Everything is not going to be okay

It’s been a while since I dusted off this old blog, but the material seems appropriate. A friend sent me the following message about a Peggy Noonan op-ed titled “Two Miracles in Charleston”; my response is below.

your thoughts on the matter? Usually not Peggy Noonan’s biggest fan, but in this case, she gets at something.

http://on.wsj.com/1Ki15us

I encountered this piece when it was published, and frankly, I think it’s Noonan at her most insidious.

This is Noonan telling her wealthy readership not to worry much about racial conflict, because everything is going to be okay.

The subtext of her vocal admiration of the families’ offers of forgiveness is: Shouldn’t all black people react to racial violence this way? Why do they have to go protest and riot and generally make trouble?

She’s pleased with the removal of the symbolic flag from the state capitol yet unconcerned, evidently, with the systemic discrimination the flag represents–even quoting [Gov. Nikki] Haley saying: “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way.”

She fails to note the sick irony that, practically at the same moment that the victims’ families were offering forgiveness, Haley was on the steps of the capitol calling for the death penalty. How’s that for Christian?

No, Peggy, everything is not going to be okay, and giving the Nobel Peace Prize to these Christian families will not usher an era of calm and orderly reform. In fact, you are the very reason we need disorderly and aggressive protest–because you are incapable of opening your ears until you experience fear.

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Why Christians should not pray in public meetings

 

The Supreme Court has ruled that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the law by opening town meetings with Christian prayer. Constitutional questions about the role of religion in public spaces are as old as the nation, and all sides of the issue have been fervently litigated. But what is often obscured in these legal battles and the ensuing cultural dialogue is the question that, for Christians, ought to precede the legal debate: What does it do to our faith to insert prayer into public functions?

Many Christians maintain that prayer serves a guiding moral purpose. A recitation of faith is thought to arouse moral sensibilities, evoking a responsibility that extends beyond the mere words of the law and to the conscience of the assembly. Defenders of this view are correct that personal conscience and moral thinking are essential to good governance, and for many believers, faith plays a central role in ethics. But as much as Christian belief may guide political judgment, political corruption also infects Christian thinking.

We know that government and politics are often ugly. We hope to root out corruption and fraud, but even working at its best, politics requires sly thinking, wheeling and dealing, bitter compromise, and even deceit. Much of politics is figuring out how to handle scheming and dishonest people, and sometimes only fire can fight fire. Show me a leader incapable of vice and I’ll show you one incapable of action.

Those who would pray before public meetings hope that Christian reflection might bring more virtue and less vice to the practice of politics. What they overlook is the corruption that politics brings to faith. Many of the permanent qualities and practices of our political system are antithetical to Christian ideals. To make a rite of faith a public political act is to waft the noxious fumes of politics into the sacred space of religion. When we place our faith and our politics in the same arena, it is not our politics that improves but our faith that suffers.

Christians ought to seek moral and political guidance through our beliefs–in private life. The separation of church and state likely does more to protect the church than the state.

Taboo

With oral arguments on California’s Prop 8 and DOMA concluded at the Supreme Court, I’d just like to note how encouraging it is to think that, no matter the outcome of these cases, within a decade or two, visiting a website like the National Organization for Marriage will be as uncomfortable as visiting the website of the KKK. Their hate is dressed in a thin veneer of civility and open-mindedness. Much like the KKK, NOM professes to respect the group against which it discriminates. NOM advocates a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which would be the only amendment in our history–besides prohibition–designed to restrict citizens’ rights.* It’s nice to live in a country (and thankfully not the only one) where that kind of thinking looks doomed to marginalization, though more slowly than it should be.

*The 16th Amendment doesn’t count.

The Passion of Pontius Pilate

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, I’ve been re-reading the gospel accounts of the events surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion. At the climactic moment of his conviction and sentencing, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate offers a choice to the assembled crowd: spare one of the condemned from his fate, either Jesus or the criminal Barabbas. In the liturgy, when reading this part of the gospels on Good Friday, the congregation plays the role of the crowd, selecting Jesus to be crucified.

Fairly certain the mob is mistaken about the man-god’s guilt, Pilate fidgets. “Why, what evil hath he done?” The mob is more interested in retribution than a fair trial. Pilate buckles and the execution proceeds: “he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” (These quotations are from Matthew, though the accounts of Mark and Luke are similar.)

The governor’s unenviable situation resembles the moral challenge of all elected leaders in a representative democracy–though by this time Rome was of course an autocracy and Pilate a political appointee–to balance personal conviction against public demand. To satisfy the crowd’s demand would be profoundly unjust. To stand in their way would have been disastrous and perhaps impossible (Matthew says, “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing…”).

Apart from Jesus and Mary, Pilate is the only man named in the Apostles’ Creed and its variants. We don’t mention the disciples, we don’t recognize any individual prophet–only Pilate, spokesman of Rome, civil servant, and pagan, appears in the basic statement of Catholic and Protestant faith. Creation is discussed without Adam, the incarnation without the apostles, prophecy without Elijah; why not the crucifixion without Pilate? This may be an accident of history, an effort by the early Christian leaders who developed the original “Old Roman Symbol” to establish canonical belief in the crucifixion as a definite historical event in contrast to the contemporaneous polytheistic landscape of myth and legend. It may serve as a reminder of the severity of Jesus’s suffering–not only did he “suffer death and was buried” but also endured hours of torture, which is useful to remember in order to emphasize the cosmic importance of his sacrifice. Still, two millennia of Christians intoning “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” seems a heavy burden for a provincial governor’s soul.

Pilate is regularly castigated in Christian dialogue as not only a ruthless dictator but an impotent coward who sacrificed righteousness to placate the mob. It seems to me that his choice was more complex than that. Protecting Jesus would likely have jeopardized the precarious political order of Jerusalem and perhaps all of Judea, already a volatile and violent region. And there’s little reason to think Pilate could have stopped them that day had he tried. That doesn’t justify his decision to sanction a false prosecution–“it’s too hard” is never a convincing excuse for abandoning principle–but it does make it a curious thing that Pilate is so disparaged. Didn’t he, in the end, show a good deal more compassion and virtue than the crowd? And after all, isn’t the moral message of Good Friday that we all have the capacity to act as vindictively as those who forced Pilate’s hand?

In the end I’m less concerned with Pilate’s modern public image than the kind of political behavior it encourages among Christians. Fixating on Pilate’s responsibility is blame-shifting. It’s like raging at our own elected officials, who, faulty as they may be, are charged with the impossible task of mediating their own convictions and their constituents’ demands, in order to lessen our own perceived role and responsibility in maintaining civic health and promoting good governance. Imagine that.

In favor of guns and body scans?

As the political implications of the Sandy Hook shooting begin revealing themselves and my inner gun skeptic burns with righteous indignation, I’ve become concerned with a possible hypocrisy in my professed views on civil rights that I likely share with some readers.

The U.S. has more assault-related deaths per capita than every other OECD country, and we also tend to have laxer gun control. Nearly 300,000 Americans died from gunshots in the 2000s. We’re replete with semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammo clips (both of which were used at Sandy Hook), gun shows that distribute firearms without background checks, and right-to-carry laws that permit citizens to carry weapons in public.

But post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, and the evidence for causation between gun control and lower gun violence is mixed. States with stricter laws tend to have lower rates of gun violence, but the connection is quite weak (as one might expect given the ease of transporting weapons across state lines). International comparisons are very difficult given the preponderance of variables that need to be controlled for, from economic factors and education to mental health services and criminal justice procedures. And while I find it intuitive that fewer, better regulated, and less powerful guns should lead to fewer gun deaths, it’s difficult to mount an ironclad case against a gun proponent’s intuition that, say, armed citizens can better protect themselves against armed criminals, and–most importantly–that determined criminals will find weapons regardless of regulations.

That last point is the disconcerting one for me, because it sounds much like the argument I make against the Transportation Security Administration: Determined terrorists won’t be thwarted by wimpy airport security procedures; they’ll find a way to cause damage. And while it’s difficult to demonstrate the counterfactual, the TSA has yet to produce evidence that they have prevented any terrorist attacks, which I find quite sufficient reason to be fed up with their curiously horny reign of anti-terror. In particular, I’m concerned that TSA procedures violate my Fourth Amendment rights (though the courts seem to disagree with me).

In other words, I believe that the government is compromising a constitutional guarantee on the basis of a dubious claim, with ambiguous-at-best supporting evidence, that the compromise is necessary for my safety. I also believe that the safety measure which requires the ostensible constitutional compromise will do little to prevent violence by resourceful criminals. What is the substantive difference between this position and the position of “gun rights” advocates vis-à-vis the Second Amendment? (Though I don’t necessarily agree with mainstream pro-gun, “individual rights” interpretations of the Second Amendment, once again the courts are not on my side.)

Perhaps there is at least a slight difference in the likely consequences of regulation in the two scenarios–because while TSA screening exacts real costs in the form of security line delays, children’s tears, and stolen iPads, it’s hard for me to believe that increased regulation of semi-automatic weapons would cause much practical inconvenience for people who don’t want to commit mass murder (despite some gun advocates’ paranoid predictions of unchecked tyranny over a defenseless citizenry). That is, even if gun control doesn’t effectively prevent gun crime, at least it probably won’t lead to the sexual harassment of six-year-olds. But that’s not an entirely satisfying consolation.

A bourgeois pastime

I drop in at n+1 from time to time, but I would have missed this upsetting editorial were it not for the recommendation of a friend.

Let me save you the trouble of following that link. Here are the crucial points:

  1. The value of advanced degrees is a “fiction” perpetuated by universities in order to preserve their cultural and financial status.
  2. Universities essentially function as “guilds”, even “cartels”–gatekeepers of the elite echelons of society.
  3. Professional credential requirements in many fields, particularly medicine and law, inflate prices for services that could be performed just as well with less training.
  4. Similarly, public policy decisions do not benefit from academic training, as public policy is “rarely complex” in the sense “that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out”.
  5. Therefore, all intellectuals have a moral responsibility to abandon their degrees, shred their diplomas, and never run for political office.

Evidence for these hypotheses is in short supply, which doesn’t matter because the n+1 editors are making an emotional argument rather than an analytic one. The Tea Party’s dismay at the alien oligarchy of the intellectual elite aligns with Occupy Wall Street’s vexation at the moral bankruptcy of the financial and corporate elite and a broader, politically neutral general frustration with the quality of leadership, brewing a perfect storm of outrage against the institutions which appear to uphold these various dynasties. Even the old guard are losing faith. Guillotine blueprints are being unshelved and dusted off, and it’s hardly surprising to see a magazine that aspires to intellectual iconoclasm doing its best to surf the populist crowd.

But this editorial seriously misdiagnoses the problem in a way that, were it taken seriously, could do real damage to social progress. As my friend observed, “it’s weird that [the authors] would look around and decide that what people in our society need is less education.” In fact, the very elite institutions they critique, including my alma mater, are among those leading the charge for accessible higher education. Though the authors are correct in noting that tuition increases present a challenge for lower- and middle-class students, they fail to acknowledge that at the most elite of colleges, effective tuition rates for the middle class have stabilized if not fallen in recent decades thanks to generous financial aid programs. There is no elite cadre maliciously pricing out the disadvantaged; the problem is that public universities, the ostensible regents of the equal opportunity promise, have lost much of their support from state governments, raised tuition to compensate, and forced millions of students into unbearable debt.

It’s impossible to take seriously the authors’ suggestion that we abolish the system of academic credentials which constitutes the foundation of higher education:

Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life.

Their position seems to be that there is no distinction of quality between the best university and the worst university, that the workforce does not benefit from advanced education, and that tuition inflation is an artifact solely of greed and insularity rather than of a precipitous drop in government support. I would be very interested to read an article presenting evidence to defend these assertions–arguing, for example, that the American higher education system has nothing to do with our technological supremacy, that law graduates of Harvard and Yale are no more skilled than those of any other law school, and that declining state funding and federal student loan support are not responsible for increasing student debt–but of course such an article could only be a farce.

If the authors’ attitude toward university education is wildly speculative, their evaluation of public policy is downright zany:

The President — a meritocrat himself — has succumbed to what might be called the “complexity complex,” which leads us to assume that public policy is so complicated that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out. But major political questions are rarely complex in that sense. They are much more likely to be complicated, in the Avril Lavigne sense, meaning that they involve reconciling disagreements among competing stakeholders — or, as the situation may demand, ratcheting them up.

Perhaps this passage explains the absurdity of the authors’ statements about education, law, and medicine–they simply believe that disciplines they don’t practice are not complex. Now, it’s true that “million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, [and] routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.” But easing up on professional licensing requirements is quite a different thing from burning diplomas en masse while discrediting the legal and medical professions. And do the authors genuinely believe that solving our pressing public policy issues doesn’t require specialized expertise? I challenge them to devise a solution to health insurance inflation, or carbon emissions, or unemployment, without meticulous research and years of specialized study–precisely the kind of work for which educational institutions are designed. I’m reminded of Mencken’s popular observation that, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” In truth, our elites are too uneducated to devise proper solutions and adjudicate competing reform ideas. We complain that our representatives haven’t read the text of the Affordable Care Act, for example, but the truth is they wouldn’t understand it if they did–the problems it addresses are, in fact, extremely complex, which is why the bill was drawn up by an army of experts with advanced degrees. That is also why the public supports nearly every individual component of the bill when they’re explained, yet a plurality opposes the bill as a whole. If we listened more carefully to those experts sufficiently educated to explain legislation, we would have a much better shot at enacting desirable reforms.

One might feel that this article, written by staff at n+1, whose five founding editors together boast four degrees from Harvard, two from Columbia, one from Yale, and one from Oxford, smacks of hypocrisy. One would be correct. Social commentary is an elite occupation. Ignorant social commentary is a bourgeois pastime. The authors, perhaps because of their own privilege and education, feel qualified to evaluate broad spectra of society of which they have little knowledge and less experience. They peddle ersatz expertise to condemn genuine competence.

From my cold, dead hands

I’ll try to avoid saturating this blog with politics, both because I get enough of that at my job and because you probably get as much of it as you want in other places.

But I think this is interesting:

Last week a story made its way across the web about local police forces loading up on surplus military equipment. Here are the Oxford, Alabama police posing with some of their new toys:

Now I haven’t been to Oxford, but unless the zombies are coming, I can’t fathom for what purpose a town of 15,000 needs “$3 million of equipment, ranging from M-16s and helmet-mounted infrared goggles to its own armored vehicle, a Puma.” That’s about $2000 of equipment per resident, paid for mostly through a federal grant program.

What I found interesting is the juxtaposition of this story with the ongoing National Rifle Association conspiracy theory about the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” program, which stupidly funneled guns to Mexican drug cartels in a failed effort to track their activities. The NRA, which you might expect to be enthusiastic about the release of guns to the general population, instead seems to believe that the program was in fact an elaborate plan by the Obama administration to “stick more gun legislation on honest American gun owners of the United States.” The theory goes that by providing American guns to the cartels, the administration ensured that horrific drug gun violence could be blamed on the preponderance of uncontrolled weapons within our borders, thus fueling popular outrage at lax gun control laws and allowing Obama finally to unveil his secret plan to demolish the 2nd Amendment. Or something.

Yet you won’t hear the NRA complaining about the federal grant program that gives automatic weapons and tanks to small-town police. In fact, the NRA has long collaborated with local law enforcement, even hosting an annual “Police Shooting Championship“, now in its 50th year. Isn’t that odd? The NRA defends the 2nd Amendment as a mechanism for citizens to protect their freedom against government infringement. What could be more dangerous to citizens’ individual liberty than a militarized police force?

In the NRA’s world, the federal government is simultaneously giving away guns to Mexicans as part of a plot to restrict Americans’ right to gun ownership, and also giving away guns to American law enforcement to help us protect ourselves against the feds.

Several (not mutually exclusive) explanations for this enigma occur to me:

  1. The NRA just wants more weapons in the hands of Americans, whether private citizens or public officials, and despite their rhetoric, couldn’t care less about individual liberty.
  2. The NRA believes, contrary to most historical examples, that local police are a bulwark against oppression of individual liberty, not part of the mechanism of oppression.
  3. The NRA believes that local police are sympathetic to the interests of 2nd Amendment enthusiasts–that is, of disproportionately white, rural men (see photo above)–and will protect that group in particular against incursion by both the government and immigrants.
  4. The NRA cares more about politics than about its own ideology and won’t let slip any opportunity to vilify Democrats.

Is there a better (and possibly less cynical) way to make sense of this?

Palindrome’s lesson’s palindrome

                                  Palindromes
                                 aren’t
                                just
                               letters
                              jumbled
                             randomly
                            together.
                           Working
                          letters
                         mirror
                        themselves.
                       Sometimes
                      words
                     function
                    also.
                   Are
                  they
                 as
                hard
               as
              paragraphs?
             Occasionally.
            Practice
           encourages
          improvement.
         For
        desire,
       pursue
      willpower.
     Wise
    answers
   come
  after
 Mercer:
“A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.”
 –Mercer.
  After
   come
    answers.
     Wise
      power
       will
        pursue
         desire,
          for
           improvement
            encourages
             practice.
              Occasionally
               paragraphs,
                as
                 hard
                  as
                   they
                    are,
                     also
                      function.
                       Words
                        sometimes
                         themselves
                          mirror
                           letters,
                            working
                             together
                              randomly.
                               Jumbled
                                letters
                                 just
                                  aren’t
                                   palindromes.

Extra points if you identify why it isn’t symmetrical. Extra extra points if you come up with the most permutations of meaning in the title.

A little Marxism never hurt anyone…?

We’ve heard a lot lately about Bain Capital and their shameless exploitation or noble empowering of the American worker.  We’ve also heard a lot about JP Morgan, MF Global, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers making money from nothing, or sometimes just the opposite. At the same time, we’ve heard about the dedication of the American auto worker and the ingenuity of our technology sector–the people whose sweat generates the income which powers our financial institutions. What a dichotomy: the people who create things in exchange for money versus the people who create money in exchange for…money.

Alienation from the product of one’s labor may be a Marxist idea, but it’s also a threat to the integrity of capitalism. Marx recognized the importance of the satisfaction a worker achieves in producing an object and in observing that object’s use to the benefit of its user. Capitalism is presumed to frustrate the worker by transferring the means of production (land, equipment, resources, etc.) to the bourgeoisie (the worker only works at the pleasure of the owner) thereby alienating worker from product. Communism is presumed to avert that frustration by ceding the means of production to the producers.

But capitalism also depends on workers being invested in their labor. If the first requirement of capitalism is the availability of capital in the form of private property as a spur of production and innovation, the second requirement is the equation of labor with monetary value. The translation is inexact; the value of a product or service isn’t always accurately reflected in its price tag. But capitalist workers understand that what they produce generally correlates with what they can afford to consume. Presumably, when we purchase something, we recognize that we’re able to do so thanks to our own industry; that we’ve provided some value to society and are thereby entitled to receive something else of equal value. Fair exchange is how capitalism ties worker and product together.

The strange thing about our particular capitalism is that if you’re lucky, you don’t have to exchange the products of your labor for the products of other people’s labor. In fact, if you’re lucky enough, you can simply take the products of other people’s labor. That’s because the luckiest among us have earned or inherited enough capital in the form of private property that they can live solely off investment returns.

Investing may qualify as a labor. Identifying promising opportunities and executing them is a task of great societal importance. But most people (and institutions) who subsist on investment returns–whether trust funds or endowments or retirement accounts–don’t invest that money themselves. They hire someone else to undertake the labor of investing it, using the returns they earn as payment for the service.

The capitalism in which these people participate is only the capitalism of private property, not the capitalism which equates labor with monetary value. Their expenditures don’t correlate with their labor or their societal contribution. When they make a purchase, the vendor trades labor for money, but they trade only money, not labor, for product. Each dollar they receive from investments is one dollar’s worth of labor they didn’t have to do, and one dollar less of economic value added to society.

Ideally, the financial freedom granted by large stockpiles of money enables their owners to dedicate themselves to activities that contribute non-economic value. That’s the theory behind university endowments, which provide their institutions with regular income to subsidize unprofitable research and the like. But often, I think, it simply invites alienation–the separation of labor and product. Those subsisting on investment income receive without giving. The goods they purchase have no connection with work they’ve performed. (Whether they deserve what they receive is a different and complicated question, as is whether subsistence on investments is an overall positive economic force.)

The line we’ve heard from conservatives about capital gains taxation is that people who invest their money (or pay someone to invest it for them) are taking a risk and thus deserve a reward. The peculiar principle seems to be that assuming risk is itself a labor which ought to be exchangeable for the products of others’ labor, or else a virtue we ought to subsidize. Funny that we don’t hear similar arguments applied to horse betting or slot machines.

A colleague of mine recently proposed raising the estate tax to 100%. I have a number of objections to that idea, but it would be one way to encourage the independently wealthy to participate in both facets of our economy–not just the aristocratic facet of private ownership, but also the meritocratic facet of valued labor. A more direct option would be to increase the capital gains tax significantly, though past a certain point such a tax would come at the expense of productive investment. Is there a more efficient mechanism?

What’s the point?

My friend and colleague Liz Moody recently launched a blog about Kool-Aid and dead fish. It’s worth a visit. One of the blog’s features is a series called Point of Writing, wherein Liz asks people what, in a few sentences, is the purpose of writing. I was delighted to be her first respondent:

I don’t know if these words are wise enough to deserve being rendered as an image. But the question is worth considering from time to time, I think, particularly for young “writers” like myself who might not yet have satisfactorily examined their reasons for embracing the medium of written word.

There’s irony in publishing this response on a blog, the form of writing which typically entails the least rehearsal, refinement, and correction.