The Slow Hunch: Business Ethics and the Spiritual Life

Too often, the “professional life” and the “spiritual life” are separated by both business leaders and their critics. The former don’t (or perhaps don’t want to) see how spirituality can impact their business, while the latter seem to think a “profane” object like business will taint the sacred. This has actually been a criticism lobbied at Mormonism: the mixing of the professional and the spiritual. But what is becoming more and more clear from research is that people-oriented practices (spiritual-based ethics) have positive impacts on the organization’s wealth and prosperity. I draw attention to this in my latest post at The Slow Hunch.

Check it out.

Dropping CO2 Emissions

Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 has a great post on natural gas and climate change. After noting that the IPCC reported that methane has 23x the global warming effect as CO2 (though CO2 lasts longer), Campbell mentions a couple recent studies “that methane will cause global warming regardless of CO2″:

What changed? Well, CO2 emissions went down, and it wasn’t due to the $72 billion in taxpayer money which included solar panel subsidies or the afterthought of wind power or the other get-rich-quick schemes in alternative energy we have tried since 2009 – it even happened without nuclear power, the best and most viable zero-emissions energy of them all.  It also happened without banning existing energy. The big change instead came because America switched to natural gas, and that was thanks to science and the free market. Due to that switch, energy emissions haven’t looked this good in 20 years.  Coal emissions haven’t looked this good in 30 years.

Believe it or not, to environmental fundraisers, that is a really bad thing.

With CO2 emissions dropping, activists have started to wind up the machine against methane and they note it is worse than CO2 – without mentioning that it is short-lived or that it is the primary component in cleaner natural gas. Instead, ‘natural’ is being removed from the term completely and replaced with ‘shale’.

The answer to climate change according to many environmentalists is to just throw money at it:

Environmentalists…who know nothing at all about how real innovation works think they can just throw money at one thing and penalize another and capitalism magic happens. The real world, outside of academia and fundraising brochures, is a lot messier. Like evolution, innovation has starts and stops, sometimes it tries a few times and fails. What has never worked is assuming that if we spend 100X as much money, the process will go 100X as fast.

Environmentalists should be happy. Unfortunately, many are too busy worried about their pet agendas.

Gun Control and Celebrity Bodyguards


Emma Watson next to her private, undercover, armed bodyguard.
Emma Watson next to her private, undercover, armed bodyguard.

I’ve seen gun control opponents point out that the President uses guns (via the Secret Service) to protect his family. That’s a bit silly and, for bringing his daughters into the debate, out of bounds. But this post from Downtrend makes a related point that I think is more valid. When Emma Watson (AKA Hermione Granger) graduated from Brown, she appears to have brought her armed personal bodyguard along for the ceremony, despite the fact that Brown is emphatically a gun free zone:

There probably aren’t too many Brown students from working class families, but for argument’s sake, let’s suppose one of them was there on a special scholarship. Now imagine that this average Joe or Jane showed up to graduation with a loaded pistol just for personal protection. There would be a lockdown, the SWAT team would be called in, and that student would be looking at years behind bars.

A famous person shows up with an armed guard, just for personal protection, and it’s like nothing ever happened. The gun-free zone only applies to those not fortunate enough to have been born into money or who have never starred in a string of blockbuster movies.

I’ve got nothing against Emma Watson at all, or her decision, but the casual disregard of the rules when it comes to celebrities is particularly noxious on an issue as important as the right to self-defense.

You can read about Watson’s security guard ($150k/year, is with her everywhere) at the New York Post and see how an armed bodyguard going undercover in cap and gown was covered by the celebrity media via EOnline. (It’s “Pretty Sneaky (but understandable!)”)

It’s worth pointing out that Watson isn’t just a celebrity flouting the rules because she can. She has specific, real threats against her safety. As long as Brown would be fine allowing a non-celebrity with stalker problems to also carry a gun themselves (I doubt they could afford a personal bodyguard), I’m OK with things. This isn’t a cause for outrage. Just a bit of concern.

A Conservative Case for Government

Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton

British philosopher Roger Scruton has a thought-provoking article entitled “The Good of Government” in the June 2014 issue of First Things. I’ve been a fan of Scruton ever since his BBC special “Why Beauty Matters” and his book Beauty. There is a kind of sophistication to his conservatism. He understands the concern of American conservatives:

The seemingly unstoppable expansion of regulations; the increasing control over what happens in the workplace, in the public square, and even in the family; the constant manufacturing of new crimes and misdemeanors, aimed at controlling how we associate and with whom; the attempts to limit First and Second Amendment rights—these developments are viewed by many conservatives with alarm. They seem to be taking America in a new direction, away from the free association of self-governing individuals envisaged by the founders, toward a society of obedient dependents, who exchange their freedom and their responsibilities for a perpetual lien on the public purse. And you only have to look at Europe to see the result…The welfare state has expanded beyond the limits envisaged in the New Deal, and the Supreme Court is now increasingly used to impose the morality of a liberal elite on the American people, whether they like it or not. These developments add to the sense among conservatives that government is taking over. America, they fear, is rapidly surrendering the rights and freedoms of its citizens in exchange for the false security of an all-controlling state. Those tasks that only governments can perform…are forced to compete for their budgets with activities that free citizens, left to themselves, might have managed far more efficiently through the associations of volunteers, backed up where necessary by private insurance.

Yet, Scruton recognizes, “Government is wrapped into the very fibers of our social being. We emerge as individuals because our social life is shaped that way. When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a “calling to account,” and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered.” “In other words,” writes Scruton, “in our tradition, government and freedom have a single source, which is the human disposition to hold each other to account for what we do. No free society can come into being without the exercise of this disposition, and the freedom that Americans rightly cherish in their heritage is simply the other side of the American habit of recognizing their accountability toward others.” 

The article is incredibly well-balanced. Check it out.

On the Selfishness of Sweatshop Anxiety

2014-06-11 London Apartment

So apparently someone wants to rent this tiny London apartment (pictured above) for $1,230/month. Outrage ensues.

Now, the weird thing is that it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine someone wanting to rent that apartment for that price. I once had to commute up to the Northern Virginia area while my family lived in Williamsburg for work every week. I was lucky enough to have a kind friend with a guess suite, but if I hadn’t had recourse to that, such a tiny little domicile would have been perfect. I seriously investigated living out of my car before my benefactor appeared.

Think about it this way: if someone offers to pay that money for that apartment it is because they have evaluated their alternatives and found that to be the best course of action for them. In what world does eliminating the best course of action someone has available help that person? When someone makes a reasoned consideration that a course of action is the best course of action available, then some do-gooder stepping in to prevent them from taking that course of action is by definition harmful.

I think the intuition is that if someone is willing to pay $1,230 for such a tiny apartment, then they must have pretty crappy alternatives. And that is true. But taking away the apartment doesn’t actually improve that person’s prospects. It just removes the evidence of their misfortune from public view. This isn’t about helping anyone any more than placing spikes where homeless people sleep is about helping homeless people. And yes: that’s a real thing. In London they don’t want you to rent out a tiny, cheap apartment but they also don’t want you to sleep on the pavement, either. This looks less like compassion for the poor and a lot more like spraying your house for ants. You don’t really care if the spray kills them or helps them or hurts them, as long as they aren’t in your house anymore.

I call this “Sweatshop Anxiety” because that’s sort of the biggest example of the problem. The thought of poor people in third world countries working long hours in terrible conditions makes rich Westerners want to shut down sweatshops. Which helps the poor… how?

I’m not saying there’s nothing we can do. I’m just saying that reducing options probably almost never helps.

The Dark History of the Religious Right

Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College has an interesting article in Politico Magazine arguing that the the origins of the modern Religious Right in American politics can be found in the fight over segregation. Rather than Roe v. Wade (which was seen as a “Catholic issue” by many evangelicals both several years before and after Roe), it was Green v. Connally that caused evangelicals to organize. The case ruling declared that “racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the Federal tax exemption provided for charitable, educational institutions, and persons making gifts to such schools are not entitled to the deductions provided in case of gifts to charitable, educational institutions.” One such institution was Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college located in Greenville, South Carolina. The school eventually lost its tax exempt status, “alert[ing] the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference.”

The article is quite a read. Of course, this isn’t the only thing that led to the rise of the Religious Right, but it is an element often left out. This is also true of the American Left’s history, which was often critical of the Constitution (particularly Wilson) while friendly toward fascism and eugenics.

It kind of makes you lose faith in American politics altogether (if you had any to begin with).

Can Christians Rock?

There’s an interesting review over at First Things of Christopher Partridge’s new book, The Lyre of Orpheus. Partridge’s theory, according to First Things’ Stephen Webb is as follows:

Rock is essentially transgressive. Christianity upholds a sacred order that excludes the profane. Therefore, contemporary Christian music cannot be true rock and roll, because it is “unable to establish a credible presence in [rock’s] profane affective space.”

Webb contests this theory, but he does so very weakly, writing: “Satan might or might not be beyond redemption, but everything else, including the devil’s music, isn’t.” That may be true, but it’s not really informative (how does one go about redeeming a genre or music?) nor does it actually address the core point. If rock is intrinsically transgressive, then when you redeem it you don’t really have rock anymore. The question that Partridge begs, and that Webb never spots, is this: transgressive of what?

I know it’s only a short review, but all the musicians noted were born in the 1950s – 1970s. It’s certainly easy to surmise that in the time they were making music (the 1970s and 1980s) traditional family values were still relatively dominant in America. In that context it makes sense to assume that “transgressive” meant contradicting these traditional values of modesty, self-restraint, and fidelity. But that assumption doesn’t make sense any more. No big surprise, by the way, Partridge himself was born in 1961. His cultural reference points were already stale in the last millennium.

By coincidence, I also picked up this story from the Daily Beast today: Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won’t Tolerate Dissent. The article’s first paragraph shows what Partridge and especially Web could have been talking about all along:

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.

When the powers that are in charge change, so does the meaning of the term “transgressive.” Music that is truly subversive now is effectively opposite of what was subversive back then. This makes sense: terms like “subversive” and “transgressive” are value-neutral without context. They are good or bad and useful or damaging entirely dependent on what it is they are attacking and promoting in its stead. It’s entirely possible for Christian rock to be subversive of the dominant culture while authentically embracing Christian tenets. In fact, because it faithfully embraces Christian tenets. You probably won’t get this if by “Christian rock” you are thinking of the kind of praise or worship music that you’ll find on Christian radio stations, because that music is geared towards being played in houses of worship. It doesn’t oppose or subvert anything. It probably can’t be real rock and roll. But it’s only one particular variant of Christian rock. How about my favorite band of all time: Thrice?

Yeah, I’m biased, but pay attention to which way the causality runs. I’m not endorsing Thrice as an example of a counter-cultural Christianity because I like the band. I liked the band in the first place precisely because of its subversive (in relationship to the Clerisy) nature. Nowhere is this more obvious than the official video of their song “Image of the Invisible” (off of their 2005 album Vheissu). The music alone screams beleaguered defiance and the lyrics match it perfectly: So raise the banner, bend back your bows / Remove the cancer, take back your souls and Though all the world may hate us, we are named / The shadow overtake us, we are known. But, in case the subversion theme wasn’t overt enough, the video drills the point home with a distinctly dystopian theme in which Christians are part of a modern underground resistance movement, fighting to get out a message that the world hates, has always hated, and will always hate.

Has Webb forgotten the relationship between the Church and the world depicted so directly in the New Testament, culminating in the crucifixion of God’s Son by the greatest political empire of the time? How about Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Give me a break, Christ’s alleged crimes were basically variants of “subversion.” Subversion of the orthodox religious view and subversion of the Roman political order. We worship someone who was tried and executed for subversion 2,000 years ago, and Partridge thinks some aging rock stars have a damn thing to teach Christians about what it means to be subversive?

I think not.


Shrinking Waves May Save Sea Ice

2014-06-10 sn-seaice

The whole global warming issue is pretty controversial, and one of the reasons for that is that–no matter what the consensus on the science might be–there’s actually a long and convoluted path from “human carbon emissions make the world warmer” to answering the question “what should we do about it?”

One of the big uncertainties, of course, is the cost-benefit analysis of policies designed to slow global warming. That’s what the Freakonomics guys did in one of their chapters from Super Freakonomics, and their conclusion was that–assuming climate change is real–there might not be any policy to stop it that is worth the cost. That claim, as you can imagine, landed them in some hot water.

But there are other uncertainties as well. So the planet gets warmer. So ice at the poles melts and sea levels rise, right? Well, maybe not so fast:

It’s a nagging thorn in the side of climatologists: Even though the world is warming, the average area of the sea ice around Antarctica is increasing. Climate models haven’t explained this seeming contradiction to anyone’s satisfaction—and climate change deniers tout that failure early and often. But a new paper suggests a possible explanation: Variability in the heights of ocean waves pounding into the sea ice may help control its advance and retreat.

That’s Carolyn Gramling writing for Science. She goes on to summarize the paper’s theory: warmer climate means lower waves, lower waves means less pounding on sea ice, less pounding on sea ice means slower melting to the point where (as noted above) sea ice in Antarctica is actually growing instead of shrinking.

The reality is that the Earth’s atmosphere and land and ecosystems and the sun’s radiation all work together to form a very, very, very complex system full of all kinds of negative and positive feedback loops that we know nothing about. This is just one example. Ice has been growing since at least 1979 despite projections, but no one had a clue. Now they have one but it is, of course, still just a clue. As science goes: this is great. When the data doesn’t line up with your predictions, it means you’re not understanding something and you have a chance for a new discovery.

But as a basis for expensive, global policy-making goes, this is not so great. The one thing all policies to thwart global warming have in common is making energy more expensive which will have the effect of lowering growth which will have the effect of keeping more people in the developed world in poverty for longer. We can be much more certain about that then we can about the corresponding threat from global warming. After all, we can’t even predict if the sea levels will rise at all, let alone by how much, so how can we begin to make a careful evaluation of the cost/benefit of policies to mitigate this unknown danger?

The consensus on global warming is often trotted out as a cudgel with which to beat skeptics, but this isn’t really effective once you step back and realize that climate change, itself, is only one part of a much, much more complex puzzle.

Evolution, Scientific Literacy, and Culture (Again)

2014-06-09 Evolution

Every so often there’s a poll that comes out showing that only 50% of Americans believe in evolution (give or take) and the hand-wringing and demagoguery commences. Not too long ago, I wrote about the particularly Mormon aspect of this boring, repetitive, non-issue in a post for Times And Seasons called Beware Instrumental Beliefs. It turned out that Mormons were especially unlikely to agree with the statement “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth” and some among the Mormon intellectual classes started hyperventilating again.

My argument was that the only signal that survey really picks up is a cultural one. Americans see the issue of evolution as fundamentally one of cultural identity, not science, and they answer accordingly. So the common assumption that religious people are so mentally hamstrung by superstitious mumbo-jumbo that they can’t grasp enlightened science is really just an expression of prejudice and not a valid reflection of survey data. That was my theory, in any case. I felt it was a pretty strong one, given that plenty of the most vociferous critics of those who expressed doubt in Darwinian evolution were humanities majors rather than biologists, but still: it’s nice to be vindicated.

That’s Dan Kahan at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project who cites new research to draw three conclusions:

First, there is zero correlation between saying one “believes” in evolution & understanding the rudiments of modern evolutionary science.

Second, “disbelief” in evolution poses absolutely no barrier to comprehension of basic evolutionary science.

Third — and here we are getting to the point where the new data come in! — profession of “belief” in evolution is simply not a valid measure of science comprehension.

The last point might seem redundant, but it isn’t. It’s a separate point, and it’s an important one because it shows a clear path forward for those who believe that teaching the ideas of human evolution is important and don’t want to get hung up with an irrelevant culture war. As Kahan reports, the NSF tried to get the question “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” removed from a test of scientific literacy not to assuage conservatives, but for the simple fact that:

the answer people give to this question doesn’t measure their comprehension of science. People who score at or near the top on the remaining portions of the test aren’t any more likely to get this item “correct” than those who do poorly on the remaining portions.

The NSF faced a backlash, however, “from those who either couldn’t get or didn’t care about the distinction between measuring science comprehension and administering a cultural orthodoxy test.” Kahan goes on:

But those of us who don’t have to worry about whether taking a stance will affect our research budgets, who genuinely care about science, and who recognize the challenge of propagating widespread comprehension and simple enjoyment of science in a culturally pluralistic society (which is, ironically, the type of political regime most conducive to the advance of scientific discovery!) shouldn’t equivocate.

We should insist that science comprehension be measured scientifically and point out the mistakes — myriads of them — being made by those who continue to insist that professions of “belief” in evolution are any sort of indicator of that.

Definitely read the entire article for more insights and the very interesting data analysis Kahan did to arrive at his conclusions.


Manhattan Institute: New Volume on Income Inequality

A brand new volume of essays on income inequality was recently published by the Manhattan Institute and is available for free online. Economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth introduces the volume with the following:

Claims of ever-increasing shares of wealth going to top earners are a perennial complaint. This year, partly due to the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, discussions of inequality are preoccupying policymakers and political pundits.

Today is releasing Income Inequality in America: Fact and Fiction, a series of essays from leading experts on different aspects of measuring inequality. For Winston Churchill, inequality was an unavoidable part of economic life in capitalist societies. “The main vice of capitalism,” said the British Prime Minister, whose youngest daughter, Lady Mary Soames, died last weekend at the age of 91, “is the uneven distribution of prosperity. The main vice of socialism is the even distribution of misery.”

In conclusion, she states, “Empirical analysis shows that many commonly accepted ideas about income inequality are false or overstated. If policy recommendations are to be effective, they must be informed by an accurate picture of the current situation. Income Inequality in America: Fact and Fiction offers the empirical tools for such an analysis.”

Check it out.