Archive for February, 2013

The Sequester: Where the Buck Stops

February 27, 2013

Speaking of reality (or not), the President is going around telling horror stories about the “sequester’s” March 1 budget cuts, and blaming Republicans because they resist raising taxes on the rich.

The reality is that the cuts will happen only because Obama himself insists on such tax hikes. Yet taxes aren’t even part of the sequester (which, incidentally, Obama himself originally ushered into place) — it only concerns spending, and Republicans are willing to compromise on spending. But Obama refuses unless he gets another round of tax hikes into the bargain. Remember, Republicans did already agree to raise taxes on the rich, just weeks ago, in the fiscal cliff deal. In fact, they agreed without any compensatory spending concessions (big mistake). But now Obama demands even more.

Dark red = 2009-12; bright red = 2013-22

Dark red = 2009-12; bright red = 2013-22

If the cuts are as awful as he says, then it’s his responsibility to avert them. After all, he’s president. As Truman said, “the buck stops here.” Passing it to Republicans doesn’t wash, if the problem can be solved simply by Obama relenting in his monomania on taxes. But he thinks “tax the rich” continues to work for him politically, and he won’t drop it.

Furthermore, as head of the government, he could do plenty to prevent sequestration’s worst impacts; but instead he actually seems intent on heightening the pain, believing he’ll get away with blaming Republicans. This is all political theater, aimed at Democrats retaking the House in 2014, reviving their otherwise unpassable legislative agenda.

It’s tempting to actually welcome the sequester as at least achieving what Washington has been so incapable of: cutting spending. Unfortunately, it’s entirely the wrong way to go about it, indiscriminately cutting across-the-board rather than sensibly prioritizing. For example, as I’ve said, the Defense budget is way over-bloated, but the sequester will target the muscle equally with the fat.

Meantime it will hardly touch the real heart of our budgetary mess: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But at least this does cast a spotlight on the fix we’re in. So sacred are these cows that they were largely exempted even from the sequester’s otherwise “across-the-board” cuts. Concentrating those cuts on lesser non-entitlement discretionary spending intensifies the effect there. But even so, these cuts are still a tiny percentage. That it’s so contentious to cut even this little bit from such a huge budget shows the depth of the problem.

imagesWhat we need is a long term plan to get deficits into manageable territory by reforming entitlements, mainly by constraining benefits for the affluent. The President isn’t interested. Without this, entitlements are on track to swamp the budget and eventually crowd out all other expenditures. The sequester gives us a small foretaste of that future. We’ll wind up with a government confined mainly to sending out benefit checks, able to afford little else.

This will be the supremely ironic endgame for the liberal dream of muscular government fixing all problems and righting all wrongs.

An Ideology of Reality

February 22, 2013

I’ve done many blog posts, books and articles, and otherwise engaged in public discourse, upon a wide range of topics. So I ask myself if there’s a unifying idea, a thread connecting it all.

I’ve previously discussed what really matters: and the only possible answer is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. Hence the over-arching goal to advance human flourishing.

imagesBut this verges on banality; most people would embrace some variant of it, and likewise profess to aim at human betterment. Even some of history’s worst villains would have. Where did they go wrong? Fundamental mistakes about reality (including realities of human nature).

It’s not enough just to want good. The road to it runs through truth and reality. Other roads lead to Hell.

And so, there’s the real essence of my ideology: truth and reality.

images-3Of course, we all think we see truth. But it’s not so easy. Too often, people believe things because they want to, because it’s comfortable believing them. Ideology or faith drives perception, to see the world in ways that comport with the belief system. Cynics in particular flatter themselves that they’re seeing through to real reality; but very often this too is just what makes them feel good and isn’t reality at all.

So, mindful of all this, I turn things around. I try to make perception drive ideology. I strive to base my beliefs on what I see, not the reverse. That IS my ideology. (Or do I too flatter myself? At least I’m cognizant of the pitfall.)

My core belief system is to respect and accept truth rather than trying to wish it away. Only by understanding the world’s realities can we ever hope to overcome the constraints they impose on us, and make life truly better. The quest for the good cannot be divorced from the quest for the truth.

images-4Consider the example of our current gun debate. Gun control opponents believe a gun in the home protects you. Reality check: statistics indisputably show it’s many times more likely to hurt or kill you than protect you. Gun fanciers believe differently because, well, they just prefer to. (Or they don’t think the statistics apply to them.) They also believe guns can fend off potential government “tyranny.” And pigs can fly.

I’ve written before how some Lefties idealize the likes of Hugo Chavez. I look at the reality. Some people see vaccination as causing autism, and dangers in GM foods. I look at the reality. Some reject evolution. I see the evidence. Ideology leads some to deny the reality of climate change; others, to cling to a solution that denies reality.

images-1The problem is especially prevalent in economic matters. The whole antipathy toward market economics is grounded in caricatures rather than the reality of how it works, what it actually does, and its results. Not to speak of alternatives. While some advocates of protectionism do act with clear-eyed self-interest, most who go along are blind to the broader harm, indeed the harm to their actual self-interest. Opposition to outsourcing reflects a simplistic zero-sum economic picture totally at odds with the reality. And the French, many Democrats, and even Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman seem to think there’s no limit to how much can be borrowed to pay out ever spiraling “benefits” (the Greeks learned differently). And so forth.

Of course the biggest whoppers people tell themselves are religious. Now, there isn’t great harm in believing inconsequential nonsense like astrology. But when you believe some divine being is running the world and your life, that’s consequential in the highest degree. images-2Likewise belief in Heaven. How can one make proper sense of life, and operate rationally in the world, laboring under such profound reality mistakes? You can’t even get right the basic “mattering” question if you think God is in the answer.

I’ve written about Muslim societies and violence. I did say there’s something besides just religious belief in play. Nevertheless, imagine how Muslims might settle down and behave if all that religious insanity went away. And please don’t tell me religion is the only check on their baser impulses. I know lots of atheists, and nearly all behave quite nicely. As for Muslims, the reality is that conflict and violence aren’t doing them any good; and if they got a better grip on the reality of the world they live in, they would realize this, and act differently.

Gimme that old time reality – it’s good enough for me.

State of the Union: US: Sweden

February 15, 2013

imagesSo the President gets up there and unveils a host of big new government programs. Then he says they won’t add a dime to the deficit. That would be true only if:

a) They don’t pass Congress, or
b) Taxes are raised, or
c) Other programs are cut

As to (c), of course the President has proposed no such cuts. In fact, after years of talking about a balance of tax hikes and spending cuts, and indeed campaigning on that issue, Obama in the recent fiscal cliff deal got taxes raised without any spending cuts at all.

Cartoon by Eric Allie,

Cartoon by Eric Allie,

This he actually thought was a glorious triumph; liberals are cock-a-hoop that they’ve really stuck it to Republicans.

The Pre-K education proposal epitomizes how they think. Pre-K is actually desperately needed to help disadvantaged kids who are otherwise being done down by crappy schools. But does Obama’s proposal target those kids? No. It’s “universal.” Which means that just like Medicare and farm subsidies and so many other government programs, it will mainly give yet more welfare to the affluent, with the disadvantaged getting only a lesser share of the benefits.

This is not the time to be adding a big new “universal” federal program.

Whatever benefit it may buy will be more than wiped out when the shit hits the fan and our economy sinks under the weight of unsustainable debt. That’s true of all Obama’s economic initiatives. They will all come to nothing and worse if we don’t tackle the one big monster looming on the horizon, our debt. Eyes closed to this, Obama is taking us down the road to ruin.

images-3It doesn’t have to be this way. The Economist recently ran an illuminating survey of the Nordic countries. Remember Sweden, the poster boy for a tax-and-spend “social welfare” state, of cradle-to-grave government cosseting, soaking up the lion’s share of GDP? Well, it’s not your father’s Sweden anymore. That model, the Swedes and other Nordics realized, was doomed, so they reformed; in The Economist’s words, they “put an end to the region’s magical thinking about welfare.”

So they enacted sweeping pension and benefit reforms and put their budgets in balance; Sweden reduced national debt from 84% of GDP in 1996 to 49% in 2011; government’s share of GDP fell by a whopping 18 percentage points. The Nordic countries have also become much more enthusiastic toward the free market and entrepreneurialism, moving their economies away from statism. They embrace free trade and resist the siren song of protectionism. The Swedes now even let private companies compete with government bodies to provide services; a majority of new kindergartens and health clinics are being built by businesses, and citizens can shop around.

images-5This includes school choice; Sweden is now the world’s leading adopter of vouchers. Almost half its schoolkids are in non-public classrooms. And the most comprehensive study of the results shows great performance improvement – especially in the public schools, which competition has forced to raise their game. (Milton Friedman, father of the voucher concept, said the point was not that privately-run schools would be better; rather, all types of schools would be better if they must compete.)

Finland too is a hotbed of educational success. Interestingly, Finland spends proportionately less on schools than America, and teacher pay is relatively low. Yet Finland attracts high quality teachers by giving them something more valuable than money: respect, and thus a high degree of autonomy and responsibility for what they do in class.

So, does all this reform throw granny over the cliff, as in liberal nightmares? No. As I keep saying, rich countries have plenty of money to take care of the needy; it’s welfare for the rich that’s bankrupting us. Nordic budgets have not been balanced on the backs of the disadvantaged. What they have done is to create the conditions for everyone to flourish. And, by all accounts, their populations are quite happy with the change, facing the future with a positive attitude.

images-4Why can’t America get its act together like that? Yes, I know all about our frozen politics and the influence of special interests (like the teachers’ unions). But Sweden and Finland were not utopian paradises free of such societal baggage. Those fat and happy with their old paternalistic policies were equally wedded to them. But their special pleading was overcome. It takes leadership and grit. I continue to believe Americans would support sensible reforms like the Nordics, if only some real leadership were shown.

I guess we’ll have to await another president. Let’s hope it won’t be too late.

What is WRONG with Muslims?

February 9, 2013

thOptimists like me (and Steven Pinker) see a world in which violence is being progressively restrained. Naysayers point to a persistence of violent conflict in the world. But that’s not quite right. Violent conflict does persistin the Muslim world, mainly. While the rest of us really seem to be getting it together, Muslims are the most conspicuous exceptions. An unduly high proportion of the world’s violent conflicts nowadays involve Muslims.

Syria, with 60,000 dead, is an obvious case in point. Then we’ve had Iraq and Afghanistan, and the whole terror/jihad thing, and the Palestine thing. Muslims. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was remarkably little bloodshed – except for Chechnya – Muslims again. And when Yugoslavia collapsed, we saw the Bosnian and Kosovo wars – Muslims again. Nigeria, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Danish cartoons, Theo Van Gogh, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Lebanon, You-tube protests, Mali, the list goes on and on. Muslims, Muslims, Muslims.

Now, admittedly, in not every case have Muslims been the aggressors or the bad guys. But still – why is it that when there’s a violent conflict, chances are Muslims will be in the picture? Is there some worldwide conspiracy to pick fights with Muslims? Or is it something about Muslims, and how they behave?

Egypt's Muslim Brothers

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers

This post is prompted by events in Egypt, where too many seem to lack basic sense. The 2011 revolution’s hopes have been traduced by a sad sequence of actions that have been just plain bloody-minded. Like those prosecutions of folks for running democracy workshops. And how the military made a hash of the presidential election by disqualifying leading candidates for nonsensical reasons. Then, for equally nonsensical reasons, judges (Mubarak-era holdovers) threw out the elected parliament. And when President Morsi acted to pre-empt any further such judicial high-handedness, he made himself appear high-handed. He and the Islamists are comprehensively reneging on past promises for self-restraint, and instead seem bent on monopolizing power and shutting out all other elements in society. Thus they rammed through a half-baked and very troubling new constitution. They’ve even started criminal prosecutions against leading secular political actors including the international figure Mohamed ElBaradei.

Another instance of bloody-minded lack of sense was the death sentence handed to 21 people involved in the Port Said stadium riot. A bit severe. And, in what starts looking like a national disease of senseless non-restraint, when people demonstrated against those sentences, police opened fire, killing at least 30. When their funerals turned violent, yet more were killed.

Then of course there’s Pakistan, which I’ve written about: “The F**ked-up Country.” And that was before the 14-year-old was shot in the head for advocating girls’ education, and another teenaged girl was tortured to death by her parents for talking to a boy.

imagesCertainly non-Muslims too can be bad; and not every Muslim is. Indeed, given the societal background, it’s almost amazing how many Muslims do have their heads on straight. Yet unfortunately they always seem outnumbered (or out-shouted, or out-gunned) by the bloody-minded ones, who just don’t seem to get the concept of civil society.

I don’t really want to go into whether Islam itself promotes violence.* The Koran does have a lot of bloodthirsty passages. But most Christians don’t put their children to death for talking back, as their “holy” book instructs. Muslims’ especial proclivity toward violence must have deeper cultural, psychological sources. And, as I’ve written before, that can be overcome, just as we Westerners have made great strides in overcoming such demons in ourselves.

But for now, I’ve had it up to my keister with Muslim violence. UnknownWhen my sister and I used to sit in the back of the car, and trouble erupted, our parents weren’t too interested in hearing, “She started it!” We’d both get punished. Unfair, maybe, but we learned to keep the peace.

When will Muslims learn?

* I’ve seen it claimed by Muslim apologists that the word “Islam” actually means “peace.” That’s simply untrue. “Islam” means “submission to God.” (Or else.)

A Change of Mind on Gay Marriage

February 3, 2013

I have found, in political idea wars, that deeply invested viewpoints are pretty impervious to changing. I’ve previously discussed, for example, confirmation bias – we welcome information that supports our beliefs, and discount anything discordant.

UnknownDavid Blankenhorn has been a prominent public opponent of gay marriage, even writing a book on it. Now, when you’ve written a whole book arguing a point, changing your mind is surely remarkable. Yet Blankenhorn has changed his mind.

What Blankenhorn realized is that gay weddings do not undermine the institution of marriage. To the contrary, gays actually seem to be the only people in America who are really keen on matrimony. Blankenhorn now sees the real threat to marriage coming from a much bigger social phenomenon. Marriage is crumbling among middle and lower income groups. While the well educated and affluent still generally do marry (often several times), proletarians do not. Births to unwed mothers have reached 50% for under-30 whites. For blacks, it’s over 70%.

Let me repeat this point: yes, some single moms may be heroic and all that. But, on average, children do much better in two-parent homes. An explosion of single parenthood means more people in the next generation having a hard slog in life.

imagesWhile gay marriage opponents say kids are entitled to a father and a mother, those raised by gay couples are either a) adopted, so their alternative is not a father and a mother, but neither; or b) conceived using one parent’s genes, in which case their alternative is not existing at all. Either way, no children are better off if gay marriage is barred; they are worse off.

I’ve also stressed that our real national jobs problem is too many people ill-equipped to do today’s jobs. That’s in great part down to educational failure. And all our efforts to improve education will be overshadowed by a flood of single-parented students with all the life handicaps that that background all too typically entails. Insofar as gay marriage means more two-parent homes, that can only help.

I also recently heard a radio interview with Bishop Gene Robinson (no relation), about his book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. He made one interesting point I want to highlight. When the Biblical condemnations of homosexual acts were written, and up through quite recent times, the common assumption was that these were acts by heterosexuals, perversions against nature. People just didn’t realize there was such a thing as homosexuality – that is, folks whose nature is same-sex attraction, who are indeed born that way. This wasn’t generally understood, because it was well hidden. Coming out of the closet meant severe penalties in past times.

This was basically still true when I myself was young. It was a long time before I even understood homosexuality existed. I knew of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, but its message was so circumspect that I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. My naivite may have been above average, but the point is that homosexuality was something well hidden, never openly discussed as it is today. Such ignorance shaped attitudes toward homosexuality, with the idea that it’s a perversion against nature, and no realization that it’s actually natural for most of its practitioners.

images-1We human beings can change our minds. And – even if not – we can change our population. New people, with new ideas, replace old ones. That too is nature’s way.