Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reactions to Bin Laden's Demise

Of all of the various posts I read on the Bin Laden assassination this one by the Maverick Philosopher comes closest to my reaction. While I don't agree with his introductory paragraph about God and mercy I lean towards his sentiment on how he feels about OBL's demise.

Anyone who doesn't see that capital punishment is precisely what justice demands in certain circumstances is morally obtuse. I agree with Prager on that. I also agree with his statement this morning that pacifism is "immoral" though I would withhold his "by definition." (I've got a nice post on the illicit use of 'by definition.') And of course I agree that terrorists need to be hunted down and killed. But there should be no joy at the killing of any human being no matter who he is. It would be better to feel sad that we live in a world in which such extreme measures are necessary.

The administration of justice ought to be a dispassionate affair.

I know Bin Laden's death carries symbolic weight because of his role as planner of the September 11 attacks. For that reason I'm pleased, even happy, that he met his just deserts. The best way I can describe how I reacted to this would be if the local animal control officer found a rabid dog in my neighborhood and put it to sleep. I can't say that I felt the need to dance in the streets as some chose to do. (And, like others, I noticed that those shown on TV cavorting in celebration were too young to even remember the 9/11 attacks. As one wag said, maybe they were celebrating that "their" President finally did something right. Related to this I've read several stories that the decision to attack came about due to intense pressure from military and intelligence experts who were urging the hit before OBL was warned of his impending doom. We'll probably never know if this truly was the case.)

For another interesting perspective check out Jonathan Haidt’s Why We Celebrate a Killing.

For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates — we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.

But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.

Health reform unhealthy for hospitals -

More evidence of the potential unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act. As often is the case the results of policies create the exact opposite of the intent behind them.

Over the last few months, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has exempted a long list of unions and employers from an Affordable Care Act provision that would have made it too costly for them to continue some of their health care insurance plans. But, in sharp contrast, HHS apparently doesn't intend to do anything at all about a new health reform mandate that could eventually force hundreds of badly needed U.S. hospitals to shut their doors.
Many of these hospitals are already struggling to make ends meet because Medicare only reimburses them for 90 percent of what it costs them to take care of Medicare patients. But, instead of helping them out, this rule change does the opposite. In a misguided effort to pressure them to become more efficient, it arbitrarily assumes that they can achieve the same productivity savings as the economy at large and decrees that these hypothetical cost savings must be deducted from any Medicare reimbursements they receive after September.

The Day the Movies Died Movies + TV:

I found this article highly interesting and gives me an opening to share some observations of my own.

I've been seeing movies with my friend Carl for more than ten years. When I get home my wife will ask what I thought of the movie. Many times I'd say, "They found a way to cram a 60 minute story into a 2 hour movie." I've also noticed the increased use of fast cutting and shaky cameras. I recall reading a Roger Ebert review (of Michael Bay's Armageddon, I think) in which he pointed out that no shot lasted more than 3 seconds.

I have also noticed that younger folks like my daughters who grew up under this newer, fast editing find older movies like Capricorn One to be deadly boring. Recently when I mentioned I was going to see True Grit to friends they told me their daughter didn't like it. Sure enough, I did like True Grit. I could also see why our friend's daughter didn't like it. There was precious little action. What is shown in the previews is about it. It was more a character study than an action movie. It was heavy on dialog and light on action, just like No Country for Old Men (by the same directors).

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all movies should have the pacing of True Grit or No Country. I enjoy movies that intersperse action with narrative, something I think the original Terminator did well. I do think the current movie style reflects a shorter attention span that seems to be part of our culture, especially among younger kids. My wife who is a high school math teacher admits that she has had to change her style over the years to be more entertaining to hold the attention of her students. In the book Brain Rules John Medina recommends structuring presentations in ten minute modules to hold the audience's attention. For movies this slice of time has been whittled to two or three seconds.

“Altruism: The Moral Root of the Financial Crisis” by Richard M. Salsman

This article presents a different explanation for the current financial mess. Salsman rejects the commonly offered explanation that the inherent flaws of the free market caused the recession. His economic explanation is not unique. Others, like Thomas Sowell, have shown that government policies, not fatal flaws in capitalism, thrust us into the present mess. Salsman takes a critical step not evident in other free market based explanations. He identifies the ethical ideas behind certain policies: these ideas, accepted by Republicans and Democrats, pushed an altruist agenda in order to help folks without the necessary financial means buy houses. This was a recipe for disaster.

Those who claim greed caused are partially (and only partially) right. While Salsman explains how banks were "encouraged" by the certain politicians to lower lending standards I'm sure it's also true that some institutions and individuals were motivated by greed to play along and even profit from these lowered standards. This would include those who managed Freddie Mac and Freddie Mae as well as their political buddies who protected them. Greed by itself doesn't explain why the housing market imploded. Otherwise it would happen all the time and not just in the housing market. (Do we see this happening, say, in the cell phone market? Or with PC's? Or food?) You need something to prevent the market from correcting itself. In this case one of the factors was the unhealthy alliance between those who ran Freddie Mac and Freddie Mae and those who "regulated" them and the banking industries. Greed certainly was a factor but not the sole or even the main one.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why Bin Laden Lost - Brendan Greeley

I have only a few minor quibbles with Brendan Greeley's perceptive commentary on Bin Laden. He starts his article with: "The United States has no purpose." I like to think he worded his intro that way simply to catch our attention. I’d put it differently: the purpose of our government is to protect our individual purpose. I agree: it’s not nearly as catchy. In essence Greeley is saying that our government does not establish a purpose to which all of us must march in lockstep but to protect the ability for each of us to take steps in the direction of our choice.

I agree with his overall point: that the founding principles of the U.S. protect our ability to pursue happiness. While Greeley tends to focus on consumption such as collecting figurines, joining a clogging troupe and taking road trips (these are his examples) he misses another aspect: creating values. Our Constitution protects both enjoying values and creating them.

Towards the end of his article Greeley says: “We humans follow base and pedestrian needs.” Unfortunately, whether he means it or not, I think this choice of words plays into the hands of those who think we should be committed to a “higher” purpose, such as serving others. There is a strong sentiment here in our own country to compel us to serve others whether we want to or not.

To me there is nothing base or pedestrian about fulfilling our needs. Yes, I don’t deny there are some activities (like watching Jersey Shore) which are base or pedestrian. At least I think they are and don’t partake in them; I also don’t recommend outlawing them.

I think it’s a mistake both philosophically and strategically to label activities that satisfy our wants or needs as merely “base” or “pedestrian”. Our ability to pursue these wants reflects the success of our approach: that we can transcend basic survival needs to pursue other desires that represent our individual needs, interests, wants and desires. We have the luxury of, say, collecting figurines, joining a clogging troupe and taking road trips precisely because of the spectacular and envied (or despised depending on your viewpoint) success of our system of limited government and the free market. This success rests on our freedom to create, enjoy and express values within a market and culture protected by laws based (in general) on individual rights. In other words our riches rest on our ability to pursue our own self-interest as long as we don’t violate the self-interest of others. We collect figurines, clog or travel because we feel they enrich our lives. We don’t feel the need to justify our existence by serving some “larger” purpose such as serving God, others or Allah. Nor should we.

With all of the above in mind I nonetheless highly recommend reading Greeley's article.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

George Monbiot's Epiphany

Walter Russell Mead reports in Top Green Admits: “We Are Lost!”George Monbiot of the left-leaning British newspaper The Guardian has a must-read column in which he admits that because of a whole series of intellectual mistakes, the global green movement’s policy prescriptions are hopelessly flawed.

Greens like to have it both ways. They warn darkly about “peak oil” and global resource shortages that will destroy our industrial economy in its tracks — but also warn that runaway economic growth will destroy the planet through the uncontrolled effects of mass industrial productions. Both doomsday scenarios cannot be true; one cannot simultaneously die of both starvation and gluttony.

As Monbiot says in his The Lost World.

You think you’re discussing technologies, you quickly discover that you’re discussing belief systems. The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve. Beside these concerns, technical matters – parts per million, costs per megawatt hour, cancers per sievert – carry little weight. We choose our technology – or absence of technology – according to a set of deep beliefs; beliefs which in some cases remain unexamined.

Although Monbiot gets close to the truth, I believe Robert Bidinotto gets even closer in his Environmentalism or Individualism?

Capitalism and science are values only to people who want to achieve material progress; they rest implicitly on the idea that self-interest is good. Yet this clashes with age-old moral teachings, which hold that goodness consists of "service to others"--and that self-interest is evil.

This explains why economic and scientific arguments have failed to inoculate the public against environmentalism. By and large, people want to do the right thing. But if they've been taught to equate "the right thing" with self-sacrifice, and evil with selfishness--if they've been taught "Paradise" is Eden, that perfect Garden in which Man is a humble steward of the "natural balance"--then how can they possibly remain sympathetic to the enterprises of science and free market economics?

As I wrote in an earlier post on climate change:

I think the following quote from the former Canadian Environment Minister Christine Stewart sheds light on their motive.

“No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits…. Climate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.” Source: Calgary Herald, 14 December 1998.

It all comes down to a new way to make us (the U.S. in particular and the West in general) feel guilty for our material success in order to soften us for their solutions of taxing emissions, changing our life style and bringing us down to the level of countries that don’t suffer from these “problems,” thanks to their policies of punitive taxation, heavy regulation and government control (or strangling) of their economies.