Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Poet Bravely Fights the Evil Atheists

Modern poets are something of a dying breed, although I must confess they've always been regarded as peripheral.  If approached in a bar and asked what one does for a living, if one answers, "I'm a poet," the approaching person is going to hear, "I'm unemployed."  Poetry isn't something one does as a primary profession any more than chess or Sudoku.  It's a labor of love which is largely relevant only to the person performing it, even if deep down they believe themselves to be a guiding light to humanity.

Thankfully, publications like Slate are willing to publish poets like Michael Robbins.  Not his poetry, mind you.  Rather, he writes click-baiting atheist bashing articles under the thin veneer of a "book review" wherein he creatively repackages familiar and discredited anti-atheism arguments in obfuscating, poetical language.  I confess, I'm a sucker for deconstructing articles like this, since it hides its own point under flowery language.

Whereas I have not read the book he is reviewing, I will only be discussing the article as it is written.  The Slate headline on the front page gave no indication it was a book review, and the article frankly veers off course fairly early.

This won't take terribly long.  The article is essentially hate speech, employing phrases like, "the vulgar atheist imagination".  I'll just cover the highlights.

Spencer's point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. (Spencer focuses on Europe, whence modern atheism arose, and hence on Judeo-Christianity.) Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. ("You seriously believe in God?" "Well, how do you explain thunder?")

His point is puzzling.  He doesn't seem to acknowledge the existence of creationists who seek to push the teaching of evolution out of schools, or at least the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution.  If explaining natural phenomena is not at least one of the purposes of religion, then why is this a controversy?

Robbins, of course, is a "sophisticated Christian" who believes, essentially, that 99% of Christians give the other 1% a bad name.  But no matter.  We'll travel down this rabbit hole with him.  Why, pray tell, does religion exist?

A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live.

Actually, that's a rough definition of "culture".  But keep going.

Science does not—it isn't designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls "the conduct of life." Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion "is a scientific theory," "a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life." This is—if you'll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.

Actually, if creationists are going to propose that evolution should be scrapped in favor of Genesis, then it's perfectly valid to evaluate creationism on its scientific merit.  And since the entire proposition rests on the assumption of the existence of a creator, then this is something which must be scientifically tested, as well.  Or is he unfamiliar with the Scopes monkey trial?  Science didn't pick this particular fight.

To be sure, several scriptures offer, for instance, their own accounts of creation. But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity.

This is – if you'll forgive my scientific jargon – horseshit.  Perhaps if he said, "some Christians", but to claim that Christians far and wide across the globe recognize – and have always recognized – that the creation myth in Genesis is, in fact, a myth, runs contrary to observable reality.  Seriously, I'll just leave this here.  Moving on.

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description. Indeed, it is what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls their "austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions" that enables the sciences to do their work. So when, for instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and pop-cosmologist Lawrence Krauss dismiss the (metaphysical) problem of how something could emerge from nothing by pointing to the Big Bang or quantum fluctuation, it is difficult to be kind: Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what "nothing" signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.

This is only a problem to the extent one believes that there was ever a "nothing" at some point.  It presumes that time is as linear as we perceive it and foists our limited worldview onto the entire universe, demanding that it explain itself on our terms.  But the universe does not owe us explanations.  We have to earn our knowledge through diligence, not wait for it through revelation.  To say "nothing is nothing" is a simple tautology.  To ask how something could come from nothing assumes very large facts very much not in evidence and the implication here is that either it came from nothing, or it came from God.  This presents a false dilemma based on the presumption of a linear procession of time.  Questions of how and why we exist are what science is attempting to answer.  We don't get to skip to end of this particular mystery as religion would have us do.

Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren't truly atheists. "The knowledge of contraries is one and the same," as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you're not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists' arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism).

Goodness, there are a lot of deviations between the deities presented in "most theistic traditions".  And I don't need to have a conception of dragons similar to your culture's conception of dragons (there's divergence between eastern traditions and western traditions even on that) to disbelieve in the existence of dragons.  I don't need to conceive of ghouls or goblins the way you do to disbelieve in those.  And I don't need to study the Koran to dismiss the Muslim's conception of Allah any more than I need to study Works and Days to disbelieve in Prometheus or Pandora.  Atheism is a null proposition.  One can fill it with science, humanism, or nothing at all.  The last option, it seems, is what Robbins thinks gets left behind when you remove religion, since he goes on to compare modern atheists unfavorably against nihilist philosopher Nietzsche.

Coyne accused me of "atheist-bashing" the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers.

"Really, some of my best friends are atheists!"  The poet doth protest too much, methinks.  At least have the courage to own your bigotry.  You're reviewing a book called, "Atheists: The Origin of Species" and quite enthusiastically refer to atheists as a different species.  I mean, really try hard and imagine applying this to any other minority group and get back to me.

Atheism in the sense of unbelief is probably as old as the gods—although you often had to keep your unbelief under your heretical hat if you wanted your head to remain under it as well.

Those were the days, eh?

He then cites Nietzsche extensively after briefly commenting on the book he's ostensibly reviewing.  He comes around to something resembling a point:

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: "Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it." How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.

The point isn't that morality requires theism, but that atheism has destroyed Christian morality by questioning its foundation.  If Christianity is in shambles because it was founded on a lie, then it deserves to be.  If Robbins had actually read Nietzsche a bit more extensively than what a Google search can reveal, he'd have found that the period of darkness or "nihilism" following the removal of Christianity as our morality through the removal of "God" as its foundation is also an opportunity to replace it with something better and more life-affirming.  Science may not engage in questions of "ought", but looking at the world and ourselves with a more informed outlook than we had millennia ago allows us to develop our morality through a more complicated and even pragmatic prism than "God says so".

His entire argument against atheism is essentially an appeal to consequences.  "What will be the foundation of our morality without religion?"  And this is an important question to ask as we proceed without religion, and it's one which atheists who start out as believers grapple with all the time.  As corny as it may sound, love may actually be a good start for developing a higher moral code.  But that's a discussion we need to have together, not one atheists can settle on their own.

Toward the end of the article, he shares an anecdote about this nice Christian who encountered these terribly rude atheists on this one comments section, which is… adorable.  He then concludes his "book review" by forgetting that he was reviewing a book at all.

This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called "the tune of the time." Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, "Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be."

I would agree, but if Robbins' intent here was to elevate the conversation, he could attempt to do so with a bit less seething contempt for the people he is attempting to address.  Attend to the beam in your own eye before concerning yourself with the speck in ours, brother.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Strongest Tribe (Musings on Iraq)

A National Review article by Mario Loyola offered a scathing critique of President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, essentially casting all blame for the chaos over there, including the rapid ascension of ISIS, at his feet.  This is largely unfair.  Although the current President does hold some responsibility for current events, the lion's share of the blame still falls on his predecessor, President Bush, for the decision to invade Iraq in the first.
Interestingly, however, Loyola does touch upon a largely unspoken truth, one which I've yet to see offered in any publication, left or right: the real reason we invaded in 2003.  Not WMD, or to liberate Iraq, or even for their oil.
"We had gained, at a frightful cost in lives and treasure, a priceless strategic asset, namely the possibility of Iraq as a strong military ally, hosting U.S. forces as long as we needed to keep them there, engaged against the extremists in Syria and Iran, as well as al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathizers among the Arab states."
This was not a happy accident.  This was the reason we invaded.  And for once, I'd like to see it addressed more than in passing.  The truth is that had the Bush administration been honest with the American people about their reasons for invading Iraq, the people would not have gotten behind it.  Congress would not have gotten behind it.  They would have told President Bush to go soak his head.  And it is because the Bush administration was dishonest about the reasons for the invasion that the American people eventually turned on the war and elected Barack Obama on his promise to bring the troops home.  So there's that. 
In withdrawing the troops from Iraq, President Obama was keeping his central campaign promise.  The Bush administration and their acolytes constantly forget that this is not Rome, wherein Caesar enacts his will and the people love him for it.  Presidents are still accountable to the people and cannot govern without their consent.  The people wanted the troops out of Iraq.  End of story.
But onto Loyola's central argument, which is that the Iraq War is essentially a proxy war between Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia and Shi'ites in Iran, started by the power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.  The Americans had effectively pushed both sides back and had created a tentative peace, but one which would require our continued presence in the country as a mediator between the various squabbling factions.
Again, this was not a happy accident.  Intelligence analysts and really anybody with any knowledge of geopolitics in the region knew that Iran and Saudi Arabia would angle for the upper hand in Iraq.  I'd go so far as to say that the Bush administration was counting on it as a continuing justification for our presence in the region.  This is, effectively, the role that the British Empire played when they were in Iraq: impartial mediator, and in Loyola's own words, "the strongest tribe".  The purpose of eliminating Saddam Hussein's regime was precisely to create that power vacuum with the intent of filling it ourselves.
Meanwhile, we'd have all these troops in Iraq… all dressed up, and nowhere to go.  Except Tehran.  Lather, rinse, repeat.
Loyola skirts on the edges of telling the truth in his article, and he is correct that the withdrawal of American troops created a new power vacuum, which immediately began the same war all over again.  President Obama ought to have taken greater care not to allow that to happen.  But the truth is that this power vacuum does exist, and it will be filled by someone.  Unless Loyola is suggesting that we send all U.S. troops back to Iraq and resume our role as imperial overlords, the struggle for power will continue.  ISIS has come to stake its claim in the region, and the Iraqi government we left behind isn't strong enough to stop them.  Iran will act to preserve their interests, as will Iraq's other neighbors.  The only way to prevent this from spiraling into a full scale regional war is for somebody big enough to stop ISIS to come in and impose its will on them.
President Bush effectively created a situation wherein the United States could not leave Iraq without bloody chaos ensuing.  Conservatives can wave the bloody shirt of "losing all we gained" in Iraq all they want, but all of this blood is on their hands, not those who begged them not to invade in the first place.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Salon Lies About a George Will Column, Entire Left Believes Them

As will be readily apparent, this blog has been inactive for years.  However, the long descent of the once semi-respectable and groundbreaking online magazine Salon into yellow journalism and cheap click-bait has been bothering me for a while, and they've hit what I regard as a new low.

Salon writer Katie McDonough penned this column yesterday in response to this column from June 6.  From McDonough's column:

"Washington Post columnist George Will doesn't believe the statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Instead he believes that liberals, feminists and other nefarious forces have conspired to turn being a rape survivor into a "coveted status that confers privileges." As a result of this plot, "victims proliferate," Will wrote in a weekend editorial that ran in the Washington Post and New York Post."

What Will actually wrote:

"Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ("micro-aggressions," often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."

After this, Will begins to talk about the campus rape discussion, but McDonough's out of context quoting of Will's column paints a very different picture from what he actually said.  Further, she laments that Will takes issue with the inclusion of "nonconsensual touching" into the definition of sexual assault, making it sound as though Will thinks "nonconsensual touching" is okay, when in fact he was taking issue with it being lumped in with "forcible penetration" as though they are the same thing.  His actual point was that "sexual assault" is a very broad term which can range from forcible rape to an unwelcome pat on the butt.  Neither is okay, but to lump the two together is to cheapen actual forcible rape for the purposes of inflating statistics to make it sound, as Antoine Dodson once said, "They rapin' everybody out here."

McDonough continues, "But what is puzzling — about this editorial and the army of nearly identical pieces of rape apologia that find a way into national newspapers with some regularity — is how much one has to ignore in order to argue these points."  "Current data holds that only 12 percent of assaults on college campuses are reported. It seems like Will believes that hearing from any victims is hearing from too many victims."

But Will doesn't ignore that data.  He mentions it specifically in his column:

"The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent."

But McDonough doesn't even attempt to address this point.  Instead, she continues to rail at what she imagined Will said and sets up this straw man, even going so far as to quote The Onion, to rail against "rape apologia".  At no point in the article does she attempt to address what Will actually wrote.  Instead, she cherry-picks a few quotes out of context and makes her article about that.

The worst part is that after this, I later started seeing similar articles popping up on other lefty websites.  It's like nobody actually reads past headlines anymore.  They just get outraged and reflexively parrot something they read on an overtly partisan and hackish website.

An important lesson to learn is that if you read something which seems to perfectly affirm your biases almost to the point of absurdity, it's probably bullshit.  If you only read things which perfectly affirm your biases, you're not only uninformed, you're becoming a lemming.  Reality rarely fits so neatly into our ideological boxes.  It's disconcerting how many people just went along with McDonough's characterization of Will's column rather than actually reading the column for themselves. 
One may reasonably disagree with what Will wrote, and I don't agree with all his conclusions myself (his use of a single college to disprove sexual assault statistics is dubious, at best), but please critique what he actually wrote, not some straw man you invent out of whole cloth.  In this case, McDonough's mischaracterization of Will's column borders on libel.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Writing again.

I recently won a contest with the Daily Beast which allowed me the
opportunity to write a guest column there. As you can see, I haven't
been writing much of late, but I wanted to document it here. As
enough time has passed, I'll post the original link and the full text
of the column, just in case it gets deleted at Daily Beast.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/09/the-city-that-care-forgot.html

On Wednesday night, somebody was feeling generous.

As I was driving up Calliope Street along the Crescent City Connection
that evening, the usual line of beggars holding up cardboard signs
asking for help were gathered, although there was a new one I had only
first seen earlier that morning. He was younger than most of them,
wearing a sweater, and he didn't look like he'd been down and out very
long. The woman in front of me opened her door and handed him
something just as the light was turning green. As we were driving
away, I heard him scream, looked in my rear view mirror, and saw him
dancing for joy.

A rare happy moment under the Crescent City Connection bridge.

Further under the bridge, away from the road, dozens of homeless
people gather nightly. Some are mentally ill, others simply down on
their luck. The local homeless shelter requires people to be in by 6
pm, which is difficult for many of them who have no transportation and
gather what little money they can, either through begging or more
often in the case of long-term homeless, collect aluminum cans to take
to the recycling center in hopes of getting enough money together for
a bite to eat. I see the beggars multiple times per day on my way to
and from work. On the way to work, they're lined up along Calliope
Street on my way to the highway, and then again on Elysian Fields
Avenue as I'm exiting. On the way home, I'll often jump off of I-10
and onto North Claiborne Avenue, where I'll see more of them on the
way back.

The politics of Tuesday night are largely invisible when looking at
the people gathering under bridges to shelter from… if not the
elements, as least precipitation. A man without a residence cannot
provide proof of residence, so one can probably assume that these
people were not voting on Tuesday night. Indeed, there were no "Obama"
or "Romney" signs under bridges, only signs saying "Hungry, please
help" or "Disabled veteran".

Less severe struggles also exist in the City of New Orleans. While
President Obama exists as a sort of iconic symbol in a majority black
city which has seen more than its share of racial strife over the
centuries, evidence of his actual impact is harder to find. Louisiana
is not a swing state and the candidates did not bother campaigning
here. Some politicians trying to win black support will put up signs
and hand out literature positioning themselves as closely to Obama's
name or image as they can. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, running for the
at-large city council seat, grilled her opponent Stacy Head on whether
she supported Barack Obama in 2008. One could almost put the hierarchy
of icons in descending order of: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, and
Barack Obama. In a way, they speak to a similar "promised land"
mythology among the poor and disenfranchised blacks in this city, with
Obama showing that Martin Luther King's dream was attainable in a
concrete, if very distant, way.

In terms of day to day living here, however, very little has changed
since his election. The city has proceeded since Hurricane Katrina to
knock down public housing projects and replace them with expensive
apartment complexes, driving the surrounding housing prices up, even
in dilapidated buildings whose property value would probably increase
if they were razed, one of which I live in. Before Katrina, uptown New
Orleans saw a thriving community of waiters, bartenders, and other
service industry workers who largely supported each other by
patronizing each other's businesses and tipping well. Cheap housing
made that possible. While rent is still affordable compared to New
York, it has gone outside of the reach of those same waiters and
bartenders who have seen business go down and can no longer afford to
live in the neighborhoods where they work. The 2010 census counted
over 47,000 vacant homes in New Orleans, but rent stays high, defying
laws of supply and demand. The vacant homes often become places for
homeless to squat rather than rental homes for service industry
workers, or else havens for criminal activity. Nobody benefits.

The disconnect between the Villagers in Washington and the everyday
lives of Americans is staggering when one considers what they write
about. Not only do I see articles about Obama's victory and Romney's
defeat, followed with hindsight dissections of their respective
campaign strategies, but also questions about how Karl Rove is going
to weather the storm of angry billionaires seeking an explanation for
why they spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to lose the
election. There's a certain amount of schadenfreude in seeing these
masters of the universe not getting their way, but it's limited by the
frustration that our politics have little or nothing to do with
government and the people that government is supposed to serve. Our
politics are more concerned with the fortunes of Karl Rove's SuperPAC
than they are with whether the people sleeping under the Crescent City
Connection bridge will ever find a home, or whether they'll die in the
cold tonight. Even nominally progressive commentators talk about the
dispossessed in a detached, academic sort of way, betraying no actual
contact with the people for whom they profess so much concern.

Elsewhere in the city, streets are being torn up for renovation and
expansion of the streetcar lines in advance of the Super Bowl, which
is being hosted here this season. Word is also that the homeless will
be cleared out from under the bridge, no doubt also in preparation for
all the people coming down for the Big Game, but with no word on where
those people will go. Maybe nobody cares, but having to see so much
poverty when coming to town for such a major event is, no doubt,
positively distasteful, and one wouldn't want to offend the
sensibilities of tourists bringing so much revenue to the city's
coffers. I doubt it'll be mentioned in the pregame commentary, just as
it isn't mentioned in relation to the latest in a long line of Most
Important Election(s) of Our Lifetime ™.

Obama has given some people hope in this city, but what good is that
if he simply becomes another in a long line of iconic symbols giving
hope to the disaffected rather than actually helping them up? The
dysfunctionality of American cities is not limited to New Orleans, but
it is more raw and in the open than anywhere else I've ever been.
Perhaps amidst the philosophical discussions and political analysis,
we could have a discussion about why there is so much suffering amidst
so much wealth in this country and whether there isn't a better way of
doing things. Perhaps Republicans, Democrats, and their respective
partisans in the media could begin to pretend that they care. Hope
springs eternal, even in the City that Care Forgot.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mayor Mitch and Chief Wiggum are getting serious about violence.

For real, this time!


I'll believe it when I see it, frankly.

http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/01/mayor_mitch_landrieu_superinte.html

This week, 17 people were shot over an 18-hour period and at least two police officers were fired on.
In short, it's getting worse, not better, and these guys are calling a news conference.

Again.

I honestly had high hopes for Mitch Landrieu, but at this point, if he continues to keep Serpas on as police chief, I'm going to have to look at a different candidate for mayor.  I like a lot of what Landrieu is doing, but all of that is meaningless if his police department can't get the murder rate back down to human levels.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the left

What it portends is actually much more serious than the Tea Party, and it will not be co-opted by the Democratic party the way the Tea Party was by the Republicans.

Let's first examine what the Tea Party actually is, at its core: it is the resurgence of anti-federalism.  This has been discussed at length in other areas.  They've done a rather effective job of dictating to the Republican party how business is (or rather, is not) going to be conducted in Washington.  The Tea Party is not interested in finding better ways for Washington to do business.  They are interested in stopping business.  They view any action on the part of the federal government as an infringement of liberty.  It should be noted that they are not "Constitutionalists" as they like to present themselves.  Their views are more in line with a re-establishment of the Articles of Confederacy.  They are not a conservative movement.  They are retrogressive.  At a minimum, they want to roll back the New Deal.  They are all but openly campaigning on this.

I do not believe that the Tea Party have any use for the religious right, except as a way of gathering votes for their party.  And pro-corporate conservatives are fine with them, as long as they don't expand the reach of the federal government.  Their interests happen to align, since it's the federal government telling religious conservatives that they can't force kids to pray in public schools and telling corporations that they can't dump toxic sludge in the water at will.  The Tea Partiers generally oppose the federal government on principle.

To be sure, this is a radical position at this point in our history, but it's the latest incarnation of a very old debate, and they've been successfully brought back into the Republican party fold.  Republicans call themselves "Tea Party conservatives" as a way of hitching a ride on the latest fad.  Neo-conservatives and religious conservatives are not true Tea Partiers, because the Tea Party, it bears pointing out again, is not a conservative movement.  It is retrogressive and anti-federalist, but in the end, they're happy to fall back in line with the Republican party as long as they promise to cut spending and never raise taxes.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is something else entirely: it is the natural blowback from the Tea Party's anti-federalist policies and President Obama's attempts to appease them.  If the Tea Party are the philosophical heirs of Patrick Henry (who, aside from his famous "Give me liberty, or give me death" quote, was a staunch anti-federalist and opponent of the Constitution). then the Occupy Wall Street movement are the philosophical heirs of Huey P. Long.

The key planks of the Share Our Wealth platform included:
  1. No person would be allowed to accumulate a personal net worth of more than 300 times the average family fortune, which would limit personal assets to between $5 million and $8 million. A graduated capital levy tax would be assessed on all persons with a net worth exceeding $1 million.
  2. Annual incomes would be limited to $1 million and inheritances would be capped at $5 million.
  3. Every family was to be furnished with a homestead allowance of not less than one-third the average family wealth of the country. Every family was to be guaranteed an annual family income of at least $2,000 to $2,500, or not less than one-third of the average annual family income in the United States. Yearly income, however, cannot exceed more than 300 times the size of the average family income.
  4. An old-age pension would be made available for all persons over 60.
  5. To balance agricultural production, the government would preserve/store surplus goods, abolishing the practice of destroying surplus food and other necessities due to lack of purchasing power.
  6. Veterans would be paid what they were owed (a pension and healthcare benefits).
  7. Free education and training for all students to have equal opportunities in all schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions for training in the professions and vocations of life.
  8. The raising of revenue and taxes for the support of this program was to come from the reduction of swollen fortunes from the top, as well as for the support of public works to give employment whenever there may be any slackening necessary in private enterprise.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Share_Our_Wealth

This was during the Great Depression.  Much of the New Deal was implemented as a way of countering Long's populist appeal.  They were also a way to circumvent a communist revolution.  They were effective.  By establishing a social safety net and building a strong middle class, it minimized the number of disaffected people who could push for a communist revolution.  The Tea Party wants to smash all of that in the middle of one of the worst economic conditions since they were implemented in the first place.

What the Occupy movement is demanding is, essentially, a certain amount of wealth redistribution.  Not a lot, but some.  That's what the New Deal was.  The government ignores that sentiment at its peril.  If the injustices of wealth distribution in this country are not addressed, and indeed, the social safety nets put in place generations ago are stripped away as the Tea Party would like, then the Occupy movement's position is going to become increasingly radicalized.  It is going to become violent.  There will be some within the movement who will conclude that protests are not enough.

The Democrats are embracing the movement because they believe that this will be a chance for them to reignite their base.  They misread the mood.  These protests are not going to conduct get out the vote drives for Obama and congressional Democrats.  They did that in 2008.  They already got Obama elected.  Now they've come to demand the change they were promised, and they're not going away until they get it.

And Republicans need to understand that there's more at stake here than whether or not Obama wins re-election.  They need to address the real problems Americans are facing, or they're going to have some real problems of their own.

In short: the Tea Party is an anti-federalist Get Out The Vote drive for the Republican party.

The Occupy movement is the birth pangs of a revolution.  The Republicans recognize this and are scared to death of it.  But their response is all wrong.  They think they can ridicule it away.  They can't.  They need to address the concerns before it gets out of hand.

I say this as a patriot who loves his country: politicians in Washington, please pull your heads out of your asses.  Your employers are pissed.  Do something to calm them down, before this gets ugly.

Some changes to this blog.

The template of the blog has changed somewhat so as to better avail myself of Blogger's new features.  It allows me to do a few things that I've wanted to do for a while, which is to have a feed of postings from blogs I want to direct people toward.  On top of that, text formatting is much cleaner in this format than it was in the old one.  If you happened to read my Paul Ryan post before, you may remember that the quoted text was choppy.  I made no edits to the post; the new Blogger template corrected that for me.

Also, I've set the blog up to be available on mobile, in mobile format.  This should help greatly when I want to text somebody my blog address and refer them to a specific writing while we're in a bar or some such.

I would especially like to recommend No Rest For The Awake, especially considering that is where the bulk of my traffic comes from.  Least I can do is try to return the favor.

Now that I've made my blog much cleaner and more user friendly, I suppose I'll have to start writing on it some more.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Response to Paul Ryan

In this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) reviews a book titled, The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey Sachs. While I have not read the book and cannot thusly respond to that, there are a few assertions which Ryan makes (and doesn't make) which merit a response.

He begins,


Free enterprise has never lacked for moral critics. In the mid-18th
century, for instance, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the
proposition that the free exchange of goods and services, and the competitive
pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, result in general prosperity—ideas
then emanating from Great Britain. In a commercial society, according to
Rousseau, the people are "scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and
knavish . . . and all of it at one extreme or the other of misery and opulence."
Only a people with "simple customs [and] wholesome tastes" can be
virtuous.

Of note is that Rep. Ryan does not dispute this premise. It is instructive to understand that Rep. Ryan does not, at any point in this article, dispute any of the moral criticisms directed toward capitalism, but rather offers his own moral criticisms of the author's suggestions. The article is hardly a full-throated endorsement of capitalism, and it isn't the type of ideological thumping which I've come to expect from anybody discussing politics these days. His responses are thoughtful, he acknowledges certain failings of our system, and even posits that there may be a better way forward, but that the author's suggestions are not it. In short, it's one side of the type of discussion intellectuals on both sides of the political divide ought to be having, would that we could shut out the noise. To wit:


Mr. Sachs is honest enough to acknowledge that the "rich" are not nearly
rich enough to pay for his ever-expansive vision of government. We're told that
"each of us with an above-average income" (i.e., $50,000 per household) must
"understand that if we are prudent, we can make do with a little less take-home
pay."

Such appeals to the citizenry to make sacrifices might be more
compelling if Mr. Sachs coupled them with calls for spending restraint in
Washington. Instead, his budget proposal insists on the need to "augment"
government spending by trillions of dollars in the years ahead. Thus the
sacrifices of citizens are to be made to increase the size and scope of a
federal government that Mr. Sachs admits has demonstrated little aptitude for
allocating resources efficiently or even fairly. This conundrum leads him to a
conclusion that would be comical if he were not deadly serious: "Yes, the
federal government is incompetent and corrupt—but we need more, not less, of
it."

Rep. Ryan offers us a false choice here, however. It's not simply a question of "more government" versus "less government". There's also "efficient government", "effective government", and "useful government", as opposed to the often wasteful and clueless government we have now. In short, we could simply decide to cut spending or increase spending, as though those goals are ends in and of themselves, or we can decide which government agencies and programs are worth preserving, which are not working, and why. Once we establish the "why" of whether a program is working or not, we can decide whether it's a question of doing something better or whether it's not worth doing at all.

An example of a program which is worth doing but could be done better is the Department of Defense. Just because this is an essential agency does not mean that every expenditure by DoD is essential. Obviously. On the flip side would be the public housing program, which is widely acknowledged as a failure not due to a failure of delivery, but because the program as designed failed to meet its objectives. The larger point is that simply because programs which are designed to alleviate poverty often fail to do so (although that is up for debate) does not mean that alleviating poverty is not a goal worth pursuing. Returning to a pre-New Deal economic model is not the answer. To argue that we need to move away from a 20th century model does not mean that we need to move toward a 19th century model. We need to find a new model for the 21st century -- one which meets the challenges of the day.

Ryan wraps up with this:


The dialogue between capitalism and its critics is an old one, and it will
continue. But as citizens of a self-governing nation, Americans must choose from
time to time between alternative visions for our future. This book's budget
proposals and economic policies are profoundly revealing. They lay bare the real
agenda of those who wish us to abandon the American idea and consign our nation
to the irrevocable path of decline. If only in that sense, "The Price of
Civilization" is a useful contribution to the conversation we must have in order
to make informed political choices in the years ahead.

And in choosing that vision as his foil, I would argue that Rep. Ryan is reaching for low-hanging fruit. This may be an easy argument to defeat, but doing so isn't particularly enlightening. I give Rep. Ryan more credit than that regarding his intellectual acumen, so I can assume that this article was a way to frame the discussion as a choice between Republican policies and America's decline. The two are not mutually exclusive, frankly. Austerity is a sort of tacit admission of decline; it says we simply cannot afford the excesses of yesterday and we have to make do with less. This may or may not be true, but scaling back social safety nets to protect those most vulnerable is not a sign of strength. A truly virtuous and strong society makes a determination that those who have benefited most from our economic system have a responsibility to help those who have fallen between the cracks. A free market economy is not equipped to handle that responsibility. When profit is the ultimate virtue, then charity is a vice. Only government has the resources and authority to fill those gaps.

What is needed is a means by which to change or eliminate programs which are not meeting their objectives. Often, entrenched interests (be they civil servants or contractors who make their living off these programs) will resist efforts to eliminate programs which aren't doing the job. Writing performance metrics into legislation as a prerequisitive to continued funding may be a way to circumvent that. If, for instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act fails to substantially reduce the number of uninsured Americans, then it should be eliminated and replaced with something else. As it stands, it has yet to even be fully implemented. To call it a failure at this point would be, to say the least, premature.

I'm glad to see the Rep. Ryan wishes to engage in a real discussion as opposed to the shouting past one another I too often hear in the larger debate in this country. Simply winning the next election should not be our goal. Actually meeting the challenges facing our country today should be the end to which winning an election is the mean. I hope to see more of this type of debate.