I read the decision in US v. Seeger recently. It was one of those Vietnam era draft-objector cases.
It's worth reading and even re-reading, not only for historical interest, but because the Justices gave the impression of a genuine grappling with difficult theological terrain.
The Selective Service Act in effect at the time carved out an exemption for those who conscientiously opposed war out of their "religious training and belief" and it defined "religious" in a way that seemed to entail belief in a Supreme Being. Seeger (1965) marked the emergence of a broader notion of a conscientious objector, one going beyond the usual denominational suspects.
One of the draft resisters involved in this case had explained to his draft board that he believed there was "some power manifest in nature" which he was obeying by refusing to go to war. They could if they wanted "call that a belief in the Supreme Being or God. Those just do not happen to be the words I use."
The Supreme Court said, in effect, that he didn't have to use such words.
I appreciate their invocation of the theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote: "The source of this affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness, of certitude within doubt, is not the God of traditional theism, but the 'God above God.' the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name God."
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Saturday, December 7, 2013
The December issue of HARPER'S carries a review essay by Beha on the career of Norman Mailer.
This is in form a review of a recent biography, in conjunction with a release of certain posthumous writings. But Beha barely mentions either of the volumes supposedly under review. He simply writes his own essay on the like of Mailer.
Beha writes about Mailer in much the same manner that Mailer wrote about many non-fiction subjects, as for example in The Armies of the Night. Beha refers to himself as YW (for Young Writer) and speaks of YW's impressions of Mailer in the third person.
He quotes Mailer thus, from a 1959 essay, "[W]hy then did it come as a surprise that people in publishing [in the years leading up to that one] were not as good as they used to be, and that the day of Maxwell Perkins was a day which was gone, really gone, gone as Greta Garbo and Scott Fitzgerald? Not easy, one could argue, for an advertising man to admit that advertising is a dishonest occupation, and no easier was it for the working novelist to see that now were left only the cliques, fashions, vogues, snobs, snots, and fools, not to mention a dozen bureaucracies of criticism; that there was no room for the old literary idea of oneself as a major writer, a figure in the landscape."
Then Beha brings in YW.
"When the YW thought about the problems facing writers of his own time, he was likely to put things in nearly those terms. But it wasn't the day of Fitzgerald and Perkins to which the YW and his peers looked with longing. they looked to Mailer's day, the time of Partisan Review and the early Dissent, the time of Trilling and Barzun, the time when Mailer himself might be found on television besides Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley or James Baldwin."
So Mailer was living in a golden age, while pining for a golden age that he thought had been lost. That point is often made (it is the theme of at least one Woody Allen movie) yet it still retains its poignancy.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July 2013. On December 3, a U.S. bankruptcy court ruled against parties who had challenged its eligibility for chapter 9 protection.
Since Detroit is the most populous city in the state of Michigan and is the center of a metropolitan region of 5.2 million, this event has attracted a lot of attention, inspiring different ‘takes,’ involving in each case a distinct ideological or psychological prism. For example, Detroit has long been the center of the American automobile industry, so much so that the word “Detroit” is used as a metonym for that industry, and that has inspired some commentators who have seen the failure of municipal finances as of a piece with the failure of that industry in the face of innovative overseas competitors and changing public tastes.
This was the take for example, of Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of PIMCO. This take is also broadly consistent with a mantra of Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who keeps saying that the city is bankrupt because it is $18 billion in long-term debt. The bankruptcy, then, is the result of a balance-sheet problem: liabilities are overwhelming assets.
Another take is that the city has been overspending in its operational budgets, such as by overpaying its unionized employees, both during their working life and during their retirement. Political scientist Walter Russell Mead, for example, has said that stock market declines beginning in 2007 “wiped out huge chunks of the wealth that [public employee] pension systems needed to have a hope of paying the pensions promised to government retirees under terms more generous than virtually any private employers now provide.” On this view, the problem is not so much with the balance sheet as with the income statement: expenses have ballooned to overcome revenues.
Looking at Revenues
More recently, the Demos policy think tank has put forward a third view. In a paper by Wallace Turbeville, Demos senior fellow, makes the following case:
· This is not a balance sheet problem at all. The $18 billion figure in particular is “irrelevant … highly inflated and, in large part, simply inaccurate.”
· It isn’t a matter of ballooning operational expenses, either. There have been drastic cuts to expenses in recent years. Indeed, between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, the city cut operating expenses by $419.1 million, or 38%.
· Since those cuts came largely at the expense of workers, the problem surely is not that the workers at calling the fiscal shots. Finally,
· The real problem, on Demos’ reading, is on the revenues side of the income statement.
Breaking down key sources of revenue, Turbeville notes that revenue from the municipal income tax fell sharply through the period 2008 – 2010: it was $276.5 million in the first of those years and only $216.5 million in the last, a loss of more than 20%.
That source of income has recovered somewhat from the 2010 nadir; and in the 2013 fiscal year, which ended June on June 30, 2013, it was at $238.7 million
Michigan has a revenue sharing program with its municipalities, and as a consequence of that, Detroit received $249.6 million in 2008. That number grew over the next two years, reaching $263.6 million in 2010, somewhat offsetting the decline of the municipal income tax revenue in the same period.
But since 2010, the state revenue sharing has dropped off sharply. It was only $182.8 million in FY 2013. This was a consequence of two developments. First, the numbers from the 2010 census showed a decline in the number of people living in Detroit, and revenue sharing is based on that number. Second, and to worsen matters, the state legislature amended the revenue-sharing statue to Detroit’s disadvantage, effective fiscal year 2012.
Restore State Revenue Sharing
The report accuses the city’s emergency manager of conflating two very different issues. Ye, it says, there are structural problems involving the balance sheet, problems that have plagued the city for years and that “it must address … so it can once again be a vital and growing community.” But that isn’t why it is in bankruptcy. It is in bankruptcy because of a cash flow crisis, which must and can be solved in a straightforward way.
The report then recommends that the state of Michigan in its own interests as well as in the interests of Detroit, “reverse all or a part of the cut in state revenue spending” and work with the city to help it grow its tax base.
Such proposals as changes to the pension funds or monetization of the Water and Sewerage Department should simply be dropped.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
If Obamacare fails, one sure political consequence is a revival of pressures for something more sweeping, for a single-payer program. Nowadays advocates of such a program in the US call it "Medicare for all."
One of the points they make draws on the supposed efficiency of Medicare. Overhead costs are only 2%. Private insurance plans have overhead at 20% of spending. So the former must represent a better way of doing things than the latter ... right?
Holman Jenkins made several valuable points about this in a recent WSJ column, among them these:
First, the 2% figure is a dubious one to begin with, since Medicare's overhead costs are in fact picked up by other parts of the Federal government. Much of a private insurer's "overhead," for example, is bill collection. That portion of "overhead" for Medicare corresponds to tax enforcement so it is picked up by the IRS. The 20%, then, contains items the 2% doesn't. [Also, HHS' budget includes many management costs.]
Second, Medicare may have kept overhead low by under-spending on fraud prevention. In such a case, higher overhead would be a good thing! But healthcare providers are powerful in every congressional district and they invariably let their congressmen know they find Medicare audits annoying.
Third, the claim should come with some argument as to why this ratio is the pertinent one as a measure of efficiency. After all, if an insurance company's customers never get ill, then 0% of its spending will be on their health, and 100% will be on overhead. So does that mean a state of perfect health for all would be the most wasteful and inefficient of possibilities?
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Arthur Herman has written a lengthy book, The Cave and the Light, about the history of western civilization, based upon the idea that ... well, I will let his subtitle do the work of summary: "Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the Soul of Western civilization."
I've skimmed the book -- it really isn't worthwhile reading this sort of thing -- and I can report that it is a tedious rehash of the mashing-up of the history of philosophy accomplished by Ayn Rand and her followers in the 1960s. Rand read somebody else's summaries of major philosophers and persuaded herself that she was an expert.
I'll give credit where it is due, Herman's title, The Cave and the Light, does capture succinctly one aspect of Platonic philosophy. Yes, inside the cave of the natural world there is (in Plato's famous image) only the false flickering light of candles, and by that artificial light we see only shadows on stone. Our goal should be to get to the real light, the light of the sun, outside the cave, and see realities.
But the whole Plato/Aristotle contrast is overdone -- by Herman, by the Objectivist cadre, as well as by others there's no need to mention here. A better way of defining the contrasting views at the extremes of classical Athenian philosophy would be: Plato versus Democritus. The view that only the ideal is truly real is in stark opposition to the view that only atoms and their movements through the void are truly real. Plato's candlelit shadows were Democritus' daylight realities and vice versus. THAT might be a fit subject for a book on "the struggle for the soul of western civilization." In that book, Aristotle would be one in a long line of ,moderates.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has reviewed Herman's book for COMMENTARY. His review starts out favorable, because Gobry likes the conservative political tone of it. He says for example that Herman's "account of the rise of the global market economy, and its positive influence not just on living standards but on morality, is impeccable."
But Gobry seems a better historical scholar than Herman. I mean by "historical scholar" not someone who will project a Grand Theory of History (the hacks of history do that all the time!): a true scholar in the field is someone who will use facts as needles to poke holes in the Grand Theory balloons that the hacks keep parading for us. And Gobry does this to Herman's Grand Theory with increasing zest as h goes along,
For example, Herman's grand theory requires that he hail Aristotle as the "father of modern science." Actually ... no. Galileo's famous work on the motions of heavy and light objects was shocking to Aristoteleans not because Galileo was reverting to Platonism, but because Galileo was striking at Aristotelean ideas from the other direction, from Democritus' direction.
Many of the enlightenment figures introduced ideas that were as Gobry says "genuinely novel," that is, that don't fit into Herman's rubric at all. Kant is an obvious example -- which is why Rand condemned him so stridently and perhaps also why Herman gives him merely a "cursory and partial overview" as Gobry says.
Return to Herman's title for a second, and the metaphor of a cave. What was Kant saying? It was in a word this: we of necessity must stay within the cave. There is a world outside, but our nature, the means by which knowledge is possible to us, makes it impossible for us ever to get outside the cave and we should not try. Knowledge is possible only in the phenomenal here-and-now. That was as far from Plato as one can get while accepting the two-worlds premise. And it was a rejection of Plato that goes nowhere near Aristotle (or Democritus) either.
And this novelty didn't come about because Kant was anti-science. Kant was a better scientist than many who make that charge. [Ever heard of the Kant-Laplace hypothesis of the formation of the solar system?]
I am not a Kantian (as readers of this blog surely know) and I have no idea whether Gobry is a Kantian. But he does invoke Kant's example to indicate, accurately, that "the Enlightenment really did go beyond Greece."
Good going Gobry.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
I'll here continue yesterday's discussion on William James' skepticism about the argument from design, which was in turn continuing a discussion from the week before.
In my recent exchange in the comments section of this blog with Henry, I observed that there has been an alliance, in the development of the philosophy of religion, between fideists and unbelievers.
A fideist by standard definition is one who embraces a religious creed and who sees that embrace (Faith) as valuable in itself, and again who sees it as "in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason."
James's essay on the "will to believe" is a rather moderate expression of fideism. He is certainly not advocating an adversarial relationship with reason, but he does argue that there are matters reason doesn't decide, and that in these matters an intellectualized expression of human will -- Faith -- may and in fact must step in. It is good that Faith plays such a role: it may save a mountain climber from death in a crevasse.
Fideists like James (and long before him Pascal, and long before him the monk Gaunilo, and long before him the Church Father Tertullian) have something in common with those who disbelieve the creed altogether (and, in terms of any creed that involves belief in a God, Henry tells us he ranks as a disbeliever). What they have in common is that both fideists and disbelievers dispute arguments intended to prove, by reason, the creed in question. They are both alike opposed to, say, Josiah Royce or long before him St. Thomas Aquinas or long before him St. Anselm or long before him Philo of Alexandria. This commonality of the opposition shows up in some mutual borrowing of the counter-arguments of fideists and disbelievers.
I gather that Henry, as a disbeliever, rejects such an alliance. I admire his go-it-alone resolution.
As to James' own fideism, I will make a couple of further points. First, even in the notorious will-to-believe essay it was qualified, as noted. He is not among those who would boast of believing something because it is absurd.
Second, it is more thoroughly qualified by the arguments in Varieties of Religious Experience. Here, James has his own experiential argument (not a proof or even an attempted proof) for the existence of a God: an argument based on subliminal consciousness, mysticism, and psychic phenomena. He advanced the hypothesis that these three data were related: that our subliminal consciousness is continuous with a "more" that may be a source of knowledge not obtained through ordinary channels, and that may in turn at the rare deeper levels of mystical experience put us in touch with God.
"Who says 'hypothesis' renounces the ambition to be coercive in his arguments" he said in this connection.
His argument against the supposedly coercive proofs of a Designer is part of that renunciation.
Friday, November 29, 2013
Last week I wrote an entry about the "argument from design," and William James' negative view of it.
This week, prompted by a commenter there, I'll add some thoughts.
I quoted James writing thus: "When one views the world with no definite theological bias one way or the other, one sees that order and disorder, as we now recognize them, are purely human inventions. We are interested in certain types of arrangement ... so interested that whenever we find them realized, the fact emphatically rivets our attention. The result is that we work over the contents of the world selectively."
Henry objected. He saw two arguments here, one on the assumption that order is an objective fact, the other on the denial of that assumption.
1) Assuming order is an objective fact, it is equally so that there is a lot of disorder too, which vitiates the proposed inference that there is an order-loving Creator.
2) But order isn't an objective fact, it is subjective, an invention of the human mind, and so again proves nothing about a supposed Creator.
Henry, seeing James' passage in this way, thought it unpersuasive. Although disorder poses a problem for certain conceptions of a God (an unqualifiedly order loving and omnipotent God) it isn't difficult to relax one or both of those assumptions and contend that the order that there is requires an intelligent being responsible for it.
As to the second point, Henry sees it simply as false. Order is a name for such objective facts as that the planets circle the sun on a regular path.
I see James as making one point here, not two, and the one is quite cogent. By way of review, consider that the 'argument from design' requires two steps. From order to design. Then from design to designer. Then as a first-order appraisal, ask yourself why we see order as the point needing explanation. Is some perfect state of disorder then a default universe? If so: why?
Note that the issue here is not the "first cause" argument or any variant. We aren't asking why any universe exists. That's another argument (addressed by James separately). The argument from design asks why this particular universe, one showing as much order as it does, is the one that exist.
So it is an appropriate riposte to say: given that some universe exists, why should it not be this one? Why should it not be a universe that combines order with disorder: some regular-looking solar systems and some rocks hurtling into them on very eccentric paths or from deepest space? Is some other sort of universe a background assumption whence this one departs?
It is the orderly aspect, as we humans define it, that "emphatically rivets our attention," and this gives the argument from design its spurious plausibility.
James also writes, explaining the matter further: "If I should throw down a thousand beans at random upon a table, I could doubtless, by eliminating a sufficient number of them, leave the rest in almost any geometrical pattern you might propose to me, and you might then say that that pattern was the thing prefigured beforehand, and that the other beans were mere irrelevance and packing material."
Surely the God in whom we are asked to believe, by those who propose the teleological argument, is not a God who has merely thrown beans onto a table at random.
I believe I've said enough to vindicate James' point against Henry's objections. I'll say a few words tomorrow about where this fits within the broader scheme of Jamesian thought.