to authority. Just because Richard Dawkins thinks something is immoral doesn't make it so.

If he is arguing against God's character based on the social construct theory of morality, then he is making a faulty appeal to popularity. The social construct theory of morality is inadequate as a foundation for criticism because it a relativistic standard that differs from people group to people group and therefore has no authority to critique any action outside of its own social sphere. Additionally, the social construct theory of morality cannot serve as a grounded foundation for morality because it uses a circular basis for claiming authority. For example, a community may say, "Whatever a majority says is right is okay and whatever a majority declares as wrong is prohibited." But then when asked, "Why do we have to follow the rules of the majority?" The only answer that can be given is, "Because the majority has agreed that you must abide by the rules established by the majority." Obviously, such a moral foundation wouldn't even support a house of cards, much less any argument of substance.

If he is arguing that self-centeredness and violence are intrinsically wrong, then he is attempting to use Christian morality as a basis for his argument. There are several problems with this approach. First of all, if he successfully uses Christian morality as a basis for arguing that God is immoral, then God would be disqualified from establishing any sort of universal rules for morality, which then renders Christian morality an insufficient basis for arguing that God is immoral. So, even if Dawkins' argument succeeds on such a basis, it still fails.

Secondly, if Dawkins' is attempting to use Christian morality as the basis of his critique, then his approach is flawed because his arguments against God's benevolence aren't actually grounded in Christian morality, but are grounded in a gross modern twisting of Christian morality. In fact, it is for this very reason that Dawkins' statement seems as powerful and convincing as it does. Because of our modern perspective of reality, we have taken some aspects of Christian morality and abrogated them while altering other aspects of Christian morality to match our enlightened, contemporary view of the world. Does Christian morality really condemn violence? Does Christianity oppose self-motivated behavior and glory-seeking? Does Christianity oppose absolute and inflexible moral rules? I think not! In a couple of future blogs I plan to address these three specific moral stances in more detail.

Though there are a few points of Dawkins' quote that I find are unsupported by Scripture, and though his wording is intentionally and unfairly negative, to a certain extent I agree with his characterization of God. Quite frankly, the God of the Bible is jealous. He is vindictive and does retain the right to execute vengeance. God does hold a position of authority and He demands that all people respect His position of authority and obey Him unswervingly. God does recognize that men and women are fundamentally different, and He does treat people differently based on gender. He does directly and indirectly bring death and destruction to nations who oppose Him and His people. God clearly declares that homosexuality is an evil perversion of nature that is punishable by death. Because of this, I can see what Richard Dawkins is trying to say. However, Dawkins fails to establish a reasonable criteria that would demonstrate any of God's actions as being truly evil or malevolent. Maybe God is violent. So what? Maybe God does treat different people and different groups of people differently. So what? Maybe God is radically self-centered and concerned with His glory. So what? Since Dawkins has failed to establish a baseline for his criticism, he is expressing nothing more than a personal opinion. Therefore, whenever I read his quote, this is what it says to me: "My personal opinion is that the God of the Old Testament is self-centered, violent, murderous, unjust and unfair." So what? Everyone has their own opinion. Dawkins' opinion just happens to be partially incorrect and completely devoid of moral potency.

What is wrong with being violent? What is wrong with seeking glory? What is wrong with jealousy? What is wrong with establishing clear and inflexible rules? As far as I can, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these. In fact, all of these seem to coincide quite nicely with the image of a president or a king. If there is any sort of claim that God is evil or malevolent, the claim is more a reflection of our own personal and cultural biases than it is a meritorious accusation against the God of the Bible.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peer Approval

Most people have a natural desire for acceptance. They want to be well-liked and perceived favorably by those they interact with. This is a reasonable and healthy desire. However, one simple fact of life is that you can't please everyone. And, even supposing you could please everyone, you really shouldn't. For this reason, it is crucially important to determine whose opinions and perspectives actually matter, and whose don't. Most people's opinions and perceptions fall into the second category. Because of this, I think that the best mental state to adopt towards most people's opinions of you is one of complete indifference. If they like you, that's nice. So what? If they think you are stupid, that's fine. So what?

There are four main components that factor into people's assessment of you. First, there is who you actually are. Secondly, there is how you present yourself. Third, there is how a person perceives you. Fourth, there is how a person judges you based on their perception of you. As you can see it's a pretty lengthy signal pathway, and therefore there is a lot of possible interference. Because of this, there are numerous reasons why a person might like or dislike you. A person may dislike you because of the way you present yourself and interact, even though you may be more likable beneath the surface. A person may dislike you because they have a skewed view of you, and don't correctly interpret how you present yourself. A person may dislike you because of their own internal standards, which you don't measure up to.

Considering these various factors and their possible effects on public approval, there are really only two sorts of actions you can take to alter your standings in someone else's eyes. The opinions and perceptual accuracy of another person cannot be directly affected, which leaves you having control only over who you actually are and how you choose to interact. For this reason, it is important to be aware of who you are and have a clear image of the personal ideal that you are moving towards. Also, it is good to cultivate a high-level of social awareness, so that you are conscious of how you interact with others and how they respond to you. This awareness will allow to you adjust your social calibration to various groups and settings, so that you will be versatile in interacting with various types of groups. One-on-one conversations are very different than group interactions. Chatting over coffee is very different from meeting people in a bar, which is quite different from chatting with people at church, which offers a very different sort of group dynamic from a road trip in a crowded car. Likewise, interacting with intellectuals requires a very different sort of social skillset than getting along well with rambunctious youngsters, party-crazy college students or blue-collar workers. There are no one-size-fits-all methods of interaction that will work equally well with every group of people, which is why social awareness and adaptability are vital.

Fundamentally, likability comes down to several things. For the most part people will like you if you are friendly, have a positive attitude towards them, conform to the social norms of the group and avoid stepping on anyone's toes. Likewise, if you appear unfriendly, seem to have a negative attitude towards someone, show a lack of understanding of or disregard for group social norms or make comments that bother someone, then people are more likely to dislike you. These are the basic rules for likability. Being aware of this allows you to intentionally choose how to interact in any group.

Though in many cases, acting in a likable manner is most desirable, there are some times when you might want to choose to act in a contrary manner. In a positive, healthy peer group, there is rarely any reason or need to behave contrarily. However, in a peer group that supports unhealthy lifestyle decisions and shames those who refuse to participate, nonconformity is the best response. A couple of months ago a friend invited me to a holiday barbecue she was hosting. Since I had just met her recently, I didn't know any of her friends and I had no idea what sort of party it would be. She mentioned there would be alcohol, and that certainly didn't bother me. However, when I actually showed up, I found out that it was a very hedonistic sort of party and that most of them were crazy party animals. There was lots of drinking, drug use, smoking and sensual dancing. Lots of people were taking shots of alcohol, and one fellow asked me to take a shot of vodka with him. I immediately declined and told him that I don't do shots. He quickly informed me that it was very disrespectful to refuse to take a shot, and that I was disrespecting him. Confident in my stance and unaffected by his attempts to shame me, I repeated that I don't do shots and then grabbed another hamburger before going to chat with someone else. Though it certainly wasn't my favorite party, I met a couple nice people and had a good time. By the time I left, a couple people liked me, a couple people disliked me and most people still held a neutral opinion of me.

What concerns me more than what other people think of me is how I act. In the case of those who disliked me, they disliked me because I refused to participate in their drunken revelry. However, since I reject their standards of approval and stand by my actions as being wise and righteous, their unfavorable opinion of me carries no weight. I don't care. In this case I didn't go out of my way to show active disapproval of their lifestyle and carnal hedonism, but even supposing I had, there would be nothing wrong with such a course of action. Sometimes righteous living involves a passive rejection of certain worldviews, and sometimes it involves active opposition to certain ways of acting.

Jesus Christ is the prime example of someone who lived intentionally and always acted righteously. Some people loved Him. Some people hated His guts. Some people remained indifferent. Yet, Jesus was never swayed by people's opinions. Instead, He chose to carry out the Father's will in all things and live righteously, without compromise. Jesus never concerned Himself with how likable He was. So, sometimes He dined with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners without shaming or judging them. Other times, He rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism. Sometimes He showed repentant people mercy and exhorted them to walk in the path of righteousness. Other times, he fashioned a whip and drove people out of the temple for disrespecting God's house. Jesus' main goal was righteous, assertive, consistent living. This resulted in Him being fiercely loved and violently hated.

As the moral example for our lives, we should all strive to adopt the same perspective that Jesus had. Right living is the goal. Approval from God is the one thing that should motivate our actions. People's opinions and the approval of our peer group should hold no power over the ways we choose to act and relate to people. The opinions that we should heed are those of role models and authority figures who have wisdom and insight. Parents, close friends, family members, church elders and mentors can offer valuable insights into how we should act and think about life. Everyone else's opinions really don't matter. Feel free to be likable when you want to be, and enjoy nonconformity when the situation calls for it. No matter what you do, be intentional and refuse to compromise your values.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Triviality of Decontextualized Information

Recently, I began reading a book by Neil Postman entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the book, the author looks at how our modern forms of media have fundamentally changed the way people comprehend and converse about their world. In one section, he explains how the advent of the telegraph in America radically changed what sort of news is communicated to the public. Here are some excerpts from the book:
The telegraph may have made the country into "one neighborhood," but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a "global village"), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have consequences; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about crime will do it, if by chance it occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the "information-action ratio."
Not only is most of the information that we hear or read in the news not actionable or practically useful in any way, but I would argue that most of it isn't even interesting. Think about it, if you are someone who pays attention to the news, what percent of it even interests you? Personally, I like to be informed about what is happening in the world, but with the exception of occasional stories of special interest to me, or really significant events that will serve as conversation-pieces for a couple of days, 95% of the news is completely banal and trivial to me. Maybe the first time you hear about a flood decimating a town in Indonesia or the first few times you read about sensational crimes or the second time you hear about negotiations with North Korea over their development of nuclear weapons you might be somewhat interested by the news stories. But by the time you've read about the 79th natural disaster of the year, the 400th sensational murder or the 59th article about the nuclear nonproliferation treaty negotiations with North Korea, you become quite inoculated to it all. When everything is sensational and important, suddenly nothing is sensational or important anymore. Because of this, whenever we find an aggregate of decontextualized information, it is nearly impossible to regard it as anything more than trivial. With minor exceptions, it is irrelevant and uninteresting.

Neil Postman continues:
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines--sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each "headline" stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. "Knowing" the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
Since most news is presented as decontextualized information and since the sender has no obligation to provide an appropriate context, each person is forced to contextualize the information themselves and determine what meaning it does or does not have. Because of the decontextualization of the information, it is always necessarily to recontextualize it in some form, either externally or simply mentally. Given the numerous demands of modern life, most people have neither the time nor the desire to manually recontextualize all the new information funneled to us each day, which leads most people to adopt one of two stances towards news and daily public information. The first option is simply to ignore nearly all new information, operating on the presumption that almost none of it is remotely pertinent or interesting. The second option is to search for a source of recontextualized information.

I believe that people's natural desire for relevant information is one of the reasons why blogs have become so popular in the last few years. According to this 2004 study, at least 15,000 new blogs are created every day. There are many sorts of various blogs, and there are numerous blogging communities that are united by interests in similar topics. Since modern technology has served to blur geographic distinctions, public discourse finds it distinctions not based on location but by topic and interest. In this way, blogs serve a threefold purpose. First of all, they serve to recontextualize information based on topic and offer commentary and interpretation on the pertinent events of the day. There are numerous economic blogs, law blogs, political blogs, philosophical blogs, personal experience blogs, social observation blogs, art-centric blogs and blogs of every other sort imaginable. Each blog owner skims through the news, other blogs, the internet and even there personal life to present information that is relevant and pertinent to their target audience. Secondly, blogs serve as a forum for discussion and debate about the various topics of the day. Most blogs accept and even encourage active commenters, and those who frequent the blog often find themselves sharing their own opinion about the current posts, which then entice other commenters to comment on the comments. Third, because of the way blogs serve as an effective method of recontextualizing information and offering a public forum for discourse, online communities are formed both on a single blog and often in the context of an entire blogosphere of individual blogs who link to other similar ones.

In this way, modern people have found a way to take the decontextualized information that inundates the web and recontextualize it in a way that serves to offer meaning and a clearer interpretation of its significance. The explosion of new blogs would suggest that people are hungry for information, as long as it presents itself in a relevant and interesting way. Additionally, the blogosphere and internet forums offer people a new way to discuss the pressing issues of our days, consider various opinions and even share their own opinions. With the deluge of daily news we have in the Information Age, what is needed is not more information but a filter to remove the useless information and a recontextualization of the information into useful and digestible bites.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Freedom From Religion

Recently, I came across the website of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Currently they are running an ad campaign in San Francisco, displaying bus ads with various quotes by well-known "freethinkers." I have to say, if pithy quotes were the sole determinant of the validity of an argument then these quotes would completely obliterate religion. But, since we live in a world of rationality, empirical verifiability and logic, a witty one-liner packs about as much punch as a napping kitten. Just for fun, let's look at the quotes they chose:

"Faith is believing what you know ain't so." - Mark Twain
Where I come from, we call that ignorance, stupidity and denial. On a more serious note, how do know that Christianity isn't true? To properly claim something is false you must either present reasonable evidence to show that it is false or else show for certain that some antithetical claim is true. Since no-one has yet been able to disprove Christianity, then for this claim to have any base, Mark Twain has yet to show us any alternate explanation for the existence of the universe, for the unity and diversity exhibited therein, for the "mannishness" of man and for the regular divine interventions into human history.

If you are rejecting Christianity simply because you don't have a better answer then you are guilty of making the same irrational leaps of blind faith that you accuse religious people of making.

"I'm an atheist and that's it. I believe that there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people." - Katharine Hepburn
Yet another skeptic who isn't quite skeptical enough. Let me ask a quick question. How do you know that we should be kind to one another? You don't. So, you don't actually believe anything at all... Well, at least that's what you say you believe. Have fun enjoying your life of happy inconsistency. Oh wait... you already did.

"As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from slavery of religion." - Butterfly McQueen
I'm glad you think that. The apostle Paul might disagree with you, but who's to say that he really existed, anyway. Happily, you have my adamant support, since I am libertarian. Believing that freedom is one of God's greatest gifts to mankind, I would fiercely defend your right to remain a slave to sin and condemn yourself to hell. When you're there please send me a postcard. I'm sure the blazing inferno is horrifyingly resplendent!

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction." - Richard Dawkins
Maybe so, but I'd rather have an unpleasant fictitious character than a pompous, blathering, asshole like Richard Dawkins making his living off of mockery, blasphemy and uninspired demagogic literary fluff.

In any case, I definitely see where Richard Dawkins is coming from, and I think his quote is quite insightful. I mean, if I knew of some all-powerful being who wipes out 99% of earth's population when they displease Him, who kills the firstborn sons of stubborn fools who oppose worship, and who afflicts greedy liars with leprosy, and if I happened to fit nicely in all three of those categories, I doubt I'd have such a positive view of God either.

"I don't believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose." - Clarence Darrow
Yeah, sure. And I don't drink water, because I eat carrots. For an attorney, you don't seem to make the best categorical distinctions. I guess the good thing about not believing in religious fairy tales is that you'll never have to experience the clich├ęd fairy tale ending of eternal bliss. Who would want that, anyway?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Healthcare Reform Media Surge

Today, everyone keeping up with the news has been bombarded with stories about the Senate's first cohesive healthcare reform bill, and the alleged desire of the uninsured to have a public plan. The liberal, tyrannical, fact-twisting nature of it all makes me absolutely sick! Here's a little breakdown of some of the goodies we can expect if the bill passes:
The bill by Baucus, Democratic chairman of the Senate panel, would make major changes to the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system, including requiring most people to purchase insurance coverage or pay a fine and prohibiting insurance companies from charging more to people with more serious health problems.

Consumers would be able to shop for and compare insurance plans in a new purchasing exchange. Medicaid would be expanded, and limits would be placed on patients' yearly health care costs. The plan would be paid for with $507 billion in cuts to government health programs and $349 billion in new taxes and fees, including a tax on high-end insurance plans and fees charged to insurance companies and medical device manufacturers.
Clearly, this will hurt people who are presently uninsured and don't want insurance. The new bill will require people to purchase insurance or pay a fine. For some odd reason, I thought that this bill was designed to help the poor, underprivileged, uninsured people, not subject them to spend more of their hard-earned money on things that they may not want, or can't afford. Also, the bill has the nice added bonus of raising taxes and fees. This will likely start putting major pressure on medical providers. With the limits on yearly patients' health care costs, medical providers may not be able to make ends meet. I would not be surprised if an implementation of this bill leads to more medical bankruptcy filings, as we've seen with the flurry of business bankruptcy filings in other sectors of the economy.

Not only is the present bill absolutely horrendous, but both the media and the government have joined forces to spread deception and propagate the message that it is downright immoral that medical providers are profit-seeking companies, since peoples' health is on the line. Of course, any Austrian economist knows that a competitive medical market consisting of for-profit companies can provide cheaper and higher-quality healthcare than any government-run system, but the gatekeepers of public information would rather disseminate lies in order to gain more money and power than they would even lift a finger to try to, God forbid, benefit people's lives. This story encapsulates the attitudes and stances of our liberal media. The headline says, "Uninsured Americans hope reform brings health coverage." In it they quote a 32 year old, former music teacher:
"No insurer will cover me because of my condition," Baty said. "I don't know what Americans feel they would be giving up with a public option. But just from a philosophical standpoint you will never convince me that someone making a profit from my healthcare would make the best decisions on how to treat me."
It's sad that they have to stoop to interviewing people who are philosophically and economically vacuous to present their viewpoint. Anyone who properly understands economics knows that having people competing to take care of you better is a good thing and will result in better care. For-profit companies are personally invested in your well-being, because their financial success depends on them providing quality care at a reasonable cost, so that you, as the consumer, don't take your money elsewhere. Any other sort of company or organization is not personally invested in your well-being, and therefore feels no obligation to provide you with the best. From an economic and philosophical standpoint, I am completely convinced that someone who needs my money to make a profit will do everything in their power to obtain and keep my business.

Regarding lowering the cost of healthcare there is one thing that liberals either forget or conveniently ignore. Liberal agendas are always very tempting and attractive to uninformed citizens because they promise people what the people want. What do people want? Here is a hierarchy of desires, from most desirable to least desirable:

1. Free stuff
2. Cheap stuff
3. Ordinarily-priced stuff, as long as it is affordable
4. Expensive stuff, on rare occasions

Therefore, when liberals offer people free stuff, or cheaper stuff, it all sounds good. Those who neglect one basic principle will happily vote for more free and cheap stuff. The principle is:

Nothing is ever truly free.

The corollary to this principle is: Cheap stuff is either cheap for a reason, or it is not truly cheap.

In the BraveNewWorldOrder that liberals are promising, everyone will have everything they want provided for them by the government. But, there is a reason why conservatives, libertarians and intelligent people are actively opposing this push toward more free stuff. It is because the price tag is much higher than it appears. Someone has to pay for everything. Either someone has to pay for it now, or we can do it on credit and pay tomorrow. But, one way or the other, the price must be paid. For this reason, the present incarnation of the bill has almost zero Republican support. As the news story says:
In the end, Democrats believe Snowe may be the only Republican to support the bill, though she wasn't ready to commit her support.

"This partisan proposal cuts Medicare by nearly a half-trillion dollars, and puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses, to create yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar government program," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Only in Washington would anyone think that makes sense, especially in this economy."
I quite agree with that last statement. Only in the land of the corrupt and the power-hungry does it make sense to penalize those who can't afford or don't want health insurance. Only in the land of delusion and fool's gold does anyone believe that higher taxes, more fees and artificially capped costs will ever result in a better life for its inhabitants. But, with the American zeitgeist of entitlement no-one wants to be told that they can't have more free stuff!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Electric Guitar Experience

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to play bass at a church in Oakland, since the regular bass player was out of town. Since playing bass is one of my favorite things to do, I happily agreed. After the service, the worship leader asked me if I played any other instruments. A week later, he called me up to see if I wanted to play electric guitar during their morning service. Although I have played bass and acoustic guitar in public settings more times than I can count, I've never played electric guitar in any sort of live performance. My sense of adventure and natural enjoyment of challenges drove me to quickly volunteer.

There were a couple of challenges that I immediately knew I had to face. First of all, while most instruments roles and stylistic choices are fairly simple, electric guitar is a different sort of beast. When you're playing bass, no matter what sort of music you are playing, you have to focus on harmonic grounding and groove definition. The bass notes serves as clear cues to the listener of where the music is, harmonically, and where it is going. The interplay with the drums and the rhythms you use serve to clearly define the groove and provide a foundation for the rest of the band. Likewise, with acoustic guitar, simple strummed chords is all you need to play. Playing any open-flavored voicing of any chord works like magic. Electric guitar is different because of several things. First of all, since it a low-mid range instrument with potential to play some upper register notes, the very harmonic range gives it more prominence than other instruments. Secondly, the amplified nature of electric guitars gives it the most potential for prominence based on volume. Third, the vast array of effects that can used to process the sound and the ubiquitous use of effects leads listeners to expect not simply interesting playing but also interesting sorts of sounds. Because of these three factors, the electric guitar has more natural prominence, role flexibility and stylistic options than any other common instrument.

Now, in this particular instance, I wasn't sure what sort of stylistic trappings the worship leader would want. Would the guitar play a prominent role, or would it be a more subtle mixing? Should my playing lean more towards a modern rock flavor with plenty of distortion, or should I keep it clean and mellow? Should I focus on simple chords, or focus on writing and playing interesting lead parts that add more interest and depth to the music? In addition to the uncertainty I had regarding my particular role for this performance, I also didn't have a chance to seriously look at the charts themselves or practice them until late on Saturday night--just hours before the worship service.

In preparation for the gig, I knew that the most important thing I could do was set up all my tones and effects so that I could easily switch between them. I spent about an hour tinkering with four different sounds, tweaking them until they sounded good, and adjusting the volume levels so that I wouldn't have to worry about suddenly being too loud or too soft. I figured that I would use a nice, warm, clean guitar tone with a touch of reverb for my main bread and butter tone. A fatter tone with a bit of chorus and delay would sound pretty for some mellow leads. For my third one, I crafted a tone with a bit of crunch that would work well if I needed to rock out a bit. Lastly, I decided to prepare a harmonically rich lead tone, overdriven sufficiently in case I needed to play a solo.

When Sunday morning came, I was feeling pretty tired, so I juiced up with a nice cup of black coffee. During practice I wasn't quite feeling the magic. We played this weird version of Blessed Assurance in 4/4 (the original hymn is in 3/4, and that's what I've played in the past), and it kept throwing me off. After a few songs of practice and a few suggestions from the worship leader, I finally had a clear idea of what he was looking for stylistically. Since there were 6 people in the band and lots of backing vocals, he wanted most of the instruments to be fairly subtle and only stand out occasionally. For our offertory song, we rocked out a little more with an uplifting number called, "Can't Bring Me Down." The original recording had a really fun organ lick that I liked, and since we had no keyboard player in the band, I decided to play the lead lick on my guitar. It sounded really awesome, and the band leader really liked it!

The worship time itself was by far my favorite part of the day! Having worked out all the kinks during practice, I was feeling ready, excited and confident. All of the songs sounded really great! I especially loved the beautiful melodies that Eric played on viola. It's not everyday that you have classical string instruments used for worship. The use of strings adds a rich emotional dimensions that other instruments just can't convey. And of course, my favorite song to play was "Can't Bring Me Down." It's always fun to rock out more, and the song has such a jubilant, joyful spirit that I couldn't help but rejoice! Besides, as a musician, solos are almost always my favorite part of performing a song. For a first time playing electric guitar live, it was a highly encouraging experience! I can't wait to do it again in the near future!

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Social Tact: Bluntness vs. Ambiguity

Recently, a friend was asking me for advice. He is a pretty amazing guy who happens to have a lot of friends who are girls. In this instance he wasn't feeling good about a particular friendship and decided that he wanted to end the friendship. In pondering the best way to end the friendship, he asked for my advice about how to handle it. There were two main objectives that he had: he wanted to be very clear in stating that he was not interested in continuing any sort of friendship, but he wanted to communicate it in a way that would be respectful and not leave her feeling hurt or rejected.

Of course, to me those seem to be mutually exclusive goals. If you want to be direct and convey that you no longer want to be friends with someone, it's virtually impossible to do that in a nice way. It's easy to add some true statements such as, "I think you're a really nice person", "You have a lot of great traits", or "It's not because I dislike you." However, all of these will come across as disingenuous. Whether you actually mean them or not, all the other person will hear is: "You don't meet my standards for friendship, so I don't want to have anything to do with you." Additionally, attempting to add any such qualifiers to your message will demonstrate lower social value, since they make your message less assertive and make you sound like more of a sycophant.

If you take any sort of direct route in your communication of a breakup (either in a friendship or a romantic relationship), there is virtually no way to prevent hurt feelings. If the other person was invested in the relationship, they will feel hurt. Period. The only choice you have is how you will be perceived in the interaction. Clear, assertive and unapologetic communication will convey strong leadership, social dominance and personal confidence. Mixed messages, excessive qualification or emotionally-catering communication will convey lack of a spine, lack of confidence and a subtext that you are looking for external validation. Which way would you rather be perceived? I'll take the strong and masculine way any day, even if it does border on insensitive.

Alternately, if you prefer to take a less confrontational and emotionally volatile approach, then an indirect route might be a better choice. This route takes less courage and emotional fortitude, but it does subject you to less negative interactions and lower the chances of more substantial fallout. Additionally, it has the bonus of plausible deniability. If you would rather not end a friendship directly, you can simply flake more often, cease to initiate interactions, and selectively ignore/avoid contact. If your friend tries to call you out on any of that, you can give any one of a thousand reasons for why you've been distant. Supposing you are a genuinely busy or social person, then your excuses will sound quite reasonable since they are completely true.

Anyway, no matter how you approach the dissolution of a friendship, there are no nice ways to go about it. It seems that handling things directly or indirectly are your only two options. The direct approach is virtually guaranteed to hurt your ex-friends feelings and self-esteem. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe there are dozens of nice, positive, upliftings ways to say, "I don't ever want to see you again."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Unexpected Phone Call

On Friday afternoon, I was feeling quite happy to finish work early. With a 40% off coupon in my hand, I was blissfully browsing Borders, looking for an interesting new book to buy. While looking at various books in the psychology section, my phone rang. The number was one that I did not recognize, and, drawn by curiosity, I answered it.

The voice on the other end asked, "Is this Silas?"
I said, "Yes."
He continued, "Do you live in apartment 151 at Summerwood?"
Again, I said, "Yes. What is this about?"
With a flat tone he said, "Your apartment has been broken into. How soon can you get here?"
Slightly taken aback by what he had just said, I replied that I would be there in about a half an hour.

Part of me still wanted to find a fantastic book to buy, but the urgency of the situation forced me to hurry home. I quickly called my roommate, Dominic, and then high-tailed it home. While driving home I was trying to determine what sort of emotional stance I should adopt. Part of me felt angry and violated. How could people just break into my apartment! It seemed so wrong, so foreign to my nature. Part of me was frustrated that I hadn't brought my laptop with me to work. Part of me thought, "It's just stuff, I should just adopt a stoical attitude to it all." But, being divided is always the worst mental stance, so I decided to focus on the injustice of the situation and fully embrace my rightful anger.

Upon arriving at my apartment, I saw that our door had been smashed in, and splinters of wood were strewn all over the ground and carpet. The wall had a gaping hole in it, where the doorknob had smashed it. Dom had arrived a bit before me and assessed our losses. The thieves stole all three of our laptops, the PS2, our Guitar Hero controllers, Dom's iPod and dock, and my collection of DS video games. I felt really angry and pissed off at the damn thieves!

Then I saw something that made me laugh. On the mini-dresser next to my bed, I always put my spare coins. I rarely ever use pennies, nickels or dimes, and so there were a ton of random coins heaped up on the dresser. While the theives were mostly stealing valuable consumer electronics, worth hundreds of dollars, for some reason one of them decided he wanted my coins. I can imagine the dialog must have gone something like this:

Thief 1: Sweet! Here's another laptop. We are scoring big time on this place!
Thief 2: Hey, look over there. There's a bunch of coins. We've hit the jackpot!
Thief 1: Coins? Really?
Thief 2: Yeah, man. Maybe we can hit up a vending machine and get some candy bars once we're done here.
Thief 1: Dang straight! Grab them all!

Apparently they are as thorough as they are brilliant... there were quite a few nickels, dimes and pennies sprinkled on the floor of my room. The Summerwood maintenance fellow, Cliff, showed up and hung out with us while we waited for the police to arrive. Apparently, two other apartments had been robbed around the same time. For insurance purposes, I took pictures of the door, to prove forcible entry. For the most part, the excitement of the moment had past and now the inconvenience of the situation entered play. Talking to the police, filing a report, calling my insurance company and beginning the processing of planning to replace needed items aren't especially exciting.

However, the philosophical impacts of the theft have been enlightening. The odd thing about negative and traumatic events is that they always force you to reconsider your perspective on life, at least in some small degree. Stepping outside myself to consider my own thoughts and reactions to everything yielded some interesting observations:

First of all, I realized that I felt a lot more upset that people broke into my apartment than that they stole things. To me, the injustice of the thieves’ actions bothered me far more than any loss that I suffered. The fact that they violated my abode is absolutely unconscionable! They deserve a harsh thrashing!

Secondly, my emotional reaction showed me that my life focus is not primarily materialistic and possessions-oriented. My mindset towards possessions is that they are both highly fungible and highly ephemeral. Nothing lasts, and nothing that I have is ever truly secure. Additionally, all of it is easily replaceable.

Third, to some degree, the robbery reminded me that any item is only as valuable as it is functional. If I am using a $1,000 laptop to do things that only require a $300 one, then I would be better off having a cheaper laptop and a little more cash. A corollary to that principle is that anything I don't actively use has a practical value of $0, rendering my ownership of it completely immaterial.

Fourth, from a social perspective, it is more valuable to have an interesting story and a new connection point than it is to have a few little electronic trinkets.

All things considered, I think the whole robbery might have been a win-win scenario. The thieves gained some proceeds from their ill-gotten gains. I have a new story to tell, some fresh observations about life and I'll be getting a little money from my insurance company. However, most importantly I have learned the following theft-prevention technique. Scattering enough loose change around your apartment will distract thieves so much that they will forget to steal anything of value. The more dimes, nickels and pennies you have strewn across your shelves, counters, tables and floors, the better!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Correlation Between Women Working and Lower Wages

Earlier this week, I posted a controversial blog advocating gender-based discrimination in the workplace. My argument was that, because of the economic and social losses to society that result from women working, businesses should be free to choose to hire men over women. When I was talking with a friend about my argument, he suggested that I gather some data and put together an econometric study to see if the facts support my hypothesis that having more women in the workforce does actually result in lower relative wages. His idea was quite brilliant. Yesterday, I spent several hours pulling data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Census Bureau and numerous other official and academic sources. After accumulating the data, I assembled it all into a series of spreadsheets and performed some basic statistical analysis. For anyone who is interested, you are welcome to download my study. My study looks at the increasing percentage of women in the workforce, the increase in real GDP and the increase in wages, from 1948 through 2007. Real dollars are all indexed based on a 2005 level of inflation.

Note: The following section contains a bit of dry numbers and economic data. If you are not economically inclined, feel free to skip down to my summary.

(Click on graph to see full-size image)

This graph shows the growth in US population, the growth in the workforce, and the number of men and women employed during each year. In 1948, 41.7 million men were employed compared to 16.6 million women. In 2007, 78.2 million men were employed compared to 67.8 million women. This means that the male labor force grew by 88% in 59 years, while the female labor force grew by 308% in the same period. Total population growth was 108%. This illustrates that women entered the workforce at a dramatically high rate, far outpacing natural gains due to population growth. My analysis is that this mass entrance of women into the labor market directly resulted from the changing social values in America. More specifically, feminism is one of the leading causes of the dramatic change of the workforce composition.

(Click on graph to see full-size image)

This chart narrows the focus to the aforementioned composition of the workforce. In 1948, men composed 71.52% of the workforce, while women accounted for 28.48%. In 2007, men made up 53.58% of the workforce, while women held the remaining 46.42% of the jobs. The ratio of men to women went from 2.5:1 to 1.15:1 during the study period. For every one man who joined the workforce, three women also joined. This trend lasted unbroken from 1954 to 2004.

(Click on graph to see full-size image)

Here we are looking at the growth in average production per worker (real GDP divided by workforce size), average wage income, and real GDP per capita. Our nation has grown substantially richer since 1948, both in current dollars and in real dollars. The raw profitability of each worker has skyrocketed with our increases in technology and improvements in labor methods. Wages have also grown in the same period, although not at the same rate as profitability. From 1948-1974, profitability and wages rose at similar rates, but a major change occurs following that period. Since businesses exist to earn profit, they seek to generate the most money, while paying as little wages as possible. During the period from 1948-1974, average wages varied from 69.15% to 76.84% of average worker productivity. In simpler terms, on average, workers were paid about 73% of the value they contributed to the economy. Since 1974, worker productivity has grown faster than wages, resulting in a steady decline in relative wages, down to the 61% of contributed value that is paid in wages to workers today.

(Click on graph to see full-size image)

These are the raw values for the workforce composition and the average wage expressed as a percentage of average worker productivity. Wages rates fluctuate somewhat wildly in the 24 year period from 1948-1974 while maintaining a slight upward trend, and then consistently fall from 1974-2007. For more clarity I created a second version of this graph, which plots the polynomial trendlines of each variable.

(Click on graph to see full-size image)

The trendlines show the changes that are happening in a smoother and clearer fashion. As my previous charts showed, the percentage of women in the workplace has steadily risen, changing the fundamental composition of the workforce. Likewise, the percentage of men in the workplace has decreased, at a parallel rate. Meanwhile, though relative wages increased slightly from 1948-1974, they have consistently decreased since then. Presently, relative wages are 12 points lower than they were during the 1948-1974 period, which is a 15% decrease in relative wages. Unsurprisingly, lower relative wages is precisely the sort of effect we should expect to see, when applying Austrian economic theory to the labor market. Allow me to explain.

Economic theory centers around the concept of scarcity. Things have their value in direct correlation to the scarcity and desirability. The equilibrium price for any good or service is found where the demand and supply curves meet. All other factors held constant, there is typically an increase in price when a good or service becomes more scarce, or when demand increases. Likewise, all other factors held constant, prices decrease when a good or service becomes more abundant, or when demand decreases. Therefore, if supply increases faster than demand, prices fall. This is precisely how the labor market functions. Businesses determine the demand for labor, and workers applying for jobs determine the labor supply. When women join the workforce and apply for jobs there is increased labor supply. If the increase of demand for jobs does not keep pace with the increased supply of labor, then the price of labor (wages) falls.

Therefore, what we see happening in the graph is that initially, in the period from 1948-1974, demand for workers rose faster than supply, even with the influx of women into the job market. Because demand was rising faster than supply, there was a mild increase in relative wages. However, somewhere around 1972 market saturation was reached, and from that point on the labor supply grew faster than demand. Since women are the largest addition to the labor market, supplying 2.2 times more additional labor than men (after adjusting for normal labor supply growth due to population increase), it is clear that their addition to the workforce directly impacted relative wages. This is a completely normal and natural economic effect. When supply competition increases, prices fall. Economic theory would suggest that women joining the workforce en masse would cause wages to fall, and the historical data illustrates that indeed, as more and more women entered the job market, wages did fall, after a short period of lag.

Though correlation does not imply causation, we can clearly establish that there is a direct correlation between women joining the workforce and a drop in relative wages. As the percentage of women in the workforce increased from 28% to 46%, an 18% increase from 1948 to 2007, relative wages for all workers fell from 72% to 61%, a 15% cumulative drop from 1948 to 2007. During the period from 1948-1974, the average national employment was 38% of the nation, while during 1997-2007, the average national employment was 48%. This means that more people are working, but they are making lower relative wages than in 1948. In 2007, the average income was $55,680 real dollars. If relative wages were paid at the 1948 rate, the average income in 2007 would be $65,720 real dollars. This means that an 18% increase of women composing the workforce can be correlated with a 15% decrease in relative wages.

Based on this evidence, I would suggest that even neglecting the additional costs incurred by women working instead of remaining at home, there is a clear correlation suggesting that the economic effects of more women working results in monetary detriment to all workers. Though there are numerous economic factors involved, making it impossible to determine the precise impact of a higher percentage of females in the workforce, the economic impact is clearly sizable, probably resulting in at least $10,000 less average wages per year for today's workers, both men and women.

Editor's Note: If anyone knows where I can find Labor Statistics prior to 1948, I would be much obliged if you linked me to them. I would love to expand my study to 1913-2009.