Late, but better than never

It’s was obvious that the strategists had no idea what to do about 10 minutes after they successfully kicked out the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance. In fairness, this was mostly because there was nothing of material benefit to the USA to be gained there. The invasion and campaign were brilliant, but the occupation was awesomely stupid. I thought the decision to allow the DEA to co-opt foreign policy was the particular highlight.

“I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department’s head of personnel. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”

[M]any Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there — a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.

While I applaud Captain Hoh’s integrity as well as his belated recognition of the futility of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, he really should have recognized this several years ago. It is not a surprise that an occupied nation would fight the occupying forces and there is no rational national interest in the USA continuing to keep its military forces stationed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. All they can reasonably expect to do is to further destabilize the region while providing a sitting target for the various sides jousting for advantage there.

As the Romans knew, if you’re not going to settle colonists in a conquered territory, you’re not going to stay. And if you’re not going to stay, there is absolutely no reason to occupy territory once the initial objectives have been realized.

A brief note to the ankle-biters

On this fine afternoon, I find myself contemplating just what, precisely, could possibly be the purpose for your collective existence, which to the observer appears to testify against intelligent design and natural selection alike. I don’t pretend to understand what sickness of the soul causes you to repeatedly bash your heads against the unforgiving wall of my logic, or what compulsive disorder drives you to put yourselves in a position to be humiliated over and over again by my superior knowledge and intellect, as no sooner are you shot down than you rise, with all the sublime, shambling grace of a mindless zombie, and stumble back into the fray.

Are my ankles so sweet that you cannot resist snapping at them? Do your psychological scars run so deep that you cannot control your masochistic longings for brutal correction?

For years, I have told myself that even if your tedious and petty objections can only sharpen my arguments in the manner that butter sharpens steel, at least your desire to catch me in error, no matter how small that error might be, could nevertheless serve a useful purpose. Even the most flawlessly honed body benefits from its intestinal bacteria, after all. Although, unlike your more intelligent counterparts whose criticisms are thoughtful, substantive, and most of all relevant, you are not capable of understanding anything I write well enough to critique it in a meaningful manner, I assumed you were not only inclined to identify simple errors of basic fact, but were also capable of doing so.

It appears, however, that you have collectively failed at even this humble task. And this naturally raises a question. Is it possible that you could be more completely useless?

A few nights ago, I was reading Calculated Risk and noticed a link to historical pre-FDIC bank failure data. I followed it, being curious to know how far the official information parted from 1941 source material I had used in writing RGD. As I suspected, there were a few minor discrepancies as well as the usual Legend of the 4,000*. (The actual number of failed banks in 1933 is closer to 2,666, but the government always enjoys a nice round number.)

However, to my surprise, the number of failed bank deposits 1931 was much larger than I recalled it being. I checked my trusty and oft-updated bank failure spreadsheet and confirmed that the two not only did not match, but were not even close. The site said 1,690,232 and the spreadsheet said 160,232. The disturbing similarity made me suspect that the latter was supposed to be the former, albeit with a missing digit, and a check of the 1941 document confirmed the error. I had dropped the nine in when first typing the number into the spreadsheet… which significantly altered the percentage of bank failures about which I’d repeatedly written on this blog, in my column, and worst of all, in the book that was going to be announced the next day!

I couldn’t remember which chart I had put in the book. Which chart, dammit? Was it the year-by-year one, in which case the error would look like an absolute howler since the percentage of failed bank deposits would not be 0.34% but 3.6%? Or was it the cumulative chart wherein the difference between $68 billion and $90 billion would be visually negligible in comparison to the $666.6 billion in the neighboring column? And then, of course, there was the small matter of whether this error might call some of my conclusions about the similarity of the historical and present economic contractions into question.

Fortunately, Figure 6.3. Failed Bank Deposits and Losses in 2009 Dollars turned out to be the cumulative chart rather than the year-by-year one, which did not make the book. It was incorrect, but not embarrassingly so. The listing in the appendix couldn’t be helped, since the 160,232 number was directly in the table, but who reads the third appendix anyhow? Also, in that context it’s quite obviously a typo. And fortuitously, correcting the error also took care of a synchronicity problem that had been bothering me from the start. Since my belief is that 2010 compares 1931, why didn’t the bank failure data line up properly? And why was I following Milton Friedman’s lead in tracking the deposits from 1930 when the whole thing began in 1929?

Interestingly enough, exchanging the 1929 data for the incorrect 1931 data only required changing a single digit besides the year: “The amount of failed bank deposits as a percentage of total bank deposits is averaging 2.3 percent per year over the last two years, which is more than twice as high as the 1.01.1 percent annual failure rate in 19301929 and 19311930.” And now the bank failure comparisons are properly aligned with the beginnings of the economic contractions, which is nice.

Still, the typo involved in transferring the information from the book to the spreadsheet notwithstanding, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed an order of magnitude difference in the amount of failed deposits, especially when this meant that losses were more than 200 percent of failed deposits. This is theoretically possible since not all bank assets are deposits and actual losses are always higher than FDIC-estimated deposits, but the highest estimated actual loss to deposits in 2009 is only 107 percent so that should have been sufficient to signify that something was wrong. Ergo, mia culpa. I have, of course, created an errata page for the book and would appreciate it if any further errors are brought to my attention so that I can update it.

But, to return to my original point, if those of you who have dedicated yourselves to identifying and drawing attention to even the pettiest of my errors cannot be relied upon to catch such a relatively large and potentially significant mistake, you leave me with little choice but to conclude that you are, in fact, entirely worthless.

Okay, that was timely

Two days ago, I wrote this on the RGD blog: “You can safely expect similar “surprises” to take place in the United States and Europe over the next three quarters.” This consumer confidence report would appear to be the first of many to come:

The Consumer Confidence Index, released by The Conference Board, sank unexpectedly to 47.7 in October — its second-lowest reading since May. Forecasters predicted a higher reading of 53.1. A reading above 90 means the economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth.

The animals spirits, they descend.

Mailvox: the materialist’s observations

JS is musing on some observations:

I wanted to ask you about William Lane Craig. Having seen or listened to many of his debates and arguments, I have to say that the guy is pretty impressive. During his debate with Bart Ehrman though, Ehrman brought up an interesting point. Craig had pulled out some probability equations to display that the resurrection of Christ was more likely than other explanations (followers stealing the body, Jesus’ evil twin), particularly the explanations put forth in Ehrman’s book. Ehrman then responded by saying “I can’t believe we are arguing about the probability of the resurrection, we would be laughed off the stage if we were in front of a crowd of real academics.” He then went on to downplay WLC appeals to authority by stating Craig taught and lived in a bubble where all the academics he interacted with were believers and that he had little idea of the beliefs of academics outside the academia of faith.

In addition to ridiculing Craig’s authority appeals, what Ehrman was getting at was that the idea of a supernatural resurrection is so ridiculous, probability formulation doesn’t even come into play because it is absurd on the face of it. Isn’t this where believers’ argument get hung up, even arguments as compelling as Craig’s? Given what we know about the physical world, a mythical resurrection just isn’t possible. Keep in mind that I’m not necessarily making a statement of opposition here, just stating an “observable truth”. This brings forward another question, which is why we don’t see evidence of the supernatural/mystical/divine, etc. today? My thought is that if this material existed, we would have found some definitive evidence for it by now. But what little evidence there is for ghost or whatever else, is readily dismissed. Do you Vox, have any examples of the supernatural that would be at all convincing to the open mind?

Finally, while my materialism may be strong, I have noticed a sad trend with my fellow materialists, which is a vainglorious attitude and sort of misplaced condescension. When I read Sam Harris’ article against Francis Collins, I must admit that I was ashamed to be part of this worldview, yet the shouts of “here, here” on the message boards in the secular blogosphere were largely in agreement. If Collins had been Jewish or Islamic, I’m pretty sure the NYT would not have run that article.

My final question to you is this….what is the source of this narrow-minded attitude of the secular set, be they scientist, philosopher, or layperson? Is it fear? My thought is that if your argument is strong enough, there is no reason to resort to libelous acts and petty insults. I have started to notice this trend among my fellow secularists more and more and admit that it is beginning to try my patience.

First, let me say that I am deeply unimpressed by both Craig’s appeal to mathematical precision and Ehrman’s appeal to academic credentials. Craig’s stunt is no more valid when he pulls it than it was when Dawkins or Luke do the same; “probability calculations” have all too often become a bizarre rhetorical flourish that is no more legitimate today than were similarly innumerate shenanigans when Charles Babbage decried them back in 1830. Any economist can tell you that probability is problematic enough even when you have the relevant numbers, and appealing to it is fraudulent when you don’t – especially when you don’t because you can’t!

Ehrman, however, is demonstrating nothing but a willfully closed mind and a blind faith in materialism. We see observable evidence of what may or may not be the supernatural every day, from the mystery of human consciousness to people being confirmed dead by medical experts and then somehow returning to life. The fact that we possess possible material explanations for these things and that this evidence presently falls short of being definitive does not make it nonexistent. I readily admit that we may one day prove that consciousness is a purely material construct and that every single post-mortem resurrection was merely a mistaken observation on the declaring doctor’s part, but in the meantime, assuming those two things as fact is nothing but an act of pure and stubborn faith that cannot be justified by the material evidence available at the present. This is a good example of how many atheist arguments rely upon appeals to logic even though they are presented under the color of science.

Moreover, this ignores the mass of documentary evidence supporting the existence of the supernatural. While it is often possible to dismiss testimonial evidence with ex post facto diagnoses of “mental illness” and “hallucination”, there are no shortage of incidents that do not lend themselves to such interpretations, such as when individuals speak languages they do not know or possess information that they have no material means of possessing. I have personally witnessed the latter, and while in that particular case I can concoct a very complicated and improbable (in the non-mathematical sense) scenario in order to rationalize it materially, it is not the sort of thing that anyone who is genuinely open-minded would be able to completely dismiss.

As for your observation that your fellow secular materialists have become increasingly vainglorious and narrow-minded, I believe it is because they have been misled into a false sense of security by a combination of Christian intellectual sloth and the increasing compartmentalization of Western society. Intelligent, self-satisfied atheists with post-graduate degrees think those who believe in the supernatural are all poorly educated dimwits out to oppress others for the same reason that wealthy, suburban Christians with beautiful families think those who don’t believe in God are all miserable gay alcoholics out to commit suicide. Their paths very seldom cross, their assumptions are often confirmed by the extreme examples that come to their attention, and on the rare occasion that the intelligent, highly-educated Christian or the happy, well-adjusted atheist finds himself in the territory of “the other”, he’s usually going to be inclined to keep his mouth shut about his beliefs in order to avoid unnecessarily rocking the boat. This dynamic can be seen at work even on this blog, as with a few exceptions, the people known with certainty to be atheists tend to be the less intelligent, socially autistic variety, just as on campus the only identifiable Christians tend to be either the genuine saints or annoying evangelizing whackos.

Nor should the effect of Christian intellectual sloth be discounted. Having long been the dominant belief-system, Christians all too readily drift off into internecine navel-gazing rather than intelligent engagement; even here I occasionally have to prevent people from starting an esoteric theological debate while in the middle of discussing the most basic concepts with non-believers who are unfamiliar with them. I think part of what you are describing is a minor secular version of the same process at work in the university environment. When Sam Harris makes a demonstrably stupid statement about the intrinsic inability of someone given to “magical thinking” to perform science, a statement which can be easily and conclusively proved to be utterly false, he is not questioned by his fellow secularists, let alone derided as he merits. And even in your own case, your language betrays the bias of your assumptions. There is no debate over whether a mythical resurrection is or isn’t possible because the question at hand is whether the impossible resurrection is a myth or not! And remember how often academics have been historically prone to reach consensus on beliefs and ideologies later confirmed to have been completely false – see yesterday’s post on Mises vs Mayers for just one of many possible examples – so I suggest it would not be wise to place too much confidence in the present academic consensus regarding rational materialism.

I explained my reasoning on the non-existence of scientific evidence for the supernatural in a 2002 column entitled Satan, Science, and the Supernatural. Jesus taught that we cannot enter into the light until we first recognize and reject the darkness within us, so if you are going to find evidence for the supernatural in a fallen world, you must begin by searching for evil. To paraphrase Nietzsche, if you stare into the abyss long enough, it will eventually meet your eyes. You may not be a Christian once you reach that point, but you will certainly no longer be a pure materialist either. Nietzsche was speaking metaphorically, of course, but I believe his words are more literally true than he realized or intended at the time.