Monday, July 31, 2017

A Word for the Lower Middle Class

By Bill Creasy

The 2016 election of Pres. Trump seems to have happened because of support from lower and middle-class voters, predominantly white and religious ones. Democrats have been advised that they should try to talk to these groups, or they won't win future elections.

This kind of "conventional wisdom" changes every four years. For example, it changed dramatically since 2012 when Obama was reelected, when it looked like Democrats had a majority for the foreseeable future based on the minority voters.

But lower and middle class voters have valid reasons to worry about the current economy (and, increasingly, all classes and races should worry). But some are looking at their problems in terms of ideas that are contradictory and inconsistent. If they want to solve the problems, they need to work out these contradictions. They need to have a realistic perspective on their place in the world and who they are competing against. They need to understand what the government can and can't do for them.

People with less education than a college degree are worried that well-paying jobs are becoming less common. Some of these jobs are manufacturing jobs, and factories are moving to other countries that pay lower wages. In that way, they are competing against low-wage people in developing countries who may have less education but who are just as good at doing routine, repetitious procedures.

Many jobs are also disappearing because of automation, as specialized machines are built that can perform repetitive tasks even more cheaply and reliably than any human can. The factory owner makes a capital improvement to the factory and improves its efficiency so that fewer human workers are needed. The owner gets richer by spending less on labor and makes more products with fewer employees.

No one should be nostalgic about how great these jobs are. Many were boring, stressful, and required no creativity. Coal mining and assembly line work, for example, aren't fun. Given a choice, no one would probably choose to do them. Some of the jobs were well-paid, but only because generations of union members protested and participated in strikes against large companies in order to get better wages and benefits, like paid health insurance or paid vacation. 

Manufacturing jobs are being replaced by service jobs. Union membership is declining. It is more difficult to strike against service employers for higher wages, especially when they are small companies that are competing against other small companies down the street. Striking against one simply drives customers from one business to another. The advantage is that most of these jobs can't go to another country, because they have to be done face to face.  But they are slowly being automated by replacing people with computers or self-service terminals. So wages have stagnated and many employers don't offer benefits. 

This, in a nutshell, is the current situation, and it isn't likely to change for the better by itself. There are many exceptions, since there are specialized jobs people can learn, and there are still small businesses that are being started.  But overall, good jobs are harder to find.

Often it is necessary for a family to be supported by two wage earners, or else children are raised in poverty. If they are raised in poverty and without resources to get an education, they are likely to remain as low income and become increasingly worse off. These effects seem to be reinforcing the class and income levels in the U.S. In spite of the American Dream, rich people get richer, and poor people stay poor. Economic trends support these effects. 

Low income people are right to be concerned about these trends from recent years.  Trump made an effort during his campaign to talk to angry, low-income people. He attracted rallies full of angry people by pointing out the trends that have been developing for decades.   They responded by assuming he was sympathetic to them and would do something to address their concerns.

What can be done? Low-wage employees need enough perspective to understand what competition they are up against, or they will never make informed choices.  Some people are reacting in ways that are doomed to fail. The most obvious recent mistake was voting for Trump. It was clear from Trump's speeches that he didn't have a good understanding of the problem or any concrete plans that would work. His solutions to the problem are useless.  He suggested slogans as solutions that have been tried during the past decades and rejected as simplistic. Building a "big wall" on the Mexico border won't keep jobs in the country. There is little evidence that international trade treaties decreases the number of jobs, and they may actually create jobs. (These things can be hard to measure. There are winners and losers.) 

Ever since the Reagan Administration, low income people and people from southern states have allied with the Republican Party. There are indications that this alliance had to do with reaction against the Civil Rights Act, from which the Democratic Party became associated with politically liberal and minority groups. Perhaps the low income whites simply wanted to associate with wealthy people, hoping that the wealth and good fortune would rub off on them. But the evidence that tax benefits to help wealthy people ever "trickled down" are weak. Wealthy people behave in ways that are generally for their own benefit, as would be expected.

If low income people want assistance with their problems, government is the only entity that can reliably help. The government can set up laws and regulations that blunt the impact of pure capitalism, which is almost guaranteed to favor people who are already wealthy.  But the right kinds of well-thought-out regulations are needed, not just slogans.  Regulations are imperfect, and they will make some winners and some losers.  Low income people will need to demand the particular help that they need.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is a good example.  As fewer people receive health insurance from employers, they will need to get insurance for themselves and their families.  Otherwise, they will not receive adequate health care, and the U.S. should be able to provide health care to its citizens.  But the system to provide this insurance to low income people will require government subsidies and taxes on the wealthy.  The system won't be simple or easy to implement.  It has been encouraging to see that citizens have been willing to protest to protect this program.  Hopefully, it will be gradually improved to make it fairer and work better without being repealed. 

Experience from the past century shows that the government can create programs that are good for some things, but may not be good for others.  The government isn't particularly good at creating excess jobs to achieve full employment.  Expecting the government, or the president, to create jobs for "everyone" is probably not going to work well.

The government can create jobs for specific projects that have defined goals, like national defense or infrastructure projects.  It can implement social programs like Social Security and Medicare that private companies have trouble doing.  It can fund basic scientific research that leads to long-term benefits.  Finding the right kind of program to address job losses will be a challenge, but it can be done, as long as affected citizens ask for it in a realistic way.

For better or worse, government works by taxing to take money by force and redistribute it to try to solve social problems. It doesn't have a magical ability to generate business or make productive, meaningful employment.  But that doesn't mean that it should be rejected or dismissed by those wealthy people, like Trump, who can't understand why social problems exist, because they haven't personally experienced them.  There are times when capitalism simply doesn't provide the best mechanism for keeping society healthy and functional.  If it doesn't, then we must think and act to fix it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

CFI opposes efforts to penalize critics of Islam

Kudos to the Center for Inquiry, and their board chair Eddie Tabash, for calling out the radio station that invited Richard Dawkins for an interview about his new book (Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist) and then obnoxiously cancelled their interview without notifying their invitee (it appears that they never even attempted to notify Dawkins that they had cancelled the interview with him).  The CFI characterizes the radio station's unbalanced accusation against Mr. Dawkins as "unfounded allegations", which comports with my understanding that the radio station did not provide support for their accusation, and notes that the radio station's "stance is like the justification nations use to defend their blasphemy laws".  The radio interviewer could have confronted Mr. Dawkins with the allegations against him during their interview, which appear to be unrelated to his book that they had agreed to discuss, to give him an opportunity to respond.

Subsequently the radio station cited this "most evil religion" quote about Islam as an example of his abusive commentary that justified their canceling the interview:

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

“They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”

At the Secular Conference in London, all guests and speakers, some of whom are likely to be called "apostates" because they are secular Muslims or former Muslims, were instructed not to share the location of the event to non attendees due to security concerns.  Indiscriminate endorsement of "Islamophobia", and "abusive speech" against Islam complaints, directed against people who are interdenominational with their dislike of counter-evidenced beliefs, like Richard Dawkins, in today's world were we face these related, ongoing, threats by people who fancy themselves to be defenders of Islam, is not going to take us anyplace we want to go.  The people making these threats recognize when their threats are affective in intimidating people which is a positive outcome from their perspective.  There is no destination in the direction of endorsing such unbalanced accusations that will ultimately satisfy the people behind such accusations short of jail or violence targeting almost anyone who is judged by a theocratic standard to have insulted the "true" religious beliefs, because that is where the profoundly illiberal logic of such automatic rejection of almost any public expression of criticism of Islam takes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Evidence for string theory and atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

String theory posits that the particles and forces that physicists detect using machines are vibrating, string shaped units of energy embedded in a universe that is multi-dimensional.  Like most of science, this theory is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive to us.  Not in a million years would any philosopher, or theologian, or science fiction author, have invented string theory by reasoning primarily from their intuition, instead of from following the empirical evidence. It can be difficult, even for the scientists themselves, but especially for non-scientists like me, to grasp the concept.  The pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive quality of modern theories regarding how our universe functions is important.  This tells us that we must rely on empirical evidence, and the consensus of experts when possible, not on our intuition, because our ignorant intuition is incompetent and more likely to be a counter-productive obstacle than a productive tool for understanding.

Electrons have a property called spin that either has the same, or opposite, direction as the direction that the electron travels.  According to string theory, the electron spin can flip directions in the presence of a strong gravitational field and magnetic field, such as near the event horizon of a black hole.  Theorists have concluded that in some contexts a temperature gradient can substitute for the gravitational field.

Recently, several IBM scientists, interested in exploring the possibility of deploying new types of materials for building future electronic devices for their employer, decided to test if they could observe a change in behavior of electrons in a semimetal that they were studying.  Semimetals are intermediate between conductive metals and semiconductors.  If string theory is true then a temperature gradient and strong magnetic field applied to the semimetal will break the spin symmetry conservation property of the electrons residing in the semimetal and produce a measureable current.  The IBM scientists succeeded in verifying this prediction, see Scientists Observe Gravitational Anomaly on Earth.

So what is the point of this post?  String theory, like most of modern knowledge about how the universe functions, is relevant to the theism versus atheism disagreement.  String theory, like all physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is thoroughly naturalistic.  String theory translates into mathematical equations that express the logic of physical, material, mechanical processes.  All of modern knowledge regarding how our universe functions is derived from naturalistic methods and reaches conclusions that are naturalistic.

Humanity did not begin the pursuit for knowledge preferring naturalistic methods and explanations.  We got pulled towards naturalism despite a long standing preference for supernaturalism.  This distinction is not binary, it is a continuum, and there is no measuring device.  Naturalism imposes constraints that reduces the options available to explain and people, wanting explanation, tend to consider the naturalism constraint to be too restrictive.  Yet the naturalism versus supernaturalism contest outcome lopsidedly favors naturalism, it is not a close call.  Time and time again, at all levels of focus from the smallest detail to the largest generality, there is opportunity for either more naturalistic oriented or more supernaturalistic oriented methods to be productive, and for either naturalistic favoring or supernaturalistic favoring conclusions to be successful.  Unrelentingly, over and over again, only the more naturalistic oriented methods are productive and only the naturalistic favoring conclusions are successful.

Several hundred years ago it was reasonable for well educated adults to endorse supernaturalism.  Science eventually abandoned supernaturalism because of its track record of total failure.  Today, theists, and non-atheist agnostics also, are downplaying, ignoring, and disregarding the pervasiveness, consistency, and diversity of the evidence for naturalism.  Many agnostics and theists who can be very good at respecting and following the empirical evidence in their professional and non-professional lives, nevertheless fail, apparently unwittingly, to apply that same rational standard to this question.  If they did apply the same rational standard of attending to the overall available evidence, as they otherwise routinely do every day, instead of myopically focusing narrowly on lack of knowledge trivialities and mysteries, and carefully avoided the mistake of placing personal preference or intuition over evidence, then they would be atheists.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Summer 2017 emails to Congress

By Mathew Goldstein

Send your emails using the forms provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and/or Secular Coalition for America and/or Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Or call or write letters.

The "Johnson Amendment" is the commonly utilized name for a law that prohibits nonprofit charities (religious nonprofits are automatically categorized as charities) that are financed with tax deductible contributions from endorsing political candidates.  Houses of worship (a.k.a. "churches"), their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of houses of worship, are the only nonprofits that not required to file an IRS tax form (or at least a Form 990N declaring that their income is under $50,000).  IRS Form 990 discloses basic information about a nonprofit’s expenditures and sources of revenue.  Because houses of worship are exempt from this crucial transparency requirement, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would effectively allow houses of worship to function like invisible Super PACs and unleash a wave of religiously motivated ‘dark money’ into the political system.  Full repeal of the Johnson Amendment is the Religious Right's #1 priority.  Ask your members of Congress to safeguard this important law that acknowledges the fact that political campaigns are not a charitable activity and therefore should not be funded with tax deductible contributions (under current law, non-profits that are funded with contributions which are not tax deductible can legally support political campaigns).  Also, please ask them to eliminate the IRS Form 990 exemption for houses of worship.

The Do No Harm Act has been reintroduced in the House.  This bill would restore true religious freedom by amending the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that religion is not used as a license to deprive some people of their secular civil rights.  Privileging religious beliefs will continue to erode progress on civil rights until Congress draws a line in the sand.  Tell your members of Congress to restore the meaning of religious freedom as a shield to protect individuals of all faiths and no faith, not as a weapon for people to impose their religious beliefs on others who reject those beliefs, by co-sponsoring the Do No Harm Act, and thank Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) for introducing the bill.