Saturday, April 30, 2011

Guilt and Modernity

Wilfred McClay pens an article at First Things on the role that guilt has come to play in our social economy. He also talks about the related matters of forgiveness and victimhood and the interplay among the three of them. It's a very insightful piece as these few excerpts will attest:
We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.

The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.

So excessive is this propensity for guilt, particularly in the developed nations of the Western world, that the French writer Pascal Bruckner, in a courageous and utterly brilliant recent study called The Tyranny of Guilt, has identified the problem as “Western masochism.” The lingering presence of “the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation,” Bruckner argues, holds even secular philosophers and sociologists captive to its logic, so that “the more [they] proclaim themselves to be agnostic, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious beliefs they are challenging.” As a consequence, most of modern Western thought is little more than a “mechanical denunciation of the West,” in which “remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances” and has instead become “a dogma, a spiritual commodity, almost a form of currency,” manifested in the nonstop “duty of repentance.”

Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is ever looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.”

The explanation [for the contemporary fixation on victimhood] is traceable to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution, to discharge one’s moral burden.... Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or to identification with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted and one’s innocence affirmed.

[C]laiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.

When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who, by definition, is not responsible for his condition but can point to another who is responsible.

But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor and, in projecting that guilt, lift it off his own shoulders. The designated oppressor plays the role of scapegoat, on whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, one can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this should have become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt.
There are many more fine insights into the modern psyche in McClay's piece. It's worth the time it takes to read.

It is strange that the more secular we become the more obsessed we've become with imputing guilt for all sorts of offenses, yet how can a secular person believe there really is such a thing as guilt? If there is no God then there is no objective moral law, and if there's no moral law there can be no violation of the law and thus no guilt. If we're merely the product of time and chance there's nothing that's wrong, there are only things we've been programmed to do by our genes and/or our environment. If our behavior is not free but in fact the outworking of such forces, forces over which we exercise no conscious control, then how can we be guilty of anything?

Guilt implies responsibility, but in a Godless world where determinism reigns there is no one to whom we are responsible and no room for responsibility, at least in a moral sense, in any event.

Modern man wants to live as if God doesn't exist, but in order to do so he has to take irrational leaps of faith such as believing that people are guilty even though his secular metaphysics rules out the reality of guilt. Then the secular man, after pronouncing his guilty verdict on greedy corporations and Wall Street bankers and those who oppressed Native-Americans, African-Americans, women, gays and so on, turns around and says that it's the believer in God who has abandoned reason.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Poverty Trap

The conventional wisdom tells us that a billion people in the world are starving, caught in a hunger-based poverty trap. They're too poor to consume enough calories to enable them to work and their inability to muster the energy to work keeps them poor.

The theory is that the world's poor need more food and cannot obtain it, but according to an article by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Foreign Policy the theory is wrong. Some excerpts:
Contrary to popular belief there's enough food available, and the poor often have enough money to purchase it.

For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1 billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did....But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night?

[I]t is no surprise that government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters....But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food? What if, instead, they are eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy adults? What if the poor aren't starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?
The article is a little lengthy, but should be required reading for everyone concerned about third-world poverty and hunger. It may well change the way you think about them.

Among the more interesting facts in the article were these two:

1) Many of the world's poor would rather spend what little money they have on televisions than on food (I suspect cell phones are another item, judging by their ubiquity in third world nations I've visited, that are more important to people than is food.).

2) Famines are rarely caused by natural forces. They are almost always man-made: As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has shown, most recent famines have been caused not because food wasn't available but because of bad governance -- institutional failures that led to poor distribution of the available food, or even hoarding and storage in the face of starvation elsewhere. As Sen put it, "No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Debate on The Gathering Storm

The pair of posts we ran recently on my brother's prognosis of a coming economic calamity (see here and here) elicited feedback from several people. One of the respondents, a fellow named D.P. who has experience in the financial field, took vigorous exception to what Bill wrote. I thought it might be instructive to post his response along with Bill's rebuttal.

I've edited both slightly for clarity. Here's D. P.'s critique:
For years I have followed your blog with high regard, impressed with your sense of awareness and lack of hyperbole. Particularly on topics of philosophy and social culture your insights have been consistently keen.

Unfortunately, with your recent reflections on current economic concerns, voiced by your brother Bill and affirmed by your posts, you have wandered beyond [your] areas of expertise.

We can begin with the reflections on inflation. Inflationary trends include an incredibly diverse range of asset pricing influencers. It is ironic that Bill's ominous prophecies originate in an historically low inflationary period and find foundation in government actions, some of which are explicitly enacted to initiate inflation - in order to combat its evil twin - deflation! Recent evidence (see Japan since the early '90s) suggest this risk to our economy is at least as significant as Bill's inflation predictions.

Your post also claims to identify the value of gold as "cheap" without fundamental support. This is not surprising, as determining a value for gold is virtually impossible. Unlike other assets, including other metals, gold has limited utilitarian application. As such its value is strictly a human attribution, some might say, a human fiction. Gold can likely best be described as currency; acting, as it has for most of its human history, as our original currency. Gold's recent market behavior reflects this, for, as we see the world's currency standard, the dollar, fall, we see gold rise. The dollar's fall, though, has also been partially orchestrated by the Fed.

In general, I do not support such an active Fed and would prefer static dollar volume, allowing for truer market valuations, but the fact of these various purposeful actions suggests (as claimed by Fed leaders, and reflected by historic Fed behavior) contrary actions can be implimented as well.

My concern with Bill's prophecies of gold's gilded future is this; my professional experience suggests that any asset class which experiences extended appreciation exponentially larger than its historical norm (a bubble!) is destined for a catastrophic fall; which isn't to say it will be so, nor when it will occur.

I could critique away at the posts, pointing out the fallacy of Bill's claims "that no entity...is interested in" investing in US debt, or his "zero risk investment claim" (time-value of money risk), but the pickin's are too easy. Suffice it to say that Bill is over his head; which isn't to say he is necessarily wrong. More likely, his is a broken clock.

As for our overall economic plight, I would argue that, at the root of economic success is the person, the individual. At the individual level humans worldwide continue to prove their resourcefulness. Humans, it seems to me, find their founding motivation primarily in one thing, to live better, for themselves and their families! Therein lies my hope.

With over 25 years of expertise in the world's financial markets, I have noted that in each and every year the sirens of economic disaster have sung. In those few years in which actual relative disaster does occurs they become the darlings of the market media, and their doomsday soundbites only contribute to hightened irrationality. They are the broken clocks of my industry.

As for our overall economic plight, I would argue that, at the root of economic success is the person, the individual. At the individual level humans worldwide continue to prove their resourcefulness (see China's transition in only a decade toward free markets). Humans, it seems to me, find their founding motivation primarily in one thing, to live better, for themselves and their families! Therein lies my hope.
Bill's reply quotes excerpts of D.P.'s argument and responds to them. D.P.'s excerpts are italicized:
Unfortunately, with your recent reflections on current economic concerns, voiced by your brother Bill and affirmed by your posts, you have wandered beyond areas of expertise.

You don’t have to be an expert to see what’s coming. All one has to do is observe what real, proven experts are saying and doing, i.e Bill Gross, manager of PIMCO, the largest bond fund in the world (over $1 trillion), who recently sold 100% of their holdings of US Treasuries saying:

“Unless entitlements are substantially reformed, I am confident that this country will default on its debt; not in conventional ways, but by picking the pocket of savers via a combination of less observable, yet historically verifiable policies — inflation, currency devaluation and low to negative real interest rates.”
Other experts are saying the same thing.

We can begin with the reflections on inflation. Inflationary trends include an incredibly diverse range of asset pricing influencers.

While “asset pricing influencers” may be included, they are not the cause of inflation. Inflation is ultimately defined as an increase in the money supply relative to GDP. Is it a coincidence that the Fed discontinued publishing M3, the statistic that reflected the increase of dollars several years ago?

It is ironic that Bill's ominous prophecies originate in an historically low inflationary period and find foundation in government actions, some of which are explicitly enacted to initiate inflation - in order to combat its evil twin - deflation! Recent evidence (see Japan since the early '90s) suggest this risk to our economy is at least as significant as Bill's inflation predictions.

Historically low inflationary period? So far in 2011 (3 months) we have these increases in commodity prices:

  • Silver - up 37.6 percent
  • Cotton - up 35.0 percent
  • Oil - up 20.0 percent
  • Cocoa - up 19.8 percent
  • Coffee - up 19.8 percent
  • Corn - up 17.8 percent
  • Gold - up 4.5 percent
  • Lead - up 3.8 percent
Your post also claims to identify the value of gold as "cheap" without fundamental support. This is not surprising, as determining a value for gold is virtually impossible.

Wrong again. The “fundamental support” for the claim is found in D.P.'s own words, “as the dollar falls, the price of gold rises”. If it is apparent that the dollar is going to fall further in value, it’s intuitively obvious that the price of gold is going to rise! Further, determining a value for gold is not “virtually impossible”, it’s done every day at the COMEX and in London.

The dollar's fall, though, has also been partially orchestrated by the Fed.

So what? The point is to protect one’s self from dollar devaluation, regardless of the cause. Further, at some point, the Fed is going to lose control of the devaluation and a currency crisis will occur. This is exactly what Bill Gross is saying and why he dumped his US Treasuries.

My concern with Bill's prophecies of gold's gilded future is this; my professional experience suggests that any asset class which experiences extended appreciation exponentially larger than its historical norm (a bubble!) is destined for a catastrophic fall; which isn't to say it will be so, nor when it will occur.

D.P. says it “is destined for a catastrophic fall” and then backtracks with “which isn’t to say it will be so”. At any rate, he’s correct that most if not all parabolic bubbles crash. So the question, then, is: Is gold in a bubble? Not when not one in a thousand have it in their portfolios. Not when you see people selling their gold for cash. Not when you don’t see people standing in lines waiting to buy gold coin. Not when the dollar has much further to drop.

I could critique away at the posts, pointing out the fallacy of Bill's claims "that no entity...is interested in" investing in US debt, or his "zero risk investment claim" (time-value of money risk), but the pickin's are too easy. Suffice it to say that Bill is over his head; which isn't to say he is necessarily wrong. More likely, his is a broken clock.

Maybe I should have stated: “no entity in their right mindis interested in...”. If this weren’t the case, why is it that the Federal Reserve has recently become the number one holder of US Treasuries, surpassing Japan and China? Answer: Because the Fed is the buyer of last resort. When the US can’t sell it’s debt, it has two choices: raise the interest rate paid on them to make them more attractive (lipstick on a pig) or the Fed buys them. To raise rates would be disastrous as we already pay $500 billion a year in interest. A third option would be huge spending cuts (and tax increases) – not likely.

“Time value of money risk”?! Where would D.P. suggest one put his money? In a savings account in a bank that pays a negative interest rate? Further, just how much risk of loss is there on, say, $1000 invested in items that will eventually be consumed anyway?

As for our overall economic plight, I would argue that, at the root of economic success is the person, the individual. At the individual level humans worldwide continue to prove their resourcefulness. Humans, it seems to me, find their founding motivation primarily in one thing, to live better, for themselves and their families! Therein lies my hope.

Humans worldwide will continue to prove their resourcefulness until they don’t. How resourceful were all the unprepared humans after Katrina - so disappointed by their failed faith in their government for help?

I’ve read several times that today’s is the first generation of Americans whose standard of living will be less than that of their parents.

“Hope” is not a strategy.
Bill closes with a quote from the famous economist Ludwig von Mises:
"There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit [or monetary] expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of voluntary abandonment of the further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Inconsistencies

One of the toxins corrupting our political discourse is the complete abandonment of objectivity and fairness in our public debates. It seems that both sides are in a perpetual state of highly selective indignation over some outrage perpetrated by the other side, but which elicits little more than a shrug when one's own side does much the same thing.

Consider a few examples of this tendency to treat similar events differently depending upon where the responsibility for them lies: First, recall the international outcry over prisoner abuse by a few soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq back in 2004 and 2005. The media was daily reminding us how America had lost its way, how George Bush should be impeached, and demanding that at the least Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld should resign or be fired. Compare that reaction to the near silence in the media about the so-called "kill team" comprised of three or four soldiers who were deliberately murdering Afghan civilians and cutting off fingers and taking photos of their "trophies".

It's hard to imagine that what happened at Abu Ghraib was actually worse than the Afghanistan atrocities, but no one seems to be too very upset about the murders of Afghan civilians. Why not? What's the essential difference that would justify media indifference to the murders of civilians but sustained outrage over the humiliation of captured Iraqi troops and terrorists? The only difference I can think of is the party in the White House which stands to suffer embarrassment from the revelations of this conduct.

The second example is the complete dissimilarity between the reaction to the war in Iraq and the war in Libya. Where are the human shields racing to Libya to protect Libyans from American bombs? Where is the pacifist Left demanding a cessation of hostilities and impeachment of a President who has involved us in a war where we had no national interest? Where are the people who were screaming that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to us? Why are they not screaming that Qaddafi is no threat to us? Why did Iraq provoke such rage on the Left but our actions toward Libya have generated little more than grumblings? Could the difference be that Iraq was initiated by George Bush and Libya by Barack Obama?

And if Libya is a justified conflict why does not the same justification exist for bombing the Syrians who are slaughtering their people by the hundreds in the streets? Qaddafi must be wondering why him and not Assad. Why is the media not demanding an explanation for the disparity in our responses to these two situations?

The only answer I can think of that makes any sense is that policy which generates anger and indignation when carried out by a Republican administration elicits little more than a furrowed brow when carried out by a Democratic administration.

Here's the final example. The other day there was a horrible beating of a white female by two black girls in a MacDonald's. You've probably seen the video, which has gone viral, but if not you can find it here. I will warn you, though, that I was sickened for hours after watching it so please be advised. The awful behavior of the male onlookers was almost as ugly as that of the brutish thugs who administered the beating.

It turns out that the police are reluctant to call the attack a hate crime. Would they be similarly reluctant if the victim were black and the thugs were white? In the unlikely and unusual event that the races were reversed how long would it take for the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world to be demanding reparations and indicting the wickedness lurking in the white soul? How long would it be before Eric Holder would be declaiming on the virulence of white racism in this country, and President Obama would be calling for more beer summits? Every editorial page in the nation's newspapers would be gazing into the heart of white America trying to shine a light into that dark pit.

As it is there was scarcely a tisk anywhere over this horrific episode, except on the internet, until it was discovered that the victim was transgendered. Once that completely irrelevant fact was revealed the you-know-what hit the fan. Now people were incensed. As long as it was just an ordinary white girl that was beaten and kicked and had her hair pulled out until she suffered a seizure, well, no one in the media seemed too upset, but once it was discovered that this girl was actually a member of the GLBT community people in the media were suddenly horrified by the savagery of the attack.

Why does race or gender (or transgender) have anything to do with it? Why are crimes more horrific if the victim is black or transgendered than if the victim is white or female (or male)? When are we going to grow up and get past all of the PC idiocy that has been inflicted upon us by those who think of everything in terms of race, class, and gender? When will we start simply looking at all people as human beings?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blind Faith

Someone at Uncommon Descent poses this puzzler for our Tuesday morning meditation:
How did the term “skeptic” come to mean “people who believe in multiverses, space aliens, and random creation of meaningful information?”

How did the term “fundamentalist” come to mean “people who believe based only on evidence”?
Good questions. It's a source of wonderment, at least for me, that "skeptics" often deride theism and theists for believing in God, for which belief there is much evidence, while themselves believing in such things as an infinite number of worlds, the inevitability of the emergence of life by random chance, the reducibility of consciousness to chemical reactions, the possibility of non-subjective morality without God, the inherent goodness of man, and a host of other naturalistic dogmas for which there's scarcely a shred of evidence for and much evidence against.

Atheists are often wont to say that religious faith is belief despite the lack of evidence. That's not true, however. Belief without evidence is the definition of "blind" faith, and it describes belief in such things as other worlds and abiogenesis perfectly. The faith that religious people cling to is not belief despite the lack of evidence, it's belief despite the lack of proof. As such it's completely rational, indeed more rational than the belief of those who will accept any explanation, no matter how meager the evidence, as long as it doesn't violate their commitment to a non-theistic metaphysics.

Theirs to Lose

According to Peggy Noonan President Obama's only hope for reelection in 2012 is that the Republicans nominate a candidate that seems either "strange, extreme, or barely qualified". Otherwise, the incumbent is toast.

You can read her argument here. Meanwhile, here's an appetizer:
Let’s start with the immediate and go to the overarching. The president is immersed in another stressed and unsuccessful spring after a series of losing seasons. Internationally, he’s involved in a confused effort that involves bombing Libyan government troops and sometimes their rebel opponents, leaving the latter scattered and scurrying. Responsibility to protect is looking like tendency to deflect.

Domestically, the president’s opponents seized the high ground on the great issue of the day, spending and debt, and held it after the president’s speech this week. In last week’s budget duel, the president was outgunned by Republicans in the House and outclassed by Paul Ryan, who offered seriousness and substance as a unique approach to solving our fiscal problems.

In this week’s polls: An Ipsos survey says 69% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, up five points since March. Zogby has only 38% of national respondents saying Mr. Obama deserves re-election, with 55% wanting someone new. Mr. Obama carried Pennsylvania in 2008 by double digits; a poll there this week shows only 42% approving his leadership, with 52% disapproving.

Gallup had the president’s support slipping among blacks and Hispanics, with the latter’s numbers dramatic: 73% supported him when he was inaugurated, 54% do now. Support among whites on Inauguration Day was 60%. Now it is 39%.
The American people elected a virtual unknown to the presidency in 2008 because a) they were disenchanted with the GOP, b) Mr. Obama was hip, eloquent, mysterious, and had a winning smile, and c) his election would be historic and a lot of people, especially the young and minorities, wanted to make history happen.

Now the electorate is suffering buyer's remorse and is asking itself what in the world they were thinking when they swooned over a guy who had a résumé that would fit on one half of a post-it note. Noonan is probably right. The White House is the Republicans' to lose in 2012. Fortunately for Mr. Obama, the GOP has shown in the past a strange predilection for opposing young, charismatic Democrats with superannuated pols with one foot in the retirement home.

They may well do something of the sort again.

Bring Back the Good Old Days

It's very hard to take Jesse Jackson Jr. seriously. The Congressman from Illinois took to the House floor recently to blame our unemployment woes on, of all things, technological innovations like the iPad:
On Friday, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) addressed the United States's current unemployment crisis and claimed the iPad was "probably responsible for eliminating thousands of American jobs."

Jackson, himself an iPad owner, expanded on his statement by pointing to the recent bankruptcy of Borders Books.

"Why do you need to go to Borders anymore? Why do you need to go to Barnes and Noble? Just buy an iPad and download your book, download your newspaper, download your magazine," the Congressman said.

He also cited Chicago State University's initiative to replace textbooks with iPads for freshman students. Jackson stated that the goal of the University was to create a "textbookless campus within four years."

"What becomes of publishing companies and publishing company jobs?" Jackson asked the House. "What becomes of bookstores and librarians and all of the jobs associated with paper? Well, in the not-too-distant future, such jobs simply won't exist."

He also took issue with the device's production overseas: "The iPad is produced in China. It's not produced here in the United States. [...] There is no protection for jobs here in America to ensure that the American people are being put to work."
Now I sympathize with everyone who loses a job for whatever reason, and I lament what appears to be a bleak future for paper and ink books, but really, does Mr. Jackson really believe technological progress is the enemy of workers? We can imagine Mr. Jackson a hundred years ago complaining that the automobile would put thousands of blacksmiths, wagon makers, and leather workers out of work because horses would now be obsolete.

We might also imagine him shaking his head dolefully at the number of candle makers and whalers who went out of business when the light bulb was invented, and there was no longer a demand for candles and whale oil.

Innovation means that some businesses will either evolve or they'll perish, and often many more jobs are created by the new businesses which supplant the old, as long as government stays out of the way.

Think of the millions of new jobs created by the automobile industry and industries which serve it: Car dealerships, the trucking industry, the oil industry, gas stations, road and bridge construction, concrete and steel manufacturers, tire, glass, and electronics industries, parts stores, building construction industries, junkyards and salvage yards, auto repair mechanics, and on and on. None of those jobs, and millions of others which automobile travel make possible, would have existed had the automobile not been invented. That's how things work when men and women are allowed the freedom to apply their genius to developing products that never existed before, but people like Mr. Jackson seem to think this is all regrettable because the blacksmith and cartwright trades were rendered obsolete.

I doubt that iPads will have the same impact as the automobile or the light bulb, but taken as a whole, the computer revolution has certainly created an enormous number of jobs that never existed before computers came on the scene. Of course, people lost jobs, too, if they did tasks that could be performed more cheaply and efficiently by a computer, but is that a bad thing overall?

Imagine that all of our food had to be produced and shipped without the aid of the internal combustion engine. No tractors, combines, trucks, etc. I'm sure we'd have full employment in this country, as almost everyone would be pressed into the task of growing their own food, but I doubt very much that life would be better.

I wonder if Rep. Jackson and Rep. Hank Johnson are good friends. They certainly think alike.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What's Our Policy, Mr. President?

I wish it were possible to make sense out our policy toward Middle Eastern thugs and autocrats, but it just seems incoherent.

For example, President Obama demanded Hosni Mubarak step down as soon as a protest movement rose up demanding his resignation from office. The President followed this by launching missile strikes against Col. Qaddafi's armored forces and anti-aircraft installations.

But he did nothing when Iran brutally suppressed similar uprisings in Tehran, and now Bashar Assad in Syria is murdering demonstrators by the hundreds in the streets of Damascus and Mr. Obama has neither called for his resignation nor taken any military action.

It would be reassuring if the President would employ his vaunted communication skills to articulate the principles that govern American responses to these different situations because it's becoming increasing difficult to discern any coherent policy. We appear to be flying by the seat of our pants, and no doubt our friends in the region, both in government and on the streets, are wondering whether it's wise to be too closely associated with such an unpredictable and undependable ally.

Death of Dignity

The notion that human beings have rights is often said to follow from the belief that human beings have dignity, but in our secular age the concept of human dignity has come in for increasing criticism. The problem is that there is only one reason to think that there's anything about us that gives us inherent value and that's that we believe ourselves to be created by God in His image and that He loves us.

Take God away, however, and the entire superstructure of human worth, dignity, and rights built upon Him collapses. This is what we see happening in Western society today and ironically enough it's people who would otherwise call themselves "humanists" who are promoting the collapse. Mary Ann Glendon has a fine piece on this in the current issue of First Things in which she offers a quick history of how Western intellectuals have gone from enthusiasm for the concept of dignity to antipathy toward it. Here are some highlights:
As the bioethicist Adam Schulman poses the question: “Is dignity a useful concept, or is it a mere slogan that camouflages unconvincing arguments and unarticulated biases?” The question has implications far beyond the field of bioethics. Indeed, it has haunted the entire modern human rights project ever since the drafters of the UN Charter chose to begin that historic document with a profession of the member nations’ “faith” in “freedom and human rights” and in “the dignity and worth of the human person.”

Today, controversies about the meaning and value of the concept are more intense than ever, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade the question of whether “dignity” can support the enormous weight it has been asked to carry in moral and political discourse.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once wrote “I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.”

Some attempts to provide a moral basis for the concept of the dignity of human life proceed in Kantian fashion from the premise that human beings have dignity because they are autonomous beings capable of making rational choices, while others, following Rousseau, base the concept on the sense of empathy that most human beings feel for other sentient creatures. But the former understanding has ominous implications for persons of diminished capacity, while the latter places all morality on the fragile basis of a transient feeling. Christian and Jewish believers commonly say that the dignity of human life is grounded in the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. But that proposition is hardly likely to convince a nonbeliever.
People can't be told over and over that they're just material beings, a collocation of atomic particles with no soul or any essential property that distinguishes them significantly from a baboon, without them soon beginning act as if they were baboons.

Men can't be told over and over that human beings have no fundamental worth, no value, nothing upon which to base human rights before those who have power begin to act consistently with that belief.

The secular, materialist view of man invariably, under the guise of exalting humanity, winds up dehumanizing him. Every state in the 20th century which was built upon materialist assumptions of humanity created holocausts of one sort or another as soon as their leaders had the power to do so. The irony of secular humanism is that by banishing God it seeks to deify man, but throughout the world it has consistently had the effect of reducing man to the status of a brute.

Check out Glendon's piece at the link.

Questions about the Budget Debate

Recent addresses by President Obama in which he shares his thoughts on Paul Ryan's budget proposal raise a few questions that I wish someone would ask him. The President insists that we must all share in the sacrifice necessary to put our fiscal house in order, and, he insists, the top income earners are not paying their "fair share".

Well, exactly what is the fair share for the wealthiest Americans? The top 1% of earners already pay 37% of the income taxes. Should they be expected to supply 50% of the tax revenue? 70%? 100%? Whatever number Mr. Obama has in mind does he also have in mind a rationale for that rate? if so, what is it?
If all Americans must share in the sacrifice does this mean that President Obama is going to raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 after having promised in the campaign that he wouldn't? Contrary to popular opinion, it's the middle class which, by virtue of their numbers, has all the money (see the following chart). It must be a huge temptation to plunder them:
Does everyone sharing the burden mean that the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax will be required to pay some?

If the President just wants to tax the wealthiest 1% how does he expect to raise enough revenue to make a dent in the deficit? If raising taxes on them will actually produce less revenue, which the following graph indicates, then why is the President insisting on it? Moreover, if every dollar of every millionaire and billionaire were confiscated by the government it would produce about 940 billion dollars. The Obama budget is about 4 trillion dollars. A 100% tax rate on the income of the wealthiest Americans' income would still only finance less than 25% of his spending.

If small businesses making more than $250,000 have their taxes raised what effect will this have on their ability to hire new employees? The more businesses have to pay the government the less they have left for payroll and benefits. Why does this administration think that raising business costs is a good idea?

Finally, if the president insists that the wealthy pay more in taxes why did he itemize his own returns this year so that instead of paying at the 35% rate his income puts him in, he paid at the 27% rate. If you want others to share in the sacrifice should you not include yourself among those participating in the sharing? To demand others pay more while avoiding doing so yourself is not only hypocritical but also very poor leadership.

I have no particular sympathy for the rich, but if taxing them serves no helpful purpose and actually depresses employment opportunities then the only reason for doing it is to punish them, in a Marxist kind of way, and that strikes me as being as indefensible as insisting others pay more tax while one takes all the deductions one is allowed on one's own return.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter and Modern Disbelief

The Christian world is preparing to celebrate what much of the rest of the Western world finds literally incredible, the revivification of a man 2000 years ago who had been dead for several days. Modernity finds such an account simply not believable. It would be a miracle if such a thing happened, moderns are wont to say, and in a scientific age we know that miracles don't happen.

If pressed to explain how, exactly, science has made belief in miracles obsolete and how the modern person knows that miracles don't happen, the skeptic will often fall back on an argument first articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d.1776). Hume wrote that miracles are a violation of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience tells us that there has never been a violation of the laws of nature it follows that any report of a miracle is most likely to be false. Thus, since we should always believe what is most probable, and since any natural explanation of an alleged miracle is more probable than that a law of nature was broken, we are never justified in believing that a miracle occurred.

It has often been pointed out that Hume's argument suffers from the circularity of basing the claim that reports of miracles are not reliable upon the belief that there's never been a reliable report of one. We can only know there's never been a reliable report of one, though, if we know a priori that all reports are false, and we can only know that if we know that miracles don't happen. But we can only know they don't happen if we know that all reports of miracles are unreliable.

But set that aside. Set aside, too, the fact that one can say that miracles don't happen only if one can say with certainty that there is no God.

Let's look instead at the claim that miracles are prohibitively improbable because they violate the laws of nature.

A law of nature is simply a description of how nature operates whenever we observe it. The laws are often statistical. I.e. if molecules of hot water are added to a pot of molecules of cold water the molecules will tend to eventually distribute themselves homogenously throughout the container so that the water is a uniform temperature. It would be extraordinarily improbable, though not impossible nor a violation of any law, for the hot molecules on one occasion to segregate themselves all on one side of the pot.

Similarly, miracles may not violate the natural order at all. Rather they may be highly improbable phenomena that would never be expected to happen in the regular course of events except for the intervention of Divine will. Like the segregation of hot and cold water, the reversal of the process of bodily decomposition is statistically astronomical, but it's not impossible, and if it happened it wouldn't be a violation of any law.

The ironic thing about the skeptics' attitude toward the miracle of the resurrection of Christ is that they refuse to admit that there's good evidence for it because a miracle runs counter to their experience and understanding of the world. Yet they have no trouble believing other things that also run counter to their experience.

For example, modern atheists have no trouble believing that living things arose from non-living chemicals, that the information-rich properties of life emerged by random chaos and chance, or that our extraordinarily improbable, highly-precise universe exists. They ground their belief in these things on their conviction that there are an infinite number of different universes and in an infinite number of worlds the improbable becomes actual.

Richard Dawkins, for example, rules out miracles because they are highly improbable, and then in the very next breath tells us that the origin of life, which also seems just as highly improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time and space.

Extensive time and/or the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable, he and others argue. There's no evidence of other worlds, unfortunately, but part of the faith commitment of the modern atheist is to hold that they must exist. The atheist clings to this conviction because if these things aren't so then life and the universe must have a personal rather than a scientific explanation and that discovery would produce a metaphysical shock to his psyche that would be quite unendurable.

Nevertheless, if infinite time and infinite worlds can be invoked to explain life and the cosmos why can't they be invoked to explain miracles as well? If there are a near infinite series of universes, as has been proposed in order to avoid the problem posed by cosmic fine-tuning, then surely in all the zillions of universes of the multiverse landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the multiverse hypotheisis be able to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

No one who's willing to believe in a multiverse should be a skeptic about miracles. Indeed, no one who's willing to believe in the multiverse can think that anything at all is improbable. Given the multiverse everything that is not logically impossible must be inevitable.

For the person who relies on the multiverse explanation to account for the precision of the cosmic parameters and constants and for the abiogenic origin of life, the resurrection of a dead man should be no problem. Given enough worlds and enough time it's a cinch to happen.

Of course, the skeptic's real problem is not that a man rose from the dead. His real problem is with the claim that God deliberately raised this man from the dead. That's what they find repugnant, but they can't say that because in order to justify such a claim they'd have to be able to prove that there is no God, or that God's existence is improbable, and that they cannot do.

If, though, one is willing to blithely assume that there are an infinite number of universes out there in order to explain the properties of our universe, why would he have trouble accepting that there's a Mind out there that's responsible for raising Jesus from the dead? After all, there's a lot more evidence for the latter than there is for the former.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Criminal Aliens

Talk to people who incline toward liberal views on immigration and it's often not long before your interlocutor will admit to supporting an open border policy. Many folks on the Left, including Mr. Obama and most congressional Democrats, would happily let almost anyone into our country who wants to come in, particularly if they're likely to be Democratic voters.

Well, why not open our border and take in the world's refuse? It's the compassionate thing to do, isn't it?Here's one reason, among many that could be listed, why unchecked immigration is a terrible idea:
The number of criminal aliens incarcerated in California rose to 102,795 in 2009, a 17 percent increase since 2003, federal auditors reported Thursday.

This isn't cheap. Nationwide, the Government Accountability Office reports, it costs well over $1.1 billion a year for states to imprison criminal aliens -- those who committed a crime after entering the United States illegally. California, moreover, is more expensive than other states. GAO auditors estimated California spends $34,000 to incarcerate a criminal alien for one year; in Texas, it's only $12,000.

The audit, requested by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, will provide ammunition for states' perennial effort to secure more federal reimbursement dollars.

More than one in four of the illegal immigrants imprisoned in California are behind bars for drug offenses. Many are also repeat offenders. GAO auditors say that, based on a survey, criminal alien inmates have been arrested an average of seven different times.
Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but why, after the first arrest, were these criminals still in this country? Don't the American taxpayers have enough to pay for without having to pay to incarcerate people who shouldn't be here in the first place?

There is a silver lining to illegal immigration, though. In the past twenty years two cars that were insured in my name were involved in fender-bender accidents that were the fault of the driver of my cars. I fully expected my insurance premiums to skyrocket both times. In neither instance, however, did my rates go up. It turned out that the other party in these mishaps declined to report the accident because, I had reason to think, they were in the country illegally, and didn't want attention drawn to themselves.

So there is that. Of course, having illegal aliens driving around has its downside since if they hit you, you're out of luck because they usually have no insurance. They can turn our highways into demolition derbys, and law enforcement simply shrugs and says there's nothing much they can do because the poobahs in Washington won't let them.

It's enough to make smoke come out of your ears.

Gorecki's Symphony #3

Mood music for Good Friday and Easter Saturday. This is the 3rd movement of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It's not specifically a Good Friday piece nor is it sectarian, but it is beautiful .... and sorrowful, and appropriate for the day - as are the other two movements:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

For Tanya on Good Friday

Some time ago we did a post based on a remark made by a woman named Tanya at another blog. I thought that as we approach Good Friday it might be worth running the post again, slightly edited.

Tanya's comment was provoked by an atheist at the other blog who had issued a mild rebuke to his fellow non-believers for their attempts to use the occasion of Christmas to deride Christian belief. In so doing, he exemplified the sort of attitude toward those with whom he disagrees one might wish all people, atheists and Christians alike, would adopt. Unfortunately, Tanya spoiled the mellow, can't-we-all-just-get-along mood by displaying a petulant asperity toward, and an unfortunate ignorance of, the orthodox Christian understanding of the atonement.

She wrote:
I've lived my life in a more holy way than most Christians I know. If it turns out I'm wrong, and some pissy little whiner god wants to send me away just because I didn't worship him, even though I lived a clean, decent life, he can bite me. I wouldn't want to live in that kind of "heaven" anyway. So sorry.
Tanya evidently thinks that "heaven" is, or should be, all about living a "clean, decent life". Perhaps the following tale will illustrate the sophomoric callowness of her misconception:

Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who was deeply in love with a young woman. We'll call her Tanya. The prince wanted Tanya to come and live with him in the wonderful city his father, the king, had built, but Tanya wasn't interested in either the prince or the city. The city was beautiful and wondrous, to be sure, but the inhabitants weren't particularly fun to be around, and she wanted to stay out in the countryside where the wild things grow. Even though the prince wooed Tanya with every gift he could think of, it was to no avail. She wasn't smitten at all by the "pissy little whiner" prince. She obeyed the laws of the kingdom and paid her taxes and was convinced that that should be good enough.

Out beyond the countryside, however, dwelt dreadful, orc-like creatures who hated the king and wanted nothing more than to be rid of him and his heirs. One day they learned of the prince's love for Tanya and set upon a plan. They snuck into her village, kidnapped Tanya, and sent a note to the king telling him that they would be willing to exchange her for the prince, but if their offer was refused they would torture Tanya until she was dead.

The king, distraught beyond words, told the prince the horrible news.

Despite all the rejections the prince had experienced from Tanya, he still loved her deeply, and his heart broke at the thought of her peril. With tears he resolved to his father that he would do the exchange. The father wept bitterly because the prince was his only son, but he knew that his love for Tanya would not allow him to let her suffer the torment to which the ugly people would surely subject her. The prince asked only that the father try his best to persuade Tanya to live safely in the beautiful city once she was ransomed.

And so the day came for the exchange, and the prince rode bravely and proudly bestride his mount out of the beautiful city to meet the ugly creatures. As he crossed an expansive meadow toward the camp of his mortal enemy he stopped to make sure they released Tanya. He waited until she was out of the camp, fleeing toward the safety of the king's city, oblivious in her near-panic that it was the prince himself she was running past as she hurried to the safety of the city walls. He could easily turn back now that Tanya was safe, but he had given his word that he would do the exchange, and the ugly people knew he would never go back on his word.

The prince continued stoically and resolutely into their midst, giving himself for Tanya as he had promised. Surrounding his steed they set upon him, stripped him of his princely raiment, and tortured him for three days in the most excruciating manner. Not once did any sound louder than a moan pass his lips. His courage and determination to endure whatever agonies to which he was subjected were strengthened by the assurance that he was doing it for Tanya and that because of his sacrifice she was safe.

Finally, wearying of their sport, they cut off his head and threw his body onto a garbage heap.

Meanwhile, the grief-stricken king, his heart melting like ice within his breast, called Tanya into his court. He told her nothing of what his son had done, his pride in the prince not permitting him to use his son's heroic sacrifice as a bribe. Even so, he pleaded with Tanya, as he had promised the prince he would, to remain with him within the walls of the wondrous and beautiful city where she'd be safe forevermore.

Tanya considered the offer, but decided that she liked life on the outside far too much, even if it was risky, and she really didn't want to be in too close proximity to the prince, and, "By the way," she asked the king, "where is that pissy little whiner son of yours anyway?"
Have a meaningful Good Friday. You, too, Tanya.

Gravity Is an Illusion?

Erik Verlinde is a Dutch theoretical physicist and string theorist. He recently was interviewed at Big Think on his theory that gravity is an illusion of some sort. When asked why he thinks this he replied that:
Gravity, of course, is something that many people have already thought about. It’s something that we see every day, and it’s not like it’s not existent in our ordinary life. But what I mean by [saying] that it’s an illusion is that one would eventually like to know where it comes from. [We'd like] an explanation.

Up to now we have, well, descriptions. Newton, of course, is the one famous for first writing down a theory of gravity and he described why apples fall and why the moon goes around the earth using the same basic equation for gravity, but he described it. He had to assume that gravity was there and then had to write down a law that described that when two masses are a certain distance [apart], how they attract each other.

But he was also not very happy with the fact that we should just, well, assume that these things, these objects, attract each other without anything in between. So if there are two masses and empty space, there’s nothing that really happens between them, but still, they’re attracting each other. And he thought that was kind of mysterious and that it was something he would have liked to explain in a better way.
In other words, we can describe how objects behave when they encounter a gravitational field and we can measure the strength of the field, but we don't know what gravity actually is, nor how it's produced, nor how it interacts with matter to cause the effects it does.

Verlinde goes on to discuss Einstein's view that material bodies bend space and time. This is very strange. One of the arguments materialists make against substance dualism is that interaction between two disparate "substances" like mind and matter is incomprehensible. It's therefore less complicated to suppose that there's only a single substance, usually assumed by scientists to be matter, which comprises reality. Mind is just a superfluous posit, the materialist believes, a word we use to describe what the matter in the brain does.

But if matter can bend time don't we face the same problem trying to account for that interaction? How can matter interact with time? How can time bend? What is it that's actually bending? If we accept that matter can curve time then why do we balk at thinking that matter, or brains, can interact with minds? Why do we have a problem thinking that an immaterial mind can cause an effect in a material brain?
Thanks to The Blaze.com for the tip.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Gathering Economic Storm (Pt. II)

This is Part II of my brother Bill's analysis of the economic peril Washington and Wall Street have placed us in. Part I was posted yesterday:
The best way to protect one’s self from the scenario we described in yesterday's post was suggested a decade ago. I'm not encouraging you to run out and buy a truckload of food that'll probably spoil before you ever get the chance to eat it all (although prudence dictates one should have three to four weeks worth of food and drinking water on hand for any unexpected crisis event).

I do suggest, though, that you join a shopping club like BJ’s or Costco where you can buy in bulk and get great value, specifically on non-perishable consumer goods. It’s a 2-fer. You save on your purchases and you avoid spending exorbitant amounts later when the inflation tsunami comes ashore. By this time next year, or the year after, the cost of the products mentioned below could very well have doubled or tripled (not a bad return on one’s investment ... that’s if some of these products are even available at all). Further, and importantly, none of these items will spoil, they need no special storage considerations, and you will always be able to use them. In other words, it’s a zero-risk investment!

The strategy is simple: Acquire your inventory and store it away. Don't use it when you've run out of an item, rather continue to purchase what you need until you determine the item in question has become too expensive. That’s the time to begin dipping into your inventory. How much and which items you should acquire are personal decisions that only you can make, but I would suggest that any supply lasting less than three to six months is probably not worth your effort.

Consider toothpaste for example. If an individual consumes a tube of toothpaste per month, then twelve tubes of toothpaste would last for a year. Given the state of the US fiscal dilemma, one year's worth of inventory is probably a conservative assessment. You're going to use all of these items anyway so why not buy them now? Here are some suggestions.

Laundry items (detergent, fabric softener, bleach, etc.)

Bathroom necessities (toothpaste and brushes, floss, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper, swabs, air freshener, kleenex, sanitary napkins, etc.)

Over the counter first-aid and meds (aspirin, antibiotic ointment, isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, band aids, bandages, etc.)

General household cleaners (mildew remover, lysol, pine sol, windex, etc.)

Kitchen necessities (dish/dishwasher soap, paper towels, aluminum foil, glad wrap, trash bags, sandwich baggies, sponges/wipes)

Miscellaneous (salt, sugar, coffee, light bulbs, spices and seasonings (may have an expiration date), bottled water, flashlights, batteries, motor oil, etc.)
Bill's advice will perhaps have little resonance with the grasshoppers among us, but the ants out there will undoubtedly see the wisdom of it.

We're tempted to think, and hope, that an economic depression can't happen here, but that's what folks thought in the 1920s. The depression that began in the late 20s lasted for over a decade and it took a world war to get us out of it.

Once our creditors are convinced that our deficit is so high we'll never be able to repay our loans our credit will dry up. When that happens we'll have no money to finance our enormous spending on social programs like medicare, medicaid and social security, nor money to spend on our military, nor on infrastructure. The government will have to either severely cut spending, raise taxes to confiscatory levels, or print more money, all of which will throw millions out of work, and the last two of which will only exacerbate the problem.

The only way to avoid this future is to cut our deficit now which means cutting the amount of money the government spends on entitlements. Yet consider how hard it was just to inveigle a $385 million cut from the Democrats two weeks ago, and we need to start today to cut trillions in order to avoid the calamity that awaits us if we delay.

Inexplicably there's no appetite in the White House to cut entitlements, only to raise taxes, which will not raise nearly enough money to stave off the grim reaper, and will probably actually produce more joblessness and less revenue in the long run.

If you think this is all Chicken Little stuff ask yourself, as gasoline heads for $6.00 a gallon this summer, what effect the price of gas will have on the price of goods, services, and family spending. If the former become more expensive and the latter is sharply curtailed what effect will this have on unemployment?

Yet the administration refuses to make it easier for oil companies to drill into our own reserves, which would certainly keep oil prices down in the mid-term. But that's a topic for another post.

The Appeal of ID for Agnostics

David Klinghoffer writes about the growing appeal intelligent design holds for agnostics and other seekers of a meaning to human existence. It shouldn't be surprising that agnostics would be drawn to ID, but perhaps it is.

After citing a couple of examples of this trend Klinghoffer argues, correctly, that ID is not inherently religious because it doesn't make any claims about who the designer is or how or when the designer did its work.

He then writes:
If ID were religious in nature, then with what theology or with what faith exactly is it congruent? ID is as much a religious idea as is the cosmology of the Big Bang. Sure, it's more readily reconciled with Judaism or Christianity than you can say of Darwinism or materialism, but that's something different. It also has as much to offer to the unbeliever or the unorthodox searcher as to the confirmed traditional believer. It might even have more.
He says this because many people in the contemporary world are experiencing what might be called an existential crisis. They're looking for something beyond themselves to fill the void in their empty lives. Materialism has been tried and found to be utterly inadequate:
It's far from the case that only orthodox religionists have perceived what Alfred Russel Wallace, evolutionary theory's co-founder, called in 1889 the "crushing mental burden" that materialism imposes on modern man. He continued:

"As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief, we, who accept the existence of a spiritual world, can look upon the universe as a grand consistent whole adapted in all its parts to the development of spiritual being capable of indefinite life and perfectibility."

Another British socialist and freethinker of a slightly later generation, George Bernard Shaw, recognized what Darwinism boils down to. Shaw, who held no particular religious beliefs and left instructions at his death that no one should try to erect a cross over his grave, wrote in 1921:

"[Darwinism] seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration."

Yes, the heart sinks. That easily could have been written not in 1921 but today. Even in troubled economic times, we are a vastly wealthy society -- yet one plagued by a hideous, gnawing, wasting sense of unease and dissatisfaction.
Modern man is in despair because he realizes that a world that has been purged of the transcendent is spiritually sterile, purposeless, and pointless:
Every real solution to this problem of despair assumes a reality beyond our mundane, one-dimensional and material one. How could it not? We are in despair, or fear falling into it -- whether we're religious or otherwise -- over the limitations of our own lives.

The ultimate limit is imposed by death, which we fear as no generation in memory seems to have done despite the overwhelming safety of our existence. In the meantime, while we are still alive, the lack of a sense of ultimate purpose and meaning that goes with the culture of materialism feeds the anxiety that underlies so much of that culture.

Materialism corrodes the confidence we might otherwise have that any search for meaning that we undertake is not necessarily in vain. Intelligent design offers the hope, by the refutation of materialist science, that "something is out there," whatever it might be, capable of granting genuine purpose to our existence.
If there is a designer of some sort "out there" it must be highly intelligent, very powerful, personal, and sufficiently concerned with us to have designed us to be the kind of beings who can experience love and a yearning for transcendence.

In other words, if there's a designer it would seem that it must be the very sort of being that could fill the emptiness in the vacant hearts of modern men. No wonder then that ID appeals to those who are still searching for something to make their lives meaningful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Libyan Fiasco

Despite all the presidential huffing and puffing, the feckless launch of a hundred or so cruise missiles, and the expenditure of several billion dollars, Col. Qaddafi is still alive and his people increasingly are not. Mr. Obama sent our military to Libya on a humanitarian mission to protect the Libyan people from genocide, but was inexplicably punctilious in assuring the chief genocider that he was immune to attack. We had few qualms about killing off his military minions, and even some civilians, but the man who was pulling the strings and giving the orders was, for reasons not clear to anyone outside the White House, safe from our bombs.

Mr. Obama heeded the advice of the "chick hawks" in his administration (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power), gave the order to lob a few munitions at Libya, and promptly traipsed off to Rio to vacation.

Upon his return, however, the Libyan leaders were still not truckling to Mr. Obama's demands that they relinquish power. After a week or so of playing Commander-In-Chief with nothing to show for it except a couple hundred dead Libyans, President Obama was anxious to get back to his golf game, so he decided to turn the whole mess over to NATO, and pretty much walk away from it.

Ever since, the insolent Col. Qaddafi, in defiance of Mr. Obama's clear and unambiguous order to say "uncle" and step down from his office, has been revivified. His troops are everywhere on the offensive, the rebels are in disarray, the genocide that Qaddafi promised seems to be occurring unabated, and with the abdication of American leadership, the NATO coalition is falling apart.

The President hasn't had much to say about all this of late, preoccupied as he's been with calling Paul Ryan a coward for coming up with a plan to rescue the U.S. from bankruptcy, but one wonders if it all couldn't have been averted had he had the common sense to realize that if you're going to go to war, the best strategy is to end it quickly by decapitating the leadership. Had we done this at the outset Mr. Obama would be free to play an entire round without having to be interrupted by those pesky calls from Robert Gates at the Pentagon.

Maybe, though, that's just not the sort of thing one learns to do in the faculty lounge at Harvard Law School where Mr. Obama prepped for being President and where such extreme tactics are deemed warranted only if they're to be employed against Republicans.

The Gathering Economic Storm (Pt. I)

My brother Bill has for years been studying the fiscal insults our politicians have inflicted upon our nation's economy and has concluded that we've come to a point where all the evidence points to a very serious economic and social crisis looming in our near future. This is a prognosis shared as well by a lot of professional economists and others who have an interest in fiscal policy, so Bill's is not a fringe opinion. Recently he shared the reasons for this gloomy assessment with me, and what he said, discouraging as it is, makes a lot of sense. I've split it into two parts. Part I is below. Part II, in which he makes some practical suggestions as to how to prepare, will be up tomorrow:
Ten years ago I thought it good to begin suggesting that people who wanted to preserve their wealth consider purchasing gold and silver because the US dollar was going to eventually depreciate in value. At that time gold was selling for $265 per ounce and silver for $4.00 an ounce, and those that acted have been handsomely rewarded. Yet today, given the fundamentals of the US economy and the dynamics of current events, both metals are still relatively “cheap”.

For those who are either well-positioned in the metals or simply not interested, I suggest below another way to protect against the price inflation that is here today and destined to get far, far worse regardless of whatever political party is in the White House.

Several years ago I explained how to identify the “canary in the coal mine” which would signal the beginning of the end of our economy and our country, as we know it. It would be when the Federal Reserve begins to purchase US Treasury bills in an outright monetization of the national debt. When governments spend more than they take in, they must make up the shortfall by selling bonds (debt). If the marketplace is not willing to purchase said debt, the government prints their currency, bringing it into existence out of thin air, to finance the gap.

Unfortunately, the canary started to chirp its warning when the US Federal Reserve initiated what it refers to as Quantitative Easing, a euphemism for monetizing the debt, or simply the printing of money with which to purchase US Treasury bonds that the Treasury then uses to finance the debt incurred by Congress. Understand that each new dollar printed devalues each dollar already in existence.

In the beginning, it was called QE 1, under the guise of needing to stimulate the economy after the 2008 financial crisis. Once QE 1 ended it was apparent that there was no improvement in the economy so we began QE 2 for a period of six-months until this coming June, but QE 2 is open-ended, meaning it could go on indefinitely. So QE beyond June should be considered QE 3.

Today the risk of purchasing the US debt is so high and the interest paid on it is so low that no entity, national or private, is interested in such an investment.

We are truly at a fork in the road. If the Federal Reserve discontinues their policy of printing money there's hope for the US although the consequences of doing so would plummet the US into a severe recession, if not outright depression. However, we would ultimately emerge better, stronger, and healthier as all of the mal-investment that has been allowed to persist would finally be purged from the system. All it would take is political will and strong leadership from our administration. Lacking that, should the Federal Reserve, for whatever reason, introduce QE3, it’s game over ... time to hunker down. The average individual, will be decimated. This will be the ultimate event to watch for.

The issue is simple. The US spends more money than it takes in via taxes and so the difference is made up by selling bonds (loans). As an aside, note that even with the historically low interest rates today, the US pays $500 billion in interest on its debt annually. Should the interest rate increase by only one or two percent, the interest burden of the US debt would double to $1 trillion per year.

China and Japan were the two largest purchasers of US debt. They have been financing our profligate life-style spending for years. China has become concerned about the ability of the US to pay, not only the interest, but also the principal of its debt and has scaled back to where they are purchasing little if any more of our debt, and Japan is currently in no position to be making further investments in US debt.

The only thing worse for the US than these two countries not continuing to finance our debt would be if either of them (or both) begin to sell the US Treasuries they currently hold. While China is sitting on the fence regarding the issue, Japan will almost certainly be compelled to sell their US Treasuries in order to raise Yen to finance their reconstruction given the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters they've recently experienced. Should Japan begin to do so, it will cause the value of the US Treasuries to plummet and China will most certainly begin to sell as they won’t want to be holding US Treasuries that are dropping in value due to the Japanese sale. It will be a race for the exits for all holders of US Treasuries.

This comes at the worst possible time for the US and rather than a conclusion of QE 2, it is more likely we will be seeing QE far beyond June as the Federal Reserve will be forced to print ever more dollars to finance the gap in US debt purchases. It’s known as a debt trap and it eventually goes exponential, inevitably leading to hyperinflation.

During an inflationary period, the velocity of money accelerates. That is to say that when one gets a unit of currency, they rush to convert it to a good or service because the purchasing power of the currency will be less in the short-term future. As the crisis intensifies the decrease in the purchasing power accelerates to where nobody wants to hold on to the currency for any length of time.

I’m reminded of a passage about an interview with a German lady who was asked how she could possibly have supported someone like Adolph Hitler. The German Weimer Republic had just gone through a hyperinflation and she responded: “when you’re reduced to eating rats that you might catch, you’ll vote for anyone who promises anything better”. Understand that we‘re at the beginning of such an event.
Bill offers some advice in Part II about how the average person can prepare for this debacle.

Meanwhile, check out these links to other articles here and here that elaborate on the problems Bill describes above.

Have a nice day and stay away from high bridges and razor blades.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Follow the Money

Despite his expressed desire to raise taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" it's not likely that President Obama is as concerned about taxing the rich as he is about taxing the middle class. He won't say this, of course, because he promised during his campaign never to raise taxes on those making less than $250,000, but taxing the middle class is the necessary consequence of his refusal to cut spending. If we're going to pay our bills we have to get the money from the people who have it, and that's the middle class, as this graph from an article at the Wall Street Journal shows.
The Journal editorial explains why taxing the rich will not produce the revenue needed to close the deficit. Here's the core of their argument:
A dominant theme of President Obama's budget speech last Wednesday was that our fiscal problems would vanish if only the wealthiest Americans were asked "to pay a little more." Since he's asking, imagine that instead of proposing to raise the top income tax rate well north of 40%, the President decided to go all the way to 100%.

Let's stipulate that this is a thought experiment, because Democrats don't need any more ideas. But it's still a useful experiment because it exposes the fiscal futility of raising rates on the top 2%, or even the top 5% or 10%, of taxpayers to close the deficit. The mathematical reality is that in the absence of entitlement reform on the Paul Ryan model, Washington will need to soak the middle class—because that's where the big money is.

Consider the Internal Revenue Service's income tax statistics for 2008, the latest year for which data are available. The top 1% of taxpayers—those with salaries, dividends and capital gains roughly above about $380,000—paid 38% of taxes. But assume that tax policy confiscated all the taxable income of all the "millionaires and billionaires" Mr. Obama singled out. That yields merely about $938 billion, which is sand on the beach amid the $4 trillion White House budget, a $1.65 trillion deficit, and spending at 25% as a share of the economy, a post-World War II record.

Say we take it up to the top 10%, or everyone with income over $114,000, including joint filers. That's five times Mr. Obama's 2% promise. The IRS data are broken down at $100,000, yet taxing all income above that level throws up only $3.4 trillion. And remember, the top 10% already pay 69% of all total income taxes, while the top 5% pay more than all of the other 95%.

So who else is there to tax? Well, in 2008, there was about $5.65 trillion in total taxable income from all individual taxpayers, and most of that came from middle income earners. The above chart shows the distribution, and the big hump in the center is where Democrats are inevitably headed for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks.

Mr. Obama is turning as he did last week to limiting tax deductions and other "loopholes," such as for mortgage interest payments. We support doing away with these distortions too, and so does Mr. Ryan, but in return for lower tax rates. Mr. Obama just wants the extra money, which he says will reduce the deficit but in practice will merely enable more spending.

Mr. Ryan isn't proposing controversial entitlement reforms because he likes pointless political risk, or because he likes being berated to his face from a front row seat, as he was on Wednesday. Medicare and Medicaid spending are consistently growing two to three times faster than the rest of the economy, while Medicare's cash-in-cash-out financing model means that seniors collect far more in benefits than they paid in taxes over their working lifetime. The entitlement state was designed for another era.

Mr. Obama's speech was disgraceful for its demagoguery but also because it contained nothing remotely commensurate to the scale of the problem. If the President had come out for a large tax on the middle class, like a VAT, then at least the country could have debated the choice of paying for the government we have or modernizing it a la Mr. Ryan so it is affordable.

Instead the President will continue targeting the middle class for tax increases to pay for an entitlement state on autopilot, while claiming he only wants to tax the rich.
And another campaign promise will be flushed down the memory hole.

Waiting for Superman

Last month when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was being raked over the coals because his budget reform plan would weaken public employees unions, including teachers' unions, Democrats in the state legislature and in the media were firmly on the side of the unions. They couldn't say enough good things about the job that teachers' unions were doing for the children of Wisconsin and how reprehensible Walker was for wanting to limit their ability to extort the Wisconsin taxpayers.

It was jarring, then, to say the least, when over the weekend I watched Waiting for Superman, a documentary on how awful our public schools are, particularly our urban schools. As I recall, WFS was highly acclaimed on all sides when it was released last year, but everything that the film showed to be wrong with our schools and everything that it recommended as a means to fix them is opposed tooth and nail by liberals in Congress and the media.

According to WFS, a film which every prospective teacher and parent really should watch, our schools went from the best in the world fifty or sixty years ago to among the worst in the developed world today. Why?

There are a number of reasons, of course, more, in fact, than what WFS talked about, but the chief reasons the film brought out are certainly at the top of the list. Schools today are failing our kids not because we're not spending enough money on them but primarily because teachers' unions, and the Democrat politicians they have bought and paid for, have made reform almost impossible.

They've made it incredibly difficult, for example, to remove an underperforming teacher from the classroom, and they oppose the one hope that many poor kids have of escaping the abysmal schools they're forced to attend - school choice. Private and charter schools are succeeding, according to the film, because they can fire poor teachers, extend the length of both the school day and the school year, and demand more from their students in terms of discipline and study. None of this is ever likely to happen in the regular public school. The film didn't mention it, but another thing private schools can do is remove discipline problems from the school environment, a measure which is necessary to creating a positive learning environment, but one which regular public schools either can't take or won't take.

A remarkable irony of the film is that some of the people arguing for reform, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Bill Gates of Microsoft, support a party and a president adamantly opposed to any meaningful reform. Together they refuse to provide these kids with the means to escape bad schools, refuse to act to allow districts to get rid of poor teachers, and who believe the solution to failing schools is to simply throw yet more money and more bureaucrats at the problems.

At the end of the film we get to sit in on several lotteries taking place around the country in which children are selected to attend charter and private schools. Often there are hundreds of applicants for just a few dozen openings. The looks of desperation on the faces of both the kids and their parents is heart-breaking. Watching them get passed over is like watching them being given a death sentence, which, in a sense, it is.

President Obama, however, is unmoved by their plight, captive as he is to the teachers' unions. Early in his administration he canceled a scholarship program which gave District of Columbia kids the wherewithal to attend private schools like the one to which the Obamas send their own daughters (the Republicans are going to try to restore this program now that they're in the majority in the House), and later his Elementary and Secondary Education Act eliminated school choice options that were in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

It became very clear, as I watched Waiting For Superman, that the biggest impediment to meaningful school reform, the biggest obstacle to giving these poor kids a chance at a decent life, is the alliance between the President, congressional Democrats, and the leadership of the teachers' unions.

In fact, if the film weren't an hour and forty minutes long it'd be a great campaign commercial for the Republicans in 2012. Watch it and ask yourself whether you think the people who make it so hard for these children to get a decent education really are the champions of the poor or whether they're just the champions of the status quo.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Budget Battle Irony

There are a number of ironies attending to the budget debates that are swirling around Washington these days. One that I find particularly piquant is that many of the people who are most vociferous in condemning Congressional Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's 2012 proposal as being insufficiently compassionate toward the poor and the elderly are themselves Darwinian materialists.

Now they may not think of themselves in those terms, but that's essentially what they are, at least some of them, particularly those who write for the lefty journals and blogs.

So what's the irony, you ask? Well, on what grounds does a Darwinian materialist criticize anyone for being uncaring toward the poor and the elderly? What reason would a Darwinian give for caring about how these folks get by? Why would a Darwinian think we should not see the poor and the elderly as mere extraneous biological burdens who should be left to fend for themselves in the universal struggle for survival?

Indeed, good liberal progressives of a century ago thought exactly this, which is why they were so fond of eugenics, abortion, and euthanasia. Abortion was seen by the progressives who founded Planned Parenthood as a way to cull out the feeble and inferior, particularly among the minority races. Eugenics was popular among progressives until Hitler gave it a bad name in the forties and forced its votaries to mute their enthusiasm for it.

The next time those who wish to change the way we help the less fortunate are criticized for their "lack of compassion toward the poor" perhaps we might ask the critic to explain the reasons why he/she thinks we should be helping the "unfit" survive in the first place. Unless the person is a theist, their awkwardness in honestly answering the question should be amusing.

Who Pays Taxes

Economist Stephen Moore edifies those of us interested in the raging budget debate by offering some facts about taxes:
The latest data show that a big portion of the federal income tax burden is shoul­dered by a small group of the very richest Americans. The wealthiest 1 percent of the population earn 19 per­cent of the income but pay 37 percent of the income tax. The top 10 percent pay 68 percent of the tab. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent — those below the median income level — now earn 13 percent of the income but pay just 3 percent of the taxes. These are proportions of the income tax alone and don’t include payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.
This is interesting because we're constantly told that we need to tax the rich as if the wealthy aren't paying any taxes.

What income demarcates the top 1%, 5%, etc.? It turns out that to be in the top 1% you needed to make $380,000 in 2008. The top 5% earned $160,000 or more and $114,000 put you in the top 10%.

If you made less than $33,000 you were in the bottom 50% and paid almost no income taxes. In other words, only half the wage earners in this country are paying taxes.

The President wants the top 2% to pay their "fair share", but what is their fair share? They already provide over 40% of the income tax revenue to the treasury. How much more should they have to pay? Here's another question Mr. Obama should answer: How much could taxes go up before no more revenue would flow into the treasury? Raising the top rates does not increase revenue and often depresses it, so what's the point?

The problem, as the Republicans repeat like a mantra, is not that we need more taxation. Raising taxes stifles job creation and generates very little revenue. What we need is less government spending, but cutting spending will hurt social programs, we're told.

So what's the implicit assumption in this claim? Is it not that 5% of the people in this country should have to carry the other 95%? Is that just? And what's going to happen to those social programs anyway when the wagon gets so heavy that the top 5% can no longer pull it? The attempt to sustain these programs at current levels while taxing the top earners even more will guarantee that the programs will collapse under their own weight.

Raising taxes is a myopic pseudo-solution that should disqualify anyone who proposes it from being taken seriously.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Craig vs. Harris

Last weekend William Lane Craig debated Sam Harris, one of the leading lights of the New Atheist movement, on the question whether there can be ethics without God. Harris' position is interesting in that, though he's an atheist, he's not a relativist or subjectivist. In fact, he spends much of his first address in the debate pressing his considerable rhetorical skills into the service of criticizing relativism. Nevertheless, Harris' reluctance to embrace subjectivism comes under Craig's scrutiny and during the course of the nine-part video of the debate Harris' position just unravels.

In fact, by his second address Harris was left with no response to Craig's challenge to explain the ground upon which he based his ethical views so he retreated to more familiar terrain, launching a philippic against religion in general and Christianity in particular. He spent much time on the ethical shortcomings of the Bible and expatiated on the problem of evil, all of which were, unfortunately for him, irrelevant to the debate. Harris, in effect, switched the topic from whether God is necessary for moral good and evil to the question whether the Biblical concept of God is morally tenable - an interesting question, to be sure, but not germane to the topic of the evening.

Even so, Craig did a good job of holding Harris' feet to the fire. It's an enlightening debate and one from which much can be learned about the problem that moral obligation poses for the thoughtful atheist who wishes to avoid nihilism.

Gay History

Their state teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, many of their most productive citizens and businesses are fleeing in search of economically friendlier climes, and the California state senate is darn serious about the crisis they find themselves in. To show just how serious they are and how well-ordered are their priorities they've just passed a measure requiring public schools to teach gay history:
Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people would be added to the lengthy list of social and ethnic groups that public schools must include in social studies lessons under a landmark bill passed Thursday by the California Senate.

If the bill is adopted by the state Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California would become the first state to require the teaching of gay history.

Supporters say the move is needed to counter anti-gay stereotypes and beliefs that make children in those groups vulnerable to bullying and suicide.

Opponents counter that such instruction would further burden an already crowded curriculum and expose students to a subject that some parents find objectionable.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, passed on a 23-14 party line vote. It also would add disabled people to the curriculum.

California law already requires schools to cover the contributions to the state and nation of women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, entrepreneurs, Asian Americans, European Americans, American Indians and labor.
In California one must always offer proper obeisance to the gods of political correctness, I suppose. It's an interesting exercise, though, to wonder what would happen if a lawmaker proposed teaching, say, Christian history and/or Christian contributions to Western civilization. Surely such a bill is needed to counter anti-Christian stereotypes and beliefs that make children in those groups "vulnerable to bullying and ridicule".

I doubt that argument would have much purchase in that context, though. Perhaps if it was a course on Gay Christianity it'd have a chance.