Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen: A Fine Mess (With spoilers)

I’ll have to admit to being excited about the Watchmen release because the previews looked so promising. Having seen the movie this Wednesday I’d call it a fine mess. Why? The movie features distinctive characters, stunning visual effects, and an innovative narrative flow. And it was based on an interesting idea: what if Richard Nixon had been re-elected five times and still was President in 1985? In this alternate history line a group of heroes called the Watchmen help the government maintain order and even with its military activities. I haven’t read the graphic novel upon which the movie is based but I gather that the movie closely follows the novel.

Without going into the details of the plot my biggest problem with Watchmen is it's philosophical premise. Basically it's "sacrifice a few to save many." In other words, utilitarianism. In the movie two of the "heroes" are sacrificed. In addition several large US cities are blown up in order to scare the US and USSR into pursuing peace. (The movie was set in an alternate 1985 in which Nixon is still President.) So millions are sacrificed to save billions. I guess this is what passes for “deep” thinking these days: how many people will be sacrificed to preserve the peace, not what it takes to ensure the freedom of individuals.

This approach is typical for collectivists. They talk a lot about saving humanity but little about individual humans. It also inverts conceptual relationships. In the movie peace becomes and end in itself and trumps the freedom (and lives) of individuals. People are used as cannon fodder in search of a “greater good.” As a result people are freely sacrificed to achieve this end. A philosophy that centers on the individual instead will put peace second if achieving this peace means threatening the freedom of citizens.

In addition to using an alternate history to set up the plot it seems the writer buys the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory posed by former Secretary of the Defense Robert McNamara. The problem is that the Soviets never bought into MAD. They thought they could win and survive a nuclear war. And, their goal wasn't peace but to eradicate "evil" capitalism. This reveals another flaw in the premise behind MAD and the movie. Searching for a truly peaceful solution assumes both sides share common values. What common values did we share with the Soviet Union? Our system, for all its faults, is based on the premise that the function of government is to protect the interests of the individuals. Communism on the other hand forces individuals to serve the government or the “greater good.” (By the way, exactly who defines what this greater good consists of?) The record for collectivist governments in the 20th century shows the futility of this approach: tens of millions of people died or were murdered yet the lives of the survivors were incredibly impoverished when compared to those living in freer countries.

This just goes to show that we all have to be “watchmen” against bad premises.

John Stossel's "20/20" special airing tonight, March 13, on "Bailouts and Bull"

Just received this notice from regarding John Stossel special on the bailout. Here is an excerpt from Stossel's notice.


Please forgive the impersonal email, but I want to let you know about my bailout special! With the help of Drew Carey and Reason TV, we look at Big Government's promise to "fix" the economy and other bull.

You can find the outlets in your area on

Here's what ABC lets me say about it:

The Conceit of the Ruling Class 

Politicians and pundits say government must do "something." It sound like a Viagra ad: "Does your economy have performance issues? If it's hard to achieve and maintain growth, 'stimulus' is right for you!" But shouldn't "stimulus" come with a warning label? "Side effects may include hyper-inflation, dollar devaluation, horrible debt, growth of welfare state, and unrealized expectations. Stimulus has not been proven successful, so it should not be used in the hopes of achieving actual growth ..."

While politicians claim that "all" or a "consensus" of economists agree that something "big" must be done, more than 300 economists say that the government's action do more harm than good. I interview some, calculate the amount the stimulus costs per taxpayer (about $16,000) and ask lawmakers: Where will you get the money? If too much debt was a problem, why is more debt now a solution?

I confront House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer about his claim that "all economists agree."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Clashes of Morality: A different view

I’m mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis as one of my favorite books. He has written a thought provoking artile titled Obama’s moral majority. Haidt, a self-avowed political liberal, does something you rarely see on either side of the fence: admit the other side has some merit. In his article Haidt offers Obama advice on bridging the divide between Left and Right. He makes the following point:

First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five.

Personally, I believe Haidt (and others) project too much hope in Obama’s ability to transcend party political lines. Based on what I’ve seen he has abandoned his message of hope and has resorted to more traditional party line politics.

I also believe there is another plausible theroy to expplain the differences in how conservatives, liberals and libertarians look at the world ethically. In reading Ken Wilber I became aware of Spiral Dynamics, a model for classifying worldviews based on stages of mental and spiritual evolution. Just as humans as a species have evolved over time, individual humans evolve through stages as they mature. Spiral Dynamics stems from the research conducted by Clare W. Graves, a professor of psychology who originally developed a model based on his research. Don Beck and Chris Cowan expanded on Graves’ work and added colors as a shorthand way to identify the different stages of evolution, which is explained in their book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change.

The Spiral Dynamics model has 8 colors divided into two “tiers” but I’d like to focus on three colors that are contiguous with each other: blue, orange and green. Blue (also called “Traditional” by Stephen McIntosh) feels there is a Higher Power (typically God) that punishes evil and rewards the good. Blue values stability and order which is accomplished by obeying higher authorities and their rules. Traditional Republicans and conservatives are Blue.

Orange (or “Modern”) emphasize the individual and feel succesful living consists of competing to achieve results. They believe the free market best rewards individuals for their efforts. Libertarians typify Orange. They often form an uneasy alliance with Blue Republicans who also support the free market, sometimes reluctantly because of its inherent appeal to self-interest. Traditionalists support the market because it disciplines businessmen and individuals to pursue not just their own personal interests but “the public interest”. While Blue cherish tradition Orange values individual achievement and freedom.

Green (“Postmodern”) believe humans find love and purpose through affiliation and sharing. Green is more egalitarian, relativistic and collectivist. They also oppose the hierarchies, believing that there are no “higher” or “lower” levels. As a result Green look down on Blue and Orange as inferior. All three levels look at each other as if they’re from another world. In a sense they are: different worldviews each with its own value system. Wilber has written about the “Mean Green Meme” because it reduces morality to one dimension. Or as Haidt writes, they strip out two of the 5 moral dimensions and discard the rest. A healthy Green integrates the best aspects of Blue and Orange.

For more description of the various colors see

I know this system might sound a bit New Agey but as I have read and apply this model I believe it has some merit. I think it does help expplain why we see liberals, conservatives and libertarians constrantly talking past each other without making headway. As Ken Wilber would say, Green is not superior to Blue or Orange. A healthy Green honors and incorporates the healthy aspects of Blue (the objective need for rules such as law and order, traditions, etc.) and Orange (individualism, reason, self-interest). There is much more than I can cover here. I encourage anyone interested to the links provided above as well as the work of Ken Wilber. (See also Wilber’s original piece on his quadrants model, which I hope to discuss here in a future entry.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Global Warming: Is it the sun or CO2?

The March 5, 2009 version of ICECAP has an article, “It’s the Sun, stupid!” by Dr. Willie Soon, a solar and climate scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The subtitle indicates his position: “New direct evidence demonstrate that changes in solar activity influence climate” Below are some key quotes from his article.

Between 1645 and 1715, sunspots were very rare and temperatures were low. Then sunspot frequency grew until, between 1930 and 2000, the Sun was more active than at almost any time in the last 10,000 years. The oceans can cause up to several decades of delay before air temperatures respond fully to this solar “Grand Maximum.” Now that the Sun is becoming less active again, global temperatures have fallen for seven years.

The close relationships between the abrupt ups and downs of solar activity and of temperature that I have identified occur locally in coastal Greenland; regionally in the Arctic Pacific and north Atlantic; and hemispherically for the whole circum-Arctic, suggesting that changes in solar activity drive Arctic and perhaps even global climate.

There is no such match between the steady rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration and the often dramatic ups and downs of surface temperatures in and around the Arctic.

I recently discovered direct evidence that changes in solar activity have influenced what has been called the “conveyor-belt” circulation of the great Atlantic Ocean currents over the past 240 years. For instance, solar-driven changes in temperature, and in the volume of freshwater output from the Arctic, cause variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic 5-20 years later.

These previously undocumented results have been published in the journal Physical Geography. They make it difficult to maintain that changes in solar activity play an insignificant role in climate change, especially over the Arctic.

The hallmark of good science is the testing of a plausible hypothesis that is then either supported or rejected by the evidence. The evidence in my paper is consistent with the hypothesis that the Sun causes climatic change in the Arctic.

It invalidates the hypothesis that CO2 is a major cause of observed climate change – and raises serious questions about the wisdom of imposing cap-and-trade or other policies that would cripple energy production and economic activity, in the name of “preventing catastrophic climate change.

Bill Clinton used to sum up politics by saying, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Now we can fairly sum up climate change by saying, “It’s the Sun, stupid!”

To me the key statement is: “The hallmark of good science is the testing of a plausible hypothesis that is then either supported or rejected by the evidence.” Unfortunately, those who blame global warming on carbon dioxide released by human activities have politicized science to the point where discussion of plausible counter hypotheses like this is actively discouraged, even demonized.