Category Archives: Current Events

Current Events Opinion Science

Economics and What? A Response to Rob Johnson.

Many economist’s only job is to model reality. This means that they must make certain assumptions to make their models practical. A model airplane that can fly and carry passengers ceases to be a model. Apparently, the modeling nature of economics is lost on one of its most senior practitioners, and critics. Rob Johnson, currently president of the “Institute for New Economic Thinking” and former Chief Economist for the Senate’s Banking Committee. In an article posted on May 14 to Yahoo! Finance, Mr. Johnson claimed that economics had become inhuman. Criticizing economic’s  ideal of objectivity, he claimed that “Without admitting it, or even worse, at times without even knowing it, economists make powerful value judgments about what matters in our society.”

Of course that much is true. Economists often must measure, quantitatively, things that may not be easily measured. And, predictably, they offer up a model to do this. I fail to see how we could expect more of them, given what we have asked them to do. But economics is useful precisely to the extent that it is inhuman. Rather that equivocate on the emotional and philosophical definition of value, economists allow us to compare things in terms everyone understands: money. Estimates of how much people value their own lives prove extremely useful in determining the usefulness of government spending on safety. But that it is an estimate must be emphasized. Economists do not professionally speculate on the “true” value of human life, that’s what all the other humanities are for.

So you can imagine my chagrin when Mr. Johnson shamelessly advertised his own brilliant reformation of the field: the New Economic Thinking’s “Economics and Theology” series, which he saved for the third to last paragraph. What could be more sensible, than to induce collaboration among have those who spend their lives measuring out evidence as precisely as they can, and making some of the most qualified and precise claims of any intellectuals, with those who persuade through fear and blatant appeals to the aptly sheeplike congregation. What could the ancient sophists possibly add to the discussion of economies? Will they propose adding eternal damnation as an opportunity cost for condoms? This is barely jest, for Mr. Johnson claims that “leading theologians… are used to thinking about life’s ultimate concerns.” Nonsense is far too kind a word, pernicious opportunistic pandering is closer to the mark. I hope Mr. Johnson’s series goes off swimmingly, and people talk of it for ages to come. I hope the theocrats catch of whiff of the standard of evidence to which the Queen of the Humanities holds itself.

References

Johnson, Rob. “Creating an Economics for the 21st Century” Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved 5/14/2013 http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/creating-economics-21st-century-223645471.html

 

Activism Current Events Opinion

PT Kizone’s New Bankruptcy Trial

I can only barely conceal my melancholy at the issues on which the illustrious students of Grand Valley State University seize. The United Students Against Sweatshops has recently been the most prominent litigator, yet it seems no one has had the wherewithal to ask what sweatshops in Indonesia have to do with contracts in the U.S. This is not a trick question. The USAS is protesting GVSU’s contract with Adidas, on the grounds of a particularly emotional case regarding PT Kizone, a clothing manufacturer in Indonesia. PT Kizone did supply Adidas. What’s conveniently unmentioned is that PT Kizone also sold “collegiate apparel” (dumbass sports jingoism) for Nike, and similarly useless products for the Dallas Cowboys. Adidas is only one customer, and no convincing argument has been made to link the PT Kizone debacle to the Adidas-GVSU contract. Forget the dwindling space program, the increasingly useless investments our government makes, and our crumbling infrastructure, GVSU students need to take to the streets to rectify the injustices of an Indonesian bankruptcy court!

Photo by Robert Matthews

I will not present any illusions that I am an expert in Indonesian business law, but since this is apparently the problems the liberal-arts students of Grand Valley concern themselves with, I found a report from 2006 that provided some clarity:

 

An employment relationship may be terminated by either the employer (the company) or the appointed receiver [the creditor], subject to the provisions of the prevailing labour laws, provided that at least a 45 days’ notice is sent before the termination… The new law also clearly provides that after the date of the declaration of bankruptcy, any unpaid salary prior to or after the declaration of the bankruptcy decision will be a part of the debt of the bankruptcy estate. (Mandala, S. 2006, pp. 4-5)

 

I’ll remind the dear reader that I am not arguing PT Kizone’s bankruptcy was handled ideally. But I doubt that it was handled illegally by Adidas. PT Kizone is not owned by Adidas, in fact, the owner fled the country after closing the plant (Brettman, A. 2013). As far as I’m aware, what debts get paid, and what don’t, is decided by that infamous Indonesian bankruptcy court. Not, say, twenty students and their solidarity outside Kirkhoff.

Which raises an impolite question for the the former employees of PT Kizone: why aren’t you handling this in Indonesia? The salient students bemoan the loss of “legally” mandated severance pay (Brettman, A. 2013), but if the issue is a legal one it has no business in American universities. Similarly, what about the legal obligations the universities have to Adidas? I could not find the GVSU-Adidas contract, but I very much doubt it requires Adidas to pay the severance fees of companies it buys clothing from. Not that that stopped anyone, because of this unwanted attention, Adidas is compensating 2,700 ex-employees of PT Kizone (“Victory,” 2013).

I suppose no one should be surprised that a private company bowed to unwanted political pressure, or that many universities did the same. Institutions aren’t known for sticking up for the unpopular. But I am surprised by what University students are bothered. Our congress can’t pass a bill to make gun control laws consistent for gun shows and gun shops. First New York flooded, then Grand Rapids did. We’re at war for who knows what, and terrorist’s internet magazines have Inspired lone-wolf attacks on U.S soil. It’s not the conversation I find problematic, but that this seems to be the only one.

References

Brettman, A. 2013. Adidas settles with Indonesian workers over PT Kizone. The Oregon. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/playbooks-profits/index.ssf/2013/04/adidas_settles_with_indonesian.html

Mandala, S. 2006. INDONESIAN BANKRUPTCY LAW: AN UPDATE. OECD. pp. 4-5. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/indonesia/38184160.pdf

VICTORY! “Badidas” Campaign Forces Adidas to Respect Indonesian Garment Worker Rights. 2013. Retrieved from http://usas.org/tag/pt-kizone/

 

Current Events Ethics Opinion

Controversial Opinions; or Free Speech

Taken from the Westboro Baptist Church's website with permission on January 6, 2013.
Only the people who really hate Philistines can ride on top.

Panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, is Juvenal’s now common idiom for the means to appease the people. Full bellies and something obnoxiously loud -yet meaningless- will keep the vulgar masses quiet, and in this glorious 21st century, neither are in short supply. But a populace distracted by loud but tolerable circuses is not concerned with true free speech, they are concerned with those trolls that defy the majority. Recent examples abound. The Westboro Baptist Church, the film the Innocence of Muslims, and atheists and antitheists in general, who so annoyingly scrutinize our religious opinions. It takes sober thought to realize the importance of defending these aggravating examples of free speech. In the next few days I’ll argue for the defense of the right to be heard for each of these groups, beginning with the least redeemable; Westboro.

People do not have the right to prevent others from offending them. If someone insults you in public, no moral person would defend your right to use violence in any fashion to . Yet this is exactly what we would have our government do. If we restrict the marketplace of ideas we enforce the majorities’ views with force, rather than reason. Any proposition that denies the right to speak to the Westboro is something that must be opposed as a matter of principle.

Westboro attracts attention by saying outrageous things. They are, in the intertubes lingua franca, trolling. They certainly believe the things they say, as they can be backed up by scripture, but that doesn’t detract from the only reason they make the news; they are hitting America’s soft spots. It is tempting to silence these fools with the weight of the law, as that is the easiest solution. A simple majority shows up for an election and then our police force recovers our peace of mind. But in doing so we have extended our government’s reach, albeit slightly, on the only area of free speech that matters, that is, the controversial part.

The ease of a legal solution to this problem does not make in the best solution; and there are alternatives. The Patriot Guard Riders will counter-protest quietly and respectfully anywhere the Westboro dares to show up, and without any legal ramifications. There was a similar result at the funeral of a fellow former resident of Holland, a Navy Seal named Daniel Price, thousands lined the streets with flags in a touching, if slightly jingoistic, display of solidarity.*  The turnout was helped in part by the foreknowledge of Westboro’s presence, and any harmful effect they could have had on the family of the deceased was negated.

I hope I have made a case against legally doing away with unscrupulous opinions. Everyone entertains unpopular opinions. People on this blog are likely to have one of the most hated of them: that of the nontheist. But this kind of independent persuasion makes discussions and life more interesting. Allowing dissent will create, by the process of argument, new opinions that are a closer approximation of observable evidence. And anyone who questions the popular theistic conceptions of the godhead appreciates closer approximations of reality. But unfortunately,  the government is not the only entity capable of suppressing unpopular opinions, and I will come back to that in the next essay.

 * The local report on Daniel Price’s funeral can be found here.

Activism Current Events Ethics Opinion

Against Kate Middleton et al

from: http://pandawhale.com/post/10555/my-penis-works-celebrate-peasants

Kate Middleton’s predictable but nonetheless depressing rise to fame only adds insult to the great injury that is pseudo-monarchy. Almost as inexplicable as the stupidity of the American two-party system, but surely stupider, is the United Kingdom’s love affair with a particular rich family who is openly paid to be rich. She mocks us with her trivial celebrations, and we proles relish the opportunity to worship her. Now, she has gone and done the most typical possible thing a human can do: she has reproduced. And to continue this most excellent resistance to millions of years of evolution her face again is exploding all through the intertubes. As if the pretentious, superfluous, and ostentatious display of unearned wealth that was her wedding wasn’t enough.

Middleton’s new royal estate is publicly funded, and worse yet, publicly honored. The royal family serves no real purpose for the United Kingdom’s government, and certainly not one proportional to the honors “Her Majesties’” government bestows upon it. I am in no way the first to have pointed this out either. It’s perfectly obvious to anyone standing beyond the fool’s haze of tradition that the best possible government does not include a facade of tyranny.

Marx called religion the opiate of the people. And we, as skeptics, have already stepped back from tradition and recognized faith’s grim role. I suggest that we again make use of this capability when considering the royal family, however pretty and polite they may appear. Giving the people their opiates in the form of a skeuomorphic government has numerous consequences; not the least of which is glorifying a decrepit regime of servility. What bothers me most is, every moment that the international conversation is about these useless figureheads is a moment the meaningful conversations are neglected for the sake of inane babble.

For example, the title of this article by Jane Hamilton is Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton boosts UK’s economy.* What Hamilton of course means, as is more clear in the article, as that demand for specific fashion items has risen dramatically because of our obsession with the young Duchess. That is not at all the same thing as boosting an economy. The world’s resources were redistributed to imitate Middleton, she did not create new resources, the economy was not “boosted”, except for the savings she doubtlessly annihilated.

The only rational response, then, is to not only endeavor to truly end the reign, regardless of how ineffectual it is, of the English tyrants. Doing this in the state is not enough, but removing them from the discussions of the interesting is necessary as well. Why should we waste any more of humanities’ precious and scarce resources on the pompous symbols of a darker time?

 *Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton boosts UK’s economy by Jane Hamilton, (1/10/2012, The Sun) <http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4049338/.html>

Activism Current Events Ethics

On Forgiving the Homophobia from Christianity

These signs were displayed at Motor City Pride 2012, in June.
Apologetics?

Everyone has been glad to see these photos. It seems we are meant to be touched by this meager penance. Their new tolerant god lends flexibility to the charlatans’ bigotry. A flexibility, I must add, that has been employed before; with the geocentric theory, creationism, and nationalism. Each time, the policies logically derived from their sacred text are rescinded by a retreat from that same text.

But forgive them, they ask. Very well, let us consider what reasonable terms we can accept this forgiveness. Most Christians, for most of their history, persecuted people because of a private sexual preference. I am particularly reminded of the case of Alan Turning, who, upon being given a choice between a hormone therapy that would have caused him to grow breasts, and suicide, chose death. But how can we assure this type of thing never happens again? By first understanding why they did this in the first place, and this is because their sacred text, the Bible, very clearly lists Homosexuality as an abominable sin.

I can already hear the objections.

“God is love!”

Irrelevant, the scriptures damn sin as all but unforgivable. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read the story of Korah, or Jesus’ remarks on lukewarm water. (A phrase I particularly resent.)

“That was just the Old Testament!”

What other great moral guideline of the Old Testament was forgotten when Jesus returned? True, some minor laws that the Pharisees had extrapolated were forgotten by Jesus, for example when he allegedly worked on the Sabbath by healing someone. But the definitions of appropriate sexuality were never challenged, and why should we simply assume they have been abandoned because of Jesus’ return? Why keep the Old Testament at all if we can assume such things? If I am wrong, and there is a specific annulment of the laws against homosexuality in the Bible, I am ignorant of it. The reality is, again, proof of the corruption of the system of belief that is Christianity, and we are again incapable of seeing it for what it is. These people’s religious beliefs are immoral. They could not leave other people’s sexual habits alone, because their book plainly told them not to. Now, they abandon the book with all the usual casuistry. They’ve pulled this card before, with evolution, and with heliocentric theory, and with women’s suffrage, and with the abolitionists. But, if we convinced people to abandon the book, rather than just the unfashionable parts, how could they criticize the gay pride movement?

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for gays to be able to get married.”
“Why?”
“It will weaken marriage by weakening the definition of marriage. Without such strict terms for marriage, it loses its poignance.”
“So the sanctity of an individual’s marriage is determined by that marriage’s peers? Further, the simple admission of a possibility of a marriage outside your social group’s definition of a marriage will cause this? If that’s true, the marriage was impossibly fragile to begin with, and therefore doomed.”
“It is objectively not right. People are harmed.”
“Whom?”
“The children.”
“They are empirically not. There are many examples of high-achieving children with gay parents.”
“The people in the marriage are harmed.”
“They are consenting adults, what evidence can you put forth to justify the disregard of their personal choices?”

There isn’t any. I cannot continue this hypothetical debate because it requires an impossible standard of evidence to justify an anti-homosexual standpoint. Yet, apparently, we would prefer to retain this fabricated and ancient conglomeration of myths that is absolutely proven to be capable of justifying the use of slaves, and the interruptions of consenting adults’ personal lives.

So no, I will not forgive you, until you admit not only you were wrong, but show me you understand why you were wrong.

 

Activism Current Events Link News

Tell Obama to Pressure Indonesia to free Alexander Aan!

If you are an atheist and have ever expressed your offensive views online, you would be a criminal in Indonesia.

Such is the case for Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist currently serving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence for posting blasphemous statements in an atheist group on Facebook.  He also has to pay a fine amounting to about $10,000 US, and has received numerous death threats from Islamic fundamentalists calling for his head on a platter.

This outrageous case has received a fair amount of attention within the atheist community, prompting a protest outside the Indonesian embassy by the Center for Inquiry earlier this month.

Not all of Aan’s supporters here in the US could make it to New York City for the protest, but now there’s something that all of us can do: sign this petition to the White House urging President Obama to take a stand for religious freedom and tell the Indonesian government to let Aan go.

Like all “We the People” petitions on the White House website, it needs 25,000 digital signatures in order to end up on the President’s desk.  Go sign it now!  Atheism should not be a crime anywhere.

Current Events Religion Science

Don’t take freedom of speech for granted – Blasphemy Rights Day

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, as designated by the Center for Inquiry (see Astrid’s previous post for some of the history behind it). It used to be called Blasphemy Day; the word “Rights” was inserted to more accurately represent the purpose behind it.

It’s not about infidels and apostates having a day to antagonize people who still hold religious beliefs. It’s not about members of a mainstream religion ritualistically taunting and harassing people of a minority faith. It’s not about goading religious extremists into a murderous rage.

It’s about people who value freedom of speech raising awareness of how easily that freedom can be trampled upon. It’s about recognizing that as another set of claims in the marketplace of ideas, religion should not be immune from the same scrutiny, criticism, and satire that we freely apply to other forms of speech. It’s about believing that offending someone’s religious sensibilities is not a crime.

Chances are that right now as you read this, you are committing blasphemy against someone’s religion. It might be the clothes or jewelry you’re wearing. It might be a symbol or phrase you have tattooed on your skin. It might be the person you are in a relationship with or are attracted to. It might be the “unclean” food digesting in your stomach right now.

Forbidden food AND irreverence to a revered tale! It's sacrilicious!

It might be the lighthearted joke you made about a traditional practice. It might be the way you celebrate a certain holiday. It might be the particular translation of your religion’s holy book that you read. It might be a recent (or centuries old) scientific discovery that you now know as fact.

It might be the fact that you find a particular supernatural claim so absurd that you snicker at the very idea of it.

His Merriness will not be mocked!

The bottom line is that someone somewhere believes that their god hates what you’re doing right now, and that person would be deeply offended to know that you’re doing it so brazenly. In some parts of the world, that makes you a criminal who deserves fines, imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty.

If you live in a country where treating religion with anything short of veneration is legal, consider yourself lucky. Don’t take freedom of speech for granted.

Activism Current Events Ethics History News Religion

9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

It has become almost cliché to say that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor or Kennedy assassination of our generation.  Ten years later, nearly all of us remember what we were doing the moment we heard the news.  The day is seared into our collective memory not simply due to the emotional impact of the moment, but because of the startling realization that our lives would never again be the same.

The events of that day profoundly affected our way of life. Not just foreign policy or airline safety standards, but also our sense of security and our relationship to fellow human beings. For many people, it even changed their relationship with their god and religion.

The American Humanist Association’s most recent newsletter features one woman’s story of how 9/11 influenced her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. Diqui LaPenta, a biology professor in northern California, tells of losing her boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, on Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

…My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

Diqui isn’t the only one that felt compelled to be more forthright about her atheism after 9/11. As the CNN Belief Blog points out, the religious nature of the attacks provided the impetus for many atheists to come out of the closet and openly criticize previously unassailable religious beliefs.

Atheists were driven to become more vocal because of the 9/11 attacks and America’s reaction, says David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He says many atheists were disgusted when President George W. Bush and leaders in the religious right reacted to the attack by invoking “God is on our side” rhetoric while launching a “war on terror.”

They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another, he says.

“It really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion,” Silverman says.

Atheists are still the most disparaged group in America, but there’s less stigma attached to being one, he says.

“The more noise that we make, the easier it us to accept us,” Silverman says. “Most people know atheists now. They knew them before, but didn’t know they were atheists.”

In fact, atheists have gained so much public acceptance that David Silverman gave a public address this morning on the main steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, in an event hosted by the PA Nonbelievers.

While some atheists began speaking out, others began writing. As Newsweek reports, Sam Harris began writing his bestselling The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 – directly in response to the attacks.  Harris’s recent blog post on the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks succinctly summarizes his perspective on the distance we have left to travel:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

On the other hand, while some atheists began speaking out in public and openly critiquing religious ideas, others saw the attacks as a call for greater unity and love.  Chris Stedman, a Fellow for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, will be honoring those lost by spending today packaging 9,110 meals to be distributed to hungry children in Massachusetts.  As he stated recently in Washingtion Post’s On Faith:

9/11 will live on forever in our nation’s memory. We suffered an incomprehensible loss at the hands of extremists who believed that religious diversity must end in violence. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can counter them with our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can act on our shared values and learn-from and with one another-how to be our best selves.

No matter the reaction, the attacks on September 11th caused the public face of atheism to drastically change.  The 10 years since that day has seen many changes in way the world community approaches religion, but no one can say that religious beliefs are as protected from criticism as they were a decade ago.

Many non-believers have very strong opinions about the best way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Despite the ongoing debates, it seems clear to me that the courage to work with religious community groups in areas where our interests overlap, paired with the freedom to directly and openly criticize bad ideas wherever they occur in the public sphere, will be the tools that we must use to build a safer, healthier, and happier future.