The Benefits of My Evangelical Upbringing

I grew up in a pretty conservative Midwestern protestant situation. I was homeschooled and church was a big part of our social life. There are plenty of things to mock and joke about in this milieu (and I do!) but there are some under-appreciated benefits.

There are benefits to not getting into sex, drugs, and partying as a young person, but that’s not what I’ve appreciated most. As time has passed, I’ve seen other benefits I didn’t think about at the time. I took them for granted and assumed they were omnipresent.

Those benefits are philosophical. Epistemological, not aesthetic.

While not ubiquitous in Christian upbringings, the particular niche of Evangelical Protestantism I came up in was very focused on intensive Bible study, theology, and examining questions of meaning, free will, good and evil. There was an expectation that you should be able to logically prove every belief, examine arguments against it, and wrestle until you had coherent, non-contradictory ideas. Discussing claims made in sermons and questioning their accuracy, alignment with scripture, or logical consistency was normal.

There was utmost respect for reason and analytic philosophy. Difficult scriptures were studied in depth, arguments on all sides examined, original Greek and Hebrew checked, historical context learned, and commentaries consulted.

I always enjoyed this. I liked studying the Bible and various theologians. I loved their debates and disagreements. I was fascinated by questions of fate vs. free will.

There was a sense in which we Christians always felt the need to, “Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that you have”. You didn’t just believe stuff, it was incumbent on you to really examine it and understand it, and be able to explain it even to antagonists. I remember diving into apologetics and preparing to be attacked from all sides by classmates and professors when I took college philosophy classes.

I was disappointed.

Everyone in the class was an atheist (this was the very early 2000’s, before the resurgence of spiritual interest common today), but reflexively so. It was a default setting. No one had any arguments. None of them seemed to have examined anything. And it didn’t seem to trouble them. I was looking for some fights! I wanted to challenge and be challenged. It was as if everyone – even those wanting to major in philosophy – didn’t much care to examine the most fundamental questions of being and existence and morality and meaning. They would laugh at or dismiss ideas sometimes, but freeze up if asked to explain.

This was a real shock to me.

I had one TA who asked any theists to raise their hand. I was the only one. Some people snickered. He said, “Don’t laugh. All the best analytic philosopher were theists. Aquinas would run circles around most of you. Do you know why? Have you engaged this stuff?” He was an atheist moving towards agnosticism, but he had mad respect for anyone who did good philosophy (I later discovered he became a Bhuddist and quit academia. He was my favorite philosophy professor, so I’m not surprised). There was one other philosophy prof who was a Christian, and everyone was afraid to debate him. I think he dreamed in airtight symbolic logic.

I didn’t realize at the time that the intellectual tradition I’d inherited in all those Bible studies and debates and books was straight from Aristotle. The more I studied the history of philosophy, the more I realized I wasn’t the one who was wacky or out of step. Questions of God and religion had been taken the most seriously by the most serious thinkers. The whole Protestant project was, in a way, a big philosophical “eff you” to those who said don’t think for yourself, just act out the rituals. It was a celebration of reason. (This is not to say Orthodoxy and Catholicism do not retain a lot of sound philosophy, or that Protestantism always does. All religion tends to have interesting ideas at its core, and devolve into a less rigorous social movement subject to capture as it grows).

I often wonder how people go about their lives acting on important core ideas and assumptions without seeming to have any interest in or feel any necessity to examine, define, and make logical sense of those ideas and assumptions. Being wrong is one thing. Being uninterested in examining tacit truth claims is another.

I’m not looking down on people who are uninterested in or not conversant in inquiry into these things. I just don’t understand it. And because I value getting to the why of things, I am very grateful that I grew up in an arena that prized the most foundational questions, and expected one to be intellectually and morally accountable for their own beliefs – and comfortable being a bit of an outsider.

I must’ve seemed so weird. An early teen spending hours underlining, cross-referencing, diagramming, checking translations in my Hebrew-Greek keyword Bible, writing arguments and counter-arguments. Fortunately in my social circles, it wasn’t weird at all.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Black America Before LBJ: How the Welfare State Inadvertently Helped Ruin Black Communities

“We waged a war on poverty and poverty won.”

The dust has settled and the evidence is in: The 1960s Great Society and War on Poverty programs of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) have been a colossal and giant failure. One might make the argument that social welfare programs are the moral path for a modern government. They cannot, however, make the argument that these are in any way effective at alleviating poverty.

In fact, there is evidence that such aggressive programs might make generational poverty worse. While the notion of a “culture of dependence” is a bit of a cliché in conservative circles, there is evidence that this is indeed the case – that, consciously or not, the welfare state creates a culture where people receive benefits rather than seeking gainful employment or business ownership.

This is not a moral or even a value judgment against the people engaged in such a culture. Again, the claim is not that people “choose to be on welfare,” but simply that social welfare programs incentivize poverty, which has an impact on communities that has nothing to do with individual intent.

We are now over 50 years into the development of the Great Society and the War on Poverty. It is time to take stock in these programs from an objective and evidence-based perspective. When one does that, it is not only clear that the programs have been a failure, but also that they have disproportionately impacted the black community in the United States. The current state of dysfunction in the black community (astronomically high crime rates, very low rates of home ownership and single motherhood as the norm) are not the natural state of the black community in the United States, but closely tied to the role that social welfare programs play. Or as Dr. Thomas Sowell stated:

“If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on “the legacy of slavery” with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.”

Here’s a peek into how black America has been a victim of LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty.

Continue reading Black America Before LBJ: How the Welfare State Inadvertently Helped Ruin Black Communities at Ammo.com.

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Explain Your Extremists

No matter how controversial your political views are, there are always people on “your side” who hold a more extreme position than you do.  How do you account for such people?

Top scenarios:

1. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are “politically impossible.”  It’s better to ask for half a loaf and get it than demand a totally unattainable whole loaf.

2. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are politically unstable.  Even if the extremists prevailed in the short-run, the long-run effect would be a mighty backlash, leading to a crushing defeat for your side.  It’s better to ask for half a loaf that you can actually keep than demand a whole loaf that will soon be confiscated.

3. The extremists would be right, except that foolish and/or knavish resistance to their proposals would be extremely costly.  As a result, it’s better to pursue your more moderate approach, which is inferior in principle but elicits less strident opposition.  It’s better to peacefully obtain half a loaf than to fight a bloody battle for a whole loaf.

4. The extremists are wrong because they take a good idea too far.  A moderate move in your preferred direction makes the world better; an extreme move, however, makes it worse.  It’s better to eat half a loaf and remain at a healthy body weight than to eat a whole loaf and become morbidly obese.

5. The extremists are wrong because they take your side’s rhetoric too literally.  Yes, moderates like you often exaggerate and oversimplify, but you know you’re doing it.  Your extremists, in contrast, naively believe your side’s exaggerations and oversimplifications, leading them to advocate ineffective or even dangerous policies.  Just because your slogan loudly proclaims that “Bread is the staff of life” doesn’t mean you should follow an all-bread diet.

6. The extremists are wrong because they fail to grasp the intellectually sophisticated position held by moderates such as yourself.  If they would just patiently listen, they’d discover the intricacies of your worldview.  Alas, they rarely bother.  Thus, you derive the value of a half a loaf of bread from a detailed examination of human nutritional requirements – and the extremists childishly fixate on getting “all the bread.”

The meta-point, naturally, is that there are also always people on your side more moderate than yourself.  So when you dismiss your extremists, you really should wonder: How confident am I that people more moderate than myself couldn’t rightfully dismiss me?

All of which leads to three questions for discussion:

1. Where do your extremists go wrong?

2. Where would your moderates say that you go wrong?

3. What makes you think you’ve discovered your side’s “Golden Mean”?

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Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner

On November 29, FBI agents arrested hacker and cryptocurrency developer Virgil Griffith. His alleged crime: Talking.

Yes, really.

The FBI alleges that Griffith “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Griffith, a US citizen who lives in Singapore, gave a talk at conference on blockchain technology in April. Because that conference took place in North Korea, the US government deems him guilty of violating US sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

But last time I checked, the First Amendment protected Virgil Griffith’s right to speak, without exceptions regarding where or to whom.

And last time I checked,  the US Department of Justice’s jurisdiction didn’t encompass Singapore (where Griffith lives), China (which Griffith traveled through), or North Korea (where Griffith spoke). The charges against him include traveling, while outside US jurisdiction, to places the US government doesn’t like.

In what universe is it the US government’s business where an individual travels to or what that individual says while he’s there, inside or outside the US itself? Certainly not any kind of universe in which America remains a free society.

What kind of state arrests people for going where they please and saying what they choose without that state’s permission? A police state.

Griffith’s arrest is wholly illegal under the US Constitution and wholly unacceptable to anyone who holds freedom as a cardinal value.

Virgil Griffith is just the latest political prisoner of the US government to come to public notice.

The US government imprisoned US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, journalist Barrett Brown, and others for telling us the truth about that government’s conduct, and would love to do the same to Julian Assange,  Edward Snowden, and others for the same reason.

The US government imprisoned Ross Ulbricht for running a web site on which people bought and sold things that government didn’t want them to buy and sell.

The US government has held, and continues to hold, too many political prisoners to name in a single column.

The US government increasingly attempts to dictate where all of us may go, and what we may say while there, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.

That’s not right. That’s not freedom. That’s not America.

Virgil Griffith and the others I mention aren’t the criminals — their persecutors are. At some point, we must bring them to justice if human freedom is to survive. Until then, resist much, obey little.

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Deludedly Deeming Deregulation a Disaster

I posted this on Twitter two weeks ago.

The results were much as expected.  Housing deregulation could deliver everything its proponents promise.  Housing deregulation could bring back a world where high school grads commonly buy shiny new homes in high-wage regions.  And if my respondents are correct, this seemingly rosy scenario would still outrage a great swath of the population.  Note, moreover, that if a third of Americans would decry deregulation as a “disaster,” then we can safely assume over half would at least deem it a “mistake.”

Most people would probably chalk the disaster rhetoric up to human selfishness, but don’t be hasty.  Consider the myriad ways that homeowners could nevertheless selfishly benefit from deregulation:

1. Homeowners who own little or no equity could walk away from their small, expensive home in favor of a larger, cheaper home.

2. Homeowners who eventually planned to move to a larger, more expensive home could easily find that their losses on their old home are smaller than their savings on their new home.  And they wouldn’t have to wait as many years to upgrade.

3. The grown children of settled homeowners could much more easily afford to live near their parents – and wouldn’t need so much help for a down payment.

4. Yes, higher local population means more congestion.  Yet it also means better shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities.  What’s the net value of all the good effects of more people bundled with all the bad effects of more people?  The very fact that prices are much higher in densely-population areas strongly suggests that the net value is highly positive.  “New York would be great without all the people” is sadly naive, because without all the people, New York would no longer be great.  Upshot: When prices fall in half, established homeowners get at least some offsetting gain in consumers’ surplus.

5. If you’re willing to move, improve, or subdivide, deregulation allows even established owners with lots of equity to readily profit.  If you suddenly gain the right to legally subdivide your lot into three homesites, a 50% fall in the value of the home you own is a fair price to pay.  The same goes if you can now build up.  Replace your home with a 10-story apartment and pocket the difference.  Cha-ching.

Do I seriously believe that many – perhaps most – existing homeowners will profit from deregulation?  Earnestly, I do.

Doesn’t this mean that tens of millions of homeowners are simply confused?  Indeed it does.

Isn’t that an absurd view?  So it might seem – until you realize that much of the population rents, but only a tiny minority of the population sees housing regulation as a problem.  Deeper research confirms that renters strongly oppose deregulation, too!  Since tenants are plainly deluded on this, why is it so hard to believe that homeowners are deluded as well?

Personally, I own a lot of home equity, and hope never to move.  If housing prices fell 50%, it would directly cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Yet even from a totally selfish point of view, I still say deregulation would be awesome.

Why?  Because I want my kids to be able to afford to live in my neighborhood when they grow up.

Don’t you?

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