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Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Archive for June 2008

Losing Personal Independence

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Before World War II, income taxes were not withheld from paychecks.  Instead, citizens saved their money to pay taxes at the end of the year.  In 1944 E. B. White wrote an essay protesting the new practice of withholding tax from the paychecks of Americans.  He said, “It is bad because it implies that the individual is incapable of handling his own affairs.  The government as much as says: We know that, if left to your own devices, you will fritter away your worldly goods and tax day will catch you without cash.  Or it says: We’re not sure you’ll come clean in your return.”

He goes on, “This implication is an unhealthy thing to spread around, being contrary to the old American theory that the individual is a very competent little guy indeed.”

White’s piece demonstrates how America has changed.  His views on independence and self-reliance represented the thinking of most Americans at the time.  His thesis was in line with a long-standing tradition of American individualism and self-reliance going back beyond Emerson to the time of the founding fathers.  But his beliefs are far from mainstream thinking today.

White was a respected writer, an important contributor to and editor of the New Yorker magazine.  As late as 1963 White was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  But today anyone seriously taking a stand against income tax withholding would be ridiculed as a kook. Why?

What has happened in the country in those sixty-odd years since he wrote the essay?   If White’s thesis seems quaint or extreme, it is because of our willingness to accept the erosion of liberties.  We are more willing than White’s generation to trade personal independence for the security of a paternalistic government.     

Today, evidence all about us suggests that an increasing number of Americans are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their lives.  A person spills hot coffee on herself and blames the coffee vendor for selling hot coffee.  A person kills her children and blames the crime on her own unhappy childhood.  In this way citizens may gain a certain kind of security, but it is a security bought with a loss of liberty.  Each time we show ourselves to be irresponsible, we invite the intervention of government. When we abuse our children or shift blame for our personal failures to forces outside ourselves, we are asking to be stripped of rights.  And there is no scarcity of governments, agencies, and politicians who are willing to take control of the lives of citizens.   

Advocates of big government always assume that citizens are incapable of looking after themselves.  Laws are being written and precedents are being set in law to accommodate this kind of irresponsibility.  Instead of holding individuals responsible for their actions, courts have started finding someone else to blame (typically some person or corporation with enough money to pay large fines).  The tobacco industry is said to be at fault when people choose to smoke themselves to death; the manufacturer of firearms is blamed when people misuse firearms.

What is being done to encourage responsibility? Not much.  Government has no inclination to make people self-reliant.  Politicians and bureaucrats have nothing to gain by fostering independence in citizens.  The founding fathers knew this very well.  The Bill of Rights that they incorporated as the first ten amendments to the Constitution are all restraints on the tendency of government to encroach on the rights of the people.

The prevailing view among sociologists and post-modernist philosophers is that the individual is typically incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions.  It may be true, but widespread acceptance of such a philosophy can paralyze a society.  It is a view that thwarts justice and is inconsistent with a functioning democracy.  How can individuals who are incapable of governing themselves govern others?

A better approach is to concur with E. B. White’s assumption that people are in control of themselves and are, therefore, responsible for their deeds.  Perhaps it is just an assumption, but it is one that appeals to our better nature.  Subscribing to that view in the past has inspired people to rise above their worst impulses.  After all, our nation’s independence was based on that same unproven assumption that people could govern themselves.

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Written by polemicscat

June 29, 2008 at 7:09 pm

Poets, Astronomers, and Superstition

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A common opinion among poets has been that science somehow diminishes people’s appreciation of the natural world.  The English romantic poet Wordsworth, in a derogatory reference to scientific analysis, says, “We murder to dissect.”     

Another English romantic, John Keats, in one of his letters, tells about a gathering of his writer friends.  They had discussed Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments in optics through which Newton had discovered that a rainbow is formed by the refraction of light passing through spherical droplets of water.  Keats and his friends drank a toast to the memory of Newton but lamented his “unweaving the rainbow.” 

Among American authors, both Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman wrote poems which disparage the work of scientists.  In his “Sonnet–To Science,” Poe says,

 
    Science, true daughter of Old Time thou art!
    Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
    Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
    Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” recounts a lecture by an astronomer who gives “proofs” and “figures” using “charts and diagrams” to talk about the stars.  Whitman then says that he (a listener) “grew tired and sick” and wandered off into the “mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Must it be that having a scientific knowledge of the natural world interferes with a person’s appreciation of its beauty?  I haven’t found that to be the case. 

Whitman and Poe seem to believe that the kind of thinking that scientists do is entirely different from the mental processes of other people.  But, really, all factual knowledge of nature IS scientific.  Even the simplest observation about nature–let’s say, for instance, that maple leaves turn various colors and fall from the trees in autumn–is not different from a scientific observation.  It is a conclusion based on evidence.

What scientists do is not different in kind, but just in degree, from what every sane person does every day. Anything a poet knows about nature has come through the same kind of mental processes that a scientist uses.  True, poets write about people’s emotional responses to the natural world.  But any poetic feeling for nature must begin with factual knowledge of nature.  Only a poet who has observed nature can write a poem about it. 

I find that nothing else is quite so exhilarating and awe-inspiring as to look at the stars and to know that they are vast distances from us. That knowledge does not detract from the beauty of a clear night sky.

The sun is the closest star to us and is about ninety-three million miles away.  Light (the fastest thing in the universe), coming from the sun at 186,000 miles per second, takes more than eight minutes to reach us.   Light from the outer-most planets orbiting about the sun can take as much as an hour and a half to reach us, depending on what position the planets occupy in their orbits. 

Since radio signals travel no faster than visible light, a radio conversation between someone on earth and someone on Neptune would be difficult.  The person on earth might ask, “How’s the weather there?” and then would have to wait a couple of hours to hear the person on Neptune say, “Oh, about the same as yesterday.”

Light coming from the next star beyond the sun takes more than four years to reach us.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is so large that light needs a hundred thousand years to traverse it.  The sky is filled with such galaxies of stars in every direction we look, and the closest significant galaxy beyond our Milky Way (visible through the constellation Andromeda) is a gigantic pinwheel of stars more than a million light-years away.  Yet, despite this vast space and this enormous number of stars, we are–as far as we know–the only creatures ANYWHERE who look out at the stars and wonder about them. 

Whatever these facts of science are, they are certainly not “dull realities” as Poe puts it.  Of course, Poe and Whitman were largely ignorant of the true nature of stars.  Only in the twentieth century have people had any inkling of what they were seeing when they looked at the stars. 

But even today some people are unmoved by the grandeur of the universe as we find it and prefer instead to study the superstitions of the horoscope or other pseudo-science.  Why?  Maybe such people are interested in only what relates directly and personally to them.  Perhaps, like the poet Keats, they resist learning what causes a rainbow because they want to believe that a rainbow is magic.  For whatever reason, some people seem to prefer fantasy to knowledge, without being aware of how fantastic reality is.

Written by polemicscat

June 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

The Dumbing Down of America

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Booksellers and publishing firms are using a peculiar tactic for selling how-to books today.  Anybody who has browsed through bookstores in the last few years must have noticed it.  Lots of how-to books are being published with titles that appeal to the customer’s ignorance and  low self-esteem. 

I first noticed it some years ago when I went shopping for  a computer manual.  The only one I could find on the piece of software I had was entitled something like Database III Plus for Complete Idiots. 

I suppose there is some justification for putting people’s mind at ease about difficult subjects.  And computers have had the reputation of being difficult since day one.  In the early days only young geniuses were thought to be able to use computers properly. 

But today every subject under the sun has been considered too difficult for the average American.  Another publisher has a series of books with titles like Knitting for Dummies.  And many of these books are about what I thought were very simple subjects.  I’m expecting any day now to see one entitled Putting on Shoes for Dummies.  I saw one like that recently.  It was on a subject that has customarily been considered “doing what comes naturally.”  It was Sex for Complete Idiots.

But I figure it’s a part of a national trend to make people feel comfortable with their inadequacies.  Television and movies are doing their part.  We are more satisfied with ourselves after watching Bevis and Butthead.  The movie Dumb and Dumber allows us  to laugh at someone who is actually dumber than we are. And, once we see Forrest Gump succeed in life without really trying, we think, “Great, if I keep going the way I’m going, my ship (or shrimp boat) will come in too.”

Being intelligent hasn’t been anything to brag about in quite a while.  In November 1991 the Atlantic Monthly published an article “The Other Crisis in American Education” by Daniel J. Singal. Among other things the author says that in the 1960’s a trend of downplaying academic achievement began.

“In every conceivable fashion the reigning ethos of those times was hostile to excellence in education.  Individual achievement fell under intense suspicion, as did attempts to maintain standards.  Discriminating among students on the basis of ability or performance was branded ‘elitist.'”

He goes on to say that at the time “educational gurus” advocated “essentially non-academic schools, whose main purpose would be to build habits of social cooperation and equality rather than to train the mind. . . . To the extent that logic and acquired knowledge interfered with that process, they were devalued.”

Singal was told by one independent school that assignments are “age appropriate” which means assignments “that reflect their interests as adolescents, that they can read without constant recourse to a dictionary, and from which they can take whatever they are inspired to take.” Sounds ideal for people who are born with a large vocabulary.

Many good schools and teachers did not buy this philosophy, of course.  They persisted in trying to maintain higher standards.  But it’s a matter of speculation how much harm has been done by the general trend.  It’s a fact that many foreign- born students have to be recruited for math-and-science-intensive jobs in the United States.

But some of that recruiting is done by employers to get cheaper labor.  The Associated Press reported that “Studies show that the average annual wages of computer programmers and engineers working in the United States on the [H-1B work] visas are 15 percent to 33 percent lower than those of U.S. citizens.”  That explains why “requests for visas to hire foreign workers increased last year, despite lay-offs that affected more than one million workers.”     

Still, many jobs in the U.S. have gone to foreign applicants because those applicants were better qualified in math and science.  Maybe it’s time we stopped supplying books for dummies and idiots to our citizens.

Written by polemicscat

June 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Tabloids and Campaign Reform

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Standing in  the checkout line at grocery stores,  I often get a laugh as I read the tabloid headlines.  Almost any outrageous claim can be found there.  I remember from years ago headlines like “Ninety-year-old Woman Has Triplets,” and “President Clinton Confers with Extraterrestrials.”  And the story about Clinton included “photographs” to prove it.

I started thinking about the people who buy these papers. No one that I know has ever admitted buying one.  And I have never seen anyone carrying a tabloid out of the store.  But somebody must be buying them; otherwise the publishers would go broke.  I wonder whether tabloid readers are the same people who watch wrestling on television and think it is really an athletic contest. 

I was thinking about this and about people who buy tabloids, and I suddenly stopped laughing.  It dawned on me that every person who believes the stuff printed in the tabloids has a vote equal to that of the most informed citizen.  It was a sobering thought. 

Yet, I often hear commentators and politicians lamenting the fact that, typically, fewer than sixty percent of the eligible voters actually vote in American elections. What is the common denominator between people who don’t vote.  Maybe those who measure reality by tabloid standards are the non-voters.  Let’s hope so.

Considering the potential of the Tabloid Block to skew the outcome of elections, why is there such a big push every election year to “get out the vote”?   It seems to me that easy registration and easy voting are bad signs in a democracy.  I figure anybody who forgets to register or to vote probably doesn’t remember the issues or the candidates’ names either.  

Maybe that’s why we have to have such long and expensive campaigns before elections.  It now takes a year and a half for presidential candidates to establish name recognition.  Probably the reason that incumbents have an advantage over the other candidates is that they have been in the news for four or more years, and the voters have finally remembered their names.  That would explain why incumbents are almost automatically re-elected and why some people have wanted to limit the terms of office holders.

But that’s just one of the problems with elections these days.  Another one is that the costs of campaigning have become absurdly high.  If the trend continues, soon only the very rich– or those who have been bought by special interest groups–will stand any chance of being elected to Federal offices.  

Here are a few modest proposals that might make elections less expensive for the candidates and a little less wearisome to people who think they have a civic duty to pay attention to campaigns.  

    1. Limit the campaign season for elections to six months. Long campaigns are relics from horse-and-buggy days. With today’s advanced communication, long campaigns are unnecessary.

    2. At the beginning of the campaign season, require each candidate to publish a position paper that sets forth the candidate’s views on the twenty most important issues and the candidate’s proposals for solving associated problems.  These position papers would allow voters to make more intelligent decisions on election day and would serve as records of campaign promises.

    3. Hold all primaries throughout the country on the same day, three months before election day. Party conventions could be held between primary day and election day. 

    4. For the privilege of being licensed to operate, television stations and networks should be required to give a limited and equal number of hours of air time to each major party’s nominee for a Federal office.

It might be that such measures would not only reduce the costs of conducting a campaign for candidates, but would also give voters easier access to solid information about candidates’ ideas for conducting the people’s business.

Written by polemicscat

June 18, 2008 at 8:10 pm

The Importance of the Electoral College System

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” I think we need to abolish the outmoded, archaic Electoral College system and finally make real the principle of one citizen, one vote.”   You can expect to hear that sentiment expressed a lot in this year.  That opinion has been voiced from time to time because, under the Electoral College system, it is possible for a presidential candidate with the majority of the popular votes to lose to the candidate who gets the majority of the electoral votes.   And it happens.  That seems to be a bad thing; yet equally bad things would be possible under a strictly popular-vote election of presidents.

The Constitution provides that electors for a State be equal to the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives from that State.  Thus, the system reflects the importance of individual States, just as the makeup of  the U. S. Senate does: all States are equal in having two Senators each.   Similarly, in presidential elections using the Electoral College system, the small or sparsely populated States can be assured of having at least  two electoral votes.  

If  popular vote totals determined the outcome of  presidential elections, a small or sparsely populated State would become increasingly insignificant compared to States with large cities and large populations.   Even now presidential candidates tend to ignore the special needs and opinions of  people in States with low population and to campaign only in densely populated States.

But the worst part about abandoning the Electoral College system is that it would promote an increase of minor-party candidates.   Under the Electoral College system, minor-party candidates usually do not get any electoral votes because a candidate has to get the majority of popular votes in a State before getting any electoral votes.  But in a popular-vote election, minor-party candidates are able to pick up votes here and there all across the nation but not enough to win an election.   

What’s so bad about that?  When three or more candidates are vying for votes, it is difficult for any candidate to get a majority of the popular vote.  In 1992 when Ross Perot was in a race with Clinton and Bush, no candidate got a majority of the popular vote.  Clinton did get sufficient electoral votes to be elected, but he received only 43 percent of the popular vote.  That didn’t seem to bother the “one citizen, one vote” advocates.  It’s as though the act of voting is more important than any result that voting can have.

Suppose we had been using just popular votes to elect the president in 1992.   A run-off election would have been necessary between the two top popular-vote getters ––or we could have declared the candidate with a plurality of  popular votes the winner.  That would have been just another way  of reaching the same imperfect goal that we reached in 1992.  All this makes the phrase “one citizen, one vote” a rather meaningless slogan.

Even with only two candidates vying for the office, democracy is always a little unfair.  It’s always a bit of a compromise.   As Thoreau noted, it’s of little consolation to the person who is on the losing side of some issue to know that the majority ruled.

Written by polemicscat

June 17, 2008 at 3:50 pm