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Politics. Economics. Morality. Religion. And Everything In Between.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Zombie Apocalypse

Ever since George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978, America has been obsessed with zombies. This obsession has reached a fever pitch lately, as evidenced by the success of films such as 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, the Resident Evil series, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland. The zombie plague has spread beyond film to infect other genres of entertainment. The Resident Evil movies were based on a video game. Max Brook's excellent novel World War Z brought zombies into the realm of literature. Heck, there's even a Pride and Prejudice with zombies in it now, or so I hear.

Why is America so hungry (pardon the pun) for zombie-related entertainment? I believe that it's because many Americans think they're living in their own personal zombie apocalypses. Think about it. What are zombie movies about? A small group of human survivors struggles against hordes of mindless devourers and possibly also against the evil government or corporate entities involved in the zombie plague. Compare this with the mindset of the young or those who consider themselves "independent thinkers." They see themselves surrounded on all sides by people they think of as mindless drones locked into a materialistic feeding frenzy. There's a reason they call it "consumerism." In addition to literally gorging themselves on bigger and bigger portions of fattening food, Americans buy more and bigger houses, cars, TVs, etc. Our nation feeds on more and more stuff.

Seeing the world in this way is profoundly frightening for those who experience it. Like it or not, there is a strong component of fear running through every modern ideology. Working-class people who vote Democrat fear that hordes of cheap offshore workers and immigrants will gobble up their jobs and livelihoods. They see the wealthy CEOs of multinational corporations as the "evil masterminds" behind the collapse of American manufacturing, just like the Umbrella Corporation was responsible for the zombie apocalypse in the Resident Evil movies and video games.

I could sit here coming up with sets of "zombies and masterminds" for every group in our society. Wealthy businessmen and professionals fear that hordes of welfare recipients will gobble up their profits after being egged on by power-hungry politicians. Social liberals fear legions of brainwashed cultists marching in lockstep behind pedophile priests who want to burn them at the stake as witches and heretics. Social conservatives believe that gangs of godless youth inspired by rappers and rock stars will corrupt their own children with pills and poontang and turn them into another kind of zombie.

Zombies aren't even the only kind of undead whose lore is sweeping the country. From Twilight to True Blood, vampires have captured our cultural consciousness as well. Like zombies, vampires feed on their prey and turn those upon whom they feed into vampires as well. Barack Obama, in this ad, calls Mitt Romney a "vampire" who sucks companies dry of capital and then leaves them to die. I find it profoundly disturbing that people of all backgrounds and political persuasions have come to agree that in some way or another, our society is dead and only continues to function by feeding on the literal and metaphorical lifeblood of its own people. They see their fellow citizens not as human beings, but as mindless zombies or worse, sinister vampires. Everyone is out to get everyone else, and we have to band together with the few like-minded individuals we can find to survive.

Are the would-be "survivors" right? Is America really the land of the walking dead? In some ways, it probably is. Self-deception has overtaken this country like the Rage virus of 28 Days Later. State and local governments, the federal government, and even private individuals rack up debt like there's no tomorrow without thinking of how they're going to pay them off. These entities are financial zombies waiting for the rotten flesh of their debt-financed excess to fall off. Don't even get me started on TARP and "too big to fail." You know what they call Japanese banks that their government had to prop up? Zombie banks. Meanwhile, people suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes continue to stuff their faces. College students keep drinking their parents' money away and ignoring their GPAs, thinking jobs will materialize out of thin air for them. *Warning, Catholic soap-box deployed* Would-be parents continue to abort and contracept their children into nonexistence to experience the pleasures of sex without the pains of childbirth and childrearing, thinking that these practices have no effects on their bodies or souls. Lots of people are walking around with problems that could end life for them as they know it.

Things aren't hopeless, though. The "independent spirit" is, if anything, on the rise in America. In real life, "the virus" works in the opposite direction as in a zombie movie. Once someone becomes conscious of his own humanity, he's not going to give it up. The hordes may take our money. They may even take our lives, but as William Wallace said, "they'll never take our freedom!" In the movie The Matrix, once you've taken the Red Pill, you'll never experience the matrix in the same way again. I'm going to make a bold prediction. I don't think we're survivors of the apocalypse in this story. I think we're the zombies. Catholic/Christian readers, think about the way that the early Church spread, and about the way it continues to spread today in Africa and Asia. No matter how hard people try to stamp it out, it propagates itself like a virus. Whatever your cause, if you want to succeed, don't think of yourself as the sole survivor holding on against the ravening hordes. Think of yourself as the first zombie poised to infect the entire world. Christians of the 21st century: Jesus told us that we are the salt of the earth, the leaven of the peoples. Let's start thinking of ourselves as the zombies of the REAL Apocalypse, the one described in the Revelation of John, which will bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why We Need Liberals

My last post asked what I hoped was a thought-provoking question: why not divide the United States into two countries along ideological lines? At the end of the post, I asked my readers what was wrong with this idea. As inviting as this prospect may seem to some of the more partisan viewers of this blog (including me), there IS something wrong with it. You see, apart from the fact that dividing the U.S. in two would probably require a long and bloody civil war, liberals and conservatives can actually be of use to each other. As an example, I am going to describe how the presence of serious and intelligent liberals in society helps conservatives be better conservatives and better thinkers all around.

Smart liberals protect the conservative movement (and the rest of America) from Stupid Conservatives. Stupid Conservatives are the guys who promote themselves with syllogisms like this one: "Socialism is un-American. Obama is a socialist. Therefore, Obama is not an American! I am not a socialist. Thererfore, I am an American. Vote for me because I am an American!" (The kind of person who I am thinking of would probably say this while running for city council. Such a Proud American won't let a little thing like not being a presidential candidate keep him from taking on Barack Hussein Obama!) Now, I happen to think Barack Obama is definitely a Keynesian and possibly also a crypto-socialist. I can support my claim with facts and reasoning. Perhaps more importantly, I know what socialism actually is, how it differs from mere Keynesianism, and why both are bad economic policies. (I also know what the prefix "crypto-" means and what a syllogism is, for that matter.)

The core problem with Stupid Conservatives is that they don't even know what conservatism is. Conservatism is not just an ideology. It is a relationship with reality that we arrive at through respect for both past traditions and present facts. "Socialism" isn't some imaginary bogeyman we throw rhetorical eggs at in the town square. It's a name for a specific set of economic policies that we believe do more harm than good based on our observations of their effects throughout history. Smart liberals TROUNCE Stupid Conservatives both intellectually and politically because they have a much firmer relationship with reality than Stupid Conservatives do.

Consider the example of Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, "smart liberal du jour" of the conservative movement. He criticized the Obama campaign's attack on private equity because he understands that the private equity industry is an important part of the business community and that business generates the wealth that is necessary to pay for substantial positive social change. Suppose Booker runs for a state or national office against a Stupid Conservative. Realizing that he and Booker are fairly similar economically, the Stupid Conservative will try to attack Booker on social issues. Booker strongly supports gay marriage. The stupid conservative might say that legalizing gay marriage would undermine the traditional family. Booker would probably retort that legalizing gay marriage is a low-risk proposition because traditional marriage as an institution had already collapsed long before gay marriage became legal anywhere. In making this argument, Booker would be more right than his Stupid Conservative opponent. Legalizing gay marriage would probably have about the same effect on the traditional family as a gunshot wound to the foot would have on a person who had been hit by a bus. (The real family values play is to attack no-fault divorce, in my humble opinion).

Smart conservatives like Chris Christie work with smart liberals like Cory Booker to achieve common goals in areas such as expanding school choice and reducing crime. (Christie has also sidestepped Booker on gay marriage by calling a referendum to "let the voters decide.") Conservatives who want to get things done in Washington or in statehouses and city halls outside of New Jersey should take note. No liberal faction, no matter how radical or entrenched, can withstand the power of a smart conservative who has smart liberals on his side. On a more personal front, a smart liberal friend of mine that I mentioned in my last post and with whom I joked about partitioning the United States actually agreed with me that if David Petraeus ever ran for president, we would both be excited to support him. Conservatives, think about this one: who would you rather vote for in November, Slick Mitt or General David "The Man, The Myth" Petraeus? Independents, how about you? Liberals, Obama or ... wait, don't answer that. But still, you'd be OKAY with Petraeus, right?

Liberals keep us on our toes, especially the smart ones. They force us to evaluate conservative leaders on how sensible their policy proposals are for America, not how many times they can quote Ronald Reagan. Contrary to popular myth, the thing that made Reagan special was not how conservative he was, but rather how clearly he could communicate why conservative policies were right for all Americans. If we can't justify ourselves to reasonable people of all political persuasions, we don't deserve to govern America.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Bi-Partition"-ship?

Guess who's back... back again... Elliott's back! Tell a friend! 100 cool points to the first person who can name the song that came from. After a long hiatus brought on by the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year, I'm back on the blogging circuit, at least until work/school drags me away from it again. For the first time in a long time, Here's The Deal:

Lately, we've been hearing a lot of politicians talking about "crossing the aisle" and working with the other party to pass "common-sense reforms" based on "bipartisan consensus." Usually, this is a load of horse crap. Politicians no longer cross the aisle because there is no bipartisan consensus. Many of the proposals Democrats and Republicans put forth in response to each other demonstrate that the two parties are pursuing diametrically opposed ends instead of coming closer and closer to something they can both agree to pass. When they do agree on an objective, they often come at it from completely different directions. The end result of this partisan gridlock is that nothing of substance gets done in Congress while the "days of reckoning" for crises such as the national debt and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons continue to inch closer.

As an unapologetic quasi-libertarian conservative, I'm one of the last people to advocate bipartisanship for its own sake. In fact, I jokingly told one of my liberal friends the other day that I'd like to see relations between the two parties become so contentious that the United States itself splits in two along partisan lines. That way, he could let the government of what I termed the "Democratic People's Republic of America" redistribute his income to its heart's content while I bitterly clung to my guns and religion in the "Federated States of 'Murrica."

This got me wondering, "Why not split the U.S. in two? Wouldn't that be better for everyone?" Think about it. We conservatives could live in a land with low taxes, a pro-business regulatory climate, and the booming economy associated with both. We could send our children to religious schools on vouchers instead of paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for private education while the teachers' unions extract thousands more in property taxes to fund their festering dens of liberal propaganda, marijuana use, and teen pregnancy. The government would protect our sacred religious beliefs instead of attacking them. Abortion and gay marriage would now and forever be verboten. Our military's redneck-operated stealth fighters would blot out the sun. (The terrorists wouldn't want to fight in the shade because we'd have kickass night-vision goggles that they couldn't afford.)

Does this sound like liberal hell? It should, but don't worry, my liberal friends, because you would be living in liberal heaven. Everyone in the PDRA would be guaranteed an annual income of $40,000 from the government, with extra allotments for those with dependent children. Healthcare would be free and universal, provided by the state. Education would be free through graduate school. Marijuana, birth control, and morning-after pills would be distributed from converted ice cream trucks (ice cream would be illegal because it contributes to obesity, which is "the new smoking"). $900 billion in annual military spending? How about $900 billion in foreign aid spending? If enemies ever threatened your shores, I'm sure the aforementioned Federated States would protect you, especially since you wouldn't be trying to take their money and teach their kids that God doesn't exist any more.

What's wrong with this picture? I have a couple of thoughts, but I'd like to hear what others have to say in the comments section first.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What's Killing the Markets

In case you've been living under a rock, the U.S. stock market has been taking it on the chin over the past two weeks. Despite their rallies today, the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P 500 are all still down over 10% from their post-financial crisis highs. The media is blaming two main factors for this decline. The first is the downgrade of U.S. government debt from AAA to AA+ by the credit rating agency Standard & Poors. The second cause that political and financial pundits have identified is the European currency and sovereign debt crisis that recently came to a head when it spread to Italy. Unlike Portugal or Greece, Italy is a major player in the global economy, and it has a large enough debt to bankrupt the European Financial Stability Facility (European sovereign debt TARP) if it needs a bailout.

I think the talking heads are partially right and partially wrong on both counts. First, the painful sell-offs began on August 1 with the announcement of a bad ISM number (an important manufacturing index) and downward revisions of U.S. GDP growth figures for the first two quarters of 2011. If I recall correctly, by the time the decline accelerated last Thursday and Friday, August 6 and 7, the markets had already been down six days in a row. The U.S. debt downgrade is not the cause of all our woes. It's merely the straw that broke the camel's back. Investors had been preparing to sell for over a week based on a host of negative economic indicators. The relationship between the debt downgrade and the market correction is more correlative than causative. Both occurred because the economy sucks and neither the government nor private individuals can stay afloat financially.

The pundits are spot-on about the European crisis being another cause of the market meltdown, though. Here's the deal: several European countries, namely Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, are up to their eyeballs in debt. Most of the big European banks own significant amounts of this debt and have made loans and other investments using this debt as collateral. If these countries can't pay back their debt, though, the value of the bonds the banks hold becomes worthless, the banks' total assets drop, and they run the risk of failing and taking the entire European financial system down with them. It's like the U.S. mortgage-backed security crisis all over again, except with countries not paying back their loans instead of homeowners.

What does this have to do with the U.S. economy? Well, to put it simply, the U.S. sells a lot of stuff to Europe. The economies of all the European countries put together are bigger than that of the U.S. or China or any other individual large economy. If a big chunk of the global marketplace becomes financially paralyzed, that could harm the U.S. by reducing the number of buyers for our goods. All things considered, though, with the rise of China, Brazil, and other low-wage exporters, the United States economy is nowhere near as dependent upon exports as it used to be, so the damage we would incur from a European financial crisis, though severe, would be limited to a particular sector of the economy.

The real problem we face is that large, export-driven multinational companies, the kinds of companies that would really suffer in the face of a European recession (and possibly emerging market cutbacks as Asian and South American exports to Europe fall, too), are the only companies that are growing and powering our economy right now because the U.S. domestic market sucks. Unemployment is high, prices are high, and wages are stagnating. The domestic market is still the main driver of U.S. production, and until that turns around, we're gonna be mired in the muck. What is keeping America's economy down? Stay tuned for my next post to find out.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

It Was the Fetus in the Conservatory with the Candlestick!

Hello again, readers. If any of you were wondering why it's been so long since I've posted, it's because of this little thing called real life. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually have one, and mine has been rather busy lately, so I haven't had much time for blogging. I'm back now, though, so as always, here's the deal:

For this post, I'm gonna write about abortion. I've been blogging long enough that it's about time that I got around to this topic. Oddly enough, abortion isn't a hotly-contested issue right now. Most people fall into one of two camps: either they believe that the fetus is a human person from conception onwards and is therefore off-limits, or they believe it's just a lump of tissue and that granting it "rights" would be preposterous. Neither side can get the other to accept its basic premise, which is the foundation for all of its further arguments, so no argument can take place. People just agree to disagree (though they don't do so agreeably).

Those arguments that do occur center around the one, big, fundamental question: when does the fetus become a human person? I'm going to respond by beginning with another question, one that's slightly ridiculous. If a fetus were to somehow exit the womb, commit a murder, and return, leaving DNA evidence at the scene, who would the CSI crew identify as the killer? It sure wouldn't be the mother, because from the moment of conception, half of a fetus's DNA is the father's. How, then, can one say that a fetus is merely "part of its mother's body" when our most accurate and fundamental means of identifying tissue disagrees?

One could cite cells with virally corrupted or mutated genes as examples of "parts of one's body" that contain foreign or nonstandard DNA, but such cells are few and far between, and the unusual DNA makes up a very small percentage of the cell's total genome. There is no "organ" or "tissue" with 50% foreign DNA that grows naturally in the human body besides the fetus.

If it's not part of its mother's body, whose body is it a part of? Well, if we let our hypothetical homicidal fetus develop through birth and run a DNA test on the baby, we would identify the baby as the killer. If it's a part of anyone's body at all, the fetus must then be part of the baby's body. How can that be the case if the baby does not yet exist? Such a proposition is absurd, especially when one considers that every cell in the baby's body is a daughter cell of the original single-celled zygote. Every bit of the baby comes from the fetus, so the fetus cannot be a part of the baby's body, it IS the baby's body. Therefore, if the fetus exists, the baby exists.

This is a ridiculous example, but it's useful for illustrating some points about the continuity of the fetus's development from conception to birth. If a fetus committed a murder, would we charge the baby with the crime? Assuming this highly capable and responsible fetus became a similarly advanced baby, we would have to, because what was once the fetus is now the baby. What is now the baby, furthermore, will become the child, the teen, and then the adult. All throughout these differing stages of development, the child grows and matures physically and mentally, but its DNA and its basic identity in our eyes remain the same. The fetus participates in the same process and shares the same DNA. Should the fact that its development takes place inside the womb exclude it from the condition of personhood we extend to human life in all other stages of development? I don't think so.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Nature of the Political Organism

If any of you have wondered why I haven't been posting as regularly as usual lately, it's because I've been busy preparing for (and today, actually attending) a conference about political philosophy. In my first day there, I had a number of enlightening conversations with people who weren't as libertarian as I am. The last of these, in which I discussed the nature of society with a couple of student attendees as well as a professor who would be lecturing later, made me doubt some of my more recently taken but still staunchly defended positions.

I have always rejected the idea that society is a single unified entity. Human beings do not possess a hive mind; no community has a consciousness that can entertain thoughts or feelings that are independent of those of its members. Like Aristotle, I disagreed with Plato's assertion that a city full of unhappy people could still be a happy city. Such a city was, to me, just a bunch of unhappy people.

Instead, I believed that any city or society of any kind was just a mass of individuals. The only discrete unit of humanity that mattered on a political level was the particular human person, because that was the only thing in a state that could actually reason. This led me to adopt a lot of very libertarian political philosophies. Individual liberty was the highest political end (I still believed that virtue was the highest human end). I viewed all societal relationships in terms of person and state, and from a moral perspective, the person won every time.

The problem is, though, that while human communities do not possess hive minds, they can still form intellectual entities that are more than the sum of their parts. Often, this "social imagination" or "social consciousness" can help people like me catch liberals in rhetorical traps. Many times, when a liberal has tried to argue a secular relativist position against someone who believes strongly in an objective truth and morality, the traditionalist will force the liberal to carry his position to its furthest extent, which often justifies some really vile utilitarian exploitative practice. If this happens, the liberal will often back away from his own position because the echoes of Christianity that still permeate our culture have instilled in him an instinctual respect for the human person.

Societies are more than just aggregations of individuals. They are like individual organisms, in a way, with cells (people), tissues (classes of people), organs (organizations and institutions) and even a nervous system (the overall intellectual character of the civilization). Societies and civilizations do not speak with one voice the way Communists and other totalitarians would have you believe. This consciousness is also not best expressed or manipulated by the state the way modern progressives think it should be, either. It is more than individual, more than state, more even than Church (speaking only in the institutional sense).

The nature of corporate society, like that of the family and the mystical Body of Christ, mirrors the Holy Trinity in its simultaneous possession of unity and differentiation. Unfortunately, it also possesses the Trinity's inscrutable character. I'm not sure what to do with it, or what it means for broader political philosophy yet. Until I do, though, I'm going to stay committed to my efforts to defend it valiantly against the encroachments of the United States federal government, while realizing that I may find a higher calling at some point in the future.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Inequality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"-- so says the Declaration of Independence. I say, however, that the first of these truths is NOT self-evident. In fact, I would go even further by saying that it is plainly self-evident that human beings are NOT all equal, and in many cases, this inequality is permanent and inherent.

One of the most readily apparent ways in which people are unequal is in physical stature. If any of you were wondering, I am 5'11" tall and weigh 175 lbs. Without taking steroids or HGH or putting on a ton of fat, that's basically as big as I can get. I will never be huge and powerful enough to be an NFL linebacker no matter how much I would like to. People also differ in intelligence. Over the past 100 years, scientists have established that the vast majority of a person's mental capacity is fixed by the time they reach adulthood. Depending on the study, anywhere between 50 and 80% of a person's "g-factor," or general intelligence, depends on pure genetics, and most of the rest is unalterably biologically determined by environmental factors such as nutrition and exposure to harmful chemicals in childhood. You can train your brain to be more efficient, but you are still limited by the brain you have.

Human beings exhibit a wide range of variation in respect to nearly every measurable characteristic. Some don't reach five feet, while others (many of whom are in the NBA) exceed seven. Developmentally disabled folks have IQs in the low to mid double digits, while the IQs of our greatest scientists may approach 200. The differences between the most and least gifted individuals in any area are staggering, and in a relatively free and open society such as the U.S., these differences are a big reason why some people possess ridiculous amounts of fame, wealth, skill, and power and others seem to fade into the background.

Average CEO pay in the United States this year was $9.2 million, or roughly 20 times the median household income. Many attribute this disparity to the "greed" of corporate executives, but these people are missing the point. There are a lot of very greedy people out there who are also very poor. Just because you want a lot of money doesn't mean you'll get it. New financial regulations gave the shareholders of publicly traded companies a chance to vote on their CEOs' compensation packages, and 98% of the time, they voted to approve it. The shareholders did this because they believed that their CEOs generated MORE than 20 times as much value for the company as the average employee did, so by paying their CEOs 20 times as much, they would still be making money. If they cut their CEOs' salaries, these CEOs might quit and force the company to make due with a less effective leader.

Like the shareholders of those companies, I believe that it is in OUR best interest if we allow the monetary value of someone's work to be determined by those who make use of it. In this way, we reward those who benefit us in proportion to the benefits they provide and thereby encourage others to follow in the same path. If we were to let Congress or some other independent group set the maximum pay for anyone in any industry, fewer extremely talented people would work in that industry, and those who benefit from that particular good or service (basically everyone) will suffer.

At the same time, though, we must realize that all people, even the most distinguished, are limited by the human condition. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may be filthy rich, but they still don't have infinite resources. Usain Bolt may be faster than any other human being, but he still can't outrun a horse, much less a cheetah. Furthermore, the difference between a cheetah and Usain Bolt is greater than the difference between Usain Bolt and the slowest humans. Everyone, from the greatest to the least among us, is born, grows, prospers, fails, suffers, rejoices, loves, hates, and eventually dies. We should neither worship any man as a god nor demean anyone as a slave. Rather, we should organize society in a way that rewards the variety and brilliance of human ability without allowing those whose talents allow them to amass wealth, power, and influence to use these abilities to dominate others.

The modern West is currently failing on both counts. The mainstream media vilifies as robber barons people who have earned a great deal of money though honest means while hailing those who wield troubling amounts of political power as saints. "The masses" clamor for jobs but shriek and moan when the government threatens to cut their entitlement benefits to free up enough money to let the private sector create the jobs they desire. We cannot claim the rights of men while lining up to be fed like livestock at the government trough. I admit that, in many cases, people cannot earn a decent living because a crafty few have been able to monopolize the means of production in their industries by extracting beneficial regulations, subsidies, and tax exemptions from politicians they have co-opted. Before we call upon people to take responsibility for their own lives, we must give them the means to do so. Our government must end its unholy alliance with multinational corporations whereby the upper classes are kept as wage-slaves to their employers and the lower classes sell their votes to populist politicians in exchange for free education and health care. Only after we have done this can our society assume a state of pronounced yet mutually acceptable and even just inequality.