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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quick Bits, British Parliamentary Scandal, Econtalk

1. So, this whole British MP scandal is somewhat odd to me. Believe it or not, I don't really have an issue with entitlement spending. And I find it hypocritical that anyone can. We all take our entitlements, whether they're as little as using the office supplies at home, or having dinner on the firm, businesses across the world take these expenses as part of the cost of doing business. To expect government to do less is naive. It all comes down to this notion that the government's money is actually the taxpayer's money. It's just not true. Social Security is a bit different. The money you pay Social Security is ACTUALLY yours, and so you get a statement, each year that you work, for how much you have, and for how much it will pay out in time. But general taxes, they go directly to the state. No longer yours. You elect representatives to govern for you, and they use that money to do so, but it's at their discretion--not yours. Here's the thing, I could understand the anger if the things that these MPs were doing were really egregious, like paying for prostitutes and private jets, large in excess of say 8,000 dollars. But so far, most of the expenses fell perfectly within the rules. The one I heard about today was that an MP used his allowance to buy a fancy TV. So what? The BBC is really milking the people's anger on this subject. I've heard a lot of angry interviews on the subject. MPs for the most part have come out rather quizzical, since very few of them were breaking the law. I think the Brits need to give this horse a rest. You're angry at the politicians for allowing the economy to breakdown, and sure, they did. But as the song goes, when the money keeps pouring in you don't ask how. You only ask how when the money stops.


2. On a related subject, the WSJ had a reporter on their morning news radio discussing how Social Security is paid out. He made the point that Social Security money isn't sitting in escrow anywhere, it's an accounting liability that gets paid out of other budgets. I can say this with smug authority now that I'm an accounting student. No shit. Not that the reporter was wrong, or that he was in any real way to blame for this revelation. The point is that isn't news. All liabilities are columns on papers. Payouts always come out of cash, and from converting assets into cash. My issue is that Social Security is a political issue, and as such, it often gets reported in such a way as to invite criticism rather than encourage reform.


Ok, econtalk, I'm way behind in my Econtalk listenings. This comment is on the Don Boudreaux interview. Again, the popular economics arguments against control of the market really drive me mad. Most economists will admit, that no administration, Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, ever leaves the market alone. What they won't admit is that an entirely free market is, like socialism in its purest form, a complete pipedream. Boudreaux came up with an interesting concept: when calling for the masses to be allowed utmost freedom to move their money in self-corrective patterns, he said the additive of the giant of government hamfistedly acting in the delicate workings of the market mechanism is never good. This idea of the government as a giant is interesting to me. Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts don't want the giant to act in the marketplace. But they won't admit that the giant is ALWAYS acting, ALWAYS moving. And policy, even in non-obvious economic spheres always interacts with the economy both on the macro and micro levels--so what is he talking about? One more gripe: The idea of a self-corrective market is appealing, but it doesn't take into account actual need or hardship. Don and Russ and all of his friends want the businesses that can't survive to fail. Let the market reward the lucky survivors, and let the market reward the new up and comers. The giant can't let that happen. Unlike the giant of the oceans, the whale or the shark, the giant of government must protect as many of its people as often as it can, as quickly as it can. It never sleeps, it knows no respite, it can only go on protecting and providing. And as it moves, certainly a little wanton destruction, and a lot of waste. Unintended consequences and all that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

So I just finished reading the memoir of Frank Schaeffer, the son of the famous evangelical Francis Schaeffer. A couple of things. I came to the book with the conception that it was a repudiation of the religious right. Though this is true in some part, overall less than fifty pages of the book were devoted to the subject. Rather it is simply a memoir of the man's life. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. Not by Schaeffer, or his story, or his writing, although he did, or his editors, misspell non-profit at one point. I was disappointed by the fact that I was really hoping for a juicy, American evangelists are batshit crazy, tell all. Schaeffer's experience with American Evangelicalism supports that notion, but again, it only consists of 50-60 pages of the book.
Schaeffer's ministry was called L'Abri and was located in Switzerland. It was austere, and for most of Frank Schaeffer's young adult life relatively poor. They didn't begin to really grow and make money until the 60s when royalties and backlash from the Free Love generation began lapping at their teat. Up until that point, it sounds like a perfectly cromulent place (ha!) Nestled in the alps, they went skiing during the winter, went to Portofino in Italy over the summer. Frank Schaeffer, from the time he was twelve to the day he got married, if I recall, about 20, spent the entire 8 years, not unlike most men, trying to get laid. Most of the girls he slept with were women of L'Abri, but he doesn't really focus on this salacious idea, save to admit that he had a much harder time trying to make it in the Swiss nightclub scene. Schaeffer was spent most of his time painting nudes, listening to rock music, and getting into trouble. Including nearly killing one of the parishioners at L'Abri in a sledding accident. The guy had a very normal life, with the exception that A) his parents spent more time working on the ministry than they did on the kids B) he had almost no formal education, being dyslexic, and having absentee parents, he was kicked out of schools, until he finally ran away and went home. That said, his father was a cultural historian, not by profession, but certainly by professed love, and made his way on a Christian film about the art of the Renaissance.
I won't bother really to describe the abuse. It was mentioned frankly, but not dwelled upon, and since none of it was sexual abuse, I think at the time, it would have been considered fairly standard fare.
Let's skip to the 50 pages of pure red meat. Franky Schaeffer, with his contemporaries, Pat Robertson, and a few others almost created the Religious right. I make this point now, because it dovetails with the two books I've recently started, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Nixonland starts with the "end of the Right" with the death knell of Barry Goldwater's campaign. Frank Rich starts with the rise to power of the Bush administration. Crazy for God, takes it from the angle of a fledgling movement that grew over the course of a few decades--principally on the 60s-90s. That's another disappointment, though Schaeffer discusses Bush periodically, and his parents involvement with the Bushes, the topic is never really given serious consideration. Moreover, since Schaeffer left the movement in the 90s, he really didn't have much to add to what most people consider the height of the religious right. That said, it's a memoir. It does what it purports to do, talk about the man's life.
The ministry at L'Abri began to grow in leaps in bounds after his parents started publishing in the States. The disenfranchisement of the 60s seems to have driven people to excess, in one direction or the other. Schaeffer suggests that it was the freelove itself that drove the people to the ministry. That people saw the excess of the left and grew disgusted by it. I think the reason was a fair bit more complex than that, though I certainly couldn't contest the contrary nature of the spiritual enlistment. With all this new inflow of an extremely diverse body, many of whom were artists, layabouts, and other transitory people, and not simply religious soul seekers, Schaeffer got one of them pregnant. His wife, Genie was one such, who was just a backpacker passing through who happened to fall in love with the bad boy preacher's son. I should say this very clearly, the religion preached by L'Abri at the time of the 60s was very liberal in nature. Though it still sought Jesus Christ as Savior, it appreciated art of all flavor, did not discriminate against homosexuals, and generally kept itself to the goal of convincing seekers that God could exist meaningfully in even a modern life. On the whole, it doesn't sound like a bad place, and I would have loved to sit and have a chat on philosophy with Francis Schaeffer.
When Schaeffer got Genie pregnant he was at a really young age, as was she. I'm guessing because I don't have the book in front of me, but I think he was 20, and she was probably about the same age, maybe a year or two older. Almost immediately after his daughter was born he was won over by the miracle of his own daughter, and immediately began to heat up on the subject of abortion. His father had avoided the issue. At the time, the 60s, evangelical Christians saw abortion as a Catholic issue. And evangelicals, being fairly exclusive, didn't care to discuss it. Francis' son was the person who enlisted him on the project of making the pro-life movement a political thing. Frank Schaeffer, with the help of another religious fundraiser/figurehead, Bobby Zeoli, produced two movies with the beneficent Frank Schaeffer discussing, among other things, abortion. Than they sold it to the Americans. It took a while to gain steam.
One point that Schaeffer makes that I find interesting, but erroneous, is that the ACLU and other liberal, pro-choice organizations made Schaeffer's job a lot easier. According to Schaeffer, pro-choice forces had made abortion an almost romantic, or "in" option, a sort of "abortion-chic." This meant that that they could generate a lot of outrage, and the outrage in turn generated outrage from the left that provided the evangelists an "us against them" vector. Though I am certainly not old enough to really contest this (this movement was built in the 70s and 80s) and my worldly experience in the 80s was fairly limited, I cannot ever believe that abortion was taken lightly by a majority, or even a plurality of American women. Abortion is an awful thing, and it scars all involved, (though 90% the woman whose body it is) in many ways.
Regardless, that was the kickstart of the religious right in this country. Before they were voting for born again Christian presidents, before they were weighing in on foreign policy, or prayers in the public schools, or creationism,or the ID movement (Both Francis and Frank Schaeffer's were proponents of theories of evolution-despite a lack of formal education) there was abortion. And this is what I'll end this post on.
Liberals who are kicking the downed Republican party in the ribs, are being ridiculously shortsighted. This is a party that fights best when the chips are down. And they win by appealing to the base, not the center. Because their vision is moving the center closer to the base. And for the past decade they succeeded at that admirably. So beware abortion, liberals. Obama is looking at choosing a new Supreme Court Justice, and this could well prove the pivot point in the fortunes of the Republicans. That Justice must support Roe v. Wade. But if he/she does, that gives the Republethugs automatic poll points. After all, when it comes to the semantics of Pro-Life v. Pro-Choice, how can we EVER win? If I had to choose between veggie burgers and hamburgers, I'd be bummed if I had to eat a veggie burger, but I could live with it. Living without life? Rhetorically, a liberals best/only answer to that is the rhetorical flair of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Finally, I have very eagerly started both New Left books, I have long been a fan of both Rich and Pearlstein, and I already have a bunch to comment on.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Euro Parliament

Among my daily podcasts is the BBC highlights from across the BBC world network. They did an interesting piece yesterday on the European Parliament. For years, my gf has berated Americans as having one of the worst voting records. She's been right mostly, and hopefully the election of Barack Obama will have turned the tide here. However, now Britons have noted that voter turnout is at decade lows. And also interesting they noted that the lowest voter turnout across Europe has been for the European Parliament. At the same time, they noted that the Euro parliament's power has been growing by leaps and bounds, and that in fact, a Euro MP has far more power than his national counterpart, and that the national counterparts have been simply in charge of legislating the laws drawn up by the European Union. These are interesting developments. I don't know how principalities within Europe function, it's been a long time since my 3 credit hours of world poli-sci at GWU. However, if they function as American States do, then they have their own elected government. Which means that they would have a three tiered system of elected representative. You vote your local, you vote your MP, and your vote your EMP. They don't have typically have to worry, at least in Parliamentry systems without presidents, about electing a Prime Minister, but that's still a lot of voting. And why is it that people are less likely to vote in the EU? I've read a number of articles, and blogs, all suggesting that the EU is going through the most trauma in it's decade long history, but EU power doesn't seem to be decreasing. Meanwhile EMPs are elected, at least in the UK by just over 20% of the population. I'm desperately curious to see where this all will lead.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Klein on the Theory of Moral Sentiments-Econtalk

So over at Econtalk they are doing a book reading of Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiment." And they touched on a couple of related subjects that I didn't buy/understand/agree. Ok. So naturally, social welfare came up. In the context of moral sentiment, and I am not talking about Smith's theory, because I wouldn't say that I know enough about it to comment one way or the other, but the idea came up that social welfare programs destory the morality of giving. Meaning, when you have no choice to give, when a certain portion of your income is given to the needy, it destroys the morality of the people who are giving. It breeds anger and resentment, and divorces the giver from the givee. It is an interesting point, and I agree with the last statement in full. However, I think that Smith, and the folk at Econtalk are missing an important point. Who gives a crap about the morality of giving. You want people to care, but is it really necessary? I mean a Kantian perspective would certainly indicate just the opposite. In fact, by one reading, you could say that social welfare is a Kantian device. Granted there's no choice in the matter, but those who give who do not want to are indeed making the MOST moral choice. As opposed to those who want to give, and receive a feeling of well-being and happiness from the giving--indeed a selfish feeling no matter the sacrifice. The fact is, needy people are in need of help--not morality. And even the guys at Econtalk were forced to concede that there was no way social welfare would be able to drum up anywhere near the amount that it has were they forced to rely on donations.

I also think that they lumped social security into that category, which is just plain wrong. FDR established Social Security as a personal retirement program for the entire country. When you're on it, you're getting your own money back. There is no charity there, no morality. Just smart planning. The economist would say that people like me should suffer for my lack of ability to plan my own retirement, and that programs like SS make people less likely to plan for their retirement. I think that this is unsupported by any data. The day to dayers, the people who are in the lowest brackets would never be able to make a retirement plan. But I think the majority of people are concerned, and do indeed work towards one. Another interesting point for me is this idea of disassociation from your neighbor. Though I think that this has happened, to blame this on social welfare programs is, I think, a bit unjustified. Disassociation from your neighbor is, I think directly related to the dissolution of the family. Nuclear families living in two-three bedroom homes.

My final issue was a statement that suggested that government wealth redistribution plans were a form of tyranny. Even though I think I can appreciate the sentiment, I find it to be somewhat ludicrous. The scales of wealth in this country have far tilted to the right. Even now in Obamaland. That needs to be realigned. Seriously, it is in EVERYONE's best interest. You saw the mob fury of the fall and winter of 2008. Better to legislate than burn. So you can't take anyone's money, but you can readjust the tax code, you can enable small business owners, you can get education out the people who are trying to make the jump between classes.