Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fossilization of Thought

A frequent, shrill refrain from opponents of health care reform is that it is radical. Obama is a radical. Nancy Pelosi is a radical. Harry Reid is a radical. Progressives are radical. They're all socialists. Our founding fathers would be aghast at how radical these people are. And on and on and on.

Good grief. As if the founding fathers were such intellectual gods of mythical proportions that they would be appalled at any attempt to change or improve upon their ideas. They themselves were radicals in every sense of the term, particularly in their proposed constitutional structure for the nascent republic. This "novel" idea so disturbed those that advocated a much looser, confederate alliance of sovereign states, that some of the founders felt compelled to write a series of public letters which became known as the Federalist Papers. Here's what James Madison wrote in Federalist #14 in 1787 (emphasis mine):
But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them.
Blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names...It is our duty to improve on what was handed down to us. How aggressively we do that is a matter for debate. Conservatism used to mean that we tread cautiously, to avoid unintended side-effects from hasty change. That I used to believe. Now, conservatism has become the movement of "over my dead body." It has become the movement of secession. Challenges to the sanctity of the Union have become commonplace, all because of those "radicals."

Maybe these folks are not really all that serious about secessionism, but the fact that they mindlessly throw around these words without consequence marks how far conservatism has fallen. Again, I give you Madison in Federalist #14 at his most impassioned plea for union:
I submit to you, my fellow-citizens, these considerations, in full confidence that the good sense which has so often marked your decisions will allow them their due weight and effect; and that you will never suffer difficulties, however formidable in appearance, or however fashionable the error on which they may be founded, to drive you into the gloomy and perilous scene into which the advocates for disunion would conduct you. Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rendering us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fair and balanced coverage

I've frequently bashed the (conservative) bloggers at The Corner in several of my posts, so, I thought it necessary to commend them when I saw this excellent post by Veronique de Rugy criticizing Karl Rove for distorting the facts in his characterization of Obama as the irresponsible, big spender (yeah, chew on that for a second).
Yesterday, Karl Rove had a piece in the Wall Street Journal called "Obama's Fiscal Fantasy World," showing Obama as the big spender and irresponsible president that he is.

However, I think the Obama administration's record is bad enough on its own that we don't need to distort the truth about what happened on the budget side during President Bush's two terms in office. Yet, that's what Rove does.
...Rove conveniently omits the last fiscal year of President Bush's second term (FY2009). He defines the two terms as lasting seven years instead of eight. That's wrong.
Here's an excerpt from his WSJ piece. Do not read it on a full stomach.
After a year of living in his fiscal fantasy world, Americans realize they have a record deficit-setting, budget-busting spender on their hands. Voters are now reading the fine print on all that Mr. Obama proposes and as they do, his credibility, already badly damaged, suffers.
Even as Karl Rove continues his Orwellian quest to use his administration's record to show that up is down and Bush is right, it's nice to see partisan people such as Ms. de Rugy stand up for the correct facts. The fact is, Karl "deficits don't matter" Rove does not have the credibility to attack Obama from the position of fiscal responsibility. Kudos to Ms. de Rugy for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Self-Interested Morality

If you are to read only one article this week, I commend this New York Times article about the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, and some of his lesser known ideas:
Adam Smith, free-market partisan: this image dominates, even in market-weary times. Politicians invoke him as a near-deity. Think tanks and consulting firms use his name as a synonym for free-market policies. So dogmatic is he imagined to be in his famous book “The Wealth of Nations” that the feminist writer-activist Riane Eisler not long ago wrote a corrective titled “The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics.”

The implication that his economics was uncaring might have disturbed Adam Smith, for he was hardly the man that many now think him to be.

While he believed that markets could channel self-interest into efficient aggregate outcomes, he argued that this was no excuse for selfishness: “When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many.” That quotation is not from “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith’s best-known work, but from “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” his lesser-known opus. It was republished by Penguin this week to mark its 250th anniversary, and it offers a reminder that Smith was a subtle, complex thinker whose ideas about markets and those who use them would embarrass many of his present-day devotees.
One interesting aspect of the protests against health care reform, tea party activism, etc., has been how in the protesters' arguments, free markets have been equated with liberty and, hence, with morality itself. Since people seem to have more opportunities to better themselves under capitalism (which I happen to agree with), capitalism is freedom. Therefore, capitalism is the morally preferable path for humanity. People should be free to make choices about their lives, free from government intervention. Since free market capitalism gives individuals that freedom, all government intervention is diametrically opposed to freedom and is, therefore, anti-spiritual.

What this tells me is, since self-interest is the basis for free markets, self-interest is the morally superior way!

I recently watched a very interesting Frontline interview with Rick Lake, CEO of California Check Cashing, a payday lending company that advances cash to customers who write a personal check which is not cashed until the customers' next payday. For a simple fee, of course. Write a check for $300, get $255 in cash. Translating the fee to what it really is, interest, comes to...a 460 percent annual rate of interest on a two week advance. Four. hundred. and. sixty. percent.

Some snippets from the interview:
You seem to be saying that all of you are in a sense ... exploiting your customers, and that's the reason why it's OK.
Your term is "exploiting," OK? But I want to ask you, does the consumer have a choice? This is America, where we have a choice, correct? ... So that consumer has a choice on what products to use and when to use them. ...
There's legislation that's been proposed to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency [CFPA] ... to set down rules and laws. And I know the banking industry is lobbying that if it does happen, it should cover what they call non-bank banks like payday lending. ... Is that OK with you?
It's OK as long as they don't eliminate choices. If it's about disclosure and education -- which I think it would be a great thing if they would embrace our industry and the customers that we serve and teach financial education somehow through our outlets -- I think that can be a good thing. But again, I'm concerned that anytime there's a government body to protect us from ourselves what the ramifications are from that.
What the government is supposed to do is protect us --
Protect us from ourselves.
-- from damaging ourselves or damaging others.
Is that the role of government? I thought that was the role of each and every one of us as an individual. ...
For the record, I'm not a fan of the CFPA idea, because I do believe government shouldn't be about protecting us from ourselves. That includes requiring stupid warning labels. That said, the whole payday lending business is an appalling reminder of capitalism's amorality. While people like Mr. Lake should have the freedom to engage in businesses like these, this is not an advertisement for capitalism being morally superior to other systems. The Times article begins with this quote from Glenn Beck:
“If I could sell sponsorships on this chin right here, I would,” he said. “It would just say, ‘Third chin sponsored by Goodyear.”’ He called himself “the most enthusiastic capitalist since Adam Smith.” 
and ends with this reminder of what Adam Smith thought about the mindless pursuit of riches:
The ambitious man, Smith writes, comes to believe “that the lustre of his future conduct will entirely cover, or efface, the foulness of the steps by which he arrived at that elevation.” It is this sense of impunity that worried Smith about the wealth pursuit. 
So, the next time you hear someone, particularly a religious person, extolling capitalism without limits, tell them to actually read Adam Smith. Capitalists need a dose of humility. IMHO :)