Archive for January, 2012

Newt Grinch and the Character Issue

January 29, 2012

I much admired Newt Gingrich at one time. In 1994, when he gained leadership of the House Republicans, they were a dispirited bunch more or less resigned to permanent impotence. Newt changed that, doing something new in American politics: he nationalized the election for the House of Representatives, and achieved a monumental victory.

True, he had some help from Bill Clinton and the “Hillarycare” fiasco; but still, Gingrich proved himself a visionary leader who could do great things.

That was then. Republicans now keen to nominate him for president would do well to remember that he left politics in 1998 as a pariah. In fact, Democrats at the time actually ran ads using his name as a bogeyman to scare voters. People may no longer remember exactly what made Gingrich such a monster then (and the attacks were overblown and unfair); but the bad odor lingers, and in one poll at least 56% of voters still view him negatively. That’s a mountainous hurdle to overcome, in a presidential election. Nominating Newt would enable the Democrats to make this election about Newt rather than the economy.

Admittedly, with Romney, they’ll try to make it about his business career (and, sotto voce, his religion). But still, Romney would be far better positioned to keep the focus on the economic issues.

And further, of course, Newt’s bad aura isn’t all just a matter of ancient history.

At one time, divorce was practically fatal in presidential politics. Remember 1964? (Well, I’m that old.) A new baby just before the California primary may have done for Nelson Rockefeller because it reminded voters he had a new wife. Americans were long scolded for being so narrow-minded, and told to emulate the French, who didn’t seem to care that President Mitterand had a second family on the side.

Well, America has indeed become more relaxed, to the point where Gingrich’s marital history may no longer be the absolute disqualifier it would once have been. But we’re not at the point where it’s absolutely disregarded either – nor should we be.

I consider myself as socially liberal as anyone. And in choosing a president what matters most to me is the policies he or she will pursue. But the presidency also has undeniable symbolic importance. We are choosing a metaphorical civic father, not just a technocrat, which indeed is why America pays such huge attention to this choice.

Thus we should look for not just someone who will pursue the right policies – innumerable individuals could qualify on that score – but someone who also embodies rarer qualities of character, enabling him to fulfill the civic father role, as well.

Thus we have what used to be called “the character issue.” We don’t want our president to be a crumb or a prick. And this really is not just a matter of aesthetics. We need a leader with the sound judgment and personal character to respond appropriately to the many difficult challenges and situations he will face. We need someone who thinks not only of himself, but with a broadness of spirit enabling him to do the right thing when it may not be easy or expedient.

A man who has treated two past wives in the way Gingrich has done does not qualify. I don’t think America will elect this man president. This isn’t France – yet – thank goodness.

The State of the Union: On What Planet?

January 26, 2012

What planet was this guy talking about?

All this talk about manufacturing. Old-time rustbelt liberals have an infatuation with this word “manufacturing.” It’s so Twentieth Century; reflecting the notion that making things you can drop on your foot is the only kind of productiveness that’s “real,” that otherwise you have some sort of mirage economy.

It’s a fundamental mistake. What determines marketplace value is people’s willingness to pay – whether it’s for a tangible manufactured item or, equally, an intangible that “merely” makes them feel good (a song, for example). Production of either creates equivalent economic value.

 America still actually does quite well in manufacturing; our output continues to rise. But we’re doing it with ever less labor, because of technological and productivity advancements. That’s a good thing, the basic source of worldwide improved living standards. Once, it took almost the entirety of available human labor just to feed ourselves. Raising farm productivity enabled us to shift a lot of that manpower to making other things, thus expanding wealth. Now we can manufacture what we need with less labor too, empowering yet a further shift of human effort toward other endeavors, in services and intangibles, likewise growing our wealth. Thus (like farming before it) manufacturing’s importance in the world economy, and as a source of jobs, inexorably diminishes.

And anyway, manufacturing is not our “comparative advantage,” by which economists refer to what a nation does best. It’s the other stuff, where creativity reigns, that can keep America on top. Our future does not lie in manufacturing, and the President’s fixation on it is just wistfulness for a past that isn’t coming back.

He also continues to bleat about “sending jobs overseas.” It’s the same misguided mentality. America’s businesses can’t employ anybody if they can’t stay competitive by keeping costs as low as possible in a global economy. And America’s long term economic health is not served by attempting to keep people employed at high wages doing things that other nations can do more cheaply. That must fail. We have to be doing stuff that’s better or more valuable than what other nations can do, capitalizing on what is again our true competitive advantage in creativity.

Obama also keeps emphasizing economic inequality and unfairness. Well, life is unfair, but that’s not our real economic problem. That some people are doing very well is not the cause of other people struggling, nor is it that the former don’t pay enough taxes. Nobody pays enough taxes – not if we’re to continue spending as we do.

Actually, taxes high enough to sustain that spending level would cripple the economy, so that wouldn’t be sustainable either. I have confidence in the ability of America’s people and businesses to be economically productive and competitive, but that will be cut off at the knees if we can’t get a grip on out-of-control spending and ballooning debt. About this, the President was conspicuously silent.

All in all, Obama had much to say about things that aren’t our real problems, and nothing to say about the things that are.

Viva Peru!

January 24, 2012

We recently toured Peru. Yes, there are many poor Peruvians, much poorer than any Americans. But I’m always energized seeing a people like this, so manifestly striving to raise themselves and their nation – by producing things that improve the lives of others too. That Peru is bustling with economic vitality was very evident. One of its main industries is tourism.

At Machu Picchu

On our first day we were driven out of Cusco with a lunch stop in Urubamba. When our van turned at a nondescript little restaurant sign and pulled into a barely passable dirt road, I wasn’t expecting much. But the restaurant (Tunupa) was beautiful and faced out on a fantastic vista of a steep mountainside festooned with mountain goats like trimmings on a Christmas tree. The meal was a buffet, and among the best I’ve ever had, every dish unusually delicious; the exquisite desserts were to die for. And as I was tucking in, a musician was playing Pachelbel’s canon on Andean pipes. Altogether a peak experience that literally brought tears to my eyes and my wife’s.

I’m relating this because I honor the efforts of all the Peruvians who worked to make it happen.* They did it for profit, yes. I don’t hold this a dirty word. Great numbers of Peruvians made great efforts to give my family an enjoyable tour, thereby enriching us as well as themselves. Take profit, and the seeking of it, out of the world, and you won’t like the result.

Another thing Peruvians do to rise up is educating themselves. Our tour guide mentioned that 85% of Peruvian kids now finish high school (it’s required).** The American figure is far lower. In a world where a country like Peru is achieving 85%, how does America imagine it somehow deserves to maintain leadership with a graduation rate down in the 60s? (Quality of education is an issue, and America does still lead in higher education. But that doesn’t help the third of Americans who drop out of high school.)

And here’s something else I love seeing in foreign countries: electioneering. Peru was terrific for this. They paint candidates’ names in big letters on walls and the sides of their houses, and these daubings were still seen everywhere after the recent national elections – their proliferation showing how very much Peruvians celebrate their democratic choices.

Mostly they paint only the candidates’ first names. At one spot my wife pointed with a laugh to a big “Elvis” painted on a wall, but it soon became evident that Elvis was indeed the first name of a local candidate. (Another, perhaps oddly in such a Catholic nation, was Darwin.) I mentioned to my wife that in the presidential race a multiplicity of candidates had gone to a run-off between the top two, and unfortunately the best candidate had placed third. “Exactamente,” our tour guide chimed in.


The winner was Ollanta Humala; a former army officer, he had lost the previous election campaigning as a left wing clone of Hugo Chavez. This time he moved to the center and in office has proven to be a nonideological pragmatist, running the economy in a responsible way to boost growth. A major issue is a mining project with a lot of nimby opposition; Humala is pushing it forward. That such a politician would see such a path as the way to go is highly encouraging.

Viva Peru!

* Our tour was booked with Sunnyland Tours; locally in Peru, via Fiesta Tours. We were extremely satisfied with how they treated us. With LAN Airlines, not so much. Details:

**  I couldn’t confirm this by googling, but from other numbers I saw, it seems in the ballpark. 


Faith versus Reason

January 18, 2012

Frequent commenter Lee recently pointed me to a blog essay by philosopher Michael Lynch, “Reasons for Reason.” 

He says current American divisions are rooted in fundamental differences about what makes a belief believable. Lynch sees a problem of circularity in validating reason by using reason, with all beliefs thus ultimately premised on something arbitrary. Nevertheless, he argues for the importance of defending reliance on reason as an epistemological position, and the need for a “common currency of shared epistemic principles” for discussing such divisive issues. (“Epistemology” concerns how we know things.)

I was reminded of an episode in Rebecca Goldstein’s novel, Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God – a Work of Fiction. In a formal public debate on whether God exists, the “yes” advocate argues that when one relies on reason and science, it is because one has faith in reason and science; that’s ultimately no different from religious faith; so reason and science stand on no firmer foundation than religious belief. At bottom it comes down to faith either way, so take your pick.

This is indeed a commonly heard argument. But it’s a semantic flim-flam. The very definition of religious faith is belief that is not grounded in evidence. And this is an exception from the normal way in which brains work. All brains – animal brains too – work by gathering factual information from sense organs, and then drawing logical inferences from that information. If you hear a growl, smell a liony smell, and see something large moving in the underbrush, you deduce it’s probably a lion. This is reason.

 You don’t believe in the lion’s existence as a matter of faith but, rather, because it’s rational. And to say that one has “faith” in this kind of rationality is merely to say that there is no other way in which thinking can occur. Or at least coherent thinking. It’s no analogy to religious faith.

Put another way, we believe the lion is lurking not because of any faith, but because we have reasons. And we furthermore have reasons – excellent ones, in fact – for relying on that kind of thought process. Let me be more specific:

First there is the power of logic, and the concept of cause and effect. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal. This kind of logic is not some mere human construct. It’s woven into the fabric of the Universe. It’s not even possible to conceive of an alternate Universe without it.

Secondly – while we know that rationalism can sometimes lead us astray, because our senses are imperfect at gathering information, and our brains are imperfect at processing it – and perhaps some questions can’t be resolved that way – nevertheless, experience teaches that rationalism produces the right answer in the overwhelming majority of cases – on questions like whether there’s a lion in the bushes. Other types of issues, that rationality (at least arguably) cannot resolve, are a very small part of daily human life.

Religious believers don’t reject any of this. To the contrary, the great bulk of their own day-to-day mental functioning employs exactly this rationalist model. It’s just that when it comes to religion, they carve out a seeming exception.

Here’s why I say “seeming.” It is in the nature of our brains, and of all thought, that we have reasons for what we think. (Again, cause and effect.) And this includes religious belief. The believer may insist his belief is premised on faith rather than reasons, but that cannot be so. The question becomes why have the faith? There must be reasons!

It is true, once more, that the very concept of faith entails belief without regard to evidence. Yet still the question is why someone chooses to opt for such faith in the first place. There must be reasons. To say “I believe because I have faith” is mere tautology, explaining nothing.

So in the novel, the debater’s “faith in reason” argument actually has it completely backwards. It’s not that the nonreligious have “faith” in reason – rather, the religious have reasons for faith.


But what are those reasons? Believers do often claim that there’s something about existence that they view as evidence for God. But few people actually move from such “evidence” to faith, it’s the other way around; they start from faith and then look for ways to rationalize it. People are very good at rationalizing reasons for believing the things they already believe.

But meantime the biggest true cause of their faith is simply that they’ve been acculturated to it. Parents, community, society, pushed the belief, so you just go with the program. They said the Bible is God’s word. What were their reasons for believing it? Their parents and community believed it. And so on back. Had you been born into a Hindu, or Muslim, or Wiccan community, it’s overwhelmingly likely that your faith would attach to Hindu, Muslim, or Wiccan beliefs (and you’d find ways to rationalize them).

 In the end, it’s not faith versus reason, it’s strong reasons versus weak ones; it’s embracing the evidence of reality versus abjuring it. And the persistence of the latter suggests that those who say human reason is fallible may have a point after all.

Liu Xiaobo and Moral Relativism

January 9, 2012

Liu Xiaobo

I don’t normally do this, but the Times Book Review recently had an essay about Liu Xiaobo that I could not improve upon, so I’ll just point you to it (click here). Liu was the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner who remains imprisoned in China for his advocacy of democracy and human rights. (Click here for my own blog essay about Liu.)

The Times piece, by Jonathan Mirsky, was very inspiring to me. China’s intellectual landscape is a grotesque hall of mirrors due to six decades of contorted ideological logic and repression. That anyone can come out of such an environment able to see straight seems almost miraculous. Yet Liu Xiaobo does have a shining clear vision embracing the highest human values. Plus the courage to endure a life of privation and pain in service to those ideals.

This is an answer to all-too-prevalent misanthropy. Heroes like Liu Xiaobo make me proud of the human race.

*   *   *

My recent posting about Charles Pierce’s Idiot America has been published as a book review in Moral Relativism magazine. I had met the editor, Tucker Lieberman, at last year’s Humanist congress, and was intrigued by the publication’s title! It is indeed a very interesting mag; check it out by clicking on the link.

Politics and Religion: A Mormon President?

January 2, 2012

It’s now increasingly probable that the Republican nominee will be Willard Mitt Romney. He might still lose Iowa; Paul only needs a quarter of the vote and his supporters are way more passionate. (Why such a trivial result among a small sample of comparatively extreme isolated voters should matter much is a mystery.)

 But Paul simply is not going to be the nominee; sorry, Paul fans, this is the real world. As Karen Tumulty says, the GOP is going through the Five Stages of Grief with regard to Romney – the final stage being acceptance.

So at least we’ll avoid the dismal prospect of an election with a lousy candidate against an impossible one. The Republican party had a pretty good brand – as The Economist observes, muscular foreign policy, responsible fiscal policy, emphasizing individual freedom and social responsibility, and entrepreneurial pragmatism – until the crazies took over. Just possibly a Romney presidency could make that an aberrant episode.*

Romney is, of course, a Mormon. When stuck once in a Salt Lake City hotel room with the Book of Mormon, I read much of it: an amazing work of imaginative creativity. I was particularly intrigued that its author, Joseph Smith, could get a bunch of local worthies to attest seeing the golden plates he’d supposedly “translated.” There were no plates. Smith was a consummate con artist. (I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate, except to note: 33 wives.)**

Having such a poor economic record, it looks like the Democrats will rely on a smear campaign against Romney, with personal attacks, including his religion.*** Mormonism is an easy target, what with Jesus running around in ancient America and all. Religions generally stretch credulity, but why pick one flatly contradicted by archaeological evidence?

Yet more mainstream faiths might seem less weird only by grace of familiarity. Beliefs that would be labeled clinically insane if held by a few must be considered normal when held by the many. From my perspective, Mormonism versus Christianity is a Hobson’s choice. But I recognize that I live in a nation where religious belief predominates. Thus again I do not consider the majority of Americans deranged; if a majority believes something, then that belief is normal.

And, further, separating church from state, I try to keep religion out of my politics. The Constitution (Article VI, Paragraph 3) expressly stipulates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Thus I ignore religion when choosing a candidate. And that’s pragmatic as well as principled. If I didn’t ignore religion, there’d be few candidates I could vote for.

Admittedly, a president’s religious beliefs can influence his actions. That was certainly true of George W. Bush. Nevertheless, there is still a strong national consensus along the lines of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Houston ministers, making clear that a president’s actions cannot be in service to his particular church. This clarified a line which no president, not even Bush, could in practice actually cross. Bush did act in line with his moral code; his moral code was shaped by religion; but we all have moral codes; certainly atheists do. The alternative to a president heeding his moral code would be an amoral president.

Joseph Smith seeing double

So when it comes to Romney, I’d rather he wasn’t a Mormon, about equally as I’d prefer non-Christians, but since only in a dream world will I get to vote for an avowed atheist, it’s irrelevant to me that Romney is a Mormon rather than in some other church.

I said “avowed atheist” because in reality many presidents have been nonbelievers – from the first up to the current one. And anyway, I wouldn’t necessarily vote for an atheist, just because she’s an atheist. I didn’t vote for Obama; religious belief was indeed basically irrelevant; my vote was guided by other considerations.

But I also take seriously that this is a free country, and that includes the freedom of other people to do things I detest. It is the essence of democracy that people can vote freely for whomever they want, for whatever reasons they want. If someone won’t vote for Romney because of his religion, that’s their prerogative in a free country.

* His disgusting promise to veto the “Dream Act” admittedly does not bode well.

** Ever notice how with “religious prophets” it’s so often ultimately about getting laid?

*** Also, in contrast to 2008 when he vowed to end partisan bickering and work with both sides in Congress, this time Obama is running against Congress – thus effectively promising that if he wins, he won’t be able to get anything done.