Are we Atheist just being unreasonable?

I watched and enjoyed the recent exchange between Matt Dillahunty of Atheist Experience, Non Prophets and Unholy Trinity Tour fame, and Christian apologist Matt Slick on the Bible Thumping Wing Nut Show. The discussion, which can be viewed here, is the second of two between Dillahunty and Slick (the first can be found here) and both are worth watching. To make a long story short I found this to be an engaging discussion, though I did find Matt Slick’s general smugness to be quite tiring. Dillahunty did an excellent job explaining why he objected to each of Slicks arguments (which tended to be rehashes of his often used Transcendental Argument for God) and the general tone for the most part appropriate.

As the discussion progressed, Dillahunty continuously made his reasons for rejecting Slick,s arguments clear and Slick found himself accusing Dillahunty of being unreasonable, and unwilling to accept any evidence for the existence of his god. Dillahunty acknowledge he did not know what it would take to convince him that a God exists, but made clear that this is not his problem since the burden of proof is on those making such a claim in the first place, and he acknowledged that if there is a god like the one Slick was arguing for, it should be able to make its existence known to anyone it chooses.

This parallels a number of conversation I have had with various believers. The theist presents his or her best arguments and I give specific reasons why I reject them, and allow my reasoning to be challenged, we then go to his or her second and third best arguments and so on. For each I give clear and concise and specific reasons for rejecting the argument. Ultimately I am told I just have to have faith or I get accused of being unwilling to accept any argument.

I do not think this accusation is being made dishonestly and I see why the people making it believe it to be true. After seeing someone reject what appears to them to be a series of very compelling arguments, it is understandably tempting to say, “you’re just being unreasonable… nothing will convince you”. Of course the problem here is the underlying implication that we should just accept what are clearly weak arguments with little to know scrutiny.

The use of this frustrated tactic comes to its worst when it enters insult mode. We are likely to be accused of being blinded by Satan, or being so dedicated to our sinful life style that we cannot see a clearly obvious truth or of being biased, dishonest or of having some sort of hidden agenda. Ultimately, these accusations make the person using them sound unreasonable.

Unfortunately it may be easier to conclude other people are closed-minded than it is to accept the short comings in one’s own arguments when they are pointed out to you. I see this tactic commonly in contexts like the ones described above, but this is not to say I do not hear it elsewhere too. There may be times when I was guilty of making such accusations and it certainly is not something atheists never do. I also acknowledge that sometimes people genuinely are being unreasonable and that sometimes it can be constructive to point this out. The problem comes when doing so is used as a way to dismiss reasonable rejections to one’s own claims.

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The 7 Degrees of Crony Capitalism

“I favor capitalism, not crony capitalism” is a common refrain I hear among conservatives or the type of mainstream libertarians whose idea of a free society is simply the current system minus the welfare state, when pushed. This is the response I get when bringing up such interventions as the TARP bailouts or agricultural subsidies. These are too often seen as anomalies in an otherwise mostly free market system rather than the modus oporandi of the existing system.  Furthermore such interventions as licensing requirements, right to work laws, zoning restrictions, patents, copyrights and government funded infrastructure are rarely acknowledged in conversations about “crony capitalism”.

When taking these interventions into account, not to mention the massive military expenditures and other forms of government contracting that the US engages in, then one is forced to conclude that crony capitalism is much more widespread than those who see it as an anomaly in otherwise pure system would like to think. As such I find it helpful to view cronyism in the existing economy in terms of degree rather than as something more black and white. Obviously the CEO of a company that gets most its revenue from government contracts is obviously more guilty of benefiting at the expense of the tax-payers and consumers than the janitor who sweeps the company’s floor.

This perspective has led me to view the issue in terms of multiple degrees of cronyism. I have developed a tentative seven degree scale that ranks what I see as the most extreme crony capitalists (the first degree) to those who receive only minimal benefits from the modern cronyism (the seventh degree). The scale goes as follows:

1. In the first degree with have people who have made it to the upper levels of government and have used to massive levels of state violence to enrich themselves and their friends. Here I am thinking of the Dick Cheney’s of the world. For those who don’t know Dick Cheney’s former company was awarded billions of dollars in government contracts as part of a war that was started by an administration he was part of.

2. At the second degree I would place those decision makers for firms that do contracting work for the most violent and invasive parts of the state. Here I am thinking of the decision makers at firms like the Previously mentioned Halliburton, Blackwater (now Academi), General Dynamics, or any other firm that gets most of its revenue through supplying the warfare and surveilence states as well as the private prison industry. These entities should be viewed as part of the state rather than mere private companies.

3. In the third degree we have those in business who actively use their wealth and personal connections to influence the government to intervene in the economy on their behalf. Here I am thinking of People like Charles Koch who, as I previously discussed is using his wealth and influence to get the oil government to construct a large oil pipeline, using taxpayer money and land taken through eminent domain. Other examples include the Disney Corporation which has a history of lobbying for the extension of their copy right monopolies, or Walmart’s tendency to pressure local governments into building business parks and overpasses at its behest. In this group I would also include the decision makers in those financial institutions who were bailed out by the federal government and whose fraudulent activity was exempted from legal repercussions.

4. In the fourth degree I place those decision makers in those firms who are receive government contracts, grants for things other than military, police or surveilence state related services. The include those firms that are on the recieving end of government funded R&D, agricultural subsidies ect. Where a given firm or individual falls in this category like all the others depends on how much their business model centers around government contracting, and subsidies.

5. In the fifth degree I would place the decision makers at those firms whose business models center around or are made possible some form of government intervention that they do routinely actively push for. This would include the numerous big box retailers whose business models rely entirely on the domestic and international shipping infrastructure, as well as the various members of licensing, patent, and copyright monopolies and oligopolies, not to mention firms whose business models involve extracting resources on government land ect. The line between this and the third degree can be quite blurry depending on how active these decision makers are in pursuing advantages from the state. The decision makers at most major retailers and food chains likely fall into this or the third category and I suspect most doctors and lawyers do as well.

6. At the sixth degree would be the middle managers and people who choose to work at the above mentioned firms, despite having a wide range of other options available.

7. Is those lower ranking individuals who work for firms that are benefiting from government intervention, do first and foremost to a lack of other options. In practice the cronyist economy pushes out non-cronyist business models and forces many of into conventional employment for the above mention businesses. I would also include in this category farmers who receive agricultural subsidies, only because they are unable to opt out of them.

As readers may note, nearly all of the dominant firms in the global economy fall somewhere onto this scale. Cronyism is all around us, and cronyist government intervention spills over into most aspects of economic life. Most of us work for firms that benefit from the interventions at some point or another and whatever benefits anyone at any of these levels is receiving is coming at a cost to the tax-payer and consumer. Let us not forget when we speak of crony-capitalism we are really talking about the whole of the existing system and not some aberration from it.

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Why Vet Bills are so Expensive and What to Do About it (Part 2 Of 2)

The following is the second part of my two part piece on high veterinary bills. Part one is available here. In this installment I look some of the more common proposed solutions to the problem of expensive pet care and propose some of my own.

The most common solution offered to the problem of high veterinary bills is pet insurance. While insuring your pet may help cover unexpected expenses it does little to help the underlying problems of the high price of medical care due to high overhead costs, the high costs of education for vets and technicians, and the costs brought on by a lack of competition. As such pet insurance is at best a band aid measure, that while it may benefit some consumers does nothing to address the underlying issues.

Also, it should be noted that in 2001 Consumer Reports found pet insurance to be rarely worth the price as the vast majority of people do not get out what they pay into it. Though this is arguably true about other forms of insurance, as well. It should also be noted that it may be of more benefit to owners of high risk breeds, though it may also more pricey for such individuals. Anyone looking into pet insurance should be advised to shop around and consider alternatives, including the ones outlined here.

Aside from pet insurance, I would like offer a few solutions of my own. At the personal level I would encourage pet owners to take the extra steps to keep their pets safe and healthy. Avoid buying fashionable breeds with chronic health problems, feed your pet high quality food, provide it with good exercise and take extra steps to mitigate risks and the need to visit the vet. I also favor pet owners doing more research on how to treat sickness and injuries of their pets themselves. The internet puts infinite amounts of information at our finger tips. Find the experienced animal owners or retired vet in your neighborhood and talk to them about any issues with your pet. Also find creative ways to collaborate with friends and neighbors who have pets or resources that could be used to care for your pet. I think there is much potential in the informal economy for pet owners to assist each other above and beyond what they do all ready.

At the societal level we need to cut back on policies that the veterinary industry more monopolistic and more expensive. A start would be reforming if not eliminating the patent and copyright monopoly in drugs for animals. Many drugs for animals are closely related to drugs developed for humans and first mover advantage and the need to stay competitive would insure these continue to be introduced. More importantly removing the patent monopolies would mean the existing drugs we have would be available at a lower cost as generic drugs are almost always substantially cheaper than patented ones.

Additionally, costs could be greatly reduced if the government’s licensing and accrediting system for vets and their assistants could be replaced by a system of competing voluntary certification organizations. This is not to mention that it would save the tax payers the cost of administering such systems. I see no reason why vet technicians should not be free to start their own independent practices specializing in things like X-rays, ear cleaning, teeth cleaning, or blood samples. I have argued that dental hygienist should be able to start their own barbershop style practices independent of dentists, why can’t vet techs do the same? Such competition would put downward pressure on the costs of these services and removing the need to have all equipment for all species housed in one building would lower over head costs.

I also propose we lift any restrictions that prevent and veterinary health professions from developing their own localized insurance programs or that place restrictions on buying and selling insurance in general. Why not allow vets to provide some specified number of visits, surgeries ect. in exchange for a monthly fee? Why not allow American pet insurers to sell their products to insure Canadian or Australian Dogs and vice versa?

All these proposals would have increase the flexibility of pet care providers, while subjecting the industry to more competition. Feel free to share any objections to them or commentary on them below.

Sources used for this part article are listed below:

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Why Vet Bills are so Expensive and What to Do About it (Part 1 Of 2)

I have written multiple articles about the joys, trial and tribulations of being a pet owner. My latest such experience comes from a recent trip to the veterinarian and having the subsequent realization that each trip to the vet ends with the feeling that I have been seriously ripped off. Apparently spending hundreds of dollars for a vet visit lasting less than half an hour is not unheard of. While researching this topic I found that most pieces on the cost of high vet bills seemed more interested in explaining and excusing them rather than proposing solutions. I hope to do a little of both here.

My first reaction after giving the matter some consideration, was find it unsurprising that vet bills can be so expensive. Health care is expensive and way over priced in general, so there is hardly any reason why vets should be any different. Vets, after all are part of a government granted licensing monopoly. Though much of what they do can be done by people without their extensive educational background and government accreditation, there are restrictions on who can do it. I doubt for example that I could legally set up a shop x-raying dogs and cats for under ten dollars. It also should go without saying that many of us love and care deeply for our pets and are willing to break our budgets to see them get the best care, making us vulnerable to overcharging.

The problem however runs deeper than this and it parallels problems found in the high cost of medical care in general.  Despite their astronomical (and let’s admit they are astronomical) charges most vets are not pocketing much of the cash. Vets are expected and usually required to have on hand numerous expensive and often patented drugs, as well as  ultrasound equipment, anesthetic and anesthetic monitoring equipment, x-ray equipment (which is often species or purpose specific), blood-testing equipment, dental equipment comparable in price to that of a human dentist, and an extensive system for computerized record keeping. All of this adds up to significant overhead. x-rays and ultrasounds can cost anywhere between $30,000 and $90,000. This is before the costs of keeping all this equipment calibrated, clean and in good repair.

Furthermore, a typical vet and many veterinary technicians come into this field, these days with a heaping load of student debt. This too should be unsurprising as educational cost in this day in age are insane and this is even more so the case in fields where the state requires practitioners to have some form of government approved accreditation. A typical veterinary graduate enters the field with around $142,613, claims the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine. While places the typical Vet’s salary between  $45,000 and $106,000. A family Physician averages between  $75,000 – $204,000.  This is not to mention that a similar discrepancy exists between the pay of veterinary technicians and their counter parts in other forms of medicine such as nurses and dental hygienists.

As noted before, all this is not to excuse the high prices but at least partially account for them and note I am certainly not saying that gouging is not happening, as I suspect it often is. Being as sheltered from competition as vet practices often are, they are largely free to engage in a great deal of up-selling, using anesthesia for procedures that do not always require it, and keeping pets overnight when it is not necessary. If you are a pet owner shop around, and feel free to negotiate, haggle and question everything your vet does.

In part two I look further in to possible solutions to the high cost of a trip to the vet.

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Bands in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy

I recently read the Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I found it a bizarre yet highly enjoyable work of fiction, complete with contradictory multilevel conspiracies, over the top sex scenes, real historical figures, quadruple agents, fun acronyms, word play, 1960s counter-culture, fnords, drug use, nonsensical philosophizing, politics, anarchism, talking dolphins, rock’n roll and zombie NAZIs.  All of this is delivered with a great deal of humor and it is quite an enjoyable trip for anyone who might be into this sort of thing.

In the third book of the trilogy a large Woodstock-like Music festival is takes place in Ingolstadt, Bavaria which actually is organized for far more malicious purposes than it’s attendees suspect. Shea and Wilson clearly had fun coming up with names of the fictitious bands that performed at this festival and they also included a few real life musicians in the line-up as well. At least one of the names they used for a fictitious band would become the name of a popular real band decades later (the book came out in the mid 1970s). The full list in the first chapter of Leviathan, the third book of the trilogy,  follows below:

The American Medical Association (AMA) (This is the festival’s headliner)
Clark Kent and His Supermen
Filet of Soul
The Wrathful Visions
The Cockroaches
The Senate and The People of Rome
The Ultraviolet Hippopotamus
The Thing on the Door Step
Science and Health
Key to the Scriptures
The Glue Sniffers
King Kong and His Skull Island Dinosaurs
The Howard Johnson Hamburger
The Riot in Cell Block Ten
The House of Frankenstein
The Signifying Monkey
The Damn Thing
The Orange Moose
The Indigo Banana
The Pink Elephant
Frodo Baggins and his Ring
The Mouse that Roars
The Crew of the Flying Saucer
The Magnificent Ambersons
The House I Live In
The Sound of One Hand
The Territorial Imperative
The Druids of Stone Henge
The Heads of Easter Island
The Lost Continent of Mu
Bugs Bunny and his fourteen Carats
The Gospel According to Marx
The Card Carrying Members
The Sands of Mars
The Erection
The Association
The Amalgamation
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
The Climax
The Broad Jumpers
The Pubic Hairs
The Freaks
The Windows
The Trashers (Mick Jagger‘s new group in the story)
The Roofs
Moses and Monotheism
Civilization and it’s Discontents
Poor Richard and his Rosicrucian Secrets
The Wrist Watch
The Nova Express
The Father of Waters
The Human Beings
The Washington Monument
The Thalidomide Babies
The Strangers in a Strange Land
Dr. John the Night Tripper
Joan Baez
The Dead Man’s Hand
Joker and the One-Eyed Jacks
Peyote Woman
The Heavenly Blues
The Gollums
The Supreme Awakening
The Seven Types of Ambiguity
The Cold War
The Street Fighters
The Bank Burners
The Slaves of Satan
The Domino Theory
Maxwell and His Demons
Kachinas of Orabi
Acapulco Gold Diggers
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Dracula and His Brides
The Iron Curtain
The Noisy Minority
The International Debt
Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex
The Cloud of Unknowing
The Birth of A Nation
The Zombies
Attila and His Huns
The Catatonics
The Thorndale Jag offs
The Hay Market Bomb
The Head of a Dead Cat
The Shadow Out of Time
The Sirens of Titan
The Piano Player
The Streets of Laredo
The Space Odyssey
The Blue Moonies
The Crabs
The Dose
The Grassy Knoll
The Latent Image
The Wheel of Karma
The Communion of Saints
The City of God
General Indefinite Wobble
The Left Handed Monkey Wrench
The Thorn in the Flesh
The Rising Podge
The Miniature Sled
The 23rd Appendix
The Other Cheek
The Occidental Ox
Mizz and the Chairperson
Cohen,  Cohen, Cohen and Kahn
The Joint Phenomenon
The Wonders of the Invisible World
Maul’s Curse
The Jesus Head Trip
Ahab and His Amputation
The Horseless Heads Men
The Leaves of Grass
The Gettysburg Address
The Rosy Fingered Dawn
The Wine Dark Sea
The Net of Jewels
Here Comes Everybody
Pisan Cantos
The Snows of Yesteryear
The Pink Dimension
The Goose in The Bottle
The Incredible Hulk
The Third Bardo
Aversion Therapy
The Irresistible Force
MC Squared
The Enclosure Acts
Perpetual Emotion
The 99 Year Lease
The Immovable Object
Space Ship Earth
The Radio Carbon Method
The Rebel Yell
The Clenched Fist
The Doomsday Machine
The RAN Scenario
The United States Commitment
The Players of Null A
The Prelude to Space
Thunder and Roses
The Time Machine
The Mason Word
The Monkey Business
The Works
The Eight of Swords
Gorilla Warfare
The Box Lunch
The Primate Kingdom
The New Aeon
The Enola Gay
The Octet Trust
The Stochastic Process
The Fluxions
The Burning House
The Phantom Captain
The Decline of The West
The Dualists
The Call of The Wild
Consciousness Three
The Reorganized Church of The Latter Day Saints
Standard Oil of Ohio
The Zigzag Men
The Rubble Risers
The Children of Ra
Acceptable Radiation
The Pollution Level
The Great Beast
The Whores of Babylon
The Wasteland
The Ugly Truth
The Final Diagnosis
Solution Unsatisfactory
The Heat Death of The Universe
Mere Noise
Eye Opening
The Nine Unknown Men
The Horse of Another Color
The Falling Rock Zone
The Ascent of the Serpent
Ready, Willing and Unable
The Civic Monster
Hercules and the Tortise
The Middle Pilar
The Deleted Expletive
Deep Quote
The Dog Star
Nothing Serious
Preparation H

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Embryos in a Fridge: A question for pro-lifers

Here is a hypothetical situation presented to me a while back, that I
figured I thought to be a good conversation starter.  This goes out to the pro-lifers out there especially prohibitionist anti-choice, pro-lifers (I figure a distinction should be made, between to oppose abortion [pro-life], it is another to thing to want the government to impose your opposition to abortion on everyone else [anti-choice]), especially anti-choice pro-lifers who would argue that a human embryo is morally equal to a fully developed  person.

An embryo is a multicellular diploid eukaryote in its earliest stage of development, from the time of first cell division until birth, hatching, or germination.  In other words the term embryo is used to describe the phase in human development, ranging from the time in which one is nothing more than a cluster of cells to the time in which the internal organs have begun to develop (Essentially the first 2 months of pregnancy).  I know there are more ardent individuals who argue that a zygote, or the single fertilized egg cell, is also morally equal to and deserving of all the rights of a fully developed person, but for this exercise, I think going with the embryo stage is more sensible. Something about assigning rights to a single cell seems a little absurd, especially when considering the millions of individual cells that die when I scratch an itch or roll over in bed.

So, anyway the hypothetical situation is this:

You are in a burning building and your are stuck with the choice of saving either a 3 year old girl, or a refrigerator, full of hundreds of human embryos. You only have time to save one, so which do you save??

It seems to me that one who holds a human embryo to be the moral equivalent to a fully developed  person, would have to choose the hundreds of embryos in the refrigerator, and yet I cannot imagine that any sane person would choose this option.  In fact, I would say only a monster who has had his humanity and his morality warped, twisted and destroyed by religion and political dogmatism would save the embryos and let the little girl die. Something about this just strikes me as common sense, but I would like to see if any of you out there disagree, and learn what reasons you disagree.  Perhaps there is some flaw in my dilemma, making it a poor analogy, if so let me know.

Also, does this change for you if it is a refrigerator full of fetuses (a more advanced stage in prenatal development)?  Is there a certain number of fetuses or embryos that the fridge must contain to before you can justify saving it over the little girl?

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The Keystone Pipeline is Big Government

Recently, approval for the completion of the fourth phase of the controversial XL Keystone Pipeline was put to a vote in the Senate but was fell one yes vote short of winning.  All the Republicans in the Senate voted for it as well fourteen Democrats. The yes votes from the fourteen Democratic Senators should be of little surprise to anyone, being that they are a party with a long proud history of support for large scale government infrastructure projects and in practice are just as much in the pockets of big business as their loyal opposition.  It is the universal approval of the project from the Republican Senators that is more interesting, as it demonstrates what an incredible lie the claim that the Republicans are a party of “free markets” or “small government” is.

Large scale government infrastructure projects such as the keystone pipeline are completely incompatible with either of these alleged “conservative principles”. Such a project would further distort the economy in favor of the oil industry which the Republican party is unabashedly in bed with, and it would employ tax payer dollars on this industry’s behalf. Such cronyism is the exact opposite of the free market or a limited government. This is only made worse by the fact that the project would require great deals of land taken through eminent domain, also known as government land theft.

In a free market, oil companies would be free to build their own infrastructure without tax-payer assistance. They would have to buy or compensate legitimate landowners for the use of their land and they would have to face full liabilities for any unintended damage that takes place. This, in other words, is the exact opposite of what the proposal voted on by the Senate. No consistent conservative (if there is such a thing) could support the current pipeline proposals, while remaining consistent with the state values of his or her political philosophy.

Unfortunately when ever self-proclaimed conservatives are in power they always pursue cronyist courses of action at the behest of big business with no concern about their expressed principles or the resulting distortion of the economy. It is as if they they believe anything that upsets liberals and benefits big business, is consistent with conservatism, which is clearly not the case.

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