October 2, 2009

The Flaws in the Tea Party Conservative Ideology

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:34 pm

The libertarian wing of the conservative movement has two intellectual problems, it seems to me.

The first is their canard that taxes is the moral equivalent of stealing. US economic growth, i.e. our income, is to a large extent thanks to government. The low cost of raising equity capital? Government (SEC). Low friction commerce within the US? Government (enforcement of regulations means we don’t have to worry that we’re being lied to or sold worthless drugs, lead paint, tainted milk, infected meat, etc etc). The fact that we aren’t all left penniless because our banks failed? Government (Fed, Treasury, FDIC). Like the low cost of pretty much any commodity? Government (FTC preventing monopolies and price-fixing). Like being able to buy cheap plastic stuff from China? Government (trade deals). So much of our personal wealth and standard of living in the US is directly due to government.

Disagree? Let’s look at countries that don’t have such government mechanisms. Mexico, Russia, Turkey, where graft and bribes are required to get anything done. China, where the drive for profitability of party members’ companies leads to tainted milk. Every single one of the prosperous countries in the world have effective government regulation of commerce. Every one. And every country that does not is stuck in poverty.

But anti-government anti-tax conservatives don’t want to pay for what they’re getting. They’re selfish that way. They insist that what the rest of us consider “paying your own way” is “theft”. The government (i.e. the people) say that if you are going to receive all of these benefits, you’re going to pay for them whether you like it or not. And rightly so. To do otherwise would make all of us worse off. Think Darfur, where as I understand their marginal tax rates are rather low and regulatory burdens fairly light.

Problem #2: libertarian conservatives live in an either/or world, as though there are only two choices: pure libertarianism, or pure communism. Put differently, we either exalt the individual and ignore the community, or exalt the community and ignore the individual.

But it’s not an either/or proposition. We must find a balance between individualism and communalism (not communism). France, say, has found a balance that is too far towards communalism for me. Among developed nations, the US is the furthest towards individualism. I believe we should nudge it a bit towards communalism in some things, but not many and not very far. The world is analog, not binary, and I just want to turn the dial a tad to the left.

That doesn’t make me a communist, and doesn’t mean I don’t care about individual freedoms. I care very much. I care about civil liberties that many on the right are happy to sacrifice to communalism: privacy, protection from unlawful search and seizure, freedom of speech (flag burning, say), and many more. So the anti-government libertarians too are somewhere in between pure libertarianism and communism. We’re just at different points on the spectrum.

The libertarian conservatives view the left as godless, as if our political beliefs are unchristian. So is my view compatible with Christianity? Oh my yes. I want a community where people aren’t ruined financially because they get cancer, or where they die from cancer needlessly. Where, while we treasure individual liberties, we also balance them against a communal desire to care for the least of these. And we do these things together, as a people deciding these things democratically, under the rule of law. As a people realizing that we can do some things together that none of us can do alone. As a people understanding that, while we are all individuals, we all suffer or benefit from the well-being of the entire community.

The Tea Party right, however, seems to want a world in which they benefit from the vibrant and thriving society all around them, but don’t have to pay for it. Now that’s not Christian.

August 7, 2009

In Defense of Truth

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

Here we go again.

Conservatives have been ignoring reality so long they wouldn’t recognize it if they were stuck in an elevator with it. Not all of them. There are still plenty of conservative Republicans with integrity, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

It started with Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the 90’s when conservatives believed Bill Clinton was a drug-runner and Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster. It continued during the 2000 election, but really came of age with the run-up to the Iraq War and the swiftboating of John Kerry. It continued with the Obama is a Muslim, a socialist and a fascist memes. But now it’s getting really bizarre: Obama wants to kill off seniors, the healthcare bills in Congress will outlaw private insurance, and Obama is a Nazi born in Kenya. This disconnect with reality has been getting worse and worse and is at risk, I believe, of imperiling our democracy.

I happen to like truth, or as the ancient Greeks would say, Truth. Many things in life cannot be boiled down to a binary true/false dichotomy, but many things can. We can find the truth for ourselves — we can read about the healthcare bills coming out of committee, we can look at Obama’s birth certificate, we can visit non-partisan fact-checking websites like factcheck.org. Truth is good, and we should pursue it aggressively and embrace it wherever we find it.

Democracy relies to a large extent on an understanding of reality shared by the electorate. We can’t debate whether a public option is a good thing or a bad thing until we understand that it won’t outlaw private insurance. We can’t discuss the benefits of healthcare reform with people that believe it’s a plot to kill our seniors. Without an agreement on what is objectively true and what is not, we can’t talk with each other, as the August congressional town halls are demonstrating. The tea-baggers at these town halls are denying reality, and trying to drag the rest of us into their fevered hallucinations. They are shouting down objectively true statements as though if only they shout loud enough, their reality will become true. If only they clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will live and the union be saved.

Truth matters. It matters a lot. And a large swath of our citizenry has abandoned truth. While the left has departed from reality often enough in its history, today conservative untruth is far more widespread. My fear is that this departure from reality will lead to violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist German Lutheran theologian, participated in the plot that almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler. He did so because after long consideration and prayer, he believed he was called to do so. When so many people are claiming that Obama is just like Hitler, how many will decide that assassinating Obama is their calling? It’s terrifying.

Blame can be placed various places. Conservative talk radio, Fox News and Coulterian demagogues. A mainstream media that is afraid to inform us on what is really true and what is not, instead covering the debate while remaining agnostic on each side’s claims. A conservative movement that has been ruthlessly enforcing uniformity of thought.

But I think there’s a deeper cause. I think the problem is us. For a democracy to succeed, voters need to work to be informed, to educate themselves on the issues and to resist settling on the emotionally satisfying yet factually challenged opinion. We need to test our ideologies against reality, and modify or abandon them accordingly. We need to read and listen and think. We need to be adults.

Change is hard and our country has been undergoing cultural and demographic change at what seems to be an accelerating pace. But the viability of our democracy relies on our ability to understand the reality we find ourselves in and to vote and act accordingly. We need to return to a shared sense of what is true, a reality we can all agree on, while we disagree on how to respond to it.

We will get the government we deserve. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that we will get the government we earn through the effort we expend to seek truth. And we desperately need to earn a better democracy than what we’ve been experiencing in these town halls.

May 1, 2009

Random 10

Filed under: Music — Bob Gifford @ 2:33 pm

Soundtrack for my run today:

  1. Lie to Me (Live), Jonny Lang, Live from Austin City
  2. Blue Train, John Coltrane, Blue Train
  3. Born With the Blues, Lonnie Brooks, Live from Chicago – Bayou Lightning Strikes
  4. When You Got A Good Friend, Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
  5. Ocean Avenue, Yellowcard, Ocean Avenue
  6. Crucifixion, Rev. Gary Davis, Heroes of the Blues
  7. Shoot That Curl, Chris and Kathy, Cowabunga: the Surf Box
  8. Boot Hill, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, The Sky is Crying
  9. Crawlin’ King Snake, Peter Green Splinter Group, From Clarksdale to Heaven
  10. Season of the Witch (Live); Bloomfied, Kooper, Stills; Super Session Live at the Filmore East

April 17, 2009

Lyric of the Week

Filed under: Music — Bob Gifford @ 6:49 pm

The Earlybird Cafe by Lane Teegan
(courtesy of Backyard Steve, performed by John Mellencamp on Fresh Air)

Everybody’s laughin’ at the Earlybird Cafe
I’ve been headed there since yesterday, I believe I’ve lost my way
Charlotte’s there in organdy, Billy’s there in suede
Y’ know that money’s in their pockets, & all their dues are paid
there’s wine on every table, & food on every plate
well I hope I get there pretty soon, before it gets too late

Someone asked me what time it was – I told him it was now
he asked me just what that might mean, but time would not allow
so I gave away my watch to a passing businessman
I hope he understands me now – I’ve done the best I can
But it was getting early, as I rushed away from there
with that ancient earth beneath my feet
and new dust in my hair

So I went on down the highway to the other side of town
my clothes was gettin’ wrinkled, & my socks was fallin’ down
but I could not stop to pull them up, for fear that I’d be late
so I kept on runnin’ down the road until I saw the gate –
of the Earlybird Cafe, glowin’ golden like the sun
everybody they laughin’ & callin’,
“Come on in, we’ve just begun !”

So I went on in, & I set right down, & I ordered me up some wine
y’know the talk was fast & clever, & the women all was fine
Charlotte asked me where I’d been with my jaded ivory eyes
I told her I’d been hung up, with some beggar in disguise
She laughed like temple bells,
she kissed me on the cheek & said:
” It’s hard to be alive sometimes…….
but it’s easy………
to be dead!”

March 12, 2009

My Politico-Religious Journey

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 5:34 pm

A few days ago, Hilzoy brought to my attention the latest fad among wingnuts. It appears all the cool kids on the right are talking about going Galt. Boy, this brings back some memories.

You see, I was once a libertarian. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

Like many college students, I read Ayn Rand when I was in college, which like the gateway drug that Rand is, led me to read some books on libertarianism, and I was hooked. There is something so perfect about libertarianism, especially when viewed through a Randian lens. Poor people are poor because of their laziness and moral defects. Rich people are rich due to hard work and virtue. Government bureaucrats are leeches trying to take what is not theirs. In the end, there is justice: everyone gets what they deserve, not in some after-life, but here and now on this earth. How romantic. How perfect.

Yes, but.

Libertarian thinkers have added to this a whole theoretical edifice explaining how free markets can price anything and everything can be privatized all to the ever-increasing welfare of the virtuous citizenry and to the detriment of the shifty poor and controlling government autocrats. Through college and business school I was enamored of this ideology. This was how the world should work, and if it didn’t, it was because vested interests were depriving us of our freedom. Capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Yes, but.

There was another ideology running through my college and grad school years. I had been raised and confirmed Lutheran, but was wandering in the desert during those years. I had many late night conversations about God and religion, and read a smattering of books on theology. I had several of what I would call conversion experiences, except that they didn’t really lead to any enduring conversion. It was all rather cerebral. But there was something profoundly true to me about all this Christianity stuff.

The Christianity I knew had nothing to do with today’s moral judging from the religious right. It didn’t depend upon a church hierarchy throwing around its weight in the name of ecclesiastical authority. It wasn’t defined by the drama of today’s fights over gay rights or attempts to sneak creationism into the schools. There was no political grandstanding. It was a deeply humble, self-emptying, other-serving Christianity.

Still today, the Christianity I know is virtually invisible to those not looking for it. The leaders of my denomination issue a stream of press releases about the need for relief for disaster victims, funding for food stamps, or services for the homeless. There are always urges to do more for the hungry around the world. Micro-credit, mosquito nets, schools, health clinics, water projects, goats (yes, goats!) for the global poor. But none of it ever makes headlines. The AA meeting in the church basement isn’t newsworthy. But there it is all the same.

As an adult, I had to decide between these two ideologies. I tried to reconcile them, and thought I had succeeded for awhile. But I was once asked to sign a petition to “end world hunger”. I wouldn’t sign it because it went against my libertarian ideals. Later, I thought about that decision. How could any Christian not lend their voice to the effort to end world hunger? What about the least of these? I came to realize that this world, the real world, the one we’re stuck with, isn’t just. There are both poor and rich who do not deserve to be so. Even the best of us are not quite as noble as Ayn Rand would have us believe, and the worst are not quite as evil. Markets themselves are sustained and thrive because of government regulation, not in spite of it. There are things none of us can do alone, and which we must come together to accomplish through government. While we must always be on guard against the excesses of government, we all need government to do what only it can.

This need for government isn’t just pragmatic, it’s also moral. A Randian libertarian utopia would rapidly turn into a morally unjust dystopia. And I don’t speak of morality the way the culture warriors do, but the way the Christianity I know does. I’m not talking about sex, drugs or wardrobe malfunctions, but morality as a glimmer of the Kingdom of God. Without that kind of moral justice, we would live in a world where power begets more power, disregard for others is rewarded, and justice isn’t available for those without the ability to pay for it.

So I am now a political independent, but in the current environment aligned mostly with Democrats. And my religious wanderings have brought me to the religious home I left as a teenager. And Ayn Rand is left where she belongs: to gather dust.

March 9, 2009

The Watchmen: Rorschach Test

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 7:24 pm

You really don’t need to know anything about The Watchmen to see the irony. All you need to know is that one of the characters in the movie, and the graphic novel it is based on, is named Rorschach, as in the psychological inkblot test. That, and that an Objectivist sees in Rorschach an Objectivist hero.

Why else would you create a character named “Rorschach”, except to invite each reader to decide just what it is they see in him?

This is one, but only one, of the fascinations of The Watchmen. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but just finished reading the novel.) What we believe about Rorschach has more to do with what we bring to it than the character itself. I am sure that someone to the left of me would see a tragically broken man who, through a horribly screwed up childhood, has become a vengeful vigilante full of hate and anger, desperately in need of healing. And they would be absolutely right. Meanwhile, our libertarian friend at Reason magazine sees a noble Objectivist right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or even better, The Fountainhead, ready to blow up any building that violates his architectural principles. And he’s right.

Rorschach’s ability to evoke in us what we want to see isn’t because he is a mushy gray character. There is no ambiguity — his every action, and every action taken towards him, is black and white. But it is the complex combination of black and white that allows us to see in him what is already in us.

Just like an inkblot.

So what do I see in Rorschach? A brilliantly post-modern character, full of good and evil, hatred and hurt, noble moral principle and foolish stubborness. He’s both protagonist and antagonist, horribly complex, humanity’s vices and virtues all in one person. There is no moral to Rorschach’s tale, no heroic example to follow. Nothing but permission to accept that we are all also full of our own contradictions, at the same time both sinner and saint. And that’s enough.

February 16, 2009

More on Darwin, and the ELCA

Filed under: Church,Science — Bob Gifford @ 12:53 pm

As a follow-up to yesterday’s evolution post, here are some thoughts on denominational views on Darwin. Pew has assembled statements by major religious denominations on the compatibility of evolution with their religious doctrines. It seems most Christian denominations are cool with evolution, as well as Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and even some Muslim religious authorities. The Lutheran denominations are split, with the smaller and very conservative Missouri Synod opposed, and my denomination, the larger more moderate ELCA…um, well, it’s not really clear.

I have to laugh. In classic ELCA inclusive, Minnesota-nice, don’t offend anyone style, the ELCA statement is, shall we say, non-committal:

The ELCA does not have an official position on creation vs. evolution, but we subscribe to the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, so we believe God created the universe and all that is therein, only not necessarily in six 24-hour days, and that God actually may have used evolution in the process of creation. In fact, to deny the possibility that evolutionary processes were used is seen by some as an attempt to limit God’s power.

So the ELCA doesn’t take a position on evolution, but concedes that God may have used evolution. And that denying evolution is seen by some (but one would assume, not by others) as constraining God’s power. My paraphrase of this statement is that evolution may be true, unless it isn’t.

I love it. Yes, this is an example of Olympic-level waffling, but the ELCA is loath to ever get ahead of its membership on anything. There is a strong congregationalist strain in the ELCA that views the full-time ELCA synodical and headquarters staff as serving, and therefore subservient to, local churches. This can be very frustrating, as in the battles over gay clergy, but it is also a good thing. The ELCA does not shove down pronouncements from on high when there is not an existing consensus among its members.

But there is an exception to this ELCA mindset when it comes to ministry. No one in Chicago will waffle when it comes to our call to help the poor and destitute here in the US and around the world. If a church is to only take a stand on what’s truly important, it seems the ELCA has chosen well.

February 15, 2009

Darwin, God and Americans

Filed under: Science — Bob Gifford @ 12:06 pm

This past Thursday was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, so it seems appropriate to check in on how he’s faring in the US. A chart from Pew (via):

A majority of my co-religionists, mainline protestants, agree with evolution, but just barely. This could lead me to despair about the scientific ignorance among a group often labeled as “liberal” Christians, but I really wonder about these polls. The evolution question is presented as a yes/no, binary question, i.e. do you believe in evolution or not. But beliefs on evolution fall on a spectrum with many intermediate positions between the absolutist views on each end. Moving from conservative religious to atheistic, this spectrum includes:

  1. Young earth creationists – the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago
  2. Old earth creationists – the earth was created by God millions or billions of years ago
  3. Intelligent design – evolution has occurred, but living things can not be fully explained without invoking ongoing acts of creation
  4. Theistic evolution – life was formed through evolution, which was actively guided by God
  5. Deistic evolution – life was formed through evolution without God’s active involvement, but the evolution of humans was fully predetermined from the outset by God’s creative act*
  6. Random evolution – life was formed through evolution without any divine act, and the arrival of humans was an entirely chance occurrence

When Pew asks whether “evolution is the best explanation for life on earth”, what question are respondents hearing? Are they hearing “evolution is how God made life”, or are they hearing “evolution replaces God as the creator of life”? As a staunch believer in and defender of evolution, even I might be tempted to answer “no” if I thought the question implied an atheistic, random evolution in which we are merely the latest result of a meaningless genetic random walk.

I suspect the nation’s views towards evolution are far richer and more varied than these polls suggest. So I am not one of those decrying the ignorance of Americans regarding a bedrock principle of biology, at least not based on this poll and others like it. I do, however, decry the ignorance of pollsters regarding the nuanced beliefs of Americans regarding evolution and religion. It’s not a yes/no question.

* This view most closely matches my own, but this is not to say that I am a deist. I believe in a personal God, but a personal God competent enough to create a universe that doesn’t require constant tweaking of its mechanical processes.

January 29, 2009

More On Economics

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:24 pm

In my last post I glossed over some important fine points of economics. Admittedly, I was recounting what I had told my son, and I did not get into any of these details with him. But some of these nuances are very relevant to the current debate on the stimulus bill. Hence, lest anyone think I’m just painfully ignorant of some of the complexities of economics, I will address them here.

First is the value of monetary policy. Hard-core Keynesians believed they had the keys to the kingdom back in the 60s and 70s. We all learned beginning in the 80s that monetary policy is perhaps more important than fiscal policy to the successful management of the economy. The distressing fact, though, is that monetary policy has run out of juice in our current financial crisis. Interest rates are about as low as they can go, and we are still seeing a massive contraction. We need another dial to turn besides interest rates if we are to turn around the current economy. That’s why everyone has discovered Keynes all over again.

Secondly, as Megan McCardle points out:

Though you wouldn’t think it from the really quite shocking incivility emanating from the pro-stimulus side, the empirical evidence that this [fiscal stimulus] works in a large industrial economy like ours is basically nonexistent. The problem is, we have very, very few examples to test on: America during the Great Depression, and Japan in the 1990s. And neither America nor Japan managed to stimulate their way out of their troubles. You can argue–and many do–that this is because we, and they, didn’t stimulate enough. That may be true. But unless you can forward test your theory, it’s a just so story . . . as we just painfully found out about the “It was all the Fed’s fault” narrative of the 1930s banking collapse. There is no excuse for calling people who question your highly theoretical model fools and charlatans.

I am not nearly as dismissive of the empirical evidence for fiscal stimulus as McCardle is, but it’s been almost 30 years since I took macroeconomics in business school. I would much rather leave teasing apart the data on this to the professionals.

Speaking of professionals, President Obama has some pretty damn smart ones working for him. The consensus of economists both within and without his administration seems to be that we need a good Keynesian fiscal stimulus, putting forward the argument I make in my previous post. So I appreciate and respect the nay-sayers like McCardle, Mankiw and others, but for now I’m rooting for Obama and the Dems. We elected them to solve this mess, and they are on the hook. We gave the Repubs a shot, and they ran us into a ditch. Let’s hope the Dems can get us out of it. And if Keynesian stimulus is the tool they choose to do it with, God bless ’em.

January 28, 2009

Economics a 15 Year-Old Can Understand

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:52 pm

My younger son was asking me about the stimulus package, the criticism of it, and what I thought. I walked him through some basic economics and explained what kind of stimulus we need and why. Nothing I said was profound, or innovative, or insightful. It was very basic. But I can’t help wondering how many bloggers, television commentators, and even politicians know this much. Listening to the conservative critiques of the stimulus bill, it would seem not many. So herewith, the explanation I gave to my 15 year old son.

In the 19th century the US went through a regular series of panics. Demand, for whatever reason, would dip, so production would slow and workers would be laid off. This caused everyone to start saving more and spending less, either because they were unemployed or worried they soon would be. Lower spending meant decreased demand, which lowered production, caused more workers to be laid off, and the cycle continued spiraling down.

The same thing happened in the Depression, triggered in that case by the collapse of a stock market bubble, which froze credit and caused banks to fail. People lost their savings, so they stopped spending, which lowered demand, which slowed production, put people out of work, and we were into the same old vicious cycle, but on steroids.

This is eerily similar to what we are seeing today, except that our bubble is in housing prices and investments backed by home mortgages.

Mainstream economists, following Keynes, understand that something has to break this cycle to stop a recession from becoming a depression. So the spender of last resort is the government, the one entity able to borrow lots of money and with incentives to do something to benefit the economy as a whole. Paraphrasing Lincoln, government allows us to do together what none of us can do individually. During a recession, the government spends more than it takes in, which compensates for the drop in consumer spending, prevents production from dropping and workers from being laid off, and thereby stops the vicious cycle. This is the classic Keynsian stimulus.

Cutting taxes doesn’t have the same affect as increasing spending. If you cut personal taxes, you put more money in the pockets of consumers, but in the middle of a recession they will likely save most or all of the tax cut, and hence not increase demand. Similarly, cutting business taxes puts more money in business owners’ hands, but if no one is buying, businesses can’t spend that money to expand, increase production, and hire workers.

What we need is spending, and 100% of government spending gets, well, spent.

If the government is going to spend more to stimulate the economy, then it should spend money on things that are worthwhile. Since we’re in a recession, it would be even better if government spent money on things that would boost productivity, which in the long term increases economic growth. Infrastructure. During the Depression it was dams, water projects and power lines. Today it’s much of the same, plus things like electronic medical records and high-speed rail.

But then the government debt is increasing, and that’s bad, right? Of course. During good times we should be paying down the debt, saving up for a rainy day when the government needs to engage in deficit spending. Unfortunately, Bush magically turned a budget surplus into a deficit. Instead of saving for a rainy day, we’ve been running up more debt. But now we have no choice — we are in a deep recession, and have to deficit spend to keep it from getting a lot worse. Once the economy turns around, we need to go back to fiscal responsibility — running surpluses in good times to make up for deficits in bad times.

So this is why all the mainstream economists agree on the shape of the stimulus bill. Which isn’t to say that the political process isn’t throwing some garbage into the bill. We need to hold Congress accountable for focusing spending on things we really need and that will stimulate the economy. But for the most part, the need for a bill and its general outlines are not in doubt.

Except by, apparently, Republicans.

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