Kevin Drum

Ben Carson's Pyramid Nonsense Is Not a Religious Belief

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 11:46 AM EST

Tyler Cowen thinks we're all being too hard on Ben Carson for his belief that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain:

We mock Ben Carson for this, but we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims. It’s not so different from the old prejudice that Mormon beliefs are somehow “weirder” than those of traditional Christians, except now it is secularists picking and choosing their religious targets on the supposed basis of sophistication. The Seventh Day Adventists, Carson’s church, are of course weirder yet.

....What I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

Generally speaking, I agree. As a nonbeliever, I find pretty much all religious beliefs pretty odd. Some I find odder than others, but this is just a literary reaction. I also find Lovecraft odder than Baum, but is he really?

But here's what Cowen misses about the pyramid thing: it's not even a religious belief. Muslims don't say the pyramids were for grain storage. Neither do Mormons or Jews or Christian Scientists or Southern Baptists or Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. There's nothing in the Bible about this. It's not a religious belief. It's just Carson's weird, personal theory.

What's more, this isn't something like evolution or the Big Bang, where the evidence is arcane enough that lots of people feel comfortable dismissing it. Our knowledge of the pyramids is plain and unambiguous. I mean, thousands of Christian tourists have been inside. They aren't hollow. They have lots of passages and rooms. We've found burial chambers and sarcophagi. We can read the hieroglyphics on the walls. Anyone with a TV set knows this.

What's more, Carson's defense is ridiculous. He figures Joseph needed something big to store all that grain in the Bible, and something that big would still be around. But why? He could have stored it in lots of little things. He could have stored it in medium-sized things. Ten thousand silos a few yards on a side would have provided the same amount of storage space and been a helluva lot easier to construct. Only an idiot would store grain in a few humongous pyramids. Was Joseph an idiot?

Cowen says, "Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world." But that's not what Carson did. His pyramid theory isn't a religious belief. It has nothing to do with dogma, nothing to do with scripture, and nothing to do with any kind of divine intervention. It's just a dumb personal invention. Plain old secular dumb.

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Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in October

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 10:58 AM EST

The American economy added 271,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a brisk 181,000 jobs—nearly all of it in the private sector. Not bad! The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 5.0 percent, and virtually of this gain was because more people were employed, not because folks were dropping out of the labor force. This is pretty good news if it translates into wage growth too.

Which it did. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up 5.3 percent on an annualized basis, and weekly earnings were up an impressive 9.1 percent, which suggests workers are getting more hours and more overtime.

There's really nothing much to dislike about this jobs report. As usual, it carries the risk that it will prompt the Fed to raise interest rates, but I think that's inevitable at this point barring some kind of economic catastrophe. And a small increase won't have much effect anyway. Now let's see if we can keep this up through the holiday season.

The Uninsured Rate Just Keeps Going Down, Down, Down

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 8:20 PM EST

I'm back. I've now done my civic duty yet again, so I'm safe until the next time the Orange County justice system wants me to sit around all day and curse at unreliable Wi-Fi coverage. Oddly, their Wi-Fi is worse than it was the last time I was there, three or four years ago. I think they've outsourced it since then. On the bright side, this time around I could provide my own internet connection, so I don't care that much. Plus, since I never get actually called for a jury these days, I've once again preserved my record of being foreman on 100 percent of the juries I've ever sat on.

As your reward for waiting around all day for me, here's the latest CDC data on the uninsured rate. Being the big government agency they are, they're just getting around to crunching the numbers for the second quarter, and they report that Obamacare has driven the uninsured rate down yet again, to 10.3 percent.1 Not bad for a program that, I'm told, is in a death spiral and will implode any second now.

1Gallup says the uninsured rate in the second quarter was 11.4 percent. The difference comes from who they count. Gallup counts everyone over 18. CDC counts everyone under age 65.

Who Is Ben Carson's Mystery Physicist?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 1:19 PM EST

By now, we all know that Ben Carson thinks the pyramids were built by Joseph as grain silos. I'm sort of curious about where this idea came from, and maybe eventually we'll find out. In the meantime, I'd like to highlight a different part of Carson's pyramid speech:

“I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar system that we now have, which you can set your watch by, where scientists can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. That’s an incredible amount of organization to have originated from just a large explosion.”

Carson then tells the story of how he supposedly stumped the physicist by asking him how he could reconcile such an “organized” universe with the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy, which says that systems tend to move towards disorder.

“Well of course he has no answer for that. They never have an answer for any of these things.”

Huh. Not just a physicist, a "well-known" physicist. And Carson says this guy was floored by his question. Apparently he had never given any thought to whether the Big Bang theory was compatible with the second law of thermodynamics.

Conclusion: either this was the stupidest physicist ever, or else Carson was lying. I think you can guess which side I'm on, but Carson can clear this up in a trice by telling us who this hapless physicist was. I sure hope it's not someone who's conveniently dead.

POSTSCRIPT: It's probably worth noting that conservative Christians are just generally a little gaga over the second law of thermodynamics, which they're convinced disproves the theory of evolution. You can yell "In a closed system!" until you're blue in the face, and it makes no difference. They've stumped you! There are dozens of more sophisticated versions of this argument, too. Carson is just extending this chestnut a little further back in time.

Midget Nerd? Seriously?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 12:11 PM EST

I guess you don't need me to tell you about Bush 41's opinion of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. Poor Jon Meacham spent years writing a biography of Bush, and all anyone cares about is a few quotes calling people "iron-asses," an epithet Bush applied to Rumsfeld and, apparently, the entire Cheney family. Especially Lynne.

But did Bush really call Michael Dukakis "midget nerd"? What is this, junior high school?

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 9:00 AM EST

Last night I was checking my calendar and realized that I have jury duty today. Exciting! So probably no blogging. Unless I end up waiting around all day and never getting called, in which case maybe I'll do some blogging on my tablet. We'll see.

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Is Ben Carson a Liar? Or Does He Just Not Care?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 10:18 PM EST

Here is Ben Carson, wandering off topic when the Miami Herald asks him about abuses of our Cuba policy:

"I think the way to fix that is not so much to abolish the act, but dealing with the specific area where the abuse is," Carson said, noting that Medicare and Medicaid fraud is "huge — half a trillion dollars."

"We definitely need to focus on that," he said.

Well, hell, why not say it's a hundred trillion dollars? Or a gazillion? I mean, if you're just going to make stuff up, why not go whole hog?

For the record, total Medicare and Medicaid spending last year—state, federal, everything—was $980 billion. So Carson is suggesting that literally half of all spending on these programs is fraudulent.

So where did Carson come up with this figure? Beats me. There are a few possibilities:

  • It comes from some kind of kooky right-wing conspiracy theory that circulates in newsletters and email lists that the rest of us never see.
  • Carson read somewhere that Medicare fraud totaled $60 billion out of half a trillion dollars, and the only parts that stuck in his brain were "fraud" and "half a trillion dollars."
  • He just made it up.

This stuff is weird. Carson didn't have to say anything about Medicare fraud. The question was about Cuba policy. He wanted to mention it. Fine. He could have just said that Medicare fraud was a huge problem. Sorry: not good enough. He wanted to toss out a scary number, but he couldn't be bothered to know what it actually was—or even know enough about Medicare and Medicaid spending to realize that half a trillion dollars couldn't possibly be right. He just doesn't care. What kind of person running for president just doesn't care?

POSTSCRIPT: Couldn't Carson have just made a mistake? Sure. But here's the thing: some mistakes are so big they give away the fact that you're entirely ignorant of the subject at hand. If I told you that Babe Ruth hit 800 home runs in his career, it might just be a brain fart. But if I told you he hit 5,000 home runs, it's a giveaway that I'm faking. I don't know the first thing about baseball.

That's what Carson did here. He's smart and good with numbers, so if he knew even the basics of Medicare and Medicaid he'd also know intuitively that half a trillion dollars couldn't be right. But he didn't. He's running for president, and hasn't bothered to learn even the kindergarten basics about two programs that make up nearly a third of the federal budget.

How Honest Is Your Favorite Candidate?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 8:11 PM EST

I was browsing through my Twitter feed a few minutes ago and a string of tweets inspired me to do a bit of original research about the honesty of our presidential candidates. I think we all have a gut feel for who's fairly honest and who's not, but I figured there might be a more rigorous way to measure this.

So I hopped over to PolitiFact. Not because they're an infallible source of fact checking, but because they're convenient and probably as good as anyone else. Then I looked up all the candidates. I gave them 5 points for each statement judged True, 4 for each statement judged Mostly True, etc., all the way to zero points for each statement judged Pants On Fire. Then I averaged the scores. Here are the results:

I have a few special awards to hand out, as well as a couple of comments:

  • Cheers to Bernie Sanders, the only candidate with not a single Pants On Fire rating.
  • Jeers to Donald Trump, who failed to earn a single True rating.
  • Double jeers to Ben Carson, who remarkably failed to get a single True rating or a single Mostly True rating.
  • The average Democratic rating is 3.34. The average Republican rating is 2.26.
  • Among Republicans, honesty is the exact inverse of popularity. Jeb Bush is the most honest, and he's got the lowest poll numbers among the serious candidates. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the least honest by quite a bit, and they're also leading the field by quite a bit. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are in the middle on both honesty and popularity.

I especially draw your attention to the last bullet. It's eerie. It's almost as if the Republican electorate wants to be lied to, and the more you lie, the more they like you. I'll hold off on guessing precisely what this means, but it might explain a lot about this year's GOP primary race.

The Great Mystery of Commute Time and Income Mobility

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 7:05 PM EST

Here's something I ran across accidentally today. In a working paper released a few months ago, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren try to estimate the effect on low-income children of moving to better neighborhoods. In particular, which traits correspond to higher incomes 20 years later?

All the usual suspects have high correlations: segregation, social capital, crime, income inequality, population density, etc. But the very highest correlation—by quite a bit—is for commuting time. Moving to a neighborhood where most people commute less than 15 minutes has a big impact:

Twenty years of exposure to a [commuting zone] with a 1 standard deviation higher fraction of people with commute times less than 15 minutes increases a child's income by [7%]....These correlations with commute times are unlikely the direct effect of being closer to jobs....It is likely some characteristic of places correlated with commute times that drives the underlying pattern.

In other words, this doesn't mean that if mom or dad gets a job closer to home, junior will enjoy a higher income when he grows up. It means that if the family moves to a neighborhood that's close to where its residents work, junior's income will benefit.

This seems a little unlikely, though it's not impossible to imagine that neighborhoods where parents are home more of the time have a beneficial effect on kids. Still, the authors are most likely right: commute time is probably standing in for something else. Perhaps neighborhoods that are close to lots of jobs have certain characteristics that are good for kids, and short commutes are just an accidental bonus.

Either way, this sure seems interesting enough to follow up on. Is it really commute time that matters? If not, what is it a proxy for?

NOTE: The chart shows the effect on boys whose parents have incomes in the bottom quarter. The effect is pretty much the same for girls.

Conservatives Won Big on Tuesday....In the South

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 3:18 PM EST

The Washington Post's headline today is a brutal one for liberals: "From coast to coast, conservatives score huge victories in off-year elections."

But that's not really right. Conservatives did win big victories in Virginia, Kentucky, and Houston. But Ohio's marijuana initiative most likely went down because it was too raw a giveaway to a bunch of rich donors, and San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarim was plagued by scandals that had nothing to do with his support for sanctuary cities. (The winner, Vicki Hennessy, was endorsed by SF mayor Ed Lee. She's hardly a conservative insurgent.)

Elsewhere, liberals won public financing initiatives in Seattle and Maine. Pennsylvania elected three Democrats to the state Supreme Court. Movement conservatives lost big in two of Colorado's largest school districts.

I don't want to go all Pollyanna on you, but the basic result of yesterday's elections is that conservatives won big in the South, while liberals did OK everywhere else. Losing Kentucky was a kick in the gut, but I can't work up a lot of surprise when Democrats lose ground below the Mason-Dixon line. It's unfortunate, but it's hardly big news.