Top 10 uncogitated posts of 2013, part I

Photo credit: Puzzler4879 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Hi cogitators!  Somehow it came upon me, now that we’re at the end of the year, to post a list of of the top 10 posts that did not make the cutting floor in 2013.  Since I have written a bit on each item, I will split the list into two posts, counting down to the most remarkable posts of the year.  I will supply the top five on the flip side of Christmas.  Without further ado.

10. Sam Harris’ s Free Will.  A Facebook conversation about the implications of a Libet-type neurological study prompted me to Sam Harris’ brief 2012 monograph Free Will.  He attempts to bury the concept by inviting us to imagine a hypothetically completed science.  That is, we are meant to indulge a  science of the gaps.

As for the root of cognition, Mr. Harris thinks free will libertarians are hopelessly lost in the blizzard that is the unending chain of causality.  He doesn’t consider that he is equally adrift as a determinist.  Neither does he engage much philosophy beyond Daniel Dennett.   Hardly a comprehensive take on the question.

I think Harris tries to be clever in his final pages with a “meta” discourse about what he is thinking and writing on the page as he is writing it.  But the worst offense is his reverse psychological claim that people who earn their income and wealth are not actually responsible for the acquisition, and are therefore not entitled to it.

I’ve mentioned Ayn Rand’s statist scientist character, Floyd Ferris before.  Dr. Ferris authors a book titled, Why do you think you think?  It’s fitting that his name rhymes with Harris.  If you want to see the utter inadequacy of this popular pseudo-yourself, the book is short enough to dispatch in a couple of hours.

9.  Steven Pinker’s scientism apologia.  Social scientist Steven Pinker sparked quite a conversation in August with his New Republic article extolling the virtues of scientism.  I think it caused some added hand wringing among the humanities community, even though it was purported to dispel such concerns.  Good thing scientism is a self-refuting theory of knowledge; that is, the scientific method is principally incapable of inducting itself into its own body of knowledge.

8.  Paul Ryan, Scott Walker ascend in GOP 2016 field.  After Paul Ryan and Patty Murray coauthored a politically viable if universally reviled compromise federal budget, Mr. Ryan’s 2016 presidential prospects shot up.  As I often learn first from Michael Medved, an Iowa poll put him far atop the GOP field.  Of course the usual disclaimer follows, that the next presidential election is very far away, and much can change by then.  Further, Ryan has signaled no clear intention to run.

Ryan’s boost, and recent attention on Scott Walker are welcome at a time when many commentators are still spewing a lot of hot air about how “mainstream” or “establishment” Republicans are not true conservatives, whatever that means.  Last I checked, winning elections so as to govern the country was still a part of the conservative platform.

7.  Presidential approval, Democrats’ 2014 chances tank. Nothing has been as remarkable in politics this year as the stark turn around in public opinion that occurred in October.  One day, there was that silly poll about how Congressional Republicans were as popular as toe fungus.  Then, the President and Congressional Democrats tanked on the Obamacare roll-out, and more significantly, the “if you like it, you can keep it” prevarication.  Clearly, government shut downs are not popular.  And neither is that disaster extraordinaire, Obamacare.

6. Millennials care less for culture war; culture war still cares for them.  Progressive evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans used her highly visible CNN Belief Blog to disown the culture wars on behalf of millennials.  If the writing at Relevant magazine bears any truth, the rhetorical volleys between millennials and their elders have been exchanged for quite some time.  I know that in the public sphere, the back and forth gets old, especially when each camp is just indulging its own echo chamber.

Hat tip to Dr. Craig for bringing his own frank critique of Evan’s piece to bear in his current events podcast.  I don’t think the culture warrior label is to be shunned.  Indeed, there’s a real war going on.  As Medved notes, it’s not cultural conservatives who are the instigators, but cultural progressives, who are continually extending newly invented rights, even into grade school bathrooms for crying out loud.

That rounds out the second tier of 2013’s counterfactual cogitations.  Now enjoy the holiday, with thanks and reverence for the God who subjected himself as an infant to humanity’s mercies so that in time he could extend to us the gift of his mercy.  Merry Christmas!

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Paul Ryan: naive, inexperienced?

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

C.S. Lewis

As far as I know, neither I nor Virginia Heffernan is a philosopher in the professional sense, but I would submit that Lewis’s dictum is just as valid for bloggers.  And so it is that I must report on the Yahoo writer’s latest hit piece, because it is bad blogging.

Like her other columns, Heffernan’s latest meanders through obscure pop culture references, though fewer than usual.  This time, the most outlandish example is of some dusty blue book that every American must have owned circa 1970.

The author’s alternately snarky and earnest jaunt down memory lane serves an end of course.  In this case, it is to tie herself to her subject, the estimable Paul Ryan.  He is one year her junior, and as such is the first of Generation X to contend for the vice presidency.

The face of inexperience?

Heffernan proceeds to portray her college years as a perigee where she flirted with but ultimately moved away from a Jack Kempian conservatism.  Looking for bonus points with those harboring an unflattering memory of the Reagan years, she offers television character and teenage Republican Alex Keaton as a possible analog for Mr. Ryan.

By the end of the piece, it is clear than in so many words Heffernan has endeavored to say that compared to herself, Paul Ryan is naive and inexperienced in the ways of the world.  But for all of her musings on Generation X, she’s only managed to grasp the one elementary tool of commendation that the relativistic, existentially-driven Baby Boomers left behind: anecdotal evidence, the mere telling of personal experience.

Heffernan supposes that Mr. Ryan never faced a hard day in his life.  Meanwhile, she had some undescribed encounters that delivered her from a simplistic, uncaring worldview.  Maybe she saw a sad, hungry puppy shivering by the side of the road.  That is why, unlike the experientially impoverished Mr. Ryan,   she was able to grow out of an infatuation with that extreme ideology called fiscal restraint.

What a condescending take.  Did Heffernan fail to research that Paul Ryan discovered his father dead in bed when he was 16?  Or that his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother moved in for care shortly thereafter?  Indeed, the teenage Paul Ryan worked at McDonalds.  Those earnings, along with Social Security survivor’s benefits, allowed him to go to college.  And when he got there, he supported himself further with a side job selling hot dogs for Oscar Meyer.  Does this sound like some sort of silver spoon background, or the picture of naivete conjured by fictional teenage Republicans of TV yesteryear?  Contrary to her boast, it is Ryan, not she, who is the old soul.

Rather than offer commentary of value, Heffernan merely pollutes the national conversation with solipsistic bubble gum blogging.  She permits her readers to dismiss the latest Republican candidate as heartless, aloof, and extreme.  And in the same moment, they are left with fond recollections of leg warmers and ’80s prom hair.  Given the state of the entertainment establishment, this is hardly a novel achievement.

As I’ve warned before, Yahoo! News is more an entertainment outpost than an outlet for truth.

Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand: Can a brother shrug?

In the past few weeks, Paul Ryan has been the prime bogeyman of liberals and progressives.  His proposed Federal budget plan trims entitlement growth more than Democrats would like.  Supreme Keynesian Paul Krugman has accused Ryan, a father of three from Wisconsin, of being an Ayn Rand fanatic.  The Congressman has played down his affinity for Rand’s egoistic philosophy of Objectivism.

Liberals’ groaning over Ryan intensified after he delivered a policy speech at the Catholic Georgetown University last week.  Here he hoped to justify his policy decisions in terms of a personal understanding of his Catholic faith.  Invoking church doctrines creatively and boldly, he suggested that the moral obligation of solidarity with the poor might best be served by a prudential application of subsidiarity.  In layman’s terms, our society can help the poor better by learning from history and subsequently devolving aid responsibility from the highest offices of power to the smallest practicable unit.

Ryan’s speech was thoughful and provocative, but perhaps too threatening to the Georgetown faculty’s belief that Catholic social teaching is an automatic endorsement of unmitigated big government.  Ninety of the school’s faculty signed and sent Congressman Ryan a scathing epistle rebuking and encouraging him to bone up on the doctrines he cited.

So recently, Ryan has aggrieved his fellow parishioners and has been linked with one of the grumpiest, most selfish atheists of yesteryear.  Is he just a glutton for punishment?  No. If we heed Mr. Ryan’s call to look at history and experience, we’ll find that his Christian faith and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy furnish common ground for resisting America’s decades-long progressive drive toward cultural and fiscal oblivion.

In Ayn Rand’s most influential work, Atlas Shrugged, we get to see a worldview shaped by the author’s firsthand experiences of two historic catastrophes: Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and America’s Great Depression.  The first impressed her with man’s capacity for coercion, and the second his capacity for incompetence.  And it’s this second lesson that remains pertinent to us today.

We can trace the more salient markers of the the progressive quest for social equity: FDR’s New Deal entitlements of the 1930s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, and lately, Barack Obama’s budget-busting program expansions.  The unending accretion of altruistic programs has done more harm than good.  We’re saddled with triplicate and quadruplicate bureaucracies that don’t produce results.  A little empirical evidence demonstrates just how ineffective Federal social programs have been for the past half century.

Progressivism, the worldview that drives the long leftward march, prefers central planners to do the thinking of everyday life rather than families or individuals. The result of such a society is what Rand’s Atlas warns against: a world where people exchange the virtues of thought and creativity for pity and manipulation.  Among the classifications she assigns to the degenerate denizens of the Atlas world: “moochers” and “mystics.”  People who’ve stopped working and stopped thinking.

It’s in vigilance against such a fate that Christians share with the Randian cause.  Apologist and philosopher J.P. Moreland warns us against the sensate society, where people make decisions less with their brain and more with their gut.  One of the central truths about humanity is that each of us bears Imago Dei, God’s image.  We resemble him in our ability to reason and to create.  Even these two activities are at the core of Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean pursuit of existential necessities.

How do we turn back from a world where centralization has elevated entitlement and choked out incentive?  Atlas only offers the dramatic cataclysm of a Capitalists’ strike.  But fortunately, in the real world, Congressman Paul Ryan encourages us all to re-think our march off the cliff of uncritical, state-driven altruism.  If we can get around the Left’s pipe dreams, maybe America can jettison the vice of entitlement and recapture the values of reason and creativity.  Then we will have a truly compassionate and just society.

How Buffett bluster boomerangs; or, Taxosaurus Rex

The unvarnished rhetoric coming out of the White House over the past two weeks has been just too delectable for conservative commentators.  In a recent WSJ piece, Daniel Henninger suggests that Democrats’ furious assault on Paul Ryan’s budget plan is desperate “thermonuclear” overkill.  Indeed, all the accusations of Social Darwinism and “trickle-down” economics cannot make up for Democrats’ utter lack of seriousness when it comes to the national debt.

As the White House rolled out the practically inconsequential yet politically expedient Buffett Rule this week, I was amazed at the justification given by allied economist Alan Krueger.  The Christian Science Monitor quotes:

“In addition to fairness, in fact it’s a step in the direction of economic efficiency,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. The Buffett rule allows people to “devote more effort what their focus should be, which is to their jobs and job creation … rather than restructuring their income to minimize their taxes.”

He’s alleging that the tax increases economic efficiency.  But how does government spend anyone’s money better than they themselves would?  During the global high tide of state central planning in the 1940s, F.A. Hayek explained cogently in his The Road to Serfdom who spends money best: the one who earns it.

When given other people’s money, legislators face the temptation of buying constituents’ votes with pork rather than allocating it wisely.  Then the money goes to bureaucrats, who are not careful enough with it.  Their lack of accountability flows from the political difficulty of de-funding them.  It is the original income earner who best appreciates the sweat and effort it took to get the money.  She appreciates the reality that her income might dry up tomorrow, and so will handle it more carefully than the central planners.

According to his critics, the car elevator in Mitt Romney’s mansion is a bad thing.  But he used his own money, which he only earned in the first place by benefiting others in voluntary transactions.  And the construction provided gainful employment to all sorts of craftsmen.

President Obama, meanwhile, either had to grow our debt or tax money out the economy to give us public project flops like Solyndra and the constipated stimulus weatherization projection.  Money that otherwise would have been carefully spent in private hands was squandered by legislators and bureaucrats.

Of course, not all government spending is bad; some spending is necessary.  But Krueger’s claim that a tax increases efficiency overlooks government’s great tendency towards inefficiency.

The case against the Buffetteers may be clearer when we look at that favorite magic word of progressives and liberals, “investment.”  Any public project from education to high-speed rail becomes an unmitigated good if it can be spoken in terms of investment.  But our current, low tax rates vindicate private investments as an even greater good.  This is why Buffett and Obama pay less in taxes than their secretaries.  The Monitor quotes Marco Rubio:

“What [Americans] need to understand is the reason why he may pay less than his secretary, in terms of the rate, is that she makes her money on a paycheck and he makes his money on investments,” Senator Rubio said. “We have always wanted Warren Buffett to, instead of putting that money in a coffee can, to take his money and invest it, because that created jobs.”

As much as the Buffett-minded would increase taxes on private investment earnings, they would demolish the incentive to invest and crash the stock market.  In this way the Buffett Rule boomerangs back on itself.

Class envy can’t lift up the poor, but it can bring us all down.  Let’s all move past the Buffett distraction.

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