Two Things

I guess you could say two things that I think really count. I could write about the chaos in the White House where we find nepotism gone awry, but that is being adequately covered. I could write about “white lies” (Hope Hicks) and her failure to answer questions that the Republicans will just blow over and now her sudden departure.  But the media is all over those items.  Guns are getting crazy, but the kids from Parkland may be taking them on and it is spreading, and guns are just the tip of the iceberg. We may have reached a tipping point and not just in global warming. See where Dick’s Sporting Goods saw the light? Walmart is now right in there. So I am going to write about two of my favorite not so headline issues, the economy and religion, and note that both issues are fraught with hidden bias.

Let’s start with the easier one, economics. Paul Krugman wrote a blog (NYT took over his blog as I guess they want to own everything he says) about what we all know to be true, the tax cut was is not a flow down to workers. That effect is negligible, most of the money is being used for stock buybacks, not investment in capital, and was as we knew it was, a big corporate give away.

The numbers we have so far show that the much-hyped bonuses are trivial – less than $6 billion, or 0.03% of GDP – while stock buybacks have been more than $170 billion. And many of those bonuses would probably have happened anyway, whereas stock buybacks are running far above historical levels.

But he made a very easy to follow (which for economists is rare) argument about how the economy works with tax cuts and the simplified model goes like this:

Whatever the number [salary increases], however, it’s about the long run. It requires a chain of events: lower taxes -> higher investment -> higher stock of capital -> higher demand for labor -> higher wages. And this chain of events should take a number of years, probably decades, to fully work itself through. Even in the most favorable analyses, there is no reason to expect any wage gains in the first few months after a tax cut.

And note this caveat: “How much of a trickle-down effect depends on a bunch of technical factors: what share of corporate profits represents monopoly rents rather than returns to capital, how responsive inflows of foreign capital are to the U.S. rate of return, what share of the capital stock is even affected by the corporate tax rate.” So why am I boring you with all this economic talk?

Well Paul, a much smarter man than I, has it right, but does not put enough emphasis on the statement “what share of corporate profits represents monopoly rents…“. Rents in economic speak are profits derived from a product that you do not improve on (no further capital investment) but makes more profit because you have cornered the market. Profits on a monopoly. Think real estate. It gets scarcer, you can raise the rent making more money by no additional investment by you. In the corporate world that means no new jobs. You are extracting money from the economy with no investment in capital or labor to create anything.

What is happening I believe, which is changing economics, is that monopoly rents, whether it be Facebook, Microsoft, or big Pharma (just examples) is where we are going and driving more and more economic inequality. That coupled with finding ways to reduce labor costs and mechanize to maximize share holder earnings (profits) dooms any tax cut to corporations to help wages or spark capital investment. My point is simple. The basic models still function, but some of the variables in that market have changed and have more impact than in the past.  The old ideas about cause and effect may have been changed so that all roads leads to more economic inequality no  matter how much you believe in your ideology and maybe it is time to change the rules.

Okay, so much for economics, what about religion? Monday I used other’s writings to slam Ross Douthat’s position on hating liberals  (make no mistake, his passive aggressive writing about liberals should not be misinterpreted) and their allegiance to humanistic secular approach to science and data.  Well today New York Editor, David Leonhardt took me on (figuratively since I am nobody in particular). It went like this:

The benefits of faith. In his Sunday column this week, Ross Douthat issued something of a challenge to secular liberals. They think of themselves as empiricists, Ross wrote, but they’re actually close-minded about several powerful forces for good, starting with religion.

“When people and societies are genuinely curious,” he continued, “they are very reasonably curious about everything, including things happening in their bodies and their consciousness and more speculative realms.”

The column reminded me of a pattern that, as a secular liberal myself, I’ve long found inconvenient: Religion is correlated with a lot of healthy behaviors and positive outcomes. All else equal, religious people have higher educational attainment, earn more money, use drugs and alcohol less and commit fewer crimes, according to a long line of social-science studies (that have frequently been done by secular liberals).

The question about these findings is the old correlation-causation question: Does religious faith lead to these healthy behaviors? Or is something else, independent of faith, causing them?

He then goes on to describe a study where 15 weeks of classes were given to more than 6,000 very poor Filipinos, some of whom received a version that combined religious teachings with advice on health and employment and others received only the nonreligious parts. By comparing the different batches of students, the economists hoped to isolate the effect of religion. After some time the religious groups were doing better. So religion is good right?

No study is definitive. But I do find the overall evidence of religion’s ancillary benefits to be strong. That evidence hasn’t made me personally religious. I’m still quite comfortable with my secularism. But the evidence has made me more humble and open-minded about how the world can go about solving some of its problems.

I found the avowed secular liberal to be illogical. First did he read Socrate’s listing of some of the other things religion has brought us in pain, suffering, and blocking progress? If you are burned at the stake for your heresy you might not be so sanguine about religion. Certainly religion does have beneficial effects. The belief that Jesus is your savior and he will forgive you and give you strength has helped untold thousands redeem their lives. It has also created a moral certitude that has tortured or killed untold millions. I would not argue that a belief can not give you strength and comfort, but a belief is not a truth.

The other problem here is define religion. Is that a belief in some mystical fairy godfather who you should thank for your home runs, praise when you are not drowned in a flood, but nor held responsible for others who did die, or is religion really more about an adherence to a strict moral code? That last one defies explanation when you consider Trump and Evangelical Christians.

I believe that one could argue that during the development of mankind, religion was a necessary part of socializing and allowing people to live together. But science has undone many of the mystical fantasy beliefs that explained what was at that time unexplainable. It has raised real questions about some of the moral and ethical values of religious writings. What is left, I believe, is something that for our future is the only path forward, not a religion with its moral certitude and cruelty (whose God, whose truth), but a moral philosophy open to the testing of its truths, and change when they don’t stand up. Oh, if only Muslims could evolve like many religions have in the modern world. No, their religion is designed so it is almost impossible. Well for that matter, oh could Evangelicals just evolve although there are some cracks when they have friends who are gay and start wondering how they are so evil. You know, that reality thing instead of God’s law defined by who again?

Discussing religion with the majority of people is a loosing battle because indoctrination from birth provides biases that can live in deep denial. Maybe there is some Supreme Being, but that raises the question where did he come from, and who is his god. And of course the one thing we know is empirically, good people die sad deaths and bad people live on. See Trump in the White House. Good or bad is up to us, not some Supreme Being.

I would argue that if the study were done again and the religious training were substituted with a moral philosophy that included the belief that we are all in this together, kindness and charity is the guiding principle, and we are connected and give one another strength (Yo! This could be any number of religions, especially Christianity without Jesus), you would get the same result. Science, data, and rational thought guide our moral beliefs, and inform our philosophy. Maybe there is a force out there, but to assume that religion is the only path to a better society, well that is just not science or rational thinking. I would also argue that even we atheists can and do have a moral philosophy that allows us to be way more Christian than most of the Christians I see in Washington today.  Just saying.

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