Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cowardice on the Front Porch: Reason of the Age

Front Porch Republic is a curious amalgam. Jeff Taylor is an old-school Populist from a Protestant background with firm pro-life convictions. Russell Arben Fox borders on socialist convictions. Somehow, he and John Medaille, a rather pragmatic Roman Catholic, agree that the Mondragon experiment in Spain offers a healthy alternative to modern corporate capitalism, which indeed it does. Then there are the mystical Roman Catholics who long for the restoration of Papal Supremacy, over the whole world, modestly academic counter-parts to the more imminently violent jihadist vision of triumphant Islam.

What holds them all together, aside from the camaraderie of annual conferences and a vibrant web site, is something called “a sense of place.” Socialist, Papalist, or Populist, Republicans, Libertarians, or Other, there is a fascination with discrete local communities over large agglomerations of human activity and political power. Necessarily, they share a healthy (and justified) skepticism of liberals. They may or may not be conservatives. So far, the Republic has not attracted much interest from people of non-European extractions or darker complexions, but one would have to dig very deep to insinuate racial prejudice.

One fine day, 31 August 2012 to be exact, James Matthew Wilson, one of the younger Roman Catholic philosophers on the porch (his digital photo at least looks youthful) posted "Against Rationalism, Idealism, and Abstraction." The essay was noteworthy for the accusation that one evil of rationalism is the assumption, "If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical inspection can be so known."

An occasional commenter named Siarlys Jenkins, who by some odd coincidence is the sole administrator and contributor to the widely unread blogger page called Fundamentals (this page), posed a rational alternative more friendly to spirituality, metaphysical inquiry, and worship of a divine Creator: "If something cannot be known by everyone, cannot be summoned on demand for everyone's empirical inspection, then it is not a fit subject for legislation and coercion."

It is not directly known what Wilson thought of this, because he did not say. But two brothers, or cousins, or something, by the name of Salyer jumped in as Wilson’s bulldogs, rather like Thomas Huxley fighting the good fight for Charles Darwin.

R. Salyer, by far the more incoherent of the two, set the tone for a good deal of the ensuing discussion by asserting that "One way to reduce conflict is to establish justice amongst groups… and another way is to simply deconstruct the value of the group such that the “members” are no longer willing to fight for it."  Jenkins objected to the notion of justice between groups, and indeed of consigning individuals, whether they will or no, to designation as subjects of a defined group.

It would be most unfair to try to summarize further what the Salyers had to say. It ranged widely across the various concepts the human mind is capable of toying with, and it is available in the original for any who wish to peruse it. The ensuing fray is difficult to follow coherently, since it is a meandering trail of ad hominem insinuations, with various straw men for landmarks to navigate by.

The premise which seems to have provoked the greatest ire is this:

If one person, or group of persons, wishes to coerce another person, then the burden of proof rests with those proposing to coerce another. Sub-premise: coercion is generally justified only by a credible assertion that the person (or group) to be coerced is inflicting demonstrable harm on others.

This the Salyers vigorously deny – naturally so, first, because their Roman Catholic faith, as they conceive it, demands the possibility of coercion. Further, they evidently advocate that if a strong man imbued with a passionate desire to coerce is able to impose his passion upon others, it is his right, his duty, his sacred honor, forthwith to do so.

R. Salyer in particular essentially argues that the premise offered above, or any premise whatsoever, is only one of many premises on which a social order might rest, and therefore no better than any other. By the crudest and most disinterested logic, this is unassailably true.

By this logic, there is no moral order to the universe whatsoever, as ANY moral foundation has a claim to allegiance no better and no worse than any other. This logic the Salyers vigorously deny, by fiat. Neither of the Salyers wish to follow their logic to its obvious and inescapable conclusion: that if no premise is better than any other, then ANY premise that a sufficiently strong person, or group, is able to impose, must therefore become The Good Premise by virtue of its success. In short, Might Makes Right.

While the author of the original essay, James Matthew Wilson, had nothing further to contribute, he displayed the courage of his convictions in one concluding act: immediately after his bulldogs offered their latest expression of wounded outrage, he closed the article to further comments, insuring that they had the last word. Cowardice such as this ill suits either a front porch or a republic. But some arguments cannot bear the weight of either facts or reason.

Indeed, the original essay was offered in direct opposition to reason. The entire cabal apparently worships the vigorous and brutal display of unreasoning passion that was the true hallmark of the middle ages. The music was beautiful, the standards colorful, the castles have a haunting beauty, now that they project no power upon the literate descendants of the over-taxed peasantry. Life, however, was no bed of roses, nor paragon of virtue.

I come from a long line of serfs, who left Europe for America to be free, and fought to establish that freedom. We are well out of all that Old Europe, really old Europe, imposed upon a weary and traumatized world. The age of reason has not been pure blue skies and bright sunshine, but at least the possibilities for humanity to flourish are greater than they were under self-righteous tyranny.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bush, Obama, Ryan, and the truth about social security

There is a newsbrief in my local newspaper, one of many trite bits from the snorefest called the Republican National Convention, that Jeb Bush said President Obama should stop blaming his brother for the country’s economic woes.

All other things being equal, Jeb Bush is correct that a real leader accepts responsibility for his own policies. President Obama has cheerfully taken responsibility for his own policies – but rightly declines to take responsibility for the lingering results of President Bush’s time in office.

George W. Bush inherited from President Clinton an unprecedented federal budget surplus, and a debt of $5 trillion. He ran unprecedented budget deficits every year of his two terms, and bequeathed to President Obama a debt over $10 trillion.

George W. Bush doubled the national debt during a time of prosperity and growth, when McDonald’s was advertising “Help Wanted” and paying more than the legal minimum to get anyone to work behind the counter.

He bequeathed to President Obama a nation with its economy in freefall, looking at a very real possibility of Great Depression 2.0, with up to thirty percent unemployment.

Accordingly, it is a real accomplishment that President Obama held the unemployment rate under 9 percent, adding to the debt during a recession only about as much as Bush added to the debt during a period of prosperity.

Jeb Bush may be correct that his brother is a man of integrity, courage, and honor, at least personally. But George W. Bush did a great deal of damage to this country as President of the United States, an office for which he had no significant qualifications.

Now, to be fair, I’ll admit that President Obama’s campaign has something in common with Paul Ryan’s: they are both speaking in vague slogans, failing to be clear, precise and specific with the American people about the real state of the social security trust fund.

Paul Ryan’s social security plan is a solution in search of a problem. The REAL problem is simple to fix – although President Obama would have to admit some errors by Democrats to be direct and forthright about it. The social security trust fund is adequate for many decades to come. Social security can balance with very modest tweaking in tax rates, retirement ages, and benefits.

It is true, we can’t retire earlier, live longer, pay in less, and keep the same benefits for 20-30 years. Currently, I can draw twice the social security benefits if I work until I’m 70 as I will if I retire at 62. Rightly so.

The REAL problem is this: First, the anticipated surplus was invested in T-bills, obviously the safest investment available. But that made the trust fund part of the national debt. In 1968, congress and LBJ changed the bookkeeping, so that the revenue, surplus, and obligations became part of the federal budgets. That may have looked sensible at the time, but it meant taking advantage of the surplus now, when the obligation was much further down the road. The trust fund was no longer a segregated fund that, as President Roosevelt said, the politicians couldn’t touch, because it was self-funded. The politicians had found a way to touch it.

President Clinton understood that budget surpluses, which he generated near the end of his second term, needed to be used to pay down the national debt, particularly to fund the obligations to the social security trust fund. George W. Bush, acting like a kid in a candy store, said “Let’s give the surplus back to the people” as if the people were not $5 trillion in debt. By the time he left office, it was $10 trillion. The social security trust fund was a significant part of that debt. The rest came from the National Bank of China.

Funding social security isn’t difficult. The federal treasury simply has to repay the borrowed money as it is needed. This is not a government subsidy, it is repaying money which the government borrowed, for a time, because it was not yet needed to pay out social security benefits. The FICA taxes to cover this obligation have already been collected, and continue to be collected.

The problem, from a Republican viewpoint, is that paying the government’s lawful debts requires tax revenues, and their mantra is “tax cuts uber alles.” The government doesn’t have any other source of revenue. Its not a business. It doesn’t sell goods for a profit.

The Paul Ryan solution is to assume that government CANNOT repay the borrowed money to the trust fund, therefore, those who rely on social security, now or for their future retirement, will have to take a Greek-style haircut, because God forbid we roll back the Bush tax cuts on millionaires. Better the United States government default on its most important obligation to the American people.

Ryan and his allies deceitfully imply that meeting the obligations of social security would require massive subsidy from taxpayers in order to pay benefits. Not so. It would require repaying a loan, that the Republican leadership would prefer to default on.

President Obama’s campaign is pouring millions of dollars into fluffy TV spots that accuse Ryan and the Republicans (accurately) of trying to do away with social security and Medicare, leaving seniors in dire poverty. What President Obama’s campaign seems to be afraid of is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to the American people.

President Obama ought to over-ride the public relations gurus (as he has done before in some of his finest moments), and lay all the facts on the table. That wouldn’t make Jeb Bush’s brother look any better, but it would make President Obama look a lot better than he does right now.