Archive for November, 2010

Freedom of Speech and Religion

November 30, 2010

When the cartoon show South Park referred to the prophet Muhammad, the producers got perceived death threats, and removed all such references from subsequent shows. This self-censorship prompted a “Chalking for Freedom of Expression” campaign by a University of Wisconsin humanist student group, urging people to chalk stick figures and label them “Muhammad.” Writing to the Muslim Student Association, the group’s president, Chris Calvey, explained, “A free society cannot tolerate violence or threats of violence which seeks to limit our freedom of expression.” MSA VP Ahmed Fikri replied, likening the campaign to “slapping someone in the face,” and urging that it be cancelled, “before resorting to what we feel to be rather drastic measures;” yet asserting “we believe in freedom of expression just as much as you purport to do.” (The campaign was not called off; Muslim students retaliated by chalking “Ali” after “Muhammad.”)

In past times it was pretty much accepted that if someone’s beliefs didn’t match your own, it was OK to burn him alive. Most people today – even most Muslims – no longer sanction this. So that’s progress. But while we mostly agree about the right not to be burned for your beliefs, now many people think there is a right not to be offended. Muslim nations at the UN, in the wake of the Danish cartoon affair, have mounted a big campaign to restrict worldwide press freedom to bar anything deemed offensive to someone’s religion (mainly theirs). (The U.S., I’m glad to say, has steadfastly opposed this.)

Let’s be clear. My freedom to swing my fist stops at your nose. There is a right not to be harmed by someone (absent just cause). But my freedom to speak does not stop at your ears. The difference is that while the pain of a punch cannot be averted, you can choose to ignore words. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Moreover, while the ban on hurtful action is intrinsic to a social contract whose raison d’etre is protection from harm, a ban on speech deemed offensive is fundamentally incompatible with a free society. Because everything can be offensive to someone; and if everyone has immunity from being offended, then there is no freedom of expression. If this seems a reductio ad absurdum, we have actually seen how enforced codes of political correctness on campuses, banning utterances deemed offensive to certain sensibilities, have resulted in promoting monocultures of thought, the very antithesis of the sort of laboratory of ideas that a university should be. Lawrence Summers was hounded from Harvard’s presidency for just such a “transgression.”

This is the famous Danish cartoon image

Given all the centuries in which untold thousands of dissenters (real and imagined) suffered excruciating death at the hands of religionists, it ill behooves them now to complain at having to endure the “offense” of people being able to express dissonant thoughts. And even if most religionists eschew burning non-coreligionists in this world, still many of them insist we are condemned to burn forever in the next one. How is that not supremely offensive??!

But when one of my own good friends actually says such things, I just shrug it off. I am sick of all this oversensitiveness, the whole “gotcha” culture of finding “offensive remarks.” There’s too damned much taking of offense. It’s like we’re becoming a crybaby civilization, running to mommy in tears, whining, “Johnny said something bad!” And of course most such indignation is actually synthetic rather than heartfelt, which makes it even more nauseating. Most public taking of offense is just a cynical, disingenuous tactic to wrongfoot adversaries. That certainly applies to all that Muhammad umbrage, exploited by some Muslims as a stick with which to beat those they consider enemies. The aggressive Muslim Student Association letter quoted above is a perfect example.

If my blog offends you – live with it.

The NEXT Financial Crisis

November 22, 2010

Some talk as though financial crises are entirely avoidable events caused only by misfeasance or stupidity. But in an imperfect world of imperfect human beings, such things will always happen. We would be living in a stagnant, undynamic world if we did not have periodic crises. They are akin to a “cost of doing business;” the price we pay for the far greater benefits of the kind of civilization we have.

Now, the federal government’s financial pickle is obvious, what with ballooning entitlement spending and the impossibility of taxing enough. The recently mooted proposals of the Bowles-Simpson Commission – higher retirement age, reduced Medicare allowances, reforming the tax structure, etc. – no-brainers, really, mainly curbing “welfare for the rich” – met with the depressingly predictable and irresponsible ideological responses from both left and right. Sacred cows remain sacred. But at least Washington is not close to maxing out its borrowing ability. And it can also literally print money.

Not so the states.

They face the same fiscal pincers, but their borrowing ability is much restricted, often by constitutional balanced-budget requirements. They’ve been bailed out temporarily by the 2009 stimulus bill, giving them massive hand-outs, but that’s not going to be repeated.

Take New York (please). It’s deeply in hock to retired employees (like me), whose unions negotiated gold-plated pension deals when politicians had nothing to gain from resisting. (Greed is not restricted to Wall Street.) We have a “Cadillac” Medicaid program, with the nation’s highest costs. Our infrastructure of roads and bridges, etc., is crumbling because upkeep has continuously been sacrificed to pay current bills, and the backlog of must-do work grows impossibly huge. Meantime New York already has one of the nation’s highest tax burdens, and raising it would only serve to drive people and businesses out of the state, worsening the crunch.

In the face of all this, what did New York’s politicians do, in the latest fiscal year, with its $9+ billion deficit? Raised spending by 7%.

This fiscal cancer is metastasizing in most other states too. California is another poster boy, with notoriously extravagant pensions for prison guards, whose union keeps politicians in terror. Nationwide, underfunded pension liabilities are a ticking time-bomb. (Sorry for my over-use of metaphors.) State pension funds have been socked by Wall Street losses, and the formulas for funding them tend to reflect assumed future rates of return (typically 8%) which today are wildly unrealistic.

Moreover, future retiree pension and health costs are likely to be grossly underestimated, as longevity keeps rising. A lot of retirees are going to live practically forever, consuming ever more health care and merrily collecting their pensions. And while benefits for future public employees might conceivably be curbed, they’re securely locked in for existing workers and retirees.

This is the next financial crisis. Unlike the last one, it’s not going to blow up all at once. It will be slow torture.

Well (in keeping with my optimism remit), I do have one happy thought to offer. There’s no way lefties can blame this one on their bugbear, “capitalism.” Nope, the blame lies squarely with government – and, in particular, the expansive conception of government fostered by lefty thinking. Liberals keep nattering about how the greed of Wall Street has screwed us. Soon we will see how the liberality of liberalism has screwed us.

Sudan watch

November 16, 2010

Sudan is ruled by a Muslim regime centered on Khartoum in the north, headed by Omar Al-Bashir, a really rough customer under international indictment for crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. But, in addition to the well-known Darfur horror, the Bashir gang has been engaged in a decades-long repression of the non-Muslim southern region, which has been in rebellion against the hated regime.

Sorry this map is a bit small. Darfur is the orange area at left; South Sudan the darker green at bottom

In 2005, the Bush administration spearheaded negotiation of a settlement, ending violent hostilities in the south. This is the kind of thing the U.S. does, often without fanfare or plaudits, acting as a force for good in the world, to which all the America-bashers like Noam Chomsky are morally blind. It exemplifies America’s true core foreign policy: not to “dominate” other nations and peoples but, rather, to foster a world in which all can thrive. Because that is ultimately our enlightened self-interest. We are actually better off in a world where all people flourish than if we exploit others and impose our will by bullying. That is not a long run recipe for our well-being.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “We seek not the victory of one nation or system, but the worldwide victory of men.”

The 2005 Sudan agreement bound the Khartoum regime to an independence referendum in the South, by January 9, 2011. Given the vileness of Bashir and his cronies – and the presence of oil resources in the south – it always seemed a bit over-optimistic to imagine that the south would be allowed to peacefully depart. Yet, for a long while, the agreement seemed to be more or less holding, with the January vote actually going forward.

The beautiful and charming Omar Al-Bashir

But, as the saying goes, the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind; and the Bashir regime finally seems to be waking up to the implications of the vote. And I am shocked, shocked, that it has now started trying seriously to muck up the process.

This is a highly dangerous situation, and it will take a very muscular commitment on America’s part to follow through and shepherd a halfway decent trajectory to events. I hope the Obama administration is sufficiently engaged.

I do not romanticize about a noble South Sudan gaining Jeffersonian freedom from the northern ogres. Alas, if it does actually become independent, the south will start out in shambolic condition, run by a bunch of thugs scarcely better than those in Khartoum. But at least it will be their own thugs, and if a terrible new war between north and south can be averted, then maybe Obama can finally claim to earn his Nobel peace prize.

(Of course, the Nobel grandees would never have dreamt of recognizing George Bush’s genuine achievement in the 2005 Sudan agreement. Obama’s prize was awarded for his being not-Bush.)

The Dirty Secret About Unemployment

November 7, 2010

The US economy is not creating enough new jobs. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. The other side of the picture – the dirty secret about unemployment – is that we’re not creating enough people capable of performing all the jobs.

Liberals like to bemoan so-called “McJobs,” as though everyone is entitled to good pay and medical benefits and family leave time and so forth. They wish they could simply require businesses to thusly upgrade their jobs. Too bad they can’t simply require employees to upgrade their skills.

In a country where about 60% of people don’t have college degrees, and, shockingly, something like 25% don’t even finish high school, perhaps it’s not surprising that almost 10% are unemployed, and it’s absurd to do a Barbara Ehrenreich about how crappy some jobs are. Hello – if you don’t finish high school you ain’t gonna get one of them “good jobs at good wages” that liberals keep mewing about.

True, we used to have a lot of manufacturing jobs where someone with limited education could still do nicely. But times change, and people have to change with them. A century ago, most Americans worked on farms. Don’t romanticize that as Paradise Lost – it was a miserable existence, which is why millions fled the farm as soon as they got the chance.

What gave them that chance was soaring agricultural productivity, so we no longer needed almost everyone working on farms just to produce enough food. Today it’s less than 2% needed on farms. That vast change freed the other 98% to produce other things. And that was what made America rich.

Now we’re repeating the trick with manufacturing. Just as increased agricultural output freed people from farms, today increasing productivity means fewer people trapped in factories. With all the talk of “lost” manufacturing jobs, you might be surprised to learn that America’s share of worldwide manufacturing has not declined. We’re just making the same stuff with ever less labor.

And that’s a good thing. Just as increased agricultural productivity made us richer, likewise does improved factory productivity free up manpower (and womanpower) to do other things and make us richer yet. Provided that our workforce gets the necessary education.

Nothing is handed to us. Ultimately, there are no “entitlements.” In the past, we lifted ourselves by working hard. Technological advancement enables us to do it by working smart. The world of the future will belong not to those who work hard, but to those who work smart.

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I’m pleased to note a really good review of my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. Click here.