I am not a Good Person

I recently read this piece on The New York Review of Books website about poet W.H. Auden. I’ve never read any of Auden’s work, nor had I even heard of him prior to reading this piece, upon which I came in quite a roundabout fashion.

Although the entire piece is recommended, I wanted to focus on one passage that highlights some of Auden’s thoughts on the nature of evil.

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

My wife often says to me, “you’re a good person,” or “you’re a good father.” My response is usually troubling for her: “No. I’m okay, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a good person.” I don’t know that I’ve ever really been able to clearly articulate to her why I feel the way that I do – why I feel that I am probably okay, but that I would hesitate to pat myself on the back and think of myself as “good”.

But this piece and this passage excellently express why I feel the way that I do. I’m not a “good person” who can divide the world into good people and bad people. I’m just a person who generally makes good decisions, but I can have (and have had) terrible thoughts and emotions and urges, and I occasionally make bad, or even hurtful, decisions. Labeling me as “good” implies that I have achieved a certain status via my past actions or decisions and that, once in that box, I have “made it.” I have arrived.  I.  AM.  GOOD.  [echoing].

That’s just not the case. And it’s not the case with others, either. If you ever watch a movie, particularly children’s movies, you may be struck that the “bad guy” always announces himself as such, or it is somehow otherwise easy to spot the villain. This is not how it is in real life, and it is surprising to me to see adults, particularly the talking heads on TV and in positions of power, assume the same simplistic view of good and evil.

Real evil, if there is such a thing, doesn’t announce it itself. It is something of which we are all very capable. It is probably something that we would attempt to justify or clothe in gentler robes. The reason real evil becomes hard to spot or that it can be justified is because there are truly very few things, if any, that are “pure evil.” Even taking a human life, typically the most taboo or “evil” action that a person can take, can be labeled either good or evil depending on the identities of the victim and the perpetrator, the context and even the audience. 

Pope Francis, part deux

“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; if you aren’t a conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”  – Some Guy

Some Guy is a guy I work with who said this to me once. I’ve thought a lot about it, trying to understand what he meant by it. It’s clearly not a statement of fact. It’s not really an opinion, either – it’s more than that. I finally settled on the idea that it’s a statement of values.

I don’t know whether he would view it this way, but my interpretation is that the words “liberal” and “conservative” do not necessarily mean in the political sense that they are used these days in the United States. In this instance, “liberal” is more about social change; and “conservative” is more about social stasis.

Viewed through this lens, the statement is one about how young people, with little at stake, are more open to seeing the harshness of the costs of the existing economic and political system and, in particular, the harshness borne by certain groups disproportionately. Whether by compassion, thirst for wealth or power, or some other motive, young liberals are also more open to changing the status quo, which inevitably means a shifting of wealth and power from those who have it to those who do not. In this context, it is obvious why the older generations, with a lifetime of accumulated investment in the existing system, would rationally resist change and the resulting shift of wealth and power.

I suppose this tension is natural, and I don’t propose any fix for it. As I wrote above, I think the statement is ultimately a statement of Some Guy’s values. Maybe at one time he smoked pot, walked around naked at Woodstock and spoke of free love, but he now loves his couch on wheels of a Lexus and his fat 401(k).  Maybe he feels guilty; maybe he feels like he got the best of both worlds; who knows?  Anyway, to the Pope!

Pope Francis, it would seem, would disagree with Some Guy, with his call for a more equal distribution of goods to the world’s poor. In an earlier post I made the claim that my only problem with his statements was his faulty understanding of what a “free” market is. Well, I was wrong.

The more I thought about it, the greater the dissonance it suggested to my mind. Pope Francis, it would seem, calls for those with wealth and power to give some of it up for the good of all. That is all fine and good, and he can believe whatever he wants.

But my question now is this: is the Catholic church included in that? He moved out of the fancy papal digs to live in a hotel, he drives a beat-up Peugeot or whatever, and he’s been lauded for doing other such humble-ish things.

But I’m not buying what he’s selling.  Imagine the vast wealth of the Catholic church – the church properties, the church residences, the cars, the furnishings, the jewelry, cash on hand and who knows what else. Has he done anything with them? Has he taken any of the savings that he’s generated personally (savings only in the sense of not spending so much money as his predecessors) and given it to the poor?

What would really impress me is if the Pope followed the instruction to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Matthew 19:21, King James Version. I assume that is entirely in the Pope’s control, but is that what he suggests? Is he leading by example?

Or…or is it that he, the head of one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations on Earth over the last 2000 years, has only called on all the other wealthy people and powers to give up some of theirs? Is it offensive of me to suggest such a thing? I don’t think so; after all, 2000 years gives you plenty of time to rack up a few skeletons in the closet – selling of indulgences led to Martin Luther’s revolution; what will priestly pedophilia and its cover up lead to?

So, if Pope Francis really cares for the plight of the poor and really believes that redistribution of existing wealth is the cure, I call on Pope Francis to put the church’s money where his mouth is, lead by example, and fulfill scripture to boot.

On Politics in the U.S.

I touched on a few of these points in a previous post, but herein I expand:

Politicians.  I can’t distinguish between politicians. Republican or Democrat, they’re all the same to me.  It’s a big game and the purpose of the game is for the individuals in the game to maximize their personal gain.  Whether it’s power or money or fame or whatever, politicians want to keep their jobs and they will say and do whatever it takes to do so.  As a result, I don’t believe anything a politician says they believe.

Republicans.  The Republican headline is that they are fiscally and socially conservative, preferring a limited government while ensuring maximum freedom is reserved to individuals.  This is mostly bullshit. 

  • Fiscal conservatism.  Just look at budget deficits for the last 30 years (at least) to see that Republicans are not actually fiscally conservative.  The reality is that they like to spend money just as much (or more!) as Democrats, only on different things.
  • Social conservatism.  If you equate “social conservatism” with Southern Baptist morality, then, sure, Republicans are socially conservative, but they are also just as weak or hypocritical as anyone else.  Just think of Republican leaders caught in affairs or other shenanigans. So much for practicing what they preach.
  • Limited government.  I don’t believe the federal government has shrunk (by any measure) under any Republican leadership in my lifetime.  In their view, the government should be limited…unless it is to pay for the things that Republicans want to spend money on or to enforce their socially conservative principles, in which case, government is great!
  • Maximum freedom.  Freedom is permitted only to those who believe and act in ways that are consistent with their socially conservative principles.  The rest are constrained, but it’s ok, because Republicans know best and the rest should humbly accept the lessons offered by these masters.

Democrats.  The Democratic headline seems to historically have been “Hey, we’re not Republicans.”  Congratulations.  Your lack of definition makes your self-interested amorphism less susceptible to attacks on the basis of obvious hypocrisy, but whatever your selling (this cycle), I’m not buying.

The tax code. I don’t think it’s wise to use the tax code to try to encourage this or that behavior.  So much of modern politics is “how will we use the tax code to favor our constituents or our party’s base at the expense of ‘the others’.”  This is problematic.  I would impose a flat tax with no credits or deductions available to anyone. All transfer payments would need to be specified and paid in outgoing checks from the U.S. Treasury. Subsidies that are currently hidden would be explicitly and openly made to corporations, industries and people, so we all know where everyone stands without tax code rhetoric to blind us.  The ambiguity inherent in the current tax code hides of multitude of sins, which is why politicians love it.

Divided Government.  Given my cynicism, you might think I’m an anarchist or communist or monarchist or antichrist or some other –ist.  On the contrary, governing is the process of establishing a ruling authority over people, and of all the options I have studied (I use the term here very loosely), the framers of the Constitution chose brilliantly. The brilliance of this country (and many other modern countries) is in its structure – division of power.  This division is multifaceted, among three branches of government, between the federal and the states, among the 50 states, between “the people” (the House) and the states (the Senate). This is a tremendously powerful idea, and one that gives me great comfort.  Notwithstanding the fact that sociopaths run this (and every other) country, at least I can take comfort in the fact that there’s no one sociopath who runs this country unchecked.  Division of power ensures that some of the sociopathy on one side cancels out the sociopathy of the other, and we stumble along the edge of tyranny without actually falling off.

Participating in Politics.  Vote for whomever you want for whatever reasons you want, but it doesn’t really matter most of the time. But be watchful for when one person or party gets to be too powerful (or crazy or some other negative adjective), and join or incite the populace to keep them in check. How involved you want to be otherwise is up to you.  In deciding how much time and energy is reasonable to devote to participating or watching politics, I wholeheartedly and wholemindedly endorse and recommend the view espoused in this recent op-ed by David Brooks:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/opinion/brooks-the-stem-and-the-flower.html?_r=0

The Pope is wrong

No, no, this isn’t a post about religion. It’s about economics. Reuters recently declared that the Pope “attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’…” 

The gist of the economic portion of his “apostolic exhortation” is that “the prevailing economic system” “reject[s] the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”  He goes on to discuss society’s responsibility for caring for the poor and to blast income inequality, etc.

Now, I have no problem with the Pope’s concern for the poor. I have no problem with his call for state control over the economy. I have no problem with any of the religious stuff in the document (and I’m not Catholic). I won’t quarrel with any of it! It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to it! Preach on brother! Whatever!

My one and only problem with this document? He attacks a “prevailing economic system” that doesn’t exist! I don’t know of any economic system anywhere that is free from state control. Even Republicans in the U.S. who scream about free markets and government regulation and bureaucracy and blah blah blah lack the courage to create a truly free market in the United States.

“What?” you say. “I’m a Republican, and by God we believe in free markets! Cut taxes and regulation to unleash the creative force of America and we’ll raise tax revenue by creating more growth!” Yes, yes, yes, I hear you. Now sit down and wipe that spittle from the corner of your mouth.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between the wealth-creation part of the economic system and the wealth-re-distribution part of the economic system. From a purely wealth-creation view, your choices fall on a spectrum. You can have dispersed control (a free market) or centralized control (a planned economy) or some mixture of the two. This determines how you decide where capital and resources are allocated. For my part, I think a free market will do this job more efficiently than a planned economy – and more efficiency means more aggregate wealth and less aggregate waste. Witness the last 100 years of human history, and there’s a reason China has exploded in productivity as it has opened up its markets. But that’s just my opinion and is neither here nor there.

The wealth-re-distribution aspect I like to think of as synonymous with taxes, which seems to be state-controlled across the globe. The problem, it seems to me, is that sometimes the taxation part is lumped in together with the wealth-creation part.  This can happen explicitly like in a purely socialist system or it can happen implicitly, like in the United States, when the tax system is used to incentivize or de-incentivize capital and resource allocation. And here is where Republicans fuck it up.

Republicans love the rhetoric surrounding “cutting taxes” because they have a nice story about it by linking it to wealth creation (notwithstanding that such government intervention is the very essence of socialism!). But it’s really just an indirect transfer payment to Republicans’ favored constituents.  No, the U.S. Treasury doesn’t necessarily cut a check to corn farmers or corporations or whoever gets subsidies or tax breaks (and they are too numerous for me to even begin to touch on it), but it’s a re-distribution of wealth nonetheless. At the same time, Republicans scream about the direct transfer payments that Democrats prefer to make to their favored constituents. Call me a cynic, but in both cases, politicians are just buying votes! If Republicans had balls, they’d legislate what they say they believe – everyone would be taxed on a basis separate from taxation’s impact on wealth creation, i.e., they would just let the market create whatever it’s going to create without trying to exercise centralized control over it (i.e., tax incentives) and they’d tax the wealth coming out of it at whatever rate they argue for. This way, all you have are direct, non-hidden transfer payments and you can argue over what payments to make to whom and how much.  All above board!  But politicians don’t like that.  A post for another day.

Anyway, Pope Francis, that’s my problem with your statement – there is no such thing as an economy free from state control, even the world’s largest “free” market economy is not anywhere close to free. If you’re going to rant against something, at least call it by its real name.

P.S.  Ok, so when I said “my only problem”, I was exaggerating, but the rest of the Pope’s statement is so confused and lacking as to defy response, so I won’t attempt it, i.e.:

    • From para 202:  “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any prob­lems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”  Ummm…what? Care to identify the ‘structural causes of inequality’ for us? Care to identify any market that has ‘absolute autonomy’? No? How about explaining the causality in the statement ‘inequality is the root of social ills’?
    • From para 56: “While the earnings of a minority are grow­ing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ide­ologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Con­sequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of in­creased profits, whatever is fragile, like the envi­ronment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Hate to break it to you, bro, but you’re not describing capitalism – you’re describing every society, under any economic system. Chavez? Not hurting for money (when he was alive). Castro? Nope. Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Caesar, Genghis, Hitler? Not them either.
    • From para 53: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the sur­vival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” From para 56: “…the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good…”  I don’t know about you, but if you think a rich individual is powerful, what about an individual wielding the power of a state? Think Putin is a paragon of piety? What about those other leaders listed above? Want any of them running around again? I’m sure they’d humbly accept acting in the service of vigilance for the common good.
    • Throughout, there’s this weird juxtaposition of “consumerism is bad, stop consuming so many goods” and “the poor would be happy if only we gave them more goods!”  I mean, I know what he’s getting at, but all together, it just isn’t a cogent view of how to deal with the problem, or perhaps it betrays the lack of an educated understanding of what the problem even is!

Notwithstanding the problems of a constitutionally limited representative democratic republic, such as the United States, and a “free”(ish?) market economy and the tyranny, nepotism, political favors, etc. inherent therein, weighed against the centuries of other systems, I’ll take my chances with decentralized control.

As far as Popes go, I like the guy – shaking things up, practicing what he preaches.  But…maybe stick to the religious angle, your view of economics and state power leaves much to be desired.