28 December 2009

He Said It: Darwin

"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." --Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), "Introduction"

22 December 2009

Building Up and Tearing Down

This thoughtful blog post (hat tip to an excellent student), which recommends the teaching of "appreciative thinking" at least as much as "critical thinking," reminds me of this passage from Shaftesbury:
It is certain that in matters of learning and philosophy the practice of pulling down is far pleasanter and affords more entertainment than that of building and setting up. Many have succeeded to a miracle in the first who have miserably fallen in the latter of those attempts. We may find a thousand engineers who can sap, undermine and blow up with admirable dexterity for one who can build a fort or lay the platform for a citadel.
And Shaftesbury published that in 1711!

20 December 2009

Unequal Protection from the Costs of Medicaid?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal that was struck with Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to get the crucial 60 votes needed to proceed on its health care bill included giving Nebraska's citizens an exemption enjoyed by the citizens of no other states: "Mr. Nelson also won a commitment that the federal government would pick up his home state's share of the cost of expanding Medicaid."

By saying that those costs would be picked up by the federal government, the Journal means that they will be borne by the citizens of other states. The citizens of Nebraska will be exempt from paying for the tremendous expansion of Medicaid, while the citizens of other states will not only pay their own share but also Nebraska's portion as well.

I want the same exemption.

I don't believe for one second the suggestion that the new programs will cost only what the Senate and the CBO currently estimate. It would, first of all, be the first federal government program in history to cost only what its supporters say it would up front. And I find the idea that they will cut $500 billion from Medicare laughable. I promise you, it will never happen.

(This past July, President Obama promised, "That is why I have pledged that I will not sign health insurance reform that adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it." Do you believe him? I certainly don't. What's he willing to wager on that promise? If he's wrong, will he rescind the bill? Will he pay personally for the difference? If he's so confident that he can speak of even "one dime," why shouldn't he?)

So this will add hundreds of billions of dollars--trillions, even--to the mounting national debt that our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay. These future generations will have to work all their lives to pay for the benefits we demand now for ourselves. I think that is morally wrong. It is akin to forced labor. Paying for the benefits now, through current taxation, is one thing. I would still oppose it, but at least it's closer to having those who benefit from the program also be the ones who pay for it. But financing it through debt makes future people--who had no say in the program, who were not asked, who did not voluntarily join the agreement--nevertheless have to pay for it. How can that be justified?

So, I repeat: I want the same exemption from paying that Nebraska's citizens will enjoy. I will go farther. I want an exemption from paying for the entire thing, not just expanded Medicaid coverage, and I want a permanent exemption (like Nebraska's citizens) for my children and descendants for any and all debt created by the program. In return, I offer never to use or benefit from any government health insurance or health care program.

Mr. President, will you grant me this exemption?

One other question. Wouldn't Nebraska's special exemption violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?

08 December 2009

Why I Watch "Fox News" (And Why You Should Too)

Among the places I get my daily news is Fox News. Given my line of work (academic professor) and where I work (New York), I get a lot of grief for this. When asked, I give three main reasons why I watch it:

1. By viewership, Fox boasts the top 13 news and commentary programs in the country, garnering approximately 20 million viewers per day combined. That is many millions more than any other television news programs. Thus Fox is what Americans are watching, and I think it is important to know what Americans are watching. I also think that people who comment on the American political, economic, or cultural scene--as I sometimes do--have an obligation to pay attention to the central organs that reflect and influence that scene, whether one agrees with what those organs offer or not. Fox is clearly one of them.

(Incidentally, the New York Times used to be one of those central organs, and perhaps it still is; but with a daily readership now below 1 million, its best days are probably behind it.)

2. Fox often presents viewpoints that the other news sources do not. Fox has guests and commentators representing conservative, libertarian, free-market, constitutionalist, Christian, Republican, and other perspectives that often get short shrift, or no voice at all, in other media outlets. Yet Fox also gives the news and perspectives that other media outlets do give. So on Fox one gets the news and comment that one gets from other news sources, and in addition one also gets news and comment largely absent from the other sources.

3. Finally, I find that Fox has less of the condescension toward Americans that one gets on other news sources. Watching MSNBC or CNN, for example, one gets a lot of frustration and consternation--and condescension--at the beliefs, folkways, mores, and conventions of Americans.

Exhibit A for this is the treatment these outlets have given to the Tea Party protests that swept across America over the summer months this year. These were amazing phenomena, in numbers of participants, in numbers of events, in lack of violence, in--most striking to me--the degree to which leaders and participants actually made substantive arguments about first principles of government (liberty, rights, natural law, competing theories of constitutional interpretation, economics, etc.).

Yet non-Fox coverage of these events tended to be grudging, and, when it was covered, the reporters and commentators were dismissive, superior, smug, rolling their eyes at the benighted "fringe" (despite numbering in the millions) "extremists." They rarely listened to what they had to say, they rarely presented, let alone evaluated, their arguments, and they rarely took the time to ask themselves whether this spectacular grassroots phenomenon might warrant taking seriously. (The Garofalo/Olberman segment--in which protestors are called "tea-bagging rednecks," "racists," "capitalist tools," and "teabag suckers," and in which it is asserted that protesters don't know anything about taxes, don't know when the Boston Tea Party was, don't know what they're protesting or why, etc.--is perhaps the most egregious example of this smug condecension, but there was a lot more of it to be found in smaller, sometimes thinly veiled, doses in other coverage.)

Now of course one gets some dismissiveness on Fox as well. Some Fox commentators and guests are not charitable toward their opponents either, so some of this goes both ways. But there is a lot less of it, which, for me at least, makes it more tolerable to watch.

One final thought. I believe in and subscribe to John Stuart Mill's principle that the truth can be discovered, if at all, only through a crucible of contentious debate. In conversations and discussions, in my teaching, even in my writings (including both published work and blog postings), I have sometimes deliberately adopted and defended views I did not hold, precisely because I thought the consensus (with which I agreed) was too complacent and not sufficiently engaged with alternative views. I think this is part of my job as an academic. And although it has occasionally cost me dearly--when, for example, people mistake my intellectual agitation for a sincere profession of belief in things they dislike--nevertheless I believe the pursuit of truth, which is after all the business I am in, requires it.

Insofar as Fox News adds different perspectives to the national conversations, then, I applaud them for it, whether I agree with those perspectives or not.

[UPDATE 12/9/09: Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, which owns Fox News, wrote an op-ed in the WSJ today under the title, "Journalism and Freedom."]

02 December 2009

He Said It: Milton Friedman

"The college professor whose colleague wins a sweepstake will envy him but is unlikely to bear him any malice or to feel unjustly treated. Let the colleague receive a trivial raise that makes his salary higher than the professor's own, and the professor is far more likely to feel aggrieved. After all, the goddess of chance, as of justice, is blind. The salary raise was a deliberate judgment of relative merit." --Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, p. 166

My Brief Review of Raphael

I wrote a brief review of D. D. Raphael's slim volume, The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy (pictured below). The review appeared in the April 2008 volume of the Journal of the History of Philosophy. If you are interested, a PDF of my review is available here.