Saturday, February 28, 2009

More on the instinctive nature of morality

The origins of morality lie in the disgust that makes us avoid rotting food and other health hazards, according to research that explains why injustice is said to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Scientists have discovered that the feeling of being cheated evokes the same revulsion response as foul-tasting food and drink. The involuntary emotional reaction that keeps us away from sources of infection also prompts us to uphold moral standards and to shun those who do not.

The findings, from a team of psychologists in Canada, suggest that disgust was important to the evolution of morality, and that our sense of what is ethical is based not only on reasoning but powerful gut reactions as well. "Morality is often pointed to as the pinnacle of human evolution and development," said Hanah Chapman, of the University of Toronto. "However, disgust is an ancient, rather primitive emotion which played a key evolutionary role in survival. Our research shows the involvement of disgust in morality, suggesting that moral judgment may depend as much on simple emotional processes as complex thought."

Her colleague Adam Anderson said: "These results shed new light on the origins of morality, suggesting that not only do complex thoughts guide our moral compass, but also more primitive instincts related to avoiding potential toxins. Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn's innate preference for what tastes good and bad."

Disgust is a universal emotion that is thought to have evolved to promote survival. The things that we find revolting, such as rotting food, faeces, corpses and open wounds, are potent sources of germs, and the sense of abhorrence that they invoke helps to ensure that we stay away from them. The emotion is caused by similar triggers across different human societies, pointing to deep evolutionary roots. There is also a universal facial expression attached to disgust, involving a curl of the lip, a wrinkled nose and lowered eyebrows, which is recognised around the world. The study shows that the same expression is activated when people are treated unfairly, indicating that both physical and moral disgust have the same root.

The results, published in the journal Science, suggest that the powerful emotion of disgust was co-opted to drive morality, as systems of ethical standards became advantageous to human societies. A disgust response is a powerful incentive to avoid behaviour that might induce it and people who make you feel revulsion. This would have promoted fair and co-operative behaviour by making people disgusted with themselves when they transgress and by imposing a social cost on those who break moral rules. "Unfair offers may be received like a plate of spoilt food," the researchers wrote. "This turning away or rejection of unfair actions may also extend to later avoidance of transgressors."

In the study, the scientists measured movement of the facial muscles in subjects playing a game in which they were asked to accept or reject when offered shares of a sum of money. Low offers elicited an expression of disgust similar to that caused by a bad taste. The results suggest that both types of disgust stem from the same neural systems and evolutionary roots, and that moral disgust grew out of the original health-related emotion.



Obama's incompetent arithmetic

President Obama has laid out the most ambitious and expensive domestic agenda since LBJ, and now all he has to do is figure out how to pay for it. On Tuesday, he left the impression that we need merely end "tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans," and he promised that households earning less than $250,000 won't see their taxes increased by "one single dime."

This is going to be some trick. Even the most basic inspection of the IRS income tax statistics shows that raising taxes on the salaries, dividends and capital gains of those making more than $250,000 can't possibly raise enough revenue to fund Mr. Obama's new spending ambitions.

Consider the IRS data for 2006, the most recent year that such tax data are available and a good year for the economy and "the wealthiest 2%." Roughly 3.8 million filers had adjusted gross incomes above $200,000 in 2006. (That's about 7% of all returns; the data aren't broken down at the $250,000 point.) These people paid about $522 billion in income taxes, or roughly 62% of all federal individual income receipts. The richest 1% -- about 1.65 million filers making above $388,806 -- paid some $408 billion, or 39.9% of all income tax revenues, while earning about 22% of all reported U.S. income.

Note that federal income taxes are already "progressive" with a 35% top marginal rate, and that Mr. Obama is (so far) proposing to raise it only to 39.6%, plus another two percentage points in hidden deduction phase-outs. He'd also raise capital gains and dividend rates, but those both yield far less revenue than the income tax. These combined increases won't come close to raising the hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue that Mr. Obama is going to need.

But let's not stop at a 42% top rate; as a thought experiment, let's go all the way. A tax policy that confiscated 100% of the taxable income of everyone in America earning over $500,000 in 2006 would only have given Congress an extra $1.3 trillion in revenue. That's less than half the 2006 federal budget of $2.7 trillion and looks tiny compared to the more than $4 trillion Congress will spend in fiscal 2010. Even taking every taxable "dime" of everyone earning more than $75,000 in 2006 would have barely yielded enough to cover that $4 trillion.

Fast forward to this year (and 2010) when the Wall Street meltdown and recession are going to mean far few taxpayers earning more than $500,000. Profits are plunging, businesses are cutting or eliminating dividends, hedge funds are rolling up, and, most of all, capital nationwide is on strike. Raising taxes now will thus yield far less revenue than it would have in 2006.

Mr. Obama is of course counting on an economic recovery. And he's also assuming along with the new liberal economic consensus that taxes don't matter to growth or job creation. The truth, though, is that they do. Small- and medium-sized businesses are the nation's primary employers, and lower individual tax rates have induced thousands of them to shift from filing under the corporate tax system to the individual system, often as limited liability companies or Subchapter S corporations. The Tax Foundation calculates that merely restoring the higher, Clinton-era tax rates on the top two brackets would hit 45% to 55% of small-business income, depending on how inclusively "small business" is defined. These owners will find a way to declare less taxable income.

The bottom line is that Mr. Obama is selling the country on a 2% illusion. Unwinding the U.S. commitment in Iraq and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire can't possibly pay for his agenda. Taxes on the not-so-rich will need to rise as well.

On that point, by the way, it's unclear why Mr. Obama thinks his climate-change scheme won't hit all Americans with higher taxes. Selling the right to emit greenhouse gases amounts to a steep new tax on most types of energy and, therefore, on all Americans who use energy. There's a reason that Charlie Rangel's Ways and Means panel, which writes tax law, is holding hearings this week on cap-and-trade regulation.

Mr. Obama is very good at portraying his agenda as nothing more than center-left pragmatism. But pragmatists don't ignore the data. And the reality is that the only way to pay for Mr. Obama's ambitions is to reach ever deeper into the pockets of the American middle class.




Why Obama's economic plan will fail : "The recent passage of the $787 billion malapropism known as the `American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009? on Friday the 13th was full of irony. Beyond the portentous date of passage, or its questionable moniker, was the ugly process leading to the confirming Senate vote. While promising `unprecedented responsibility, transparency, and accountability' in securing passage of the largest ad hoc spending bill in U.S. history, the Obama team instead permitted their Congressional allies to rush through a 1,000-page monstrosity with no effective deliberation, no promised prior posting, and no lawmaker coming close to fully reading the pork-laden bill. But the reaction of President Obama was, itself, the ultimate incongruity. For even as Mr. Obama hailed its passage as a `major milestone on the road to recovery' which would lead to `3.5 million new or saved jobs in two years,' the bill in fact guarantees the failure of his economic program, a prolonged downturn, and a golden opportunity for the revival of his political opponents."

Long overdue: President Barack Obama will phase out government payments to crop producers making more than $500,000 a year and eliminate subsidies for cotton storage to help trim the U.S. budget deficit, a senior administration official said. Obama, who lays out his budget proposals later on Thursday, targets agriculture, tax procedures, and defense procurement in his efforts to cut spending and rein in a deficit the White House projects will reach $1.75 trillion this year. "Roughly a third of farmers receive direct payments, which they receive regardless of whether they are producing anything or not," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while explaining elements of the budget ahead of its release. "We would propose that for farms with revenue above $500,000 a year that we phase out those direct payments over time."

Look out, Washington, we're tea-ed off : "Only in America does the term `tea party' sound ominous. In much of the world, it's a high-falootin', civilized gathering. In the U.S., it has meant tax rebellion ever since a few Boston patriots decided they liked their tea mixed with salt water instead of sugar. Last week CNBC's Rick Santelli made national news when he called for a `Chicago tea party' in a populist rant so powerful that the White House had to scramble to respond. With more than 2 million views, his anger and frustration have poured across the Internet. On Friday, February 27, at least 15 `tea party' protests are planned from Atlanta to San Diego. . You might say Obama's media fans were `tea-ed off,' and they weren't alone."


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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)


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