Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mind or Matter

One of the many fascinating questions being revived in today's philosophical debates is the question of the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, what is the world fundamentally made of? For the last two hundred years, and still today, the consensus answer among scientists and philosophers is that matter is the fundamental constituent of the world. Everything in the world, it's believed, can be reduced to matter or energy.

This view is called metaphysical materialism, but despite its status as the consensus view there have always been prominent thinkers who've insisted that materialism is quite wrong. There has long been a substantial minority of very brilliant men who believe that the material world is really an expression of mind and that mind is fundamental. This view is usually referred to as metaphysical idealism.

Here are a few examples of quotes from scientists and philosophers who embrace(d) one form or another of metaphysical idealism:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter. Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, 1944

Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else. Erwin Schroedinger, quantum physicist

It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality. Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, 1961

If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012.

What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving “entanglement” (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices. To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time. Antoine Suarez, 2013
So what does it matter (no pun intended)? If mind is fundamental then it may follow, psychologically if not logically, that personality is as well, and pretty soon it looks as if fundamental reality is in fact the God of traditional theism.

This is an intolerable conclusion for metaphysical naturalists who thought they had laid God to rest in the 19th century. Now it appears that the matter is far from settled, and as we enter into the second decade of the twenty-first century there's an interesting philosophical donnybrook brewing over whether science and philosophy, so far from having proven there is no God, are actually, even if inadvertently, accumulating increasing evidence that there is.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Polyamory

One of the first posts I ever wrote on Viewpoint back in May of 2004 was on why I think gay marriage is a very bad idea. The post was not motivated by an animus against gay people but rather by a desire to preserve the institution of marriage which I believe would be radically transformed, if not dissolved entirely, by legalizing homosexual marital unions.

The argument is simple. Marriage has traditionally been seen as a union of one man and one woman. Once we decide as a society that the gender of the people in the union no longer matters we will have no grounds for resisting the further step of concluding that neither does the number of people in the union matter. In other words, marriage will inevitably come to be almost anything anyone wants it to be and when marriage is anything at all then it will pretty much cease to exist as anything more than a remnant of what it once was.

The argument is not without its critics. Some have derided it as a mere slippery slope argument, which is a silly objection since there's nothing wrong with slippery slope arguments. Others say that unions of more than two people are just gross, and no one would really want to do it, as if there were not a sizeable number of people who wouldn't do whatever they were legally allowed to do. I'm sure that there are a lot of people who would love even to marry their pets were the law to allow them.

As for marriages involving multiple partners (polyamory) the movement for this particular proclivity already exists and its votaries are biding until gay marriage gains full legal acceptance. When that day arrives polyamorists will begin pushing for their own particular notion of wedded bliss, and what compelling reason could anyone have for denying arrangements in which multiple men enter into matrimonial union with multiple women once we've decided that the gender of the spouses in a marriage no longer matters?

If you doubt that this is the inevitable next step in the marriage debate then read a pair of articles by the pseudonymous polyamorist Michael Carey at Slate here and here. What he says makes pretty clear what challenges will be facing our courts of law in the near future.

Although it's not the point of this post, I'd like to comment on something Mr. Carey says at the outset of the first article. He writes:
In the course of defending their right to treat gay people as second-class citizens, conservatives have frequently deployed slippery-slope arguments: “If we accept same-sex relationships, what will we have to tolerate next? Bestiality? Pederasty? Polygamy?” While these arguments are stupid, the people making them are not, or at least not always. They’re doing their best to trot out a parade of horribles that will shock the sensibilities of most Americans.

Clearly we should be shocked by violations of consent. (Reminder: Children and animals can’t consent!)
In other words, Mr. Carey maintains, gay marriage, plural marriage, and traditional marriage are all based on consent whereas those other "horribles" are not. I wonder, though, how long consent would matter in a society that has lost any objective grounds for moral discrimination.

A society that has no transcendent basis for objective moral duties, a foundation that only theism can provide, will eventually subjectivize morality, and when morality is subjectivized it will inevitably devolve into the simple philosophy of might-makes-right. Those who possess the power to do what they wish will find their behavior sanctioned by a society that lacks the moral resources to disapprove any kind of behavior and which will almost certainly lack the will to pass judgment on the behavior of the powerful.

When we reach that point, which may not be as far off as we might hope, the law will eventually be made to conform to the moral consensus, those "horribles" will no longer seem so horrible, and consent will be treated as a quaint anachronism.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Who's in Charge?

The President doesn't seem to know anything more about what's going on in his own administration than anyone else who watches the evening news, leading some to wonder who's actually running the country:
Let's see. If Mr. Obama isn't really in the loop, so to speak, who is? Who's in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Valerie Jarrett? George Soros? Joe Biden? Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? Yikes!

Speaking of being out of the loop, Jon Stewart appears to be mystified by the seeming ineptitude of it all:

If You Like it You Can Keep it

Lisa Myers and Helen Rappleye at NBC have broken a story confirming what many critics of the Affordable Care Act have been alleging for several years now: When President Obama assured us as recently as last year that if we liked our insurance we could keep it he knew that what he was saying was false.

Here's the lede of the NBC story:
President Obama repeatedly assured Americans that after the Affordable Care Act became law, people who liked their health insurance would be able to keep it. But millions of Americans are getting or are about to get cancellation letters for their health insurance under Obamacare, say experts, and the Obama administration has known that for at least three years.

Four sources deeply involved in the Affordable Care Act tell NBC NEWS that 50 to 75 percent of the 14 million consumers who buy their insurance individually can expect to receive a “cancellation” letter or the equivalent over the next year because their existing policies don’t meet the standards mandated by the new health care law. One expert predicts that number could reach as high as 80 percent. And all say that many of those forced to buy pricier new policies will experience “sticker shock.”
Yet President Obama, who had promised in 2009, “If you like your health plan, you'll be able to keep your health plan,” was still saying in 2012, “If [you] already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance” even though he apparently knew that millions would not be able to keep their insurance. Here's the President in 2009 insisting in unambiguous terms that no one will have to give up their health care plans:
Despite these asseverations millions of people are losing their insurance under Obamacare or seeing their premiums rise astronomically. Some of their stories are included at the link.

Recently we've learned that when the President told us that the Benghazi raid was a response to an offensive video he knew that was false. When he told us that he didn't know that the NSA was spying on our allies' heads of state that was false, he evidently signed off on the directive to do it. When he told us that the White House had nothing to do with the IRS scandal, that was false. Now we're learning that even as he was doubling down on his promise that we'd be able to keep our current insurance if we so wished he knew that was false.

How long can the President of the United States blatantly and deliberately try to deceive the American people before the people's confidence in government is utterly destroyed? Can anybody trust anything that anyone in this administration says?

I'm reminded of the words of John Adams, our second President, who wrote that our system of government was created for a moral and religious people and is "wholly inadequate for any other." What happens when a nation so founded finds itself governed by people who feel no moral duty to tell us the truth?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Facepalm Sweepstakes

It's amazing that any informed individual would be surprised by what's happening in the insurance market as a result of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare). People have to have either been living in a cave for the last three years or in complete denial of what was going to happen to them when health care "reform" kicked in. They certainly can't say they weren't warned. Consider the tale of this unfortunate woman mentioned in a story in the LA Times:
Fullerton resident Jennifer Harris thought she had a great deal, paying $98 a month for an individual plan through Health Net Inc. She got a rude surprise this month when the company said it would cancel her policy at the end of this year. Her current plan does not conform with the new federal rules, which require more generous levels of coverage.

Now Harris, a self-employed lawyer, must shop for replacement insurance. The cheapest plan she has found will cost her $238 a month. She and her husband don't qualify for federal premium subsidies because they earn too much money, about $80,000 a year combined.

"It doesn't seem right to make the middle class pay so much more in order to give health insurance to everybody else," said Harris, who is three months pregnant. "This increase is simply not affordable."
I want to sympathize with Ms Harris, but I want to ask first who she voted for in 2012. The depth of my sympathy would depend upon her answer. Her experience has been the experience of millions of others across the country who are seeing their premiums skyrocket:
On balance, many Americans will benefit from the healthcare expansion. They are guaranteed coverage regardless of their medical history. And lower-income families will gain access to comprehensive coverage at little or no cost. The federal government picks up much of the tab through an expansion of Medicaid and subsidies to people earning up to four times the federal poverty level. That's up to $46,000 for an individual or $94,000 for a family of four.

But middle-income consumers face an estimated 30% rate increase, on average, in California due to several factors tied to the healthcare law.

Some may elect to go without coverage if they feel prices are too high. Penalties for opting out are very small initially. Defections could cause rates to skyrocket if a diverse mix of people don't sign up for health insurance.
In order to insure more of those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, Obamacare makes it almost impossible for those further up to afford insurance. The average premium increase across the country for males is almost 100%. The average for females is about 65%. In most states if you buy your own insurance, you'll pretty much be working just to pay your premiums. That's if you're working at all. Mr. Obama's economy is so depressed that millions of young people, especially minorities, simply can't find a job anywhere.

Let's close with this. The Times piece includes a statement by a young woman that should make her a finalist in the facepalm sweepstakes:
Pam Kehaly, president of Anthem Blue Cross in California, said she received a recent letter from a young woman complaining about a 50% rate hike related to the healthcare law.

"She said, 'I was all for Obamacare until I found out I was paying for it,'" Kehaly said.
That's liberalism in one succinct sentence. Let's give everything to everybody as long as everybody but me is paying for it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Grotesque Consequences

Here are two quotes, one from holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl, a free will libertarian and one from the famous twentieth century trial attorney and determinist Clarence Darrow. Together they illustrate vividly the consequences of a belief that our behavior and our choices are the product of our brain chemistry and nothing more. First Darrow:
The reason I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is because I really do not in the least believe in crime. There is no such thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other.

The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible.
And here's Frankl:
If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, ‘of Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
I think Frankl is much closer to the truth, and to the reality of human experience, than is Darrow. Darrow was a philosophical materialist, that is, he believed that everything could be reduced to the swirl of atoms. His determinism was a logical consequence of that belief, but when the consequence of one's beliefs does away with the distinction between good and evil, when the consequence of one's belief is that the Nazis responsible for the suffering of millions in the holocaust were no more nor less moral than those who risked their lives to smuggle Jews out of Europe, then I think we need to reassess the belief that leads to such grotesque consequences.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Train Wrecks

Evidently the Obamacare rollout (and Obamacare itself) aren't the only "train wrecks" the administration has inflicted upon itself and the nation (Check out the column by Kirsten Powers at The Daily Beast). Our Middle East policy is also rapidly unraveling as our allies in the region feel increasingly betrayed by a White House that seems willing to sell them out to appease Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post, a paper that has been solidly pro-Obama, but he nevertheless says this:
What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded U.S. influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.

Saudi King Abdullah privately voiced his frustration with U.S. policy in a lunch in Riyadh Monday with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the U.A.E., according to a knowledgeable Arab official. The Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable,” this official said. “I don’t see a genuine desire to fix it” on either side, he added.

The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

The policies were upsetting; but the deeper damage resulted from the Saudi feeling that they were being ignored — and even, in their minds, double crossed. In the traditional Gulf societies, any such sense of betrayal can do lasting damage, yet the administration let the problems fester.
Michael Totten at World Affairs Journal summarizes the mess we seem to be creating in the Middle East this way:
The American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is by far the largest threat to both Saudi and American interests in the Middle East now, yet the Obama administration is buddying up with Vladimir Putin on Syria and allowing itself to be suckered by the Iranian regime’s new president Hassan Rouhani.

Never mind the fact that Rouhani obviously isn’t a moderate and is powerless to negotiate sovereign issues in any case. The White House is so desperate to cut a deal with America’s enemies that the president will go along on even a farcical ride. As a result, the Saudi government is threatening to drastically “scale back” the relationship.

“I’ve worked in this field for a long time,” says Brooking Institution expert Mike Doran in London’s Telegraph, “and I’ve studied the history. I know of no analogous period. I’ve never seen so many disagreements on so many key fronts all at once. And I’ve never seen such a willingness on the part of the Saudis to publicly express their frustration. Iran is the number one issue — the only issue for Saudi policy makers. When you add up the whole Middle Eastern map — Syria, Iraq, Iran — it looks to the Saudis as if the US is throwing Sunni allies under the bus by trying to cut a deal with Iran and its allies.”

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly.

“They [the Americans] are going to be upset—and we can live with that,” said Mustafa Alani, a Saudi foreign policy analyst. "We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”
Totten goes on to explain how distasteful he finds the Saudi regime but how necessary it is that we maintain a strong relationship with them. He's right on both counts. The Saudis are a potent force in the Middle East, in the war on terror, and in the effort to counter Iran whose pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel as well as the entire region.

Much of the U.S. and indeed much of the world seem to be holding on until 2016 when a new administration that, one hopes, knows what it's doing takes over the reins in Washington. Until then perhaps the most that can be done is to try to minimize the damage inflicted by a political leadership determined to "fundamentally transform" America and diminish its role in the world.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Does Your i-phone Have Free Will?

An article at the blog physics arxiv explores the problem of free will and comes to the weird conclusion that not only do humans possess it but so might your i-phone. Here's how the article begins:
The problem of free will is one of the great unsolved puzzles in science, not to mention philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and so on. The basic question is whether we are able to make decisions for ourselves or whether the outcomes are predetermined and the notion of choice is merely an illusion.

There are two relatively new ideas that are particularly relevant [to the problem]. The first is quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the universe on the smallest scale. The second is the theory of computation which underpins much of modern technology and most of what passes for research in artificial intelligence. What bearing do these theories have on our understanding of free will?

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Seth Lloyd, one of the world’s leading quantum mechanics and theorists, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Lloyd argues that quantum mechanics does not provide any mechanism that helps us understand free will. By contrast, he shows that the theory of computation is far more useful.

He argues that there are clear mechanisms in computation that make the outcome of a given calculation unpredictable, especially to the person or object making it. The key contribution of this latest work is a mathematical proof of this idea.

It is this inability to know the outcome of our own deliberations that gives rise to our impression that we possess free will, he says.
You'll have to read the rest of the article to see what this has to do with the i-phone, but what's not clear about the section excerpted above is whether there is a distinction to be made between the "impression" of having free will and the reality of free will. It's one thing to feel that our choices are free. We all experience that. The problem is whether the feeling of freedom is an illusion, and it doesn't seem to me that Lloyd's contribution makes it clear that he's talking about the ontological reality of libertarian free will and not just a deep but illusory sense that we're exercising a free choice when we make a decision.

In other words, if all he's doing is explaining why we feel free, that's not especially helpful. What's needed is a compelling argument that demonstrates that we are, in fact, genuinely free to choose between alternatives. It's that argument that has eluded scientists and philosophers since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Choosing Free Will

Jonathan Schooler wrote an interesting column on free will at Big Questions Online this past August. Schooler has researched the difference that belief in free will makes in people's lives, and he reports on his results in the article.

In the course of his essay Schooler outlines three basic positions philosophers and scientists hold on the issue. One view, popular among many who hold to metaphysical naturalism (the belief that the natural world is all there is; there's no supernatural), is called Hard Determinism. Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and a metaphysical naturalist, adumbrates the determinist's position with these words:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons…So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us, and we cannot change that.
Another view, called Compatibilism, seeks to find a media via between determinism and libertarianism. Schooler writes:
Compatibilism ’s assumption ... that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers. However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random processes.
It may be popular, but it's something of a squishy cop-out. Schooler's objection to it is well-taken. It's difficult to see how, in a universe in which the laws of physics determine everything, those laws can be circumvented in the mental processes that create our choices.

The third view, Libertarianism, is Schooler's preferred position. He says:
The Libertarian view that conscious intent somehow transcends the causal chain of physical events most closely resonates with my personal experience, but it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to imagine how this might happen.
Indeed, it is. The idea of a free choice is devilishly difficult to flesh out. Even the Libertarian believes that our choices are caused by something - our character, our desires, our hopes, etc. - and if these things are the cause of our choices why do they not determine our choices? Here's Schooler again:
The lack of a fully satisfying conceptualization of free will leads me to conclude that all three major views are contenders, but I yearn for the formulation of other accounts that could be more readily reconciled with both logic and experience.

Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves. The conclusion we draw will depend on our personal predispositions and for many be informed by logic and scientific evidence.
He might have also said that the conclusion we draw will likely be a function of our worldview. If we're naturalists we'll tend to be determinists because we believe that physics fixes all the facts of our cognitive experience. If we're theists we'll tend to be libertarians because we'll believe that we're accountable to God for our behavior, and such accountability can only exist if we're in some sense free.

If there's no way to show which view is correct perhaps we're justified in believing the one having the best consequences for how we live our everyday lives and which seems most compatible with our everyday experience. This is, in fact, Schooler's advice:
Yet as William James observed ... when an idea cannot be evaluated on reason alone, it may be appropriate to:

"Grant an idea or belief to be true," and ask "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"

For myself, the functionality of a belief in free will, both as revealed by research and through personal experience, contributes to its appeal. Free will from my perspective is like sailing a ship; we are buffeted by innumerable forces out of our control and will inevitably get somewhere regardless of what we do. However, if we take the helm we are more likely to end up where we want to go.
It's very difficult to live consistently as a determinist. In our daily experience we simply assume at almost every moment that we are free. Moreover, if we are not free the consequences for our moral lives, for our judgments of what others deserve, and for our own human dignity, are severe. Determinism, if true, undermines them all.

Paradoxically, if determinism is true, the determinist cannot fault the libertarian for clinging to his belief in free will since his decision to do so was determined by his environment and/or his genes. The libertarian isn't responsible for having made the choice to be a libertarian and can't be blamed for it. Of course, it's also the case that determinists are determinists not because of the truth of that position but because they were somehow determined by those same forces to believe in determinism.

It's a rather odd position the determinist finds himself in.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Who Is the Tea Party?

Listening to MSNBC's Morning Joe this morning I heard Harvard professor Louis Gates make the claim that the tea party has a lot of racial bigots among their number. As others on the show nodded knowingly I waited for the professor to offer some bit of evidence in support of his very serious allegation but none was forthcoming.

Later in the day a friend told me about the comments of Democratic congressman Alan Grayson who claimed that the tea party was filled with racists and who made a number of claims about various incidents, some of which might be construed as racist if they were true, but none of which he felt constrained to substantiate. In other words, they were all based on hearsay and we were just supposed to take Grayson's word for their veracity.

Apparently Gates and Grayson assume two premises from which they draw a rather strange conclusion. They assume that 1) All racists would oppose President Obama and that 2) All tea partiers oppose President Obama. Both of these premises are doubtless true, but the conclusion they apparently draw from them is that 3) Therefore, tea partiers are racists. This is called by logicians the fallacy of undistributed middle. It's like arguing that because collies are dogs and poodles are dogs that therefore collies are poodles. Such is the violence perpetrated against reason by those desperate to discredit their political opponents but who lack the arguments necessary to do it rationally.

To learn who the tea partiers are one might spend less time listening to people like Louis Gates and Alan Grayson and more time reading former Clinton advisor William Galston. In a very helpful column at the Wall Street Journal Galston compares the modern tea party to the Jacksonian Democrats of the early 19th century and finds them remarkably similar. Citing an essay by Russell Walter Mead, Galston explains that:
Jacksonians ... embrace a distinctive code, whose key tenets include self-reliance, individualism, loyalty and courage.

Jacksonians care as passionately about the Second Amendment as Jeffersonians do about the First. They are suspicious of federal power, skeptical about do-gooding at home and abroad; they oppose federal taxes but favor benefits such as Social Security and Medicare that they regard as earned. Jacksonians are anti-elitist; they believe that the political and moral instincts of ordinary people are usually wiser than those of the experts and that, as Mr. Mead wrote, "while problems are complicated, solutions are simple."

That is why the Jacksonian hero defies the experts and entrenched elites and "dares to say what the people feel" without caring in the least what the liberal media will say about him. (Think Ted Cruz.)

The tea party is Jacksonian America, aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.
This sounds to me just about right. The folks who gravitate toward tea party rallies are people who value their constitutional freedoms and see those freedoms under assault by an entrenched leftist elite determined to override the will of the people and impose a European style cradle to the grave socialism which will essentially reduce citizens to little more than servants of the government.

Galston continues:
According to two benchmark surveys by the New York Times tea-party supporters espouse an ensemble of conservative beliefs with special intensity. Fifty-eight percent think that minorities get too much attention from government, and 65% view immigrants as a burden on the country. Most of the respondents see President Obama as someone who doesn't understand them and doesn't share their values. In their eyes, he's an extreme liberal whose policies consistently favor the poor. In fact, 92% believe that he is moving the country toward socialism.
But are the people who hold these beliefs less educated and "lower class" than the rest of America as many liberals portray them?
Many frustrated liberals, and not a few pundits, think that people who share these beliefs must be downscale and poorly educated. The New York Times survey found the opposite. Only 26% of tea-party supporters regard themselves as working class, versus 34% of the general population; 50% identify as middle class (versus 40% nationally); and 15% consider themselves upper-middle class (versus 10% nationally). Twenty-three percent are college graduates, and an additional 14% have postgraduate training, versus 15% and 10%, respectively, for the overall population. Conversely, only 29% of tea-party supporters have just a high-school education or less, versus 47% for all adults.
The tea party is not an independent political party but is largely "a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration."
Many tea-party supporters are small businessmen who see taxes and regulations as direct threats to their livelihood. Unlike establishment Republicans who see potential gains from government programs such as infrastructure funding, these tea partiers regard most government spending as a deadweight loss. Because many of them run low-wage businesses on narrow margins, they believe that they have no choice but to fight measures, such as ObamaCare, that reduce their flexibility and raise their costs—measures to which large corporations with deeper pockets can adjust.

It's no coincidence that the strengthening influence of the tea party is driving a wedge between corporate America and the Republican Party. It's hard to see how the U.S. can govern itself unless corporate America pushes the Republican establishment to fight back against the tea party—or switches sides.
Galston has more on who tea partiers are at the link. It's worth reading. My friend Jason, who is himself a historian and to whom I'm indebted for the Galston link, points out the irony that his fellow historians tend to associate the Jacksonian Era with "more" democracy (i.e. a proportional increase in white male suffrage, for example) which seems to suggest that the opposition to tea partiers by "corporate America" and the "Republican establishment" is actually anti-democratic. Quite so.

It's also ironic that 19th century Jacksonians are generally esteemed as heroes in the Democrat pantheon and yet it's Democrats who are most hostile to what the modern Jacksonians in the tea party stand for. I guess it shows how far the Democrat Party has wandered from its historical roots.

Monday, October 21, 2013

White Privilege

A number of years ago (12/19/08) I ran the following post. I thought I'd do it again, slightly revised, because correspondents have recently expressed thoughts somewhat similar to those written by this student in 2008:
I recently received a beautiful e-mail from a student who expressed her desire to give back to those who have less than she does something of the abundance with which she has been blessed. This young woman's wish to help others is wonderful, and I'm deeply impressed with her commitment to the poor and marginalized.

There was one thing she said in her missive, however, which is a common sentiment on her campus and one which I asked her to reconsider. She stated that part of the obligation she feels to help the poor is a result of the fact that she's "a white, middle class, educated female with a tremendous amount of undeserved privilege." I know students are encouraged by liberal professors to think that one's race or gender confer upon one a large measure of undeserved privilege, but to tell the truth, I think my colleagues are just plain wrong about this.

The idea of white privilege is a shibboleth that's too often used to evoke in whites a sense of racial guilt. In my response to this student I tried to explain why I think her acceptance of this guilt actually diminishes the choices and sacrifices made by her grandparents, parents, and even herself. Here's what I wrote:

Dear S_,

Yours is a lovely e-mail, and I think it's wonderful that you want to give of yourself to those who subsist on the margins of society. I wish you well and pray God's blessing on your efforts.

I do want to urge you, though, to consider something. Maybe I'm reading a little too much into what you say, but you seem to suggest that your status in society is somehow an undeserved privilege. If that is what you're saying I don't think you should see it that way.

You are what you are and have what you have for a couple of reasons. First, your parents and grandparents worked very hard, sometimes 12 or more hours a day, I'll bet, to provide you with an opportunity to get an education. Your status is largely the fruit of their toil, as well as dozens of other important and wise choices they made in life, and it's not something you should feel guilty about. Indeed, I think it diminishes their effort to think of your status as merely a consequence of your race. So far from feeling that your privilege is undeserved, I think you should be proud of the people who made it possible and grateful for their sacrifices and the choices they made.

The second reason you enjoy the status you do is because, once given the opportunities your parents and grandparents worked so hard for, you had the character to make the most of them. You took advantage of the opportunity to get an education, you held yourself to high standards through your teen years, and you had the wisdom to not squander the heritage handed down to you.

None of this is a result of your race. I know that some instructors on campus think that being white somehow confers an unfair advantage over others in society, but I think that's mistaken. It was true historically, of course, but it hasn't been the case in the U.S. for a long time. No one has been denied opportunity in this country by virtue of his or her race for well over fifty years. If people in the U.S. languish in poverty it's because of the choices both they and their parents have made, not the color of their skin.

The fact is that there are lots of African and Asian-Americans who are successful in this society, but no one talks about black privilege or brown privilege. Instead they talk, as they should, about how hard the parents of those people worked and the ordeals their parents endured in order to give their children a chance to make it in the world. Contrarily, there are whites, blacks and Asians who enjoy historically unprecedented opportunities to make a positive mark in life but fail to do so because they lack the character it takes to make something of themselves.

In other words, you enjoy the status you do, S_, not because you're privileged by your race but because you're privileged to have the parents and virtues you do. It's wonderful to want to "give back" but don't let anyone imply that you should do so out of guilt over your race or class. Your motivation should be your love for God and the conviction that he wants you to be an instrument to help others become what you are.
There's nothing more lethal to the aspirations of those mired in the underclass than the claim that they can't make it out of their circumstances because of their race. That falsehood seeps into the psyche of a man or woman and becomes an excuse for failure and a justification for not trying. Nor does it ennoble the efforts of those who choose to do good work among the poor to be motivated by a mistaken need to expiate some false sense of racial guilt.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Category Five Rollout

The best piece I've seen on the calamity that has been the Obamacare rollout is by Yuval Levin at NRO. It's very even-handed, there's no I-told-you-so's or gloating, just a lot of facts gleaned from talking to acquaintances close to the problems. Here's an excerpt:
If the problems now plaguing the system are not resolved by mid-November and the flow of enrollments at that point looks like it does now, the prospects for the first year of the exchanges will be in very grave jeopardy. Some large advertising and outreach campaigns are also geared to that crucial six-week period around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so if the sites are not functional, all of that might not happen—or else might be wasted. If that’s what the late fall looks like, the administration might need to consider what one of the people I spoke with described as “unthinkable options” regarding the first year of the exchanges.

The nightmare scenarios, the “unthinkable options,” involve larger moves ... like putting enrollment on hold or re-starting the exchange system from scratch at some point. No one seems to know how this could work or what it would mean, but everyone involved is contending with a far worse set of circumstances than they were prepared for. This is a major disaster from their point of view, not a set of glitches, and they simply do not know how long it will take to fix. They dearly want to see progress day by day, but they are generally not seeing it.
From the standpoint of the people working on the fixes, Levin says, it's a category five nightmare.

The technical problems with the website are surely indicative of incompetence, sloppy planning, and the inability of government bureaucracies to do things well, but that's not the most important thing to keep in mind. Levin closes with what is the more important point:
For me, and for other critics of Obamacare, the problem with the law was never about these technical matters. I didn’t think the system wouldn’t work because the government couldn’t build a website, but because the basic health economics involved is deeply misguided and would take the (badly inadequate) American health-financing system in the wrong direction.

So these problems only seem like a prelude to other, larger problems. But Obamacare was also always going to be a test of the sheer capacity of the administrative state to actually do what it claims the authority and ability to do. At this point, it looks as though we may be witnessing a failure of the administrative state on a level unimagined even by its staunchest critics. We may be. But we’ll have to see.
Speaking of category five nightmares, it might be recalled how badly the press and congressional Democrats mauled George Bush for the delay in getting aid to Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a delay that wasn't really his fault. He was scorned and ridiculed by all and sundry on the left for his alleged incompetence. It'll be interesting to see if similar treatment is meted out to President Obama for the way this rollout has been handled. More likely the media, or perhaps Mr. Obama himself, will find a way to blame the failure on Bush or maybe even Ted Cruz.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Word Association

Let's play a word association game: I show you a word and you tell me what words come to mind. Okay, here goes: Tea Party. And you say, what? Well, if you're like many people in the U.S. you're saying things like: Simple-minded, bigots, uneducated, science deniers, etc. That's the portrait our media has assiduously painted of these neanderthals, but comes now a study from a liberal Yale law professor, no less, which debunks the myth.

Kyle Becker at the Independent Journal Review has the story:
Yale Law professor Dan M. Kahan was conducting an analysis of the scientific comprehension of various political groups when he ran into a shocking discovery: tea party supporters are slightly more scientifically literate than the non-tea party population.
Professor Kahan was somewhat taken aback by his results. He says this:
I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.

But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party. All my impressions come from watching cable tv — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the “paper” (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).

I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.
Well, it's certainly easy to see why, given Kahan's sources of information, his understanding of who the Tea Party people are was out of synch with reality. He's surely not going to get an accurate picture of who they are from reading Huffpo and Politico. Even so, a 2010 New York Times poll found that people who identify ideologically with the Tea Party are wealthier and better educated than the average American, so maybe Kahan shouldn't have been surprised at the results of his survey after all.

Anyway, mischaracterizing conservatives as dunces is an old play in the left's playbook. In fact, that was exactly how they sought to portray both Reagan (an "amiable dunce") and George W. Bush (even though Bush's grades at Yale were better than John Kerry's). Sadly, name-calling and smears often work with those too uninformed to know better.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Difference Between Them

The Republican leadership, taking fire from all directions, including members of their own party, have run up the white flag of surrender. Lacking the stomach to force even the most modest concessions from the White House, Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House, simply said "no mas" and threw in the towel on the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights.

The events of the past few weeks press upon one some interesting comparisons between Democrats and Republicans, or at least what are usually called mainstream Republicans. Maybe some of these are a bit unfair, but, if so, not by much. For example:
  • For Democrats politics is ultimate fighting. For Republicans its lawn jarts.
  • Democrats see Republicans as an enemy to be destroyed. Republicans see Democrats as golf buddies.
  • When faced with a battle Democrats close ranks and confront the foe with a united front. When forced into battle, Republicans form a circular firing squad and start shooting anyone who acts on principle.
  • Democrats view compromise as "You give me everything I want." Republicans view compromise as "I pretend for a while to refuse to give you everything you want and then I do."
  • Democrats are driven by a relentless, inexorable commitment to big government. Republicans are driven by a commitment to not-quite-as-big government.
  • Democrats, even their distaff members, see themselves as the alpha males in Washington. Republicans see the Democrats, even their distaff members, as the alpha males in Washington.
  • The Democrats' favorite word to Republicans is "no." The Republicans' favorite word to Democrats is "please."
  • Democrats see opposition to Obamacare as racist. Republicans see opposition to Obamacare as perfunctory.
  • The media represents Democrats as Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny all rolled into one. The media represents Republicans as the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Simon Legree all rolled into one.
Here's a prediction. Unless the Republicans soon "man up" there won't be a Republican party to speak of by the year 2020.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Problem of Suffering

One of the perennial difficulties facing those who believe in the existence of a wholly good, all-powerful deity is trying to come up with an answer to the question why such a being would not prevent completely gratuitous suffering.

Professor Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, tackles this question in a brief five minute lecture. Since his talk is so brief it's intended to serve only as an introduction to a problem which has vexed philosophers and theologians for millenia. Even so, Kreeft's treatment gives us a good idea of the outlines of the difficulty and the direction in which possible solutions might lie.

One note: Kreeft refers to the matter as the problem of evil, but I think it's better to think of it as the problem of suffering. The word "evil" is a moral term which, I would argue, should have no place in the vocabulary of the antitheist who is employing the existence of suffering as a defeater for belief in God. The antitheist could easily evade this objection, however, by reframing the problem as a matter of suffering which carries none of the moral freight that the word "evil" does. Changing the word does nothing to diminish the force of the objection to theistic belief but does eliminate a potential sidetrack.

Ar any rate, here's Kreeft's presentation:
Thanks to HotAir.com for the tip.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Machiavelli Would be Smiling

Not only have the Democrats, for the sake of protecting the Affordable Care Act, refused to pass Republican bills that would fund the government and essentially end the shutdown (in point of fact, only 17% of the government is actually shut down), but they're now lustily criticizing Republicans for intransigence in raising the debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling puts an upper limit on how deeply in debt the United States can go and raising it will permit us to borrow more money and increase the already enormous national debt which will tie an economic ball and chain to the legs of today's young people and their children. The deeper our debt the more future generations will be taxed just to pay the interest on it. The more they are taxed the less of their paycheck they'll have to spend, and the less money they spend the fewer jobs there'll be. This means there'll be fewer taxpayers and that those who are lucky enough to have work will have to pony up even more of their income just to keep the country going.

This will be the legacy, largely, of the Obama administration but also, to a lesser extent, the Bush years.

The President had a good laugh line when he assured us with a straight face that raising the debt ceiling doesn't mean that the debt would go up. It's hard to imagine that he was serious. If we're not going to increase the debt why raise the ceiling?

Anyway, another amusing aspect of Democrats' demands that the Republicans raise the debt ceiling (so that we can borrow the money to pay our current obligations) is that when Bush wanted to raise the ceiling the Democrats howled about how irresponsible that would be. RNC chairman Reince Priebus reminds us of how irresponsible we were told Bush was being:
In 2006, when the national debt was less than half of what it is today (it's about $17 trillion today), then-senator Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling. In 2007 he refused to vote altogether. The same was true for then-senator Joe Biden, who also voted against raising the debt ceiling in 1984, when the debt was just $1.6 trillion.

Said Biden in 1984, “I must express protest against continually increasing the debt without taking positive steps to slow its growth.” The debt today is ten times as large, but the administration opposes any “positive steps to slow its growth,” to quote our current vice president.

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” said Senator Obama five and a half years ago. Would he say the same thing today now that the debt has shot past $16.7 trillion? Would he admit his “leadership failure” to get spending under control?

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are no better. They both have voted against increasing the debt ceiling in the past when they didn’t get what they wanted. In 2006, Pelosi decried a “debt ceiling of $9 trillion” as too high. Where’s her concern today? In 2004 she argued, “We just can’t give a blank check over and over and over again to this administration.” Today, she’s eager to hand over that check to President Obama.

Not only are Democratic leaders revealing an unprincipled opportunism but they're also once again saying things that simply aren't true, but which may impress the gullible and uninformed.

The president has claimed that debt-ceiling increases have never “in the history of the United States” been accompanied by negotiations on other issues. Of course, that’s simply false. The president is either deliberately misleading the public or ignorant of history.

The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” gave the president’s claim “four Pinocchios,” saying that his statement doesn’t “stand up to scrutiny.” The congressional record shows that more than half of the increases in the debt limit have come alongside legislation dealing with other issues.
It's certainly regrettable that a lot of the people leading our country today seem to hold the view that whatever works is right. If principle, honesty, and consistency hinder them in the pursuit of goals they wish to achieve then so much the worse for principle, honesty, and consistency. What's right is whatever it takes to get the job done and if that means deceiving the people, if it means smearing your opponents, if it means blasting your opponents' policies and then turning around and doing the same thing to an even greater degree yourself, then if those measures work, they're justified and indeed obligatory. That's the advice dispensed by Niccolo Machiavelli, in his book The Prince six hundred years ago and it's where we are in our politics today.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Wiesel Rule

Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, spoke these words in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986:
Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.
This sums up how George W. Bush saw his duty during his presidency. It's how neo-conservatives see America's duty today in Syria. Indeed, one of the biggest differences between neo- and paleo-conservatives is that neo-cons believe we have a responsibility to act in the world to alleviate suffering where we can, even if it means using military force, and paleo-cons believe we should mind our own business and stay out of other people's affairs.

One quirky aspect of our domestic ideological arguments over foreign policy today is that liberals, who are usually inclined to cite Wiesel as one of their own, are actually horrified when someone like George W. Bush takes his words seriously and undertakes the liberation of oppressed people in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Having spent eight years trying to demolish George Bush for invading Iraq and Afghanistan many liberals were aghast when the Obama administration, the most liberal in history, seemed on the verge of bombing Syria because the Syrian government was using chemical weapons against its own people. Many other liberals, of course, had no difficulty accommodating themselves to the principle that dropping bombs is only bad when a Republican president does it, not when a Democrat does it.

In any case, President Obama, who seemed himself to be conflicted on the matter, having drawn a rhetorical red-line that he had little desire to enforce but couldn't easily moon-walk away from, was simply applying what might be called the Wiesel Rule. This is in fact why the President's Syrian gambit was supported by neo-cons and opposed by paleo-cons.

The problem with the Wiesel Rule, though, is that every situation is different and many times it's not easy to decide whether intervention would do more harm than good or even what sort of intervention should be employed. These are tough problems, and I don't envy the people who have to wrestle with them. What I do find objectionable, however, is that so many on the left, for whom Wiesel is a hero, excoriated George Bush for doing exactly what Wiesel prescribes, and then, when they found themselves ensconced in the White House, declared how we now had a moral duty to follow the Wiesel rule in Syria.

This seems to me to be at best hypocritical, and foremost among the guilty are our Secretary of State John Kerry and our President Barack Obama, both of whom were merciless in their criticism of Bush for doing essentially what they were themselves about to do in Syria had they not been rescued from their own rhetoric by Vladimir Putin, of all people.

Mr. Obama was prepared to take us to war in Syria because Bashir Assad killed several hundred of his citizens with poison gas, yet Christians are being exterminated in Muslim countries throughout the Middle East and are being persecuted and killed by Muslims in Africa, and neither Mr. Obama nor his State Department have had anything much to say about it. Surely the Wiesel Rule should apply as much to persecuted Christians as it does to persecuted Syrians.

At any rate, I have a couple of questions: Under what circumstances does this administration (or any administration) apply the Wiesel Rule, and, secondly, assuming that interference in the affairs of another nation is called for, what form should it take and what conditions determine that form? An administration that has no guiding principles or philosophy to help it answer these questions is just flying by the seat of its pants and is going to eventually wind up crashing the plane.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tale of Two Cities

Myron Magnet has a powerful essay at City Journal in which he reacts to New York's liberal mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's claim that there are two New Yorks, one rich and one poor. Magnet argues that the actual divide is between New Yorkers who pay taxes and New Yorkers who live off of them. The whole article is good reading and it's fairly brief. Here's one of the best parts:
As its very name suggests, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s tale of two cities is pure fiction, a myth that formed the intellectual basis of leftist politics long before Marx turned it into “science.” Its key idea is that the rich are rich because they have somehow extracted their wealth from the poor, causing their poverty....

In the early days of industrialization, when nearly naked children pulled carts of coal through mine shafts and factory workers got ground up by unfenced machinery, this tale had a core of truth. But....[a]s for New York’s poor of today, there is not a scintilla of truth in the notion that the co-op dwellers of Fifth and Park Avenues have caused their poverty—not even if you believe that Wall Street hanky-panky is the cause of the deep unemployment America suffers five years after the outset of the financial crisis.

The trouble with the two-cities narrative is less that it is false and more that it has become a cause of the very poverty it pretends to explain—especially in the case of the minority poverty so prevalent in New York. The belief that people are poor because they are victims of economic injustice, and that the nation owes the African-American poor, in particular, some kind of reparation for the slavery and racism that supposedly has kept them perpetually poor, led to a War on Poverty that began half a century ago and that resulted in a welfare system that today, together with food stamps, public housing, and other benefits, provides its recipients with more income than a minimum-wage job, vaporizing the economic incentive for going to work.

Worse, the elite mindset that conceived the War on Poverty permanently transformed the nation’s culture in ways that entrenched the poor in their poverty. Thanks to the elites in the press, the government, and the universities—thanks to the writers, preachers, and teachers who have made “social justice” the reigning orthodoxy—the once standard belief that it’s dishonorable and unmanly not to work, at however menial a job, to support your family has given way to the view that there’s no shame in accepting reparations for victimization.

Combine these economic views with the change in elite views about sexuality that, also about 50 years ago, destigmatized casual sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing, and you have a sure-fire recipe for a caste of perpetually poor people, disproportionately minority, who rarely work or marry, and who form families headed by young, inexperienced, and ill-educated single mothers, poorly equipped to give children the moral and cognitive nurture, the thirst and drive for education they need to succeed in an increasingly skills-based global economy.

If you were going to divide New York into two cities—one rich, one poor—this would be the poor one: female-headed families living in housing projects or Section 8 apartments with flat-screen TVs and refrigerators stocked with food-stamp plenty, for generation after generation, whose unmotivated kids learn little from bad schools that cost more than almost any other public schools in the country—schools that only the most determined manage to learn enough from to escape the government-financed ghetto, leaving behind the average, ambitionless mass to become the parents of the next generation.

The rich New York would be exactly the opposite: people who get married and mostly stay married, who work hard to give their kids the best educational credentials and enrichment programs they can afford (alas, with a full measure of social-justice ideology and resume-burnishing social-service summer internships), who worship the work ethic, and who pay the taxes that support the other New York.

An observer from another planet would ask, Why does such a bizarre system go on, seemingly without end? Why does the rich New York keep supporting the poor New York, and why does the poor New York not improve its lot?
Magnet offers more insight at the link. His article highlights the fact that there's something odd about discussions of the poor and material poverty in the U.S. Most of the people who are classified as materially poor (there are types of impoverishment other than material deprivation) possess luxuries that even the wealthiest aristocrats as recently as a hundred years ago would have envied. Here's economist Thomas Sowell on the subject:
Most Americans living below the government-set poverty line have a washer and/or a dryer, as well as a computer. More than 80 percent have air conditioning. More than 80 percent also have both a landline and a cell phone. Nearly all have television and a refrigerator. Most Americans living below the official poverty line also own a motor vehicle and have more living space than the average European -- not Europeans in poverty, the average European.
He could have added that they also have access to medical care, food, and education. Their residences are dry and have indoor plumbing and heat. Their clothing is superior to even the finest raiment of a century ago, the air they breathe is cleaner, and the water they drink is purer. They are far richer than the wealthy of all but the most recent generations. So why do we call them "poor"? Sowell answers:
Because government bureaucrats create the official definition of poverty, and they do so in ways that provide a political rationale for the welfare state -- and, not incidentally, for the bureaucrats' own jobs.
The poverty that afflicts America is not material, it's spiritual, and for that sort of poverty there is no government program.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dawkins Misses the Point

British biologist and uberatheist Richard Dawkins was interviewed recently on CNN and asked whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass. Dawkins replied that the very idea that religion provides a moral compass is "horrible." For Dawkins, as for like-minded antitheists throughout the last three centuries, religion is seen as the cause of our moral problems, not the solution for them.

Syndicated columnist Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, wrote a rejoinder to Dawkins in which he states, as we've often stressed over the years here at Viewpoint, that if there's no personal, transcendent moral authority to ground our moral claims then any moral assertion is simply an expression of arbitrary, subjective preference. Prager puts it this way:
If there is no God, the labels "good" and "evil" are merely opinions. They are substitutes for "I like it" and "I don't like it." They are not objective realities.

Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this. For example, at Oxford University I debated Professor Jonathan Glover, the British philosopher and ethicist, who said: "Dennis started by saying that I hadn't denied his central contention that if there isn't a God, there is only subjective morality. And that's absolutely true."

And the eminent Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty admitted that for secular liberals such as himself, "there is no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'" Atheists like Dawkins who refuse to acknowledge that without God there are only opinions about good and evil are not being intellectually honest.
What's more, in the absence of that personal, transcendent ground, not only are our moral intuitions merely subjective expressions of personal preference or social convention, like our preference for wine with dinner, the whole idea of moral duty is nonsense. There can be no moral duty, for example, to care for the poor, to preserve the environment, or, as Rorty suggests, to be kind rather than cruel if there's no moral authority beyond our own predilections.

In Dawkins' world moral intuitions are the product of blind, impersonal evolutionary forces that shaped us for survival in the stone age, blind, impersonal forces cannot confer a duty or an obligation to behave one way rather than another. Evolution cannot tell us that we ought to be faithful to our spouses or honest in our businesses. It cannot adjudicate between the man who is kind and the man who is cruel.

Nor can popular opinion serve as a standard for right and wrong much less impose upon us a duty to behave in ways the masses prefer. Prager emphasizes the point:
To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, "Do not murder," murder is not wrong. Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what? Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; the history of slavery throughout the world was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings are right in various Muslims societies.

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong? Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?

My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins's reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church's teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted.
Reason cannot arbitrate this question. One person may be convinced that his reason tells him that he should care about others. Another may be equally convinced by reason that he should always put his own interests first. How do we decide who's right if each man is his own authority?

Prager again:
Years ago, I interviewed Pearl and Sam Oliner, two professors of sociology at California State University at Humboldt and the authors of one of the most highly-regarded works on altruism, The Altruistic Personality. The book was the product of the Oliners' lifetime of study of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. The Oliners, it should be noted, are secular, not religious, Jews; they had no religious agenda.

I asked Samuel Oliner, "Knowing all you now know about who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, if you had to return as a Jew to Poland and you could knock on the door of only one person in the hope that they would rescue you, would you knock on the door of a Polish lawyer, a Polish doctor, a Polish artist or a Polish priest?" Without hesitation, he said, "a Polish priest." And his wife immediately added, "I would prefer a Polish nun."
Why? I suggest that it's because only the priest (or nun) have an objective duty to help, to be willing to risk their own lives to aid those who were being unjustly hunted down and killed. None of the others, unless they are theists, have any reason why they should risk their lives for others. They may do it because of some emotional preference, but they have no duty to do it. That's why so many of the rescuers of European Jews were Christians and why so many of them, when asked later why they did it, replied simply that they were only doing what God expected of them. Given their faith and devotion they could do no other.

Prager goes on to make a number of other interesting and important comments which would repay the effort to read his column.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Looking for Unicorns

It's a fundamental tenet of conservative thought that government is rarely able to do anything efficiently and is usually unable to do it well. In fact, the very fact that it does what it does with other people's money and the fact that individuals who prove themselves incompetent are rarely held accountable virtually guarantees that any large government undertaking will be a bureaucratic nightmare.

If anyone scoffs at this claim all one need do to silence the scoffer is to point to the Obamacare rollout as a case in point.

It turns out that the software to enroll people on the exchanges was not only poorly designed, it was designed by different teams at different ends of the system, and, worst of all, despite having had almost four years to get it right, it was apparently never thoroughly tested. As a result, trying to find someone who successfully enrolled on the federal website a week after it opened is, the Washington Post drolly observes, like looking for a unicorn.

The administration's lame excuse that demand was unexpectedly high got this riposte from the editors at USA Today:
[Todd] Park [the administration's chief tech advisor] said the administration expected 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users. It got 250,000. Compare that with the similarly rocky debut seven years ago of exchanges to obtain Medicare drug coverage. The Bush administration projected 20,000 simultaneous users and built capacity for 150,000. That's the difference between competence and incompetence.
The Obama administration has been a laboratory in which the premise that liberal/socialist big government will usher in something approximating the millenial kingdom has actually been tested. Unfortunately for government enthusiasts the most liberal administration ever to accede to power in the U.S. has manifestly failed the test. Not only has the current bunch in the White House revealed itself to be arguably one of the most dishonest, most corrupt, and most lawless administrations in our nation's history, it has also demonstrated itself to be among the most inept.

Maybe there's no connection between liberalism and the embarrassing shortcomings we see on display in Washington. The bungled rollout, the repeated scandals, the incessant falsehoods, the President's dictatorial and alarmingly unconstitutional revisions to the AFA (as well as his refusal to enforce other laws passed by the people's representatives)- maybe they're all, in the end, really George Bush's fault.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

We Are What We Read. And Watch

An article by Julianne Chiaet at Scientific American notes that research is showing that reading literary fiction actually heightens the empathy we have for other people. Her article causes me to wonder about what I think is a very important question, but first here's an excerpt from her report:
Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy.

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence. The study data could inform debates over how much fiction should be included in educational curricula and whether reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy. Castano also hopes the finding will encourage autistic people to engage in more literary fiction, in the hope it could improve their ability to empathize without the side effects of medication.
Here's my question: If what people read can effect their empathy, can what they watch do the same thing, and if reading literary fiction and viewing movies of a similar nature can heighten empathy are there genres of books and movies that diminish it? Can we be raising a generation of young people steeped in pornography, violent movies and video games which are turning some of them into cold, unfeeling, moral zombies and making many more less empathetic than they would otherwise be?

Could the reason there are so many who revel in violence, who have little or no empathy for other human beings, be a result of a culture that has extinguished empathy by saturating young minds with brutal images?

I would be stunned if the answer to this question ever turned out to be "no" because it seems almost self-evident, certainly obvious, that the answer is "yes." We become what we feed ourselves. A generation that has been exposed to unprecedented levels of pornography and violence can't help but become inured to it and consequently suffer a diminution of their capacity to see others as persons, to feel what they feel, and to care about what happens to them.

We all reside on a spectrum whose poles are empathy and sociopathy. What we watch and read shifts that spectrum in one direction or the other. We don't remain static. Those on the empathetic side, if they feed themselves violence will shift to some degree toward the opposite pole, and those nearer the sociopathic pole, if they feed on violent movies and video games will be shifted even nearer to that pole.

Pornography, I'm convinced, works similarly, but our culture vehemently denies that either are harmful even as mass murders of children and the tragic fallout from sexually unhinged lifestyles fill our daily newspapers with accounts too sad to read. In my opinion, the culture is denying the obvious.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Plato's Cave for Modern Man

The following is a slightly revised version of a post I first put up on March 2nd, 2006. I thought I'd run it again since some of its themes are similar to topics I've been discussing with my students:

Imagine that the year is 2030 and computer technology has advanced to the point where a sufficiently clever programmer (you, for example) can write software that would project beings onto the monitor's screen that can potentially evolve from very simple forms to highly complex structures capable, mirabile dictu, of rational thought.

One evening you download the software that confers upon these creatures this marvelous potential and sit back to watch what they'll do with it. Eventually, after much morphing and mutating, the creatures attain a level of mental ability at which they are capable of reflection, cognition, and language.

They begin to communicate among themselves, asking questions about their world and their existence. To them their world (we'll call it "screen world") is a three dimensional space since, although they are confined to a flat screen, they think themselves, like characters on a movie screen, to move in all directions. You're very pleased with your creation. You're thrilled with the diversity of personalities that emerges among the creatures which you dub "screenies." You even find yourself growing fond of and attached to them.

As the night lengthens, you watch in rapt fascination as one of your screenies begins to think deeply about what exactly it (let's assume it's a "he") is. At first he explains himself in terms of shifting phosphor dots, but this, he realizes, is only a superficial level of explanation, and the screenie isn't satisfied with it. There must be a deeper understanding, a deeper level of reality, a reality that lies beyond the abilities you've programmed into the screenies to apprehend.

He and his fellows do some mathematical calculations and come to a breathtaking conclusion. The "ultimate" explanation for the population of creatures in screen world is a level of reality that they can never observe or visit, but which must exist. The equations demand it. They realize that there must be a whole set of complicated phenomena working to produce emanations from a multi-dimensional realm that somehow generates the relatively "flat" world they inhabit.

They do more calculations and come to an even more astonishing discovery. The mechanism that produces their world must be controlled by an even deeper level of phenomena: electrons, circuits, and microchips and who knows what all else. Finally, awed by their findings, they realize that this whole theoretical edifice they've constructed must be run by an information source, a set of algorithms and codes, that exists somewhere but which is inaccessible to them.

Your creatures are very excited. They have plumbed the basic laws, parameters, forces and material constituents of their world. They don't know where these ultimate elements come from or how they came to be organized in the fashion they are, and indeed they're convinced that they can never know any of this for certain. They've taken their investigation as deep as it's possible for them to go, they believe.

Then these marvelous beings, which have really sprung from your creative genius, draw a disappointing philosophical conclusion. Having explained their existence in terms of the ultimate physical constituents and laws they've deduced from the phenomena of their experience, they conclude that that is all there is to be explained. Those circuits, microchips, electrical energy and even the software are all that's involved in generating them and their world. It's an amazing thing, they agree, it's highly improbable they acknowledge, but there you have it. There's no need to explain it any further, nor any way to explain it even if there were a need. Unable to account for the world of microchips, codes and algorithms they simply accept it all as a brute fact. A given.

Screen world, to the extent that it's explicable, is explicable, they believe, solely in terms of the machinery in front of which you sit shaking your incredulous head. You're delighted that your creatures were able to reason their way so far toward the truth but dismayed that they lacked the wit to see that anything as fantastically complex as the laws and processes that generate their world cries out for even deeper explanation. Why, you wonder, don't the screenies realize that something as amazing as they and their world don't just happen through blind mechanistic forces and luck? Why don't they recognize that screen world demands an intelligent cause as its truly ultimate explanation?

You decide to tweak the program. You write the code for another being, one that is, perhaps, somewhat of a cyber-replica of yourself. He's your heart and soul, so to speak. You will in a sense visit screen world yourself through this "agent." He contains much of your knowledge about the reality beyond screen world, and when you download him into the computer up he pops on the screen. You've programmed this agent to tell the rest of the screenies that their world, the world of the monitor and even the deeper world of the computer, is an infinitesimal fraction of the really real. By comparison it's next to nothing, a shadow of the world beyond the screen.

Your agent proceeds to explain to them as best he can that they, contrary to their belief, actually inhabit only two dimensions and that all around them lies a third dimension that they could never perceive or comprehend but which nevertheless exists, and that even now you, their creator, are observing them from outside the screen in another world that they cannot begin to conceptualize, much less observe, from their "prison" within the screen.

Your agent reveals to them, moreover, that you inhabit a reality infinitely richer than screen world, an idea they unfortunately find wholly preposterous. He tells them that as wonderful and impressive as their discoveries about their world are they've really just scratched the surface of understanding the really real and that, indeed, they aren't actually "real" themselves at all. They're simply epiphenomenal electronic manifestations of ideas in your mind, a congeries of shifting dots of color on a flat screen. They're in fact nothing more than virtual beings.

They scoff at all this. They grow angry. They tell your agent to get lost, his message is confusing and misleading to the young and impeding progress toward the goal of making screen world a better place. They wish to hear no more of his insane, superstitious babblings. They are the "brights" in screen world, the intellectually gifted, and they will stick to science and leave his untestable metaphysical speculations to the priests and shamans among them.

When the agent persists in trying to persuade them that mere mechanical processes could never by themselves produce such complex creatures as screenies, that the algorithms and coordinated flows of energy and pattern in their world, as well as the material organization of the computer, must have been intelligently engineered, they sneer and refuse to allow him to speak such nonsense any further.

They reason among themselves that their existence may be improbable, but what of it? Had their world not been the way it is they would not be there to observe it, so it's not so extraordinary after all. Others say that there are probably a near infinite number of worlds like theirs, and that among so many it's not so astonishing that there'd be one possessing the properties that screen world has and boasting creatures like themselves.

You're surprised, and a little hurt, that the screenies react this way. You can't believe that having come so far they'd refuse to entertain the idea that there must be more to the origin of the information that infuses their world than just blind matter, brute force and random chance. But they're obstinate. They have all the explanation for their existence they care to have.

To be dependent upon unthinking processes is one thing - they're still superior, after all, to the processes and forces upon which they are contingent because they can think and those processes can't. But to be dependent upon a being who is so thoroughly superior to them in every way is, they think, degrading. So that they might appreciate you, you entertain briefly the idea of adjusting their software in such fashion as to make the conclusion that an intelligent programmer has created them ineluctable. You decide against it, however, when you realize that compelled appreciation is no appreciation at all.

And so, with a sad sigh of disappointment and resignation, you shut down the computer and go to bed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Federalist #58

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have both insisted in so many words that the House Republicans, in seeking to defund or curtail the Affordable Care Act, are somehow doing something illicit.

They both need to brush up on, or perhaps introduce themselves to, the thinking of the American Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison. A student of mine reminds me that in the Federalist Papers (#58) Madison wrote this:
The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse....This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure."
The House of Representatives, by withholding funding from a law they believe will have disastrous consequences for the American people, is doing precisely the sort of thing the Founders envisioned.

The objections raised against the Republican refusal to fund the law with no strings attached are ludicrous. We hear it said, for example, that Obamacare is the law of the land and therefore must be obeyed, but where were these voices when Mr. Obama by executive fiat modified this law in a dozen different ways, carving out exemptions for special interests and imposing delays, none of which he has the legal authority to do?

Where were these voices when the Obama administration simply decided that it would no longer enforce our immigration laws or the Defense of Marriage Act? Why are Republican congressmen obligated to uphold the law but Democratic presidents are not?

That something is the law of the land doesn't seem to matter to those who have no respect for law in the first place and have the power to flout it, but the House GOP, we are to believe, is doing something nefarious when they exercise their constitutional prerogative to refuse to fund a law that has already had devastating consequences for millions of people.

Neither the Democrats nor their media groupies have offered anything close to a rebuttal of the arguments made by people like Senator Ted Cruz and others. They've offered no rejoinder because they have none. Bereft of compelling arguments, they're reduced to the tactic of name-calling ("terrorists," "arsonists," "suicide bombers," etc.) and the politics of personal destruction.

It's very sad and even sadder that the general public seems not to care that our political discourse has sunk to so low a level and does not demand that, instead of ad hominem, the media and the Democrats offer solid reasons why the Republicans are wrong in their assessment of the damage that the AFA will do to the country.

After all, what matters is whether the Republican assessment of the effects of the law is correct. If it is then they are certainly right, indeed duty-bound, to do everything in their constitutional power to stop it.

The House Republicans and their colleagues in the Senate may not succeed, but they're fighting the good fight against the creeping leviathan state and the people who are throwing verbal acid in their faces in the media and in Washington are doing so because there's nothing else they can say or do.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Don't Blame the GOP

House Speaker John Boehner has released a summary of the 14 spending bills the House of Representatives have passed to keep the government open. All but one of them has been blocked by the Democrats in the Senate and been threatened with a veto by the President.

It's awfully difficult to see how the media can continue to portray this as a Republican shutdown of the government when the Republicans are passing spending bills to keep the government open but are seeing those bills thwarted by the Democrat majority.

Here's a timeline of the bills - every one of which passed overwhelmingly in the Republican controlled House of Representatives - with a summary of what they would fund:
9/20:
1. Continuing Resolution which completely funds the government at current levels but does not fund Obamacare.
9/28:
2. Continuing Resolution (CR) which completely funds the government but delays Obamacare for one year and eliminates the tax on pacemakers and children's hearing aids.
3. Bill to insure that military would be paid in the event of a government shutdown.
9/30:
4. CR that completely funds the government and Obamacare but requires that Congress be subject to the same provisions of Obamacare to which all Americans are subject and also delays the mandate requiring individuals to purchase insurance. The delay is similar to the delay the President granted to big business.
5. Same as previous but with a proviso to form a special negotiating committee with Senate Democrats to resolve differences.
10/1:
6. Speaker Boehner appointed a committee of House negotiators to hammer out a deal with the Senate Democrats. Democrats refused to negotiate.
10/2:
7. Bill to allow the District of Columbia to continue operating.
8. Bill to open all National Parks, museums, and monuments.
9. Bill to fund the National Institute of Health and research being done on life-saving cures.
10/3:
10. Bill to pay our National Guard and Reservists.
11. Bill to fund veteran's benefits including disability claims and other programs.
10/4:
12. Bill to provide immediate funding to FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency.
13. Bill to fund the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides food for poor children.
10/5:
14. Bill to guarantee compensation to federal workers furloughed during the government shutdown.
To date the Democrats and the President have blocked each of these measures except #3 and they haven't yet decided what to do about the last one. In order to force the Republicans to fund Obamacare - an increasingly unpopular, expensive, and onerous arrogation of power on the part of the federal government - the self-proclaimed "party of compassion," the "people's party," has shut down the government and are vindictively punishing a lot of American citizens in order to get their way. It's ugly.

To see how ugly the administration can be and how classless and childish they are see this.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Do They Vote?

Ever wonder why Washington is so dysfunctional? One reason, perhaps, is that America is filled with citizens who have no idea what's going on in the country, but who, in many cases, vote anyway.

Jimmy Kimmel went on the street recently to ask pedestrians which law they favored more, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. The two, of course, are the same thing, but that fact has apparently eluded a lot of folks who nevertheless had an opinion on the question.

In fact, the most humorous part of this video, in my opinion, was how some of the interviewees tried to give the impression that they really knew the difference between the two acts and had an informed opinion on which was better.
It's discouraging that there are many Americans who take the time and make the effort to be reasonably well-informed on the issues so that they can cast a responsible vote, but whose vote is potentially cancelled out by someone who has no idea what they're voting for but who votes anyway.

Every election we hear voices in the media and elsewhere telling us that we have a duty to vote. That's false. We have a duty to be informed. If we fail in that duty then, in my opinion, we have a duty not to vote.