Thursday, February 26, 2009

All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

Wretchard does a much better job of explaining a few of the insights, or notions, I have been gathering for years, and adds a few more of his own. By all means, read what he has to say. It won't cheer you up.

The following comments represent my own thoughts, though, not his -- and though there is much overlap, like most modern political commentators, his perspective (at least in his writing) is secular. Here at Reformed Trombonist, all commentary is seasoned with the Reformed perspective.

1. The economy is a complex system, which we understand only in very small part; mostly, we just have collections of theories (or notions).

2. Every change in the legal framework of the economy, even the slightest, has implications its framers do not understand. They're hard to understand even in hindsight, let alone in foresight.

3. This ignorance opens economics up to ideological interpretation, which leads to politically-motivated decision-making, leaving the mechanism quite vulnerable.

4. Effective economic decision-making, defined as decision-making helpful to economic growth, consists largely of being afraid, very afraid, to tamper with the machinery; and, when forced to make changes, to make them in a manner which is reverent and respectful towards the good that exists, and suspicious of unsubstantiated promises -- not "Change that we can believe in," but, rather, change that is necessary and as reliable as we can make it. Save your faith for your Lord, and do not spend it on the imaginary wisdom of man. ("In God we trust; all others, bring cash.")

5. Effective political decision-making, defined as decision-making helpful to the decision-maker's political career, consists of convincing enough voters that you are on their side, which often diverges from effective economic decision-making.

Politicians have their own set of incentives, and they are not necessarily the same as the country's. (France and Norway may have suffered under the Nazis, but how much did Petain and Quisling suffer? Until after the war, that is.) When thinking of politicians, don't think of them as the brains of society. Just because a tick is attached to your scalp doesn't make him your brain. Politicians are at least as ignorant as the rest of us about how the economy works; they only know what they think is good for them. After doing his part to wreck the economy, when all is said and done, Sen. Dodd has a million-dollar country house in Ireland waiting for him when he retires to reflect on his years of public service. (Nice, huh?) We may struggle in the years ahead largely because of decision-making that took place at his level, but don't worry about him. He'll be fine.

This is the framework of our current ailments. Back to my dead horse: how is any of this not essentially a problem of morality? Somewhere along the line, we as a society lost the ability to inculcate a sense of honor and decency in our politicians to balance out their own human impulses toward self-aggrandization, allowing them to think only of getting re-elected. We lost the ability to instill a sense of shame about being greedy to those on Wall Street who thought only of inflating their portfolios, and consequences be damned. And even many homebuyers are at fault too, for chasing single-mindedly after their own McMansions and dismissing any nagging doubts that might have tugged them back toward financial prudence. A democratic republic such as ours cannot survive if too many of its citizens and decision-makers do not behave responsibly. This caveat has always been with us even from the outset -- "A Republic," proclaimed Ben Franklin, "if you can keep it."

These are the fruits of a deep spiritual problem. What can the media talking-heads possibly say that would convince decision-makers to regard the welfare of others more highly than their own? What economic theory can possibly provide, with any authority, a reason to put other people's interests ahead of one's own? If even one in ten Congressmen or financiers had seen this coming and made good moral decisions, would all this have happened?

We are paying a terrible price for the failure of the Church to teach good theology. It's been a long time coming, and now it's here. Congratulations, power-mongering liberals. Congratulations, greedy financiers. Congratulations, irresponsible borrowers. The system is broken. Good luck and Godspeed to all of us in our attempts to fix it or find something better. We'll need it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Us and Them

"Haven't you heard it's a battle of words
The poster bearer cried
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside..." -- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

The belief in a transcendent moral code seems to be instinctive. Even those whose belief systems cannot accommodate a God in Heaven, or any sort of non-material reality at all, behave as if there exists a moral vision which commands our respect and should command our obedience. For example, there were three books published recently by individuals who can best be described as evangelical atheists -- Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation; Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion; and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Far from presenting an amoral vision, moral indignation practically drips from the pages -- in Hitchen's case, it spouts like a Old Faithful. Leave it to Dawkins, though, to suggest that Christianity is a form of child abuse, and that children should be taken from parents who try to force it on them. These atheists present a moral vision, all right, just not a very coherent one. As Doug Wilson explains here to Hitchens (much as a janitor explains clean floors to a mop), such inflamed moral umbrage does not follow from the thin broth of a materialist philosophy. To hold any legitimate sway over us, morality must somehow be greater than we are -- and exactly how, within the cramped closet that comprises the entirety of the materialist cosmos, can that possibly be? Materialism reduces morality to a mere conceit, which exists only in our minds -- much like Superman and Mother Goose. To throw their moral darts at Christianity, atheists are forced either to borrow from the spiritualist worldview the idea that morality exists on a higher plane than mankind, or else confess (if only to themselves) that they are merely expressing their own mundane preferences and irritations which carry no moral weight at all, and dressing them up as a moral vision only to impress the rubes.

Which brings us to politics, which is simply philosophy plus force. Imposing a moral vision on the citizenry is not an ancillary exertion of government, nor a regrettable sidebar, but rather its defining role. It can be a benighted moral vision -- the human sacrifices of the Mayans, for example, or the extermination camps of the Nazis and Cambodian Communists. It can be something from our not-too-distant past, such as in Colonial days when people who missed too much church were pilloried. Or it could be our present situation, as daily and hourly we are instructed how to think and feel on a large range of issues by the "smiley face" of liberal fascism, and confronted with its ever-growing laundry list of politically-correct attitudes. Politics is never a struggle between a moral vision on one side vs. a morally neutral vision on the other; it is always a struggle between competing moral visions. This is by necessity: government derives its authority from the notion that it serves a higher purpose. Any time "the good" appears in an argument, it becomes a moral argument. The law, therefore, is always an imposition of someone's morality; someone's moral code will win out, and the only question is, whose? That may sound odd to someone who has been trained to believe that only religious folks want to impose their morality on everyone. But what is the liberal welfare state, if not an imposition of morality on taxpayers who might otherwise feel disinclined to pay its considerable, whopping bill? Paying taxes is not optional; you can only refuse to pay but for so long, until at last someone from the government settles the issue by pulling a gun. Liberals always demand that Christians not impose their morality on others, but we should be clear about the nature of their objection: it's not the imposition of morality per se that enrages liberals; it's the Christianity. Liberalism, too, is a jealous god.

Socialism is the moral ideal and political goal of liberalism. To grasp its underlying philosophy and moral vision, read John Rawls, the patron saint of modern American liberalism. Nobody does a better job of explaining it. Socialism reflects the materialist's notion that all injustices are economic, and its charter is, through economic redistribution, to right all the wrongs created by accident of birth or circumstance. It may be a deeply flawed moral vision (and I think it is), but it is a moral vision nonetheless, and as such can only be beaten by an opposing moral vision. Socialism's pretensions of economic effectiveness have been debunked many times, by far better writers than yours truly. But, so far, no one has been able to propose an alternative moral vision which can unite socialism's disgruntled but disunited critics. Capitalism, the best economic alternative, offers no compelling moral vision -- and so, even though it may continue to win the arguments, on its own it is still doomed to lose the elections. It is hard to sell the quest for economic efficiency as a higher truth. In the struggle against liberalism, socialism, communism, and all such philosophies which exalt man and shake their fists at God, free market economic principles must always be cast in a supporting role, and the star of the show must always be the big fellow to whom we refer when we say,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So remember this the next time a secular conservative, or a libertarian economist, or a Republican plutocrat expresses impatience with Christian conservatives. They are embarrassed by their Christian fellow travelers; they believe the Religious Right should come out of suspended animation once every two years to vote Republican, write big checks for the GOP coffers, and then be good enough shut up and go back to sleep until the next election. They all think that the struggle against liberalism and socialism can be won with their economic theories, their Laffer curves, open trade, tax incentives, and Fox Business News. They're wrong. A moral vision such as liberalism which flatters mankind with delusions of his own fairness and wisdom must be met head on with the moral reality that mankind has no intrinsic goodness other than what God in his mercy imparts, according to His own perfect, transcendent will.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

La Bella Pelosi and the Perils of Arithmetic

Maybe all the math majors became conservatives?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has announced that 500 million Americans are losing their jobs each month.

That's 1.66 jobs lost each month per American. Wow. That's a lot of jobs.

At this rate, unless we rush to pass the Democrats' stimulus package, we will lose six billion jobs this year. Not bad, for a country of only 300 million. At this rate, the entire planet plus the Klingon Empire and half of Vulcan will be unemployed by the end of 2010.

If ex-President Bush had uttered this, of course, op-eds across the planet would be guffawing at his idiocy. But Bush's specialty was his inability to articulate (generally) defensible statements. Congresscritter Pelosi's specialty seems to be her penchant for articulating utterly idiotic concepts with bell-like clarity.

We picked our poison, and it looks more and more like we chose the fast-acting kind.

Stimulus Rex

The word of the day is stimulus. Politicians enjoy talking about stimulating the economy with this or that subsidy or redistribution scheme. It's like listening to Ben Roethlisberger talk about the importance of touchdown passes, or (to head in a less exalted direction,perhaps) a car salesman talk about the importance of buying the $800 undercoating package or the $2000 warranty. Redistributing money is what politicians do. They earn their living by putting their hands in our wallets, grabbing wads of cash, and giving it to someone else -- minus their commission, of course. Wouldn't expect them to steal from us for free, would you?

There's just something about that word -- stimulus. It sounds like the name of the Roman guy who forced the Christians out into the center of the Coliseum with a trident. "They don't seem to want to meet the lions. They need Stimulus!"

And, frankly, that's about what it amounts to in the current mess. The definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same dumb things, expecting different results. If government takes a trillion bucks out of the taxpayers' hands and gives it (minus their commission) to the same people who lost a trillion bucks, what do we expect them to do with the money? Use it smartly? Prudently? All of a sudden? Why start now?

Or -- here's a good one -- politicians giving it back to the taxpayers as a rebate. Can government save someone with blood transfusions (minus their commission) from himself? Why not just reduce taxes? Well, there's no government overhead charge in having people keep their own money. "Here's the IV hose, boys, just stick this end in his neck and the other end in his arm, and don't forget to siphon some of that off for tonight's party, Vlad." (The difference between a vampire and a Congressman is that while one's a fearsome, blood-sucking, undead parasite, the other one turns into a bat.)

I spoke not long ago, before the Obama inauguration, with the proprietor of a florist's shop (getting flowers for my wife, naturally), and she mentioned that it had been a good day for her, sales-wise, but a rough month. Then she brightly announced, "But I think things will improve when Obama takes over!"

Sometimes, I have enough self-discipline to avoid politics when talking with strangers. But this time she brought it up. I responded, "I don't think socialism is the right direction for our country."

It was clear from her facial expression that she didn't think running-dog capitalistic nay-saying was the right direction, either. But I was a paying customer, so instead of reporting me to the PC police, she said cheerfully, "Well, he's going to have some very smart people helping him make those important decisions!"

I hate to kill enthusiasm, but sometimes I feel it's my duty: "So did the Soviet Union. The greatest mathematicians and physicists in the world are Russian. Chess is their national sport. The problem with the Soviet Union wasn't that they didn't have enough smart people."

Her expression went from hopeful to grim. Mission accomplished. It's what I do. My card says, "Database Administrator -- Trombonist -- Professional Killjoy."

It's not the people, it's the system. Socialism rewards failure. Actually, it subsidizes cronies and political allies, and good performance does not need a subsidy.

On the other hand, capitalism rewards success, but, even more importantly, it punishes failure -- which is about the best we can hope for in this sinful, fallen society. In a free-market system, you can't just keep losing billions of dollars, whether on sub-prime loans, or half-baked e-businesses, or tulip farms -- sooner or later, someone stops you from losing even more money (usually your creditors and the sheriff). But as we are sucked more and more into the socialist vortex, what will be rewarded more and more is failure: failure to make solvent loans, failure to invest money wisely, failure to make cars that Americans want to buy. Highly politicized failure. Politicians make economic decisions not for economic but for political reasons. Always. And always for a fee.

It's like P.J. O'Rourke said: "Giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." Whee. If you don't like their driving, stay off the sidewalk.

So here comes that Roman guy with his trident, and you know what it's aimed at. And now you know his name.

Stimulus wrecks.