Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Barney Fife Award

Those of a certain vintage will remember that Sheriff Andy of Mayberry had a deputy named Barney Fife who was so incompetent that Andy only let him have one bullet for his gun lest he do serious harm to himself or others. I thought of old Barney when I read an article about how the Washington D.C. City Council has shot themselves in the foot, pushing some 900 jobs out of the District of Columbia by trying to force Wal-Mart to pay its employees more than the D.C. minimum wage requires:
Wal-Mart is pulling out of two, possibly three, D.C. sites where it planned to build stores, citing the D.C. Council's impending adoption of a bill mandating large retailers pay a "living wage" to employees. The bill, which passed on its first vote last month, will be put to a final tally Wednesday during the Council's final meeting of the current legislative session.

Representatives from Wal-Mart say the company will no longer build its planned stores at Skyland Town Center and Capitol Gateway, retail sites in Ward 7. "They're not bluffing me," Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) says, having just left a meeting with the world's largest retailer. "We worked for many years to get this commitment. I really didn't think it would get to this point."

The Large Retailer Accountability Act requires companies that take in at least $1 billion in revenue annually to pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour, well above the District's minimum wage of $8.25. The bill also only applies to stores that are at least 75,000 square feet, thus exempting companies like Apple and Starbucks.

In addition to the two Ward 7 stores, Alexander's chief of staff, Ed Fisher, also says Wal-Mart's move imperils a store planned for New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents that area, was one of eight "yes" votes on the bill's first reading.

"That was without knowing Wal-Mart was going to pull out," says Jeannette Mobley, McDuffie's chief of staff. Mobley says her boss is "going to give this some thought" before tomorrow's Council session.

Fisher says each planned Wal-mart was going to have at least 300 full- and part-time employees, as well as enhance food shopping options in Ward 7, where there are only four full-service supermarkets. "We're going to have fewer options for groceries and commercial retail," Fisher says. "At least 900 people won't have an opportunity whether it's full-time or part-time. Whether it's a student in high school or a senior or a job someone can use as a stepping stone."
This is a marvelous lesson in the law of unintended consequences, a law to which liberals for some reason think they're immune. Now rather than have 900 people with jobs, some of which are minimum wage, they'll have 900 people with no job living off the dole. Now, rather than have three more low cost food stores in the District, where people often complain of "food deserts," there'll still be only those food stores that are already there.

Good move, fellas. If there were a Barney Fife award for people whose confidence in their own cleverness is as unshakeable as it is unwarranted you all would surely qualify.

Secular Humanism and Charity

Joe Klein at Time magazine's Swampland blog cogitates on why secular humanists are not prominent in charitable work and religious organizations are. Klein is at pains to clarify that he himself is a secular humanist, but unlike many of his fellow secularists, he claims not to be an atheist, a claim about which he's mistaken, as I'll explain below.

Klein's not fond of religious organizations, but he feels he must give them their due. Here's the crux of his piece:
Well, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about my observation in this week’s cover story, that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in disaster relief areas like Moore, Oklahoma, after the tornados. Let me explain....

There was a time when secular service organizations had a greater sway in this country and, no doubt, a greater presence when disaster struck. But that’s not true now–although, it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized. The effects of this post-modern atomization is something I’ve been trying to puzzle through for most of my career.

That’s why I find the groups featured in my cover story about public service this week so inspiring. I believe that they sustain an essential part of citizenship that the rest of us have lost track of, the importance of being an active part of something larger than yourself.

I’m going to be spending the next nine months on book leave, trying to drill down into this area.
It's not a mystery why a secular society does not produce the charitable organizations that religious societies do, and I'm a bit surprised that Klein doesn't seem to understand this. Religious people - in the U.S. they're primarily Christians - believe they're commanded by God to help their fellow man, that people in need are manifestations of Christ Himself, that when we help others we are manifesting Christ to them, and that, despite our human inclination toward selfishness, our gratitude to God for all he has done for us compels us and obligates us to love those whom He loves.

Those who see the world through a secular lens, however, have no such incentive. At bottom, if one believes there is no God then selfishness is no vice and charity is no virtue. There's no duty to help one's fellow man, indeed, an arrant secularism would see the world in terms of a Darwinian struggle in which the weak and unfortunate simply must give way to those whose survival chances are better.

In other words, the answer to Klein's puzzlement is that if there is no personal, transcendent moral authority there's simply no reason why anyone should feel an obligation to help anyone else. An atheist may wish to help others, but doing so is neither a moral virtue nor a moral duty. It's simply an emotional preference, a personality trait which some have and some don't, and which, like other traits (e.g. eye color), is neither good nor bad.

If atheism imposes any moral duty at all it is, as Ayn Rand so powerfully illustrates in her life and works, a duty to maximize one's own well-being. There can be, on atheism, no imperative to help others.

Is Klein, despite his demurrals, an atheist? He says this:
First of all, I consider myself a secular humanist. It seems, somewhat to my surprise, that some people equate that term with atheism. You can certainly be a secular humanist and an atheist; but you can also be, as I am, a secular humanist for whom the jury is out on the question of the divine providence.

To my mind, secular humanists are those who lack the scientific certitude of atheists, and also lack the spiritual certitude of the religious. It makes perfect sense to me: Can atheists be absolutely sure that there’s nothing after this? Can believers be sure that there is?
Klein is assuming that atheism is the denial of the existence of God, but though those who deny God's existence are atheists, not all atheists explicitly deny God's existence. Atheism is not the denial of God's existence but rather the lack of belief in God's existence. These are not equivalent. One can lack a belief in God without denying that there is such a being, just as one can lack a belief in extraterrestrial aliens without denying that such creatures exist. Klein admits to lacking such a belief in God, ergo he's an atheist.

Those who deny that there is a God we might call "hard" atheists. Those, like Klein, who don't make this strong claim, who are willing to allow for the possibility that God exists, but who nevertheless lack any affirmative belief that He does, are "soft" atheists. Some call such unbelievers agnostics, but agnosticism is really a weaker form of atheism.

At any rate, we can expect that as our culture becomes more and more secularized and less and less influenced by the Christian worldview, the incentive to do charitable works will ineluctably decline. A secular society can exhort people to care about their fellow man, but it can give them no reason to. Perhaps as Klein "drills down into this area" he'll come to realize this and write about it in a future article.