Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Intellectuals and Human Nature
Recently, several “intellectuals” convened to deal with a problem so serious it could not be tackled by just one college professor. The question was this: How can professors stop an epidemic of students missing their examinations without jeopardizing student grades by resorting to point deductions?
The problem was so serious that the handful of intellectuals who first noticed the problem – and noticed others noticing the problem – sent out a mass email inviting others to attend a “brown bag” luncheon to brainstorm. They were searching for “solutions”, which would stop short of actually punishing students for missing their examinations.
I certainly have no problem with professors getting together to find “solutions” to difficult “problems.” But I do have a “problem” with the way these professors were characterizing their “problem.”
A better description of their “problem” – one that better reflects its magnitude – would sound something like this: How can we retain the secular/progressive view of human nature, which is needed to justify secular/progressive policies, in light of a wealth of evidence to the contrary?
The thoughts of the professors responding to the mass email were enlightening. One complained that she wanted to give her students the benefit of the doubt, but they constantly pushed and tested her. The more she withheld punishment, the more prevalent the undesirable behavior.
Another observed that the more often she does nice things for students, the more often they take advantage of her. She seemed perplexed by the fact that rewarding a missed exam with another administration, thus giving the student more time to prepare, led to more missed exams.
The dilemma of the perplexed professors highlights the fundamental difference between the conservative and the progressive views of human motivation. The former suggests that you can sometimes threaten to do bad things to people and expect good things in return. The latter suggests that you can promise to do good things for people and expect good things in return.
In the 1960s, our government began to put the progressive view of human nature to the test. We launched a War on Poverty in an effort to build a Great Society. Soon, we began to see mountains of data refuting the secular/progressive view of human nature.
By the end of the first decade of our efforts to build a Great Society, crime in America had skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. The 1960s saw record increases in crime rates, which have yet to be broken.
Progressives thought that giving people welfare, food stamps, and huge increases in the minimum wage would all be nice favors, which would be returned in the form of greater citizen conformity. The fact that it didn’t work has done little to shake the foundations of progressive faith in human decency.
Since the failed effort to build a Great Society there have been repeated calls to build more prisons in order to clean up the mess progressives have created. But, for years, progressives have fought tooth and nail to prevent or slow the expansion of prisons.
The result, of course, has been an increase in homicides and gang-rapes in prison due to prison overcrowding. In short, the progressive view of human nature has produced more violence among both free and captive populations. More people are dying everywhere but the progressive vision of human decency is immortal. It cannot be slain by any wealth of empirical evidence.
More recently, we have seen the effects of progressive gun control policies. Like prisons, guns are reminders of human depravity, which the progressive cannot accept. And so the progressive seeks to ban guns. Nonetheless, in 2008, the Supreme Court lifted a ban on handguns in Washington D.C., which resulted in a 25% decrease in homicides the next year.
The D.C. homicide data speak volumes about human nature. The presence of guns is a threat, which helps many depraved individuals conform to the dictates of the law. Nonetheless, progressives still fight the very reforms that have helped preserve innocent lives. They do so because it is more important that they preserve their vision of human decency.
It isn’t surprising that progressives who cannot manage a classroom cannot also manage “society.” It would be better if the progressive would confine her decision to accommodate, rather than punish, irresponsibility to the classroom. But intellectuals rarely keep their ideas to themselves. They are obliged to impose them on “society.”
Replacing the Judeo-Christian view of human nature with the progressive view of human nature has proven to be a bad idea. And bad ideas have bad consequences for fallen human beings. But progressive hope for the secular transformation of human nature springs eternal.
America’s ruling class — and the perils of revolution
As over-leveraged investment houses began to fail in September 2008, the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, of major corporations, and opinion leaders stretching from the National Review magazine (and the Wall Street Journal) on the right to the Nation magazine on the left, agreed that spending some $700 billion to buy the investors' "toxic assets" was the only alternative to the U.S. economy's "systemic collapse." In this, President George W. Bush and his would-be Republican successor John McCain agreed with the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Many, if not most, people around them also agreed upon the eventual commitment of some 10 trillion nonexistent dollars in ways unprecedented in America. They explained neither the difference between the assets' nominal and real values, nor precisely why letting the market find the latter would collapse America. The public objected immediately, by margins of three or four to one.
When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term "political class" came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public's understanding, the American people started referring to those in and around government as the "ruling class." And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.
Although after the election of 2008 most Republican office holders argued against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, against the subsequent bailouts of the auto industry, against the several "stimulus" bills and further summary expansions of government power to benefit clients of government at the expense of ordinary citizens, the American people had every reason to believe that many Republican politicians were doing so simply by the logic of partisan opposition. After all, Republicans had been happy enough to approve of similar things under Republican administrations. Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind.
Moreover, 2009-10 establishment Republicans sought only to modify the government's agenda while showing eagerness to join the Democrats in new grand schemes, if only they were allowed to. Sen. Orrin Hatch continued dreaming of being Ted Kennedy, while Lindsey Graham set aside what is true or false about "global warming" for the sake of getting on the right side of history. No prominent Republican challenged the ruling class's continued claim of superior insight, nor its denigration of the American people as irritable children who must learn their place. The Republican Party did not disparage the ruling class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it.
Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter.
The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all. So was "social engineering." Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters -- speaking the "in" language -- serves as a badge of identity.
Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America's ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.
The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century's Northerners and Southerners -- nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, "prayed to the same God." By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God "who created and doth sustain us," our ruling class prays to itself as "saviors of the planet" and improvers of humanity. Our classes' clash is over "whose country" America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark's Gospel: "if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand."
The Political Divide
Important as they are, our political divisions are the iceberg's tip. When pollsters ask the American people whether they are likely to vote Republican or Democrat in the next presidential election, Republicans win growing pluralities. But whenever pollsters add the preferences "undecided," "none of the above," or "tea party," these win handily, the Democrats come in second, and the Republicans trail far behind. That is because while most of the voters who call themselves Democrats say that Democratic officials represent them well, only a fourth of the voters who identify themselves as Republicans tell pollsters that Republican officeholders represent them well. Hence officeholders, Democrats and Republicans, gladden the hearts of some one-third of the electorate -- most Democratic voters, plus a few Republicans.
This means that Democratic politicians are the ruling class's prime legitimate representatives and that because Republican politicians are supported by only a fourth of their voters while the rest vote for them reluctantly, most are aspirants for a junior role in the ruling class. In short, the ruling class has a party, the Democrats. But some two-thirds of Americans -- a few Democratic voters, most Republican voters, and all independents -- lack a vehicle in electoral politics.
Sooner or later, well or badly, that majority's demand for representation will be filled. Whereas in 1968 Governor George Wallace's taunt "there ain't a dime's worth of difference" between the Republican and Democratic parties resonated with only 13.5 percent of the American people, in 1992 Ross Perot became a serious contender for the presidency (at one point he was favored by 39 percent of Americans vs. 31 percent for G.H.W. Bush and 25 percent for Clinton) simply by speaking ill of the ruling class.
Today, few speak well of the ruling class. Not only has it burgeoned in size and pretense, but it also has undertaken wars it has not won, presided over a declining economy and mushrooming debt, made life more expensive, raised taxes, and talked down to the American people. Americans' conviction that the ruling class is as hostile as it is incompetent has solidified. The polls tell us that only about a fifth of Americans trust the government to do the right thing. The rest expect that it will do more harm than good and are no longer afraid to say so.
While Europeans are accustomed to being ruled by presumed betters whom they distrust, the American people's realization of being ruled like Europeans shocked this country into well nigh revolutionary attitudes. But only the realization was new. The ruling class had sunk deep roots in America over decades before 2008. Machiavelli compares serious political diseases to the Aetolian fevers -- easy to treat early on while they are difficult to discern, but virtually untreatable by the time they become obvious.
Far from speculating how the political confrontation might develop between America's regime class -- relatively few people supported by no more than one-third of Americans -- and a country class comprising two-thirds of the country, our task here is to understand the divisions that underlie that confrontation's unpredictable future.
MA: Firms cancel health coverage: "The relentlessly rising cost of health insurance is prompting some small Massachusetts companies to drop coverage for their workers and encourage them to sign up for state-subsidized care instead, a trend that, some analysts say, could eventually weigh heavily on the state’s already-stressed budget. Since April 1, the date many insurance contracts are renewed for small businesses, the owners of about 90 small companies terminated their insurance plans with Braintree-based broker Jeff Rich and indicated in a follow-up survey that they were relying on publicly funded insurance for their employees.”
Stop me before I regulate again!: "I’m told that this morning the Senate will pass the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. 2,300 pages long. Nothing so complex ever makes life better for consumers. Mostly, it guarantees that you will not start a business without hiring specialists. … Yet politicians constantly create more rules. They think they know how to manage our lives better than we do. They are ignorant and arrogant. Much of this regulation drives entrepreneurs to say: ‘I won’t try. I won’t open a business. I won’t hire someone because I probably can’t fire him without getting into trouble. I better play it safe. I better not try anything new.’ This kills opportunity. But the regulation never stops. Last year the federal government added another 70,000 pages to the Federal Register. Our 535 Congressmen think they’re not doing their job if they’re not passing laws. And those are just federal lawmakers. There are even more state legislators.”
"Docfix" and the coming Obamacare deficits: "On a quiet Friday afternoon this summer, the central justification for President Obama’s health-care overhaul died a quiet death. On that day, a bipartisan coalition in Congress reversed the scheduled Medicare cuts to physician payments, ensuring that, over the next decade, the White House’s reforms will cost many billions more than advertised. After over a year of debate and lofty rhetoric, the reality is this: the president’s goal of ‘bending’ the health-care cost curve has unraveled in just a few months.”
There is a new lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc.
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)
Posted by JR at 12:19 AM