Toward a Global Spirituality

Look past the deliquescence of the great monotheisms, and trouble brews.

Most people aren’t so intelligent as Christopher Hitchens nor Sam Harris, nor so brave as either, nor so unyielding in their desire to fashion a life’s creed nakedly free of the barnacles of irrational syllogism.

In this brave new world, one can find oneself both discomfited with the Koran as a manual of moral instruction yet at the same time in fear of a coronation of Reason, understanding that a large share of human life is neither rational nor logical.  It is this eternal torsion betwixt Truth and Meaning that leaves critics of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism wondering if they have not affixed their scabbards too much to Truth and neglected the far more relevant pole of Meaning.

The truth of the matter is that human beings lie about many things large and small, and that these lies are best elucidated by the light of Meaning and not of Truth.  Truth excites more rarefied appetites; Meaning sates the soul.  Truth teases as an aperitif while Meaning furnishes the main course.  Just ask Victor Frankl whether he preferred Meaning or Truth as his engine of psychological survival when everything else was taken away.

People can only rarely build lives whose sole meaning is Truth:  apostles of reason worship Socrates because he so narrowly succeeded where the whole world has failed.  The great religious teachers speak at least as much about Meaning as Truth lest their followers be only Socratic in number.  Jesus was a moral psychologist first; Muhammad would not have transfixed the Arab mind if his teachings were primly reducible to axioms.  (Indeed by logic they suffer the most.)

Hence the quest for a truly modern spirituality must incorporate the overwhelming human hunger for Meaning above all else, and not attempt through scientism, positivism, or rationalism to deify Truth alone.  People will lie, cheat and steal at relatively the same rates regardless if Darwin or Christ is their master.  The issue therefore is to find a rubric of psychological integration (Jungian is a hard term to avoid here) rather than a heuristic of moral purification.  Nobody has ever been purified by a moral law but only by having run blindly into one.

What then are the central challenges in fashioning this new global spirituality?

Along with the ultimate focus on Meaning over Truth, we must retain some sense of shame, sanction, or sin that permits gestures of public moral censure.  It is not enough – though many would have it so – to develop a spiritual language that possesses no hard edges, no right angles, no orthogonality by which evil in both me and my brother and sister are admonished.  Jesus did not speak of the beam in my own eye to obliterate moral comparison.

There must be a language of moral censure developed, particularly in a time of suicide bombing, drone strikes, torture, genital mutilation, honor killings, science-denial, creationism, racism, sexism, abortion, homophobia, and the rampant narcissism of our ever more Pyrrhic technological advances.  This does not mean that good people will ever agree on what types of actions deserve what degree of sanction (just interrogate your feelings on reading the prior list), but rather that, most emphatically, there must exist a trans-cultural presumption that a common morality can at the very least be debated.

A facile moral relativism that hides a desire to forever get along with everyone else must eventually hit the concrete.  The world is simply too small a place to pretend that we can forever be agnostics as concerns the moral scaffolding of entire cultures or religions.  There will come a moment (often termed a flashpoint) when divergent moral assumptions will clang and require existential resolution.  Pretending then that two (or ten) separate moral cosmogonies can go on being entirely separate will be of no use.  One’s own moral and spiritual worldview, after all, makes very large claims to sovereignty being as it is a worldview.

Along with this sense of a larger, more conversational Law, or Sharia, or Torah, there must be a concomitant celebration of the numinous, the transcendent, and the ecstatic – and preferably one whose fulfillment does not require rigid orthodoxies from the past to explicate.  There is no serious reason to doubt that the Sufi mystic experiences something akin to the Christian mystic or the adept of Kabbalah.  The nature of the numinous defies an easy reduction to its originating contexts.  We must therefore develop a more universal language for respecting its many manifestations throughout the world.

This worship of the numinous may include a rejection of a reductive scientism that confuses narrow literal Truth with larger communal questions of Meaning.  The real test of applying a scientific idea – outside of the laboratory within which science will always reign supreme – is whether said scientific idea leads to greater human flourishing, expansion and hope, or whether to a premature contraction of possibilities and a sad limiting of human potential.

Today we see this debate about the implications of science being played out about over global energy supply, organic foods, genetically modified crops, genetic engineering of humans, nuclear power, and a thousand other domains.  The answers are by no means obvious.  Often times competing claims must be judiciously weighed between similarly disenfranchised constituencies.  What’s most clear is that the claim that science always makes an obvious moral contribution, or points to an obvious moral course of action is increasingly questionable.  We do not even know “which” science we debate when we debate science, as studies about the global climate or what causes cancer or the efficacy of universal prostate exams shift almost daily in their substance, sourcing and authority.

So we have here a few key themes in fashioning this (likely far more multi-braided) new global spirituality.  We must retain a predilection for thought and myth systems that preserve a healthy regard for Meaning and not just Truth in the shaping of human lives.  We must develop a more universal and courageous language of common moral censure that can be applied both externally and internally.  And we must eschew a narrow scientism that asks more from science than it can ever deliver.

Only by keeping the very best parts of the world’s great religions – and dispensing with the very worst parts – can we hope to salvage a global spirituality that is both humane and relevant.

The Problem of Psychopathy

The question of the existence of real-world psychopaths is unnecessarily obscured by the Hollywood leitmotif of the serial killer which in fact comprises only a tiny subset of all psychopaths, hardly being representative of a group with numerous sub-criminal manifestations.  That psychopaths exist is an existential certainty:  I have known one.

According to Dr. Robert Hare, the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy who has developed a checklist for defining the malady, there are about thirty traits that a large majority of all psychopaths share.

These include a glib, superficial charm coupled with a shallow affect or lack of emotional depth.  Psychopaths lack a conscience but are expert at simulating human emotion for predatory purposes.  Indeed, real human emotion, aside from rage, is likely impossible for them.  Psychopaths often form parasitic relationships with their targets and are capable of lying dormant for years while awaiting the opportune moment to strike.  This period of stimulated friendship is termed the “grooming phase” of a psychopath’s predation.

Psychopaths appear addicted to some weird combination of chaos and thought control.  They often (though not always) have trouble forming long-term commitments and holding steady work and tend to not plan very well for the future.  The steely sadist portrayed by Hollywood as coolly self-contained is uncommon; it is rather the mark of psychopaths that they will pursue a course of action that destroys their own lives so long as they are also inflicting misery upon others.  Hence our prisons are full of psychopaths which Dr. Hare has spent a lifetime studying.

Perhaps out of sheer boredom, perhaps out of sadism, psychopaths feel an overarching obsession to destroy human lives.  This intention places the level of evil they inflict far beyond the suffering that normal, good people unintentionally cause each other through the natural human misunderstandings of even the best-lived lives.  Psychopaths are different in their malice and contempt for even the most minimal standard of the social compact.

Termed by some “soul eaters”, psychopaths are not amenable to moral suasion.  By definition, they cannot be reformed sans perhaps by brain surgery or by being doped out of consciousness.  Attempts to therapeutically intervene with intensive counseling or other modes of normal therapy will be expertly exploited and co-opted by the psychopath.  The very best mental health professionals have often been shown by Hare and others to be incapable of detecting the acutely subtle lying by which a psychopath thrives.

Psychopaths live off their victims’ perceptual Gestalt effect, whereby normal, healthy human beings fill in the blanks that are missing in the psychopath’s personality unconsciously, substituting their own humanity and warmth where there are disturbing gaps.  Hence the targets of psychopaths have an immense challenge in detecting them:  because so many blanks have been filled in with emotional content from the soon-to-be victim, the psychopath seems to be an uncanny mirror of the victim.

A sort of simulated intimacy is the result.  Generally, the target can tell there is something wrong, but the full disclosure of the level of evil does not become apparent until the psychopath unsheathes his or her full intensity for the kill.  (Kill here may be literal or metaphorical, as in a massive betrayal, perhaps financial or sexual, or perhaps a physical assault like rape.)  The reason it is so very hard to detect this attack ahead of time is because the full energy of the psychopath is consumed in subterfuge and obsessive fixation on the target.  Since the target is generally far healthier and more humane than the psychopath, it is unimaginable to him or her that such a duplicity is even possible.

Psychopaths are known to prolong the grooming stage – wherein they flatter and follow their victim – for as long as they can gain more from the success of their target that they can from his fall.  It also can take a while to find and exploit a window of vulnerability.  The grooming stage can last for many years if the nature of the relationship affords enough stability.  During this time, the victim will often feel drained whenever she deals with the psychopath, as if a hidden line of vitality is flowing to the psychopath.  But there is a “horizon of perception” problem where the psychopath carefully stays just slightly out of focus, always obscuring his full malice behind a cloak of smaller infractions that collect in a sodden heaviness that progressively contaminates the friendship or romance.

What this all means is that when a psychopath finally strikes, the victim can for years later be filled with a sense of guilt and shame that she did not foresee what, after the fact, was an obvious expression of this mysterious “gaminess” that the victim had sincerely puzzled over during the entire course of the friendship or relationship.  What had been a dark mystery before becomes so organically obvious after the fact that the victim feels a self-recrimination that perhaps she participated in her own violation by being a sucker, so close was the fake intimacy established by the psychopathic bond.

In this sense especially, the psychopath is a vampire.

Of course the victim usually has some prior wounding or blind spot that makes him or her tactically vulnerable to the psychopath.  But no one should feel the slightest guilt or shame about having been such a mark.  Often times, it is the people with the most visible strengths — compassion, loyalty, honor, good will, shared vulnerability, honesty — that can prove so spectacularly open to a psychopath’s depredations.

The analogy I would make, for those concerned with manly (or womanly) pride on having been so deceived, is not to a fighter who has been bested in a boxing ring by someone savvier or stronger — but rather to an innocent whose guard is down and who is stabbed or shot while he is sleeping.  This latter tableaux is a far more accurate portrait of a psychopath’s betrayal than some glamorous Shakespearean villain like Iago.  Iago after all is given a bunch of gorgeous lines and a glamorous sheen.  While psychopaths have an undeniable sheen of glamour, that glamour is ultimately the fake glamour of the thug, the criminal, the anti-social outcast.

One remarkably helpful insight on how to forgive and transcend having known a psychopath comes from Sam Harris.  If you are a person who has been thusly attacked, it helps immensely to conceive of the psychopath as more like an animal than as a willful human being.  It may well be, given what we are learning about the brain, that the psychopath has no more choice about who he is than you or I have about who we are.

At first this view can lead to despair — how, after all, can one countenance that such a sadist can stumble through life without having any ultimate moral culpability?  But after a while, something very deep relaxes:  If indeed the psychopath is more like a wild bear attacking than a human being then he is more crazy than evil.  If one starts to impute less agency to the psychopath and treat him more like one would treat a dangerous snake, one quickly grasps that sadism and deep wells of malice may not be accurate descriptions of the psychopath’s motivations at all.

Perhaps instead the psychopath is merely a mindless expositor of his own biology.  Perhaps instead he is one of life’s very worst victims, careening through this world with an inhuman incapacity to feel empathy or sympathy for others.  Indeed, it is only by extending a projection of one’s own inner, finely-corrugated conscience and fulsome humanity upon the psychopath that his actions appear more demonic, more sadistic and more beyond one’s ability to forgive.  He becomes then more like a torturer and less like a brute idiot.  But, in contrast to this toxic view, what if his interior emotional life looks nothing like your own?  This latter view is far more liberating…

Once one fully assimilates this view, it becomes far harder to go on hating the psychopath, because that becomes as irrational as hating a wild animal for trying to kill you.  Instead, a new well of forgiveness opens up, and you come to see the psychopath — who should be avoided, ignored and/or contained like any dangerous animal, of course — as ultimately the merest shell of a human being, and not anyone with anything serious to say about your own worth.

I believe this is the great secret to surviving a psychopath.

Yes of course one must first secure one’s physical safety, break all contact with the psychopath, contact the authorities, and no longer engage with anyone who knows the psychopath except to warn them.  But after that, forgiveness requires coming to see the psychopath as a wild animal, trapped by his own biology in a script that no free human being in possession of any self-respect would ever choose.

The largest burden that is lifted upon seeing the psychopath as a wild animal is this:  One no longer struggles with the question of Why?

Libertarian Solutions for Healthcare

One need not be a rank partisan of the right to grasp that something has gone off the rails about big-government liberalism all the faster during President Obama’s conductorship.

There’s an accreting sense that none of the big problems before us are truly being solved; rather only vast swaths of capital are being moved around.  To be sure, large promises are being made to all sorts of people about healthcare and pensions and the environment and jobs.  But most of these promises carry overtones of silent resignation and despair over their impossibly byzantine future implementation.

The nation is about to learn the hard way that the promise of healthcare coverage does not equal actual access.  How could it?  Massive sums are going into erecting an edifice that does not concern itself with questions of individual human incentive.  How many young healthy people will opt to pay large monthly premiums to even further subsidize the healthcare of older Americans?  How many doctors will stay in a system that involves increasing paperwork each year and which reimburses them less and less per Medicare and Medicaid patient?  How many businesses will underwrite massive new expenses versus simply lowering their number of full-time employees?

At some point the shell game will collapse.  I am not muscularly committed to seeing this sad eventuality; it just seems obvious that, regardless of all heroic efforts to the contrary, individual human caprice will not permit such a system to work.

Liberals will at this point opine that what we now have is hardly ideal and that concerned humanists should therefore climb aboard the best-worst boat we could have built.  But if ever the phrase “undistributed middle” has had ambit, it is here.

Detroit should scare America, both for the severity of its collapse and for the ubiquity of its predicates. Public-sector retirees are looking to recoup 10-15% if that of promised benefits, and even Obama is not rushing to Detroit’s defense.  How many other cities are living similarly on the brink?  What happens next year when California hits the wall?

I am not immune to the liberal critique of special interest groups and corporations corrupting Washington, but I ask again how increasing centralization will reduce said corruption?  We were supposed to be the ones we were waiting for, yet it is manifest that Obama can no more drag the swamp of D.C. than any president before him.  Does anyone really believe that winning the mid-terms will immanentize the eschaton?  (If it did, I’d support the Dems all the way, but this seems implausibly Manichean.)

The liberal Campbellian narrative of crusading against the powerful on behalf of the weak is collapsing beneath the massive way the system now co-opts big new initiatives like the ACA, Dodd-Frank, and immigration reform.  In each instance, sensible people might join liberals in seeking sensible reforms, but the sheer irrational bigness of the bills now being composed is destroying all three objectives and strangling them in the crib.

I am not emphatically conservative as I’m agnostic about where tax rates should be and quite fine with a large social safety net.  I don’t root reflexively for today’s GOP which often appears to house a not-inconsiderable stable of rubes and fools.  I’m not out to secretly cancel the inheritance tax, or steal minority voting rights, or make war upon women.

But too many people – an eerily large percentage of the electorate – conflate the terminal social backwardness of today’s GOP with the essential fiscal sanity of how the Democrats envision our glorious future.  Even if one accedes the Democrats will win the preponderance of national elections for the next twenty years, this hardly obviates the looming costs of Medicare, public pensions, or the dearth of new job-creating enterprises.  No amount of frenetic stimulus will grow us out of these thickets.

It’s elementary that one can be centrist, or center-right, or yes, center-left as defined only yesterday, and still grasp that these massive new schemes of federalization and centralization are becoming absurd cauldrons of corruption, ineptitude, and tragic misallocation of human equity.  Does anyone really think the poor will currently fare better under the ACA as it is written today?  (If your answer is “wait for the legislative tweaks” – what new gurus are waiting in the wings to write those?)

When finite resources like healthcare become more complex and less efficient, more rule-laden and more directed from afar, does anyone really doubt that the mathematics will favor the well-connected over the poor and politically unconnected?  Any efficiency gain will be by brute-force from above and not nearly so invigorating to human potentiality as efficiency gained from the inside-out.

The Congress and their staffs who passed the ACA have just won from Obama a 70% waiver for their own Obamacare fees – and these are the moral tribunes who created this thing, among the wealthiest people in this country.  If these Americans have sought relief from the financial onus of the ACA, what do you think average young people who are confronted with the new premiums are likely to do?

The answer from the Left is too often that a (slim) majority has made this the law of the land, that democracy has spoken and that we should respect democracy.  But do not democracies tend to favor more benefits than they can afford?  Is this not how democracies recede?

One can assiduously assent to the premises that inequality is too high today, that we need to radically re-provision healthcare in a saner way, that the rich should pay more and yet still conceive of any of one hundred ways better than what we now have.

One likely answer is to shatter the federalization of the problem and return more of the healthcare decisions (and funding onus) to the various states.  Liberals will reflexively gasp, but how can we trust the states to be humane?  Well.  How can we trust the feds to be humane?  Why is there a presumption that a more centralized solution will be more humane?  (I believe this owes to false unconscious analogy between self-governance and human consciousness.)

Another path is to introduce more rigorous market competition and trust-bust local kickback setups.  Yet another is to expand extant capacity.  None of these ideas is particularly sexy; none promises a gleaming new stallion to join the stable of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – but then, if we honestly look at the numbers for even these programs, we grasp that bigness itself may not be the answer to making healthcare more humane.

There is an increasingly absurd gulf between the endorphin rush that the political class feels on passing some monstrous new bill, as if legislating one’s intentions might consummate them.  When rejiggering one-sixth of the economy – a sector full of self-interested, imperfect human beings (as are all sectors) – we must observe verities of human motivation and not just impose a template for how people should idyllically behave.

There are nigh infinite refractions to observe as concerns various other countries’ national health services.  Of paramount importance are questions of the ratio of the young to the old, the saturation level of coverage, the native doctor culture, average wait times, etc.  It is by no means obvious that socialized, centralized systems are inherently superior, though they may confer a more egalitarian leavening of mediocre care.

Perhaps a vastly simpler single-payer system could be made to work.  This could conceivably be most ideal, if all squabbling factions could be made to let go and trust in something larger – and if the insurance companies could be induced to assent to their own demise.  But how we can practicably get from what we have to that may be impossible this side of revolution.

This rather ethereal potentiality does not excuse or exonerate the ACA – at it does not ratify the notion that the ACA is merely on the glide path to a saner world.  The plane needs to be vastly better built for that to happen, and the ground is heading toward us awfully fast.

Courage in the Face of Terror

What sane person isn’t inured to the onanistic non-stop media coverage over the latest acts of terror?

I can barely stomach five minutes of it.

Of course there is real human suffering involved, and that is to be respected, but so then is there real human suffering in the ninety daily preventable automobile deaths that keep the American calendar regular, as a good friend opined.  In 2010, an average of seven teenagers went to their death behind the wheel per diem.  Such frightful numbers benumb the mind like war itself.

When Obama and Biden arose after the Sandy Hook massacre – a genuine inflection point for U.S. mass shootings – I found myself rising alongside them about some aspects of gun control, but nauseous over their demagogic formulation, “If even one child’s life can be saved…”

Far more than one child’s life might be saved if we lowered the speed limit, which does seem a rather shallow inconvenience as opposed to the daily massacre of our highways, or by relaxing the otherwise-laudable CAFE standards, which result in over-light vehicles competing with over-heavy vehicles, or by banning texting and cellphone usage while driving by a national amendment.  These are the real shooting galleries; these are the real places where our communities are thinned from within.  Or of course one might cite the daily carnage in America’s inner cities, a bloodletting that is to be expressly deplored, but about which nothing much is left to be said except a resigned collective sigh of unctuous solidarity.

But let’s also look at such rare terror events in more martial terms.  It really doesn’t take much for a culture to adjust to a higher quotient of random civilian casualties:  ask Israel.  Should not perhaps our outlook be fiercely on the side of civil liberties, and against the trimming of those who would have us sacrifice freedom the instant the next dozen people are lost in an attack?

Would we not be more sporting as a people, more Spartan-like, to develop a skill for living that did not rubberneck to catch the latest media wail aping our worst fears?  What if instead our media outlets gave only five minutes of every hour to the coverage of deplorable savagery, and the rest to the arts, philosophy, and genteel political debate?  Could one imagine such a universe?

The thing about terrorism is that it reminds us of that brute state of nature from whence we all emerged and to whence we all shall return, ashes to ashes dust to dust, and about how provisional our little lives are upon this ball of clay — all iPhone Calypsos to the contrary.  Terror fronts us with primordial chaos, screams that civilization is fragile, that this gorgeous façade might slip our visage at any moment.

Or is civilization really so fragile?

I believe that this “new sort of war”, as the phrase is so endlessly snored, does impart to the citizens one civic virtue:  Perhaps we might rediscover a font of personal courage and insouciance that we deployed as an entire species until really quite recently in our evolution.  We might again learn to live and not be traumatized by statistically insignificant events – even as we pay earnest homage to the lives of those so lost.  This means to live with a healthy sense of our own mortality and not to hide in an infantile desire for coddling by an all-seeing state which offers the illusion of perfect security.

(It needs here be mentioned that there are they who are truly traumatized, the shell-shocked, the raped, the tortured, the abused – who sport the telltale thousand-yard stare.  I speak not of these soulful witnesses to evil in our world, but rather of the media-industrial complex that attempts to multiply feelings of helplessness and voyeurism among its ironic viewers — and to those complacent viewers.)

What of the Patriot Act, waterboarding, rendition, and the like?

On the one hand, it is not hard to enshrine a national consensus against torture by saying that we are willing to sustain a certain level of civilian casualty in exchange for our moral honor.  I would hold this principled position – so far as I could maintain it.

On the other, republican democracies have the virtue of rapidly expressing their hidden popular consensus, and there was an unquestionably bipartisan choice to water-board those who might inflict great harm upon millions in our most recent past, ratified by senators at the highest levels of both parties.  Further, there is the paramount question of enforcing the consequences of a trenchant moral purity upon a number of citizens who may not share one’s view.

It does strike me that both propositions might be simultaneously entertained – that Americans are, by and large, too media-triggered and fear-based, needing to toughen up quite a bit – and that only the most callow moral vanity could fail to imagine a scenario in which a society might require the exercise of the water board in the service of saving millions of lives.  To say that ticking time-bomb scenarios are armchair artifacts is to neglect the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

As Sam Harris and many others have plausibly argued, many modern humanists give less shrift to collateral damage of innocents from drone strikes than to the temporary infliction of pain and suffering on someone known to be guilty, for the purposes of gleaning geometrically more impactful quantities of life-saving information, under highly controlled conditions.

I would say we should toughen up our personal character first, and only much, much later, in truly dire situations of nuclear or large-theater import, toughen up our tactics – only if truly, existentially necessary.

Medicare As We Know It

It’s always instructive to perform simple thought experiments when it comes to baseline budgets for large entitlement programs.

Imagine, tomorrow, that Medicare funding was cut to 80% of what it is today.  No doubt, many needy seniors would be squeezed to pay more for their healthcare, and many would lose some coverage altogether.  Meanwhile rich seniors would notice no palpable difference in their level of consumption since they would supplement the shortfall with their own earnings.  Upper middle class seniors would become shier about the number of tests they ordered.

And no doubt there would be deficit hawks still making the case that Medicare was too big, too inefficient and too redistributive.

Now instead imagine Medicare funding was 120% what it is today.  The neediest seniors would have more support for basic care, but would still suffer disproportionately from many of the same health problems that particularly afflict the poor, due to a host of complex issues.  The rich and upper middle class would be quite happy, having had their health costs better underwritten, to free themselves to invest more on vacations and second homes.

And no doubt there would be social progressives out marching in solidarity with the poor, declaiming about how this new Medicare “nickeled and dimed” people.

A question inheres:  What is magical about the current Medicare funding level?

The answer, both true and false, is that it equates with our democracy’s price point for caring for our seniors.  This is true because Medicare and its subsidiary programs have been enacted by duly-elected congresses and presidents.  This is false because the price point for Medicare is wildly inflating beyond our best models and expectations.  This inflation owes to a knot of issues which rarely implicate democracy, the great exception being the recent Prescription Drug Benefit.

So we are left with the following moral conundrum.  Medicare is an intergenerational promise, and generally one tries not to break those (it feels vaguely biblical to talk of such things), yet the very terms of that promise continue to be rapidly rewritten in ways that the original promise-makers did not intend.  (Cf. public pensions.)

Which side is currently winning the debate about Medicare?  Well, hearing the howl from hell over the paltriest of subventions – adjusting the chained CPI – it would seem that the status quo strongly favors doing nothing.  Nothing here needs some unpacking, as it means increasing funding each year based on cost-of-living, ever-evolving standards of care, the ramped-up number of people entering the system, and the general inefficiencies which permit bureaucracies to lasso more and more tax equity each year.

One reason there is not yet a potent lobby opposing Medicare’s hyperboles is that the national debt still remains as abstract a question as the average citizen’s credit card debt.  Zero percent interest rates make large debt not just legal but free.  No penalty incurred for living beyond one’s means leads to… well.

Another culprit is the ubiquitous meme of “Thou shalt give no offense”, which translates into never entering public life to do anything but coddle a populace that requires constant primping.  The mechanics of this meme works as follows.  Because budgets involve abstract numbers, and because the individual dollar travels such a very long circuit from its payment as tax to its reception as a (much etiolated) benefit, we will all adopt the rule that I will vote for your social program and you will vote for mine.  Hence there is no longer any sensible ground for conflict.

We will adopt the “party rule”, whereby you will only advocate cuts to a program that you would endorse at a party to the face of the disadvantaged constituency.  Mercifully, most people lack both the desire and the spine to give social offense, so we’ll simply scale this impulse up to governing.  In other words, we’ll cleverly equate social shame with social solidarity, and pat you on the back for inertia proceeding from the first while giving you an award for the latter.

Now take this principle as regards Medicare, and multiply it out to everything else we spend money on.  Whence go we?  Over many decades, these good intentions exponentially inflate the system until finally everything explodes like a neutron star, followed by years of dramatic contraction and recrimination (a.k.a. austerity), with the direr potentialities of social disorder and civil unrest.

One can say all this, incidentally, and have no problem with higher taxes.  While the real-world problem is the public’s overpromising, the psychological problem is our blindness to cost curves, baseline budgeting, and butterfly and black-swan type events.  We did not evolve to contemplate remote externalities.

Because healthcare is a basic human need, like food and housing, people tend to emote and not to think about the rationally best way to deliver services at a reasonable cost.  Instead we conflate Medicare with “the widow and her mite”.  Perhaps in the old days, when “best care” in healthcare was exponentially less complex and expensive, this model made sense.

But there’s a spectrum between zero health coverage and full subsidy of the last third of every boomer’s life — particularly when retirees have more disposable income, on average, than the workers being taxed to support the program.  There is a different sort of moral question when there are millions of seniors expecting best care for several decades, and a younger working class that is dwindling in comparable size, income, or the likelihood of receiving any commensurately-ladled future benefit.

So far as promises whose terms constantly change, they do not seem so morally onerous to keep.  Which is not to say heedlessly slash Medicare for today’s seniors.  But chained CPI is not even a palpable dimple.  If we don’t start treating such programs as trusts that must be sanely triaged for future generations, rather than goodies that some Daddy God in the sky has promised in perpetuity, Medicare will die from excess demand long before it meets the alleged perfidies of Paul Ryan.

We should seriously consider means-testing benefits on a graduated scale that is grandfathered in for those 55 and under.  Raising the full eligibility age is another option.  And bringing markets and decentralization to bear will be critical in controlling costs in ways that permit more care to reach more people than top-down boards will permit.

It is not difficult to grasp that healthcare is so vastly expensive partly because of the huge bureaucracies of middlemen — both in the hospital-industrial complex and in government.  Unless competitive pressures are brought to tighten efficiency from within extant power structures — rather than by a single board from above — far less people will receive the care they need, because the system will never become more efficient.

Thoughts on the New Pope

I lost the faith years ago, due to a rather unfortunate confluence of events, both emotional and cognitive, and have never quite been able to square the Catholic theological circle since. Today, my principal qualms with Christianity start with the ontological, proceed to the moral, and end up with the sheer intellectual indefensibility of some of its most cherished premises.

On hearing of a new pope today, however, I noticed an interesting phenomenon both for myself and many other people who are not remotely papists. There was a warm sense of security that a father figure has again been installed to putatively lead the spiritual lives of roughly one out of seven  earthlings.

Whence came this momentary feint toward spiritual authoritarianism within me? Is there some hidden masochism that I never escaped the Borg-like implant of my formative years? This hypothesis seems non-explanatory, since many non-Catholics also seem to be expressing similar feelings of warmth today.

To posit an alternative: We are, as both Americans and global citizens, tired of being mired in a trite  politics, a skin-deep social media, and an increasingly intrusive electronic global consciousness. Never has the wisdom of Ecclesiastes seemed more in demand: All things are vanity. Electronic bytes, displayed as bits on our computer screens, are signs of the passingness of all things.  Their icy remove from flesh-and-blood contingency just makes their comforts more soporific for the real ills that ail us.

One need not be a right-wing ideologue to expire at the thought of another speech about hope and change from this president, or to be mentally and emotionally stunted at what passes for honesty on both sides of the aisle in Washington. There is so much budgetary high jinx today that Enron’s Ken Lay is starting to look like John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, warning us of things to come.

Above all, one must now strain to find a politician who does not babble tendentiously on all things. One can more accurately predict the trajectory of words from any politician’s mouth today than one can plot the course of all those Near Earth Objects which seem to have grown in alarming frequency and magnitude lately. There are few surprises anymore because everyone seems scared and courage has always been in short supply. Politispeak is a dialect aimed at making us coo like babies while no serious question is ever addressed.

Let’s enumerate all the ways we are supposed to be more sensitive these days. To the plight of ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the transgendered, the stay-at-home moms, Muslims, illegal immigrants (a.k.a. migrant workers), the Palestinians (always), mountain-top removal, fracking, wind, solar, climate change, sustainable development, enterprise zones, the world is flat, globalization, fair trade, cyclists versus cars, educating our children properly, Obamacare, good nutrition, no white bread or white rice, low carbs, do not stint on Medicare, Keynesian economics, the new atheism, the church/state divide, free speech, drones, drones, drones.

It certainly seems that all human beings, and not just Catholic human beings, love catechisms and litanies.

What is it that is so refreshing in the changing of the guard at a stodgy old institution of two thousand years, a patriarchy known to be slow to move, slow to embrace change, slow to recognize the rights of women? An organization with Neolithic views on birth control, homosexuals, and just plain old sex? A church marred by the most grievous stain of felony for the past generation (at least)?

In these cacophonous days, there is soothing in the unvarnished symbol of a man who steps forward to be the next pope – who we can at least marginally assume is a good person, who is unlikely to speak tendentiously on questions of the most basic moral witness (given how badly his predecessors dropped the ball) even if he may add some things to the ever-permuting catalog of sin that most sentient earthlings do not consider sin.

People long for some simplicity, some authority somewhere that is not debased, and for a chance even to forgive an institution that, for all its tremendous crimes, expresses a notion of moral absolutism and generational continuity lacking from the often thin, hyper-rationalist screeds of a purely worldly humanism.

Simply put, we do not yet have a working global spirituality for our time. We have many vivacious attempts and the spirit of our age is certainly going to be more individualistic and decentralized, but there is a haunting sense of nascence, of unction, of solipsism, of intellectual vapidity that plagues the whole enterprise. People do not yet know how to fuse systems of thought with symbols and rituals to formulate a decent rite for the death of a loved one, for example. The Catholic Church is exceedingly good at this.

Couple this with the following existential problem for liberal Christians: Everywhere that churches liberalize, their membership fades even faster than in the more conservative traditions. As much attrition as has plagued the Catholic Church, the ranks of Presbyterians, Anglicans or Methodists have been comparably decimated. There is some sort of religious meme that seems to thrive on conservative recidivism.

One dirty little secret that even the fiercest critics of Rome must concede is that child rape has been an unfortunate commonplace of humanity until people starting talking about the pain of their traumas in the therapeutic revolution that began in the 1960s. While great evil has been done throughout human history in this regard, it is yet unclear how the percentage of priestly pedophiles competes with the percentage of parental pedophiles. (Not to exonerate the hierarchy, but to contextualize the problem. It is statistically easier to collate the former than the latter.)

While it’s arguably atrocious to invoke Rome as a moral exemplar of anything these days – given conceivable millennia of clerical child rape, torture, the promulgation of the doctrine of hell, the insidious teachings regarding thought crime, and probably worse – it’s also a testimony to the hunger that people everywhere have for spiritual authority, for a sort of Jungian father archetype, that they turn, ever so slightly, to mark the odd transition of power afoot in Rome.

Book Review: Sam Harris’s “Free Will”

Having just completed Free Will, Sam Harris’s recent book purporting to defenestrate that mythic entity once for all, I found it rousing and well thought out but rather thin in its philosophic self-awareness.

Harris is excellent to read as someone who thinks and writes clearly; like Dennett and other modern scientist-philosophers he is immediately approachable for the nonacademic.  Harris is also a hero of mine, writing boldly (if somewhat reductively) on religion, willing to radically challenge political correctness at every turn, even as regards Islam.  Hence Harris’s body guards, his healthy interest in self-defense, and (one likely genesis) his recent disquisition on guns.

Regards free will, there are some problems with his argument as articulated here, the most basic being the presumption with which Harris approaches the majestic mystery of human consciousness itself – a scientific and philosophical riddle which we are still in our infancy in understanding.  Harris cites famous neural imaging studies which show neuronal activity preceding conscious awareness of actions, sometimes by intervals of several seconds.  While these findings engender serious doubts about free will, Harris invests them with dispositive weight.

Given how little we know about human consciousness, citing these studies is akin to Plato’s cave dwellers attempting to infer the dimensionality and texture of objects in the outside world from the shadows cast upon the cave wall.  One is reminded here of the wild speculations of string theory.  While there is an elegant coherence to Harris’s argument, elegance and coherence are no guarantors of truth.  His points of external reference are too few to warrant such confidence.

Harris sometimes conflates the stream of consciousness with free will:

“Free will is an illusion.  Our wills are simply not of our own making.  Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.  We do not have the freedom we think we have.”

This in itself is true, but not really relevant to the sense in which most people mean free will, i.e., intentional moral agency.  But Harris himself later concedes this as he better focuses his argument.

More deeply, Harris is guilty of excluding the logical middle:

“Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent.  Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.”

This is a failure to think deeply enough.  Harris picks up free will – an admittedly slippery and perhaps illusory concept to begin with – and treats it the way Newton did the falling apple.  It doesn’t seem to occur to Harris that not only is free will the Unmoved Mover in many people’s worldview, religious or not, but that seeking a cause for it is in some manner philosophically nonsensical, because the very meaning of its subjective experience is that it cannot have a cause.

I don’t mean this objection obtusely.  The problem is profound because, even before the scientific method, we have a consciousness that mediates the world and there are many respectable philosophic and even scientific theories that place the mind before external measurement and prediction.  Nor can any scientific experiment be devised to prove that the cosmos is not fundamentally a construct of mind.  In fact, Harris himself expresses attraction to such ideas in other contexts.

What I’m suggesting here is that there may be something in the logical middle between pure random chance and an ironclad chain of cause and effect.  Namely:  the vicissitudes of consciousness, meditation, intellection, etc., whose qualia have not yet been gainfully reduced.

This is not to challenge Harris on the grounds of the numinous alone, but to point up that he tends to presume that the vast wealth of inner self-knowledge is readily explainable at a time when science really barely understands it – and when our best computer algorithms, designed by such as Ray Kurzweil, are Boolean simpletons in trying to simulate it.  The character of our inner experience might impact tomorrow’s physics far more than we can now imagine.

(This point of consciousness impacting physics can be translated on three levels, at least.  I eschew the first, most prosaic version:  Does a tree fall in a forest when no one is there to hear it?  A second interpretation would be questions of quantum mechanics and the Observer’s relation to the quantum world.  More deeply still, a purely scientific reading of the facts may one day prove consciousness to be more fundamental than mass or energy.)

There is a category of knowledge which cannot be easily amenable to either quantification or deductive reasoning from external premises citing cause and effect – not so much because it will not one day be philosophically tractable, but because our knowledge base is too thin to speak with much authority or deduce very intelligibly.

There are several places where Harris inverts the burden of proof:

“If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes – perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment – what can it possibly mean to say that his will is ‘free’?  No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom.  Most illusions are made of sterner stuff than this.”

Note that Harris’s initial “If” invokes the materialist premise.  And throughout the book, while he explicitly maintains that materialism is not required to sustain his argument, he tacitly presumes this to be the only viable case.  (To play ball for a moment, we know so little about neuronal cause and effect that the linkage between antidepressants and serotonin levels remains a quasi-mystical issue.)

More importantly, in my italics above, Harris has reduced the entire question of the feasibility of free will to the absurdly improbable canard that nobody can yet explain the genesis of a mental phenomenon as subtle as the perception of free will.  But how can we even plausibly talk about a materialist explanation for such a rarefied question as the feeling (or illusion) of agency when we are still in kindergarten when it comes to grasping the self-referential building blocks of human consciousness?  While Harris rightly mocks the “God of the gaps” that modern day creationists put forth, he trusts in a present-day “science of the gaps” which so far cannot even taxonomize consciousness.

Most humane about Harris’s argument are the implications for questions of human culpability, forgiveness, and justice.  There is much here to be commended.  If the psychopath is no freer than the wild bear, then human forgiveness is more practicable, because it is easier to forgive a crazy person than an evil one.  Our penal system can become less concerned with exacting vengeance and more with containing unstable people.  And, people inclined to OCD about their past (like me) can let go of that haunting sense that they could have faced a major trial in a different way.

But let’s also extend Harris’s thinking to its full anti-humanist implications.  If there is no free will, then next to fall must be the contiguous meme of human identity – at least as it is commonly understood.  What follows from this is a plausible reduction of the entire universe of human beings to mechanical parts who interact in a giant machine (society), who merely go along for the ride, experiencing various qualia and reacting to each other like Pavlov’s dogs.

Where Harris seems to slightly beg the question is that he is engaged in a lifelong project of changing people’s minds as regards subjects like religion and free will itself.  Presumably, his meme promotion will ramify thusly:  A new meme is introduced; it spreads through its target population like a color dye; people’s brains react like flowers being pollenated, i.e., perhaps their flowers’ colors get a little brighter, but nothing else special is going on.

Problem:  If we construe consciousness as merely meme-managed in this top-down or bottom-up way, we still have a notion of something like the preponderance of the memes within this person swung this way, and now they swing that way.  This is, in essence, what it means to change one’s mind.  But getting a critical mass of inner memes to shift in a new direction by introducing a strong outer meme looks an awful lot like coaxing the assent of another person’s will – even if we have a very different sense of how that will now looks under the hood.  Further, the boundary that separates one person from another person is more fundamental than simply a “meme synapse” that makes it harder to get one’s own memes into someone else’s head.

It strikes me that Harris has not completely explained away free will by anatomizing the constituent parts involved in changing one’s mind.  He is still seeking to change discrete minds by making appeals to a consciousness that can in turn effect a top-down transformation of its respective system.  And what is this top we are referring to?  If we grant that it is even an illusion of human identity, then it seems we must grant that this illusory identity plays some construable role as a conductor over its own unconscious symphony.

What I don’t get from Harris’s thinking is how top-down learning can occur at all if not for some process of selection that seems highly analogous to classical definitions of free will.  Even if we decide that the Selector is simply the aggregate of the most hyperactive memes within a given brain, nonetheless we can intelligibly talk of such a process as suasion as existing.

Consciousness itself raises interesting questions against a purely meme-ordered view.  This is because we are so strangely aware of the whole process of decision-making.  If choosing (i.e.,choosing in the sense of a computer evaluating x > y) a meme we hear at a seminar over some prior-favored meme “inside” is merely an illusion, it is not clear that that makes it any less real in most important ways.  (I.e., it’s not clear that Harris has proven free will is more illusory than the nature of our own existence, which might then be similarly illusory.  Or else, both are similarly real.)

Harris is a brilliant expositor of the best that current scientific thinking can bring us, but with a philosophic blind spot to how much our current scientific milieu has built-in assumptions that might be upended when the next great revolution in physics or neuroscience comes along.  He seems to seek a premature consummation of questions that are properly still quite alive.  While his statement is heroic and provocative, it would be spiritually enervating to treat his ideas as the final word.

Of course, human beings will be impelled to discover the truth, humanistic implications be damned.  Just look at nuclear power.  All I can say is, the stakes are high, so let’s get this right.

Gay Marriage and the Court

I love gay people as much as the next guy; some of my best friends are gay, and I’m often confused for being so.  Naturally flowing from this affinity is a desire to see full marriage equality extended to gays and lesbians, and I can think of no stronger argument for gay marriage than the conservative one:  it stabilizes society.

All this said, I have gotten in several pitched debates with good gay friends about the civic decorum of having the Supreme Court adjudicate the ultimate question, discovering a constitutional imperative for gay marriage that has somehow eluded judges and scholars for 250 years, and imposing that new insight via a single thunderclap from on high.

I respect the long-borne sufferings of gay people enough that part of me could join them in celebrating were that day to come to pass, but part of me would also be chagrined that yet another cultural Roe-moment had been laid down by the Court, bifurcating the country yet again and corroding even further  the already-atrophied legislative function.

At this auspicious time, when young people across the country are organically taking up the cause, when even a caucus of Republicans is forming around this issue, there is a sense of a natural bubbling up of the desire to enfranchise homosexuals across the nation.  To be sure, it is not as fast as many of us would like, and there are setbacks in various statehouses, but the cultural shift is measurably fast, as these things go.

Still, it must be averred that if I were gay and in a relationship, the time for marriage equality would be today, nay yesterday, and not ten years from now, when this new consensus is likely to congeal more fully.  (Though I’d like to think I’d hold to the same line of thinking.)  Why then would I be so parsimonious as to question the wisdom of a Supreme resolution of the question, say, this summer?  Is there some hidden chauvinism at work here?  A secret desire to lord full civil rights equality over others who have not quite achieved it?

Not quite.  My concerns rather stem from all the intangibles that surround such a rapid imposition from on high.  While I don’t take the Santorum line, I do think major social questions should be decided largely by the people.  It is a fair conservative gripe that the public recognition by law  of a new definition of marriage represents a historic evolution of some magnitude, even if gay marriage ultimately fulfills the just arc of history.

To hold that the full civil rights equality of gay marriage is so obvious that only bigots could oppose it is to discover homophobia not only in Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, but also in Barack Obama up until a year ago.  Surely, such a conclusion is ahistoric and absurd.

At this point in the argument, racial intermarriage is often cited.  The analogy is potent but not perfect.  The truth of the matter is more complicated, not least because gay rights activists of an older generation admit that they never conceived of supporting marriage until more recent times.  Nor is this purely a question of the sexual revolution and opportunity that exists today which didn’t exist in, say, 1940.  There also has clearly been an evolution of gay identity and of what gay people desire in a well-lived life.

No, a pro-marriage finding by the Court won’t immediately be bad for gays, but it will lead to more long-term backlash, cultural acrimony, and a sense of legislative impotence around other questions of human solidarity.  It will further encourage the too-prevalent meme that questions of American self-definition are best determined in a centralized manner, where the most important thing is getting the smartest lawyers to make the best arguments before nine people in black robes.

While such a decision may itself produce a salutary result, a sense of constitutional indeterminacy will again be reinforced.  When gay activists just ten years ago chose strategically to use the phrase “civil unions”, suddenly marriage will be seen to have been the obvious meaning, so obvious indeed that the court can invalidate the process of the people coming to legislative grips with the question.

Let it also be noted, as much eye-rolling as this will incur, that there is a spiritual virtue in letting people evolve on such a question by the millions — which is tangibly happening.  This in fact is the strongest argument against the Court intervening for me:  It is more important to see a large number of people grappling with a question, and genuinely changing their own thinking, than it is seeing this process short-circuited by moral imposition by a smaller number of people.  The latter is, to my mind, less democratic, and the question of how decisions are decided is nearly as central as the content of the decisions themselves.  True moral evolution in democracies implicates the largest number of people possible.

All this said, these are technical and abstract arguments, and I’m willing to admit I may be wrong here.  I don’t mean to disenfranchise gays and will celebrate whenever they achieve this new right.  I just mean to question the mindset that seeks an institutional responsiveness that matches the rate of populist evolution, and presumes that there is no reason to prefer painfully slower legislative power on such questions except to preserve injustice.

Conservatives Should Lighten Up

If there’s one thing that exhausts and strains our civic life, it is the meme that all political thought and debate must be corralled into a zero-sum obsession with who wins and loses elections.  The corollary to this meme is that neither side may grant the other support even provisionally when that side adopts a sane or intelligent policy reform in some area beyond contention.

Say there was no statute outlawing murder today in these United States.  One can imagine today’s Republicans and Democrats going to war to prevent the other side from passing an anti-murder statute.

People hold political views because they believe that those views map reality best.  That is most excellent, because it means such beliefs are eminently falsifiable.  If indeed some conservative ideas are more accurate than their liberal twins, then conservatives should rest assured that reality will trump ideological phantasmagoria.  While it hurts that they lost yet again, debt, interest, and entitlements will soon conspire to flummox liberals in entertaining ways, and certain long-repressed solutions will become not just practicable but inevitable.

But then I hear my conservative friends talk about tipping points and points of no return, of nightmare scenarios where interest and inflation run rampant, the dollar implodes, a trade war ensues, and mass unemployment and riots follow.  While such a dreamscape is conceivable, it is checked by Occam’s razor:  Likely, far too many people will have an interest in securing the civil order long before this point, and even Democrats will turn on favored constituencies to maintain their own power.

The Left is right that the U.S. is absorbing a massive influx of immigrants, that the erstwhile white majority is in decline, that religion is in retreat, and that the set point for American politics has moved a bit their way.  The Left is wrong in believing that who governs matters nearly so much as that the fundamental laws of debt and overspending can’t be suspended forever.  Economic truths are far bigger than narrow questions of presidential likeability, or which bloc of voters can be pitted against another.

The appetites of the 99% are far beyond the pith of the 1% to sate, all populist noise to the contrary.  Even the most indefatigable leftists tend to operate according to a narrow self-interest.  According to Peter Schweizer, an investigative journalist, Noam Chomsky shelters his millions from the lecture circuit in a special trust to evade taxes.  The Washington Post, which endorsed Obama, is attempting to settle its taxes before 2012 is over to avoid the 2013 rates.  Many greens continue to find the automobile and the private jet indispensable, etc.

What should be the conservative action plan today?  I rather like John O’Sullivan’s view from National Review that the House give Obama precisely what he wants, and register its disapproval by abstention from the vote.  Seriously, give him his Keynesian wet dream and stop harping about the entitlements.  Go Zen.  And if, by some strange foible of the universe, Paul Krugman’s ideas of just taxation and stimulus prove right this time, then conservatives can quietly adjust their own creeds.  If, however, economic gravity makes an appearance, then conservatives will win the longer battle.

What we need is more of the wit and incision of a George Will or a Charles Krauthammer, and less of the vitriol and despair of the Mark Levin types.  Less Beck-style conspiracy mongering, less Rush Limbaugh profiteering from the coarsest elements of the conservative base, and more WFB-style argumentation, allied with a new Republican libertarian streak.

I don’t really like today’s GOP, and that’s a real problem for them, because I’m the archetypal centrist, agnostic about where my allegiance lies, seeking only the best practical solutions to today’s problems.  Until more members transmute their rage into constructive and ironic commentary, engaging on a lighter and more intelligent level, then they cannot hope to win over voters in this new age that exults emotional intelligence.  What the GOP above all lacks today is an emotional IQ.

The Problem with Today’s Right

What is the problem with today’s Right?  In a nutshell, it used to be a lot harder for a person to get filthy rich without creating a lot of jobs along the way.  This is because the specific gravity of capital used to be a good deal lower – twenty years ago, say.

It makes me no Marxist to join reasonable people in observing that Bill Gates is not as morally entitled to every penny on his balance sheet as the hotel maid is to hers.  To say this does not collar us to confiscate extant wealth, as such a move might well destabilize the very foundations of our society.  But it does inform a just and compassionate view towards a fairer tax code.

The manner in which IT and globalization concentrate wealth inculcates two very difficult truths for the Right:

The first truth is that with the IT revolution, the ratio of work to smarts has shifted towards smarts.  This means that the generational wisdom that hard work will elevate one’s station in life has been subject to a law of diminishing returns – even if it’s still far more true than false.  Never has it been more gainful to be financially literate.  But herein lies the rub:  While 90% of humanity, the vast bell-curve middle, knows how to work hard, only about 1% knows how to invest well in this new and complex world of financial derivatives with a stagnant S&P.  (Arguably, not even that.)

The second truth is that globalization produces outsized rewards to people at the top of pyramids who ruthlessly exploit the exponential difference in standards of living around the world with an efficiency that is starting to rival computers.  This is meritocratic only insofar as we view the global economy as a unitary system – which it manifestly is not.  It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the new global capital players exploit differences in sovereignty, workers’ rights, human rights, exchange rates, environmental regulations, and just simple human hunger and despair in the poorest countries on earth to leverage capital away from richer countries and win on margin.

I still believe there is a strong case to be made for decentralization versus large central government – but I’m also warier about the rapid capital bandwidth we see expressed via “free trade”, which often seems anything but free.  I’m more cautious with how we negotiate boundaries between countries.  Interestingly, I know liberals of some standing who are starting to voice concerns about the liquid border with Mexico in its effect toward depressing wages and job opportunities for low-skilled Americans, who still tend to be far better off than their Mexican competition.

There is also the quandary of healthcare.  One need not endorse the ACA to grasp that Republican proposals like health savings accounts are risibly obtuse.  Middle class families are regularly crushed beneath the cascading cost of care in America’s massively inefficient system.  And while there are intelligent market reforms to be made that would far outperform Obamacare, no prominent humanistic conservatives have emerged to make these wonky proposals better known.

There is finally the social recidivism of too many of today’s Republicans, which while not constituting a war on women as is hysterically alleged, nevertheless they are so silent in the face of misogyny as to unnerve reasonable people.

However, the tragic thing before us is that the Left may be just a few years away from imploding in its own way, though this is largely undetectable now.

People keep mentioning Greece, but the closer analogy is California, whose over-promising to the public employee unions is of course beyond analogy since it’s a U.S. state.  People who don’t look at San Bernardino’s bankruptcy, or the proposed high-speed rail line between L.A. and San Francisco that even environmentalists can’t ratify, or the massive pension problems looming for nigh every category of worker, and grasp that this is a danger for America in general do not yet grasp our predicament.

These problems loom because it is far easier to make genial promises to each other, stirred by feelings of social equanimity, than it is to discover the mechanism for the financial consummation of all our desires.  Unfortunately, no mechanism aside from the free market has ever been found to more dramatically place human individuals in proximity to both the pain and pleasure of their individual choices.  Insulate too much, and social unrest may well ensue when the benefits promised can no longer be paid.

But the Right has much housecleaning to do, and a more humanistic disposition to discover, before it can provide the strongest argument of all:  That in the long run, free markets actually help the poor and the middle class more substantively than an overextended state, by lowering costs and improving access to services.