Raising the Minimum Wage Could Be Good…And Bad

Activists in Portland, Maine want to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, or maybe even $15. President Barack Obama wants to set the federal minimum wage at $10.10. The argument is that it will help working families without harming the economy because workers will put their pay raises back into the economy. But opponents counter that payroll is often a business’s biggest expense, so a higher minimum wage will increase unemployment among low income families and cause some small business to go under.

This debate is reminiscent of the claim that cutting taxes will increase government revenues because lower taxes create economic growth. When taxes are high this has merit (up to 70% income tax rate before President Ronald Reagan took office). But when taxes are low (Reagan cut it to 28%) government debt rises.

There’s got to be a happy medium. And the same is true for the minimum wage. Economists talk about the point of diminishing returns, meaning that something might have a positive effect, but only up to a certain point. Then the effect wears off. They also talk a lot about curves because it looks like an upside down U when you graph it.

The Portland Press Herald reported on a study by the University of California, which found that a minimum wage that’s more than 60% of the median hourly wage will harm businesses and make things worse for the working poor as unemployment rises. But below that the researchers claim there will be little negative impact owing to a combination of workers spending their pay raises and businesses finding ways of shifting costs.

In Maine, this means a minimum wage of $9.60 an hour, up from $7.50. But there are significant regional variations. Northern Maine couldn’t handle an increase above $7.96.

This highlights a problem with a one-size-fits-all national (or even state) minimum wage. Mississippi’s economy is markedly different from Los Angeles.

Of course, the notion that the minimum wage should be 60% of the median hourly wage for a certain area is bound to be controversial. But reconceptualizing the minimum wage as a percentage of median income for a region rather than a fixed dollar amount for the entire country is certainly a debate worth having.


Can A Moralistic Attitude Lead to Violence?

Sounds like a dumb question. Everyone knows that violent people are immoral. They lack empathy, are selfish, and some are even psychopaths.

But what if the research doesn’t support these assumptions? Harvard professor Steven Pinker, giving a talk for the Economist, says we need less moralizing. He says that most murders happen for moralistic reasons: someone done me wrong, stole my stuff, slept with my wife, cut me off in traffic.

On a larger scale, Hitler saw himself on a moral quest to defend victimized Germans against Jewish perfidy, Communists slaughtered millions of evil bourgeois capitalists, and the Catholic Church’s medieval Inquisition was done in the name of a perfectly good God to defeat the powers of Satan.

The good news, according to Pinker, is that the world today is far less violent than the past. This also sounds counter-intuitive, but in The Better Angels of Our Nature (which he summarized in a Ted Talk) he notes that the scale today is larger because the world’s population is larger. In Roman times there were probably only 50 to 60 million people on the entire planet, but today there are over 7 billion people.

However, per capita violence is far lower today. Pinker says there were about 100 murders per 100,000 people in medieval Europe, but in some European countries today the murder rate is down to 1 per 100,000. And, as a percent of the population, wars today also kill far fewer people.

Further, violence that was not only socially acceptable in the past but even promoted is considered repugnant human rights violations today. Pinker points to the Bible (Numbers 31) where God commands the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites, killing all the men, boys, and non-virginal women, sparing only female virgins (presumably to be raped). Were Moses around today he’d be reviled just as we revile the men of ISIS, and he’d be tried as a war criminal.

Writing for Aeon, Tage Rai claims that the primary reason people commit violence is because their moral code demands it. Often it comes down to revenge.

And extreme violence, as with Islamic terrorists, can emerge when people find their way of life threatened – such as modernity, with its ideals of equality, encroaching on Islamic cultures that are based on ancient ideologies.

Giving up one’s vigilante quest to defend personal honor in favor of allowing the state to adjudicate the situation, and accepting the verdict even if it’s not guilty, has done much to reduce violence. Equality also promotes peace because much violence has to do with regulating social relationships, which can mean violent consequences for those who resist subordination.

Social pressure from one’s peers is also huge. Rai describes

a Chicago program known as ‘CureViolence’. The program hinges on getting trusted members of the community to intervene with moral appeals that focus on social-relational consequences, before retaliatory violence can erupt. A study of the program found that it reduced shootings by 16-28% in the areas where it was implemented.

However, he cautions that

It isn’t easy to change a culture of violence. You have to give people the structural, economic, technological and political means to regulate their relationships peacefully. Social groups have to learn to shame and shun anyone who hurts others. But it can be done. It has been done in the past, and it is happening as we speak.



Ray Harrington Presents Docu-Comedy “Be a Man”

It seems everyone these days is asking what it means to be a man. It’s a serious question. Maybe too serious. So Ray Harrington decides to have a good laugh about it in his docu-comedy Be A Man.

Harrington’s hilarious look at the traditional male role finds him boxing Vinny Paz (who is hilarious in his own right), and taking a good knock on the head. He drinks 10 manly drinks in one night. (The secret to drinking whisky without making a funny face? You like whisky. Otherwise, you’re gonna make a funny face.) He also drives a Ferrari really fast, shaves with a straight razor and says ow a lot, and has 10 young women rate his looks and fashion sense. Luckily, he’s already married to a woman who adores him.

The movie had me and everyone else laughing out loud so many times that I lost count.

But there’s a serious side too. Harrington’s reason for asking what it means to be a man is personal. After all, that one is a man is a fact like being an American is a fact. But the question is really about something different. In an article for insideMAN I wrote that,

We ask what it means to be a man because men’s roles in modern society are shifting. Part of this is due to the diminished need for brawn. Part of it is due to a dramatic expansion of women’s options, meaning that women aren’t dependent on men as they were in the past. Part of it is that many men both want and are expected to take a greater role in child rearing. And gay and transgender men are fighting for their equality as men.

I concluded that “a man’s dignity has always been about who he is as a person, not the particular role he serves.”

And that’s why boxing and heavy drinking have nothing to teach except that Harrington is already the man he wants to be. Being a man is about striving to be the best of who Ray Harrington is.

He’s a son, a husband, a friend. And a dad. Harrington was raised without his father present and so wants to be the best father he can be. And the fact that he cares about being a good dad shows us the kind of man he is.

Why Religion Evolved

Everybody’s looking for something.  I think the Eurhythmics sang that.  People look for the love of their lives, devote themselves to religion, become activists for a political ideology, and are spiritual seekers because they’re looking for something.

But what is this something?  No one can quite put their finger on it.

Some people even think this something would appear if only everyone else would adopt their ideology.  And when others don’t, they lash out in anger.  And so religion and politics descend into authoritarianism.

Religion’s epitaph has been written many times, each one premature and disconnected from reality. There’s never been a culture without religion, and atheists are a minority even in the most secular societies.

This calls for an evolutionary explanation that isn’t dismissive or partisan. The title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell implies an ideological quest to diminish religion. Still, he’s right about religion being a natural phenomenon which should be studied as such.

Dennett focuses on agenticity (also called theory of mind or intentional stance): we automatically assume, even as toddlers, that other people have thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc. But we overgeneralize. Little children often think their teddy bears can think and feel. Even as adults we might describe a computer as being stupid, as if a computer could think.

The earliest religions were animistic—the forces of nature were thought to act intentionally. The sun and moon were deities. So it’s not much of a stretch from there to the assumption that invisible agents such as spirits and gods exist, and that whatever animated someone in life must continue after death.

But this doesn’t explain why religion is such a pervasive group endeavor. Evolution typically focuses on the individual, but individuals don’t exist in isolation—we survive in groups. So it makes sense that evolution selected for behaviors that enable individuals to be effective group members. (This is not group evolution, but rather individuals who cooperate with others being more likely to survive.)

Religion often creates the cohesion groups need, as well as addressing the uniquely human search for meaning. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, quotes a World War II veteran who said that at first he thought marching exercises were stupid, but he understood its purpose once his unit began to function almost like a single organism with each person forgetting his individuality.

In battle you forget about yourself, but once the bullets stop flying you’re an individual again. Transcendence is short lived because it serves a specific function—that of binding the individual to the whole by temporarily leaving the self behind.  But for mundane tasks, which is most of what we do, we need to act as individuals.

The transcendence of self that soldiers experience in combat is not unlike the transcendence of self the Zen master experiences in meditation (but less riskier).  In the evolutionary environment, humans had to deal not only with conflicts with outside groups, but more often they had to function as a hunting team.  This was much harder than sport hunting today.  Weapons were primitive, there were predators like lions to contend with, and failure meant starvation.  Subsuming the self to the interests of the whole can be necessary for group coherence with nonviolent tasks as well.

In other words, civilization can’t happen without the ability to focus on something greater than ourselves—and religion helps us do this.  Haidt points out that many anthropologists view religion not primarily as belief in supernatural agents, but rather as primarily about community and ritual.

Ritualistic behavior is also a human universal, and synchronized movement—whether it’s marching soldiers or a religious ritual—seems to play an essential role in binding a group together.  The wave at a baseball game does the same thing.

That complex civilizations are impossible without cooperation is no small observation.  Haidt notes that you never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.  Chimps don’t cooperate at such a high level.  But humans cooperate to the point where we’ve gone to the moon.

As such, Haidt (though an atheist) disagrees with Dennett’s claim that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other traits, much like alcoholism’s (partially) genetic basis.

Haidt claims that religion evolved because it serves to cohere a group of people.

In sum, religion is about what happens between individuals and groups, and these individuals include invisible agents born from a pervasive human cognitive error (overgeneralized agenticity).

To this end, Haidt notes that, “Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studies in lone bees” (p. 248). Thus, religion can only be understood in the context of community.

Further, Nicholas Wade, in The Faith Instinct, claims that morality—the need to sometimes subordinate one’s self-interest to the greater needs of society—also evolved in humans to enable us to function in groups. As such, it makes sense that religion took on morality as its special project. Supernatural agents often are the enforcers of morality, thus tying agenticity and group cohesion together.

I think another reason religion evolved is that our intelligence leads us to wonder why we exist at all, and so people everywhere seem to need a comprehensive worldview that explains why we’re here and where we’re going.  Typically, this worldview is communicated as a story or myth. A shared worldview conveys meaning, and this is essential for a species that can ask the question, Why?

But free riders are a big problem groups face. The most conservative religions today seem to be the most successful, which baffles secularists and religious progressives.  Economist Laurence Iannaccone notes that conservative groups demand a high membership price—adhering to a strict moral code, distinctive dress, rejection by mainstream society, etc. In return they receive the benefits of group membership. Free riders don’t like the price, so they drift away.

None of this shows that God doesn’t exist, but neither does it prove God does exist. But what if God does exist? The modesty that comes with uncertainty causes us to recognize a few things:

For starters, there’s no way to know, so belief is an opinion and we can’t blame atheists for disagreeing. Even if there is some higher power, there’s no reason to assume this is God rather than an impersonal principle, a Goddess, or multiple deities.

And now that we know just how vast the universe is, it seems unlikely that God created all this just for us, or that God is even a person. If horses had gods they would look like horses, as they saying goes.

Then there’s the problem of ideas that are logically incoherent, such as the trinity or evil and the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And we must recognize that science trumps religion regarding the natural world. But if science someday is able to show that multiple universes are most likely the case, then God’s fate may be sealed because the statistical improbability of our universe would disappear. On the other hand, if the multiverse is ruled out then the improbability of our universe would bolster the argument in favor of a creator or creators.

So while rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated, religion is struggling to adapt to the modern world. If history is any guide, however, religion will eventually succeed. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but typically the process is organic and grassroots rather than by design or decree.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.