Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sinners and Republicans

Jennifer Rubin wonders why it's so hard to get Republicans to behave like conservatives.

Just a thought: maybe it's because they aren't conservatives.

I've written about this before. The essential problem with fighting the liberals is philosophical unity: conservatism just doesn’t have it. Conservatism is not a cohesive philosophy the same way liberalism is. Liberalism’s charter is to bring cosmic justice to the world, and no less. Heaven on earth today, and don’t get in the way. This gives them an unlimited appetite for power; there is no logical stopping point. Nothing, from making you wear your seat belt to telling you your kid is too fat, is outside politics. Every institution — from the Constitution and the rule of law, to private property, the free market, the church, marriage, and the family — is an obstacle preventing liberals from grabbing all the power they crave. All institutions are under attack, at all times.

It never occurs to them that they do not have the knowledge, wisdom, or goodness to be God. Neither do conservatives, but conservatives tend to follow inspector Harry Callahan's advice: a man's got to know his limitations.

The term “conservative” is applied injudiciously to all those who oppose the liberal agenda, no matter what they believe, even if they only care about defending a single one from among all the institutions under assault. Each besieged institution has its own cadre of defenders. The church and the family are defended by the religious right. The libertarians and small businessmen defend private property and the free market. Big business fights regulation. Law & order conservatives defend the rule of law. Traditional conservatives defend the Constitution. And so forth. Most care very much about their pet institution, and care little about the pet institutions of their informal allies.

This causes two problems. The first problem is that each conservative faction feels no loyalty to the other factions. The libertarians don’t care for the religious right’s agenda, and are openly hostile to it. The strong national defense crowd doesn’t necessarily care if there are tariffs or over-regulation. The big business types don’t care about school choice (they can afford private schools for their own kids.)

The second problem is that, while the Democratic Party is the liberal party, there is no “conservative” party. The Republican Party is the party of big business, pure and simple. You know someone by his non-negotiables, and there simply aren’t very many things a Republican won’t negotiate away at the first sign of trouble with the Democrats. This was never more clear than when the Democrats and Republicans locked arms and pushed for the very unpopular immigration “reform.” It fits nicely with both agendas — it promises the Democrats future clients, and dangles cheap labor before big business. When the conservatives raised a stink, their reward for voting twice for Bush was to be dismissed as a bunch of bigots. This is what conservatives have to deal with: a party leadership that always seems to find common ground with liberals and some reason to forget the folks who actually vote for them.

So, don’t be perplexed when Republicans refuse to act like conservatives. They’re not conservatives. They just talk that way once every two years, to enlist the kind words of commentators such as Ms. Rubin. At the moment, it is in big business’ best interests to turn at least socialist enough to accept taxpayer money. So once again, they have found common cause with liberals and left their allies, and the country, in the lurch.

If Republicans can’t bring themselves to defend this country’s cherished institutions, we might as well find out now. Perhaps the Democrats will overreach again. Perhaps the frog in boiling water analogy is applicable to the situation. Now that socialism has quit creeping and started galloping, it’s time perhaps to see reality. It's a necessary first step.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Apologize? For What?

In the Reformed faith, we hold that God calls His people not with syllogisms, but by changing their hearts. Paul even dismissed debating with non-believers as pointless, since Christianity was considered heresy by the Jews and foolishness by the Greeks -- respectively, the theologians and philosophers of his day. Yet Paul did debate the pagans, and the list of great Christian apologists includes Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and (more recently) C. S. Lewis. So perhaps there is cause, sometimes, to seek to expand God's kingdom through philosophical argument, bearing in mind that that such arguments will not change very many minds. They mainly serve to bolster the believer's confidence that the Lord has sovereignty over all things, including reason itself.

In recent weeks, I have become intrigued with the arguments put forth by the proponents of presuppositional apologetics. The presuppositionalist boldly argues that all world views that are not Christian are self-contradictory. Unlike more traditional forms of apologetics, the presuppositionalist denies that the Christian and the atheist share any common ground upon which even to engage -- that is, as soon as the atheist steps before the podium, he has already conceded the debate. A Thomist's strategy might be to argue on the basis of premises shared by Christian and atheist alike, regarding the tools upon which man's wisdom depends: rationality, reason, order, logic, evidence, morality. By contrast, a presuppositionalist demands that the atheist provide an account consistent with atheism for the existence and authority of these concepts before being allowed to invoke them in his arguments. After all, one cannot use logic to prove that logic itself is valid; its validity must be assumed, i.e., presupposed. The atheist cannot argue that the Christian ought to abandon his faith unless he can explain where "ought" came from. Are logic and morality authoritative? Are they greater than man? If so, how? If they don't, how do they claim any authority? And how do any such claims follow from a godless origin? If what the Christian quaintly refers to as "Creation" is merely the illegitimate offspring of haphazard bursts of energy and the random clanging of atoms, then how can any concept pretend to be transcendent?

This is more than just word play. A pivotal tenet of atheism holds that what we perceive as meaning, reason, order, logic, and morality all must have somehow spontaneously emerged from unmeaning, unreason, disorder, incoherence, and amorality. The universe was born perhaps twelve billion years ago, but meaning had to wait, in succession, for the solar system, the Earth, life, and man to be born -- and then had to wait until man could perceive it. Was meaning there all along, waiting to be discovered? If a philosophical proof falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound? Do logic and morality exist in an objective manner, and if so, how do we prove this without begging the question? Or are they simply ideas in man's head, subjective notions born of brain chemicals and circumstances, the result of eons of random mutation and natural selection? Did these notions come about only because they helped our species survive, and have they no further importance beyond that? And what makes man's survival a moral imperative? Many atheists berate Christians for accepting God without rational cause, but mostly they get away Scot-free without being forced to acknowledge their own reliance on things unseen.

Some atheists do believe in objective truth and transcendent morality because it seems instinctive to do so, but not before assuming the validity of instinct -- much like the mathematician who accepts that A = A, or like Descartes announcing, "I think, therefore I am" (which is not a proof, but only an assumption in the form of a proof). What they cannot do is to demonstrate why reason and morality, even if objective, are necessarily authoritative. Being mere participants alongside man in a universe neither made, reason and morality cannot be authoritative. They just sit there mumbling things, and whether we choose to heed them, or not, there are no consequences beyond the purely practical. We cannot tell whether logic is real or a mass delusion. We cannot tell if morality is absolute or even whether it is deranged. Does it whisper in our ear? Adolf Hitler listened to his inner voice when it told him, "Kill the Jews," while Raoul Wallenberg listened to his own inner voice when it said, "Save the Jews." Did they hear different voices, or was it the same voice speaking out of both sides of its mouth? There would be no way to tell.

The materialist has even bigger problems than the atheist/moralist. If physics is all there is, then reason and logic themselves, being immaterial, cannot exist at all as objective phenomena. The "transcendental truths" are therefore linguistic placeholders for illusions created in the human brain by electrical impulses and biochemical dynamics. If everything is physics and physics is everything, then it would be a mischaracterization to describe any argument between a Christian and a materialist as a "debate." I love Doug Wilson's depiction of such an event: it's like shaking up two cans of soft drink, setting them on a platform, and opening them. They can froth and foam at each other, and can even be entertaining. But it is hardly debate, no matter what the two cans of soda think they are doing, or whether they think at all. Since nothing is transcendent, meaning cannot exist, and logic and morality are simply a collection of conceits that crawled out of the mud along with man.

We all presuppose something. The ideas we have been talking about can only possess any meaning if they are eternal and therefore objective, and if they are greater than man and therefore authoritative. In the Christian view, they come from God; they seem eternal because He is eternal, and they seem authoritative because it is His will. There is no contradiction. The atheist therefore depends on the precepts of Christianity even to raise his voice in dissent. In word, the atheist denies God. But in deed, by acknowledging the existence of reason and morality, and because he cannot build their framework himself, he is forced to accept (if ungratefully) what the Lord has provided.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

As I Was Just Saying...

Talking about rule changes...

In a stunningly stupid move, the FDIC, led by Sheila Blair, has recommended the assessment of a one time 20 basis point fee on bank deposits. It will use this to pay for its projected $80 billion in bank failures for 2008 through 2013....

Why weaken the strong banks, who will either lose capital through this, or just pass the costs in the form of lower yields to consumers?....

Should all banks have to pay the price? Think of the bank that is muddling its way through this Great Recession. It gets hit with this fee and teeters a bit more. The government is not going to fund it, because it’s not a monolith that will cause armageddon upon failure. What happens?

It fails.

One more time, from the previous post, here are the new rules in effect:

  • If someone makes bad economic decisions, he prospers -- that is, he goes to Congress with a tin cup, on bended knee, and goes home with a few billion dollars in his pocket.
  • If someone makes good economic decisions, he suffers -- that is, he is forced to subsidize prodigal businessmen and imprudent mortgage defaulters.
Hat tip: Vere loqui

For over a hundred years, progressives and liberals have been chafing for the chance to run things and make the world perfect, chucking little pellets of cosmic justice like Pez dispensers as they traipse about, wreaking all the change we can possibly believe in.

Well, it's change, alright. I'll be grieving in it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Mel Blount Rule

When you change the rules, you change the game.

During the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise was the greatest, most dominant team in professional football. The Steelers from that era festoon the NFL Hall of Fame like old hippies at a Grateful Dead concert -- Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert -- all of them legends, and not just in their own time, but even still.

One of these players, and arguably the most dominant at his position, was Mel Blount, the most feared cornerback of all time. A tall, powerful man with excellent speed and amazing strength, he spent his career terrorizing the hapless wide receivers who dared to step into his part of the field. Anyone fielding a pass near Blount knew he was in for some serious pain. Blount was so dominant that he inspired a change in the rules of football. The NFL has always favored the passing game because of television ratings; the general public would rather watch a passing game than a running attack ("three yards and a cloud of dust" -- borrrinnngg!). Also, the NFL likes parity, and hates it when one team dominates for too long. It's bad for business, or so they believe.

As a result, the NFL handed down a rule change designed to blunt Blount. Henceforth, it would no longer be legal to jam a receiver further downfield than five yards from the line of scrimmage -- to be caught doing so would earn a pass-interference penalty. It was a simple rule change in a game with literally thousands of rules. How much difference would changing one little teeny tiny itty bitty rule make?

As things turned out, a world of difference. Before the rule change, running backs were every bit as important to an offense as quarterbacks. Backs like Jim Brown, Larry Czonka, O. J. Simpson, and Franco Harris had contributed as much or more to their teams' successes as their quarterbacks. (Quick: who played quarterback for Cleveland when Jim Brown was there?) But once this new rule was decreed, it opened up unforeseen opportunities in the passing game; thus, the running game was devalued while the quarterback and receivers appreciated in value. Having a quarterback who could throw well was no longer a mere option, but a necessity -- as was having receivers who could consistently get open. It also changed the type of players needed for the offensive line, whose primary job now became defending the quarterback rather than run-blocking. Most profoundly of all, the new rule favored coaches who knew how to win games through the air. Many coaches (including some of the greats, such as Tom Landry and Chuck Noll) could not adjust to the new rules, while a new school of coaches (Don Coryell, Bill Walsh) adapted and prospered.

All of that, brought about by one little, teeny, tiny, itty, bitty rule change. So it bears repeating: when you change the rules, you change the game.

Economics is also a game of rules. Here's one: in the United States, since Day One, it had always been understood that:

  • If someone makes good economic decisions, he prospers.
  • If someone makes bad economic decisions, he suffers.
It used to be that if a bank made bad loans, or a company made a product nobody wanted to buy, or an investor sunk his money into a losing enterprise, or a home buyer borrowed more than he could repay, such folks lost money and risked bankruptcy. If they did go bankrupt, their assets were seized by the sheriff and handed over to their creditors to salvage or sell off what they could.

In recent months, this rule has been changed. With the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailouts, the AIG bailout, the Wall Street bailouts, the bank bailouts, the proposed auto bailouts, and now the proposed home mortgage bailout, it is obvious that there are new rules in place:

  • If someone makes bad economic decisions, he prospers -- that is, he goes to Congress with a tin cup, on bended knee, and goes home with a few billion dollars in his pocket.
  • If someone makes good economic decisions, he suffers -- that is, he is forced to subsidize prodigal businessmen and imprudent mortgage defaulters.
This is a sea change, a transfiguration. It's a new game now. How different will the new game be? Who knows? But let's consider the possibilities anyway, starting with a look at what it was that we lost along with the old rules. Adam Smith, the philosophical father of capitalism, argued that the free market was the best way to organize man's economic activities in order to curb his selfish instincts -- to harness them, in fact, for the common good. Here, from The Wealth of Nations, is probably Smith's most famous passage:

Smith: "Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."
In short: he who would help himself must help others. This is the Golden Rule made economic flesh.

But such a rule cannot exist in a vacuum. Smith took for granted that he lived in a society where Christian ethics meant something, and where the institutions of private property and the rule of law had existed for hundreds of years. In other words, in 18th century British society, there were criminal options (such as stealing) that were denied to Smith's fellow Brits, and political options (such as seizure without due process) that were denied to Crown and Parliament. Capitalism requires a vast infrastructure of laws, customs, mores, and circumstance in order to perform its magic.

And Smith adds, with some disdain:

Smith: "Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

This rule has already been under attack for quite some time. We had already created whole classes of "beggars" (by Smith's standard) for years that have been receiving federal subsidies in the form of government-provided welfare checks, food stamps, and housing subsidies at the low end -- and, at the high end, government workers, government contractors and corporate lobbyists. And it isn't "benevolence," exactly, that is doled out, but rather money that was taken forcibly from taxpayers and distributed by government brokers.

But until recently, it had always been more or less understood that any "benevolence" would be bestowed on the poor and disadvantaged. However, now we are being ordered to subsidize failed business enterprises as well -- most of whose CEOs are not in the soup line.

There are so many things wrong here, but let's focus on the most basic injustice: when AIG was making money, did they ever offer to share their profits with the taxpayers? No; but now that they have lost billions, the taxpayers are being conscripted to share their losses. Once you open the door to that sort of thing... Well, sorry, the door has already been opened. Let's try again: once this approach to doing business becomes institutionalized, then we have said fare-thee-well to capitalism, and we may as well re-write Smith's phrase to describe our new paradigm:

Revised version: "Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have whatever I choose, and only as much as I choose, to give you, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that the taxpayers are forced to surrender to us the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the patronage or even the benevolence of customers that we expect our businesses to profit, but from our ability to go over everyone's heads to the government and beg money, to our advantage, at the expense of the taxpayers. We address ourselves not to the public at large, who would surely scoff and sneer, but to the politicians -- and not towards their humanity for crying out loud, as they may not possess any of it, but to their self-love and greed for power, and never talk to them of right and wrong but only of their own political advantage."
And lest we forget the last part:
Revised version: "Nobody but a sucker chooses to depend chiefly upon serving honorably and with due diligence a customer's needs or desires."
As rule changes go, this particular one happens to be far more fundamental to the game of economics even than the Mel Blount Rule was to football. It's certainly a game-changer. In fact, the game has changed so much that you will no longer need to wonder, when ten different economists are trotted out to articulate ten different opinions, which one happens to be right. Now you will know none of them are right. They were all trained in economics as it used to be, the old game, according to the old rules. Those rules are dead. Nobody knows how things will work, or if they'll work, from here on out. Nobody's forecasts are worth a dime. Nobody's advice is worth soliciting. New rules, new game.

One thing hasn't changed, though, and that is human nature. Everyone will still try to look out for his own material well-being. We just don't know what form that will take. In 13th-century Mongolia, it meant killing your rivals and stealing their property and their wives and daughters. In the Soviet Union, it meant sucking up to Stalin. In Adam Smith's 19th-century England, it meant baking bread, cutting meat, or brewing beer for your customers. Let's hope --- indeed, let's pray that whatever form it takes will be a civilized one that will not cause too much misery.

Mel Blount, by the way, learned to play well even under the Mel Blount Rule, as he was a smart and experienced player with all the physical tools he needed to adapt. In time, we may learn to play our new game well enough to get by. At least, such will be my prayer.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gyrations, anyone?

(Hat tip: Instapundit)

Has it finally sunk in at the White House that the plummeting stock market has simply been responding to BO's rhetoric? Or his policies? Or both? The Dow has dropped two thousand points since his inauguration, and maybe, just maybe, it was something the big guy might have said. Hmmm?

Well, if words can break the market, maybe they can fix it as well. You know all that doom and gloom stuff BO has been talking? Well, never mind. Today, BO says to forget all that. Follow the link, read, relax, and enjoy. Have a drink. Heck, might as well polish off the whole fifth, if you can still afford one.

The president predicted that Americans' consumer confidence would improve as they see the stimulus bill "taking root."

Taking root? Well, money is like kudzu, you know. It grows on trees. At least when you're harvesting other people's money.

What you're now seeing is ... profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it," the president said on a day that trading continued to hover under 7,000.
Long-term? Like, after more investors have been coaxed back into the market by all the higher taxes and class warfare rhetoric? And deficits that are zooming past the moons of Jupiter? Yeah, well, while you're holding your breath waiting for that to happen, I have other ideas. I'm going to take all my money out of the market and invest in a new invention I call the portfoldingchair -- part portfolio, part folding chair. It's not very comfortable in the long position, but you should watch it collapse.

Businesses are starting to see opportunities for investment and potential hiring," he said. "We are going to start creating jobs again.

Wow, that's good news, at least for India and China.

Asked about the troubles of the stock market, seeming to reflect investor insecurity about the Obama administration's economic plans, the president said he was "absolutely confident that they will work, and I'm absolutely confident that credit's going to be flowing again, that businesses are going to start seeing opportunities for investment, they're going to start hiring again. People are going to be put back to work."

Unfortunately, it's not BO's confidence that needs to be bolstered at the moment. He seems to have plenty of it. I'm more worried about the investors, who right now are more interested in sheltering what money they have left. BO, it would appear, needs to learn that when the President of the United States talks like a dorm-room Bolshevik, some people actually listen to him and take him at his word.

Obama said he wasn't focused on "the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market, but the long-term ability for the United States and the entire world economy to regain its footing."

Gyrations? Sorry, no.

Here's what a gyration looks like:

This, on the other hand, is what we call a trend...

Any questions?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Difference?

So what's the difference, he asked, between a liberal and a conservative?

To judge by Obama's appointees, a liberal is someone who thinks taxes ought to be high, but doesn't think he should have to pay them.

A conservative, on the other hand, thinks taxes ought to be low, but that he should have to pay them regardless.

Glad we cleared that up.