Saturday, May 30, 2009

Marching towards marxism?

There's an amusing and perceptive article over at Pravda arguing that Americans are enduring a descent into marxism with barely a whimper. Before Troutsky comes along to correct me, let me say that while many of the points made by the writer are good ones, we are not becoming socialist, but merely fascist--not that there is a terribly large difference between the two. Briefly, the means of the production are not now owned by the State. Instead, the State exhibits ever increasing amounts of control over the way those means are used. Having dispensed with that caveat, we proceed:

First, the population was dumbed down through a politicized and substandard education system based on pop culture, rather then the classics.

There is no causative relationship between reading Shakespeare and hating government intervention. No such relationship can exist with agents who possess free will. I would wager that in almost any department, at least of the social sciences, in any college in this country can be found a fan of the Bard who would agitate for totalitarian control by the State. Nonetheless, a relationship with the classics--begun in school, perhaps, but hopefully lasting throughout one's adult life--focuses one's mind on the enduring truths which tend to become lost in the ephemera of pop culture and politics.

After going through a number of objections to the Great Books approach to a liberal education, which he is "perfectly aware of, and actually agree[s] with", Alan Bloom observes that such an approach still provides the students: "an acquaintance with what the big questions were when there were still big questions; models, at the very least, of how to go about answering them; and, perhaps most important of all, a fund of shared experiences and thoughts on which to ground their friendships with one another." (The Closing of the American Mind, p.344)

As Bloom recounts in his book, the benefits provided by a familiarity with the classics have now been lost, at least in this country. The closing of the American mind is one reason we are so open to allowing our leaders totalitarian control; but it is also the reason that those among us who realize, however vaguely, that something is horribly wrong, have proven unable to posit real and sustainable objections to such a descent.

Then their faith in God was destroyed, until their churches, all tens of thousands of different "branches and denominations" were for the most part little more then Sunday circuses and their televangelists and top protestant mega preachers were more then happy to sell out their souls and flocks to be on the "winning" side of one pseudo Marxist politician or another. Their flocks may complain, but when explained that they would be on the "winning" side, their flocks were ever so quick to reject Christ in hopes for earthly power.

This is a very perceptive point. Like an education in the classics, religion should serve, at a minimum, as a reminder to reject the transient--such as the present political arrangement between two parties of pseudo marxists--for the real issues which plague mankind. Nowhere was this more clear than in the blind support evangelicals gave to their guy, George W. Bush. That the unnecessary war he fought was almost certainly antithetical to Christian principles didn't bother them; but neither did the fact that he tortured terrorists. In fact, much to my embarrassment, many of my fellow Christians continue to support torture. If an institution cannot summon the means to reject a practice as barbaric as torture, it has ceased to provide society with any value in the realm of ethics.

Those of a religious bent like to believe that the secular culture often lags behind our culture which intends to be in, and not of, the world. But the evangelicals prove that religion alone is insufficient to prevent man from "the degrading slavery of being a child of his age", to borrow from Chesterton. Whatever the shortcomings of the democratic party--most obviously, perhaps, their defense of abortion--history will lament that Christians threw in their lots with the republicans, even when the latter utterly failed to uphold the standards set by the Man from Nazareth. The state of American Christianity is so abysmal that no effective defense can now be made for the basic natural rights which our constitution was created to proect, and over which the State now runs roughshod without the slightest disinclination.

So it should be no surprise, that the American president has followed this up with a "bold" move of declaring that he and another group of unelected, chosen stooges will now redesign the entire automotive industry and will even be the guarantee of automobile policies...

So, should it be any surprise to discover that the Democratically controlled Congress of America is working on passing a new regulation that would give the American Treasury department the power to set "fair" maximum salaries, evaluate performance and control how private companies give out pay raises and bonuses?

As I've explained before, when the bailouts fail, Obama has positioned himself so as to take over complete control of the economy. This is happening even faster than I imagined--we're not even at the halfway mark of his first term. But the most astounding thing about all this is not the rapidity with which we have thrown off the vestiges of liberty and constitutional law: it is the complete and utter inability of the people to curtail this in any way, shape or form. Those who protest against the growing leviathan are either right-wing drones, who can wait their turn while the winners run things for awhile; or they are, in the eyes of most, marginalized cranks, vindicated by their predictions, perhaps, but ultimately with so little power as to be utterly ineffectual. At least the latter are refusing to go down without a fight.

I'll let the writer have the last word:

The proud American will go down into his slavery with out a fight, beating his chest and proclaiming to the world, how free he really is. The world will only snicker.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Clearing up Catholic controversies

I have a dear friend with whom I have some rather strong, though never mean-spirited, disputes. Quite understandably, he finds my idealism to be very frustrating, and also feels, fairly, that the reasoning which I undertake from my ivory tower is not always taken with full consideration for those who are too busy leading hectic and difficult lives to ponder and pontificate endlessly about how the world ought to work. Specifically, this came up in relation to the Pope Benedict's statements about AIDS and the larger subject of birth control.

I may risk seeming partial if I quickly jump to the defense of my pope. Nonetheless, while I can understand why people believe that his statements were controversial and even dangerous, I think there was merit in what he said. The idea that condoms are helpful in the fight against AIDS appears to be self-evident. But, as my friend would point out, we have to be careful about applying a purely theoretical situation without taking into consideration its implementation. This is something condom proponents are careful to do when discussing the shortcomings of abstinence--namely, that it is not always practiced--but which they fail to do when addressing the similar drawbacks to the condom approach. Condoms have such-and-such a failure rate if used correctly; but this does not mean that they will always be used thus. Nor is it true that sexual behavior will remain static if condoms become more prevalent. It is distinctly possible that condoms will actually cause people to engage in more risky behavior. But this isn't correct, no matter how much some may wish it were so. As Rory Leishman makes clear:

Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, is one of the leading authorities on AIDS. In an illuminating article in First Things, he wrote, “Consider this fact: In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year — which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs or any other intervention or behaviour.”

This said, it deserves pointing out that the pope would, as all Catholics should, still oppose the utilization of all forms of birth control even if it were somehow demonstrated that condoms actually do reduce the rate of HIV. This can be a difficult thing to accept, but this is merely to say that the end does not always justify the means. Roman Catholics could never accept, for instance, compulsory abortions for unborn children likely to be born in poverty. The right to life is inviolable. In the same way, because condoms violate the natural law, it can never be acceptable to use them, even if the intent is to reduce the spread of AIDS.

I can go into details later if there is interest, but for now I'll let summarize:

Contraception is wrong because it’s a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as "natural law." The natural law purpose of sex is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, intended to offer the possibility of new life while strengthening the bond of intimacy, respect, and love between husband and wife. The loving environment this bond creates is the perfect setting for nurturing children.

But sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation. God’s gift of the sex act, along with its pleasure and intimacy, must not be abused by deliberately frustrating its natural end—procreation.

Now there is a way around this which the Church has termed Natural Family Planning (NFP). They could have done better with the name, as it implies that planning the size of one's family is acceptable so long as one doesn't use a condom to do so. This is a misinterpretation of NFP, if an understandable one because of the name; but also because too often members of the Church teach NFP in a way that implies that abstaining from sex during periods of fertility so that a married couple doesn't have kids is fully in accordance with Church teaching. Again from

Married or engaged couples often are taught the legitimacy and the techniques of NFP with little or no mention of that other part of the Church’s teaching that insists that couples need "just reasons" (Humanae Vitae 16; Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368) for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, I think we need now from the magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a "just reason.")

Often such couples hear nothing of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the Church’s teaching see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity" (CCC 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the magisterium, frivolous or materialistic considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified (cf.
Gaudium et Spes 50).

It is commonly asserted that parents cannot always afford to raise large families. To an extent this is true; I will look down from my tower long enough to empathize with the poor. But it is also true that we as a country are very wealthy, and that many of us can raise more children than we believe we could. One should add, too, that for Catholics, Matrimony is a sacrament, bringing with it untold graces from which the bride and groom may draw for support as they raise their children.

Best of all, perhaps, are examples of good strong Catholic families. The pope can't raise one of his own, naturally, though he may be a good shepherd to his flock. But if married Catholics produced large and loving families, I can't help but think that the world would look harder and more sincerely at her prohibition on birth control. In any event, they can hardly look on us more wildly than they do, and as Christ told us they would.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Four days in

As part of my not so secret plan to read most of the world's great literature, I've been making my way through Boccaccio's Decameron, specifically, G.H. McWilliam's translation. I've been called out recently for being too quick to shout overrated when confronted with a classic, but the term seems to fit here. I'll attempt to make my case about my choice of adjective in a bit. For now, I'll pay the book the compliment writers like well to hear: his book is a joy to read. Daniel Boorstin describes McWilliam's version as "colloquial". This is probably the right word, as the book isn't weighted down by abstruse terminology, and has, one might guess, some of the flare of the original, neither of which are assured when dealing with a classical work in translation.

Boccaccio's style is magnificent, and each narrative--considered separately--is wonderfully told. It would be inaccurate to consider the Decameron to be merely an assemblage of short stories, since he weaves an entire narrative, complete with Black Death backdrop, of which the stories are simply the most prominent part. Yet the book does contain a number of what could best be termed short stories. In an age in which Twitter is, at least momentarily, fashionable, it seems out of place to praise brevity. But there is something to be said for authors who keep their stories as compact as necessity demands. The same cannot be said, alas, of the book.

The back of my copy insists that: "With equal felicity [the stories] range over comedy and tragedy, morality and bawdy; and the skill with which Boccaccio matches the style and mood of his prose narrative to the tales and their tellers us as astonishing as the variety of a collection which has often been imitated but never bettered." I'll concede that I've never read a better collection of one hundred stories; but to suggest that the variety is astonishing isn't exactly true. I have six more days to go, but if the pattern continues, he could have subtitled the Decameron: one hundred stories about sex. This is a slight exaggeration, since on occasion the lovers are unable to consummate their affections before being killed in tragic fashion.

Future readers would do well to head the advice of Will Durant that the stories "were not meant to be read in any great number at one time." (The Renaissance, p.38) I've been reading two or three before bed. This seems to work reasonably well, though the feeling of repetitiveness can only be heightened if the reader attempts to digest more than that number at any one time.

To take a page at random, I come upon the third day's third story, in which "a noblewoman of striking beauty and impeccable breeding" who neglects the "beastly caresses" of her husband and falls in love with "an extremely eligible man in his thirties". She cleverly uses a naive friar as the catalyst to attain the object of her desires; their consummation ensures that both "nearly die of bliss"; after which "they slept together no less pleasurably on many later occasions".

Now it might be tempting to excuse my distaste as snobbish prudery, but I don't think this is justified: first, because a good Catholic should never stoop to puritanism, and second, because I actually do like the book. I merely think it's much too much about the same thing. Or, to paraphrase Weezer: I'm tired of reading about sex.

Maybe that's why God invented economic treatises.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Angry and alienated

Camille Paglia speaks:

There is something dangerous afoot -- an alienation that can easily morph into extremism. With the national Republican party in disarray, an argument is solidifying among grass-roots conservatives: Liberals, who are now in power in Washington, hate America and want to dismantle its foundational institutions and liberties, including capitalism and private property. Liberals are rootless internationalists who cravenly appease those who want to kill us. The primary principle of conservatives, on the other hand, is love of country, for which they are willing to sacrifice and die. America's identity was forged by Christian faith and our Founding Fathers, to whose prudent and unerring 18th-century worldview we must return.

One of the very large differences between conservatives and libertarians is that while the former possess an ideology which is perfectly compatible with nationalism, such compatibility is effectively impossible for the latter, for whom an intense antipathy for centralization of any kind exists. This is not to say that patriotism will ensure that conservatives bow down in blind allegiance to the State, only that, as we saw during the Bush presidency, such blindness isn't impossible.

On the one hand, of course, I am fully in agreement with conservatives over the danger that the left poses to the existing social order. Doubling the money supply, taking over private companies, stepping up the war on foreign countries: these are all very bad things. But these are all the sorts of things for which Bush, as well as those who supported him, deserves blame. True, our last president stopped short of outright nationalization. But by shamelessly flaunting the Constitution during the first bailout, he established that what would later be denounced--inaccurately--as "socialism" by conservatives was not in any way antithetical to conservative principles. When Obama alluded to the fact that bailouts could be defended pragmatically, he was able to do so in part because this was the only conceivable defense for the original Bush bailout. And while it's hard to believe McCain would be moving more quickly than Obama to redistribute wealth from ordinary Americans to plutocrats using the inflationary Federal Reserve, it's absolutely inconceivable that the man who suspended his campaign to see the first bailout through Congress would govern with fiscal responsibility.

This, above anything else, is what makes the conservative response to Obama so amusing. It's what gave liberal criticisms of Bush their similar charm. The difference between the two governing parties is minute--just ask Arlen Specter. The two political parties are in agreement on most of the fundamental issues; the highly touted disparity between them simply doesn't exist. Despite his supposed right-wing extremism, Bush's domestic policy was basically akin to that of LBJ. And despite the fact that Obama was elected largely out of disgust for his predecessor's unnecessary war, we're set to be mired in Iraq until the end of 2011 at the very least.

To a political outsider, it can be quite humorous to view the vitriolic epithets which the partisans hurl at one another. On the other hand, there is, as Paglia points out, "something dangerous afoot". I mentioned earlier that Obama is taking us down the road of fascism; after all, Mussolini's other term for it was corporatism, which strikes me as a decent way to describe the way things are now done. Nonetheless, this doesn't imply that the Republicans are immune to the temptations of fascism. Since this much misunderstood ideology is one in which the State is seen as a totalitarian entity, in the sense of encompassing all, it's easy to see why modern liberals would be more prone to espouse it. On the other hand, the Republicans are more liable to give in to military adventures, which might suggest a better fit with the Italian implementation of Fascism. This follows from what I've said above about the essential similarities between the two parties.

Back to the alienation whereof Paglia spoke. To the conventional observer, given the political situation, unification is fundamentally impossible; such virulence can only escalate into violence. Although he made unity a large part of his campaign, polls suggest we are more divided than ever under Obama. But since this division is largely ephemeral, grounded in little more than emotion, unification is not as implausible as it may seem. I wonder what kind of leader could effect such a change, and what such a leader would do with a large group of angry and alienated people.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Channeling Robert Smith

However big I ever feel / It's never enough
Whatever I do to make it real /It's never enough - The Cure

Paul Krugman is quickly becoming one of my least favorite people. If you thought record deficits and takeovers of private companies might be small indications that government is getting out of hand, than I present to you the economics go to guy over at the Old Gray Lady. The reason that we've failed to spend our way out of our national debt problem isn't because such an attempt is absurd and contradictory, and therefore doomed to fail. Instead, it's because we haven't printed enough money:

"A second stimulus is becoming clearly urgent. They need a very, very strong stimulus," said Krugman, a Princeton University professor and a New York Times columnist.

It's tough to know where to start pointing out the flaws with this recommendation. Two basic problems jump quickly to mind. First, by using subjective terms, he can always repeat his claim that when the stimulus fails to stimulate, it's because it simply wasn't big enough. I'd like to see someone confront him and get him to nail down an exact figure; but it'd be even better to just come up with an outlandish number and ask him if that should close the "output gap". I mean, if 1.5 trillion dollars will merely "ameliorate" the problem, then 5 trillion dollars should solve it completely. And if we spend 100 trillion dollars, why, we'll all be millionaires--at least.

The other problem is that he never even considers the fact that economic intervention profoundly distorts the market, something it absolutely must do. There's simply no way you can double the money supply in a few months without doing irreparable harm to the currency. The law of supply and demand applies to every economic good, including money. If you can't tell what will happen to demand when you double the currency, you just might be a Keynesian.

There's also something deeply disconcerting about the fact that there's no way Krugman will ever be held responsible for his asinine economic suggestions. None of the neo-Keynesians had any clue that there was a bubble--or that it would burst. But when a crisis emerges which they never accounted for, and for which they have no explanation, the media nonetheless goes to them for advice.

It's a direct parallel to the way we handled the Iraq War. When it became obvious to all but the most staunch true believer that the war was not proceeding according to plan, we didn't ask those who got it right in the first place; instead, Bill Kristol was given column space next to Krugman. And besides, the reason the war didn't work was that our strategy was just a bit off. A surge was needed. Think of it as a stimulus, only with people instead of money.

Heck, now that Kristol is gone, maybe Krugman can take over as the token neo-conservative over at the Times. It strikes me as a pretty easy job. Whenever your policies fail, you need only recommend that they be applied with increased vigor.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Inflation is here

One very large problem with the bailouts is that there is absolutely no way to determine how much money will need to be created to solve the crisis. This presupposes that some magical amount does in fact exist; but surely even the most ardent Keynesians would admit that if we printed too much money, the currency would become worthless through hyperinflation.

To give an obviously absurd example, but one which nonetheless demonstrates the point, if the Obama administration agreed to mail a one billion dollar check to every American, although a naive glance might suspect that this would add wealth to the economy, the reality is that the dollar would lose virtually all of its value. And because this would happen so quickly, it is likely that the price structure would be destroyed completely; like the German Papiermark, it might be burnt for warmth, but it would have lost all real value as an economic medium of exchange. So while the usual parties clamor about a deflation trap, there is a real risk of hyperinflation, too--especially when one considers that the money supply has been doubled in the last several months.

Armed with similar information--and with an extensive economic background with goodly doses of Mises and Rothbard--Congressman Ron Paul recently voiced his concerns about runaway inflation to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke:

I have a couple of questions, but first I want to mention that I find it awfully frustrating at times when we always talk about inflation and we only talk about the prices and say, “We have prices under control, there is no inflation”. We have to realize that the monetary base, the liquidity was doubled in a few short months. To me there is a lot of inflation out there. It’s already inflated, we’re in the midst of inflation. Because the prices haven’t gone up doesn’t mean we don’t have the distortion.

Now since both Paul and the Chairman are well versed in economics, and since his time is short, he doesn't always define his terms--though I'm betting he will in his forthcoming book. But in order to understand his point, it might be helpful to give a definition. For while the tendency is to gauge inflation by looking at prices--by using a fraudulent CPI--an increase in prices is actually a symptom of inflation. The great Austrian economist Murray Rothbard defines inflation as "an increase in the money supply not consisting of an increase in the money metal." (America's Great Depression, p.12)

When the money supply is inflated, each unit of currency becomes worth less than it was before the inflation occurred. It may take some time for the market to adjust to this increase in the money supply, but the end result is a currency whose values has been much depreciated. Inflation is the reason why an increase in wage rates is often insufficient to cover the increase to the cost of living.

What Paul is saying is that focusing on prices is entirely the wrong thing to do. Since the money supply has doubled, the currency has already been inflated. We may not want to experience it, but since it's happening presently, it is only a matter of time before the symptoms of inflation--i.e. high prices--set in, which will further hurt the economy.

He continues:

What if we have a situation where prices, which is not the best measure of inflation, but let’s say the consumer price index (CPI) is going up 8% to 10% and there is no economic growth. Where are you then, because that’s not impossible, it’s happened. It’s happened in our history, it happens throughout the world, it’s a common thing, it puts you between a rock and a hard place. If you drain, interest rates go up and the economy further crashes. If you don’t, you have the explosion.

Can you give me an idea what you precisely would do if you face the situation where prices were going up 10% with no economic growth?

A very sensible question. To which Bernanke responds:

Well, I think that’s an unlikely scenario but we certainly would have to take steps to ensure price stability, because if inflation gets out of control we know it has very adverse effects on the economy, both in the medium and long term and so we would obviously have to address that.

The Chairman prides himself as a student of the Great Depression. I'm hoping he realizes that President Hoover also attempted to keep prices stable. Specifically, he insisted that businesses keep wages up--which they did. For those fortunate enough to have jobs, the Great Depression wasn't unbearable; but those forced out of the labor markets when wages were maintained at a much higher rate than the market could support were less lucky. Anyway, outside of outright price controls--which, aside from being an affront to liberty, have deleterious effects--it is difficult to see how the Government will maintain price stability--though I'm not doubtful that they'll try to do so.

Moreover, it is unclear why price stability should be a good thing. We who live with an always inflationary Federal Reserve might react skeptically to such an assertion: of course prices should be kept stable. After all, one couldn't suggest with any seriousness that they should always continue to rise. On the contrary, it would be most desirable if prices, specifically those of consumer goods, fell. And in the free market, this is precisely what happens. As capitalism produces more goods with less labor, the extra goods drive down the cost of that good and provide more people with that good than ever before. Meanwhile, the displaced labor can be allocated to produce goods to meet other market demands, to the betterment of all.

As Rothbard points out, speaking of the economic bubble of the 1920's which led to the Great Depression:

Federal Reserve credit expansion, then, whether so intended or not, managed to keep the price level stable in the face of an increased productivity that would, in a free and unhampered market, have led to falling prices and a spread of increased living standards to everyone in the population. (ibid. p.171)

Of course, now that the money supply has doubled, it's a bit silly to expect prices to fall as they would in a market free from the tangles of the Federal Reserve. Nor is it likely that even prices stability will be achieved. But should Bernanke's "unlikely scenario" become a reality sometime during the coming year or two, we may profit from yet another reminder that current economic policy is as irrational as it is ineffective in achieving its desired ends. Maybe then we'll finally put an end to it.