Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012

I figured it was time for a Halloween-themed cartoon roundup, before I become exhausted from handing out candy to the pint-sized trick-or-treaters who seem to come out of the woodwork every year - or comatose from a sugar and chocolate overdose, if they don't turn up on schedule.

Joss Whedon endorses Mitt Romney

OK, you've probably already seen this. It's had millions of hits in just the last couple of days, plus it seems to be mirrored everywhere else, too. But I just couldn't resist.

Are you ready for Mitt Romney's apocalyptic vision? :)

Clever, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Debating the atheist: Feinstein vs Glasser

Russell Glasser vs Stephen Feinstein?

This summer and fall, Christian pastor Stephen Feinstein and Russell Glasser, from the Atheist Experience TV show, agreed to hold a debate using the format of alternating blog posts.

I'm not sure if there was a specific topic chosen, other than the obvious. But links to the entire debate can be found here. (Afterwards, there were follow-up posts here and here.)

I really like the idea of a written debate, where the claims from both sides remain for fact-checking and follow-up. It also means that skill in public speaking - how you're presenting yourself - doesn't overshadow what you're saying.

Admittedly, both men probably have roughly-equivalent experience in speaking to an audience, but I do like this format. The results... well, the results were about what I should have expected, I guess.

In his first post, Pastor Feinstein said, "I argue from the outset for the Christian position only, and I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility."

He also said that he would explain "why I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible."

Feinstein then set out the Christian position as he sees it. Interestingly, since I hadn't heard this particular claim before, Feinstein said that the Trinity - "one God who exists as three persons" - had to be true, because you can't have a "person" unless other people exist, too. Without it, God wouldn't have had a personality before he created human beings.

So, according to Feinstein, before the Creation, God had a personal relationship with himself! Apparently, his split-personality sat around chatting for eternity, before deciding to create other people. (The evidence for this? There isn't any.)

OK, this thought wasn't continued during the debate, but I thought it was rather odd, not least because this seems to imply that Jesus existed long before his mother did. I mean, isn't Jesus supposed to be one of the Trinity? Well, I don't know. As I say, it seemed odd, but I guess that hardly matters if there's no evidence any of this is actually true.

Anyway, Feinstein pointed out that everyone has presuppositions and claimed that atheism had "a number of huge problems that savage it." But since they had plenty of time, he wasn't actually going to get into those problems in this post. That would come later. (It never did.)

However, "I hope by the end of this all, you can see very clearly where I am coming from and seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ."

In his reply, Russell Glasser readily agreed to Feinstein's claim that everyone has presuppositions, saying "you’ve got no argument from me on that point." But he suggested they start by identifying the areas where they agree, suggesting these three:
  1. that the natural world actually exists in the first place [not a particularly controversial claim, I'd think];

  2. that "The primary way we receive raw information about the world is through our senses, which are not totally reliable, but not completely unreliable either;"

  3. that "Some kind of reasonable standards are necessary to filter out the different things we do and don’t believe in. ... You and I are ultimately going to come up with different ways we apply those standards, but I think you’ll agree that there’s no point in an argument where we just say “This is what I believe, and it is true because I believe it.” We’ve got reasons for what we believe."

He concluded, "For me as an atheist humanist scientific skeptic, here’s one of my primary principles: All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons."

In his second post, Feinstein seemed to agree with those three points, but with one revision: "I would add that apart from our senses, we learn maybe as much from logic or deduction as we do from sense experience."

Note that Feinstein clearly wants to use logic, rather than evidence, to support his positions. Since he doesn't have any evidence, that's probably wise of him. But it very much brings to mind that transcendental argument for God tactic I blogged about on Sunday.

He also claimed there had to be "preconditions" to account for Russell's three areas of agreement. However - and this came to be a real pattern in this debate - "It is too early in the debate for me to give specifics."

Note how Feinstein said the same thing in his first post. Well, he repeated it several times in this one, too. He was going to do great things,... just not right now:
No my friend. I will give you a lot of evidence. I will use much reasoning and logic. I will fall back to epistemology frequently. And at the end of it, your position will no longer justifiably be called as rational. To see it as rational would be to do so in spite of reality. I understand that this is bold for me to speak like this, but I am so convinced of the transcendental necessity of the Biblical God and all of the reasoning and evidence to go along with it, that I have this confidence. I am so convinced of the truthfulness, perspicuity, and infallibility of the Bible and the worldview it presents that I confront your position with such boldness. ...

Russell, I will give you good reasons to believe in the God of the Bible and I hope to demonstrate to you that you are the one who believes in atheism for no reason, whereas I have plenty of reason to believe in my God. I think by this point I’ve shown you which direction I am going to take this. I am interested to see where you are planning to take it. I think the phase of using feelers is coming to an end.

Unfortunately, Feinstein never seemed to get to the part where he'd actually demonstrate any of this. He seemed to go directly from promising what great things he'd do to... claiming victory. He was like South Park's underpants gnomes, leaving out that crucial bit in the middle.

This is where the debate seemed to falter and fail, before it had even begun. To some extent, I think both sides were too worried about giving their opponent an opportunity to score points.

In his reply, Glasser complained that Feinstein wouldn't even agree "that there is something rather than nothing" [italics in the original]. Now, I didn't read Feinstein's post that way, since you could also read it as agreement, just with an additional suggestion of agreeing that logic is equal to evidence. And it was Glasser, after all, who was trying to start with some point of agreement.

I would have said, "OK, so we both agree on my three points of presupposition. That gives us a baseline, so let's go from there."

And maybe I would have continued, "Regarding your additional suggestion, though, note that there are systems of logic that don't map at all to the real world. For example, any fantasy author can create a logical system to explain the magic in his fictional world, but you'd need good evidence before you could apply it to this one.  So logic alone is not nearly enough."

Something like that, anyway. Remember, those are my words, not his. And I don't know if that would have helped, but it would have built on Glasser's original attempt to find some basis for agreement. (However, Glasser was probably correct in his complaint, since Feinstein later indicated that he would not agree to those initial assumptions, not without justification.)

Indeed, the discussion degenerated completely, because Feinstein just doubled-down on this foolish line of attack: "I find it entirely ironic that you accuse me of circular reasoning, when you reason as follows: 1) The world is real. How do I know? Well, I assume it is real."

Um, but that's the whole point of presuppositions. They're just assumptions. But they're assumptions you both agree to accept, so that you can start a debate at all. (And Feinstein did, after all, say that he agreed with all three.)

Glasser specifically noted that there's no guarantee that the world is real, that it's possible we could live in some kind of Matrix-like simulation. He wasn't saying that the world was definitely real, but just that it was a reasonable assumption for their purposes. After all, if you can't even agree, tentatively, that the world is real for the purpose of this debate, what's the point in continuing?

I still think Glasser could have phrased things differently in his second post, but Feinstein took the debate even further down that path. Furthermore, I have to believe that the pastor was being dishonest in his third post.

First, he claimed that atheists couldn't expect the universe to be predictable: "Can you, the materialistic atheist, from your own worldview/presuppositions assume the uniformity of nature to be true? Russell, you cannot dismiss this question as being irrelevant. It is totally relevant. Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance. How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!"

He continued, "If the universe were truly random, then no two things should happen in a predictable manner. Yet, the fact that the universe is uniform and predictable (an assumption we both agreed upon) means that the universe CANNOT be random. "

But, as Glasser later pointed out, Feinstein was using "randomness" in its meaning of "undirected," and "undirected" is not an antonym of "uniformity." A stream of water can be undirected, but still predictably flow downhill. Obviously, the word "random" has several different, though related, meanings.

This was a clear example of the equivocation logical fallacy, and given his interest in logic, Feinstein surely must be aware of that. And yet, he claimed that atheists "put the smoke and mirrors up." That's dishonest.

Then, Feinstein goes on to say that, "In philosophical terms, you are guilty of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is to believe something without any justification whatsoever. Well, you have never observed something come from nothing, so to assume the entire universe happened this way is to be guilty of arbitrariness."

I'd say there are several problems with that, starting with the fact that "nothing" doesn't seem to mean the same thing in physics as it does in casual conversation. But the biggest problem is that atheists generally don't assume they know how "the entire universe happened." What they say is just that the god explanation - since theists do assume they know how it happened - simply hasn't met its burden of proof.

Again, Feinstein should know that. He should know that he's being misleading. But what's he do? He starts claiming victory! Um,... say what?

In his next post, Glasser points out that Feinstein hasn't really demonstrated anything. And it is, after all, Feinstein's claims which must be demonstrated. Atheism is just the rejection of those claims, nothing more. Similarly, if I claimed that leprechauns exist, it wouldn't be your responsibility to demonstrate that they don't. No, it would be my responsibility to demonstrate that they do.

Glasser makes that clear:
You say that a Godless universe must necessarily be a universe in which consistency and patterns do not exist. The ball’s in your court to demonstrate any reason why this follows.

The ball is also in your court to show how it makes any sense to say that a sentient God could actually “create” the laws of logic at all. Did logic not exist before God spoke it into existence? Is it your hypothesis that there used to be a universe in which A = not A, and then God decided to change it? Could God have decided to make all laws of logic the opposite of what they are now? And if he did, would it logically follow that he did not? Can God perform tasks which are illogical, simultaneously both A and not A, or is he bound by the laws of logic himself? What, in short, does it mean for God to “decide” that the laws of logic are one way and not another?

Feinstein completely ignored that in his reply, his fourth post. (In his fifth post, though, he claimed that logic just is, because "it stems from the mind of God." But he didn't offer any evidence of that. And if logic just is, then why can't that explanation work equally well for atheists?)

He must have repeated that he'd already won at least five times. Did he just forget about the middle part of the argument, between promising that he'd win and claiming victory, that part where he'd actually demonstrate something? He also said, "I told you that I agreed with your assumptions, but I do not agree with you concerning the notion that we do not have to justify them."

As I said before, I don't understand that at all, since both sides admitted that they were just assumptions. As long as both sides agree to them, as the starting point in a debate, why would either side have to justify them? They are, after all, just assumptions which Glasser admitted right from the start could be false.

But I'll let Glasser describe the rest of Feinstein's post:
You spent your first two posts promising to build up to an argument without making one; you spent your third post making empty assertions about how you think the God must work; and you’ve spent your most recent post trying to get people to reread the third post to mine out arguments that aren’t there. ...

In the last post I asked you to justify your God. Instead of doing that, you kept repeating the mantra that God is “necessary” and other things are “contingent.” While this obviously sounds very thorough to you and you seem extremely satisfied that you have explained yourself, all you’ve actually done is begged the question by repeating the same claim with different words.

In other words, you are asserting that the laws of logic are “contingent,” by which you mean “something which requires an explanation”; while God is “necessary,” by which you mean “I don’t have to provide an explanation.” If you think that this kind of thing passes as any kind of rigorous proof, rather than self-satisfied word salad, then I don’t think you understand this discussion as well as you think you do. ...

I know you’ve decided that you’re being terribly clever by ruling out “axioms” and then claiming that “preconditions by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.” But all you’ve done is declared God to be your axiom using a different word, while at the same time demanding that axioms be off limits. No wonder you can declare victory so often. [my emphasis]

I agree. I don't know why I keep expecting better from theists, since I've seen this kind of thing before. And I know they don't have a good argument, because if they did, we'd have heard it long before now. But I still end up disappointed when they can't do any better than this.

For all the words he set down, Feinstein didn't even come close to making his case. Frankly, his entire argument seemed to be nothing but special pleading, another logical fallacy. And Russell Glasser really hammered that home in his fourth post.

Frankly, I was losing interest at this point, and Feinstein's final post was just tired, old presuppositional apologetics. After all this, it was rather disappointing. In his final post, Glasser did a good job of summarizing:
From the ancient Greeks onward, many civilizations have seriously believed that it was possible to determine fundamental truths about the nature of reality without coming into direct contact with any part of reality. That is to say, if you could use mathematical deductions, philosophical arguments, and logical inferences to make a case then you don’t need to learn anything from the natural world; you can just conclude things about it. Usually, of course, the desired conclusion is a God of some sort, although needless to say, which God varies widely. ...

Even apart from religion, the application of so-called “pure reason” in the absence of experiment has led to centuries of serious misinformation about the nature of the universe. Aristotle was utterly convinced that heavy objects fell faster than light objects, because it just seemed obvious. It took over 1900 years before Galileo corrected that record. ...

One thing I can say about this debate is that it has greatly increased my awareness of the tactics of presuppositional apologetics. Unlike much of modern evangelism, presuppositionalism is an unrepentant throwback to a simpler time, when you could simply ignore evidence and assume that “pure logic” can lead you to a desired tangible conclusion, devoid of any connection to the observed world. ...

The bottom line is that Stephen believes that all things require a creator… except when they don’t. He wants you to believe that it is impossible and absurd for logic to simply stand on its own without a justification, but when asked to supply the justification for God, he becomes strangely petulant. ”I told you that God is necessary!” he insists. ”Why can’t you understand that if I describe something as necessary, I don’t have to account for it anymore?”

One last observation: Comments were disabled for these posts, since it was supposed to be a debate between two people, but they were enabled afterwards. The Atheist Experience post has 183 comments, and it's still open. Feinstein, however, closed the comments on his post after only 20 - and most of those were his own comments!

Apparently, the comments at Feinstein's blog were moderated for content (not just to filter out spam and profanity), and he allowed only nine other people to comment at all! Given how often he boasted of victory, you have to wonder why he was afraid of letting other people talk.

Well, I thought this whole thing was interesting, though it was very long-winded. Gee, I can't imagine being long-winded, can you? :D

Monday, October 29, 2012

God and Hurricane Sandy

Why is it that, during hurricane season, we have a hurricane bearing down on the east coast of North America? Who could make any sense of that? What could it mean?

Well, silly rabbit, it's a result of the gays, of course! Christian pastor John McTernan explains it all - clearly, calmly, and rationally:
This monster storm aimed at America and ready to inflict severe damage during election week is not a coincidence. Hurricane Sandy may flood Washington, DC on election day! It is like the hurricane is a huge bucket of vomit in America’s face during the election. What a sign from the holy God of Israel that American politics is an abomination to Him. A pro-homosexual Mormon along with a pro-abortion/homosexual, Muslim Brotherhood promoter, Hard Left Fascist are running for president. And there is no cry of repentance from God’s people! I see this storm as a warning from the LORD to call His church to repentance, This might be the last call from the Holy God of Israel.

Gee, gods used to throw lightning bolts, but now, they just throw buckets of vomit? Ew! I always thought that rain was God's piss - His little golden shower, you know - but now...

Really, does that seem godlike to you? How about upholding the dignity of the office, God?

But that's not all:
God is systematically destroying America. Just look at what has happened this year.

There was an incredible heatwave and drought that destroyed massive amounts of the crops. This drought has not let up and now covers about 65 percent of the country.

The drought triggered record forest fires in the West.

The East was not affected by the drought, but now the most powerful hurricane on record is heading directly towards Philadelphia and New York City. It could do catastrophic damage to the entire Northeast!

If you add the area of the drought and now the hurricane together, it would be about 80 percent of the country! As I said, the Holy God of Israel is systematically destroying America right before our eyes.

Of course, this couldn't have anything to do with global warming, could it? I mean, let's not be silly!

But I must admit that this part puzzles me:
Right now, Hurricane Sandy is projected to hit Washington, DC and then come directly over my house! I live in central Pennsylvania and the storm is scheduled to hit here Wednesday.

Gee, pastor, if I were superstitious, I might think that God is trying to tell you something. :)

But then I'd have to think that 'God' actually exists, and with no evidence to that effect, that would be foolish, wouldn't it?

I'd also have to believe that he could only indicate his extreme displeasure with you by harming millions of innocent people. And that would be just crazy!

Yippee! It's headbrick season!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Some good news about global warming?

No, this isn't good news about global warming itself, but good news - better, certainly - about attitudes in the United States.

From the summary of Yale's latest report:
  • Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012. At the same time, the number of Americans who say global warming is not happening has declined nearly by half, from 20 percent in January 2010 to only 12 percent today.
  • For the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an increase of 8 points since March 2012. Americans who say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment have declined to 30 percent (from 37% in March).
  • A growing number of Americans believe global warming is already harming people both at home and abroad. Four in ten say people around the world are being harmed right now by climate change (40%, up 8 percentage points since March 2012), while 36 percent say global warming is currently harming people in the United States (up six points since March).
  • In addition, they increasingly perceive global warming as a threat to themselves (42%, up 13 points since March 2012), their families (46%, up 13 points), and/or people in their communities (48%, up 14 points). Americans also perceive global warming as a growing threat to people in the United States (57%, up 11 points since March 2012), in other modern industrialized countries (57%, up 8 points since March), and in developing countries (64%, up 12 points since March).
  • Today over half of Americans (58%) say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” - now at its highest level since November 2008.
  • For the first time since 2008, Americans are more likely to believe most scientists agree that global warming is happening than believe there is widespread disagreement on the subject (44% versus 36%, respectively). This is an increase of 9 percentage points since March 2012.

Well, this is an improvement, at least. Of course, the fact that 70% of Americans finally accept global warming is offset a bit by the fact that only half of us accept that it's primarily man-made.

And only 8% more of us believe that "most scientists agree that global warming is happening" than believe scientists haven't come to a consensus? That's just shameful. And it's an embarrassing demonstration of the power of Fox 'News' and other right-wing propaganda.

You know, as a kid, I could never understand why so many people believed tobacco companies, when it came to the health effects of smoking, rather than public health experts with no axe to grind. But it's at least as astonishing that we Americans are willing to believe big oil companies on the subject of global warming, don't you think?

In fact, given our experience with big tobacco only a few decades ago, I think it's even more astonishing that we're still this gullible now. But such corporations have learned very well how to muddy the waters. And since they've bought and paid for the entire Republican Party, it's become a badge of identity in the right-wing to disbelieve real science.

Well, I don't want to be depressing. Good news is still good news, even if it's not as good as we might have hoped. We can't wave a magic wand to change opinions. It's a long, hard slog against determined naysayers with a lot of money. But we can't afford to give up, just because it's hard.

The transcendental argument for God

The transcendental argument for God (TAG) seems to be very popular with Christian apologists these days, mostly as a tactic of just baffling with bullshit, I suspect. I've heard it myself, from people who apparently don't understand it themselves, but are just parroting what they've heard elsewhere.

This video clip is a compilation of four different videos debunking the TAG argument. (There are links to the individual videos on YouTube here.) I thought it was excellent.

At that same link, in the description of the video, there is also a brief summary of two variations of the TAG argument, as well as a link to the Iron Chariots page which goes into the same thing in more detail.

But my fundamental problem with the TAG argument - and similar arguments for the existence of 'God' - is that these aren't the reasons why proponents of such arguments believe in God themselves. No, they already believed in God - almost always because they were raised in a particular religious tradition - and the TAG argument is just an attempt to convince other people.

Hey, why not tell me what convinced you to believe in your 'God'? If you actually had a good reason to believe, why not tell me what that reason was? Is it because you didn't have a good reason? Is it because you only believe because you want to believe what you were raised to believe? (And no, a "good reason" needs to be something you can clearly distinguish from delusion and wishful-thinking.)

As I noted, I've heard people using the TAG argument who don't understand it themselves. Ask them a question and they can't answer it, because they're just parroting back what someone else told them. It's something they wanted to believe, because they already believed in their god, already believed in the religion they were (almost always) raised to believe.

But that's why the TAG argument is so popular with believers. It really is baffling with bullshit, and they're eager to be baffled. Furthermore, it's easy to baffle other people with the same bullshit, if they haven't encountered this stuff before.

Now, I'm not a philosopher. I'm not an expert in any of this. I'm just trying to understand it myself, by writing about my understanding here. (Note that the following quotes are taken from the summary of the video.) I could easily be wrong, but that's the whole point. If I am wrong, I want to be corrected.

There are several versions of TAG. For example:
Version 1:

There are some objective logical absolutes.
We can have concepts of these logical absolutes.
These logical absolutes are not physical (you can't find them within the natural world).
These logical absolutes are therefore conceptual.
Concepts require a mind.
Since the logical absolutes are true everywhere they must exist within an infinite mind.
That mind is God.
God exists.

Frankly, I have no idea if "objective logical absolutes" exist at all. (If I understand correctly, that terminology is only used in Christian apologetics, not in philosophy.) But we do have "concepts" of them. And it's those concepts which are conceptual and require a mind (ours).

Philosophy is a human concept. Logic is a human concept. Mathematics is a human concept. Those concepts attempt to describe and model what exists in the real universe, but that existence is not dependent on our understanding of it. A rock would still be what it is, even if we weren't around to label it "rock."

So the fact that we can conceive of a rock, that we have a mental construct of what "rock" means, does indeed require a mind, but only ours. The rock itself does not. At least, there's no good evidence that it does. And this is the same way with other concepts. Our concepts require our mind to exist, but what those concepts refer to might not.
Version 2:

Logic is rational, but atheism presupposes that everything comes from material sources.
Logic isn't material, so atheism lacks any objective source for logic.
Without an objective source for logic, atheism cannot employ logic.
Therefore atheism is self refuting.
Since atheism is refuted, theism must be true.
God exists.

I think I'd disagree that atheism presupposes anything, since atheism is just the disbelief in god claims. I don't have to know, myself, in order to say that you haven't made your case for a god (let alone for 'God'). I don't believe any of the claims I've heard, though I certainly haven't heard them all. But I don't believe that I "presuppose" anything, really.

Sure, I have certain beliefs of my own. I believe that I exist, for example. I believe that the universe exists, even though my understanding of it might be imperfect. And in order to have a useful debate, we both have to agree on certain basics (like the fact that we both exist). But I would be willing to change my mind if there were good evidence that I don't exist. :)

I mean, let's not confuse what we might both accept in order to have a practical discussion with what we're dogmatically demanding. I don't believe that a god exists, even a very simple, undemanding kind of deistic god, because I haven't been shown any good evidence of that. But if you've got the evidence, I'm always open to changing my mind.

Still, the main reason that "Version 2" fails is this: Logic isn't material, because it's a human concept from human minds. We've created logic. We've tried to make our rules of logic conform, as closely as possible, to what we see in the real world. That's the whole point of logic, right? But the world is there, whether we understand logic, and whether we use logic to try to make sense of it, or not.

Logic wouldn't exist independently of our minds - independently of any minds, at least. But the universe which we try to understand with logic would still exist. Or, at least, we have no evidence otherwise. (You can argue that it wouldn't, but you can't expect us to just accept what you're claiming without evidence.)

This video's summary concludes with just that point:
The video points out some of the main problems with the different versions of TAG. All versions equivocate between the consistent behavior of nature (facts of reality), and the language that humans have developed to describe it (laws of logic). The language of logic simply represents and points to what exists objectively, in the same way a map represents a real location in space without actually being a location itself.

TAG proponents are essentially trying to claim that the symbolic representation of reality (logical statements made with language, math, etc) are "things" that exist in their own right and must be accounted for, but this is simply false. All that actually exists is matter, energy, and forces that interact in consistent ways. Human logic is merely a verbal DESCRIPTION of what nature is doing, and does not need to exist for nature to behave the way it behaves.

Iron Chariots goes into this in much more detail, and discusses Matt Slick's particular version of TAG, too. (Here's another detailed refutation of Matt Slick's version of the argument.) Note this brief summary of the basic problem:
To summarize, a simple analogy to the logical absolutes would be abstract mathematics. The number 4 is “transcendent” by the TAG definition. It isn't a 'thing' that 'exists'. It cannot be photographed, frozen, weighed, or measured. It is always the number 4. It always remains the same. It always remains true.

However, if there were no minds in existence to conceive of the number 4, the shape we currently call a square would still have the same number of sides it has now. It would not physically gain or lose any sides. The abstraction of the number 4 is conceptual, but the concept isn't dependent on a transcendent mind for the real world underpinning of the concept to remain true.

Here is another critically important point (note that I cleaned it up, slightly, and added paragraphs to make it easier to read):
It should always be remembered that theists are in the same position as non-theists once enough layers are peeled back. The goal of TAG and other presuppositionalist arguments is to stay on the offensive and keep asking "why" and "how do you account for" questions until you hit bedrock at "The universe just exists and behaves consistently".

This is a brute fact and it makes no sense to ask for "why" beyond this point, however the TAG proponent will declare victory if you don't have an answer, then baldly assert that they do (God did it). This usually trips up atheists because they don't realize that they are being asked an impossible question that equally applies to ANY worldview, including the theistic one. Your goal should be to mirror the questions they ask you and go on the offensive yourself until you expose that they also don't have answers to the "why" question at the bottom of their worldview.

You will find that TAG proponents are trying to account for the consistent behavior of nature by appealing to the consistent mind of a god that can't be accounted for! They can't account for why god exists instead of not existing. He "just exists" for no reason and no cause, and just has the properties he has for no reason and no cause. His will is effective rather than ineffective, for no reason and no cause. In other words they cannot account for the existence or capabilities of the being they are appealing to as the foundation of logic! So they have actually accounted for nothing. They've just pushed the question back a level.

If 'God' just is, then why couldn't that apply to the universe itself - or to some multiverse, perhaps? 'God' as an explanation simply doesn't solve anything.

But there's one more thing to take away from this. If you don't understand an argument, then don't accept it. If you don't understand something, ask questions. And if you still don't understand it, don't let it convince you just because it sounds impressive. Many people baffle with bullshit for the same reason that scam-artists confuse their victims. If you don't understand it, don't believe it - and that includes what you read here, too.

Don't accept an argument you don't understand even if you really want to believe it - maybe even especially if you want to believe it. If a person can't be clear about what he's claiming, either he doesn't understand it himself or he's just trying to convince you of something that isn't so. Unfortunately, we tend to be very, very gullible when it's something we really want to believe.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The GOP big tent: mysogyny and racism

Andy Borowitz gets it right:
With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, there is a deep divide among Republican leaders over whether to emphasize misogyny or racism as the campaign’s closing theme.

In one camp is the Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who says that his view that God is sometimes O.K. with rape is “gaining real traction with a key demographic: men who don’t like women very much.”

“I can’t tell you how many misogynists have come up to me at my rallies and said, ‘Thank you for saying what you said,’” he told reporters today. “I think they’re like, finally, someone’s taking a more nuanced position on rape.”

But in the other camp is the former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who worries that the Republican Party’s emphasis on misogyny is threatening to drown out its “winning message of racism.”

“I understand the appeal of Mourdock’s anti-woman theme, but I worry that it’s going to overshadow our core value of racism, which is still our best shot at winning this thing,” he said. “In politics, you’ve got to dance with the one who brung you.”

Hoping to heal a possible rift with so little time left until Election Day, the R.N.C. chairman Reince Priebus said today that there is room for both views in today’s Republican Party: “Our ‘big tent’ message to voters should be this: come for the misogyny, stay for the racism.”

I tend to think it's the other way around, that Republicans came for the racism and stayed for the misogyny, but hey, they're a diverse bunch, right?

Lately, we've been hearing a lot about the misogyny...

... But let's not forget the racism, with our first black president - that 'Kenyan,' that 'Muslim,' that 'socialist,' that 'anti-Christ' - causing absolute hysterics among the GOP.

But this time, it must have seemed perfectly logical to former-governor John Sununu:
"Frankly when you take a look at Colin Powell whether that's an endorsement based on issues or whether he's got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama," Sununu told CNN.

"What reason would that be?" asked host Piers Morgan.

“Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being President of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him," responded Sununu.

I mean, it only makes sense, doesn't it, that you'll always vote for your kind?

Sununu also pointed out that George Bush supports Mitt Romney. Well, of course! The white guy supports the white guy. Heck, that's why John Sununu supports Romney, isn't it, because they're both white?

And that's one of the Republican Party's leaders! Imagine what the GOP base thinks of this!

I got the following link from Indecision Forever:
For it's an iron law of politics that whenever an African-American endorses the president, the good people at the Free Republic will make you want to cleanse your eyeballs with soap…

... but I dipped into that cesspool myself to bring you these examples of comments there:
"Colin Powell will endorse Barack Obama for president again today. Just came across the AP Wire. No link just yet hut [sic] it is fact... And of course, no surprise."

"Gee, I wonder why."

"Powell’s a racist!"

"Color is thicker than water."

"It’s a black thing."

"Obama’s still black."

"Now we know. He places race ahead of all else."

"One black man endorses another. That’s news." [But it's different when one white man endorses another?]

"Race before country."

"He’s a racist for sure."

"what you do expect? it’s not like Obama changed color these past 4 years! Powell is a traitor."

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Obama is an enemy of this country and when someone with Powell’s level of awareness chooses to side with him, it has to be because he is also an enemy of this country and seeks its destruction. May they all rot."

"Birds of a feather. Affirmative action guys got to stand together."

"Powell just has melanin envy." [I'll bet this commenter was really proud at his own cleverness, don't you think?]

"No surprise there. Does anyone really give a rat's ass about what the "equal opportunity" general has to say about anything? I think not." ["Equal opportunity" in scare quotes? Really?]

"Mulattos [sic] got ta stick together ya know."

"He's an angry, racist, half dimwit who is only where he is because of the color of his skin- and hates the system that promoted him on his race." [Yeah, these 'mulattos' are just one-half dimwit, huh? Gee, I wonder what he means by that?]

"Color before country.."

"Powell’s a racist! This is really the only logical conclusion"

"Anybody see Condi Rice’s utter refusal to see anything negative about Benghazi and explicit throwing of Republican platform social concerns under bus? On Greta last night."

That's when they locked the thread, preventing any new comments, after less than two hours. As with Todd Akin, Republicans aren't supposed to tell people what they really think. Because that might, you know, turn off sane voters.

But the only logical conclusion to Colin Powell supporting Barack Obama is that he's a racist, huh? Well, those ni black people are all alike, aren't they?

Of course, every political party has its crazies, I'm sure. But only in the GOP do the crazies run the show. Only in the Republican Party are their leaders among the craziest of all.

As I've said before and will keep repeating, this is a result of their 'Southern strategy,' of that deliberate appeal to white racists in their attempt to take the Deep South from the Democratic Party.

Well, politically that was wildly successful, and the Republican Party has used that power to give tax cuts to the rich and otherwise turn our country hard right. But filling a political party with racists, with religious nuts, with unrepentant Confederates, with conspiracy theorists and gun nuts, has consequences.

Meet today's Republican Party. It's not pretty.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Iran's route to the sea

Honestly, I have to laugh at these Obama's Anger Translator videos by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. I'm hard-pressed to keep from posting all of them, they're so funny.

In fact, I don't know that this one is any funnier than the rest - as I say, they're all just hilarious - but I had to post it because of that map scene.

In the last presidential debate, Mitt Romney declared that Syria was "Iran's route to the sea." (And that wasn't just a slip of the tongue, either. Romney has apparently repeated that gaffe six times this past year.)

In reality, of course, Iran already sits on the sea. It has a very long coastline already. Plus, it doesn't even border Syria! I realize that Americans don't know geography - and don't care about any other countries, anyway - but do we really want a president who's that ignorant?

Why hasn't Romney been laughed off the political stage by now? I just don't get it. How could this election even be close?

Well, I've been wanting an excuse to post this cartoon, anyway:

This isn't just Mitt Romney's foreign policy, but every policy: just ignore everything he's ever said and replace it with whatever you want him to think.

Still, it was particularly ridiculous in that foreign policy debate, because Republicans have been complaining for three and a half years that Barack Obama can't do anything right. They've been especially hysterical about Obama's foreign policy, alternately because he's "appeasing" the terrorists or because he keeps flaunting his success in killing so many of them, including Osama bin Laden. (Remember him? He was the guy who actually attacked us, unlike Saddam Hussein, who was just unfortunate enough to rule over a country with a lot of oil.)

But in this debate, Mitt Romney suddenly became Obama's biggest supporter. Yeah, he'd do everything Barack Obama has done. He's just like Obama, only even better. He'll out-Obama Obama, apparently.

Say what???

But see, Mitt Romney's handlers told him that he must appear "presidential." He must seem to be "plausible" as a president. So Romney shook that Etch A Sketch and pretended to be Barack Obama. After all, you can't get more plausible than someone who already is the president of the United States, right?

The fact that this contradicted everything Mitt Romney has been saying, everything the Republican Party has been saying, previously... well, you really haven't been paying attention if you think that mattered in the slightest.

Sadly, half of our country hasn't been paying any attention, and won't. So lies work. So changing positions to suit your audience works. So pretending to be whatever voters seem to want at the moment works.

Certainly, the mainstream media won't call him on this, not really. Who cares about the facts? Who really cares what the fact-checkers say? And, of course, Fox 'News' will back him up, no matter what he says.

It's lucky that we have America's comedians, because we don't seem to have anyone else willing to point out these things.

Lena Dunham: Your first time

Apparently, this clever little political ad, mildly suggestive, has Republicans in a frenzy:
Dunham's tongue-in-cheek references to losing her virginity are not lost on Republicans, many of whom say they are outraged by the ad and call it 'disgusting.'

'Talk about desperation,' a conservative blogger wrote on 'The Right Scoop.'

'They've finally sunken to a new low trying to get the youth vote by comparing voting for the first time to having sex for the first time.'

RedState editor-in-chief and CNN contributor Erick Erickson wrote, 'If you need any further proof we live in a fallen world destined for hell fire, consider the number of people who have no problem with the President of the United States, via a campaign ad, ridiculing virgins and comparing sex to voting.' ...

Fox News analyst and conservative author Monica Crowley called the ad 'sick' and 'degrading' on Twitter.

'Of the many sick things about this degrading Lena Dunham "lose your virginity to Barack" ad? The left thinks it's "empowering" to women,' she wrote.

Conservative blogger John Nolte of Breitbart News added: 'How could a president with two young, blossoming daughters release an ad as disgusting as this?'

Heh, heh. Yup, this proves "we live in a fallen world destined for hell fire," doesn't it?

And in other news, the Republican Party released a press release saying, "Get off my lawn, you damn kids!"

South Dakota GOP: Education is scary bad!

I don't know how long this video will stay on YouTube, because it's getting a ton of 'dislikes' (and the South Dakota GOP is moderating comments - but there aren't any they've permitted to be seen, so far).

In case this disappears, note that it's a real political ad from the South Dakota Republican Party promoting their own congressional candidate Kristi Noem as a poorly-educated farm girl who's apparently never been out of the state in her life.

Her opponent, Matt Varilek, on the other hand, got his masters degree at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and even attended Cambridge, for chrissake! He's been all over the world! Do you really want someone... educated (pardon my bad language) and with global experience in the United States Congress?

Of course not! Vote for Kristi Noem, who's never once even needed to clean the pig crap off her boots. She'll uphold South Dakota ignorance, because she's just as ignorant as the rest of us!

Oh, and Matt Varilek eats corn dogs, so he's not such a smarty-pants after all!

OK, I'm paraphrasing the ad a bit, but only a bit. That's really what they seem to be saying. Now, Americans in this part of the country - I grew up just a stone's throw from South Dakota, myself - used to value education. Yeah, that's hard to believe, isn't it? But education used to be considered a good thing.

Anyone who'd accomplished what Matt Varilek has accomplished would be widely admired. But now, in the GOP, education just makes you a furriner. As Rick Santorum indicated, college is just for snobs. Critical-thinking will just make you an atheist. The Texas Republican Party platform is clear about this: children should leave school just as ignorant as when they entered it.

These days, in today's Republican Party - thanks to that 'Southern strategy' which filled the party with Deep South Dixiecrats - education is a bad thing, a scary thing. Yeah, now, for Halloween, you can go trick-or-treating as a teacher and scare all those good Republicans to death.

So, with this kind of attitude, how are we ever supposed to compete with the rest of the world? How are we ever supposed to compete with China? Oh, no worries! You see, God likes us best. And the world is going to end soon anyway, so we don't have to worry about any of this.

Won't we be laughing at all those intelligent, educated, capable people - all destined to burn in Hell - as we're floating up to Heaven? Ha, ha. All those smarty-pants snobs will get theirs then, right?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Barack Obama on the Tonight Show

The second clip here, less than a minute long, where Jay Leno asks the president about Donald Trump, is just hilarious. That's really the one to watch, even if you're short on time.

Of course, the first clip is important, just not as funny as this one:

Rape and the Republican God

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Richard Mourdock's Rape Comment
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Do you wonder why Republican men keep talking about rape? Do you wonder why they keep saying such idiotic things?

Sure, partly, I suppose, it's because they tend to be Republican men. I don't mean that all of us men - or even a majority of us - agree with them, certainly not! But Republicans tend to have no empathy for anyone else. If it doesn't affect them personally, they just can't understand why it matters.

Republican Tom Smith knows exactly what it's like to get impregnated by a rapist, because he suffered through all that himself. I mean, he suffered through the shame of having a daughter who got pregnant - through consensual sex - out of wedlock. That's the same thing, right? Clearly, it's all about him.

But it's also because they're Republican men. Republicans these days don't 'believe' in science, don't 'believe' in reality, don't 'believe' in anything they don't want to believe. This is a pattern of thinking which applies to rape just as much as it applies to anything else. You might as well ask why they keep saying such idiotic things about everything.

But we need to dig into this a little deeper. The problem is that Republicans are faith-based. That's not just when it comes to religion, but it definitely includes religion. And these people are stuck with a big, big problem: why would an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent God let rape victims become pregnant, or even allow rape at all?

Of course, that's easy to answer. Their 'God' doesn't really exist - at least, there's no good evidence of that, so no good reason to believe it. But these people aren't evidence-based, they're faith-based. They start with the assumption that a god exists - and not just any god, but the Christian God (only because that's the one they were raised to believe).

So now they've got a problem. How do you reconcile an all-powerful, all-knowing, all good 'God' with rape? And sure, this is a subset of a larger problem which I talked about here - why do bad things happen to good people? But it's especially difficult when it comes to pregnancy, which these people believe is specifically a gift from God.

And it's that problem, that conflict between faith and reality, which causes most of this babbling idiocy. Some Republicans - almost entirely men, for good reason - just deny that rape ever really happens.

I mean, the woman is usually asking for it, right? She's just a slut who later tries to change her mind? Or she deserves it for dressing so provocatively? (After all, how are us manly men expected to control ourselves?) Or she makes some other kind of mistake - maybe just not attending church frequently enough - so that God needs to teach her a lesson?

Now, I suspect that even most Republicans tend to reject that argument. Oh, they seem to be sympathetic to it - way, way too sympathetic - so they accept it in far too many cases. But in other cases,... well, it's just very hard to believe that a 13-year-old girl who's beaten bloody by a violent rapist really deserved that. Even true believers often have some difficulty with that idea.

Unfortunately, it's easier - apparently - to believe that such a horrible experience was actually a good thing, for some strange reason that only 'God' knows. You just have to have faith, right? But then, when that poor victim gets pregnant by her rapist, how can you possibly imagine that being good? And, you know, God personally intercedes to match a specific spermatozoon with a specific egg, doesn't he?

It's always God's will when a women gets pregnant. That's what Richard Mourdock was saying, because that's what he believes - not because he has any evidence of that, but because he has faith. So when a rape victim gets pregnant, well,... that's God's will. It has to be God's will, because it's all a matter of faith. If you start doubting your faith, well, who knows what might happen? (You might even start believing in global warming!)

That's why we see people like Todd Akin believing that legitimate rape victims don't get pregnant. God has given women ways to "shut that whole thing down" if it's "legitimate" rape. See, that's fixes their problem - their biggest problem, at least. Most rape isn't really rape. No, you see, the woman was just asking for it.

And in those few cases of actual, real rape, those women don't get pregnant. Don't worry, God has everything well in hand. True, we don't understand God's plan for legitimate rape victims, why they'd have to go through that horrible experience at all, but we can have faith that it's ultimately to their own benefit, right? I mean, it has to be.

And that's the whole problem with believing by faith. Faith-based thinkers start with a conclusion, and everything else has to be shoehorned to fit into that worldview. They end up thinking truly idiotic things, because their conclusion wasn't developed from the evidence - and isn't open for correction later, either. They have faith, and faith is a terrible thing to have.

Note that it's easy to see how crazy Smith, Akin, Mourdock - all of 'Team Rape' - really are. Oh, all too many people still support these loony politicians, and their supporters invariably are just as faith-based as Team Rape. But how many of their critics believe by faith, themselves?

Yes, some faith-based beliefs are crazier than others - certainly, some faith-based believers are easier to get along with than others - but let's not overlook the fundamental problem here, that of faith-based thinking in general.

I've titled this "Rape and the Republican God," but the Democratic God isn't much better. I don't care what your beliefs are, you should have good reasons for believing them. Faith is not a good reason. Faith is not a virtue. Evidence-based people can still be wrong - no one is infallible - but evidence-based thinking is valid. Faith-based thinking is not.

Do you wonder why bad things happen to good people? You shouldn't. Do you wonder why rape victims can get pregnant (more than 32,000 per year in the United States)? You shouldn't. Do you wonder why 'God' is always on both sides in every war? You shouldn't.

Do you wonder why Republican men keep saying idiotic things about rape? Not anymore, I hope. :)

The most beautiful picture of the day?


I got this from Buzzfeed, because I don't speak French - or not enough of it to clearly understand the original article, at least.

But this was a protest in France against gay marriage, where two young women apparently decided to hold a counter-protest. :)

What I love about it is the expressions on the faces of those women in the background - not just the shocked horror, but the one woman to the lower right - not as old as most of them there - who seems to be delighted by the kiss (but trying not to show it).

Is this "the most beautiful picture of the day," as Buzzfeed suggests? I don't know, but it's the best I've seen so far today, at least.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ars Magica Kickstarter

I'm still addicted to Kickstarter, at least when it comes to computer games. My latest pledge went to this one, which plans to turn the Ars Magica board game into a computer RPG.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about Ars Magica, and this Kickstarter pitch leaves almost everything to the imagination. What kind of game are they planning to make? A single-player, turn-based role-playing game, sure, but that would describe a wide variety of games.

So why am I supporting it? Only because this is Black Chicken Studios, the same people who developed Academagia: The Making of Mages.

Ironically (check out that review), I didn't actually like Academagia. But it was still intriguing. It had a lot of promise, it really did. And it was different enough that I'm anxious to see what they'll do next.

I like to support independent game developers, because those are the people trying new things. Sometimes, they're not successful - or not entirely so. But that's the risk you take when you try something new.

So for me, this is well worth a small investment. (Unfortunately, that's what I usually think when it comes to Kickstarter projects, which is why I say I'm addicted to them.) But we'll see. So far, they're just a tenth of the way to their ambitious $290,000 goal, though it's only been a few days. I got in early on this one. :)

PS. Fans of Academagia tell me that there have been 15 (free) content patches added to the game, so I suppose it's changed in the year and a half since I reviewed it. I haven't played it since then, so I just don't know.

But that's another thing I like about independent game developers. They're usually very responsive to their fans. A small company might struggle to include everything in a game's initial release, but try very hard to respond to any complaints.

And note that these are free DLCs, not just a marketing decision to squeeze as much money as possible from gamers, as is often the case with mainstream developers these days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Philosophical arguments: an undetectable god

This is from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #768, with hosts Matt Dillahunty and Martin Wagner. I haven't posted one of these in awhile, and I thought this was entertaining.

The Atheist Experience is a call-in show, but this is more of a monologue, or a rant, apparently after a series of similar calls.

How did we get Romney again?...

If your memory is really, really bad, and you're wondering how the Republicans ended up with a candidate as bad as Mitt Romney, maybe this video will remind you. :)

You know, if you're still a Republican, maybe you should ask yourself why all your party leaders are batshit crazy.

Actually, I should probably rephrase that. I'm sure there are still sane Republicans somewhere, even a few in leadership positions. But what does it tell you when the majority of Republicans are batshit crazy enough that only batshit crazy politicians can get any real support in your party?

Keep in mind that these people all led in Republican polls at some point. (And this video doesn't even include Donald Trump!) There are only two reasons why Mitt Romney ended up with the win: (1) He assured primary voters that he was just as batshit crazy as they were, and (2) the Republican base couldn't settle on which batshit crazy politician they really preferred, thus splitting the vote.

But no one who wasn't batshit crazy, or at least pretended to be (and at this point, I don't think even Romney knows what Mitt Romney really thinks), had the slightest chance at the nomination. If you're still a Republican, what does that tell you?

Republicans weren't always like this, although they've long supported the wealthy. But the crazy only happened because of their notorious 'Southern strategy,' where they saw an opportunity for political advantage and weren't too picky about what they had to do to get it.

Remember, the South had been solidly Democratic for more than a century. Democrats were the party of slavery and segregation. African Americans tended to vote GOP (when they were allowed to vote at all), the "party of Lincoln." And the Northeast had long been the big Republican stronghold.

But when northern Democrats decided to do the right thing and end segregation, Republicans saw their opportunity. By deliberately wooing white racists, they took the South from the Democrats. In strictly political terms, that was hugely successful. All those old Dixiecrats became Republicans - indeed, they're now the Republican base. (Today, no part of the country is as solidly Republican as the South.)

And at first, Republican leaders merely had to use racist codewords, maybe throw them a bone occasionally. After all, the Democrats had pretty well burned their bridges with these people. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did that!

But those old Dixiecrats became more and more important to the GOP, at least in part because the party started losing anyone who was uncomfortable with racist dog-whistles - African Americans, obviously, but also northeastern moderates. Republicans kept Wall Street, because of their single-minded focus on tax cuts for the wealthy, but lost most of their former stronghold in the Northeast.

Still, gaining the South was enough to dominate politically for most of four decades - despite such complete disasters as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush - and in that time, they've been able to move America strongly to the right.

Now, they didn't even try to bring back racial segregation, no more than reinstating slavery or ending women's suffrage. Our nation had moved on. And, after all, Republican leaders - and their financial backers - really only wanted tax cuts for the rich. The rest of it was just a cynical political calculation - a very successful cynical political calculation.

But when you fill your party with racists, when you fill your party with religious fundamentalists, when you fill your party with hysterical crazies of all kinds (and there were some crazies, like the John Birchers, already in the GOP), that has an effect, especially when you also start to lose the moderates who find such things distasteful. At first, Republican leaders just had to flatter the crazies a bit, but that changed.

Eventually, the crazies became the Republican base. The lunatics took control of the asylum. Today, all Republican leaders have to appeal to the crazies, I mean really appeal to them. Even Fox 'News' doesn't have complete control over the GOP base, although no Republican leader dares offend Fox, either. (And Fox has more influence over the crazies than anyone else.)

But if you're still a Republican after all this,... why? Are you simply as crazy as the rest of them? Are you easily frightened by the thought of black people, Hispanics, non-Christians, immigrants? Or are you just ignorant, believing what you see on Fox 'News' because you don't know any better?

A lot of sane Republicans have left the party. Indeed, sane Republicans continue to leave the party, which is why the GOP just gets crazier and crazier. But for those of you who stay, you've got to know that you're enabling the crazies. So why do you do it? Why stay?

After all, even if your local Republican congressman is relatively sane, you know he's going to vote with the party leadership. Republicans in Congress march in lockstep. And, unfortunately, the crazies are firmly in control of the GOP.

#NotOptimal-Gate on Bullshit Mountain

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Not Optimal-Gate
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Funny, huh? Note that "not optimal" was Jon Stewart's phrase, not Barack Obama's. President Obama was just replying to Stewart's question. But that doesn't matter on Bullshit Mountain Fox News, does it?

And then there's poor John McCain, turning himself into an even bigger political farce, by commenting on something he couldn't possibly have seen and heard for himself. But hey, it's Fox! Nothing helps a Republican more than appearing on Fox and saying whatever idiocy they want you to say.

As conservative David Frum once said, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering that we work for Fox."

But this is the kind of political 'journalism' we've got in America, because this is what works. Fox can lie like this, convince the gullible to vote the way Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes want them to vote, and make a boatload of money doing it.

And that's not even the worst part of this story. Even John McCain prostituting himself to the right-wing isn't the saddest part of this whole mess. Here's what's really shameful:

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Bulls#%t Mountain: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
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Hmm,... Baracktose Intolerance. Maybe that explains all the crap flowing from the right-wing...

But seriously, as Jon Stewart points out, this is how Bullshit Mountain works its magic. Fox 'News' constantly screams about the 'liberal' mainstream media, which seems to terrify real journalists enough that they repeat idiotic Fox talking points without explaining just how big a pile of BS it really is.

Hey, maybe they are liberal Democrats, given the Democratic habit of bending over backward to appease Republicans. Or is this just how reasonable people, desperate to get along, can be manipulated by the unreasonable?

Unfortunately, this Daily Show clip is garbled at the end, leaving out most of Jon Stewart's conclusion (and some of his examples from mainstream media). Here's what he says:

This is what brings us back to 'not optimal' and how Bullshit Mountain works its magic. Because as ridiculous and hyperbolic and unfounded as the pronouncements from Bullshit Mountain are, for some reason, other news networks can't resist its siren song.

That's the thing about Bullshit Mountain. You may not live on it, but whenever it rains, you get the mudslide.

And that's the worst part of all this. That's why Fox 'News' still has any credibility at all with sane people. The mainstream media, denigrated as liberal puppets on Fox (but, oddly enough, all owned by huge corporations, too), refuse to point out the bullshit.

And that's also why fact-checking is such an unimportant part of our political process. The mainstream media - for whatever reason - don't focus on the lies. I guess, if they actually pointed out the lies, Fox would really go ballistic, huh?

No, 'balanced journalism' these days means that you repeat the claims of both sides, whether they're easily-refuted lies or not, and that you keep your fact-checkers on the sidelines. Mainstream journalists aren't political propagandists like Fox, but they seem terrified of pointing out the political propaganda, even when it's demonstrably false.

So instead, they focus on the delivery. Yes, those lies were really effective, weren't they? Of course, maybe they wouldn't be so effective if our media were willing to report the facts, that they were lies.

And yes, Democrats lie sometimes, too. I'll never deny that. But they haven't made an industry out of it. They haven't created a whole media empire devoted to spreading lies. And they haven't built their entire presidential campaign around lies. So it's a false equivalency to just shrug and say that "both sides" do it.

This is what really makes me sad. This is what really makes me angry. It's not that Fox lies. Of course they lie! They lie because lying works for them. And it works because the rest of our media enable the lying.

I don't live on Bullshit Mountain, but I just can't avoid the runoff. Neither can anyone else in America, and that's destroying our country.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Eliminating tax deductions

This is the chart of "top ten individual tax breaks" shown on the Daily Show a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was interesting, so I've been meaning to write about it.

The chart is from the Wall Street Journal, but it's behind a paywall, so I borrowed the image from this blog (which looks excellent - you might check it out). Keep in mind that the WSJ is now owned by News Corp., the parent company of Fox 'News,' so it's even more rabidly right-wing than it used to be. I'm just saying, this is not a liberal presentation.

The topic came up because Mitt Romney has promised to cut income tax rates across the board by 20%, if we're actually dumb enough to elect him president.  That's on top of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which he wants to make permanent.

He also promises to eliminate taxes on capital gains, to eliminate estate taxes, to cut corporate taxes, to repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax (which was instituted so that wealthy Americans would pay something in taxes, instead of nothing at all, after deductions) - oh, and to greatly increase military spending.

(After all, our only enemies are a rag-tag band of goat-herders using improvised explosives, so spending more than the rest of the world combined on the military just isn't enough, huh? Well, Republicans hate to "throw money" at a problem... unless it's in the Department of Defense. Then, throwing money really starts to make sense to them, apparently.)

Remember, in the Republican primary, all these tax cut promises were popular, because Republicans still have faith in trickle-down economics, despite the complete and utter failure of that during the Bush administration. Indeed, it's been a complete failure for at least thirty years now. But so what? Republicans are faith-based, not evidence-based. They're going to believe whatever they want.

Now that Romney has the nomination, though, it's time to shake that Etch A Sketch again. After all, tax cuts for the rich aren't popular with most of the country. So now, he promises that he won't cut taxes for the wealthy any more than they've already been cut (he'll still make the Bush tax cuts permanent, of course).

Oh, he still says he'll cut their tax rates another 20%, even from today's low rates. He'll still eliminate estate taxes. He'll still eliminate taxes on capital gains. He'll still repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax. But now - just for the general election - he promises to make all that "revenue neutral" by eliminating tax deductions.

There are a couple of problems with that. The first is simply that it makes no sense, even by Republican standards. Republicans claim that cutting taxes on the "job creators" will create a booming economy. Leaving aside the fact that George W. Bush claimed that, too - and that it failed horribly then - Romney is currently claiming that he's going to leave them paying the same amount of taxes that they do now.

So if he's telling the truth,... what's the point? Why expend the political capital to do all that if it's going to leave the wealthy exactly where they are today? Why would the wealthy be so supportive of that?

Even if 'trickle-down' economics were valid, Romney is currently claiming that he'll leave the 'job creators' paying the same taxes they are now. So how will that have any effect at all,... if he actually does what he says he'll do. (Republicans are still backing him because they just assume that he's lying. And he is.)

But the second problem is that Romney refuses to say which deductions he'll cut and that every independent fact-checker says that Romney simply can't do what he's promising. It's mathematically impossible. And there's no way he can even start to make up for the lost revenue without greatly increasing taxes on the middle class (which he also claims he won't do).

Romney keeps changing his position on this, still without giving any details, but none of it adds up. Here's another study about his latest plan. But they're all like that. His plans are all vague - deliberately so - and independent fact-checkers say that they're all mathematically impossible. All of his plans are just attempts to get votes from the gullible, nothing more.

Of course, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan claim that the numbers are there, but they won't give anyone the numbers. Well, please remember that George W. Bush also claimed, when he was running for the presidency, that his tax cut plan wouldn't benefit primarily the rich and wouldn't increase the deficit, both of which turned out to be lies.

Frankly, I can't imagine that anyone would believe the Republicans now, when they claim the exact same thing. I mean, that's just incredible, don't you think? But that's what they're doing.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look at these tax deductions. These are the top ten individual tax breaks for 2014. Obviously, if you're going to eliminate tax deductions in order to make up the billions of dollars lost in Romney's other plans, you're going to have to eliminate these big deductions, not little ones which won't raise much money.

(Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that I'm not an economist, an accountant, or any kind of tax professional. I might get the specifics wrong about some of these deductions, and if I do, I hope you'll correct me. If I make a mistake, I always want to know it.)

The top two deductions, which make up more than a quarter of tax expenditures, are the tax breaks for employer-provided health care and pension plans. In a way, it's true, these aren't fair. Why should a person lucky enough to work for an employer who provides health insurance and a pension plan pay less in taxes than a person who's not so lucky?

Most of those people make more money, too. Jobs at those kinds of companies - union jobs, many of them - tend to be much better jobs. Yet, we make the poor bastards who aren't so lucky pay a higher tax rate? It's not fair. So maybe we should eliminate these deductions.

But these are middle class deductions. They're certainly not going to affect the wealthy, which is what Romney claims he wants to do. And unions negotiated for those benefits in part, at least, because they weren't taxable. Given our tax laws, it just makes sense to get some of your compensation in benefits, rather than just take-home pay that's fully taxable.

And union or not, if you have a health insurance benefit at work, or if you have any kind of pension plan (defined benefit, 401-k, 357 plan, etc. - I'm not sure if this includes IRAs), you probably won't be happy about paying more taxes. Well, maybe that's one reason why Romney is being so secretive about it.

But whether it is or not, eliminating these deductions will primarily affect the middle class, not the wealthy. Cutting the top two deductions will do almost nothing to make up for his many tax cuts which benefit them.

The next biggest deduction is the mortgage interest deduction, and you know how unhappy people would be about losing that! The real estate industry alone would have kittens!

And again, it's primarily a middle-class deduction. That's not entirely the case, I suppose, but the deduction is capped for mortgages - on first or second homes - of $1 million or less. The average person probably doesn't have a million dollar mortgage on a second home, but the super-rich probably can't take advantage of this deduction, either, since it's just one million dollars. (Lucky for them, they have so many other ways to avoid paying taxes.)

This might be the third biggest tax deduction, but I can't see any politician seriously attempting to eliminate it. Even if Romney did propose that, it would never get through Congress. And as I say, it's mostly a middle-class tax deduction anyway. This won't help him do what he claims he's going to do.

To be honest, I'm not sure about the fourth biggest deduction on this list, "exclusion of Medicare." When you're working, Medicare taxes aren't tax deductible. Afterwards, Medicare premiums for Part B (out-patient services) and Part D (prescription drugs) are deductible, but only if your medical expenses exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

I can't imagine that's one of the biggest tax deductions, and if it were, it wouldn't affect the wealthy at all. So I just don't know. Maybe this category includes Social Security, too? Social Security taxes are only deductible for the self-employed. However, Social Security benefits aren't taxed - which would add up to quite a bit, I'm sure - but that's only for people making less than $25,000 a year ($32,000 for couples filing jointly).

Oh, maybe that's it. Maybe this category just means that Medicare benefits aren't taxed. And there's no income limit on that, either. I guess that's possible, if you really think that Romney would try to tax seniors' Medicare benefits! Heh, heh. He'd be better off angering real estate agents!

But I really don't know about this one. Still, either way, it can't possibly be a deduction which primarily affects the wealthy. And note that Mitt Romney also wants to repeal Romneycare Obamacare, which action would, among other things, cut the Medicare taxes of high-earners. So when it comes to Medicare, he seems to be going in the wrong direction!

And speaking of wrong directions, the fifth biggest tax break is the low tax rates on capital gains. I'm not sure if that category includes qualified dividends, which are also taxed at that low capital gains rate, or not. But either way, Romney plans to eliminate taxes on capital gains entirely! So not only won't he eliminate this tax break, he's going to make it far, far worse!

Indeed, Romney supported Paul Ryan's tax plan, which also did this, and studies showed that would have led to Romney himself paying less than 1% in federal income taxes. Yes, that would be a huge giveaway to the wealthy, and especially to the super-wealthy. Right now, capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at a very low rate compared to wages, but Romney wants to cut that to zero. So yes, he's definitely going in the wrong direction on this one!

And note that estate tax breaks (#8 on the list) are the same way. Right now, you can receive an estate of more than $5 million and pay no federal tax on that. That's a big tax break, and it does affect the wealthy. (If you expect to receive a $5 million inheritance, you're probably not hurting too badly.)

But far from eliminating this tax break, Mitt Romney plans to remove the cap entirely. Yes, you'll be able to receive your full $100 million inheritance, or $1 billion inheritance, or even more,... entirely tax-free. What, you don't expect to get a $1 billion inheritance? Well, poor you, huh?

Yes, this is another example of Romney moving in the exact opposite direction. You know, he's really going to have to cut deductions to make up for that stuff. (Admit it. You know that this is just talk, right? He has no intention of actually doing what he says.)

The Earned Income Tax Credit, the sixth biggest tax break, applies specifically to low- and moderate-income, working Americans (you must have less than $3200 in investment income), especially those with lots of children. So eliminating this deduction certainly won't affect the wealthy!

But there's something really ironic about this. The Earned Income Tax Credit has long been a favorite of Republicans. Although supported by many Democrats, too, it has really been their plan. It's been expanded many times, most notably in the Reagan Tax Reform Act of 1986.

But one of the results of this has been that many low- and moderate-income Americans pay no federal income taxes at all, and Republicans have recently been screaming about that. Yes, their own plan has resulted in working families with lots of children getting enough tax credit that they pay no taxes. Gee, you never hear Republicans point that out, do you?

(I don't mean to imply that these are the only Americans who pay no federal income taxes. Many senior citizens don't, because Social Security payments aren't taxed, if you don't make a lot of money elsewhere. The combat pay of our soldiers is exempt from federal income taxes. Students and other part-time workers who don't make much money often have no tax liability, because of standard deductions. And the tax rate on capital gains and qualified dividends has been zero in recent years, for the lowest tax brackets - and only 15% maximum at the highest.)

I know that this is getting really long, and I apologize for that. But you're getting the point, I hope. Look at those last three tax breaks on the list - the deductions for income tax paid at the state and local level, child credit allowances, and the deduction for charitable contributions. How likely do you think it will be that Congress would actually eliminate those deductions, even if Romney did push for that (which he won't)?

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan refuse to give specifics about their plans, because they know that (1) the biggest tax deductions are very popular, (2) most of them affect the middle class more than the wealthy (except those which they specifically plan to keep and even expand), and (3) their numbers don't add up - can't add up.

Look at it this way: If their numbers did add up, they wouldn't be so secretive about it. If the math really did work, they'd be plastering America with the details. That's obvious, isn't it? How could you possibly believe otherwise? They are lying to us, just like George W. Bush did. It worked for Bush, but doesn't anyone in America learn from experience anymore?

But OK, if Romney still claims that his plan will work, let him show us. Mitt, pledge to cut these deductions first, and then - if you really do accomplish what you claim - you can cut tax rates after that. After all, cutting deductions is the hard part. Cutting tax rates is easy. So show us that you actually mean what you say by doing the hard part first.

And if we make a little extra money in the meantime, well, you can start to pay off the deficit (like Bill Clinton was doing, before George W. Bush took over). How does that sound?

Yeah, you hate it, don't you. You hate that plan because you're lying. You're just lying. You know the numbers don't add up, and you have no intent of doing what you claim, anyway. It's just another shake of that old Etch A Sketch, just another way to try to get elected. That's the only thing that really matters to you, isn't it?