Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade Ends Tonight

The Gregorian Calendar has a bug, in that it maps years to integers but fails to map any year to the integer zero.  There's no reason for this bug to prevent native speakers from defining "the seventies" as 1970-1979, or defining "the twentieth century" as 1900-1999.  No dead Pope gets to overrule what we native speakers currently mean by the words and phrases in our language.

If the Gregorian Calendar started from the year 2, who would say that the present decade will continue for another two years?

Friday, October 30, 2009

NORAD and 9/11

NORAD was never advertised as being able to prevent hijackings.
Throughout most of my life, there have been thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S. Some of those nuclear weapons were targeted straight at the SAC bases on which I and my family lived during both the 1962 DEFCON 2 and the 1973 DEFCON 3. When I was a kid and the network signal went out on the TV, I quickly switched channels to another network, to test whether New York had been vaporized and I thus had only a couple minutes to live. And yet, none of those nuclear weapons ever hit the U.S., or were ever used to coerce us.
So yeah, I’d say NORAD lived up to its advertising.
As for the gap in our defenses revealed by Mohamed Atta on the morning of 9/11: that problem was fixed within an hour by a small group of heroes in the skies above Pennsylvania.  Their number included Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, Todd Beamer, and Sandra Bradshaw.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Non-Profits and Land Value Taxation

Churches and other non-profits are usually exempt from property taxes, but there's no good reason for treating them differently. 

Example: In the Silicon Valley suburb where I live, land is worth about $2 million per acre. There is a 20-acre monastery here (adjacent to the mansion recently sold by Barry Bonds, and down the street from Cisco's CEO) where 16 cloistered elderly nuns sleep on straw mattresses, have no TV, and wake up in the middle of the night to pray.  Their only "work" is "prayer", and they live only on "alms". I kid you not:

Example: About a mile north of here are hundreds of acres of land owned by Stanford University in the hills above campus, with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay.  Nearly all of the land is off-limits to everyone but -- wait for it -- cows.  The university grazes a handful of cows there, in order to comply with Leland Stanford's requirement that a demonstration farm be maintained on a portion of the vast amount of land he used to create the university.

So we have nuns and cows, both sleeping on straw, keeping hundreds of acres of prime Silicon Valley land off the market, thus propping up property values for me and my zillionaire CEO neighbors, and making sure that their gardeners and maids can't afford to live anywhere near them.

For the market to be able to guide all land to its best use, all land has to be treated equally -- even land owned by churches and governments.  If people really value churches, they'll either pay for them to occupy prime sites, or they'll drive a little further when they want to go pray as a group.

Why Not "Save Lives" With Single-Payer Healthcare?

To a Green who asks "why is it patently wrong for it to “initiate force,” a.k.a raise taxes a little bit, in order to save (for the sake of argument) 18,000 lives?"

You have to distinguish between 1) personal ethics in a lifeboat or Trolley Problem scenario and 2) institutional design of government.

If, by some quirk of science fiction or historical accident, I were personally faced with a lifeboat-style choice, I would make what I consider to be the utility-maximizing choice. And if that involved violating anyone’s individual rights, then I would subject myself to the judgment of a jury of my peers.
But I don’t face such a choice, and neither do you, and neither does President Obama. What we as a polity instead face is a choice about the institutional design of government.  I maintain that the design I favor actually saves more lives than yours does in the long run.  One of the ways it does that: for any level of income redistribution that you might fantasize about, my design will actually deliver that increase in living standards within two or three decades.  And then it will deliver another such increase in the subsequent decades, while your nanny state has imposed Eurosclerotic pressure against such growth in our living standards.
Another way it does that is by restoring nature’s safety net, by ensuring that everyone enjoys their inalienable right of equal access to the natural commons of the Earth. The details require understanding a technical economic concept called ground rent, but the result is what we geolibertarians call a citizen’s dividend.  It’s a handy thing, because it erases your claim that my design will leave the indigent to die on the street.  Sorry, but you’ll have to find a less melodramatic and emotional argument to support your proposed design.
Of course, you still won’t agree that my design works better, because you probably think that the outcomes we both want will only happen if centrally planned and imposed by force.  So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re right, and that we can in the long run prevent more deaths by means of forcible government appropriation of people’s labor, peaceful production, and voluntary exchanges.
If so, then I have some questions for how you plan to legislate your moral calculus. How much of other people’s money are you willing to spend to save one more life?  How do you decide that level?  And how do you decide how far your concern reaches?  Will you be rescuing all the cheap-to-save people in Africa before you start rescuing the expensive-to-save people here in America?  If not, then how are you not a horrible xenophobic monster?
(Note to any observant anarchist critics following along: I consider it crucial that such a calculus should not be legislated, but also unavoidablethat cops and soldiers must apply some such calculus — because they are in the lifeboat business. Their decisions are to be reviewed by jurors and voters, not pre-programmed by legislators.)
Whence individual rights?  Great question.  Not from any gods — they don’t exist. For the purposes of political discourse, I stand with Jefferson.  In this context, I hold these truths to be literally self-evident:
  • All persons are created equal, and are endowed at their creation with the inalienable right of equal access to the natural commons of the Earth — everything that is neither a person nor in any way a product of persons.
  • Each person has full rights to his body, labor, peaceful production, and voluntary exchanges, but he must compensate those whose access he impairs when he monopolizes, depletes, pollutes, or congests a natural commons.
If, for whatever reason, you think that some people don’t deserve these rights, or that nobody fully deserves all these rights, then there are inherent limits to how far we’ll be able to get along peacefully. If your vision of government becomes too destructive of these individual rights, then I agree with Jefferson that it is the right of me and my neighbors to alter or to abolish your government, and to agree to such new governance as to us shall seem most likely to protect our liberty.
But I doubt it will come to that, and to help prevent it I’m willing to share my own underlying political ethics with you. (This has nothing to do with metaphysics, which is the study of being.)  It’s too long to paste here, but my ethics are described in the Axiology section of my book.  Enjoy.
I have to say, I find your last sentence very disturbing: "Our country is wealthy enough to afford medicare-for-all, so health care should become a human right".  Are you seriously advocating as a principle of ethics that your mere proximity to wealth entitles you to a share of it?  I.e. that what rights you have changes according to how much stuff is owned by the people around you?  Can you please explain how this ethical principle is distinguishable from that of a common thief?  Has some god vouched that your utility function is more noble than the thief’s?  Would you bet that there are no thieves in the world who give a bigger fraction of their income to charity than you do?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

All Bets Are Off In Evolutionary Transitions

The always-brilliant Robin Hanson writes:
as long as enough people are free to choose their fertility, at near enough to the real cost of fertility, with anything near the current range of genes, cultures, and other heritable influences on fertility, then in the long run we should expect to see a substantial fraction of population with an heritable inclination to double their population at least every century.
Yes, that should be our default expectation, but this expectation can be undermined by another mechanism if it's powerful enough. The obvious candidate is genetic evolution becoming subservient to memetic evolution. At this stage in our species' history, it's hard to imagine more powerful evidence for the growing dominance of this new mechanism than the Demographic Transition. Still, we'd be more confident that this overthrow will be long-term if we could name other cases where the blind urge to reproduce had been enduringly subliminated to the needs of other replicating systems.

Luckily, John Maynard Smith wrote a book consisting of a list of such cases: The Major Transitions In Evolution. The most relevant transitions from his list:
  • eukaryotic endosymbiosis
  • sex
  • multicellularity
  • biological colonialism, especially eusociality
In each case, individual replicators sacrificed -- perhaps unwittingly or unwillingly -- their reproductive interests for the sake of replication happening at a different level of abstraction. (Would we say it was a lower level of abstraction -- gene vs. individual -- in the case of sex, and a higher level -- individual vs. group -- for the rest?)

Of course, Maynard Smith (why does he get two last names? could his kids demand four?) already listed sociocultural evolution as the most recent transition. I hope my values aren't biasing my forecast when I say I'm optimistic that this transition to memetic evolution will have a similarly enduring effect on the reproductive behaviors of the biological substrate on which it runs.

However, I doubt that the Earth will be a valid testbed for Robin's hypothesis, because I stand by my prediction in 2000 that heat pollution will in a few centuries start imposing severe and permanent pressure against growth in global standards of living.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rent-Seeking In America

I'd say that most Americans get some kind of ill-gotten gain from force initiation. Examples:
  • Landholders enjoy land prices artificially raised by growth limits, zoning rules, and capitalization of tax-financed government services.
  • Homeowners enjoy subsidized or guaranteed mortgages.
  • Renters often enjoy rent controls and eviction limits.
  • Stockholders benefit from corporations being shielded by limited liability, and from bailouts socializing their losses.
  • Exporters enjoy subsidies; importers enjoy tariffs and quotas.
  • Fossil fuel companies generally don't pay market prices for resource severance.
  • Nuclear power companies enjoy legislated limits on their liability.
  • Agribusiness and farmers enjoy subsidies, price controls, land set-asides, below-cost water, import quotas/tariffs, etc.
  • Media corporations enjoy restrictions on technology for manipulating content, and excessive copyright tenure.
  • Pharma, software and others enjoy unreasonable patent advantages.
  • Land developers enjoy eminent domain abuses.
  • Seniors enjoy a retirement pyramid scheme and health insurance funded via inter-generational theft.
  • Union workers enjoy antitrust exemptions, and laws about closed shops, prevailing wages, good-faith bargaining, etc.
  • Employees enjoy restrictions on employers regarding wages, hours, hiring, and firing.
  • Teachers, nurses, firemen, police, prison guards, and many other government workers receive excessive disability and retirement benefits in exchange for their bloc voting.
  • Doctors, lawyers, many engineers and other "professionals" enjoy competition limits via occupational licensure.
This list of rent-seekers is just a start — you could add to it using almost any item from this list of agencies and laws to abolish. Of course, many people are both victims and beneficiaries of various kinds of rent-seeking and force-initiation. My judgment is that the net tangible benefits of all this force initiation generally flow 1) from the more-productive to the less-productive (whether poor or wealthy), 2) from competitive sectors to monopoly-ridden sectors, and 3) from the young to the old. The flow of opportunity costs is much harder to evaluate, and eliminating all this aggression would be massively positive-sum, so even people who might appear to be net beneficiaries of rent-seeking shouldn't be assumed to be worse off it were all gone.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Role of Gospel Evidence in Early Christian Proselytizing

Some of the strongest evidence against the supernatural miracle accounts in the gospels can be found in how the Acts of the Apostles say the followers of Jesus used those accounts in their initial proselytizing. How were those accounts used? As far as we can tell: not at all. Christian apologists now say that the gospels were eyewitness accounts that surely must have withstood all skeptical scrutiny as the apostles eagerly spread them throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. However, we learn from Acts itself that these accounts were not used in proselytizing until after all prospect of skeptical rebuttal had been foreclosed by the passage of time. This article is a detailed examination of the role (or lack thereof) that the gospel evidence played in the growth of Christianity that is documented in Acts.

Despite all the alleged miracles performed during Jesus's ministry, and despite all the supernatural Easter events allegedly witnessed by all of Jerusalem, the Jesus movement had dwindled after Easter to at most 120 people [Acts 1:15]. They could all fit in one house [Acts 2:2], and apparently were all Galileans [Acts 2:7].

Acts says the Apostles did not start preaching the Resurrection until seven weeks after Easter, well after Jesus had ended his series of ambiguous private "appearances" to a few people among his now-leaderless band of disciples. At that first Pentecost, the crowd apparently arrived too late to see the "tongues of fire", and the speaking in tongues was so unimpressive that some dismissed it as drunkenness [Acts 2:13]. Peter's speech to the crowd is quoted in detail, but nowhere in it does he invoke any of the spectacular Easter miracles that all of Jerusalem should have known happened in the previous month. Despite mentioning David's tomb [Acts 2:29], Peter does not try to invoke any empty tomb as evidence for the Resurrection, but instead merely cites scripture and the private appearances that the apostles were alleging [Acts 2:32]. Peter's speech nevertheless recruited 3000 new disciples [Acts 2:41] -- whereas all the alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry and spectacular Easter sacrifice had netted only 120 disciples.

The next episode in Acts similarly makes zero reference to the alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry. Peter faith-heals a crippled beggar, and "all the people" recognized him as a long-time beggar at the Temple [Acts 3:10]. In Peter's detailed speech he admonishes the crowds for being amazed at this miracle, but the only event he invokes from Jesus's recent ministry was the (non-miraculous) crucifixion. The rest of Peter's proofs consist of vouching for Jesus's resurrection and claiming that the resurrection was prophesied. The Temple authorities arrested Peter, but felt constrained from further punishment only because "everybody living in Jerusalem knows" [Acts 4:16] of this faith-healing of a man allegedly crippled for 40 years [Acts 4:22]. The authorities had zero concern that the people might remember any of the spectacular alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry -- miracles that climaxed only a few months earlier with earthquakes and a mid-day eclipse and zombies swarming the city [Mt 27:53].

After Peter taunts a husband and wife as they are being struck dead for not donating all of their land-sale proceeds to the apostles, Acts 5 records in detail the next confrontation between the miracle-working apostles and the Temple authorities. Again, the only evidence invoked in Peter's speech is the private resurrection appearances [Acts 5:32]. The Pharisee Gamaliel defends the apostles by comparing their movement to those of Judas the Galilean and Theudas, who "claimed to be somebody [as] about four hundred men rallied to him" [Acts 5:36]. Gamaliel gives no hint that any of these three leaders were claimed to be miracle-workers, and suggests that the only way to tell if the Jesus movement is divinely inspired is to see whether it fails like the other two did. Note that the author of Acts is confused about Palestinian chronology, as the revolt of Theudas did not occur until about a decade after the events of Acts 5. However, it remains an embarrassing admission that in Peter's defense the Jesus movement is not evaluated on its supernatural, but rather on its similarity with failed non-supernatural movements.

The next confrontation with skeptics in Acts is over the ministry of Stephen. He "did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people" [Acts 6:8], but no mention is made of him citing any miracles of Jesus's ministry. His opponents "could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke" [Acts 6:10], but there is no mention of any difficulty skeptics had in standing up against Jesus's record as a miracle-worker. Fifty verses of Acts 7 records Stephen's lengthy defense of his ministry, recounting the mistreatment of prophets throughout Jewish history. Stephen makes only one claim about Jesus's ministry: that Jesus was killed. On the brink of execution, Stephen did not try to cite a single one of the miracles that the gospels credit to Jesus's ministry, and Stephen's own recent "wonders and miraculous signs" were somehow not enough to save him (in contrast to the single faith-healing that saved Peter in Acts 4).

Acts 8 says that with Stephen's martyrdom "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria". Jerusalem was the site of Jesus's most spectacular miracles, and the central crossroads where the gospel miracle accounts should have been hardest to dispute, and yet the Jesus movement was unable to have any success there. Instead, it succeeded only as its outreach spread in time and space away from the scene of the allegedly-miraculous climax of Jesus's ministry.

Acts 8 says that Philip proclaimed the Messiah in Samaria, but the only "miraculous signs" used to persuade his audience were his own: "spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed" [Acts 8:7]. The gospel accounts of Jesus's miracles played no apparent role in Philip's successes.

Acts 8 also reveals that so-called miracles weren't always good evidence of divine commission: "Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, 'This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.' They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic." [Acts 8:9-11] This Simon himself was converted to the Jesus movement merely through unspecified "preaching", and was "astonished by the great signs and miracles" performed by Philip. Nobody seemed to ask why Philip's miracles proved Jesus was chosen while Simon's sorcery didn't prove Simon was the "Great Power". And it seems nobody thought that the gospel accounts of Jesus's miracles were of evidentiary value on these questions.

Acts 8 further shows that Jesus was not very famous in Jerusalem itself, only at most a few years after the tumultuous events of Easter week. An "important official in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia" was on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem and was reading the book of Isaiah, but seems not to have even heard of Jesus before Philip tells him the "good news".

Throughout the story of Paul's persecutions and conversion and early ministry in Acts 9, there is zero hint that any records or memories of Jesus's miracles were an obstacle to his persecutions, or an aid in his conversion or ministry. Acts 9 closes with an account of how two healings by Peter converted "all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon" and "many people all over Joppa". Again, there is no hint that Jesus's miracles were cited or even remembered.

Finally in Acts 10 is the first instance where Jesus's record of miracles is invoked for proselytizing. However, the only public miracle that Peter invokes is how Jesus was "healing all who were under the power of the devil" -- which arguably isn't a miracle at all. The only other miracle Peter invokes is embarrassingly private: "God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." [Acts 10:40-42] Peter doesn't bother adding "However, everyone in Jerusalem has by now heard that all who inspected Jesus's tomb found it empty, even though it had been guarded." Peter was in fact preaching to the choir, because Cornelius had already told him of the angel who four days earlier had appeared in shining clothes and told him where Peter could be found. Thus a Jesus "miracle" of exorcism is cited only to somebody who had just personally witnessed a far more impressive miracle.

Acts 11 details how news about proselytizing efforts circulated among the various missionary teams, which were now reaching as far as Cyprus and up the coast of Phoenicia (Lebanon). Acts 11 nowhere says that gospel miracle accounts were being used for persuasion, and instead suggests ("The Lord's hand was with them") that missionary faith-healing and exorcism was still the primary outreach tool.

In Acts 12 it is now 44 AD, and Herod Agrippa I arrests Peter after executing James the brother of John. When angels release Peter and he arrives at the gate of the residence where the disciples were staying, the report that he is outside asking to come in is dismissed as an apparition. This is perhaps a subtle admission about the apparitions that over a decade earlier had supposedly proved that Jesus's corpse was reanimated. Upon this reported appearance of Peter, the disciples had no problem accepting this vision while still believing that Peter's body remained in his prison cell. Perhaps this was the initial understanding of the Resurrection appearances, before exaggeration and one-upsmanship and desperate zeal stretched them into something much more?

In Acts 13, we meet a man named Elymas described as a "sorcerer", and (as in chapter 8) the author of Acts does not dispute the sorcerer's ability to perform the sort of feats that the apostles had been using to create converts. Elymas's patron, a Roman proconsul on Cyprus, is converted by Paul angrily casting a spell of blindness on Elymas, and once again there is no citing of any gospel miracles as aiding in this conversion.

Acts 13 relates a lengthy speech by Paul at a synagogue in Antioch. Once again, a proselytizing speech in Acts follows a detailed rehearsal of Jewish history with a bland sentence about Jesus's ministry that mentions only the crucifixion. Despite the gospel accounts of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Paul weakly admits that "the people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus". Again, the only miracle about Jesus that the apostle cites is the private appearances of the resurrected Jesus to "those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem". [Acts 13:31] Paul does claim Jesus's body did not decay, but like Peter in Acts 2, he makes no effort to cite any reports of an empty tomb. Instead of giving any hint whatsoever that verifiable facts can confirm the good news about Jesus, the apostolic pitch is once again focused on grounding this new offer of salvation in the Jewish prophetic tradition. As it happens, the pitch is rejected by the Jews of Antioch. Had word reached them from Jerusalem about the credibility of those Galileans and their stories?

Acts 14 tells us Paul (and Barnabas) had better luck in Iconium, but once again, on-the-spot "miraculous signs and wonders" are the only supernatural evidence mentioned as supplementing the way they "spoke so effectively". In Lystra, yet another on-the-spot faith healing is required for Paul to convince anyone. When Paul admonishes the crowds for assuming he is Zeus, he points to God's "testimony": rain and crops and food and joy-filled hearts. No gospel miracles are included in Paul's catalog of testimony.

Acts 15 recounts the Council of Jerusalem, convened to settle the question of whether converts must practice circumcision and the Law of Moses. The debate was settled by Peter invoking his own personal vision from Acts 10, and James (the brother of Jesus) quoting the book of Amos. There is no indication that the words of Jesus had any bearing on this question -- or that any compilations of Jesus's words was even available. (Of course, nowhere in Acts is Jesus suggested to be ontologically identical to God, even via a "trinity"; Acts simply repeats Jesus's self-description as the "Son of God".)

The conversion of Lydia in Phillipi was effected when "the Lord opened her heart" to Paul's words. Again, there is no hint that any of those words were about the Jesus's miracles. Also in Phillipi there was "a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future", who thus "earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling" [Acts 16:16]. When Paul exorcised the "spirit" and thereby took away her fortune-telling power, her owners dragged Paul before a magistrate to complain. Paul was flogged and imprisoned, but then a miraculous earthquake shook the prison, opened its doors, and loosed their chains. This miracle (and not any gospel records or reports) instantly converted the jailer. Acts doesn't say whether the miraculous fortune-telling of the slave girl had ever been used to convert anybody to a religion that contradicts Christianity.

Acts 17 says that in Thessalonica, Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead." [Acts 17:2-3] We can presume that Paul yet again mentioned the Galileans' private apparitions, but there is no hint that Paul cited any records or reports of Jesus's gospel miracles. In Berea, "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true". [Acts 17:11] This of course refers to what we call the Old Testament, and nothing suggests that the converts in Berea cared to ask -- or needed to be told -- about the miracle stories that ended up in the New Testament.

Acts 17 recounts in detail the arguments that Paul presented in Athens, the very birthplace of rationality. Paul "reasoned" in the synagogue and marketplace, "preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection". [Acts 17:17,18] Paul claimed that God "will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." [Acts 17:31] Some listeners reportedly "sneered", and there is no hint that Paul offered any "proof" other than the private apparition stories of the Galileans. The evidentiary payload of the gospels apparently was no part of the case Paul presented to the philosophers of Athens.

Acts 18 tells of several years spent by Paul preaching in Corinth and other cities, "testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah". In Achaia, indignant Jews hauled Paul before the proconsul, who said that since the dispute "involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." [Acts 18:15] The disagreement here was apparently theological, and nobody seemed to think that the truth of Paul's story could be settled by appealing to what was publicly known about the events of Jesus's ministry. Indeed, Acts 18 closes by lauding the proselytizing efforts of Apollos, who "vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah". [Acts 18:28] Not a whisper here about loaves or fishes or eclipses or earthquakes.

Acts 19 gushes about how faith-healings and exorcisms could be remotely effected by Paul, using just a handkerchief Paul had touched. [Acts 19:12] Acts says that "Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly." [Acts 19:18-19] These converts apparently believed in their own pre-conversion ability to perform sorcery, but there is no hint here that their conversions were motivated by belief in gospel-style reports of Jesus's power.

In the riot at Ephesus [Acts 19:23-41], the city clerk says "Doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? These facts are undeniable". Apparently, the heavenly provenance of the image of Artemis is an easier claim to defend than the gospel stories about loaves and eclipses and earthquakes. Nowhere in all of Acts does any disciple of Jesus similarly challenge a crowd to deny the alleged facts related in the stories of the gospels.

In chapter 20 of Acts we find its first attempt to quote any words of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." [Acts 20:35] However, these words are in a letter from Paul to his fellow Christians, and quote a saying that does not exist in any of the known gospels.

In Acts 22 Paul tries to persuade the angry Jews of Jerusalem that his convictions are sincere. He recounts his private conversion on the road to Damascus, but makes no mention of the public gospel evidence that supposedly was floating around Palestine and defying all attempts at skeptical refutation.

In Acts 23, the Roman commander accurately writes, in a letter to Governor Felix, that the "accusation [against Paul] had to do with questions about their law". In Acts 24, Paul repeats that the reason he has been accused of trumped-up temple-desecration charges is that he takes the Pharisee view over the Sanhedrin view concerning the resurrection of the dead. Felix "was well acquainted with the Way" [Acts 24:22] -- i.e. the Jesus movement -- but Paul made no attempt to defend himself using the supposedly widespread and skeptic-proof evidence of the gospel stories.

In Acts 25, Festus tells Agrippa that Paul's accusers "had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters". [Acts 25:19-20] In other words, the Roman governor of the area considered it impossible to determine the truth of what had happened to Jesus less than a generation earlier and only a couple days' travel away.

In his trial speech before Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul says he is "saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." [Acts 26:22-23] Paul says "the king is familiar with these things", but he must mean the Jewish prophecies and perhaps the Galilean rumors of private Resurrection appearances. He can't mean that Agrippa is familiar with the undisputed fact of Jesus having walked out of his own tomb, and Agrippa pointedly says "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" [Acts 26:28] Paul makes no attempt to defend himself by saying the historical truth of Jesus's resurrection (and other miracles) is well-known, and instead repeatedly tries to make his case hinge on Jewish resurrection theology.

In Rome in Acts 28, the Jewish leaders of the city tell Paul that "people everywhere are talking against this sect" of Christians [Acts 28:22] -- a strange circumstance if the demonstrable truth of the gospel had been overcoming any and all skepticism in its path. Paul's reaction was that he "explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets". [Acts 28:23] Finally Paul gives up hope of persuading them, quotes from Isaiah about Jews doomed to never believe what they ought to believe, and says that "God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles".

Thus ends our survey of all the episodes in Acts in which the evidence collected in the gospels could have or should have been used, if only it were as immune to skeptical rebuttal as modern Christian apologists claim it must have been. We see in Acts a spectacular and unequivocal failure of the apologetic hypothesis about the power and robustness of the evidence available in the gospels. Even if the gospels had not yet achieved their final written form, apologists need to claim that the gospel stories were widely and reliably circulating in at least oral form, in order for them to confront and overcome timely attempts to question or rebut them. Under this hypothesis, the miracle stories of the gospels should have figured prominently in the proselytizing efforts so thoroughly documented in Acts. Instead, all we find are 1) new healings and exorcisms by the apostles themselves, and 2) arguments that the private Resurrection appearances fulfill a particular interpretation of Jewish prophecy. At no point in all of Acts does any apostle argue that the empty tomb is a well-known or verifiable fact. Nor is this verifiability assumed, because at multiple points [Acts 10:40-42, 13:31] the apostles all but admit that first-hand evidence of the Resurrection was available only to Jesus's closest Galilean followers.

Combined with the thundering silence about the Jesus movement in the contemporary accounts of Josephus, the absence of the gospel miracle stories throughout Acts is powerful evidence that these stories were still being elaborated in the first decade or two after the death of Jesus. We are left with no reason to believe that the gospel accounts had triumphed over prompt skeptical scrutiny and thus were available or useful as robust proselytizing collateral during the first few decades of Christianity.

P.S. Earlier and more detailed versions of many of the arguments above can be found in Richard Carrier's work here and here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Attempt To Accept The Cage Match Challenge

Dear Luca, thank you for your document.  First of all, you don't seem to understand the point of the atheist cage match challenge.  Please re-read rule 3.  As for the comments in your document:

By the "murderous immorality of Yahweh in the Torah" I mean the indictment that I begin with the phrase "The god of the Torah...".  By Jesus's doctrine of hell I'm referring to where I say Jesus "promises sinners not a thousand years' unrelenting torture, nor a million or a billion, but an eternity of excruciating torture by fire [Mk 9:43, Mt 18:8, 25:41, 25:46]."  By Jesus's incompetent revelation of his doctrine of hell, I'm of course referring to the fact that Christians have such wildly differing interpretations of what is arguably the most important doctrine of Christianity: the stick being threatened as the alternative to the carrot.  Yes, my point about eternal suffering doesn't apply to Christians who don't espouse that doctrine -- but I also have nothing to fear from a weak-kneed Jesus whose only threat to me is that he will leave me alone during my eternal afterlife if I don't worship him.  Please, hurt me with that problem, as compared to my current problem of no afterlife at all.

Your Daniel 7 cite is simply not a claim of ontological identity with Yahweh.  On the topic of divinity claims, I'll give you a separate sub-challenge.  On this fundamental issue of who the heck Jesus claimed to be, I challenge you to restrict yourself to uninterpreted gospel quotes from Jesus, just as I did.  This should put me at a catastrophic disadvantage, as the only evidence I'd be allowed to use against Jesus's identity are his own statements of who he was.  Of course you won't accept, because Jesus didn't dare make the claims that the Christian religion imputed to him centuries after he died.

Jn 14:6 is hardly an explanation of Jesus's salvation doctrine.  Salvation is supposed to be a deal: do or believe X, and receive Y.  Jesus was so vague and self-contradictory on this crucial topic that Christians still can't agree what the terms of deal are.  With all due respect, I can't emphasize enough how much of a joke that makes Christianity appear to be.  Sorry.  I mean, come on -- Jesus spent a year or three promoting a deal, and divinely inspired at least four different writers to tell us about that deal, and now you Christians can't even agree on what the terms of the deal are!

You say "people who witnessed the miracles (especially the skeptical) would have been far to happy to point out that the miracles we have written in the bible today were far from the truth".  This does not even begin to rebut my argument in my "Missing Evidence" section.  All I would add to it is that "skeptical witnesses of non-miracles" wouldn't even have been alive to rebut the gospel claims that got written and circulated 50-100 years later.

Again, the point of my challenge is for you to create a self-contained argument for Christianity that you think should persuade an intelligent skeptic raised outside the Christian tradition.  The text you sent me does not even try to be such a document.  Thanks for your time, but I don't think you quite understand what my challenge asks you to do.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Is Federalism Inherently Libertarian or Un-Libertarian?

There are very good reasons for preferring that civil liberties in early 21st-century America should be protected at the level of the federal judiciary, rather than at the level of state governments -- or at the level of the U.N. However, those reasons are empirical matters of historical contingency, and have no more necessary connection to abstract libertarian principles than does the historical scarcity of gold. Seventy years ago, when the federal government was just as bad as the various states on civil liberties, and was leading the assault on our economic liberties, it would indeed have been preferable to limit federal jurisdiction as much as possible in precisely the way that 72-year-old Ron Paul suggests. The last 70 years of improvements in America's civil liberties weren't due to any magic wand of the federal judiciary -- rather, the courts were just spurring (and sometimes chasing) social changes that were happening anyway. However, the federal nanny state has slashed our economic liberty in ways that the several states could never have replicated even by acting in parallel. States that tried to create mini Medicare or Social Security schemes would have failed miserably, because people could leave (and because states can't print money).

I for one don't want the federal government to do for other civil rights what it's done for substance use and campaign speech and equal marriage and warrantless monitoring and gun rights and 'hate crimes' and reproductive technology and digital copying technology. Still, if in 2009 a magic button could put the federal judiciary in charge of all of America's personal liberties, while eliminating all federal jurisdiction over our economic liberties, I'd gladly push it. Unfortunately, I don't yet see a way to get the feds to protect our civil liberties without also trampling out economic liberties. At this point, I'd be willing to radically reduce the federal involvement in both areas, and let the states compete in things like marriage laws and socialized healthcare. Let the free-est jurisdiction win.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Conservation Feebates

[I just sent this message to my fellow members of 1) the Purissima Hills Water District Board and 2) the Los Altos Hills Water Conservation Committee.]

Below are excerpts from Conservation Feebates -- Journal of the American Water Works Association, Jan 1996, pp. 70-78, by Dr. Robert Collinge, Dept. of Economics, UT San Antonio. If you read nothing else, read the first and last paragraphs.

The tricky part is coming up with the allotments, but my understanding is that, at least in Purissima, there is already a formula or method for assigning allotments in a drought. I have no problem telling Purissima customers that if they don't like our prices/allotments, then they can truck in their own water. However, I have a big problem with telling LAH residents that if they don't use the water they buy in the way the town thinks is best, then they can expect a visit from the sheriff (or equivalent). As long as a customer pays our stated rates and isn't a nuisance to his neighbors or to district infrastructure, then I don't think it's any of my business what he does with the water he buys.

Municipal water rates are expected to satisfy three objectives: efficiency, revenue neutrality to the utility, and distributional equity. Unfortunately, adjusting rates to efficiently achieve use and conservation targets would ordinarily generate excessive revenues. Rather than mold one tool to the service of three masters, this article suggests combining three separate tools. The first sets the water rate to cover the utility's costs. The second assigns customers allotments to water use. The third either charges a fee for use that exceeds the customer's allotment or hands out rebates for consumption below that allotment. The fees pay for the rebates--thus the term "feebate." The outcome is: revenues to the utility just sufficient to cover costs; efficient water consumption by municipal water customers without conservation mandates; and revenue effects that can be spread fairly across various categories of customers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

3-yr-old To Obama: Give Me Back My Future

2004 version was this:

Latest Data
National Center For Policy Analysis, 2009-06 (present value of infinite horizon)
  • $17.5T - Social Security
  • $36.7T - Medicare Part A
  • $37.0T - Medicare Part B
  • $15.6T - Medicare Part D (Bush's prescription drug benefit)
Concord Coaltion Facing Facts 2009-08 (present value of 75-year horizon)
  • $7.7T - Social Security
  • $13.8T - Medicare A (hospital stays)
  • $24.4T - Medicare B+D (medical + drugs)

Public Pension Promises: How Big are They and What are They Worth?
  • $3.2T - state and local pensions
Statistical Abstract of the U.S.
2008 Financial Report of the United States Government
  • $5.3T -  federal civilian and military retiree benefits
Obligation of each of America's 307M people:
  • $25,000 - Social Security
  • $45,000 - Medicare A (hospital stays)
  • $79,000 - Medicare B+D (medical + drugs)
  • $10,00 - state and local pensions
  • $4,000 - state and local debt
  • $17,000 - federal retiree benefits
  • $38,000 - Federal debt
  • $218,000 - TOTAL

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Libertarian Perspective On California Water

Private property rights in all water, combined with full-cost pricing in free water markets, is the best (and indeed only) way to match California's vast water supplies to its growing water demands. In practice, this means
  • ending the subsidies that make water for agriculture often cost ten times less than urban water, in exchange for giving farmers secure and fully transferable property rights in whatever grandfathered allotments they reasonably deserve;
  • defining secure and fully transferable private property rights not only in all surface water but also in all groundwater, so that (for example) environmental groups are given full ownership of water shares needed for ecosystem maintenance;
  • making all urban and agricultural water customers bear the full cost of the water they get, while also receiving the full profits when they use less than they are alloted and thus release (i.e. sell) water back into the system;
  • allowing efficient and transparent market transfers of water rights 1) among users within water distribution systems, 2) between water distribution systems, 3) between water basins, and 4) between states (such as those with shares of the Colorado River);
  • resisting calls for expensive and ecologically suspect new water projects as long as the above policies are not yet implemented.
This libertarian prescription of free water markets has been well presented by free-market think tanks like the Pacific Research Institute and the Reason Foundation. The best analysis I've seen so far is Ending California's Water Crisis - A Market Solution to the Politics of Water by Erin Schiller and Elizabeth Fowler (Pacific Research Institute, 1999). Its themes are underscored by Why Water Markets Can Solve California's Water Crisis - Amy Kaleita (Pacific Research Institute, 2008). An earlier study is Water Marketing In California - Richard Wahl (Reason Foundation, 1993).

For up-to-the-minute analysis, I recommend the blog For example, just today Dr. Zetland posted his analysis of California's draft 2009 water plan. His prescription:
  1. Amend state law to require that ALL water rights (ground, surface, riparian, etc.) be adjudicated.
  2. Retire ALL water rights that have not been exercised for over 10 years.
  3. Direct DWR and SWRCB to formulate "plain vanilla" procedures to facilitate short term (<1 yr) water transfers within water basins and between basins.
  4. Require that water resellers raise rates if water consumption rises above long-term (50+ year reliability) average water supplies. Keep raising them until consumption is below sustainable yield.
  5. Require that ALL directors of a water district or agency resign if a shortage is declared and require a one-term cooling-off term before they can seek reelection.
  6. Allocate space on "oversubscribed" conveyance according to market mechanisms (i.e., auctions).
Here's his Water Plan: "Structure rates such that everyone gets a human right allocation of water, allow trading among those who have (ground/surface) water rights, and make sure that the price of water fluctuates with water scarcity." Exactly.

Cut Taxes All The Way To The Ground

A land value tax is not necessarily any worse in terms of forfeiture than any other kind of tax. The government comes after almost any/all of your assets if you owe it taxes.  However, I wouldn't necessarily have land be forfeit when the landholder fails to return the geo-rent to the community (i.e. pay the "property tax").  We could let unpaid taxes accrue with interest as a lien against the eventual sale or transfer of the land, with the amount due capped at the market value of the land at the sale or transfer.

The reason economists say that taxes on land value (and pollution or congestion of a commons) is the "least bad" tax is that such taxes have no deadweight loss.  Any tax on production or exchanges or movable assets causes economic inefficiency.  A tax on these things causes a deadweight loss (i.e. allocative inefficiency) because people who would have more marginal benefit than marginal cost are not buying the good or service, just as a subsidy causes people to buy who impose more marginal cost than their marginal benefit.  However, this effect of taxation does not happen when the supply of the taxed good is perfectly inelastic, as is the supply of land -- more precisely, the area on the surface of the Earth. Sites cannot hide, they cannot flee, and the available amount of them cannot be changed.  (When a tax is not on a good but rather on a "bad", like pollution or congestion, it's the very absence of the tax that causes allocative inefficiency, because external costs are not internalized.)

"Taxing" land value (i.e. geo-rent) is less unjust than any tax on production or exchanges, because geo-rent is not created by the land-holder.  Geo-rent is the extra income a site earns because of the exclusivity of its location within the community, as compared to what such a site would earn at the edge of the community.  (Technically, geo-rent is the extra production you get from exclusive use of a site compared to the most productive available site that is not in use, given the same inputs of labor and capital.)

Taxing geo-rent is not only more efficient than taxing production or exchanges, but it also is less intrusive.  All the government needs to know is who owns each plot of land and how much the unimproved land is worth.  Appraisers and insurers make such calculations routinely, and one variant would have each land-holder self-assess as long as he's willing to take any offer over his assessed value.  There's no need to audit anyone's behavior, as with taxes on income/production/exchanges.  You don't even need to visit the site or look over the fence, as you do with taxes on land improvements or square footage.

Finally, taxing geo-rent imposes a built-in ceiling on government revenue.  Critics of land value taxes claim they wouldn't raise enough revenue because geo-rent is allegedly only a small fraction of GDP.  That sounds like a good thing to me.   If government revenue is restricted by definition to geo-rent and fees for polluting/congesting/consuming the commons, then government cannot be nearly as big as when it is allowed to tax labor, production, exchanges, and all resulting products.  Once you have taxation of people's labor and exchanges and produced assets, there is no limit to what the government can take from you.

Professor Foldvary lays out all these arguments in these two excellent papers:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Extra Nolan Chart Dimensions

Not all political issues can be mapped onto the Nolan Chart's dimensions of economic self-determination and personal/civil self-determination.  Fundamental questions about the nature of property are largely orthogonal to these two dimensions.  It might make more sense to identify a separate dimension that measures how much one allows privatization/privilege in:
  • private (rival excludable) products: agriculture, artifacts (esp. capital)
  • monopolization of spatial resources (rival, often excludable): land, orbits, spectrum, rights-of-way
  • spoiling/consumption of natural resources (i.e. rival non-excludable goods): atmosphere, water, carbon sinks, sunlight, wind, game, underground oil pools
  • "intellectual property" (non-rival, largely non-excludable): copyright, patents, genetic info, blackmail, trademarks, "private" personal data
  • alienability of one's body parts (e.g. organ sales)
  • alienability of one's will (e.g. very-long-term contracts, indentured servitude)
Left would generally correlate with less privilege and Right with more, but many of us who reject the hard Right stance would also reject the hard Left stance as well.  I don't see a non-ad-hoc way to make geolibertarianism be the obvious happy medium; many of these seem to be free variables.

Property is not the only area where the Nolan Chart is incomplete.  Another candidate dimension is inclusiveness vs. exclusiveness (i.e. enfranchisement) according to attributes such as property ownership, religion, race, gender, citizenship, age, intelligence, sentience, sexual orientation, cryonic suspension, and computational substrate.  Who gets enfranchised is a logically separate question from what rights franchisees should enjoy. In the context of statism, enfranchisement of non-citizens suggests support not only for for liberal immigration, foreign aid, and human rights abroad, but also for free trade and humanitarian interventionism (as opposed to isolationism or imperialism).  Leftists are generally inclusivist, but they see fetal enfranchisement as an threat to women's enfranchisement, and often oppose even humanitarian interventionism.

An increasingly interesting possible dimension is futurephilia vs. futurephobia. Historically, rightists feared the future, while leftists and progressives believed history was on their side. Lately, leftists fear technological development even more than rightists.

At I have a javascript Nolan quiz that is higher-precision than the WSPQ, and that adds an extra question to distinguish ecolibertarians from royal/right libertarians.

Friday, January 16, 2009

When Freedom Is Lost, It's Usually "For The Children"

Single-payer federal health insurance for all children?

1. Unconstitutional.  Nothing in Article I Section 8 gives the federal government any authority to do this.  The Constitution is hardly perfect, but it can't protect us from the politicians (or from the mob) unless we protect it from them.

2. Why stop there?  If you're going to socialize and nationalize health insurance for children, then why not also nutrition, shelter, education, transportation, energy, retirement, and employment?  Oh wait, we've already done that for retirement, Bush has started nationalizing education (No Child Left Behind) and housing (No Speculator Left Behind), Obama is about to nationalize energy, and the rest of the economy is being steadily nationalized through subsidies, mandates, and bailouts.

Here is my challenge to any brainy do-gooders with the urge to use government power -- i.e., handcuffs, jails, and guns -- to enforce a feel-good vision on the rest of society.  For any force-based intervention you propose, please 1) identify the market failure you're trying to correct, and 2) explain why it cannot be corrected at a more decentral level -- state, metro area, county, municipality, or neighborhood.

Health care is indeed subject to market failure:
However, health care is also subject to massive government failure such as
  • tax preferences that artificially bind health insurance to employment, hide costs from consumers, and encourage over-insurance,
  • price controls dictated by a bloated mandatory insurance program that (thanks to high senior voting propensity) is funded via inter-generational income transfers,
  • laws against interstate competition in health insurance,
  • rent-seeking through legislated preferences sought by unions and hospitals and insurers and pharmaceutical patent holders,
  • artificial barriers to entry via professional licensure and excessive safety/efficacy regulations, and
  • laws preventing insurers and consumers from agreeing on lower-cost lower-coverage insurance.
America's healthcare market has for so long been so distorted by government interventions that it's hard for most people to see how a free market in healthcare would work.  Piling on more government interventions is not a smart response to the situation.  Instead, we need to replace the federal government's centralized tangle of health care bureaucracy and regulation with a decentralized market-based system in which government intervention is restricted to just correcting market failure at the most local possible level.

The market failure of free-riding on healthcare charity -- i.e. of under-donating to the safety net because you worry others will under-donate -- can be corrected at the state level or lower.  There is no state in the union so poor that it cannot afford to finance health insurance vouchers for its poorest citizens if its voters don't think they would be charitable enough to the sick among them.

The remaining market failures -- adverse selection, moral hazard, and asymmetric information -- are all knowledge problems, and only require tax incentives to correct.  Adverse selection by insurees can be corrected by tax incentives for insurees to join age-based risk pools (instead of our current brain-dead system of pooling risk by employer).  Moral hazard to over-rely on the safety net can be corrected by tax penalties for those who under-insure themselves against health catastrophe.  Asymmetric information held by doctors and hospitals can be corrected by tax preferences for providers who practice transparency. All these tax incentives could probably be done at the state level (even with interstate insurance competition), but even if initially implemented at the federal level this policy regime would be much smarter than any "single-payer" mandate -- no matter how messianic the leader whose armed henchmen would be enforcing it.

For more on market-smart health care policy, see

Friday, January 09, 2009

Whence the authority of the State?

How can individual officials of the State have any more rights, authority, or power than private individuals?

Everyone is created with an equal right to protect the rights of other individuals. However, certain procedural and substantive rights require a coordination framework to ensure their adequate protection:
  • Due process rights require coordination to avoid problems like conflict among competing courts or laws, double jeopardy, and inconsistent or capricious interpretation of rights.
  • Protection of common goods (i.e. natural resources) requires coordination of policy in the geographic extent of a resource.
  • Regulation of site monopolization, and the return of site rents due to provision of public goods, requires coordination throughout the region benefiting from a given public good.
These kinds of coordination cannot plausibly be achieved -- and thus the underlying rights cannot be protected -- without clearly defined geographic jurisdictions with the authority to impose standards of rights protection within them and at their borders.

When such a jurisdiction (i.e. rights-protection coordination framework) does not exist or is inadequate, anyone may homestead the right to provide it.  Where an adequate such framework is in place, random individuals may neither usurp that framework nor ignore its authority to protect rights.  Thus a state is legitimate to the extent that it provides such a framework.

The original question above is roughly analogous to the question of how an individual guardian can have any more rights, authority, or power over a child in her custody than other random private individuals.  The answer is that guardianship can be acquired through a symmetry-breaking process like homesteading, with a first-mover effect thus resulting in an asymmetry in authority over the person(s) in question.  The institution (and authority) of guardianship exists only because of the individual rights that could not be protected without it; the same is true of the State.  In both cases, the legitimacy of the institution depends on the consent of the governed -- not in the sense of having arbitrary veto or secession power, but rather in having recourse to a process of emancipation.  In the context of the state, that process is either revolution or secession.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

LP Behind The Curve On Animal Rights

Verifiable endangerment of a species or ecosystem that is part of the commons of a community is aggression against any non-consenting member of that community.  Persons must refrain from inflicting intentional cruelty on sensate beings, and respect their freedom in proportion to the cognitive capacity of their kind.

Prop 2 just passed in California, giving farmers until 2015 to eliminate the confinement of "pregnant pigs, calves raised for veal, and egg-laying hens in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs." The LPCA ExCom had approved a motion opposing the measure, over my lone dissenting vote of "neigh".  The LP ought to get ahead of the curve here, but we aren't yet institutionally capable of thinking in the shades of gray required by franchise issues like animal rights.  We barely have a handle on children's rights, and have never coherently addressed the rights of the unborn.

Last year Spain became the first nation to extend some individual rights beyond humans. It did so by adopting provisions of the 1993 Declaration on Great Apes:

For a summary of various declarations of individual rights throughout history, see