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.