Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reinventing the Republican vision

Bobby Jindal, Catholic convert
Up until now, I’ve been avoiding any breakdown of the last election, largely because of shame.

If you read some of the posts, you can tell I’d allowed my hopes to rise despite my conviction that selling Mitt Romney as The Only Possible Victor Against Obama was a strategy doomed to defeat. I’d even gone so far as to predict that some of the loonier aspects of the Democrat campaign would be net negatives, like the “war on women” meme — especially Sandra Flake’s mind-boggling vision of misogynist hordes waiting to (re-)enslave women while the Code Pink vaginas danced and demonstrated outside the DNC — and that stupid freakin’ Lena Dunham “Your First Time” commercial. And I have to tell you this, Mr. President: I do not belong to the government; the government is our servant, not our master.

As you’re no doubt aware, the GOP also had its share of bizarre moments: Clint Eastwood’s supposed-to-be-funny “dialogue” with the empty chair at the RNC, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin’s facepalm-inducing remarks about forced sex, Mitt’s “binders full of women” and the cringeworthy “47 percent” remark. 

But more critical than these were the Republicans’ overall failure to present an attractive and compelling vision of what a GOP victory would mean for Joe and Jane Schmuckatelli, their failure to connect with women and Latino voters — not to mention their ongoing concession of the African-American vote — and their ill-advised, quixotic attacks against Obamacare in general. Moreover, the “Chick-fil-A flap” and Catholic opposition to the HHS mandate handed the GOP a genuine, this-gets-us-where-we-live issue — the First Amendment vs. progressivist tyranny — and they wasted it, ceding the mandate spotlight to the “war on women” meme and largely passing over the LGBT “two minutes’ hate” with an embarrassed silence.

And I still predicted a Republican victory. *sigh* All of which is part of the reason that my crystal ball is less accurate than your typical weather forecast.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

So much for “choice” …

Here we go with the third annual Ask Them What They Mean By Choice Day, in which we pro-life bloggers all pretend that, if we pile on with the posts, the pro-aborts will stop communing within themselves, step out of their echo chamber and actually pay attention to what’s really happening with the Great Western Atrocity.  Oh, I’m sorry — that was bitter and cynical, wasn’t it.

“I’m neither pro-choice nor pro-life,” said one woman in a focus group commissioned by Planned Parenthood.  “I’m pro-whatever-the-situation is.” Said another, “there should be three: pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances [...] It’s not just back or white, there’s grey [sic].” A recent research push by the organization found that large numbers of Americans feel this way — uncomfortable with both the pro-life and pro-choice labels. And so Planned Parenthood’s newest messaging will be moving away from the language of choice.

PB has also rolled out a companion website and advertisement, with the advert — in a touch that must have Friedrich Nietzsche smiling in whatever part of the hereafter he occupies — titled “Moving Beyond Labels”.

“A growing number of Americans no longer identify with the pro-choice and pro-life labels that they believe box them in,” Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in a statement. “Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the decisions women and their families make.” The campaign also has a companion website focusing on abortion as a personal decision.

“The decisions women and their families make”.  “A personal decision”.  Another word for decision is … choice. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A certain point of view

Ben gives Luke his first lesson in Jedi subjectivism.

“Luke, as you grow older, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on a certain point of view.”

How many of you, when you first heard Obi-Wan Kenobi offer this remonstrance to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, found yourselves putting a mental question mark next to it? And how many of you were simply too caught up in the moment, in Luke’s feelings of betrayal and loss, to allow it to register? 

“After all, it’s only a movie,” he observed drily.

Movies are stories, and stories can be dangerous weapons. Torn by the pity and terror of tragedy, drawn along in spite of yourself by the drama, weeping and laughing according to its merits and intents, you may find yourself accepting as true propositions and values that, were they presented as arguments, you would question or even reject. Consider the watershed influence of Brokeback Mountain, or the quietly malign effect Atlas Shrugged (the book) has had on our view of the poor, and tell me I’m wrong.

It’s not that Ben Kenobi’s statement as worded is false or an endorsement of subjectivism. Many of the things we hold to be true are only “obviously true” by consensus; shatter that consensus, introduce a substantial party dedicated to denying or contradicting it, and its obviousness is lost.  Identities of people, institutions, and nations are built on and vested in “self-evident truths” that other people, institutions, and nations find dubious propositions at best; mental breakdowns, corporate dissolutions and social chaos follow when those truths collapse under pressure.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The sacramentality of oaths

Dean Obeidallah is apparently one of those people who believe that, if you say “separation of church and state” over and over long enough, the “free exercise” clause will disappear from the First Amendment. Just read his latest post on if you don’t believe me.

Obeidallah, if you’ll remember, is the guy who accused Rick Santorum of wishing to impose a “Christian Sharia” with such overwrought language that I almost forgot he’s a comedian — or at least he’s been billed as a comedian. This post is more lucid and more thoughtful than the Santorum nutty — perhaps he’s finally getting the hang of this mug’s game — so we can and should do him the courtesy of taking him seriously.

Obeidallah doesn’t believe Pres. Obama should use any Bible, let alone two when he swears in for the second time. He points out, quite correctly, that Article IV prohibits the government from imposing religious tests for public office or trust. He points out, again most correctly, that Theodore Roosevelt and John Q. Adams did not use Bibles at their own oaths of office. 

For the record, I’ll provide the information Obeidallah was lacking about TR’s motives: like Adams, Roosevelt believed in a fairly strict construction of the “establishment clause”, going so far as to try to have “In God We Trust” stricken from our money. Also for the record, both Roosevelt and Adams were devout, churchgoing mainline Protestants.

“Some will argue,” Obeidallah writes, “that swearing on the Bible ensures the president adheres to his oath. But let’s be honest: We have seen presidents and other elected officials swear to uphold the laws of our country with their hands on a Bible and go on to break many laws and ethical rules. It comes down to the person’s moral code, not a 30-second oath.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The next fiscal battle (Part IV)

Here we go with what I hope will be the last installment on the budget war coming up next month:

If nothing else, I’ve been trying at least to convince you that cutting the federal budget is nowhere near as simple a task as slicing a few hundred billion dollars off defense or transfer payment spending — or at least, not if you want to do it right — and that doing it in the middle of a weak, uncertain recovery has insidious potential for pushing us into another, more severe recession.  But yes, we have to start paying on the national debt; it’s poor stewardship to allow debts to go unpaid when you have the funds to start paying them off.  If you don’t have the funds, then you strip off non-essentials until you do.

There’s the rub: What spending is essential, and what spending isn’t? 

Because the transfer of wealth from the top to the bottom isn’t intrinsically or necessarily a government function, it doesn’t follow that for the government to do so is wrong, or that it can’t be done on a limited, even ad hoc basis.  That’s not consequentialism; that’s simply asserting that the Austrian school is wrong: capitalism doesn’t need an absolute right of property to thrive.  The common defense, on the other hand, is not only a necessary and intrinsic function of government but one of the reasons we junked the Continental Congress in favor of our Constitutional government: the Continental Congress simply couldn’t collect any taxes the states didn’t want to pay, so they couldn’t pay either the Army or the Navy.

Nevertheless, it’s true that these two categories, put together, transfer payments and defense make up most of the budget.  Since 1959, they have never comprised less than 74.97% of current federal expenditures; as of July 2012, they were 85.9%, the highest they’ve been in twenty-five years.  The other 14.1% is worth $538.1 billion, which is still a lot of money … but it’s only 20.14% of $2.671 trillion dollars in current federal receipts.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The next fiscal battle (Part III)

Sometimes we bring missiles; sometimes we bring medicine.
In the first part, we looked at the two major targets lined up in Republican crosshairs for spending cuts, asked why they’re targets, and asked why cutting them aren’t good ideas. 

What I left out is that, in classic economic model, decreasing expenditures and increasing taxes are both recessionary measures: they slow down a booming GDP and decrease a stagnant GDP.  At least in theory; analysis of the effect of marginal tax changes over the last forty years doesn’t give us confidence that tax cuts do anything towards job creation plus or minus.[*]  Theoretically, if we’re looking to boost the economy, then the last thing we should do is cut spending … in fact, if anything, we should spend more.

In the second part, I stopped to answer the question, “What’s specifically Catholic in your position?”  The answer is that, beyond some rough outlines, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church gives no specific policy directives.  On the one hand, it can be argued that a balanced budget is good and proper stewardship of the people’s money.  On the other, while the Church doesn’t mandate a statist answer to the problems of unemployment and business regulation — in fact, she has long rejected socialism and communism — she does encourage the State’s active participation in both. 

I also argued that too much dependence on deficit spending encourages an unhealthy closeness between government and the finance industry, facilitating cronyism and regulatory capture, and creating a “government of the 99% by the 1% for the benefit of the 1%”.  Enlightened self-interest is, in the end, still self-interest; if financing transfer payments requires massive government borrowing, will the banks say, “No, no, no, that would be harmful in the long run”?

In the first part, I also promised that we would delve a little further into defense spending:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The next fiscal battle (Part II)

Despite the facts that 1) the money the DoD spends puts a lot of civilians in the private sector to work, and 2) a period of high unemployment/underemployment (with decreased real wages to boot) is hardly the time to start tearing holes in the safety net, national defense and transfer payments are the first two areas everyone wants to start with when budget-trimming begins. 

Before we go further, though, I should address a couple of odd concerns.  First, one might say, “Y’know, Layne, for a guy who professes to write a Catholic blog, you’re awfully shy about saying what’s specifically Catholic about your position.  So far, we haven’t seen anything that an irreligious person couldn’t write.” 

Exactly.  You might stop and ponder that observation for a while.  Especially if you think being religious means constantly introducing some weirdo spin that no “reasonable” person could dream up to a social or political position, or if you think it means being unable to justify an argument without constant resort to holy scriptures.

Truth is, while Catholic social doctrine does allow for some limited government intervention in poverty and business, the Church has no formulaic approach to the problem … it isn’t, strictly speaking, part of general revelation.  In general she prefers that government action be taken at the lowest practical level; the principle is called subsidiarity.   

But while the Church doesn’t mandate a statist approach to the matter, she does frown on laissez-faire economics as an abandonment of responsibility.  Had Bl. Pope Leo XIII, the author of the landmark social-justice encyclical Rerum Novarum, heard Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment that property in excess of a man’s duty to himself and his family belongs to the public,[*] he might have winced and said, “That is too drastic a formula; say rather that the right of property is not absolute, but may be called upon by the people according to reasonable need.”

Friday, January 4, 2013

The next fiscal battle (Part I)

Is this a trick question?

As should have been expected, Congress and the White House shook hands on a thirteenth-hour fiscal deal that makes almost nobody happy.

It takes the kind of perverse genius that emerges only within committees to strike a “grand bargain” that hacks off both neo-conservatives and progressives in equal measure.  “The certain result will be an economic pie that doesn’t grow fast enough,” Michael Goodwin grouses, “which will lead to new demands for more redistribution under the guise of ‘fairness.’  Always, the government redistributes by taking the first bite for itself. But David Rothkopf counters, “While many in Washington are breathing a sigh of relief and some are trying to spin the outcome as a win for the president, those who characterize this bill as a genuine victory for anyone at all have clearly lost perspective.”

On the income side, taxes go up for everybody, though largely for the well-to-do:  the top tax bracket goes from 35% to 39.6%; estate taxes increase 5%; capital gains and dividends taxes increase from 35% to 40%; and the SSI tax rebate sunsets, returning to 6.2%.  Somewhat offsetting these increases are extensions of Obama’s child, earned income and college tuition tax credits, “bonus depreciation” on new business property and equipment investments, and credits for R & D costs and renewable energy.

On the expenditure side, though, nothing much was really accomplished beyond the usual don’t-put-off-until-tomorrow-what-you-can-put-off-even-longer approach to the deficit.  Except that doctors took it in the shorts and lost some incentive to serve Medicare patients, which should please everyone who grumbles about the undeserving poor taking advantage of entitlement programs … and ignores that it hurts the deserving poor as well.  (Unless they’re Randians, who think that “deserving poor” is an oxymoron.)

Happy freakin’ New Year.  No, there’s no gift receipt for this; we’re stuck with it.  And I do mean stuck.