Sorting Things Out

February 26, 2007

First, I’ve crossposted my post about religion and welfare below to four different blogs: Appletree, What Would Durkheim Do?, 3QuarksDaily, and UTI. I nominated the Appletree version for Skeptics’ Circle, because, really, you can read my study critiques either here or there.

Second, a short list of the posts I owe you guys is,

– My next Galois theory post, about examples of Galois groups;
– A post about Jews and racism, and how Jews were part of the coalition of oppressed American minorities until the 1960s but not afterward;
– A post about education, and in particular why the notion that low-income schools in the US underperform because of administrative problems misses the point;
– The next radical pathology, theoretical thought;
– Possibly a sample chapter or half chapter from my book, which I haven’t edited since the last time I complained on this blog that I should edit it.

And third, Ann’s Weekly Feminist Reader has a story about a bill that’s just cleared committee in Colorado that mandates comprehensive sex education. A few conservative organizations said that this would strip the state of federal funds conditional on teaching abstinence only; one legislator correctly referred to that as blackmail.


Religion and Welfare

February 26, 2007

In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.

The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.

This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There’s a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.

First, the study doesn’t explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.

It’s possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.

In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn’t account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.

Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.

Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.

This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It’s likely that all Gill’s motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.

Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA’s real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.

The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation – one’s choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one’s position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.

Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines’ unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.

For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.

For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn’t had a serious welfare system since Thatcher’s economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.

And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn’t. First, it’s legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.

Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.

A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it – its main promise isn’t charity but change – but it’s useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?

I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study’s downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement “welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity.” All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.

Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill’s theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study’s ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.

Lindsay was Edwards’ First Choice

February 26, 2007

Lindsay has a great piece in Salon explaining how she was approached to be Edwards’ blogmaster, how she refused, and how she asked the staffer who approached her about all the issues that would later prove significant: her tone, the right-wing noise machine, her political views, her atheism, blogging while working for the campaign.

Note on Issue Emphasis

February 25, 2007

I reserve the right to choose which issues I care about. If my relative ranking of political issues differs from yours, it’s not generally because I’m an inhuman monster who can’t see the self-evident fact that you’re always right.

Likewise, I reserve the right to choose which issues I blog about. These tend to be the issues I have a comparative advantage in when it comes to both care and knowledge. As such, the issues I care about the most in politics – those related to fascism as defined by extreme cultural conservatism, warmongering, and a surveillance state – may not be those I devote the most time to.

For example, take Iraq. Among all hot topic in American politics, it’s the fourth I care about most. But in blogging time it’s far behind, because there are a million other blogs devoted to the issue, which offer news and analysis superior to anything I might come up with.

If you don’t like my issue emphasis, tough. You can try convincing me to care about your pet issue more, but you can’t make me more informed about it, or give me comparative advantage over the bloggers in my social network. If you don’t think there’s any blog that caters to your interests, start your own. You don’t need to be a good writer to succeed; if success had anything to do with writing skills, Daily Kos and Majikthise’s traffics would be switched.

Economic Inequality in the US Versus in Sweden

February 25, 2007

An article in Canada’s leading conservative rag about the purported failure of the Swedish model led me, once again, to comparing data from Sweden to data from the US. First, just to get this out of the way, Sweden has a higher workforce participation rate than the US.

More importantly, the staggering income inequality in the US compared with Sweden’s relative equality means that the American poor are far, far worse off than the Swedish poor, and have been so for decades. The USA’s GDP per capita is just more than a third higher than this of Sweden, $43,500 versus $31,600. But in the US, the bottom quintile’s share of aggregate income was 3.6% in 1999 and is trending down, compared with 3.9% for the Swedish bottom decile in 2004 and an additional 6% for the second decile.

In other words, assuming that aggregate income has the same share of GDP in the US and Sweden, an assumption that probably works in the USA’s favor, the Swedish bottom quintile has twice as much income as the American one. And that doesn’t count the fact the Swedish poor get free health care.

What’s more, the US has always been like that, despite populist claims that it was better in the 1960s and 70s. The share of the American bottom quintile peaked at 4.4% in the mid-70s; the share of the Swedish bottom quintile bottomed at 9.4% in 2000, a year of high capital gains.

Racism Clarification

February 25, 2007

Stentor clarifies what he meant when he said racism is objective. In light of the clarification, his argument becomes far more robust. He explains that what he meant is that “One important source of information about those effects is the testimony of purported victims.” That’s of course true: it matters what members of the possibly oppressed group say; for example, continuing with my example of Jews, when a conservative Jew says that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it deserves a serious response at least initially.

Stentor says, and I completely concur, that instances when the effect on the minority group is subjective, subjective impressions are all there is.

Levy’s interpretation of my argument comes close to being accurate with respect to the particular example I used in my post — Native American mascots — due to the nature of the alleged benefits weighing in favor of keeping the mascot. Defenders of Chief Illiniwek claim that the Chief honors Native Americans. Honoring, though, is an act whose success can only be judged by its subjective impact on the intended honoree — that is, does the honoree feel honored or not. So the honest testimony of Native Americans is the only evidence we have to go on for this particular issue.

The main available defense against racism charges is not applicable here, so asking native Americans if they’re offended is the only recourse.

In many circumstances, one can show non-discrimination, or insufficient evidence of discrimination. An employer who’s called a racist or a sexist can ask for proof of differential treatment, or alternatively produce positive proof of equal treatment. “In the last three years, 12% of my hires have been black against a 12% black talent pool, and a black employee makes on average the same as an equally experienced white employee” tends to be a trump card.

In the case of native mascots, it’s impossible to make a good argument like that. Some people analogize native mascots to Viking mascots, but a) the Vikings are an extinct civilization, and b) the descendants of the Vikings are widely known to be normal human beings with modern rather than Viking moral codes. The employment discrimination analogy to the Viking analogy isn’t the example I gave above, but “I don’t give men or women any pregnancy leave, so I’m not a sexist.”

Alternatively, returning to the example of Jews, one can try impeaching the testimony of the members of the minority group. It usually involves a double prong: first, noting that e.g. criticism of Israel is acceptable in light of Israeli actions, and second, showing that Jews tend to analyze anti-Semitism irrationally (for example, most American Jews live in areas without local anti-Semitism, so they underplay domestic anti-Semitism and instead totalize Israel). The first is often sufficient on its own, but sometimes the second is necessary to reinforce it.

And again, in the case of mascots, or for that matter other examples of public mockery, this doesn’t really apply. Showing that native mascots are legitimate free speech isn’t enough; the response to that should be, “You’re also free to vote Republican, just as I’m free to try convincing you not to.” One has to show that the mascots represent the chosen tribe, or even all native Americans – the two tend to get conflated – accurately. And, again, they don’t, at least not according to what people who know something about native Americans seem to be saying.

Israel and Apartheid

February 24, 2007

I don’t think I’ve ever referred to the Israeli occupation as apartheid. But now that a UN envoy who’s a South African professor of international law is saying that the Palestinians’ situation is the same as this of black South Africans in the 1970s, I’m starting to warm up to the comparison. What’s more, the envoy suggests that “Israel is imposing a policy of ‘controlled strangulation’ that is helping to give rise to a failed state on its doorstep” – in other words, that Israel is deliberately screwing Palestine’s economy to make it ungovernable.

Israel’s response is predictable: “You’re one-sided.” Israel can’t justify the occupation itself in terms that won’t make people so angry that they’ll demand sanctions. It can much less justify the specific details of the occupation – the roadblocks, the protection of settlers’ lynches of Palestinian civilians, the fence, and so on.

So, instead, when people criticize it, its best shot is to make shrill accusations of anti-Semitism, and to try delegitimizing the notion that Palestinians should have rights. The Israeli government isn’t the only organization that believes certain people’s rights depend on sufficient obsequity, but it’s the one that defends this notion the most blatantly.

Look, what Bismarck said about laws and sausages applies to liberation movements, too. Everyone likes a liberation movement, after (or right before) it achieves its goals. When it’s still not painfully obvious it’s won, it gets demonized, regardless of what tactics it uses. Even Martin Luther King was billed as a dangerous radical into the early 1960s. It then goes without saying that any political movement that isn’t blessed with fighting a relatively non-violent establishment, which can be fought non-violently, faces even greater delegitimization, regardless of whether its causes or methods are justified.

So comparisons between modern Israel and apartheid South Africa are complicated by the fact that Nelson Mandela’s success made it impolitic to defend apartheid South Africa. But in fact, once one gets over that differential, the comparison still holds. Olmert isn’t Assad or King Hussein, who slaughtered Palestinians by the thousands and myriads. South Africa wasn’t Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, either; it had no arbitrary pogroms.

Almost every regime can point to a worse regime. It’s somewhat analogous to pathological extremism, where the subsitute for radicalism is nationalism. Killing people is certainly a way of showing one’s authentic patriotism. That way, Palestinian terrorists can say they’re better than the IDF, and the IDF can say it’s better than Syria, and Syria can say it’s better than Pinochet, and Latin American fascists can say Pinochet’s better than Mussolini, and Italian fascists can say Mussolini’s better than Hitler. Nazis are sufficiently vilified that no political force needs to ever invoke them positively.

Israel isn’t Britain. The British Empire was the sort that stopped its trains when Indian independence activists lay on the railroad tracks. As Orwell noted, Gandhi could only use non-violent tactics because Britain had a conscience. Israel has no conscience; its military whitewashes its bulldozer drivers’ running over activists who stand in front of buildings that are scheduled for demolition. As such, denying human rights to all Palestinians because a small group of them commit terrorism against Israeli civilians isn’t an especially rational thing to do. And, while we’re at it, India had its terrorists, too – Subhash Chandra Bose went as far as allying himself with the Axis against Britain in World War Two.

It’s possible to typify most countries as stereotypes of people. The US used to be Vito Corleone, until Bush turned it into Sonny Corleone. In that paradigm, Israel is the annoying kid who murders someone, gets caught, and then complains to the judge, “But the terrorists are killing more people and you haven’t caught them yet!”. Yes, kid, brag about your incompetence at hiding your atrocities. When you do that, you deserve to do hard time just for stupidity.