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Archive for August 2011

Aug/11

30

A New York Times reporter tips his hand

In the course of a column blasting media entrepreneur Steven Brill’s new book on the school reform movement, New York Times reporter Michael Winerip inadvertently sets out his economic assumptions.  A revelation of an entire world view does not get any more crystalline than this.   (Regarding education, Winerip almost equally tellingly criticises Brill for not showing enough respect to teachers and teachers unions.)  

Winerip lists several of Brill’s sources—the “millionaires and billionaires who attack the unions and steered the Democratic Party to their cause”—then adds:

I expected Mr. Brill to explore why these men single out the union for blame when children fail. If a substantial part of the problem was poverty and not bad teachers, the question would be why people like them are allowed to make so much when others have so little.

Who exactly is doing the “allowing” here?  In Winerip’s world, people earn, keep, and invest money only by the sufferance of some greater authority—presumably the government, which implicitly decides how much they should be “allowed” to make.  What if I decide that Michael Winerip is making too “much when others have so little”?  Winerip’s income undoubtedly dwarfs that of a teen mother on welfare in Harlem.  Why should he be “allowed” to make so much?  My guess is that Winerip feels that his income is at best commensurate with his labors, if not inadequate to those labors.  Yet there have been plenty of governments in recent human history—the Cultural Revolution comes immediately to mind–for whom Winerip’s income and class status would be a clear sign of bourgeois decadence and injustice, requiring radical redistribution or even the destruction of all such cushy Times positions. 

There are other notable assumptions behind Winerip’s passing remark.  Winerip implies that “not allowing” businessmen and investors to “make so much” would actually solve the multi-generational poverty problem of the inner city or lead children there to show a greater zeal for schooling.  Inner-city poverty, however, is rooted in behavior, not in the absence of sufficiently redistributionist tax and regulatory policies.   You could pump up the welfare payments by magnitudes, and the self-defeating behaviors of bearing children out of wedlock, not studying in school or attending class, and getting involved in gang life would change very little. 

This assumption that inner-city poverty is a mere question of household income rather than behavior and values is a more common and explicit feature of standard liberal rhetoric, however.  Winerip’s revelation regarding the merely “on loan” aspect of wealth generation is the real gem of his column and worth remembering the next time the mainstream media claims that it is bias-free.

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Aug/11

28

Protesting Saudi Theocracy, The Femen Way

NSFW, but for readers who wish to investigate further, here’s some splendid footage (on many levels) of Ukraine’s Femen group protesting the Saudi regime’s refusal to let women drive.

Nicely done.

And as a reminder for anyone who needs it, it is the Saudi theocracy that is obscene, not Femen.

H/t: Instapundit

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Aug/11

28

Like a Prayer

Cross-posted over at the Corner:

Having botched the three R’s, many American schools are now making do with a fourth instead—recycling. The following extracts come from a Saturday New York Times story about efforts to bring recycling to school lunch:

“Ziplocs are the biggest misstep,” said Julie Corbett, a mother in Oakland, Calif., whose two girls attend a school with an eco-friendly lunch policy. In school years past, she said, many a morning came unhinged when the girls were sent to school with disposable sandwich bags.

“That’s when the kids have meltdowns, because they don’t want to be shamed at school,” Ms. Corbett said. “It’s a big deal.”

…Judith Wagner, a professor of education at Whittier College in California who directs its laboratory school for elementary and middle-school children, has also been struggling with how to get parents’ support for less wasteful lunches.

“Parents will say things like, ‘Well, I want her to have a choice, and if I put in a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and a ham sandwich, she has a choice,’ ” Professor Wagner said. “And each one comes in its own separate plastic bag.”

What comes next, she said, is a hard call. “Do you go back to the parents and say, ‘Gosh, can you rethink the plastic bags and all this food?’ Or do you talk to the children, and you make the children feel guilty because they’re throwing this all away?”

… Ms. Corbett, the Oakland parent, said the social pressure her children felt regarding recyclable products was palpable.

Still, she says, plasticware can be a pain to clean, and is not cheap. When she thinks it is likely that her daughters will lose the containers — if, for instance, they’re going on a field trip — she uses waxed-paper sleeves, like the kind bakeries use for cookies, to hold sandwiches instead.

“It’s still a no-no because you’re still having to throw that away, but it is biodegradable, it does compost, so you’re not as guilty,” she said.

Yes, it’s a religion.

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Aug/11

28

Patronizing Much?

Here’s yet another bossy, patronizing (and, I imagine, eventually taxpayer-funded) idea from the UK’s frequently lamentable Conservative-led government:

[Britain’s] Department of Health is to announce plans for a new system of independent counseling for women before they finally commit to terminating a pregnancy. The move is designed to give women more “breathing space”… The plan would introduce a mandatory obligation on abortion clinics to offer women access to independent counseling, to be run on separate premises by a group which does not itself carry out abortions.

The idea that enough women might require a state-supplied “breathing space” (as if they have had not already had time to think about what they are planning) and “independent” (define that term) counseling to need a change of government policy shows a sense of condescension that would be remarkable were it not coming from Britain’s political class, a group that has long made condescension something of a specialty.

One important thing to note, however: Unlike in certain US states this “independent” counseling will neither be mandatory, nor will some of its contents be dictated by politicians.

That’s something, I suppose.

Update

Via the Daily Telegraph:

The Prime Minister and Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, will vote against the proposals put forward by pro-life groups and campaigning MPs, The Daily Telegraph can disclose. Their opposition follows claims that ministers were preparing to change long-established rules on advice given to pregnant women.The matter will still be debated in the Commons, but No 10 made it clear for the first time that Mr Cameron would vote against the amendments to the Health Bill tabled by Nadine Dorries, a backbench Tory MP. Downing Street sources said that the proposed amendments would “exclude proper choice”.

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Aug/11

24

The Favored Pew

Via the Wall Street Journal:

As Congress scrutinizes every nook and cranny of the budget for possible revenue, a surprising court decision is allowing clergy members to buy or live in multiple homes tax-free. The U.S. Tax Court ruled that Phil Driscoll, an ordained minister and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter who went to prison for tax evasion, didn’t owe federal income taxes on $408,638 provided to him by his ministry to buy a second home on a lake near Cleveland, Tenn.

Under a provision of the tax code known as the parsonage allowance, first passed in 1921, an ordained clergy member may live tax-free in a home owned by his or her religious organization or receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home if the congregation approves. The Tax Court ruling, made final in March, extends the parsonage allowance to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned either by the religious organization or the clergy member.

In a 7-6 ruling, a panel of Tax Court judges sided with Mr. Driscoll’s argument that the word “home” is equivalent to “homes,” just as “child” is interpreted to mean “children” elsewhere in the tax code. The Internal Revenue Service declined to comment on the decision. In May, the agency appealed it to a federal appeals court in Atlanta. Experts say the parsonage allowance was originally included as a way to minimize taxes on clergy members, whose compensation was often meager. It still is widely used for that purpose, church officials said, although the IRS doesn’t track usage of the benefit.

“For most of them the housing allowance is modest because their compensation is modest,” says Daniel Gary, an attorney with the United Methodist Church in Nashville.

Similarly, D. August Boto, general counsel of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, says for leaders of the organization’s 46,000 churches “the housing allowance is critically important for making ends meet—it is not a luxury.”

However, some experts are concerned that the new ruling opens the door for the allowance to be applied to multiple homes used by leaders of wealthier ministries…

You don’t say.

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Aug/11

24

Secular Humanism, Trashed

My thanks to Polichinello for highlighting this rather good Salon article by Michael Lind on secular humanism. I thought it made a useful supplement to an earlier Corner contribution by Derb/Bradlaugh, and posted accordingly:

Derb, in some respects Michael Lind’s entertaining demolition of secular humanism in Salon echoes a number of your points about the use that our species often makes of, to borrow your phrase, “pretty lies.” Here is an extract:

“The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic…Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage…To the extent that natural science can inform the way we think about politics and economics, it undermines the view that human beings are, or could be, rational actors devoted to the common good, rather than emotion-driven, semi-rational cousins of chimps and gorillas. On this point the secular philosophers Hume and Hobbes are more convincing than Bentham, Dewey and Kurtz.
Our simian psychology has obvious implications for naive models of democracy, in which a neutral, rational public listens dispassionately to all sides before making up its hyperlogical collective mind. And it has implications as well for naive models of economics, in which consumers and producers perceive, think and act with computer-like accuracy.
The skepticism about human rationality that science inspires should not be taken as support for authoritarianism or paternalism… On the contrary, it should render questionable all claims to wise and disinterested leadership, including those of America’s own altruistic progressive technocrats who propose policies to “nudge” the unenlightened masses into doing the right thing. It makes more sense to think of our leaders and intellectuals as half-crazed hooting howler monkeys — just like the rest of us.
Science can tell monkeys where they came from, and technology, informed by science, can build a cleaner and safer monkey house. But a knowledge of science cannot turn monkeys into something that we are not.”

We are what we are.

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Aug/11

23

Social Justice?

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Well, here’s food for thought (and, I suspect, just a spot of controversy) from the Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein:

The terrible economic news from both Europe and the United States has led to much soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic. How did we get here, and how can we get out of this jam? In my past columns for Hoover’s Defining Ideas, I have insisted that both economies will be able to extricate themselves from their deep slumps only by promptly reversing those policies that have brought them to the brink. A successful and sustainable political order requires stable legal and economic policies that reward innovation, spur growth, and maximize the ability of rich and poor alike to enter into voluntary arrangements. Limited government, low rates of taxation, and strong property rights are the guiding principles.

Unfortunately, many spiritual and economic leaders are working overtime to push social policy in the exact opposite direction. At the top of the list are two prominent figures: Pope Benedict XVI and financier Warren Buffett.

One can only agree. The self-serving, sanctimonious drivel that has long been the stuff of Buffett’s preaching has come under fire around here before, but it’s certainly also worth spending some time looking at what the Pope has been saying. So that’s what Epstein does:

The Pope was on his way to recession-torn Spain—to lead the Roman Catholic Church’s weeklong celebration of World Youth Day—when he denounced those nameless persons who put “profits before people.” He told journalists, “The economy cannot be measured by the maximum profit but by the common good. The economy cannot function only with mercantile self-regulation but needs an ethical reason in order to work for man.” Standing alone, these words mirror the refrains of countless Spanish socialists, whose relations with the Pope have soured in recent years. Their shared premises help explain why Spain finds itself in such a sorry state.

Denouncing those who put ‘profits before people’ may stir the masses, but it is a wickedly deformed foundation for social policy. Profits, like losses, do not exist in the abstract. Corporations, as such, do not experience gains or losses. Those gains and losses are passed on to real people, like shareholders, consumers, workers, and suppliers. It is possible to imagine a world without profits. Yet the disappearance of profits means that investors will be unable to realize a return on either their capital or labor. Structure a system that puts people before profits, and both capital and labor will dry up. The scarcity of private investment capital will force the public sector to first raise and allocate capital and labor, though it has no idea how these resources should be deployed to help the people, writ large. A set of ill-conceived public investments will not provide useful goods and services for consumers (who are, after all, people), nor will it provide sustainable wages for workers (who are also people). Poor investment decisions will lead to a massive constriction in social output that harms all people equally.

The proper response to these difficulties is to treat profits as an accurate measure of the cost of capital, rewarded to those individuals and firms who supply some desirable mix of goods, services, and jobs that people, acting individually and not collectively, want for themselves. The genius of Adam Smith, whose musings on the invisible hand are too often derided, was to realize that private markets (supported, to be sure, by suitable public infrastructure) will do better than a command and control system in satisfying the individual’s wants and needs. The Pope offers no serious answer to Smith’s point when he talks about “the ethical need to work for man” and the “common good.” In both of these cases, he treats a collection of diverse individuals as though they form part of some harmonious whole. “Man” in the Pope’s formulation is a grammatical singular but a social collective. The “common good” speaks of some aggregate benefit to a community that is not securely tethered to the successes and failures of the particular individuals within the collectivity.

As a technical matter, it becomes critical to have some reductionist argument that transforms statements about these groups into statements about the individuals who compose them. Ordinary business people understand this intuitively when they speak of win/win transactions. These are transactions that generate gains to all parties involved in the bargain.That common expression, “win/win,” is the distillation of sound economic theory, for the more win/win transactions a society can generate for its people, the greater its economic prosperity.

The great advantage of competition in markets is that it exhausts all gains from trade, which thus allows individuals to attain higher levels of welfare. These win/win propositions may not reach the perfect endpoint, but they will avoid the woes that are now consuming once prosperous economies. Understanding the win/win concept would have taken the Pope away from his false condemnation of markets. It might have led him to examine more closely Spain’s profligate policies, where high guaranteed public benefits and extensive workplace regulation have led to an unholy mix of soaring public debt and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. It is a tragic irony that papal economics mimic those of the Church’s socialist opponents. The Pope’s powerful but misdirected words will only complicate the task of meaningful fiscal and regulatory reform in Spain and the rest of Europe. False claims for social justice come at a very high price.

Amen (so to speak).

And what Epstein has to say about Buffett is well worth checking out too.

Update

In reply to some points made by Ramesh Ponnuru on the Corner in response to the above, I added this later post:

Ramesh, viewed in isolation, the Pope’s remarks can be seen as a reflection of the fairly traditional Roman Catholic corporatism that lies, I’d guess, at the base of his economic thinking. That’s a doctrine that is in many respects profoundly antagonistic to classical free -market liberalism, but coming from a pontiff, and, not only that, a pontiff who has spent most of his adult life in a country run on the “Rhineland” social market model, it’s far from a surprise.

The trouble is that you cannot view those remarks in isolation. The Spanish economy is in a mess, thanks primarily to the distortions introduced by the euro and, of course, deep structural problems of the type identified by Richard Epstein. Resolving those problems will be difficult. That’s why a good number of Spain’s indignados (if not — yet — the wider electorate) have found it far easier to scapegoat a wicked, if ill-defined “capitalism.” By saying what he did, where he did, and when he did, Benedict XVI, maybe inadvertently, maybe not, has risked giving that scapegoating a credibility in a constituency that it might not have otherwise reached. That’s a pity.

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Aug/11

22

Obsessed?

Via Andrew Sullivan, comes this rather odd piece by Tony Woodlief. This extract caught my eye:

We are god-obsessed because we have lost God or we are running from God or we are hopelessly seeking Him, and maybe all of these at once.

Well, let’s just say that I’m not so sure about that ‘we’. I suspect that there are quite a few folk out there who are not in the slightest bit god-obsessed and, for that matter, that, sensibly enough, they are more than content to leave all that losing, running and hopeless seeking to others. I know I am.

And then there’s this:

We are god-obsessed the way a child snatched from his mother will always have his heart and flesh tuned to her, even after he forgets her face. Cover the earth with orphans and you will find grown men fashioning images of mothers and worshipping strong women and crafting myths about mothers who have left or were taken or whose spirits dwell in the trees.

And at the edges of their tribal fires will stand the anthropologist and the philosopher, reasoning that all this mother-talk is simply proof that men are prone to invent stories about mothers, which is itself proof that no single story about a mother could be true, which is proof that the brain just evolved to work that way.

It’s the only narrative that fits the facts while affirming the skeptic’s presupposition that all this mother business is just leftover hokum from the dark ages.

Except that in a century, when the most famous of the skeptics is long forgotten, broken men will still be telling stories about what we have lost, and what we pray is still out there, coming even now to set all things right.

Good lord.

Aug/11

20

What religion is all about

At The American Scene Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry states:

To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics. Either you believe that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet or you don’t. If you do, and you eat pork, this will not make Muhammad more, or less, the Prophet. The two things aren’t related.

There are two issues which I think require some fleshing out. On the specific point about religion being about metaphysics, this is an intellectually respectable position, but I don’t think this describes at all the phenomenon of religion as it manifests in the minds and behaviors of most human beings. As an atheist I’m not too interested in whether God exists or not, I’m simply interested in constructing a model which allows me to describe and predict the behavior of religious people. A fixation on metaphysics, or matters of high philosophy, mislead more than not. From the perspective of atheists I think this presupposition confuses many of us into thinking that we can convince theists of the correctness of our position through argumentation and reason. I don’t think we can (and a theist may have the same problem with an atheist).

A more general issue is that I think it is not informative to reduce religion to some particular aspect or dynamic. For example, religion as belief, religion as practice, religion an expression of social will. Religion can be all of these things. Some of these things may be contradictory with others, but that matters little, as the human mind is a contradictory and slapdash construction.

Religious people who accept the belief propositions of their faith are going to differ with me deeply on the substance here. That’s fine. My main contention is that atheists who have little personal familiarity with the nature of religious faith too often lose sight of what religious people do, as opposed to what religious people say. They can be quite sincere in the latter, but far more relevant to us is the former. Accept not what they say, see what they do!

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Aug/11

19

Shut in by the State

Count me amongst those who are profoundly skeptical about the notion that it is “self-evident” that we come into this world endowed with a large collection of supposedly inalienable “rights”. I do not, for example, believe that there is such thing as a built-in right to die. That said, it ought to be beyond dispute that any society that wishes to call itself civilized should bestow such a right (with appropriate safeguards) on those who live within it.

The tragic fate of Martin, a British victim of the stuff of nightmares that is locked-in syndrome is a case in point.

The Daily Telegraph takes up the story here:

The man, known for legal reasons only as Martin, suffered a severe stroke three years ago, which left him unable to move. His only method of communication is by using his eyes. In a highly unusual case, he wants to clarify the law so that medical staff or solicitors who help him to end his life will not be prosecuted. Assisting a suicide carries a potential 14-year jail sentence. By staring at letters on a computer screen, from his hospital bed in the converted garage at his home, Martin can slowly form words, and has written a statement to the court asking the judges to help him. In his court statement, extracts of which have been seen by The Daily Telegraph, Martin said his life was “undignified, distressing and intolerable”.

“It is extremely important to me that I feel able to control when and how I die,” he said. “As is no doubt appreciated, almost every other aspect of my life is now out of my control and I want, at least, to be able to control my death.
I am clear that I no longer wish to continue to live and hope that people can respect this wish and now allow me to die. I want it over with without delay.”

Martin wants support from professionals to die either by refusing his food and drink, or by helping him to travel to the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland. Previous legal battles in assisted dying cases have involved close family members who were willing to help their loved ones to die. However, Martin’s wife, known as Felicity, respects her husband’s wishes but does not want to play any part in hastening his death. She said she did not want her husband to die…

Last year, the director of public prosecutions issued new guidelines on assisted suicide, which stated that family members who are clearly motivated by compassion to help a loved one to die would be less likely to face a criminal trial. Martin’s lawyers, Leigh Day & Co, will ask the High Court to afford the same protection to doctors and legal staff, who would potentially also face disciplinary action from their professional bodies.

The case is expected to begin next month.

That Martin is forced to beg for his release is a disgrace. That the form of that release (if it is granted) can only come from either an arduous trip abroad or death by starvation is revolting. But if British law (or, if necessary its lawmakers) cannot find room to permit even painfully modest requests of the type that Martin is making, it will prove nothing other than a willingness to permit terrible suffering in the name of abstract and dubious principle. That’s not a distinction that Britain, or any other country, should want.

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