T&S Post: Privilege and the Family

932 - Dom Viol Chart

I wrote a post for Times and Seasons today: Privilege and the Family. The post borrows heavily from work that Walker Wright has done right here at Difficult Run collecting research and data (like the chart above) on the impact of marriage and family for children’s outcomes, and also seeks to answer a couple of questions raised at By Common Consent recently: Who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family? The questions are:

  1. Why should we care about the family?
  2. What does it mean to stand up for the family?

If that sounds like an interesting post to you, then you should check it out.


“You’re a Kite Dancing in a Hurricane, Mr. Bond”: SPECTRE Teaser Trailer

When the James Bond film Skyfall was coming out, I did a series of posts on the music of James Bond. That’s how obsessed I am with these films. I can’t express how excited I am that Sam Mendes (director of Skyfall) will be returning for the latest flick SPECTRE, especially given how incredible his first Bond film was.  The cast is equally impressive, including Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained), Monica Bellucci (Irreversible, Malena, The Matrix Reloaded), Andrew Scott (BBC’s Sherlock), and Dave Bautistia (Guardians of the Galaxy). The return of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) is most welcome. It is a throwback to six of the first seven films. The oft-hidden, cat-stroking leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (parodied brilliantly by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers films) seems to be making an appearance (perhaps in spirit if not in name) in the form of Waltz’s character (notice how his face is shadowed in the trailer below). And our first glimpse of it all was just released.

So without further ado, I give you the SPECTRE trailer.

We’re Here to Play Bad Cop / Worse Cop

934 - Hardline Art

In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, first person shooter video games focused thematically on World War II with major franchises like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. Things started to change around 2005 when the Battlefield series released Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and the change in focus was cemented with the blockbuster release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. That’s pretty much where the genre has lived for the last 10 years. Recently, however, the Battlefield franchise has decided to shift focus again with their newest title Battlefield: Hardline which release earlier this month. The disturbing twist in the newest game, which you can see in the trailer, is that instead of soldiers fighting on a battlefield we now get militarized cops.

Obviously, this is not the very first time a video game has been controversial. I’m a gamer, but there are some games that I refuse to play because the depiction of violence reaches levels that I think are a little sick. Just to give a very simple example of that: I have played just enough of the Grand Theft Auto franchise to know that it will never be allowed in my home. I also have all kinds of political issues with the Call of Duty franchise, and even though the most controversial level of that that series was made by a high school buddy of mine, I opted out. And these are, relatively speaking, the tame examples of controversial video games. The really nasty stuff I won’t even go into here.

So I’m not going to hyperventilate and argue that Battlefield: Hardline is the worst thing to have happened in video games. It’s not. It’s still pretty disturbing, however, and the video game press has taken notice. Chris Plante writes in Polygon:

You used to be able to tell the difference between a cop and a soldier by how they looked. Soldiers had fancy gear, camouflage and heavy weaponry. Cops had a badge with their name and officer number. Times have changed, and now cops at a peaceful protest can look like the soldiers saving Gotham from a nuclear weapon.

The creators of Battlefield Hardline, while researching the militarization of the nation’s police force, understandably began to view the devices used by Americans against Americans as novel and fun. After all, they look identical to those being used in their previous games against fictional terrorists.

Here’s the image he was linking to, btw:

936 - Warrior Cops

Now, there are some who have gone a little farther and suggested that video games like this in some way cause police militarization. I think that’s a little silly, in much the same way that I think blaming video games for causing general violence in society is pretty silly. Thus, I largely agree with Erik Kain’s take in Forbes:

Alan Jacobs, writing at his blog, makes the connection between the Ferguson police and Call of Duty:

“I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces — the “warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about,” writes Jacobs. ”Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games.”

Jacobs is arguing that the culture of first-person shooters—and the aesthetic—is being imprinted on our police forces. It’s not a bad argument by any means… [but] I’m not so sure.

Kain goes on to argue that the reason for his skepticism is simply that “these problems are structural rather than cultural.” He goes on:

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are essentially the same war when it comes to beefing up law enforcement at the expense of personal liberty. The War on Drugs already provided a good excuse for law enforcement to overstep its bounds; the War on Terror has led to much better armed police forces and the sprouting up of SWAT teams all across the country.

There are now over 100 SWAT team raids a day in the United States, mostly for non-violent offenses, and often leading to horrible things like police throwing flash bang grenades into a baby’s crib, or the killing of a seven-year old girl while a SWAT team raided the wrong apartment looking for a murder suspect (who was in the apartment above and gave himself up without violence) while A&E filmed the entire event for a reality TV show.

The problems are deep and they are profound, but they are not likely to be caused by video games. On the contrary, what creeps me out about this game is simply that it reflects a kind of social nonchalance and acceptance of some pretty horrific, unnecessary police violence not to mention the systematized discrimination that goes along with it. Consider what Scott Shackford had to say about gamer opinion in his piece for Reason:

The folks behind Battlefield Hardline might want to check out our Reason-Rupe analysis of poll responses by frequent gamers. We found they’re more likely to be concerned about the militarization of the police. From our survey, 70 percent of gamers think it’s too much for police forces to have access to military equipment and drones as tools for crime-fighting, compared to 57 percent of non-gamers. And nearly two-thirds of the gamers we polled believe that police officers aren’t held accountable for misconduct.

Shackford’s point appears to be something like: Hey, Battlefield, you’ve picked the wrong demographics here. Gamers are libertarian. They won’t go for this. But the logic is really kind of backwards. Gamers do tend to be left-libertarians, but that didn’t stop the game from becoming the #1 biggest selling 2015 launch (to date) in the UK. I’m not sure what the numbers look like in the US, but it’s clear millions of gamers are snatching up copies. If these guys–more suspicious of police militarization than the Average Joe–are untroubled by the game, what does that say?

So no: I don’t think violent video games lead directly to real-world violence and I doubt that a game glorifying police militarization is going to lead directly towards even more police militarization. But, even if Battlefield: Hardline is largely following a trend rather than setting one, it may still play a role in normalizing the police militarization we already have. For centuries we’ve had an American tradition of separating military and police forces, but that tradition doesn’t mean much anymore if the police and the military have become indistinguishable.
935 - Police Militarization

At this rate, I have to wonder if rising generations will even have a conceptual notion that there was ever a time when the police didn’t roll around in armored personnel carriers with fully-automatic weapons. And I think that just makes it a little bit harder to reverse the trajectory we’re currently on.


Our Immoral and Unconstitutional Tax System

937 - Taxes

It’s no secret that our complicated, burdensome tax system is hugely wasteful. According to a 2013 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University:

There were 4,428 changes to the Internal Revenue Code between 2001 and 2010, including an estimated 579 changes in 2010 alone. The tax code averages more than one change per day. The resulting complexity creates hidden compliance costs between $215 billion and $987 billion annually. To put this in perspective, total revenue collected by the federal government in 2012 was $2.5 trillion.

That’s bad enough, but a new article got me thinking about this issue in a different light. In The Income Tax is Immoral and Unconstitutional – and Not (Just) for the Reason You Think, Robin Koerner points out that the $2,000 he had to shell out to his accountant in order to generate 149 pages of tax documentation for his simple, small private business constitute a highly regressive tax burden. That’s the immorality of the tax code. The unconstitutionality, in Koerner’s view, comes from the fact that there is no practical way that a private US citizen is capable of filling out their taxes. Thus:

Finally, and most importantly – to any Constitutional attorney: I can’t pay you (see above), but I have a tax return that will make your eyes bleed. Get me in front of a jury or, better yet, the Supreme Court, and let us ask 12 or nine reasonable people if the burden of completing this particular tax return – a requirement I must meet to retain my liberty and my property – is reasonable or not. And if just one of the jury or bench believes that a reasonably educated person could accurately complete my tax return in a reasonable period, I’ll be happily defeated – as long as he shows me how.

Koerner is right. The American system of taxation is so monumentally and colossally stupid that no person could deliberately have concocted a scheme this awful. So why does it continue? Several reasons. Inertia is a big one. The fact that any attempt to reform gets mired in partisan gridlock is another. And then there’s the fact that the most sophisticated players in the world like it this way. It gives competitive advantages to large companies who can afford the expertise to fully leverage the tax code to their advantage, and also gives politicians one of their most prized trade goods to offer to backers in return for their support.

Oh, and Koerner isn’t kidding about the complexity. Last year, three different accountants tried to do my family’s taxes. All three failed to get them done correctly. When three different professional accounting firms can’t figure out how to pay your taxes for you, then you know the system has become a joke. Too bad it’s a joke that will have the severest repercussions for those least able to afford the punchline.

College Safe Spaces: Therapeutic or Intellectually Stifling?

The New York Times has a brand new article on “safe spaces” in college. Judith Shulevitz defines these spaces as “an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material…In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, “the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.” And this brings us to the heart of the matter:

…while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

Is this “safe” mentality on college campuses a good idea? Should students, say, be banned from participation due to controversial views? Check out the article and give it some thought.

Who’s Better At Science?

No one. Stop it. No seriously, stop.

The story of this thought starts here. Dan Kahan over at the Cultural Cognition blog found in his studies that, counter to his expectations, “identifying with the Tea Party correlates positively (r = 0.05,p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.” Aha, take that Democrats! Except Kahan very clearly states “the relationship is trivially small, and can’t possibly be contributing in any way to the ferocious conflicts over decision-relevant science that we are experiencing.” So what does the Tea Party do? Runs with it anyways like the Democrats have done before.

This is dumb and has to stop. Using statistics with zero understanding of both the particular study and statistics in general is going to show exactly one thing: your preexisting biases. But more importantly, this arguing back and forth about whose group is “better” at science or whose group “accepts” more science is often nothing more than an attempt to be “good” at science by osmosis. If my group is better at science, that must mean that I personally am better at science, right? Or if I accept more scientific conclusions, that must mean I am better at science? No, and no. For example:

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

Those who say they do “believe” are no more likely to be able to be able to give a high-school-exam passing account of natural selection, genetic variance, and random mutation — the basic elements of the modern synthesis — than than those who say they “don’t” believe.

In fact, neither is very likely to be able to, which means that those who “believe” in evolution are professing their assent to something they don’t understand.

That’s really nothing to be embarrassed about: if one wants to live a decent life — or just live, really –one has to accept much more as known by science than one can comprehend to any meaningful degree.

What is embarrassing, though, is for those who don’t understand something to claim that their “belief” in it demonstrates that they have a greater comprehension of science than someone who says he or she “doesn’t” believe it.

I agree with Kahan. Accepting at least some of the conclusions of science–and authorities in general–beyond our personal ability to verify is essentially prerequisite to functioning in this world. But let’s not pretend that means we understand science merely because we accept it. And let’s definitely not make science into another piece in the age old war of “who is the better, smarter, and more handsome group.” If you’re worried about the state of science, I can promise you that even a large number of yahoos believing silly things won’t destroy science, but politicizing science most certainly will.

Understanding the Cosmological Argument

I try to avoid Difficult Run posts that essentially regurgitate someone else’s blog post, but Edward Feser’s So you think you understand the cosmological argument? constitutes the best post I have read on both the cosmological argument itself and the general state of philosophy in the modern Western world. I’ll highlight my favorite parts (it’s decently long for a blog post) and comment.

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.  They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it.  If everything has a cause, then what caused God?  Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause?  Why assume the cause is God?  Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.  They never quote anyone defending it.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument.  Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.  And not anyone else either, as far as I know.  (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count.  I mean no one among prominent philosophers.)  And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also providearguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

The counterargument ‘so what caused God?’ is probably the single most common and the single most silly answer to the cosmological argument. And yet it’s so prominent that just a few months ago I heard Michael Shermer use it as a rebuttal in a debate at Oregon State University on the existence of God. I like to joke that asking ‘so what caused God?’ is equivalent to saying ‘I was asleep while my opponent gave the premises of the cosmological argument.’ Edward Feser goes on:

What [the cosmological argument] seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

The above, to me, has always been the power of the cosmological argument. The argument is not one of probability or likelihood. Rather, the cosmological argument posits an uncaused cause that must exist, and that no other possibility is logically coherent with existence. Onward and forward…
3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

The reason this is not a serious objection is that no version of the cosmological argument assumes this at all.  Of course, the kalām cosmological argument does claim that the universe had a beginning, but it doesn’t merely assume it.  Rather, the whole point of that version of the cosmological argument is to establish through detailed argument that the universe must have had a beginning.  You can try to rebut those arguments, but to pretend that one can dismiss the argument merely by raising the possibility of an infinite series of universes (say) is to miss the whole point.

The main reason this is a bad objection, though, is that most versions of the cosmological argument do not even claim that the universe had a beginning.  Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t even know the above. I thought the universe having a beginning played an important role in the cosmological argument. Turns out, the universe need not have a beginning for the most important forms of the cosmological argument to be just fine.

Later on Feser switches gears to challenging materialism in general. I appreciate the critiques down there as well, but they’re too long to re-quote here. I’d summarize them as the following:

1) Non-religious people are just as potentially motivated by desire for religion not to be true as religious people are motivated by desire for religion to be true. You’d think this point is obvious, since we’re all human beings with preconceptions and biases, but on a regular basis religious philosophers are suspected of bias while the same standard somehow doesn’t apply to non-religious philosophers.

2) Metaphysical naturalism cannot be taken for granted as the ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ view of reality, yet many philosophers do so, particularly philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of religion.

3) Science in no way proves metaphysical naturalism or disproves supernaturalism. Rather, the very common starting assumption of metaphysical naturalism causes people to circle science back around as ‘proof’ of metaphysical naturalism. I’ve also written on this topic before.

So there you have it. If you have time, give the full post a read.

Wealth’s Impact on Child Outcomes: Evidence from Sweden

Drawing on a large sample from Sweden, a new working paper suggests that wealth may not have much impact on child outcomes. From the abstract:

In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization, with the possible exception of a small reduction in the consumption of mental health drugs…In our intergenerational analyses, we find that wealth increases children’s health care utilization in the years following the lottery and may also reduce obesity risk. The effects on most other child outcomes, which include drug consumption, scholastic performance, and skills, can usually be bounded to a tight interval around zero. Overall, our findings suggest that correlations observed in affluent, developed countries between (i) wealth and health or (ii) parental income and children’s outcomes do not reflect a causal effect of wealth.

These findings should give us pause. Perhaps we as citizens and policy makers should be looking at other factors that truly impact the long-term well-being of children.

Yglesias: American Democracy is Doomed

This could have gone differently.
This could have gone differently.

Matthew Yglesias says American democracy is doomed. I am tempted to follow the lead of the good folks at Jr. Ganymede and conclude the opposite but–also like those good folks–I think Yglesias has a point. It’s a long article and it’s worth your time, but here’s the TL;DR:

The idea that America’s constitutional system might be fundamentally flawed cuts deeply against the grain of our political culture. But the reality is that despite its durability, it has rarely functioned well by the standards of a modern democracy. The party system of the Gilded Age operated through systematic corruption. The less polarized era that followed was built on the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans. The newer system of more ideological politics has solved those problems and seems in many ways more attractive. But over the past 25 years, it’s set America on a course of paralysis and crisis — government shutdowns, impeachment, debt ceiling crises, and constitutional hardball. Voters, understandably, are increasingly dissatisfied with the results and confidence in American institutions has been generally low and falling. But rather than leading to change, the dissatisfaction has tended to yield wild electoral swings that exacerbate the sense of permanent crisis.

Yglesias goes on to say that, despite all these handicaps, the American political system has been incredibly lucky. And that it’s luck is potentially about to run out.

Me? I’ve got one thing to add. As quaint as it may seem, I think that we spend a little too much time focusing on the formal infrastructure of government: on the bureaucracies and the laws, the offices and the branches. The most important ingredients, I think, are the social ones. This is why I have so little interest in politics these days. It’s not just the cynicism. It’s the belief that politics is just the surface, and that the problems–and the solutions–lay in the depths below.

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)