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Scratch a Walmart Basher, Find a Snotty Elitist

(With thanks to Glenn Reynolds for calling this to my attention.)

Why I love Walmart despite never shopping there

In a discussion thread that wandered to the subject of Walmart and its enemies, I said “Scratch a Walmart-basher and you’ll find a snotty elitist, a person who hates capitalism and consumption and deep down thinks the Wrong People have Too Much Stuff.”

The commenter replied: “You know, I don’t think you need to be an anti-capitalist in order to disdain over-consumption and its enablers.”

No, certainly not. My own preference is to live simply, getting and spending little and putting my energy into creative work. Much of what we think of as “normal” behavior in a consumer society strikes me as wasteful and vulgar. But it’s a disdain I tend to keep quiet about, for at least two reasons:

I find that, as little as I like excess and overconsumption, voicing that dislike gives power to people and political tendencies that I consider far more dangerous than overconsumption. I’d rather be surrounded by fat people who buy too much stuff than concede any ground at all to busybodies and would-be social engineers.

But there’s more than that going on here…

Rich people going on about the crassness of materialism, or spouting ecological pieties, often seem to me to me to be retailing a subtle form of competitive sabotage. “There, there, little peasant…” runs the not-so-hidden message “…it is more virtuous to have little than much, so be content with the scraps you have.”

Exactly!

Like the above writer, I don’t particularly care for Walmart’s ambiance, but that’s because I’m privileged: I live in a heavily populated suburban neighborhood with my relatively affluent parents, so I have access to plenty of other alternatives. I can buy my clothes at Kohl’s, my groceries at the Safeway, the Wegmans, or the Bloom, and my electronics at Best Buy. If Dad weren’t backing me up on my health care expenses? I’d be a typical Walmart denizen. One of my acquaintances, meanwhile, lives in the Appalachian foothills near the border of North and South Carolina. The Walmart Super Center located just across the NC/SC line is his only option unless he wants to buy things on the net.

In my estimation, Walmart has done more to bring material comforts to the rural and impoverished than any group of left-wing moral busybodies has ever dreamed of accomplishing through charity work or changes to public policy. For that reason, you will never find me publicly attacking the chain no matter how unpleasant or “crass” it might be.

The Excellence Gap

The Excellence Gap
by Sol Stern @ City Journal

With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds. The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.

Unfortunately, NCLB also left the door wide open to the corruption of educational standards. The law demanded that all American students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 and imposed increasingly onerous sanctions on districts and schools that failed to make adequate progress toward that goal—but then let each state set its own proficiency standard. To look good to the feds and the public, education authorities unsurprisingly lowered standards and found other ways to game the tests (see “Can New York Clean Up the Testing Mess?,” Spring 2010).

But NCLB’s accountability system led to another distortion, this one harming top students. Because the law emphasized mere “proficiency,” rewarding schools for getting their students to achieve that fairly low standard, teachers and administrators had an incentive to boost the test scores of their lowest-performing students but no incentive to improve instruction for their brightest.

Like Stern, I believe it’s important to make sure that all students achieve basic literacy and numeracy. But like Stern, I’ve come to believe over time that we need multiple tiers of instruction to accommodate our best students.

Most high schools here in Virginia have two tiers. Every student must pass state-administered exit exams in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, English Reading and Writing, World History and Geography, U.S. and Virginia History, Earth Science, Biology, and Chemistry. And most schools offer either AP or IB for those students who want to go further. The problem is, I don’t even think two tiers is enough.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the aforementioned state tests are ridiculously easy (though, to be fair, the state of Virginia is trying to change that); consequently, the basic core courses are hardly rigorous. Motivated students often complain to me that they learn nothing in said courses — that they feel they have to take the AP course to get a decent education even if the subject in question is not their best subject. And I’ve seen many of these students try the AP course, fail, and drop out. Personally, I think this is an unfortunate state of affairs. Good students shouldn’t be forced into classes that may be beyond their talents because the school offers nothing else for them. There should be a middle tier – an “Honors” or “College Prep” tier in which students can get more than the minimum without taking the full-on college level course.

We also need a specialized STEM school and a specialized vocational school in every district because, quite frankly, that’s where the jobs are. The demand for people with trade skills – like arc welding – is tremendous; the demand for people with “nerd skills” is equally high. But are our school districts turning out students who can fill those positions? Evidently not. A reorganization of priorities is clearly – and urgently – needed.

Just What Is Fairness, Anyway? (Part IV)

Now let’s tackle some social issues.  A friend of mine who we’ll call Shauna is up next on our little “show” to talk to us about social causes.  She is liberal rather by default.  A very bright thirty year old woman who has nonetheless fallen adrift in terms of her life goals until the most recent year or so due a little thing I like to call gaming addiction and a bit of depression (they go hand in hand).  She gets her information and forms her opinions based on a combination of a practical but rather emotional upbringing and a slew of new media (Facebook, The Daily Show, gaming clan conversations, etc).

She has strong opinions, but hasn’t reached the level where she spends enough time thinking about them to do more research and win debates.  Just keep that in mind going forward, because I don’t want to be unfair to her despite the fact that I’m going to disagree with just about everything she says here and I’m going to deliver clearer arguments than she will.  I’m not trying to bias the reader to the conclusion that lefties are all completely without debating skill or depth of knowledge or that Shauna in particular is a perfect example of liberal thinking at its peak.  I do think, however, that she represents the default positions that people my age will take if they are simply sponges for new-media and entertainment and don’t go beyond that level of research.  Rather than a thoughtful (if dangerously wrong-headed) progressive or a scholarly conservative or even an academic Marxist – all lines of thought that really only occur to a person after mental exercise on the subject of one’s core philosophy – we get a benign form of liberalism born of a bit of immaturity and a lot of modern platitudes.
GAY MARRIAGE:
SHAUNA: That topic (gay marriage passing in NY) came up today at work.  I couldn’t believe what I heard from (work colleague) Nate (not his real name) – he said he was in favor of “civil unions” but didn’t think gays should be allowed to marry.  Who thinks that way anymore?  I mean really…besides Bible thumpers in Texas. (this sounds rather pompous, but it was delivered with a benign chuckle…she really didn’t think anyone thought like that anymore).
ME: Well…for starters, I do.
SHAUNA: Seriously??
ME: I think marriage implies a religious connotation – it was defined by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures to carry a religious significance.  Even if our earliest ancestors didn’t view it that way, I believe our journey as a species has been to walk towards some higher truth and I think defining marriage as a spiritual union means the government shouldn’t be messing with it.
SHAUNA: But they already do!  The government has defined marriage a specific way and has then excluded certain people because they don’t fit that definition.
ME: Well there’s your problem right there.  It was a mistake for the government to ever tie legal status directly to marriage – a spiritual thing.  If you believe in the separation of church and state as it is commonly framed today, you should believe that the government shouldn’t tie tax benefits, special legal statuses and so forth to marriage.  That marriage should be confined to your church, and that if you are an atheist or don’t have a church, you should be limited to a civil union.  And the civil union should be the thing that is tied to taxes and legal rights.  In other words, even if I’m a practicing Catholic, I should be required to marry under the church and file for a civil union under the law.  That way, everyone is equal and no one can complain about the erosion of marriage as defined by the government if it is their personal belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
SHAUNA: It doesn’t really matter – civil union, marriage…what’s the difference?  Why can’t people just let others define marriage however they want?  Why do we need two different terms for the same coupling?
ME: If you were tied to a faith, you might understand how it was critically important that your faith not be trumped by the government on a matter so central as marriage.  You went to Catholic school…you know that marriage was considered one of the seven sacraments…a vital part of the journey to heaven.  Government has no place telling Catholics they’re wrong about how they define marriage – the sacrament, not the tax filing status.  Wouldn’t that be a crucial LINKING of church and state?
SHAUNA: But the end result doesn’t change.  Whether we did it your way or the way that just passed in New York, we call them a married couple publicly and they achieve certain benefits, right?
ME: So why should it offend you if religious Americans wish to keep marriage reserved as a religious state?
SHAUNA: Because they’re not doing it out of faith…they’re doing it because they think it’s wrong to be gay!
ME: You’re talking to an observing Catholic who has had many friends who were gay.  I worked in community theater for crying out loud!  Shouldn’t my position warn you that your underlying assumption about people of faith may not be one-size-fits-all?
SHAUNA: Well you’re different…you didn’t grow up in the South going to an evangelical church devoted to willful ignorance.  (o…k…time to end this conversation as the logical fallacies and straw men will lead to utter ruin if I pursue it further)
EUTHANASIA & SUICIDE:
SHAUNA: It was terrible what they made my parents go through when my uncle passed.  (he had cancer and died a rather painful death)  If I’m ever in that situation, I want to have the right to die the way I choose, and not be a burden on my family.
ME: Well I see two problems with euthanasia and physician assisted suicide – first of all, I don’t think anyone’s life is entirely their own.  We live in a community of hundreds, most of us.  We impact the lives of countless others…and they have some rights, in my view.  If my mother, with all of her chronic health issues, decided she wanted to die, I think that’s a selfish act because it will most certainly have a huge negative impact on me and my sister, to say nothing of what it would do to my father.
SHAUNA: But isn’t this country supposed to be about individual freedom?  Shouldn’t conservatives be in favor of all individual liberties, including the right to a death of your own choosing?  Even if it’s selfish, we have the right to be selfish in America…
ME: This country is about preserving the freedom and happiness of every individual, but if you take your argument to the extreme, shouldn’t I have the right to murder you in cold blood, if I want?  It’s selfish and it negatively impacts you, but it’s my right…right?
SHAUNA: But there’s a difference between physical or financial harm and emotional harm.  The law protects me from an ax murderer or a thief, but it can’t protect me from feeling sad.
ME: Indeed not…it should, however, be within the purview of the law to protect the rest of us from you doing something that will inflict your will upon ours.  But even if you want to make the argument that you have the right to emotionally scar someone for life (which our court system says that you do not – there are civil suits brought every day about emotional scarring), what of the risks of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia?  The Europeans have had legal PAS for decades in some places, so we get the chance to see where such things naturally lead.  It doesn’t stop at letting a cancer patient die a little more quickly and less painfully.  They’re killing people who want out because they’re mentally ill, short on cash, or non-terminally afflicted (recently paralyzed and the like).  They’re killing patients without their consent (coma patients, the very old, and the very sick), and they’re requiring all doctors to be willing participants in this system, whether they agree with it or not.
SHAUNA: But there’s no guarantee it would go the same way in America.  We have the power to make certain types of euthanasia or physician assisted suicide legal and only those types.
ME: But the instant you make the value of life dependent on the quality of that life, rather than infinite and equal for all lives, you admit a series of logical arguments into the discussion that are both morally reprehensible and yet incontrovertible under the new assumptions.  How do you draw the line?  What is the morally good type of PAS and what types are morally wrong?  You might say “if you’re going to die anyway and fairly soon and if it’s done to spare pain…” but medical science advances daily.  AIDS patients have a death sentence right now, albeit not a near one for most who can stay on the cocktail.  But What if a week from now, a cure is found?  Never mind that a thousand times a day, an oncologist misdiagnoses a goiter as throat cancer or pneumonia as lung cancer and patients routinely beat odds set by their physicians as a result.  And it gets worse, because if you admit that physical pain is a good excuse for suicide…what about mental anguish?  Should I go and kill myself because my wife left me?  Because I have schizophrenia?  Because I can’t afford to buy food?  All of those things are just as devastating as searing chest pain.  If you make PAS legal, you put that possible choice in the minds of millions of Americans living desperately painful existences due to clinical depression, Alzheimer’s, crushing poverty, starvation, physical handicaps and more.  Most of us think that’s dangerous.
SHAUNA: Well, just to play devil’s advocate, is it really wrong for us to give people suffering from extreme poverty or depression or any of those things the choice to end their misery?
ME: (deep breath – count backwards from ten…recover from the shock and horror…) I think it is, yes.  The consequences of a society that tells you that life is only worth living if it’s easy or pain free or even tolerable are vast and frightening.  (even her boyfriend, who was with us at the time of this conversation was nodding along with me)
SHAUNA: But how do you know that?
ME: There have been many countries that tried to place specific values of human lives based on their productivity, their medical health, or any other factor.  The Nazis killed cripples because they honestly thought they were doing them a favor.  The Chinese have made war on girls because they tried to solve their hunger and overcrowding problem by deciding that childbirth was to be discouraged.  The Americans tried to “civilize” native American Indian tribes out of a desire to help them live longer and healthier lives and it resulted in ugly warfare and eventually something rather like genocide.  It comes down to whether you believe that life has an intrinsic value or whether you believe that value only comes from happiness.  Because if you think we should only wish to live if we’re happy, I have a couple of continents and some other countries I can point out to you that we should just reduce to glass factories.
SHAUNA: (looking rather uncomfortable jokes her way out of the fight) Well…that would solve world hunger and overpopulation…(awkward laughter)
ABORTION:
(two separate exchanges represented here…the first over whether it was ethical to abort a child that had a major defect like Down’s Syndrome…the second over the power of the supreme court and a proposed Constitutional amendment designed to check that power)
SHAUNA: (referring to a friend of hers who got pregnant some years back and had a kid with a chromosomal defect linked, in some cases, to severe mental retardation, physical abnormalities like anencephalitia – the lack of a brain, other than the Medulla) She couldn’t go through with an abortion and had the kid, but that was a really dangerous call.  He could have been born without a brain or with missing limbs or with severe mental delays or he could have been still born!  You can’t tell what will happen when they make that diagnosis…you have to wait.  She got lucky…her son ended up just being a little blind and maybe a hair below average intelligence, so basically alright, but it could have been worse.  If it was me, I’d just have aborted him…no questions asked.  Done.  I couldn’t take it if he turned out any worse…
ME: Whoa…wait a minute…I think that’s a little premature.  Can’t you wait until to you know for sure whether the baby is going to be viable before deciding to kill it?
SHAUNA: Well you can’t tell for sure until you get to like 20 or 24 weeks and I don’t think it’s legal to abort at that age.
ME: First of all, in New York, it’s 24 weeks that you can’t abort…second of all, this is a life we’re talking about…I’d want to be pretty damned sure it wasn’t going to be viable before I just ended it.  I mean, what if he turns out to be severely mentally retarded.  Is that not still worthy of love?
SHAUNA: I don’t think it’s worth the risk…if you have an abortion that late it’s a very invasive procedure and much harder for the mother to recover – not to mention the health risks of continuing a non-viable pregnancy.  And in answer to your question, I don’t feel I’m personally equipped to take good enough care of someone who is severely mentally retarded – I’d make a bad mother to someone like that and I don’t want to inflict that on an innocent child.
ME: But this is ME we’re talking about!  This kid turned out basically like me, only less intellectually capable!  If you’d had your way, he’d be dead right now – you don’t see the problem with that?  Pregnancy is always risky…choosing to end it should be done only as a last resort to save the life of the mother…not to alleviate the mother from responsibilities that she fears she may not be up to.
SHAUNA: I’m sorry, I think there are a lot of kids in this country getting born to parents who don’t have the resources to care for them and that’s how we end up with a permanent underclass and a lot of miserable people who never got a fair shake.
…aaaaaand…I lost my temper at this point…could not stay calm and just barked…
ME: Aw, come on, Shauna…you sound like a eugenicist now!  You don’t know what the hell you’re saying.  That’s just so wrong I can’t even answer it.
(and she stormed out – I later apologized for blowing up at her, explaining that the entire argument became personal to me the moment she described the child as a little blind…in some circles, albinism is a good excuse for abortion…I said I should never have lost my temper but asked her to think about what I’d said and she promised she would)
Now for the next conversation…Shauna’s boyfriend started it by – relating to the topic of the 2000 election and the Supreme Court’s role in deciding it – suggesting that the Supreme Court had way too much power these days.
ME: Completely agreed there, Phil (not his real name)…say what you want about the Tea Party, but one of their proposals makes a lot of sense to me.  They want a Constitutional amendment allowing either 3/5 of the state legislatures or a supermajority in the House and Senate to overturn a Supreme Court decision.  There needs to be some check on their power to make law so that the people have at least some voice in such decisions.
SHAUNA: No…I don’t like that idea at all.  If they did that, then you know 3/5 of the states would overturn Roe vs. Wade and we’d be back to the stone ages where women had no support system when they were raped or in no position to raise a child.
ME: There are three things wrong with that statement.  Let’s take them one at a time.  One – I don’t think there would easily be a 30-state majority in favor of overturning Roe vs. Wade, but if there was…wouldn’t that TELL you something about the will of the people being subverted by the Supreme Court?  I get that they’re supposed to represent our best interests and be above political pressure, but they have to represent the people still.
SHAUNA: (shaking her head) I’m tired of the will of the people being defined by certain very vocal groups – different parts of the country represent totally different believe systems…we in the Northeast shouldn’t be led by the hicks in MIssissippi.
ME: Why should the hicks in Mississippi, as you call them, be led by us, then?  Shouldn’t this be decided by the people?  In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons abortion is still such a divisive issue in this country is that we never got to decide for ourselves.  On most issues, we get to take a vote and have a public debate…but here, it was decided for us and that makes a lot of people angry.
PHIL: Yeah…I think this kind of thing is too important to be decided by nine unelected judges.  (this coming from a guy who is generally pro choice!)
ME: The second problem with your statement: overturning Roe vs. Wade does not make abortion illegal in this country.  It only allows states to pass laws that would.  New York would never make abortion illegal, so you’ve got nothing to worry about.  
SHAUNA: I’m not worried about me…I’m worried about the poor girl in Kansas who’ll have to go through a painful pregnancy after she gets raped and with no help from the father or her poor family.  Or make the dangerous choice to try to end the pregnancy herself!
ME: Such things are badly overblown.  I’m willing to bet that in all of the years this country existed before Roe vs. Wade, there were on the order of a few hundred coat-hanger abortions…it’s hysterical to imagine that women everywhere would become victims to this practice.  Most girls in trouble have loving families to help, the option to give up their child for adoption and a belief in some sort of guiding faith to get them through difficult times.
PHIL: I don’t know about that, but I do think that if there are a lot of women becoming victims to it, it will be all over the media and legislative action will happen.
ME: And let me ask you this, Shauna.  What if the next election goes to the Republicans.  There are likely to be two supreme court seats opening up…what if they both get filled by a GOP strict Constitutionalist judge and the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade?  Then will you like your position that the Supreme Court should decide these matters?
PHIL: Sorry, sweety…he’s got you there.
(at which point, she launched into a rant about which fundamentalist religious groups she wanted to get rid of…though to her credit, she did start with Jihadis and agreed with my point that Islam is a risky faith because it places no emphasis on free will)
To the unexamined beliefs of a casual liberal, fairness is rooted in the individual’s right to think of what’s best for him/her.  It’s a legitimate choice to avoid raising a child (by killing it) if ti will be so difficult to do so that you aren’t sure you can handle it.  It’s perfectly normal to impose your beliefs on others if you are comfortable with the belief that they are willfully ignorant.  It makes sense to devalue life if that life isn’t fun anymore.
I find these conversations uplifting.  Because I believe the cure to liberal ideological stagnation found within these exchanges…I urge conservatives everywhere to challenge your liberal friends to defend their beliefs…I believe the harder we make our own minds work, the more likely we are to reach a position where we can debate honestly and strive for truth and real fairness.

Just What Is Fairness, Anyway? (Part III)

Last time, I gave a little first-person insight into the mind of a hard-core progressive.  On the subject of class distinctions and wealth distribution, the progressive honestly believes that the difficulty of the work should define the magnitude of the financial compensation, not the market demand…that the only institution capable of remaining impartial enough to make sound decisions about charitable endeavors is the government, and that the wealthy literally had to have achieved their high station through crooked or unfair means since those in their employ only see a tiny fraction of that wealth.

Now for a change of pace, let’s look at the more moderate face of liberalism.  We’ll call guest #2 Claire.  Claire grew up in a family with a mother who was a part of the movement to support the Equal Rights Amendment – a home with no cable television (but an antenna, which they used every week to watch mainly the mainstream network news programs and PBS).  Her parents were loosely observant Catholics and very attentive to her education and her civility.  She is well-mannered and level-headed on the whole, but certainly a product of the media and her liberal surroundings.  Actually, apart from her generous nature, her defining virtue is her respect for others – especially authorities.  I’m actually going to be merging several conversations here…I’ve had many discussions with her on various political issues, from private vs. public sector responsibilities to spirituality, but I think a few highlights will give you a good picture of the center-left Democrat.

SOCIAL JUSTICE:

CLAIRE: It’s funny to me…the Republicans used to be all about social justice – they led the abolitionist marches, they fought for woman’s suffrage, they were the first to establish the department of veteran’s affairs.  So why didn’t they get on board with the civil rights movement?  Why were they behind in the 60s and 70s?  Why aren’t they feminists?  What changed?

ME: Nothing changed.  The Republicans were about social justice in the 1850s and they still are.  Simply because they disagree with the methods employed by today’s left wing does not mean they aren’t fighting for fairness.

CLAIRE: (interrupting) But you can’t deny that it was the left pushing the equal rights amendment, the civil rights movement, the freedom of choice for women, an end to wage disparities…

ME: I think the key thing that caused the conservatives of this country to turn away from what is currently described in the media narrative as the front for social justice is the methods.  Recall that in the 1950s, it was REPUBLICANS marching on Selma and Atlanta.  It was REPUBLICANS being shot in the streets by DIXIECRAT officials.  It was REPUBLICANS fighting against Jim Crow.  Rosa Parks…was a REPUBLICAN.  The right wing of our government shied away the moment the rhetoric became less about changing the system gradually through proper channels and more about forcing rapid, big-government solutions down our throats.  We stepped away from the civil rights movement and did not back the equal rights amendment because such things were GIGANTIC overreaches on the part of the government.  We disliked Affirmative Action because we didn’t think government had any right to counter racism with institutional racism of a different kind.  We resisted the ERA because there were provisions in it that would require us to hand over too many of our rights.  We fought abortion and birth control because we honestly believed those things would lead to a degradation of the status of women and an unleashing of all of the worst behavior in men…and we were RIGHT.

CLAIRE: That isn’t what you’ll hear in the South these days.  They don’t talk about wanting equal rights for women and minorities but wanting to do it gradually and in ways that don’t trample on liberties…there is real hatred down there.  There are towns where, if it was legal, they would still make blacks use a different water fountain or bathroom.

ME: Well, there, a funny thing happened after the Dixiecrats got shouted down by the progressive movement within the Democratic party.  Southern racists and evangelicals who had always voted for democrats in the past had no party to turn to.  They started voting for Republicans because the party that was resisting rapid change was the party that in their mind, was less despicable.  So yes, the conservative movement nowadays has an element of old southern hatred.  Ignoring it won’t do us any favors.  But what the media has done to the rest of conservatism because of this fringe group (and all polling data suggests that racially bigoted attitudes are in the vast minority even in the southern states now) is inexcusable, and only explained by an evident desire to write a new progressive narrative and change history.  I strongly urge you to read what was actually written by conservative intellectuals about the ERA or the civil rights movement or birth control or abortion.

(Claire was not convinced by polling data in re: Southern attitudes…I think she might have been more convinced if she’d been talking to someone from the South…or had ever been down there)

THE TEA PARTY vs. OCCUPY WALL STREET:

ME: I find myself sympathetic to the tea party on economic issues, although I think some of their goals are so far from attainable that it seems a little crazy to mainstream conservatives…which does our entire movement no go.  I just think it’s shameful what the media has done to try to discredit them.

CLAIRE: I know the groups are different in different places, but they’re doing it to themselves.  They dress up like Colonials and talk about revolution and say some rather hateful things when given the chance to gain the podium.  I don’t for a second believe that our institutions are really so bad off that we need to hit the reset button, and I think it would catastrophic if we just cut funding in the sudden and painful way they want.

ME: Well let me ask you think?  Does the media spend any time talking about the fringe loonies that show up at Occupy protests?  Or do they try to paint the movement as spawning from reasonable frustration?  Because they focused on the fringe loonies at the Tea Party rallies and portrayed them as anarchists, racists, rednecks…why are though no documentaries on the antisemitic, anti-American things that the nutter-butters at Zuccoti park are saying?  And for that matter…if the media is so ready to draw parallels between OWS and the Tea Party, why is one treated with respect and the other with fear and loathing?

CLAIRE: There is coverage of the violence in Oakland, the riots in Detroit…it’s not all positive coverage of OWS.

ME: They will matter-of-factly report the news, because they are still required to do so…but what do they say when they report on the Oakland vandalism?  Do they say “angry anarchists attacked the city today, costing the businesses there hundreds of thousands” or do they say “hundreds of out of work youth took to the streets today to protest the unfair conditions that led to their unemployment – dozens of arrests were made as the rioters did damage to a number of businesses in the region.”  You have to train yourself to listen for the spin, because it’s in almost every broadcast, and it all seems to lean one way.

(at this point, she muttered something about not being so sure about that…)

ENVIRONMENTALISTS & THE CAUSE:

(following an appearance by Carl Safina on the Daily Show w/ John Stewart – for those who don’t know, Safina is a big wig with the Blue Ocean Institution and New York Sea Grant and is thus heavily tied to Stony Brook – my place of business)

ME: That was ridiculous.  That appearance discredits Stony Brook and marine science in general.  To get up there on National television and boil the whole Gulf oil disaster down to “Republican-backed deregulation of the oil industry is going to lead to more disasters like this” is despicable.

CLAIRE: Well he was definitely applying some spin…

ME: Some?  Some spin?  It was all spin.

CLAIRE: …but had some good points and it’s his job to raise awareness – we look to scientifically knowledgeable public policy experts to make recommendations and call attention to problems with current law.  Unless you’re going to argue that better safety procedures and regulations wouldn’t have prevented this disaster.

ME: It is, believe it or not, possible to raise awareness without blatantly lying to millions of people.  Nowhere did he mention that there are megatons of much less dangerous to acquire oil and natural gas that we aren’t allowed to drill for because of government – particularly EPA/DOE – OVER-regulation of energy policy.  Conveniently, he leaves out that while we’re abiding by the laws in place, there are energy companies flying under pirate-style international flags avoiding regulations to get oil for China, applying pressure on us to dig deeper than we should to keep up.  Sorry, but you can have good points and they’re worthless if you don’t tell the truth…and I mean the whole truth.  Scientists have a responsibility to be objective, not to be advocates for a cause.

CLAIRE: I agree that in an ideal world, a scientist would be able to be completely free of advocacy…that his word on an impending problem would carry enough weight with those less informed about a given field that action would be taken.  But we don’t live in that world.  There is a threat just as grave from a scientist being too inactive to advocate a position as being overzealous.  Agent Orange, for example, we originally conceived as a useful, completely peaceful herbicide for clearing land and became one of the ugliest chemical weapons in history and the scientist who invented it spent his whole life afterward regretting his mere existence.

ME: But Carl didn’t stop at telling us there was a problem.  He reached way beyond his field of expertise and started making claims form his position of authority on marine conservation SCIENCE to talk about energy POLICY, about which he has no credentials at all that should give him that authority role.  Carl Safina is no more an expert on regulatory policy than you or I.  In fact, based on his one-sided rhetoric, someone like me might conclude that he knows jack-squat about energy policy or government regulation beyond what his buddies all say.

CLAIRE: Fair enough…I don’t think Safina is a bad guy…I think he cares deeply about raising the public profile of these issues and attention focused on them and sometimes he goes overboard in that regard. (you see…she appeals to authority here…she wants to see the good in people and that is admirable, but it blinds her to the danger of appealing to authority without question)

ME: The road to hell is paved with good intentions…Safina no doubt means well, but we can’t tolerate a man just because his intentions are good if what he’s actually doing is endangering the credibility of scientists…or worse…endangering the economy by making calls to authority he does not possess.

Incidentally…when the first climategate broke, her instinctual reaction was to note that we all have e-mails that, if read at face value, sound bad and to emphasize that even if there was some bad acting going on, it wasn’t the majority of the field.  She trusts the authority of the literature too.

REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES:

CAIN (on allegations of misconduct)

ME: Cain just doesn’t like the kind of guy to do what Ms. Bialek claims he did…and there is ample evidence to suggest that she’s lying or exaggerating her claims.

CLAIRE: Multiple claims have come forward though…usually when you get a cluster of reports, there’s something to it.

ME: If I see hard evidence to that fact, I’ll be the first to reject Cain, but a cluster of accustations is no more convincing than a single accusation to me…especially when most of them are anonymous or backed by lawyers with a political ax to grind.  We don’t try and convict people without the removal of all reasonable doubt.

(Claire went on to suggest that although Bialek may have been exaggerating, there’s a good chance Cain was a bit too friendly with the ladies and some women didn’t know how to handle it properly).

PERRY (on his position on the death penalty and creationism)

CLAIRE: Oh God…you cannot like Perry.  That would be a big problem for me.  Based on what he’s said, he sounds very anti-science to me.  Seemed to be suggesting that he believed in creationism in the literal sense of the word…that he didn’t buy into global warming theory at all, despite having no background in the science…and don’t even get me started on his record with capital punishment.

ME: I didn’t say I liked Perry…just mentioned that he seemed to be catching fire of late…I haven’t fully appraised him yet (this was a while back).  But I must say that what he said about creationism doesn’t strike me as necessarily his denying evolution entirely…it sounds like he wanted to make a place in his campaign for people who believed either of those theories.  Of course, I’d be pretty uncomfortable with a creationist President…but I prefer not to leap to conclusions.  As for capital punishment, Perry had basically no discretion when it came to death row inmates and no authority to rewrite Texas law.  Those he does seem rather proud of that record.  I’m on the fence about capital punishment, and believe there are good times to use it (serial killers and the like), but he does seem a bit “Texas sized” with his ego on that front.  And oh BTW, you know my position on global warming (I believe we’re having an effect too minor to require massive international economic decapitation over)…I think it’s a bit presumptuous to call someone “anti-science” just because they disagree with scientists on any particular issue.

CLAIRE: It would be one thing if he had an intelligent defense of any of his positions, but everything he says seems to lack any depth at all.

ME: It may well be that he’s just not a very adept communicator, which would be excellent grounds for avoiding him as a nominee…let’s hold off on the name-calling though until we know me, OK?

BACHMANN (regarding whether minor gaffes like incorrectly identifying in which state the battles of Lexington and Concord occurred)

CLAIRE: I’m sorry, but I don’t think Bachmann is qualified to be President…some of the things she’s said have really made her appear unprepared and historically limited.  In (insert home town), we expect our leaders to have a firm command of U.S. History, World History, Philosophy, and Science…we want them to know their basic facts because if they don’t, what will make them qualified to govern us going forward.

ME: I agree that a President needs to have a CONCEPTUAL grasp of history.  The exact location of the battles of Lexington and Concord is not a concept…it’s minutia.  When you eliminate all people from the running for the office who are missing a few factoids from their history files, you’ll have no one left except history professors – most of whom will not know enough about what is CURRENTLY happening to govern wisely – especially on matters of science, economics and agriculture.  This is how we end up with people like Obama in office…we eliminate people over silly things like where Lexington and Concord happened and are left with the smoothest talkers…not the people with the best current ideas.

CLAIRE: But that is such a CENTRAL factoid that it suggests that Bachmann doesn’t understand some of the basic conceptual foundations of the revolution.  How can we trust that she has a complete enough historical foundation that her ideas will be well informed when she’s getting really basic things like that wrong?

ME: So…rather than analyze a candidate’s current ideas and decide whether they make sense to you…you’d rather assume that they can’t be good because their grasp of history is missing a few key factoids?  What if I ran for President?  Would I be unqualified to contribute simply because I didn’t know that Long Island was twice the size of Puerto Rico?

CLAIRE: Yes…sorry, but I would consider that a bad sign for you as a candidate.  There are gaps in your knowledge of geography that could be pretty costly for you as the leader of the free world.

ME: Not that I’m arguing that I’d be a good President – I don’t think I have the people skills for that job – but I don’t think even our most effective Presidents ever had to make a decision that required intricate knowledge of precisely how wide Laos is.  They have a swarming hive of advisers presenting them with alternatives and their judgment is what’s important…not their Jeopardy-style trivial knowledge.

CLAIRE: I don’t think either of us actually know what a President does on a typical day…but I do believe that the mistakes made during Vietnam and Iraq came down to a lack of so-called trivial knowledge about the geography, political ideologies and economic situation on the ground in Iraq and Vietnam.  A better leadership could have averted cost and lives and netted a positive outcome if our Presidents had all of those facts.

(she did have a point here)

ME: Fair enough…I still think that given the choice between the person who is ideologically aimed toward something I believe will work and is a little short on trivial knowledge and the person who is a master of knowledge but is ideologically akin to Obama…I’ll go with the supposedly less qualified leader.  Of course…Obama himself is often factless in his rhetorical narrative, especially when it comes to the private sector and how best to spur economic recovery…(at which point the subject veered off elsewhere…LOL)

This is how an outstanding person can be a liberal…they call to authority, worship academia (without realizing that this is what they’re doing) – and thus are pulled toward the liberal bias thereof, and grow up in a world narrated by the mainstream media almost exclusively, yielding only one real point of view as viable in their minds…they wind up seeing big business as something like a gang of individuals and government as the true authority on the economy.  They trust scientists to be agenda-free and motivated by virtue but make no allowances for the possibility that those scientists might be tragically wrong or for the reality that most entrepreneurs intend nothing but the best as well.  Basically…bias and agenda, in their eyes, doesn’t come from traditionally respected institutions (government, media, academia)…it comes from everywhere else.

If you believe that…you almost have to be in favor of bigger government and conservative ideas about more freedom and less regulation have to seem scary and inherently unfair despite the process being nominally fair.

Next time…we’ll talk to a social liberal on issues like gay rights and abortion and see how fairness gets defined in that arena.

Just What Is Fairness, Anyway? (Part II)

My sister laid out a plank and I am now going to step out onto it and lay the next plank.  She asserts that left-wingers ultimately think only of equality of results – I’d add that if this premise is correct, it also explains their singular emphasis on the individual’s rights, rather than on the impact an individual has on others (think abortion rights, their use of the commerce clause, and their use of their right to free speech), since a fair outcome depends on every adult individual being paramount – it depends on a selfish way of thinking.

But before I go too far into that, I think some insider perspective helps illuminate the minds of leftists.  I’ve taken it upon myself to overcome some of my tendencies toward frustration and anger when debating a left winger, take deep breaths, try to stay calm, and debate them as though their intellectual positions were equal.  I personally don’t think they are, but I believe in fairness too…I want to give my left wing friends a chance to make their core beliefs known without jumping down their throat even if what I hear frightens me.

I’ve had three such discussions with three different leftists in the last few weeks.  I’ll alter their names to protect their identity (it’s only fair).

We’ll call our first guest Nina.  She and I had a lengthy discussion about the necessity of government’s place in enforcing social responsibilities.  I will simplify the structure of the discussion a bit since Nina has a tendency to ramble, repeat herself, and go off-topic on occasion when she’s in a hyper mood.

An important bit of info about Nina – she is a very hard-core progressive.  Her mother is a force of nature who has indoctrinated her all her life with a select few sources of news and information and she is not yet mature enough, I believe, to challenge those theories and assertions, though I do see some signs of progress on that front.  I feel it important to bring this up so that it is clear that our first guest is not a mainstream Democrat.  Mainstream Democrats will get to talk shortly.  Here, in a nutshell, is how my conversation on taxes, fat cats and corporate America went.

NINA: Did you know that there is an upper limit of $100,000 on the payroll tax…and if they eliminated that limit, social security would be completely paid for?  It’s ridiculous that the cap is that low!

ME: Even if that were true, which I don’t believe it is (that eliminating the cap would solve SSA’s insolvency), the payroll tax doesn’t reach the personal wealth of most of America’s wealthiest people.  Raising or eliminating that cap will primarily hurt middle-market investors, small business owners and the upper middle class.

NINA: You would have to eliminate that cap and then tax luxury and consumption as well, but the wealthiest in this country have to pay themselves somehow.  I’ve heard stories about businessmen going out to dinner and spending 60 thousand dollars in one meal!  Or 10 thousand on a shower curtain!  That’s disgusting!  I make 20 thousand in a year if I’m lucky!  They shouldn’t get to spend three times my salary in one night and not contribute substantially to their social obligations!

ME: So you want to tax investment (through capital gains taxes), consumption (through luxury taxes), income (through a much more progressive income tax structure), payroll (with no limit on the amount of payroll that can be taxed), sales (through state sales taxes), property (especially large estates since you don’t want to eliminate the estate tax), luck (windfall taxes), energy (gas taxes, carbon taxes, etc)…what don’t you want to tax?  And how can we stay productive that way?

NINA: I think that people like us who make a normal living don’t understand the concept of percentages.  I hear all the time that the wealthiest X percent are paying some huge share of the tax burden, but they don’t get it.  50% of my pay being lost would kill me, but to them, it has no affect at all!  They can afford to give up more without even noticing a difference!

ME: I think the problem with that position is that when you tax the wealthy because they can afford to be taxed, it reduces the amount they’re willing to spend on their businesses, their personal lifestyle and their properties.  Let’s go back to your shower curtain example.  I know you love the art world.  Some artist crafted that fine shower curtain.  If all of the wealthiest among us were taxed at the rates you’re proposing, do you think that artisan would find enough work to survive?  What about that dinner?  Someone grew the grapes for that $3,000 bottle of Pinot Grigiot, and someone sold cattle to become the $8,000 steak tar tar and someone is running the restaurant that caters to these kinds of upscale clients.  And there some lucky waiters working at that restaurant who’ll get more in tips that night than many waitresses make in a month at Applebees.  And the chef is being paid handsomely, which means he can afford to take his family to the Grand Canyon next winter!  Do you see what I’m driving at?

NINA: But what percentage of all of that wealth being thrown around so grotesquely by the fat cat stock brokers and hedge fund managers is actually going to the artisan or the waiter?  It may seem like a good thing to them, but they’re getting a PITTANCE of the wealth needed to enjoy that kind of opulent lifestyle.  We should be supporting them, not bribing them with underpaid work.

ME: Now who doesn’t understand percentages?  Who cares whether the profits from such transactions aren’t mostly going to the artisan?  He has to make a living and the pittance he gets is probably enough to keep his family very happy!  If the shower curtain cost $2,000 to make and he sells it for $4,000 to a decorator who then sells it to the rich guy for $10,000 since the middle-men always take a higher profit margin, then the artisan made $2,000 in one day (it would take me a month to make that)…and the middle man made $6,000 in one day…and the rich guy got what he wanted and paid a lot for it.  And everyone was happy!  That $2,000 made by the artisan is a pittance in ratio terms, but it pays his bills for weeks!  And he gets to do this multiple times a year I’m sure.  And what of the pittance paid to the maids and tutors and drivers and pilots and butlers and gardeners and landscapers and decorators who maintain the fat cat’s enormous mansions?  How many people do you think Bill Gates employs OTHER THAN his corporation which employs hundreds of thousands worldwide?  It turns out that Mr. Gates requires a personal staff some 600 people deep!  Those are 600 people who have a job…who wouldn’t if it weren’t for Gates being a fat cat!

NINA: That staff would still be there even with more taxes…Gates isn’t going to stop living like a king just because doing so will be a larger percentage of his net wealth.

ME: Even if that were true – and the fact that you would think that is true demonstrates a lack of understanding, IMHO, of the way that the wealthy view their finances – but even if that were true…can you say the same for the guy making a million a year because he owns eight dry cleaners and has a little socked away in stocks and currency?  Will a surtax on the wealthy leave him with enough to afford that tutor he wants for his kids?  Or the twice-weekly lawn care visits to keep his grass green?

NINA: But the guy who runs the dry cleaners isn’t doing all the work of those dry cleaners…he just owns some pieces of paper and handles the actual workers!  Why do the people cleaning people’s clothes make minimum wage and suffer while the owner lives well – and he’d still be living well even if he couldn’t afford a tutor!  He didn’t work fifty times as hard as I did this year…why should he make fifty times what I do?

ME: Ah…now we’ve gotten to the real root of your unhappiness.  You believe that compensation should be related to effort, not to demand and net value.  Needless to say, I believe the opposite.  The orange pickers in Florida make minimum wage because anyone who is reasonably fit can pick oranges.  That job is easily replaced.  That may sound rough, but we don’t pay the people running dry cleaners a lot because it doesn’t take a ton of unique skills to do that and because there is a large unskilled labor force that will gladly be paid that pittance to do the work.  And no…that doesn’t mean the guy who owns the franchises is taking advantage of the poor…it means he’s paying them what they need and giving them work because his entrepreneurship has created the wealth to afford it.  Like it or not, there are many people out there who don’t have much earning power because they simply don’t have the abilities needed.   We aren’t all created with the same gifts.

NINA: The fact that we are born with unequal abilities only proves my basic point!  There are those of us who are really in need of help from those of us who have the good fortune to be gifted with unequaled talents.  I have no problem with everyone making different wages, but fifty times different?  Or fifty THOUSAND times different?  Shouldn’t we do what we can to give the less fortunate a fighting chance to be happy?

ME: Despite what the media says daily, the vast majority of people who do grunt work for a living ARE happy.  The unemployed…not so much, and I agree that this is a major problem, though I think the solution is to empower businesses to hire more by making the tax code simpler and easier to predict and by removing unnecessary regulations that make it too expensive to operate a large corporation here.  But don’t fall for the Marxist line that the factory worker is miserable under the weight of the fat cat who crawled over him to get his good station in life.  Most construction workers love their jobs…love being part of building something that will last a long time…most factory workers find their joy in the other parts of their lives.  Most pig farmers love their land.  It takes privilege and idle time to become unhappy that someone higher up than you has a nicer car.  Don’t believe me?  You ask Mike Rove – he’s actually made a career of touring the country talking to unskilled and lightly-skilled laborers who do the jobs most of us wouldn’t want to do.  As for wage disparities…I still think you’re missing the benefits of having very wealthy folks with enough resources to hire the rest of us…but I’d also ask you who is the arbiter or fairness?  What is the limit of wealth a person can acquire and have it still be fair?

NINA: Well we have to do something!  We can’t rely on big businesses to give to social causes – the government has to have a role there to make sure these people live up to their obligations.

ME: (after a moment and a deep breath to avoid barking back that she completely avoided answering my questions or addressing my points) OK…well I’ll tell you that a fiscal conservative tends to believe that charity must be voluntary to achieve full participation…that long before the advent of the current big-government spending regime, big corporations gave a larger percentage of their net worth to charity than they do now to taxes, and that even today, there are plenty of examples of the wealthiest among us giving of their worth voluntarily.  I mentioned Bill Gates…

NINA: Stop…I know what you’re about to say.  And yes…Gates is a bad example since he spends so much on AIDS research and African infrastructure projects, but for every Gates out there, there are a hundred Steve Jobs and Bill Koch types out there who never give significantly to charity.  And when they fail to do it, it’s the government’s job to force them to be better people for all our sakes.

ME: (another deep breath) Alright…say we decide that government should force rich people to be upstanding citizens and give to charitable causes – why do progressives never like the idea of forcing them to give a certain percentage to CHARITY…rather than the government?  That has been proposed many times and the left always balks.  They seem to think that the government is a better arbiter of what’s a valid charity than people are.  I don’t think you can force people to be better and I think it’s anti-American to try to do so by fiat, but let’s follow your contention to the logical conclusion.  How do we decide what is a valid and just cause?

NINA: It would be one thing if the government were in charge of charities…or kept a list of the productive charitable organizations that could best help people, but there are things that less-organizes grass roots charities can’t do that only the government can.  A charity can’t provide social security.  A charity can’t take care of the mentally ill with medical aid and financial assistance.

ME: Even the staunchest conservative thinks we need to protect social security and provide avenues toward affordable health care and take care of the legitimately needy as best as we can.  But many of us disagree with you that other government programs are more productive than private charity once was.  But that isn’t even the key point.  If you want people to see it as a joy to help others, you literally cannot force them to do so.  If you take it upon yourself to decide what we all need, you’re going to make choices that some of us don’t agree with…and you’re going to actively discourage us from being better citizens.  Most entrepreneurs don’t balk at paying more taxes because they just want to roll in money and see it go to no good end.  They balk because they think government will spend their money stupidly and they want to have control over how it’s spent.  And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they’re right!  The shear number of redundancies, scandals, pork barrel spending projects and failed government grants and bailouts should tell you all you need to know about who knows more about how to handle money – the career capitalists or the government.  Besides…if we let the government pick which charities are worthy and which are not and then force us to pay for their favorites…isn’t that rather like the Soviet system in spirit, if not in total substance?

NINA: I’m not saying the government should take ownership of the corporations..that would be the Communist system.  I’m saying the government should take some ownership of the available wealth…enough to guarantee that those of us who are less fortunate have a fighting chance to move up in the world.

ME: Such a thing can never be guaranteed, no matter how much money you throw at it, if the government actively prevents the wealthiest of us from moving upward to.  And I see essentially no philosophical difference between government ownership of a corporation and ownership of any share of the wealth.  They both lead to the same thing…government deciding how corporations should behave, spending the wealth and drawing away resources from the pockets of the people who know better how to use those resources, and keeping the rest of us from being able to afford to start up a business ourselves (because the cost of doing business with the government on your shoulder is too high).

Obviously, neither of us was going to convince the other…but we gave it our best shot…and I think I fleshed out the mind of a true progressive quite nicely.  They honestly believe that the mere possession of large wealth usually implies evil deeds were done to acquire it.  They believe that business people know less about social needs than politicians.  They trust only the government (because they hilariously see that entity as impartial) to make decisions in our best interest.  And they are obsessed with equality of outcome, rather than process as my co-author suggested.

Later in this same conversation Nina admitted to knowledge of several ways she could/would use to cheat the system if she had to, saying that she didn’t care if it would hurt other people or be unfair because the system itself was unfair and deserved to be undermined so long as the wage gap was this large.  I coldly rebuked the notion that morality should take a back seat to ideology and moved on…but it cost her a lot of my respect going forward, I must honestly say.

The next post will discuss a center-leftist’s take on the need for government run healthcare, artistic funds, transportation, and regulatory agencies, among other things.

Just What Is "Fairness" Anyway?

“Fairness” appears to be Obama’s new buzzword for the 2012 campaign, but like “hope” and “change,” “fairness” is a word that no longer has a universal meaning:

  • If you are a leftist – like Obama – you are focused on results. Have we achieved racial and gender parity in our hiring practices? How big is the gap in earnings between the rich and the poor? How is wealth distributed in our society? Is it being monopolized by a few at the top?
  • If, on the other hand, you are conservative – like me or SABR Matt – you are focused on the process. A process-oriented perspective considers the left’s results-oriented questions to be basically meaningless. “Fairness,” according to this viewpoint, is not achieving sameness at the end of the great chain of causality; instead, it’s a matter of following a uniform set of rules and giving people what they are due based on their individual talents and hard work.

Now, contrary to popular left-wing belief, we conservatives do acknowledge that there is “unfairness” in our current system. We are simply focused on a different array of solutions. Consider Warren Buffet’s complaint that he pays less in taxes, percentage-wise, than his secretary. Granted, leftists tend to exaggerate the scope of that particular problem because it serves their purposes politically, but it is in fact the case that some wealthy individuals – and their attorneys – take advantage of our Byzantine tax code to avoid their personal tax burden. So if we stipulate that this is a problem, how do we solve it? Well, if you’re Obama, you just want to slap on a band-aid. If some rich people aren’t paying their “fair share,” says Obama, we should add a whole new tax they won’t be able to escape. We conservatives, meanwhile, see things differently. We believe that it is the complexity of the process that is generating the “unfairness,” and as such, we don’t support the addition of yet another tax. Instead, we believe in simplifying the tax code we already have. We believe in getting rid of the loopholes – which are more likely to be exploited by rich people and their aforementioned attorneys – and making the process of paying one’s taxes more predictable.

Every once in a while, you will see a superficial similarity between right and left — but the key word there is superficial. The left-wingers of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the right-wingers of the Tea Party movement both consider the Wall Street bailouts to be offensive, for example, but the reasons behind that opinion are completely different. As far as I can tell, the OWS protestors don’t like the Wall Street bailouts not because they find government handouts of that nature to be wrong in general, but because they went to rich people who work in an industry that supports the capitalist apparatus they personally abhor. Has any OWS protestor ever complained about the bailout money that went to General Motors? Has any OWS protestor ever complained about the money that was wasted on the now defunct Solyndra? The Tea Partiers, on the other hand, oppose government bailouts of any type because they make the process unfair. As soon as you allow the government to pick and choose winners and losers in our economy, government officials will immediately begin funneling cash to their political backers, and certain businesses will be rendered exempt from the brush clearing which sustains the free market (to harken back to SABR Matt’s forest fire metaphor). According to the Tea Party mindset, the Wall Street bailouts, the GM bailout, and the money that went to Solyndra are all of a piece. They are all rewards for Obama’s best buddies — and in the first two cases, they shielded certain corporations from pressures that would’ve forced beneficial changes.

The source of the differences between right and left boils down to anthropology. We conservatives believe that people are born inherently unequal, and as such, we don’t expect equal results. Instead, we believe our duty is to ensure that everyone can play whatever hand they are dealt in a system in which the rules are the same for everyone. We believe that a person’s ethnicity or social class matters less than the family unit – which, when properly functional, transmits the work ethic that makes success possible – and the talents of the person himself. A leftist, on the other hand, believes we are born blank slates. Leftists don’t acknowledge, for example, that there are biological differences between men and women that result, on average, in different aptitudes and different temperaments, and so they are always outraged whenever a particular industry fails to achieve gender parity. At the same time, the leftist viewpoint considers your social class and ethnicity to be large, central, and deterministic. If you are born a minority, then your only hope for success is a hand up from the government via affirmative action. If you are born white and affluent, any of your successes will henceforth be considered unmerited — merely the consequences of your good luck. Meanwhile, individual characteristics like industry, competence, and persistence tend to be de-emphasized.

Some people may accuse me of constructing a straw-man when it comes to the left, but I don’t think that’s the case. My reason? Leftist policy proposals would only make sense if, deep down, most leftists believed what I just outlined above. It makes sense to confiscate and redistribute wealth in the name of “fairness” only if that wealth is unearned. If, on the other hand, an individual’s native abilities and willingness to put his nose to the grindstone factor into his success, then it is fundamentally unjust to take his wealth and give it to others who may not be worthy of the largesse.

Make no mistake: There are many elements of the process of wealth creation that need to be made more fair. Most importantly, the practice of giving government subsidies and other special favors to pet industries needs to stop. But Obama and his supporters don’t really care about that kind of “fairness.” Oh, they may say they care, but their actions certainly belie their words. No — what the left really cares about is the sort of “fairness” in which certain members of an anointed class are handed the power to decide who “deserves” to be successful. And is this really what you want for America? If your answer is no, then you need to vote for Obama’s opponent in 2012.

Obama and the Chicago Way

Illinois: State of Embarrassment
by Joel Kotkin

Most critics of Barack Obama’s desultory performance the past three years trace it to his supposedly leftist ideology, lack of experience and even his personality quirks. But it would perhaps be more useful to look at the geography — of Chicago and the state of Illinois — that nurtured his career and shaped his approach to politics. Like with George W. Bush and Texas, this is a case where you can’t separate the man from the place.

Crony capitalism constitutes the essential element of what the legendary columnist John Kass of the Chicago Tribune has labeled both the “Chicago way” and the “Illinois Combine”, not primarily an ideology-driven movement. The political system, he notes, “knows no party, only appetites.”

Just look at the special favors granted to vested interests while the state has imposed a 65% boost in income taxes for middle class citizens. Companies like Boeing and United, which have head offices in Chicago, get tax breaks and incentives, while everyone else pays the full fare. This game is still afoot. Even as the state deficit persists, other big players such as the CME group, which operates the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Options and Sears are threatening to leave unless their taxes are also lowered.

Thus it’s not surprising then that cronyism has become a hallmark of the Obama administration. Wall Street grandees, a key source of Obama campaign funders in 2008 and again now, have been treated to bailouts as well as monetary policies that have assured massive profits to the “too big to fail” crowed while devastating consumers and smaller banks.

The evolving scandal over “green jobs” — with huge loans handed out to faithful campaign contributors — epitomizes the special dealing that has become an art form in the system of Chicago and Illinois politics. Beneficiaries include longtime Obama backers such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Google. Another scandal is building up around the telecom company LightSquared. This company, financed largely by key Obama donors, appears to have gained a leg up for a huge Pentagon contract due to White House pressure.

If the Chicago system had proven an economic success, perhaps we could excuse Obama for bringing it to the rest of us. Most of us would put up with a bit of corruption and special dealing if the results were strong economic and employment growth.

But the bare demographic and economic facts for both Chicago and Illinois reveal a stunning legacy of failure…

I think there are many interpretive keys you can employ to explain the Obama administration, but Kotkin has certainly nailed at least part of the truth. Go and read the whole thing.

(Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.)

The Little Things

This is a general plea to parents around this nation and the world at large.

We need to teach our children to pay attention to the little things.  I recognize that this world is difficult and that our time is limited and that we need to work more than we used to because taxes and fees take too much of our income and college tuition looms on the horizon and any of a hundred things forces us to work harder for the same relative pay.  I know it’s easier said than done to get your kids to listen to you when you emphasize the small niceties when other parents don’t teach their children the same lessons and they end up on the short end of the stick while more aggressive, ruder kids get whatever they want.  But we have got to fight our inner skeptic/pessimist and stand for a better world, and it’s just not enough to make sure your kid doesn’t do drugs or get prematurely pregnant or get into fights or break the law.  Those things are important, but we, as a nation, are forgetting just how important manners are…and it’s making all of us miserable and angry and cruel.

This was my day today, as measured in typical Long Island rudeness.

  • Woke up to find that my housemate had covered the bathroom floor in water (likely while he was getting dried off) instead of toweling off while still in the tub and then putting his towel down before he got out of the shower (something I always…ALWAYS…do)…forcing me to change my socks again (they were fresh…I had just put them on the previous night before bed).
  • On the way out the door, I encountered five (!) straight cars running the stop signs on my street, the last of which annoyed me enough that I walked out right in front of him and held up my hands to stop him.  He beeped at me.  For forcing him to obey the law long enough for me to get across the road to my friend’s car to get to work.
  • While driving to work, we were nearly run off the road because a guy on his f***ing cell phone tried to change lanes while we were next to him.
  • We had to park behind our department in the dirt lot on the opposite side of South Campus because dental school students (whose lot is partially under construction) feel that they should be allowed to park illegally rather than do what they’re supposed to do and park at South P Lot and take the 2-minute bus ride back to South Campus (the shuttle that passes South P every five friggin’ minutes).
  • Twenty minutes after I got to work, the custodian bugged us again asking to borrow money (he is completely incapable of managing his money and always comes seeking assistance…my office mate and I were both dumb enough to help him in the past and now we’re his bank).  Feeling obliged once again to lend him money, I handed him a ten, because when we say no, he grumbles at us like we’re un-Christian for refusing to offer charity at his command.
  • An hour later, a group of at least seven SoMAS (my department) students and their adviser felt the inexplicable need to stop in the lobby right outside my office door and have a conversation for fifteen minutes at about 100 decibels about their next lab meeting.  Why they couldn’t have that conversation outside or in their lab is anyone’s guess, but I finally got up and politely asked them to leave.  My girlfriend informs me that if I make a habit of asking for quiet in the hall outside my door, I’ll be seen as an ogre, for some reason.
  • When I went to lunch, it was very crowded at the local cafe and a mob of dental school students (and one professor) refused to stand in a single-file line, were badgering the employees about the lack of prepared lunch specials and three of them cut in line at the invitation of their friends (who were ahead of me).  I don’t care if all you want is a coffee or a cup of soup, you don’t get to cut in line just because your order is simple.  Even Steve (the guy at the counter) was annoyed at the constant line-cutting and mob-mentality of the dental school patrons…especially since they are rude to him when he doesn’t get their orders instantly.  Some of the professors are even known to simply walk behind the counter and fill their own drinks and throw money at Steve to pay for them because God knows…they’re too important to stand in line for ten minutes.  After the third person cut me…they had the gall to look at me and my office mate and simply say “sorry, we’re line-jumping,” and then place their orders.
  • The mob at Chock Full of Nuts was so disorganized that it was nearly impossible to walk back out of the store after I got my food and when I said “excuse me” to the customers in my way they’d move, but give me the stink eye for daring to interrupt their conversation.  To which I finally snapped and barked back “Let’s try standing single file and delaying those all-important circular conversations until you’re out of the store, OK?”  And then put my head down and rammed my way through the crowd like a offensive lineman through would-be tacklers (the Japanese would call this the Gaijin Slam).  Yes…it was rude of me…but this is what happens!  You act rudely to me all day and eventually, I’m going to lose my temper!
  • But of no…it’s not over!  About 3 PM, our self-important fellow SoMAS grad student from the chemical oceanography program (whose name I will omit for her sake because I’m not rude) showed up to talk our ear off four nearly half an hour even though all three of us in the office clearly had our heads down and were trying to work.  My nerves having already been weakened by the constant barrage of rudeness, I finally exited, lying that I was going to the bathroom, and went to kick rocks around in the woods behind South Campus for a few minutes to relax.  The only way I was going to avoid yelling at this girl for constantly thinking only of herself and her emotional needs and not respecting that this is a workplace environment and we have things to do.
  • And…on the way home, I saw the campus police had someone pulled over and they were out of their car red-faced and screaming at the poor officer for daring to give them a ticket.  This didn’t affect me directly, but it certainly is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Long Island in particular and this country in a more general sense.
I spent the majority of my day feeling stressed and unhappy because a collection of oblivious, privileged, self-absorbed people didn’t know enough about observing basic manners to make me feel like I was living in a civil society.  Each incident couldn’t be observed as anything more than a little thing…a small injury at best…and there are people out there who have better self-discipline than I do who can take all of these things in stride and not react.  But we’re creating a selfish, brutal world the longer we fail to teach our children that manners matter, that rules exist for a very real reason, and that what they do affects other people in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.
Every decision we make has a consequence.  When you can’t be bothered to endure a little mist while smoking your cigarette and therefore light up right outside the door, you may not notice it, but there’s a good chance you’re darkening someone else’s day just a little – someone like me who has a mild allergy to smoke.  When you toss your garbage out the window of your car, you figure…it’s just a little thing.  But the guys who do roadside clean-up pick up thousands of pieces of litter daily that amount to far more than a little inconvenience.  When you feel that your conversation at a local cafe or in a school corridor is more important than the free movement of others nearby and so stand in a wide circle blocking the path, people may find ways around you, but there’s a good chance many of them are annoyed and spend the next minute or two with a negative emotion…maybe it makes them more prone to fail to notice someone who needs the door held for them.  Maybe it causes them to say something unkind or fail to answer a greeting in the hall.  The little things add up.
I don’t think I have some unusual level of rage…I think I’ve developed into a person with a reasonable level of emotional maturity and poise overall.  But I spent a huge chunk of my day unhappy because of the little things.  I beg you all…teach your children to care about others and to be conscious of their actions.  It just takes persistence and consistency from you…it doesn’t even take a lot of time each day to reinforce this message.
Thank you.

Does It Work?

What’s the first question you ask about a new product after it has been described to you?

No fair cheating and looking at the title of this post.

If you’re like me and most of the people I know, we ask “OK…does that work?”

That’s question number one, as soon as we know what the thing is purported to do and how it does it.

There is a hierarchy of questions to ask before we invest in a product or service…it goes something like:

  • What is it? / What does it do?
  • How is it supposed to work? / Does it seem like a good idea?
  • Does it work in practice?
  • How much does it cost and what is the benefit? / What is the benefit worth to us?
  • Are there any other alternatives that might fill the same need and do so at less cost?
  • Can we afford the cost?

Everyone gets this concept.  Well…most of us do, at any rate.  We all interrogate infomercials in our heads, we all question the validity of claims made by salespeople, we all comparison shop and read customer reviews before we buy something or pay for a service.  Or at least we try to do it as much as possible – let the buyer beware and make good choices based on the available data.

I bring all of this up because I was outlining the recent Tea Party budget proposal to friends of mine and they had a knee-jerk reaction to it that I think is both rational (yes…it has a firm grounding in common sense as we in America now understand our world) and completely wrong.  When I mentioned that the Tea Party wanted to abolish the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Education, and Homeland Security, as well as privatizing things like the EPA, TSA, IRS and USPS…they immediately said things like “whoa…why would you want to cut the department of education?  Don’t we need that?  Do they just not care about public education quality?”

This is an understandable reaction.  We all want good education and are willing to pay to help fund it (for the most part) – but this reaction is skipping the appropriate hierarchy of questions to be asking about a product or service before we, as a nation, buy it.

So I dared pose the question.  My friends were predictably baffled.  What does the (federal) department of education do that should pay for?  How does it foster better education in theory and does the theory actually work?  I don’t think there are more than perhaps 10,000 people in the entire country who know EXACTLY what the department of education does.  I am quite certain that some of the things that Education bureaucracy bigwigs do has a positive impact, but when was the last time the government was asked to clarify what their department actually does and make us understand why it is vital to pay for it?

Do you know why we don’t ask these questions?  Because taxes are not elective.  If we could choose how our tax dollars were spent, it would be incumbent upon us to do the research and conclude that we like the services being provided.  Instead, we are paying for all of it.  And there’s no way that most of us (myself included) can possibly do the research and know what services are out there that we would like to see continue.  The government was too big even in 1880 for us to keep up with all of that, let alone 2012.

What would happen if government departments had to compete for our funding and demonstrate well enough to convince some of us to be their sponsors that they were producing quality work that we wanted to buy?  What if our tax rates didn’t change one iota – what if we all had to pay exactly what we do now…but we got to CHOOSE what departments our money went to?  To be sure, there would be those who spent unwisely and supported things that didn’t deserve to be supported.  You’d have departments of Flower Cross-Breeding studies and departments of video game violence and other inane things…but how much money would those departments get?  Exactly how much Americans were willing to pay.  What if we let the market decide how our government operated (outside of those functions specifically appointed to the Federal Gov’t by the Constitution – defense, census, etc)?

I think several things would happen within a few years.

  • Government spending on special interest projects like the National Endowment for the Arts, Public Broadcasting, Farm Assistance, Energy Speculation, Green Energy, etc would become boutiques, not sprawling bureaucracies with minimal oversight or accountability.  The NEA would continue insomuch as passionate lovers of the arts funded it directly.
  • Certain spending types would prosper in most seasons – infrastructure (backed by union support and general public interest in good roads, power grids, airports, etc), scientific progress (yes…I think most Americans want to see us continue to lead in scientific discovery), state grants for education, medicaid and medicare…the big things that even hard-line conservatives think we need to work hard to salvage despite our debt today…those things would also have plenty of funding…in fact I bet they’d do better than they do today.
  • Interest in the major issues making the headlines would EXPLODE.  (this is where this idea is precarious – the media would have even more power to persuade us and change the shape of the country politically)
  • People would suddenly be willing to pay taxes!  Even poorer families might accept currently untenable proposals that they pay some small pittance to help the country get out of debt.  It would be hard, but most poor families aren’t heartless and do give to charity when they can.  And if you get to decide what things you’re paying for…which services you think deserve your tax dollars…well now, might not that make you more interested in having a stake in that game?
This has possible setbacks.  I mentioned one (the liberal media)…another would be the fad mentality that often grips our culture.  Especially with social media pushing memes at the speed of a T3 or a Fiber Optic cable, there is the risk that around tax collection time, huge “causes of the moment” could gain more traction than they should if a convincing (and yet deceptive) campaign is launched.  There is also the risk that some services that we do actually need might get underfunded because the government isn’t doing a good enough job explaining why we need them.  And finally…a more democratic federal budget system requires that the majority of us are at least somewhat rational in deciding what is most important in our lives.  As we’ve seen with Global Warming…er…cooling…er…warming…er…climate change, yes…climate change…that isn’t always the case.
Perhaps there are ways to give us options without opening the entire budgetary process to tax-based referendum, but I would sure like to see something like that in the future.  Let me choose not to fund planned parenthood or farm subsidies or (insert many other wastes of money) and focus my taxes on the NSF and transportation and energy initiatives and a dozen other things I actually DO want…and let progressive spend their money on the fruitiest crap they can think of…and when it’s all said and done…we’ll see how liberal we remain.