Archive for June, 2008

American “Declinism”

June 30, 2008

American “declinism” is a favorite theme of pessimists, who see us riding for a fall. Paul Kennedy suggested that the US could not afford its “imperial overstretch” and would tumble from its superpower perch, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—published in 1987. Four years later, the USSR’s collapse left the US more preeminent than ever. Today its military budget equals those of all other nations combined. Is this finally overstretch? In fact, it’s not even 5 percent of our GDP.
That gives an idea of how really big our GDP is. America is a very rich country—because it is an extremely productive country.
It’s true that some of our spending is financed by borrowing, both by government and by individuals. Personal debt is around a trillion dollars; our national debt approaches $10 trillion. And while most government debt in the past was held by Americans, so it was said “we owe it to ourselves,” today an increasing percentage is in foreign hands. Nevertheless, as long as we continue to be incredibly productive, creating a stream of goods and services that people will pay trillions of dollars for, we can afford the carrying costs on our borrowing while still living good lives too.
Of course there are limits. As our retiree population balloons, so will our pension, Social Security, and healthcare costs. It has been variously estimated that the present value of such future government obligations totals 50 or 75 or even 95 trillion dollars. In some eyes this already amounts to a state of bankruptcy.
Even in light of our annual GDP of around $14 trillion, 50 to 95 trillion dollars is a scary amount of money. This is a complicated issue, a cat’s cradle entwining rates of interest, taxes, inflation, and economic growth, trade effects, the value of the dollar, and so forth. But a few basic points should be kept in mind. First, we’re talking about liabilities out into the distant future. And the present value of future US GDP, estimated on the same basis, exceeds $1,000 trillion; future federal tax revenues would be around $200 trillion. So we’re hardly facing ruin.
Furthermore, it’s not as though one day we’ll get hit with a bill for $50 trillion, that must be paid all at once. The national debt, in fact, should not be seen as something we ever have to pay. It’s something we have to finance; to pay the interest on. Again, we are rich enough, and productive enough, that we can afford to pay quite a lot of interest. As long as that’s true, there’s nothing wrong about carrying a national debt forever (which we have done since 1776). That debt, in relation to GDP, is actually significantly lower today than it was after WWII. It doesn’t make us some kind of debauched nation. This is confirmed by the financial markets, and other countries, willingly loaning the US money by buying government bonds with extremely low interest rates. That means they foresee extremely low risk.
Admittedly, in coming decades, government entitlement programs look set to become huge budget busters that can’t be managed without crippling tax increases. Well, it’s been said that if something can’t continue, it won’t. “Entitlements” may prove to be less than ironclad. The fact is that the bulk of these government benefits go to people who can perfectly well afford to live without them.
So we’ll probably have to give up some of those seeming free lunches. Yes, the political smashup promises to be pretty ugly. But it won’t be the end of life as we know it. And someday, China may become more powerful than the US, and maybe even richer too; but that won’t be the end of the world either. To repeat: as long as the US still remains fantastically productive, with the energies and creativity of its people continuing to churn out a cornucopia of saleable things, and with technological advancement continuing to enhance our output even more, we will not starve. Not only will we go on enjoying a high standard of living, it will likely get even better.

Equality and Social Justice

June 21, 2008

Since a recent posting about this topic created some discussion, I thought I’d address it more fully.
A local newspaper (Metroland) recently reported a study indicating that conservatives and Republicans profess greater happiness than liberals and Democrats. (The headline: “Happy assholes.”) The story suggested “that conservatives are able to rationalize economic and social inequalities that trouble the conscience of liberals.” As evidenced by some of the blog postings, some on the Left do seem to believe they alone possess consciences and compassion, while conservatives care only for themselves.
The philosopher John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, urged achieving equality by focusing on all those born in unfavorable circumstances or with lesser native assets and trying to fix all those deficits. He posed the question of what kind of society you’d choose under a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing beforehand how well off (or not) you’d be. According to polls, most liberals believe a person’s life is shaped mainly by that kind of luck, whereas conservatives think it’s merit and action. Rawls and liberals feel that success is really an arbitrary roll of the dice, so fairness requires equalizing outcomes, while conservatives see that as unfairly negating what people’s talents and efforts deservedly achieve. This helps explain why liberals report being less happy—they see the world as more irredeemably unjust.
In truth, success in life is molded by both factors, luck and pluck, intertwined, and it’s impossible to untangle them for any individual, let alone for a society. It’s been said that the key to success is to choose your parents well, and that’s the element of luck liberals mainly have in mind. Yet many born with such advantages squander them while many born without them nevertheless do prosper through ability, hard work, enterprise, and drive.
But having personal qualities like enterprise and drive is also lucky in a sense, which renders problematical the idea of rectifying outcomes produced by luck. Not only being born rich, but also such attributes as artistic talent, athletic prowess, physical beauty, or entrepreneurial ingenuity are, likewise, matters of luck, the results of a great cosmic lottery. Does trying to level that playing field make sense?
Many advocates of “social justice” hold that wealth ultimately must have come from force, manipulation, exploitation, or other rip-offs, so that the rich are culpably responsible for the plight of the poor. If you are reading this, your wealth and income are probably in the top few percent globally. Did you get there by ripping off the world’s poor? Or mainly through a career that contributed to society and human betterment, for which you were paid, or profited, deservedly? That’s where wealth mostly comes from—not ill-gotten gains. (And corporate profits too, by and large, come not from rip-offs, but rather from products and services people willingly pay for because they add value to their lives.)
Thus it’s wrong to talk here in terms of social “justice.” The concept of justice does not apply. A poor person’s situation may be unjust, or it may not be, but in any case is unacceptable, and society’s helping him is not a matter of justice, it’s instead simply humane. Compassion toward the poor needn’t hinge on how deserving they are (which is anyway an impossible judgment); everyone should have a minimally decent life.
However, what a level playing field should mean is that the same rules apply for everyone—not that everyone is somehow made equal in capability so they all will achieve the same score. Of course, that cannot be done by strengthening the weaker players so much as by hobbling the stronger ones. Society does not gain by trying to squelch people with talent and drive, cut them down to size, or redistribute away the fruits of their efforts. Instead, we are all best served if such individuals have the maximum scope and incentive to make the most of their gifts. That is how to capitalize upon and let everyone benefit from the prizes doled out by the cosmic lottery.
Rawls argues that the “veil of ignorance” implies that any social contract must be egalitarian, because in establishing one, nobody would agree to being disadvantaged for the benefit of others. However, in an open society, the risk of such disadvantage is worth taking because the potential benefit is greater. Even in a “veil of ignorance,” rational people would accept inequality if that means better outcomes on average. Imagine choosing between two lottery tickets: one has a guaranteed $5 payoff; the other might pay zero, but most payoffs are $20. You would choose the second because the risk of not getting at least $5 is outweighed by the greater likelihood of getting $20.
And there’s my answer to Rawls’s question. I would pick the society in which the greatest number of people have the greatest opportunity to flourish. That means one with the greatest possible freedom—not one misguidedly seeking an egalitarian utopia by warring against all human inequality. In the latter kind of society we’d all be poor—because it would require virtually totalitarian coercion and confiscation, negating the incentive to be productive. Rawls (like many on the Left) is greatly concerned with societal distribution of goods and wealth, but not with the role of productive effort in creating those goodies. Instead, they are seen as just somehow materializing for distribution. No variants of the words “produce” or “work” or “creativity” even appear in the index of his fat book!
Ultimately, equality of economic outcomes is the wrong goal. The correct aim, instead, is to provide equality of rights, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. And that is attainable without curtailing anyone else’s rights, without taking anything from anyone. There is far more social and economic justice in a free market where people benefit from their contributions than in a system that seeks equality through coercion and confiscation, stripping society’s productive members of the fruits of their sweat. That is no way to achieve any justice worthy of the name.
Capitalism is often portrayed as sacrificing some people, in a cold-hearted utilitarian calculus, leaving them behind in order to benefit the rest. No economic system will ever work to the benefit of everyone. But capitalism actually at least comes closest. It does give everyone at least the opportunity to thrive. And the overall richer society produced is better, even for the losers, than some egalitarian paradise of equal poverty.


June 21, 2008

Zimbabwe’s dictator Mugabe now says only God can remove him from power.
I put it to believers in God: well??
I’ve tried to find some adjectives to characterize Mugabe, but none was up to the task.
I would like to say that if there’s any justice, Mugabe should be burned alive. I would like to say it, but it would be wrong.

Report on 17th World Humanist Congress

June 15, 2008

I hope this will prove to be more interesting than you might expect. It will include some of my own inflammatory reactions. I will limit this blog posting to the “sexiest” bits. A more complete report can be found by clicking HERE.
To facilitate comments, I will break this up into separate postings for each program discussed, below

Gregory Paul on “The Remarkable Success of Western Secularism.”

June 15, 2008

Paul cited statistics showing that religious belief is imploding in the advanced nations, though not so much in the US. Only about a quarter of Europeans are real believers (and many of those are Muslims). The loss of faith, he said, is spontaneous and bottom-up, with no authority promoting atheism (as under Communism).
To explain this, Paul theorized that education is a factor, with statistics showing that every year of college degrades religiosity by 7%. Another factor is wealth, with per capita GDP negatively correlated with religious faith. American anomalousness in this regard he sought to explain on the basis that the US has higher income inequality.
But the nub of his talk was that humans readily cast off religion when social conditions are benign. He contrasted Europe, with its pervasive social “safety nets,” job security, and free healthcare against the US, where people allegedly feel less secure—another of his correlations. Paul declared that universal healthcare in the US will prove to be the deathknell of religion.
I figured the audience (heavily left leaning, of course) would welcome this thesis. It did not. In fact, when Paul started to get into this point, the listeners went into open revolt. A feisty bunch—shouting at him from the floor. They just didn’t think he had the evidence to support his idea. He responded by insisting on the statistical correlations, but that didn’t cut it. (I contributed the shout, “correlation is not causation!”) Just when I thought Paul would be defenestrated, he was saved by the bell—literally—the fire alarm bell. We had to evacuate the building. Audience discussion continued on the street. Eventually we returned to the room. But Gregory Paul was never seen again!

Paul Kurtz on The History of Humanism

June 15, 2008

Kurtz is the closest thing to a humanist Pope. He is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, ex co-President of IHEU (the Int’l Humanist and Ethical Union), founder of Prometheus Books, and Editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry Magazine.
Professor Kurtz started by saying that IHEU has actually failed in its great mission to create a powerful world secular organization. Perhaps; but perhaps putting the ambition that way reflects overstretch. Kurtz did expound upon some pretty creditable history.
Democratic humanism, he said, was essential in the battle against Marxist totalitarianism during the cold war, stressing the right of the individual to dissent. But the cold war’s end has hurt the humanist movement. As he saw it, humanists defended democracy, which was in some ways opposed by the political right; but that battle has been won, and now the right has seized the agenda of democracy as its own. Someone in the audience shouted something about “lip service.” There was, indeed, some lively blowback on this point, highlighting the fraught fraught relationship pf today’s Left with the concept of democracy. The real problem is indeed that the political right has co-opted it; President Bush’s second inaugural address made democracy his central concern; and of course anything Bush is for, the Left opposes. So it has painted itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac of cynicism about democracy.
Kurtz also adverted to the growth of secularism, especially in Europe. The free market and consumer culture, he said, promote secularism by raising living standards, and education (echoing Gregory Paul) is another key factor. Professor Kurtz said that today we are really defending a humanism of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it’s “too goddamn boring.” There needs to be fun it it, he asserted, and a new agenda. His suggestion for that agenda was “planetary ethics.”

“Human rights, human plights.”

June 15, 2008

Prof. Rob Buitenweg (Netherlands) queried why socio-economic rights are considered secondary to political rights—and answered that it’s a mindset of libertarianism. His talk was basically an attack on libertarianism, as morally equivalent to Satanism. He rejected the assertedly libertarian idea that freedom means freedom from interference, and nothing else, which he said leads to hostility toward socio-economic rights.
Buitenweg argued for “social justice” on the basis that the well-off are not the legitimate owners of their property, that ultimately all wealth has been produced by “force or manipulation,” and hence its owners can justly be shorn of it to help the poor.
This is rubbish. If you’re reading this, you’re likely in the highest percentiles of global wealth. Did you get there by ripping off the poor? More likely it was through a career that contributed to societal and human betterment, for which you were deservedly compensated. Such contributory effort—not “force and manipulation”—is in fact the source of most wealth in the world. Social “justice” is a faulty concept; the plight of a poor person may unjust or not, but in any case is unacceptable, and he should be helped not out of “justice” but simply humaneness.

“The Myth of Human Rights at the UN.”

June 15, 2008

Roy Brown, past IHEU President, spoke on “The Myth of Human Rights at the UN.” The old UN Commission for Human Rights had fallen into disrepute since it had become captive to the worst offenders of human rights, and the only nation it ever saw fit to criticize was Israel. Reform efforts produced a new Human Rights Council; the intent was that only nations really sincere about human rights would get on it, but guess what? The disgraceful ones still rule the roost. It happens because the elections are in geographic subgroups. The ethic followed is, “I won’t criticize you if you don’t criticize me.”
Thus, in the view of the Islamic nations, human rights are properly governed by Sharia Law, in all its primeval glory. And with their votes these nations block any discussion of the matter.
The latest atrocity is that, in the wake of the Danish cartoon affair, the UN’s “Special Rapporteur” on freedom of expression has been instructed to report not on abridgements of freedom of expression but rather abuse of freedom of expression.
Brown concluded that there is really no international consensus on human rights, and that what is needed is a human rights council outside the UN’s auspices, so that it can be limited to those nations with a genuine commitment to promote human rights.
In the question session, Brown was asked whether military intervention on behalf of human rights is ever justified, and if so, must it be under UN auspices? Given all he had just been saying, I thought the second question was somewhat amazing. More amazing still was his answer: yes to both.
I think perhaps minds have been muddled by the Iraq intervention and its having occurred without UN sanction – at least without totally explicit UN sanction. I would point to something else the US did, which was entirely without UN sanction: the 1999 Kosovo intervention. To me, that case makes it clear that the correct answer to the second question is a resounding “No!”

Freedom of Conscience and Expression

June 15, 2008

The first speaker was Maryam Namazie on “The Right and Duty to Criticize Islam.” Namazie is a former Muslim. Freedom of conscience, Namazie said, is not a “Western” value, and it matters most when it comes to criticizing religion and things held sacred. This is vital to human progress. And Islam, in particular, she asserted, is a culture of violence that has wreaked havoc on its peoples. A “moderate” religion is one that has been reined back by an Enlightenment.
Religious freedom, she insisted, does not include the right to be respected and sheltered from being offended. Criticizing a belief is not the same as attacking the person who holds it. It’s the human being—not a creed—that must be held sacred. And, Namazie said, this is not a clash of civilizations, but rather a clash of the uncivilized.
Next was Institute for Humanist Studies Executive Director Matt Cherry, on “Freedom of Conscience as a Fundamental Right.” He noted that identifying onself as an ex-Muslim (as in the case of Ms. Namazie) is very dangerous in today’s world, because Islam does not recognize a right to leave the faith. Such apostates earn a death sentence. That, of course, is a fundamental violation of the principle of freedom of conscience. And, echoing Ms. Namazie, he stressed that it’s not religions that have these rights, only individuals do.
Matt called attention to the case of Dr. Younis Shaikh, a Pakistani professor sentenced to death for blasphemy. Invoking the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US government, together with some NGOs, was able to get Dr. Shaikh freed. (Shaikh’s blasphemy consisted of telling his students that, prior to the start of the Islamic religion, Muhammad and his deceased parents were non-Muslims.)

Psychics & the Law; also Eleanor Smeal speech

June 15, 2008

Hanne Stinson, British Humanist Association Executive Director spoke about a new UK law that criminalizes “psychics” who defraud people with false claims. The question was posed as when religious practices are so harmful that they should be deemed crimes. However, she held that “psychics” are not generally acting out of belief, but are perpetrating calculated frauds. She stressed cases in which the vulnerability of bereaved people is exploited by these creeps who actually make their psychological situation worse. Ms. Stinson characterized the new law as putting psychics under the same rules as any tradesman providing a service. The burden is now on the practitioner to prove he did not offer something he could not deliver.
Wendy Kaminer, a noted lawyer and civil liberties advocate, dissented, mainly on the burden of proof issue. She agreed that intentional fraud should be prosecuted, but the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” should be maintained. Proving a negative is hard and puts an intolerable burden on the defendant, whose life can well be ruined by a prosecution, even if it ultimately fails. Similar prosecutions could be brought against therapists. Kaminer asserted that if people want to go to these kinds of practitioners, it’s really none of the state’s business; this is a soft form of authoritarianism; there are a lot of abuses in life, and there’s not always a remedy in criminal law. Let’s not give the state too much power over us. (In case it’s not already obvious, I agree.)

* * * *
Eleanor Smeal, former President of the National Organization for Women and inventor of the “gender gap” received an award. I frankly did not care for her speech.
Smeal had a lot to say about the Democratic presidential contest, and the press coverage, complaining that the press focuses on trivia at the expense of serious matters, and that coverage of Clinton’s campaign was misogynist and sexist. She said “the press is no longer reporting the news but shaping it.” (I am shocked, shocked.)
This was followed up by her loudest, most intensely expressed remarks: a partisan rant against McCain.
Another point was population control. Opposition to population control, Smeal said, is motivated by—can you guess?—the desire to keep Third World labor cheap! This takes cynicism to new heights, and epitomizes the lamentable trend in our politics to address issues by ascribing evil motives to those who don’t agree with you.