Sam Harris’ Limited Tribalism

Sam HarrisThis is it for my recent series of articles on Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. I promise! And this one isn’t even about the book. It is just based upon a quote toward the end of the book, which shows one of Harris’ blind spots. He couldn’t end the book without taking a potshot at Islam. His reason is that he wants to make the point that ideas matter. It is curious that he should think that point was necessary to make in the last couple of pages of the book. I think anyone who had stuck with him for over 200 pages would yield the point.

But his example is strange and says rather more about him than anything else:

Twelve years have now passed since I first realized how high the stakes are in this war of ideas. I remember feeling the jolt of history when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. For many of us, that was the moment we understood that things can go terribly wrong in our world — not because life is unfair or moral progress impossible but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions and animosities of our ignorant ancestors. The worst ideas continue to thrive — and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

If I knew nothing about Harris, I would largely agree with the idea here. The problem is tribalism. Of course, even on this basis, it isn’t simply a matter that those people who attacked us on 9/11 did it because they were taught to dislike our tribe. This is a common mistake that people make: to assume that history starts wherever it is convenient for us. We are mad at al-Qaeda because they bombed us. But clearly, that was not the beginning of it for them. As much as I might think that Osama bin Laden was a spoiled rich kid who was mostly just living his fantasy of being a political radical[1], the group itself is based upon real and imagined grievances.

So where exactly is Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas”? Why would these Muslims attack America? Is there anything in the religion that makes us specifically the target of their wrath? I just don’t see it. I’m not sure that Harris sees it. Tribalism seems to be the problem. And the people in the United States who are most behind the “war on terror” do it for tribal — nationalistic — reasons. So it is hard to be in this discussion on the anti-Muslim side. That just leads to some of Harris’ worst arguments of the kind: our tribalism isn’t as bad as theirs, even if our tribalism has helped to fuel theirs against us.

But what bothers me even more about the Harris quote above is how he woke up to the power of bad ideas after the 9/11 attacks. The United States has been carpet bombing various locations throughout Sam Harris’ life. But those never caused him to think about the power of bad ideas. That’s strange. I remember the Persian Gulf War as an exercise during which roughly 30,000 Iraqi conscripts were killed while Saddam Hussein’s elite forces were not touched. That wasn’t a war; that was a PR campaign — a way for America to get over the Vietnam Syndrome and get on board for endless war. And if tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis had to die to do that, so be it.

That was a wake-up call for me. But it seems that Sam Harris is so lost in his own form of tribalism, that he can’t see it. Someone attacked us! It must be because they follow the mother lode of bad ideas. And we don’t. And no level of murder on our part will ever change that. Because history started on 9/11. And everything follows from there.

[1] Osama bin Laden always makes me think of “White Punks on Dope”:

Caution Regarding Baltimore Police Arrests

Police AbuseAs hard as it is for prosecutors to win a conviction or an admission of guilt, it’s even harder to persuade a judge or jury to give an officer significant prison time.

For the nine officers convicted in state prosecutions, sentences ranged from six months to seven years, The Post analysis shows. One of the other cases, the shooting death of the 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, was taken up by federal prosecutors, who added civil rights violations to manslaughter charges and won stiffer sentences, ultimately sending the two convicted officers to prison for six and 10 years.

Six of the officers who faced state prosecutions were convicted after going to trial. On average, they got 3 1/2 years.

—Kimberly Kindy and Kimbriell Kelly
Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted

Billionaire Philanthropists: Just Pay Your Taxes!

David RubensteinDavid Rubenstein seems like a nice enough guy. At least he did in Sunday’s 60 Minutes hagiographic segment, All American. But I was really struck by this comment, “The government doesn’t have the resources it used to have. We have gigantic budget deficits and large debt. And I think private citizens now need to pitch in.” There are so many things wrong with that statement. To begin with, what is a “gigantic budget deficit”? It is half the size it was only a few years ago. Pretty much all of it is due to the fact that the United States pays twice as much for its medical care as the rest of the developed world. As for resources: the government has as many of those as it ever did. Did some national parks sink into the ground or something?

60 MinutesI think we know what Rubenstein is saying here. The government does have as much tax revenue as it once had. That’s true! But it isn’t anything fundamental. There is a reason that tax revenues are low: people like Rubenstein have done everything they can to have their tax rates lowered, increase loopholes, and hide income. Almost all of his current income is capital gains that he pays no payroll tax on and a maximum tax rate of 20%. If you make the minimum wage, you pay 15.3% in payroll taxes on every dollar you make. So even under the best of circumstances, you pay almost as high a rate of federal taxes as does Mr Rubenstein. If you are in the middle class, you probably pay a higher rate.

But rather than Rubenstein working to make the tax rate more fair, he is out there working in “patriotic philanthropy.” What this seems to mean is that he uses his money to support high profile historical preservation. So not only does he get the thrill of buying an original copy of the Magna Carta, he gets the thrill of very publicly giving it to the nation. As he said in the segment, “I’m giving it to the country, in effect, as a down payment on my obligation to give back to the country.” Let me outsource my response to one of my favorite Iron Age philosophers:

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Rubenstein paid $21.3 million for the document. That’s a small price to pay for all the publicity that he received for it. Let’s put it in perspective. Rubenstein is worth an estimated $3 billion. Imagine that you were worth one million dollars. His purchase would be equivalent to roughly $7,100 to you. So it is a decent used car. Also note: the Magna Carta really isn’t that important to this country. Ever read it? It basically just says that the king doesn’t have the right to kill other members of the aristocracy. It’s important, but hardly Enlightenment thinking.

Also from this glowing puff piece, we learned that Rubenstein has committed to giving half of his wealth away to worthy causes. That’s fine, but it doesn’t exactly make him different from the robber barons of old. But more to the point: so what?! His billions and Bill Gates’ billions and all these guys’ money is not going to do all the things that the government needs to do. What we need is a just tax system. But none of these bozos will get behind that. It’s much more fun to build an opera house or fix the Washington Monument so that the whole nation can stand up and cheer you.

The hard work of running a country is something that we should all do every day. But I don’t see the rich doing it. I just see them making themselves feel even better about themselves because of all the love they are buying. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Halfway Libertarian Argument for TPP

Tim WorstallMy first wife got me into libertarianism. She was very clever and I followed right along with her ridiculous arguments. A good example was her argument against antitrust laws. The way she saw it, they were unnecessary. If one company wanted to undercut prices and throw everyone else out of business: great! That meant that we would all get cheaper prices. Once the company had its monopoly and then raised prices: no problem! That would open up a market opportunity for other companies to come in. This is a typically facile argument that doesn’t take into account start up costs and times. Nor does it deal with regional effects. It is, in other words, the perfect libertarian argument: it has little or nothing to do with the real world — thought through just long enough to make the libertarian case.

But even if those were not problems, who would want to live in such a world? This month, cars costs $1,000. Next month, they cost $10,000. The month after that, who knows? And what is especially problematic with this world is that libertarians are obsessed with price stability. As a result, they want the gold standard so that no bureaucrat can take John Galt’s wealth away! Price stability is important for the economy as a whole. But as long as it isn’t the government, but rather various rich capitalists who are stopping people from planning their economic futures, libertarians don’t think it is a problem.

Dean Baker just brought my attention to a similar kind of libertarian nonsense, Forbes’ Tim Worstall Is Upset the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Bans Export Subsidies. Worstall recently wrote an article in which he claimed that we shouldn’t worry about other countries keeping their currencies artificially low and that the TPP doesn’t need to address the issue. Just like my wife used to say, they are doing us a favor by giving us goods at low prices. Shouldn’t we be glad about that? Well, it depends.

If you are rich and you don’t need a job, then it is great. The Chinese, for example, provide us with goods that are cheaper than they should be. That’s as true for the poor, however. The problem is that the poor need jobs. So there are all these products that are made in China that would be made in America if the renminbi were properly valued. This I always find really interesting. There is no doubt that Tim Worstall is in the upper middle class — but he’s probably in the upper class and may well be just flat out rich. And as I’ve discussed many times, reporters tend to see as “obvious truth” what is in fact just whatever is in their own best interests.

Baker noted that Worstall ought to be angry about its ban on export subsidies. After all, he is for allowing countries to subsidize consumers in other countries through currency manipulation. Export subsidies are just a different way to do exactly the same thing. So what gives? Well, as Baker noted in an addendum, Worstall thinks that the world is always at full employment. And that circles back to the larger issue which is that Worstall sees everything from his own social position. I’m sure that he doesn’t know many if any people who are unemployed or underemployed. It seems to me that almost everyone I know falls into one of those categories.

Again, the problem isn’t that Worstall is man of his own culture. The problem is that he considers himself a clear eyed observer — maybe even objective. If he would just admit that all he really cares about is the rich, there would be no problem. We could just discount him the same way we do simple minded libertarians. In his perfect world where everyone who wants a job can have one, it all makes sense. But we don’t live in that world. Instead, we live in a world were incompetent ideologues like Tim Worstall have good paying jobs at popular business magazines.

Morning Music: Laurie Anderson

Home of the Brave - Laurie AndersonIn 1986, Laurie Anderson put out a concert film, Home of the Brave. I remember that Will and I went to see it at the Plaza Theater in Petaluma — one of those great old theaters that showed a different double feature each night. God I loved that! Anyway, we were big Anderson fans and so we went. As I recall, I wasn’t that impressed with it. This is probably because it didn’t have as many stories as I wanted. There is a lot of just straight music.

But I found it on YouTube last night. And I put it on, just to check it out. But I was mesmerized. I ended up watching the whole thing. It’s really fantastic: music, narrative, dance, visuals. I could get very intellectual about it. But there seems no reason. Normally, I just post a single song, but this is a good choice to break convention. But I’ve cued it up at the start of one of my very favorite songs, “Langue d’Amour.” Feel free to take it back to the beginning. You won’t be disappointed.