Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who's Cooler?

Ron Swanson or Bert Cooper? Discuss.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hip Revelation

A co-worker recently argued that LDS revelation actually often reflects trends in society, but that Mormons don't like to admit it because it tends to undermine the assertion that revelation is inspired by god. To support this thesis he gives two examples: The first is the word of wisdom, which he says followed the dietary trends of the day, and the second is allowing blacks to hold the priesthood, which followed the civil rights movement. I added the ban on polygamy, which arguably caved into federal government pressure brought on by political forces of that day.

This argument really seems to get at three separate questions.1) Do Mormons acknowledge these trends as context for the revelations? 2) Do LDS revelations follow these trends? and 3) If so, does that mean that these revelations are not inspired?

I think the answers to these questions depend on the exact revelation at issue. Take the word or wisdom, for example. Mormons generally don't talk about this revelation in the context of the dietary movements at the time, however, Sylvester Graham was a contemporary of Joseph Smith, and preached eating bland foods to suppress sexual desire. That movement lasted some time, as Corn Flakes were also part of it, which were not created until the early 1900. The word or wisdom was received in 1833, but was advisory at that time, and only really enforced after the turn of the century. 

So there is a rough correlation, but I have to wonder what this means. Was it the original revelation or the subsequent interpretation making following the revelation mandatory that was the trend-following act? Or was this simply a 80 year trend influencing the initial revelation, and subsequent change from advisory to mandatory status. Doesn't it seem as though the revelation was actually precipitated by trend-following it would have come at the peak of The Graham diets influence instead of over time in two separate revelations? I also have to wonder why the word of wisdom is not or has not, to my knowledge, been justified as suppressing sexual desire (has it?). So while there is some correlation, it does not seem very likely that there is actual causation between the two (not that I've actually done any research to determine whether LDS leaders were influenced by the Graham diet/movement).

As to the extending the priesthood to blacks, LDS church members do talk about the civil rights context sometimes in church. Also, many member were alive at the time of the movement and are aware of when the revelation came down. Again the revelation was close in time with the civil rights movement, but actually some time after it. The priesthood was extended in 1978, which is a good time after the civil rights act of 1964, although obviously the act isn't necessarily when prejudice was "overcome." So, Mormons generally acknowledge the civil rights context, and an argument can be made that the revelation trend following, although that argument seems only based on the close proximity in time of the revelation and civil right movement.

In banning polygamy, however, Mormons always acknowledge context. At the time there was considerable political pressure to end the practice, and Wilford Woodruff acknowledged that he had a vision of government suppression if it continued, so polygamy was ended. Again, you could argue that the revelation was simply opportunistic caving to political pressure, but Mormons readily acknowledge the circumstances and pressure.

So you can argue that these revelations correlate with trends or events of the day. 

Mormons, however, also believe in modern revelation. The premise of modern revelation, is that the church needs to adapt or change doctrine or policies to accommodate changing circumstances in the world. Thus, it makes complete sense that, as circumstances change, the doctrine is going to change, too, otherwise, there would be no need for modern revelation. While sometimes the doctrine changes in a way the reflects worldly wisdom--such as extending civil rights--at other times, the doctrine changes or repudiates worlds wisdom, such as LDS modern revelation that gender is innate, spiritual part of who we are, or that marriage is for heterosexual couples only. Similarly some doctrines don't change in the face of social trends, like the doctrine that premarital sex is immoral has remained constant, despite a strong worldly consensus that it perfectly fine. So my conclusion is that my co-workers argument suffers from the assumption that correlation amounts to causation, and also from selection bias.

Keys to the Kingdom III

Here's my latest theory: The locution that apostles have "all priesthood keys but lack the authority to exercise those keys" actually means that they have some actual keys they can exercise, and they also have the right to exercise all priesthood keys if certain contingencies happen--namely, they outlive all the apostles ahead of them, or all other apostles. The locution is a claim on future power to govern.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More Cowbell!

Here's kind of an interesting video with Michael Moore. Reports say that in his new movie Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore takes shots at capitalism for bailing out big business, and calls for a government run by the people.

The irony is that Moore is calling for more government to fix a problem created by government, not free markets. The bailout money paid to politically connected businesses was government's doing, and had nothing to do with free markets.

Markets, in contrast, create competition among businesses, which lower prices, creates efficiency and gives consumers choices. Free-marketeers support markets because they are pro-consumer, not pro-business. They only praise business when it succeeds by giving consumers what they want in free markets. Businesses, on the other hand, would like nothing more to establish monopoly power, which hurts consumers and markets.

It's funny how people who criticize markets and call for more government regulation, are frequently, if not usually, criticizing not markets, but the consequences of some unnecessary government intervention into markets.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Party of Death II

How does the position that, from conception on, humans have a right not to be killed mesh with Mormon theology? At first glance, you'd think that because Mormons are strongly and almost uniformly pro-life, (both culturally and as a mater of doctrine) this conception-is-the-beginning position would mesh well. However, Mormon doctrine, which allows for abortion in cases of incest and rape, is inconsistent with life beginning at conception. Also, Mormons are allowed to use the pill.

Ponnuru argues that drawing any line after conception leads to a strange, unworkable duality. While specifically addressing the argument that humans acquire the right not to die when they acquire some higher level of brain function, he writes:
First: By treating human organisms and "persons" as separate, though mostly overlapping, categories, it assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely "inhabits." The "person" is an aware, conscious "self" that floats above the body, as a sort of ghost in the machine. An embryonic (and fetal, and infant) body comes into existence before this person does, and the person can die before the body does. But this dualism is untenable. It contradicts everyday experience: We sense and perceive, which are clearly bodily actions, but also engage in conceptual thinking, which cannot be reduced to bodily actions; and it is clearly the same subject who does both types of things. The dualist who utters his idea refutes in the act of voicing it. We are (among other things) our bodies. p.86
I guess you could say he recognizes some separation when he says "engaging in conceptual thinking . . . cannot be reduced to bodily actions." So we are more than just our bodies, but also our bodies. Still it seems to me that Ponnuru decries the idea that we are somehow separable from our bodies, and that is exactly what Mormons believe: body and spirit are separate (duality). Our spirit enters our body at (or probably some time before) birth and exit our bodies at death.

Accepting this duality, Mormons can then draw a principled line after conception. The question for a Mormon is not: when does "biological" life begin, but instead when does the spirit enter the body? Drawing the line there means Mormons can allow for some abortion before the spirit enters the body, for instance in cases of rape and incest. It also means Mormons can support embryo destructive research if the embryo is destroyed before the spirit enters the body.

Still there are problems with this line. For instance, if it's okay to kill an embryo before the spirit enters, why is it not okay to have an abortion for other reasons, (like birth control) before the spirit enters the body? Also when does the spirit enter the body?

There may be an answer to the first question. Mormons believe that the we come to earth to get a body. Clearly what is forming inside the mother at conception is a body, so perhaps there is still some moral reason not to disrupt this process or destroy this body even though it doesn't contain a spirit. Perhaps the reason that abortion is "like murder" , but not actually murder, is because abortion destroys the forming body, which is clearly an important part of our souls (body and spirit together). if we are prohibiting abortion for this lesser reason, then we might also permit abortion in cases where there is compelling reason, like to find a cure for disease or to restore choice to a woman who was raped. But if this is the case, what is the compelling reason for allowing abortion in the case of incest? The mother was not denied her initial choices. Or what is the reason for allowing Mormons to use the pill? Convenient birth control doesn't seem like a great reason to allow for even pre-spirit abortions.

And the second question is harder. If we suppose that Mormons permit abortion in cases of rape and incest because the abortion happens before the spirit enters the body, Mormons should still prohibited abortion after the spirit enters the body. So when exactly does that happen? Mormons doctrine allows women who fit within one of the exceptions to make the decision to have an abortion based on their own revelation. Not exactly a bright line.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Party of Death

Just finished reading The Party of Death.  I wanted to sharpen my thinking about life-and-death issues, and the book has helped me do that, so it's a worthwhile reading. Being pro-life, I agree with the majority of the positions Ponnuru takes. Still there are areas where following the principles in the book lead to uncomfortable, or possibly incorrect, conclusions.

Boiling down the arguments in the book, Ponnuru contends that all humans have the right to life and that life begins at conception. Abortion, then, is killing human life and immoral. (A pretty standard pro-life argument). While abortion proponents argue that there is some other line to draw after conception, Ponnuru counters that those arguments rest on the premise that not all humans have the same claim on life. He then goes through these arguments and shows why the different line in the sand are unprincipled or unworkable.

My first problem with saying the right to life begins at conception is that some forms of birth control then become abortion. The morning after pill, which discharges fertilized egg, is the same as having an abortion. Normal birth control pills sometimes also discharge fertilized eggs too. Ponnuru says taking the pill is different from abortion because, in abortion the intent is to end human life, whereas taking the pill may have that effect of ending life, but the intent is not to end life. Intent certainly is an important part of our culpability for our actions, but actions that result in death still result in death, regardless of their intent. Thus, I think that, if you view conception as the beginning of human life you also have to be against the pill as a form of negligent killing. As an analogy, if abortion were the equivalent to first-degree murder, then using the pill would be negligent homicide--not as bad, but still morally reprehensible.

Ponnuru does concede "there may be an argument against playing Russian Roulette [by using the pill]." That's an understatement. There's not just an argument; the logic compels a ban on using the pill. (Other birth control methods that prevent conception, like condoms, would still be fine, though.)

The second problem with contending that conception is the beginning of life is that no allowance should be make for abortion cases of rape or incest. People like to frame the abortion debate in terms of whether or not a woman has a "right to choose [an abortion]." The-right-to-choose language, however, is a canard because a right to choose will always give way to the right to life. The issue is not choice, but when life begins (or the right to no be killed begins). But once this "meaningful" life begins, what does it matter whether or not the mother ever had a choice in the matter? If the baby has a right not to die, it shouldn't matter how it came into existence. If meaningful life begins at conception, there should be no exceptions to ban on abortion for incest or rape.

I think this logic has some important implications for Mormons, which I'll get to in a future post.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Women Judges

Here's an interesting post on why women judges, who apparently do worse than men by most academic measures, actually turn out to to be decent judges (at least by some measures). The three proposed explanations for this apparent paradox are:
1) women are, innately or by virtue of their experience, better judgers than men, 2) that the legal hierarchy's traditional measures of success don't work, or 3) that the study's empirics are off because it's not measuring judicial quality correctly.
Here's my theory/fourth option: being a judge is such an easy job that anyone of average legal competence can do it. In contrast, developing a case is hard work. The lawyers litigating the case have to develop the right facts and good legal arguments. But once the case is before a judge, all the judge has to do is select the correct legal theory to decide the case, which more likely than not, has been extensively briefed by the lawyers. Recognizing the strongest argument is way easier than actually thinking up an argument. Then the judge writes an opinion, rewording and essentially plagerizing the selected argument the prevailing party's lawyer made. Should the correct argument not be before the judge, or should it be hard to spot, the judge can rely upon his or her clerks to do research and/or spot the correct argument.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Can I like Pearl Jam Again?

At one point in my life there was nothing I'd have liked more than to be the third guitarist in Pearl Jam. I stopped intensely liking Pearl Jam some times ago. I'm exactly sure why.

A large part of the change has gotta be just changing musical tastes. Also, Pearl Jam is linked with certain memories in my life,--mostly good memories, true--but, I don't like to look back that much. I can usually only remember two things: past good memories and past embarrassing memories. Remembering the embarrassing things is, well, vicariously embarrassing. Remembering the good times brings back that slightly painful nostalgia.

I think probably the thing that made it so that I never listen to Pearl Jam, however, are their politics. Eddie Vedder was always liberal, writing "pro-choice" on his arm during MTV unplugged session, and doing pro-choice monkey wrench radio DJing. But until Bush was elected, the politics didn't make it into the music. After, however, it was "Bu$hleaguer" "Life Wasted" "Army Reserve" "World Wide Suicide", "Marker in the Sand" and probably other songs I can't think of. Basically every song in the Pearl Jam album was a protest song. There was rock the vote, too. And despite all the songs about "love," Vedder was smashing effigies of George W. Bush on stage.

So one good thing about Obama's election is that Pearl Jam can finally stop writing songs about George Bush, and maybe I can start liking them again.

So here's the new single, which I do very much like.

And while we're talking music, here's some other good stuff I've been listening to:

Metric is now on my short list of good bands. I discovered them a long time ago, but again, couldn't swallow the politics. Apparently Emily Haines is kind of a cokehead. Also the guitarist seems like guitarist guy cliche. Their stuff is so good, though.

With Sarkozy and Phoenix, and the fact that more than half of French people would move to U.S if they could, I might actually have to start liking France:

I don't know If I like this band, but I do like this song (and yes I did hear it in that Palm Pre commercial).

Ahh, the Yeah Yeah Yeah's. Yes, Karen O has the worst 1970 low budget Sci-Fi movie costume on. Yes, her hair is cut like a pre-pubescent boys. Show Your Bones is still one of my favorite albums.

Noticing a trend? Female rock vocals. Here's a pretty sweet band I discovered only the other day. The singer kind of freaks me out, though, because while she's attractive, she also looks like John Heder.

And finally, let's finish off with The Velvet Teen. They're recording a new album and I'm excited. Listening to the Velvet Teen is like living in your own world, because no one knows who they are. And that's a shame. First something easy to listen to.

Now for the advanced listener:

Paradox of Thrift II

You can read the first post in this series here. I think I now see Fazzari's point.

Fazzari presents an example where a family has a choice of spending 5 dollars at a restaurant or saving 5 dollars. He proposes spending the 5 dollars is better than saving--I think--because you get 5 dollars of economic activity plus the economic activity created by the bank loaning out the money, whereas when the family simply saves the 5 dollars, they are 5 dollars of economic activity behind.

So "saving" then creates a multiplier, like spending, but the savings mutiplier is weaker than the spending multiplier because the entire amount is not spent initially. Instead the bank-savings multiplier is like the tax-cut multiplier. In keynsian economics, the tax cut multiplier is smaller than the government-spending multiplier because when the government cut taxes, the person recieving the tax cut has the option of saving part of the initial amount instead spending it, reducing the multiplier effect of tax cuts. Although under my new understanding, the saved money will also be spent by the bank-loan reciepient, some small portion (the reserve portion) will in fact be saved, making the tax-cut multiplier effect smaller than the spending multiplier.

Except it turns out that the actual evidence is that the tax multiplier is greater than the spending multiplier. Mankiw gives a possible explaination here. Maybe economics is intuitive and not a paradox at all.