Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lifting God's Burdens

         Perhaps to teach us all a lesson, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to help bear the burden of God Himself, the cross on which He died.  In so doing, Simon enacted a deep truth about Christian spirituality:  Just as God took upon Himself the burdens of our sin, we can take upon ourselves some of the burdens of His love, burdens that, in His grace, He deigns to share with us.  Not that He needs our help, and not that He cannot do the job all on His own.  Of course He can.  But He is a sharing God, and He rarely does all on His own things the doing of which He can share with his creatures.
         To say that, like Simon, we might share in the Savior’s burden and help lift it in the way that He shared ours and lifted it, is not to imply that in any way there exists between Him and us an equality.  There does not.  I speak not of equality but of mutuality, of the exchange of love between unequals, indeed between those who are unequal in every way.  Inequality does not prevent mutuality.  Inequality is simply the context in which the mutuality of love between God and us is worked out in all its historical details.  By means of this unequalness in love and exchange, we are in much the same relation to God as a dog might be in licking its master’s face when it knows the master is hurting.  Of course, the master will pull through even without the lick.  But still, in its own peculiar way, it helps.  The unequalness in that lick is part of the beauty and depth of the relationship depicted or enacted.  A bridge of affection spans the gap not only between dog and human, but also between human and God.  We look up to God and see His suffering, and offer Him our version of a gentle lick; and from it He somehow derives Divine pleasure.  To be sure, He, not we, built the bridge of mercy that connects us to Him.  But we are free to cross it, and to offer mercy in return.  When He draws us to Himself, and when we obey that drawing, it gives Him joy. 
         Picture a large and strong man, bearing two, three, or even more, heavy bags of produce on his stooped shoulders.  Standing near him, his child, seeing the father’s burden, and loving him, says, “Daddy, can I help?”  The father, understanding well the child’s imperfect love and meager strength, but loving the love that prompted the offer, says, “Yes, child; take this potato.”  And with more effort than would have been expended bearing it all himself, he shifts the tiniest of burdens onto the child, and both he and his child are heartened in the exchange.  The image of it all is captured well in Wordsworth’s beautiful poem “Michael,” wherein the child Luke’s effort to share his father’s work turned out to be “something between a hindrance and a help.”  Yet, meager as that help was, Luke received his father’s praise, and the father received joy.
         I am saying, among other things, that the strange and alien notion of an impassible god is not something we learned from the Bible.  In both Testaments, we learn of his anger, his pleasure, his love, his suffering, his frustration, and even his mirth.  Such feelings, such passions, are not anthropo-morphisms in Him, but theo-morphisms in us.  We feel them at all only because He felt them first and made us like Him.  We would have known that about God and ourselves all along if Greek philosophy had not spoiled us.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pounding Pens into Swords: The Theology of Invective

         I can see no other way.
         We must learn once more to confront nonsense in all its forms and to call things by their real names.  We must learn that euphemisms are lies and that patience and gentleness sometimes do no good.  Worse still, they often do injury.  Count on it, when you treat a fool with nothing but kindness, he remains a fool.  If you pat him on the back and stroke his ego, he does what any fool does:  he mistakenly concludes that everything is alright with him, rather than realizing that you are simply being kind to ignorance the way you are kind to all other forms of poverty.
         We must revive the ancient and honorable art of invective, which is to language what justice is to law -- a means of giving people what they deserve.  What some of them deserve is a good kick in the pants.  This article, therefore, is dedicated to telling the fools to bend over and grab their ankles.  The beatings will now commence.

The New Testament

         If, like me, you are a Christian, you often encounter brothers and sisters in the faith who are, to put it plainly, well-intentioned but mush-minded invertebrates.  They seem unwilling and unable to grasp with clarity or conviction that some things are wrong and some are wicked.  Even if they could grasp that fundamental truth about the world, they lack the courage to call evil and error by their real names.  They do not understand that, if you fail to call evil evil, then you are treating it no differently than you treat goodness, which you do not call evil either.  The only thing they seem able to oppose publicly is that small collection of Christians who speak forthrightly, Christians who are less afraid of giving offense to the offensive than they are of aiding and abetting wickedness and error with sloppy and unjustifiably lenient language.
         This will never do.
         We Christians rightly recognize Christ as the very embodiment of love.  But Christ was no bleeding heart, and He was no invertebrate.  The "gentle Jesus meek and mild" never existed.  He is a nineteenth and twentieth century fiction.   The historical Jesus was another matter altogether.  At various times, and when the situation demanded, the real Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs and dirty dishes.  He actually referred publicly to one of his chief disciples as Satan.  So that his hearers would not miss his point, He sometimes referred to the objects of his most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. 
         No doubt His doing so made the invertebrates around him begin to squirm because they realized how offensive this tactic would be to outsiders.  Nevertheless, Jesus persisted.  He did so because He knew better than his jellyfish camp followers that alluding to heinous acts, and to those who continue to practice them, in only the most innocuous and clinical language does no one, least of all the offenders themselves, any good.  I cannot say it forcefully enough:  Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant.  Others He often addressed with the most withering invective.  God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that his listeners found deeply offensive.  He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice.  I deny that we can improve upon the rhetorical strategy of Him who was Himself the Word, and who spoke the world into existence.
         The objection raised by the invertebrates that Jesus spoke aggressively only to self-righteous Pharisees simply misses the point.  Any sinner who rejects repentance, or any sinner who holds repentance at bay because he somehow believes it is not for him, is self-righteous.
         Paul talked the same way. 
         Although his invertebrate comrades probably considered it offensive and indelicate of him to do so, Paul did not hesitate to suggest to several churches -- publicly, plainly, and in writing -- that his many detractors ought simply to emasculate themselves (Gal. 5: 12).  If you believe that circumcision makes you right with God, he argued, why not go the whole way and really get right with God?  If Lorena Bobbitt was reading the Bible on the night that made her famous, this was the verse she read.
         Furthermore, in the same letter, (in fact, in the space of but three verses) Paul twice refers to his Galatian readers, the very people he is trying to convince, as fools (Gal. 3: 1, 3).  Subsequent events indicate that his shocking words, though clearly offensive, were not ineffective.  The Galatians chose to follow Paul rather than the Judaizers, whose tactic was, in Paul's words, to "win the approval of men," the very tactic urged upon us so indefatigably by the invertebrates -- though never in gender specific language.
         In short, if the religion and practice of the New Testament offend them, the invertebrates need to argue with Jesus and Paul, not me.

Christian Literature
         Furthermore, like Christ and his chief apostle, the greatest Christian writers of the Western world also refused to subscribe to the principle that language deeply offensive to one's readers or listeners ought always to be shunned.  Neither the greatest writers of Western tradition (such as Dante, Erasmus, Milton, and Swift) nor the best of the present day permit their language to be censored or vetoed by the hyperactive sensitivities of the spineless.  Great writers select one word over all other words because that word, and that word only, most fully conveys their meaning, and because that word, and that word only, can best be expected to produce the author’s intended effect.  That meaning and that effect are occasionally, and sometimes intentionally, offensive.

The Rules 
         Verbal precision, not inoffensiveness, is the traditional hallmark of the West's best writing and the West’s best books, some of which were deeply and intentionally offensive to great numbers of those who first read them.  Dante's Inferno consigns a number of Catholic notables -- including popes -- to Hell.  Erasmus's Praise of Folly excoriates monks and theologians as a shameless and squalid mob.  His Julius Excluded locks Pope Julius out of Heaven because he was an adulterous, blood-thirsty, syphilis-ridden, mammon hound.  Some of Milton's political pamphlets and poetry are, among other things, timeless handbooks of insult and invective.  Great portions of the works of Jonathan Swift constitute a veritable scatologist's Bible.  These works and many like them would never have been written or published had the modern preoccupation with inoffensiveness been then the controlling consideration.  Because that preoccupation now prevails, these books and many like them are being harried out of the literary canon.  In other words, the guidelines according to which the invertebrates want us to write are guidelines that not only would have radically recast many of our culture’s great books had they been followed, but would have prevented some of them from ever being written at all.  Had modern guidelines been previously in effect, they would have banished many of our civilization’s most important and memorable texts far more effectively and extensively than has the politically correct curriculum at Stanford, Harvard or Oberlin.

Freedom and Virtue
         Invertebrates cannot comprehend that despicable conditions inevitably arise in a fallen world.  Those despicable conditions sometimes require us to employ the language of shock and of confrontation in our unflagging efforts to push back the frontiers of evil and error.  But the spineless do not like it when we do.  They want to police the way we speak.  They want, literally, to erase words from our language.  I have been told by one Christian professor, whom I like and whom I respect, that there was never a time when shock language was right.  Such language, I am asked to believe, ought to be eliminated.  But though others delete it, I shall not.  The fewer words you have at your disposal, the fewer thoughts you are able to think or to articulate with full precision, and the fewer points you are able to make with your desired effect.  When the range of words is small, the range of thought is small and the power of speech is diminished.  In that sense, word police are thought police.  The invertebrates want to put you under arrest. 
         Language, like liberty, is not normally lost all at once.  It slips through our hands a little at a time, almost imperceptibly.  Don't let it happen.
         Slang words and shock words have their legitimate use.  Sometimes the right word is a slang word or a shock word because no other word conveys your meaning as fully or as accurately, and because no other word elicits the response you desire.  Sometimes the right language is language that falls beyond the pale of polite discourse –- but not of virtue. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

No God, No Good

“I dislike the frequent use of the word virtue instead of righteousness . . . it sounds too much like pagan philosophy.”

                                             Samuel Taylor Coleridge

         At a conference concerning the teaching of moral values in the public schools, a justifiably well-known philosopher from an eastern university asserted that the moral virtues were (1) those values without which we humans do not flourish because they are rooted in human nature, and (2) those values that enjoy a consensus that spans culture, country, and century, something like the Tao described at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.  That moral values described or derived in either of these two ways are not really moral values, much less moral absolutes, is the burden of this brief chapter.
         First, values determined either by human flourishing or by human nature are not truly right or wrong, not properly moral absolutes; they are pragmatism or utilitarianism masquerading as good and co-opting the language of virtue and “oughtness,” to which they have no philosophical or theological claim.
         As the following analysis will demonstrate, one must not contend that human nature and human flourishing yield moral absolutes, properly so-called, because such a theory fails to account for (1) the origin of human nature, (2) changes in human nature, and (3) the selection of “flourishing” as a category of moral discernment.  I shall leave aside the vexed philosophical question of whether or not human nature itself actually exists as an entity in its own right, or if it is merely a philosopher’s fiction without any extra-mental reality.  I simply note in passing that the theory of morality here under review assumes an answer to this question that, if mistaken, devastates the theory by erasing its metaphysical basis.
         (1) If human nature arose as the chance result of a mindless evolutionary process, a process behind which exists no divine mind and no divine plan, then moral absolutes disappear.  That is, if human nature is the result of evolutionary accident, and if right and wrong arise solely from human nature, then right and wrong are accidents, not moral absolutes.  Biological chance cannot serve as the philosophically proper foundation of right and wrong; it is their undoing.  If human nature and human mind are the unintentional outcome of the chance collocation of atoms and of the random meanderings of natural selection (in other words, if the human mind is a mere epiphenomenon contorting and disporting itself for a short while upon the face of physical matter), then we have no convincing reason to trust them as indicators of moral goodness; nor have we any real or enduring right and wrong.      
         (2) Had the evolutionary process been different, or had the primordial soup been mixed from a different recipe, so to speak, or stirred at a different temperature, human nature might have been radically altered, along with the allegedly moral values this theory insists arise from it.  Evolution might well have yielded a quite different array of species than it has, and humans (if they existed at all) might not be the most intelligent species and they might flourish in ways radically different from those that now obtain.  That is, one can easily imagine a set of markedly different biological conditions, a set of conditions which demonstrated the physiological supremacy of a non-human species, one that flourished after the fashion of a cockroach.  Cockroach-style flourishing would then become the measure of virtue, and not that means of flourishing that we humans sometimes now employ.  I take this to mean that the moral absolutes yielded by this system of thought are neither truly moral nor truly absolute.   They are simply that set of actions which we perceive to tend most effectively toward the pleasure and prosperity of our own species, which is, to put it bluntly, simply species bigotry parading as morality.
         If something noticeably different from us, but something sufficiently close we could still call it human, evolved, then likely a noticeably different set of human actions would yield human flourishing.  That altered means of flourishing would then become the definition of right and wrong.  But precisely why the actions that conduce to the flourishing of the most intelligent and biologically innovative survivors of natural selection, whatever those survivors happened to be like, should be called morally virtuous is not clear and has not been (indeed, I would say cannot be) established.  In other words, what has here been described is not true virtue.  It is an intellectual misfire based on the philosophically injudicious assumption that somehow biological might makes right, or that merely by succeeding biologically a species gets to use itself as the measure of good and evil.  This is not a system of moral absolutes; it is a system of biological relativism.  
         That those actions which conduce to the flourishing of the most intelligent and innovative survivors of natural selection (that is, those beings who have managed best to survive the ebb and flow of such things as mutation, catastrophe, retrogression and adaptation) should be called moral merely confuses with right and wrong those actions which seem to some members of a species to permit that species to flourish at one particular point in its evolution.  Conceivably that species was sufficiently different in its earlier stages of development, and will be sufficiently different in its later stages of development, that those means by which it now flourishes might be radically different both from what they once were and might eventually become.  If so, what are now called right and wrong are not moral absolutes, but simply that set of actions perceived as most efficient at the moment.  What set of actions will be so perceived in the distant future is still an open question, a question that might receive a starkly different answer then than either it now does or previously did, but which this system must nevertheless consider morally correct and universally binding.  In short, to our previous charges of species bigotry and biological relativism we now must add time relativism and moral contradiction -- but not moral absolutes.
         Put differently, not only does the doctrine of evolution entail the notion that the human species and human nature are essentially mutable, but this allegedly natural mutability is amplified by the very startling, and very real, prospect of the species itself orchestrating and accelerating its own evolution and alteration by means of its scientific experimentation and acumen.  Like our alleged natural mutability, this self-conducted mutability is the death knell of any and all moral absolutes supposedly rooted in human nature.  When we do acquire the power to modify the nature of the race -- and some speculate that our ability to do so is soon to be gotten -- will what we produce still be truly and fully human?  Will right and wrong then be rooted in human nature as it was or in human nature as it is in whatever it is we shall have made of it?  Assuming that the alteration in human nature is accomplished only one person at a time rather than in the entire race all at once, and assuming therefore that twosorts of persons with a defendable claim to human nature exist simultaneously, which version of human nature supersedes the other and is to be considered the fountain from which all right and wrong arise?  Will those who possess the other human nature be subject to a system of right and wrong that arises from a nature not entirely their own?  What if our experiments do not always succeed?  That is, what if the treatment does not always "take;" what if it yields occasionally idiosyncratic results that produce far more than merely two varieties of human nature?  Which variety takes precedent?  Shall we fall into the logical contradiction of having a number of competing sets of moral absolutes, each with different content?  Though the answer to such puzzling questions might be difficult to identify, and though the answers to such questions might raise insurmountable difficulties for those who advocate this inadequate system of moral absolutes, the answers given to those questions make no difference at all to our purpose because any answer given them exposes the foundation of this ethical system as shifting sand, not moral bedrock. 
         Furthermore, if humans did not exist at all (and under the direction of a mindless evolutionary process they easily might not), and if right and wrong arise from human nature, then right and wrong would not exist (regardless of whether we considered right and wrong as either moral absolutes or as the biological relativism that emerges from biological success).  In other words, because this theory of ethics ties morality to human nature, the fate of human nature is the fate of morality.  That fate, if the second law of thermodynamics is correct, is oblivion.  The material world is winding down to something like an amorphous, motionless mass of dead matter at a low temperature, incapable of sustaining life.  Along with the demise of the physical universe go this ethical system’s alleged moral absolutes, the true name of which we now see is “nihilism.”  In this system, morality, like everything else, comes precisely to nothing.  When human beings cease to exist sometime in the future, as any world view that leaves out God must assert, right and wrong cease to exist at that same moment.  In short, what was intended by this philosopher to be the foundation of ethics is really its death warrant.
         (3) Why flourishing (and not something else) should be the measure of virtue cannot be proven.  To select flourishing as the measure of moral discernment, or to define flourishing as one thing and not another, is merely to elevate both one's own personal preference for flourishing and one's own definition of flourishing (whatever it happened to be) to the level of an absolute, which they neither are nor ever could be.  One might just as easily have selected, as did the Marquis de Sade, private pleasure at the expense of another's pain as the measure of appropriate conduct.  One might even prefer death to life, as do virtually all suicides.  That happiness or prosperity, and not death, is the proper content of flourishing cannot be established from a merely evolutionary basis, except that one simply assert a preference (pragmatic or otherwise) for the one and not the other.  Again, whatever else such private preferences might be, they are not moral absolutes.
         Finally, as much as I value the work of C. S. Lewis, in general, and his The Abolition of Man, in particular, I would be misusing his book were I to argue from it that, because there appears to be substantial agreement among the peoples of the world about the rules of right and wrong, therefore these rules of right and wrong are moral absolutes.  Consensus, regardless of how extensive or how enduring, is no sure measure of morality.  All too often the majority has consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to colossal evil.  Morality is not determined by nose count.  "Majority" is no synonym for "morality."
         As Archibald Alexander somewhere observed, virtue is not known by reason alone, but by revelation and by Providence.  Sir Philip Sidney’s way of saying it was to insist that the only impregnable citadel for virtue was religion.  Both were precisely correct.
         In a word, if there is no God, there is no good.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Education for Sale: $199 per Month

         I’ve read that at least one college has decided recently to let students take as many courses or credit hours as they wish for $199 per month, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level.  While to some folks that might sound quite tempting, to me it does not.
         Education, like nearly all other very-hard-to-acquire skills and conditions, is an apprenticeship.  To get it, you must spend time, lots of time, interacting with the master.  Time online is not time with the master, even if he (or she) is in front of his computer the same time you are in front of yours.
         Try to imagine how much worse off the disciples would have been had they spent their time with Jesus online.  Even having spent three years with Him face-to-face, one of them denied Him three times, another betrayed Him, and all the rest ran away in fear.  One wonders at what level their theology and piety would have languished without those three precious and unparalleled years of eye-to-eye interaction with Jesus in the flesh, absorbing His tone of voice, the looks on His face, and (given the way we teach even when we are not teaching) His activities and mannerisms when He was off duty.  We must never forget that God's appearance among us was an incarnation, not an inpixelation.
         Imagine how much less effective Socrates would have been without the face-to-face interaction that allowed him to ad-lib the kinds of questions that needed to arise in response to the unpredictable, spontaneous, and sometimes boneheaded statements made by others, things not to be known beforehand or incorporated into an online lesson plan.  If teaching were primarily just imparting information, and if learning were primarily just acquiring it, then perhaps this computer-based approach might work, but even then only moderately well.  That’s because such enormous amounts of real teaching and learning do not come within a hundred miles of what can be gotten online that even $199 a month is likely to be overpriced.  We all know how fraught with intellectual peril a combox can be.  We know the same about Skype, or at least we ought.  And, once we figure out how to do holograms, the same problem still will face us, even if those holograms purport to be of Obi-Wan Kenobi or John Calvin.
         Imagine trying (1) to teach someone to hit a curve ball, or (2) to do brain surgery, or (3) to do high-level theology online.  If doing the first two online seems impossible, then please note that from among those three diverse activities, theology is by far the most complicated and difficult.  Like hitting a curve, it requires mastering the appropriate natural laws (this time of souls and of sin), and, like the medical example, it requires expertise in surgery, (this time in the dissection and cure of souls).  Doing theology is a highly-complex, skill-based, academic activity that requires many thousands of hours of practice:  I do not exaggerate.  One can never become a theological virtuoso without those thousands of hours.  After all, we are not talking about something simple like the physics of spheroid rotation through the air or mapping the brain’s nervous system and function, we are talking, at the root, about God.  If, because of their native complexity and their unsuitability to electronic learning, you cannot acquire the former skills via the internet, then you can’t acquire the latter one that way either, and for the same reasons.
         To be clear, the difference to which I am pointing when I reject the low-priced online learning offered by the college in question is the difference between job training and education.   The internet is perhaps suitable for the one, but not the other.  I say so because I think that those who go to college ought to go because they seek to be educated.  If they do not, if they seek merely to be trained, then send them to a trade school and let them pursue their job training however they wish.  My concern here is with education, and with the ways it is best promoted and gotten.  This is not the way.
        You wouldn't try to be an online parent; don't try to be an online teacher.  Neither of those important task is well-suited to a computer screen. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Pleasure of Writing (part 2), Rose Macaulay

        “England, the pirate, has ransacked the countries of Europe for her speech:  Greece, Rome, France, Germany, Scandinavia, have poured in tribute to her treasury, which shines and jingles with the most confused rich coinage in the world.  To play with these mixed coins, to arrange them in juxtaposition, to entertain oneself with curious tropes, with meiosis, litotes, hyperbole, pleonasms, pedanticisms, to measure the words fitly to the thought, to be by turns bombastic, magniloquent, terse, flamboyant, minishing, to use Latinisms, Gallicisms, Hellenisms, Saxonisms, every ism in turn, to scatter out native riches like a spendthrift tossing gold -- this is the pleasure of writing.”

Rose Macaulay, “”Writing,” Personal Pleasures

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lutherans and Catholics on Justification

I sometimes read that Catholics and Lutherans have identical views on justification.  But if Catholics and Lutherans have identical views on justification, then it makes you wonder exactly whom the Council of Trent thought it was anathematizing.  If the Lutherans and the Catholics actually have identical views of justification, then one or both of two things is true:

(1) Luther and Chemnitz were as ignorant of their own views as the Bishops at Trent were of theirs.  They all thought their competing views were not only not identical to those of their opponents, but not even remotely compatible.  They thought that those who held the other view were so deeply deluded as actually to fall outside the faith.  But I am not convinced that both sides were such horrid theologians as not to notice that their competing beliefs on this point were actually one and identical. 

(2) Some Lutherans and Catholics today actually do hold identical beliefs on justification and, while they agree with each other, they no longer hold to the views of their respective pasts.  Either both groups have become shockingly superior to previous theologians of their own stripe so that they see now what was resolutely invisible to the best theologians of the past, or else they became liberalized and have defected.

If they became liberalized, when did it happen?  According to some of those who identify themselves as the more traditionalist Lutherans and Catholics, it happened with the the rise of German Protestant liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries and with Vatican II.

You decide. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Obamacare Re-visited

Now that the Supreme Court has decided on the constitutionality of Obamacare, it seems good to me to revise and re-post this examination of the economic and medical lunacies this program entails:
The president says his healthcare reform will help control health care costs, on the one hand, and to bring millions upon millions of new persons into the health care system, on the other.
Seen together, the president’s goals are contradictory and mutually exclusive.  Here’s why:  If you intend to introduce tens of millions of new health care consumers into the system, then the demand for health care products and services will rise dramatically.  When demand rises dramatically, prices rise dramatically as well.  If the president wants to achieve his first goal, that of reducing health care costs, then achieving his second goal will make it impossible.  What his left hand gives, his other left hand takes away.
What happens when (A) the government drives down prices, on the one hand, and what happens when (B) demand for health care products and services rises dramatically, on the other?   
When the government tries to control health care costs, the consequence for health care providers like drug companies, medical instrument manufacturers, and doctors, is to drive some of them out of health care altogether.  That is, if Washington restricts the profits of health care providers, some of those providers will re-allocate their quite considerable investments in directions away from health care, to places where government interference does not hinder or limit their financial success.  They simply leave.  In the wake of the coming government-induced exodus from the tyranny of price controls, fewer health care providers can or will remain.  Fewer providers mean fewer products and fewer services.  In your very first economics lesson, you’ll recall, you learned that when the supply of a thing goes down, its price goes up.
In other words, the president’s program to control health care costs will produce the opposite result.  I promise you, health care after the president’s reform goes into effect will not be cheaper than it is today.  The laws of economic reality make it so.  No one, including the Community Organizer-in-Chief, can change the laws of economics at will.  Health care after his reform will be more expensive than ever, far more expensive.
Count on it; plan for it.
The costs faced by a pharmaceutical company to develop new and effective drugs are staggering.  Laboratories and equipment are expensive.  Outstanding scientists demand high salaries.  The path to FDA approval is arduous, time consuming, expensive, and fraught with uncertainty.  The advertisement and distribution of the drugs that win approval are more costly still.  The upshot of all that expensive research, certification, and advertisement is dicey at best, and massive sums of money can be -- and have been -- lost.
In order to pay for the development, approval, advertisement, and distribution of new drugs and the cures they might make possible, therefore, drug companies must make enormous amounts of money on existing drugs.  If they do not, the development of new drugs cannot well continue.  Thus, by holding down prescription costs, by prohibiting what it considers exorbitant drug company profits, the government is, therefore, also prohibiting future drug development and future cures -- perhaps the one that will save your life or the life of a loved one.  We will never know what things could have been accomplished and would have been accomplished in future health care if the government puts a lid on prescription costs now.  Under Obama’s health care reform, more people will get sick, more people will stay sick, and more people will die.
Consider the doctors:  If the government puts a cap on what a doctor can make for, say, intestinal surgery, then the very talented and intelligent folks who otherwise would have worked very hard to become wealthy surgeons will figure out how to make a very good living in other ways, perhaps in architecture, nuclear technology, or international trade.  In the shadow of government-restricted prices (and therefore government-restricted incomes), fewer and fewer of those talented folks will decide to undergo the long, difficult, and exceedingly expensive path through college, through medical school, through residency, and through certification in order to become doctors who can expect to earn less for themselves and their families than they would have earned had they turned their talents elsewhere and followed an easier and less restricted path to greater wealth.  The same thing will happen with the pharmacists.  If the president’s program goes into effect, the result will be fewer doctors and pharmacists serving the millions and millions more patients the president wants to get into the system.  In other words, there will be long lines -- very long lines -- at the clinic, at the emergency room, and at the pharmacy. 
The lesson of price controls is not new.  Simply think of the government-imposed control on gas prices in the 1970s and the chaos, shortages, long lines and rationing that followed in its wake  -- only substitute health care for gas and clinics for gas stations.  As a result of Obama’s ridiculous program, we will have fewer doctors and fewer pharmacists, but 16,000 more IRS agents.
Or, to take a lesson from countries like Canada and the UK (where government health care plans have been in place for many years), waiting lines are unconscionably long and some people actually die waiting for their turn in surgery because there aren’t enough surgeons and operating rooms to meet the needs.  To avoid that fate, Canadian often cross the border to get medical care at their own expense in the US, in cities like Detroit or Buffalo, where medical care is far more readily available than in Canada.  In other words, they come to the system the president is trying to reform, and they leave the sort of system he is trying to emulate.  If the president’s counter-productive plan goes into effect, even Canadians will die. 
My point, if it’s not obvious, is that, judging by the incentives it creates and the consequences it generates, this is a health care plan from Hell.
But it’s worse even than that, far worse.  By introducing millions more folks into the system at the same time that his cost control measures are shrinking that system, the president’s plan will strain our remaining health care resources enormously, perhaps to the breaking point, laying an unbearable demand upon what survives of a health care supply system shrinking under the effects of ill-conceived government policy.  The results for millions of Americans needing medical care will be catastrophic.  In order to meet the burgeoning demands that an expanding clientele puts on a shrinking system, the government will institute rationing.
Put succinctly, price controls lead to shortages; shortages lead to higher prices and to long lines; long lines lead to rationing; rationing health care leads to suffering and death.
When family and friends suffer or die because they couldn’t get the health care they required, Americans will begin to regret the votes they cast in recent years, and they will struggle to return to the system that served them better -- if by then a return is still possible.  They also will regret the eccentric legal reasoning of a rogue Supreme Court Chief Justice who thinks his job is not simply to assess whether or not a law is constitutional, but who thinks that his job, and the job of his Court, is to make it so.
My dire tale of higher prices, shortages, long lines and rationing is understated.  I have purposely left the most expensive and most dangerous part of the President’s health care reform until the end.  To this point, I have focused primarily on health care providers and health care consumers.  I turn now to health care bureaucrats -- perhaps the most wasteful and dangerous element of the President’s entire misbegotten scheme.
Depending upon precisely what sorts of things one includes in the equation, health care is approximately one-seventh of the entire American economy.  To bring that much business under the watchful (but myopic) eye of government requires a simply enormous army of bureaucrats.  To them will fall the power of evaluation and analysis of every sort, and the power to enforce their decisions.  Almost nothing could be worse.
The notion that government bureaucrats and career politicians are competent to determine (from a distance, at a desk, or in a committee with other bureaucrats) what drugs “ought” to be prescribed, what tests “ought” to be conducted, what procedures “ought” to be undergone, and what “ought” to be the proper cost of every consultation, operation, test, or procedure in every American locality from Anchorage to Key West is unmitigated hubris and foolishness beyond measure.  Those bureaucrats do not even know or understand how little their own jobs and services are actually worth; they absolutely cannot know the worth of the jobs of medical researchers and neuro-surgeons in varied localities across the nation, and what they “ought” to be paid for doing them.  Nor will they know what things “ought” to be done for and by patients they have never met and never will meet.
Precious few of the apparatchiks empowered by the government to make these decisions will be medically trained.  Indeed, there aren’t enough properly trained bureaucrats in the world to make this program work.  Almost none will have seen face-to-face even one of the persons whose lives and health they hold in their red tape entangled hands.  Indeed, they will not be dealing with persons at all, as they see it, but with “cases” – cases that must be dealt with according to the case book, the standard operating procedures compiled by other bureaucrats in other parts of government who spend their professional lives vainly trying to do equally impossible jobs with equally deleterious effect.
Consider the bureaucrats.  Like all other persons, bureaucrats are creatures of incentive.  Those with careers in the medical bureaucracy will wish to succeed.  They will wish to rise ever higher in the bureaucracy, to be in charge of ever increasing portions of taxpayer money and to exercise more power than now they do.  In order to rise up the bureaucratic ladder, they must preside well over the affairs inside their bailiwick.  They must follow the rules.  They must keep their departmental budgets balanced.  While I am in favor of governments living within their means, the implications of doing so in government health care are staggering.
It often happens that almost 90% of a person’s health care expenses occur in the last two or three years of life. When we get old, we get expensive. If the government is overseeing the program by which your health care costs get paid, and if that program is dangerously low on money, the bureaucrat in charge of your case, who knows that it’s cheaper to die than to live, who knows that his budget is nearly depleted, and who wants to look good to his or her superiors, will be sorely tempted to reason this way:  “At 76, old Joe has had a long life.  His country has been good to him for many years.  It’s time for Joe to pay the system back.  It’s time for Joe to cash in his chips.  That way, Joe’s own physical suffering is ended; my personal and professional burdens are eased; and others can move one step forward in the waiting line.  If old Joe dies, it’ll be better for everybody, including me and Joe.”
If you think I am making this up, I absolutely am not.  I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears directly from government bureaucrats themselves. 
When government bureaucrats invade health care, the inevitable result is something much like veterinary medicine:  If your dog is sick and you take it to the vet, the vet examines it and says, “Spot has a problem, and it will cost $300 to fix it.  What would you like to do?”  The vet says asks you, not Spot, because you are paying the bills. If you don’t have the money to pay for the necessary procedures, it’s bad news for Spot.  Spot might die.  When the government is in charge of paying your health care bills, and the bureaucrat in charge of your case doesn’t have the money for them, you’re Spot.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Pleasure of Writing (part 1), Rose Macaulay

         “Words, living and ghostly, the quick and the dead, crowd and jostle the otherwise too empty corridors of my mind, to the exclusion, doubtless, of much else that should be there.  How charmingly they flit before me, heavy laden with their honey like bees, yet light on the wing; slipping shadowy out from dusty corners, hiding once more, eluding my reach, pirouetting in the air above me, now too light, too quick, to be caught in my net, now floating down, like feathers, like snowflakes, to my hands.  They arrange themselves in the most elegant odd patterns; they sound the strangest sweet euphonious notes, they flute and sing and taber, and disappear, like apparitions, with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang.  Or they abide my question; they offer their pedigrees for my inspection; I trace back their ancestry, noting their diverse uses, modes, offspring, kin, transformations, transplantations, somersaults, spellings, dignities, degradations, lines and phrases which have enambered them for ever, phrases and lines which they themselves immortally enkindled. To move among this bright, strange, often fabulous herd of beings, to summon them at my will, to fasten them on to paper like flies, that they may decorate it, this is the pleasure of writing.”

Rose Macaulay, “Writing,” Personal Pleasures

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Constitution v. Roberts

         I often disagree with Justice Ginsburg, but not because I think her qualifications inadequate.  They are not.  My disagreements are not about her background but about her legal reasoning and the conclusions to which it leads.  My disagreements are not about her but her work. 
         The same holds true with my disagreement with Chief Justice Roberts.  His qualifications are stellar.  His legal reasoning is not.  His credentials are impressive.  Everyone agrees.  About his ruling on health care legislation, they do not, not even those who ruled with him, like Justice Ginsburg.
         I find the Chief’s recent reasoning eccentric, even shocking.  I am shocked because I do not recall anything in his legal background that made me anticipate his decision or its alleged justification.   Perhaps such a personal precedent exists and I have missed it.  I miss things every day.  But if his previous work contains such a precedent, then it seems no one noticed it.  No one expected him to rule as he did or for the reasons he expressed.  At least I have found no Court-watcher’s prediction in that direction.
         I am aghast to see Chief Justice Roberts assert that the role of the court is to find ways to make a law constitutional.  I do not recall him advocating this view.  If he did, then I would not, if the privilege were mine, vote for his appointment.  The burden of making a law constitutional belongs solely to the legislature that drafted, debated, and passed it, not the courts.  The courts decide if the legislature succeeded in that task or not.  The courts do not take it upon themselves to do what the lawmakers failed to do.
         In order to do what he says is the court's duty, namely to find a way to make the law constitutional, Roberts had either to sever the individual mandate from the rest of the bill or else alter the fundamental nature of the mandate from "penalty" to "tax.”  He opted for “tax.”  Even Ginsburg, who was on the winning side with Roberts, formally dissented from his calling this a tax.  She and I rarely agree.  Here we do.  Indeed, Roberts’ reasoning is so eccentric that it actually drove Ginsburg into the Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy camp against him – a judicial rarity.
         As I see it, the deliberative history of a law is indispensable to assessing its nature, content, purpose, and constitutionality properly.  If, in their debate, the legislators expressly rejected classifying the individual mandate as a tax, and if the legislators insist that calling it a tax means they will not vote for the bill, then the Court must assess the law on those expressly argued and formally articulated grounds.  Instead, the Court, through Roberts, morphed this law into something it is not.  On that point, Scalia was right:  Roberts re-wrote the law from the bench in order to find some way to make it constitutional.
         Nothing in Roberts’ confirmation hearings made me think he would or could do such a thing, much less declare it his solemn duty.   He seems to me to have betrayed his own jurisprudential principles and his own sworn testimony in his confirmation hearings in order to reach this decision, as if stare decisisincluded invoking Benedict Arnold.
         Roberts manipulated the law in order to treat it as a tax.  He then held that the taxing power of Congress is broad enough to rest this newly altered law upon it.  By doing so, he ignored the President and the Congress, who argued strenuously that the individual mandate was not a tax.  Both said explicitly that Congress did not impose a tax; it imposed a penalty for failure to comply with a regulatory mandate.  If the individual mandate is a tax, and if the Supreme Court, not the House, made it a tax, then we stand in transgression of Article I, Section 7.  Further, if it is a tax, then I conclude that the Anti-Injunction Act prevents the Court even from hearing the case, much less deciding it.
         If that is what happened, and if, as some speculate, Roberts’ motive was to prevent the Court from appearing politicized or from having its legitimacy undermined in the eyes of some, he has accomplished the opposite.  If that is what happened and why, then he should resign, period.  He swore to uphold the Constitution, not to prevent folks from thinking his court was or was not political.
         For the second time in a week, the Chief Justice has failed to uphold the Constitution.  The federal government’s constitutional obligation to enforce border security was the victim earlier.