The economics of human rights

The other day I decided to skip class in favor of a discussion with my friend. Well, it was worth it: from that discussion came the ideas in my previous post as well as what you'll read below.

To summarize the last post: it was an analysis (and meta-analysis) of the classic Dickens fable, "A Christmas Carol." Suffice to say, the negative portrayal of Scrooge enrages free-market fundamentalists and intrigues me, because Dickens implies that it's possible for a person to be "not charitable enough." Enough for whom? Well, for society, I suppose. (And God, if you believe in a god and if your god believes in a certain level of charity from every human being.)

This, more or less, segued into a discussion of human rights, and (in my opinion) a very good economic argument for defining them. How? Follow me..

An Austrian Christmas Carol?

Apparently the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, publishes a perennial blog post called “In Defense of Scrooge.” Yeah, as in Ebenezer Scrooge, the infamous miser from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge has become a byword for foul-tempered penny-pinching and disdain for those worse off than oneself. Yet the LvMI post claims exactly the opposite: that Scrooge is an exemplar of a free-market employer.

Shocking to hear, at first, but this is the Mises Institute’s modus operandi. They are what you might call “market fundamentalists,” and believe that any ‘problem’ with markets is really a problem with government rules restricting market forces and causing inefficiency.

Never mind the fact that neoclassical economists (otherwise known as “everyone but the LvMI”)  agree that certain natural markets will always break down if left to their own devices. If anyone can fish for salmon and everyone thinks about himself, the rational thing to do is to catch as many salmon as you can before anyone else does—what you don’t catch, you can’t sell, and it probably won’t be there tomorrow. The salmon will be fished out, in a classic tragedy of the commons.

And while Scrooge may indeed be an efficient economic actor in the eyes of the Mises Institute, his treatment of Bob Cratchit may not be optimal. As this essay suggests (and economic research supports), a little altruism can go a long way. Each lump of coal in the fire is, in essence, capital investment: warm fingers allow Cratchit to do more clerical work, and in turn make more money for Scrooge.

Okay, but let’s look at A Christmas Carol again. Maybe there’s something counterintuitive about it after all.

The Big Questions

So you might remember my earlier post contra to Dr. Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't. In that post, I raised some objections to Prothero's claim that "religion matters," including that it's a case of special pleading, and that a lot of the time, religion is somewhat incidental to the salient points of history.

Well, on 15 November I attended a lecture here at Western by Dr. Prothero, mostly about his newest book, God Is Not One. In that book, he examines the world's eight greatest religions—in mostly-descending order, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Confucianism, Judaism, and Taoism—and especially their differences. In his lecture he explained that, far from being "eight roads up the same mountain" as some people claim, there are actually different mountains entirely. They ask and attempt to answer different "Big Questions." For example, Christianity asks "how do we become saved from sin?" whereas Buddhism asks "how do we transcend suffering?" In answering these questions, each specific religion emphasizes the different components (as categorized by religious-studies scholars) of religion-in-general. Christianity emphasizes doctrine, Confucianism emphasizes education, Buddhism emphasizes experience, and so on.

Also, I got to talk with Dr. Prothero at a reception afterward, which was awesome.

I still think he has some wrong ideas, though. So here I will ask him some Big Questions of my own.

The Gray Area of Religious Literacy

Disclaimer: This post may not sit well with you, as it deals with a topic that some people find sensitive and/or personal. While my response to that is not quite "Deal with it," you have been warned. I'm not going to pull any punches.

Every year, Western Washington University selects a book for its "Western Reads" program, which is supposed to "promote intellectual engagement, community, and conversation" according to the website. The other time I actually read one of these selections, I definitely had a conversation... but it was a somewhat frustrated, somewhat snarky conversation with a friend about the poor quality of the writing. That was the 2008-2009 school year, however, and this is now. The 2011-2012 Western Reads selection is Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't, by Dr. Stephen Prothero, and it's an entirely different book bag of worms. (Incidentally, the terribly-written book I didn't finish reading in 2008 was also about religion and America, but that's somewhat beside the point.)

I very much look forward to attending the Q&A with Dr. Prothero when he visits Western to discuss the book. I hope I get to ask him a few questions regarding his view on religion as it relates to public education, and indeed the relevance of religion to public discourse.

I hope this, because his book seems dangerously wrongheaded.

Loving the Internet Hate Machine

Contra this op-ed piece in the New York Times: Technology Provides an Alternative to Love. Read that, then get back to me. Now back to that. Now back to me. Okay, one more thing, said by me on Facebook:
Interesting, but that guy's writing style ground on my nerves. The message is cloyingly earnest but it doesn't stick to a single point. He starts off with tech-culture specifically but shifts to consumer-culture in general and then offers his anecdote on birdwatching (which, how the hell does birdwatching do anything for conservation except as a preliminary step?) and offers a meek "well, try it sometime" conclusion. Even that title annoys me. Clearly the thesis is that the erotic/consumerist nature of technology is WORSE than love; why didn't they title it "Technology Prevents Us From Loving Things"? THAT'S a killer title.
That was my first conclusion: namely, that the article itself was all over the map and fairly poor-quality overall. Then I started thinking about the attempted message, and came to this second conclusion:

The Internet makes it easy to "like" things, but even easier to hate things.

On Genre Gaming (or, Why They Should Never Ever Make a ‘Game of Thrones’ Video Game)

Too late for that plea, apparently, but here’s why basically any video game based on A Song of Ice and Fire,* George R. R. Martin’s gloriously grimdark Take That to the heroic fantasy genre and real-life medieval romanticism, is doomed to failure.

The issue comes with the psychology of video games themselves. A video game is meant to be beaten, to at least give some sense of accomplishment for putting time and (rarely more than minimal thumb-twirling) effort into it, whether five minutes beating the next level of Peggle or fifteen bajillion hours grinding towards Blizzard’s latest glass ceiling in World of Warcraft. Even when a game is fundamentally depressing (rarely) or at least a big mind screw you can at least say “well, even if the ending was shit/confusing/nonexistant I still figured out Puzzle X” (*ahem* Braid and Limbo, otherwise quite excellent games).

No specific spoilers, but A Song of Ice and Fire is far and away not conducive to that kind of narrative. It becomes obvious, and I do mean with soul-pulverizing clarity, that Martin’s world is neither happy nor even remotely charitable. Patently evil people enjoy victory after victory and the only nominal “good guys” get utterly shat on for at least the four books that have been published. Sure, there have been hints of future greatness but with Martin’s insatiable thirst for fresh POV-character blood there is hardly a guarantee of anyone important still alive at the end. Not to mention that another clear theme of the series is that “legacies are worth jack,” as dying wishes and hopes are sometimes brutally shoved aside, and maybe sodomized too.

I love this series.

Return of the Weird: Lovecraft's Modern Legacy

It may or may not be a secret that I am a huge fan of the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, and the other writers of pulp fiction who knew him. In contrast to more modern creators of horror, who legitimately frighten with in-your-face monsters and death (but not too obvious)—I'm thinking of the movie The Descent along with Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, very much inspired by Lovecraft actually—Lovecraft's "cosmic horror" conveys that sense of bleakness in the face of a universe that very much does not give a fuck about you. The realization that mankind's petty notions of morality, our flimsy models and scientific pretexts, all fail to grasp the true unwavering indifference of the rest of reality... that's a pretty weird feeling. And while I don't accept Lovecraft's philosophy that the universe is ultimately unknowable—science marches on!—it's easy to see the creeping horror of just how much of the universe is hostile to human life, or barely comprehensible to human reason.

So where can we find such horror now, if at all? Cinema is awash in the blood of movies like Saw and even legitimately good creepy movies like Paranormal Activity aren't exactly in the same vein as something of the Cthulhu mythos. (And what actual Mythos-inspired movies there are mostly suck, except for the faux-authentic silent-movie adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.) Lovecraftian horror has always been a cult thing (ha!), no matter how broad-based. However, if one knows where to look...

AS Presidential Debates: Shit Gets Real

After attending a highly entertaining and informative debate between the candidates for President of the Associated Students of Western Washington University, I can say that I will gladly and enthusiastically vote in the elections next week.

That might seem a little weird. But the thing is, last year I didn't have the first clue about any of the candidates running for either President or VP. Except the incumbents, maybe. But I felt that voting on an incumbent, knowing nothing about their goals for the coming year, their accomplishments in the previous year, or even their eligibility compared to a challenger, would be an irresponsible waste of my vote. So I didn't vote.

This year will be different.

The debate was lively and extremely well-moderated. Everything ran quite smoothly; if two soft chimes don't count, nobody went into overtime with long-winded exhortations. The moderators' questions were direct (literally), pointed, and very often loaded. It was great to hear such critical questions being tossed at the candidates ("Why did you pick such a vague mission statement?" "Why do you keep taking sole credit for what was voted on by a seven-person panel?") rather than the typical softball cotton-candy "interviews" that we see in the media. That a student-run debate with student candidates had harder questions than a typical CNN interview says a lot about the general suckitude of cable news. But I digress.

Jeff Bridges Face-Off: “TRON: Legacy”

So I gave a rather glowing review of True Grit in my last post, and in fact I plan to see it for a third time in theaters up here in Bellingham. Needless to say, I liked that movie. So why, on my second viewing, did I choose to see that over a second shot at TRON: Legacy (and even when the latter was offered in 3-D)?