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 :)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Muscular Moral Relativism

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech appears to have been well received in this country, both among the left and the right.  That's nice.  It's an interesting speech:
But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world.  Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.  The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.  We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.  We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.  The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms.  But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.  Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago.  "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."  A gradual evolution of human institutions.
Yes. War is sometimes necessary when other avenues fail. America's power has helped ensure peace for the last sixty years.  Etc.  Hardly something a liberal peacenik would say.  Those that fearfully predicted that this President would be a knee-jerk anti-war President willfully ignored early hints that his outlook might be more realist than idealist, more Nixon than Wilson.  Andrew Sullivan talked up the realist aspect of Candidate Obama's foreign policy views a long time ago.  In fact, there were always more indications that Obama would disappoint his anti-war backers well before he would the more hawkish ones.

But, even as conservatives praised his speech, some couldn't resist a few jabs:
His decision to push for a surge also garnered Obama comparisons to Bush, who had done much the same thing in Iraq three years earlier. The Oslo speech, too, reminded some of Obama’s predecessor – with a twist.

“The irony is that George W. Bush could have delivered the very same speech. It was a truly an American president's message to the world,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, a Republican strategist and CEO of Kent Strategies LLC who worked in the Bush White House.

Added Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations: “If Bush had said these things the world would be filled with violent denunciations,” said “When Obama says them, people purr. That is fine by me.”
What bizarre logic.  Dear Mr. Mead: George W. Bush had the world's support to go to war against Afghanistan after 9/11.  That was a just war, if there ever was one, and was globally perceived as one.  Bush could have delivered a speech such as this one on September 12th, 2001 and would have faced few "violent denunciations".  But, Bush went on and invaded Iraq over the deep objections of the rest of the world.  That unpopular war, one that most certainly did not meet the traditional definition of a just war, led to widespread suspicion that Bush simply believed that any war America undertook was just.  The Bush doctrine was an affront to traditional just war theory.  That is why "the world" began reflexively denouncing any military effort Bush advocated, regardless of its merit.  So, yes, if Bush said these things today, the world would boo and hiss.  When Obama says these things right now, people purr.  But, if Obama decides to invade, say, Jamaica, under the guise of the war on terror, you can bet that people will most certainly not purr when he says these same things subsequently.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Peace: What is it Good For?

Yes, I've heard.  President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Seems to me that the only five people in the whole world who thought this was a smashing idea were...the five folks on the Nobel Committee.  Really?  A unanimous decision?  Maybe they'll decide to revoke the prize if the Prez does things they don't like, for example, if he deploys additional troops to Afghanistan.  Or, if the U.S. or Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities.  This could be some kind of record for shortest Nobel prize tenure.

This Norwegian silliness aside, the really important news from today is that Turkey and Armenia will sign a pact on Saturday establishing diplomatic ties, nearly 20 years after Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union.  Turkish-Armenian bitterness goes back over a hundred years, to the decades prior to World War I when Armenians began resisting their Ottoman rulers and were systematically persecuted.  After a series of smaller massacres (I know, an oxymoron), between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died during 1915-1917 as the Turks systematically deported and killed large portions of their Armenian population in order to prevent them from siding with the Russian enemy, as they feared they would.  The Armenian Genocide has been a major source of friction between the two countries, with Turkey claiming the casualties were greatly exaggerated and Armenia pushing for world condemnation of Turkey for this horrific past.

Given the dismal state of relations between these two neighbors, kudos are in order for both governments for negotiating what amounts to a truce, especially because their respective populations are not necessarily in favor of any concessions to the other.  While it may be true that Turkey and Armenia probably agreed to this pact because of what they have to gain economically and internationally, they deserve our applause for looking past their mutual contempt even while their citizens are not yet ready.  That is true political bravery.  If you think political bravery comes easily when there are many economic benefits to be gained from cooperation, consider how many neighboring countries are unable to come to peace despite all they could gain from it: India and Pakistan, Israel and Syria, the Koreas, much of Africa, and so on and so forth.

Now, if only there were a prestigious international prize we could award to the Swiss Foreign Ministry for mediating these negotiations and accomplishing peace between Turkey and Armenia.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Beef, Ground on a Bias

Conservatives like to complain about the "liberal mainstream media."  A lot.  They blame the "MSM" for a laundry list of evils, for everything from fawning coverage of Democrats at the expense of Republicans to ignoring "real news" to gibberish about them advocating the indoctrination of kids.  Prime targets: New York Times, MSNBC, National Public Radio, ABC, CNN, and so forth.  (Always mysterious to me why Faux Noise with all its ratings dominance is excluded from the MSM category.)

This nonsense aside, there are much better grounds for pointing out liberal bias than whining about unfairness.  Case in point, today's New York Times article about the dangers posed by ground beef.  Starting with the horrific story of a young woman, Stephanie Smith, who became paralyzed after eating a hamburger tainted by E. coli, the writer goes on to describe "why eating ground beef is still a gamble":
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows.
Yuck.  E. coli is an ever-present danger, and apparently, my beloved hamburger is the biggest vector of this bacteria.  Who knew you could become paralyzed from E. coli???

Anyway, point well taken.  I will now never buy ground beef unless I know that it was ground at the grocery store from a good (single) cut of meat, or maybe if I'm buying from a local, reputable rancher.  I'm definitely never buying anything from Cargill.  I even applaud the Times for their fantastic exposé of meat grinding practices.  Good journalism.

But, then, they have to go and say this (emphasis mine):
Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen. 
WTF?  How do you make the leap from exposing unsanitary meat production practices to fingering the federal government for not sufficiently regulating meat grinding?  I don't need more federal laws, I just need more investigative pieces like these that uncover the unsavory side of food production so that I, as a consumer, can be informed and make appropriate choices.  This, dare I say, would be an old school conservative point of view.  Their liberal bias is what leads the Times to blame the federal government for not preventing all hazards out there.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Conservatism We Can Listen To

Unlike the shrill Beckian Hannityoff gibberish that passes for conservatism these days, newmajority.com is a place one can go to and actually listen to various streams of conservative thought without cringing.  This is David Frum's attempt at leading conservatism out of the wilderness with some kind of coherent ideology.  I applaud him for this effort because the country needs a vibrant right that presents a reasonable counterpoint to the left.  Reasonable because so long as it isn't, it is too easy to simply dismiss the right as a bunch of crackpots, and therefore dismiss their good ideas as well.

Case in point:  Frum's ongoing argument with David Horowitz about the man of the moment, Glenn Beck himself.  Basically, Frumpsky dissed the Beckster for falsely attacking someone, to which Horowitz (who admires the Beckmeister) said this:
Our country is under assault by a determined, deceitful and powerful left which will stop at nothing to realize its goals. Facing them, I would rather have Glenn Beck out there fighting for our side than 10,000 David Frums who think that appeasing leftists will make them think well of us. No it won’t. It will only whet their appetite for our heads.
Frum hit back:
Horowitz agrees that Beck’s attack on Sunstein was false. Yet that falsehood does not worry Horowitz. The country is “under assault.” (As the broadcaster Mark Levin has said, President Obama is “literally at war” with the American people.) In a war, truth must yield to the imperatives of victory. Any conservative qualms about the untruth of Beck’s defamation of Sunstein amounts to “appeasement” – an appeasement that will end with the left decapitating the right. This is the language and logic of Leninism. There is no truth or falsehood comrades, there is only service to the revolution or betrayal of the revolution.
Ouch.  It is nice to see someone on the right be able to call out falsehoods without having to abandon their core principles.  Those like Horowitz who see this as a war between the right and the left have preemptively justified all tactics--good and bad--as necessary for defeating those evil liberals.  And here I was, thinking that the right stood for defending American values, especially morality.

To be sure, there is still some looniness at newmajority.com; but IMHO, no more so than at huffiingtonpost or any other talk site.  It's just nice to have an alternative for a change.