Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wednesday Word: Dumbrella

Dumbrella: the condition where you forget your umbrella is broken, until it rains

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Top Ten: Things Christians Say When They Mean “I Don’t Know”

10. We can’t know the mind of God.
9. God works in mysterious ways.
8. You need to trust in Him.
7. The Bible is supposed to be read poetically.
6. It must be part of God’s plan.
5. It is not for us to know.
4. Because the Bible says so.
3. I feel it because I let Jesus into my heart.
2. God is in control.
1. You just have to have faith.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Rule: Atheist Santa

Atheist Santa brings gifts on Christmas Eve, not Christmas, so good little atheist boys and girls get to enjoy their toys a day early.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Reflection #57

When I was growing up, I thought the middle class was composed of middle men. Actually... that sounds about right.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The American Myth of Self-Determinism

Not many people these days know much about Horatio Alger, but most of us know about his legacy. I find that most people who do know about him are either very old, or well read. I'm neither; I heard about him through the book and movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Not being one to horde what little knowledge I do possess, I can tell you that Alger was a 19th century author known for writing children's stories. Alger helped popularize rags-to-riches tales, and in part, helped lay the foundations for what became known as the "American Dream." Alger's stories tended to focus on young men who come from humble beginnings and, through hard work and good moral character, rise to the top.

There is something simultaneously virtuous and naive in his work. On one hand, it's undeniable that perseverance and ethics are important traits to imbue upon the young. On the other hand, the idea that your success or failure in life entirely rests on your actions alone is a concept that is as ridiculous today as it was when he first wrote it.

The era in which his work was most popular came to be known historically as the "Gilded Age," a term coined by Mark Twain for the era following the Civil War. Again, most people may not know what gilding is, but I am happy to share with you that to "gild" something is to cover it with a thin layer of gold. Twain so named this time the "Gilded Age" as a take on "golden age;" it appeared golden, but only on the surface.

Alger's work became popular at a time when America was growing at a rapid pace. Hundreds of miles of rail were being laid down, factories were springing up across the Northeast, and a new class of super-wealthy private businessmen began to emerge, with individuals like JD Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and JP Morgan earning millions at a time when a penny still bought you a magazine with an Horatio Alger story inside.

The "American Dream" trope had always been there (though not explicitly by that name), especially from the European perspective. America had been, and still was at that time, the land of opportunity for many people in Europe, or even just a place for people to get a second chance. By Alger's time, however, he saw a sharp decline in the work ethic and morality of those around him (especially those born in America, as opposed to immigrants seeking opportunity), and he chose to focus on promoting the idea of self-determinism and honesty.

And thererin lies the rub: it is patently absurd to both promote the idea of self-determinism and that of honesty, because self-determinism is a fallacy. It's true that if you are born with nothing, you will almost undoubtedly have to work for everything you get, but if you happened to be a child in the Vanderbilt family, you very well may live a life of opulence without so much as working a day in your life.

That part, I can live with.

What is disheartening, however, is that most poor people work their hands to the bone, both in that time and in this one, and yet they will often see very little pay-off for their effort. Generational poverty is a reality, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. There are families where both parents have tirelessly worked multiple jobs going back a century or more, and they have little to show for it. Their children cannot hope for much more than to labor in futility until they, too, die, having not reached their full potential. "Working-class" is what we call it when we are trying to flatter them, but really, they are the perpetually lower-class.

The myth that you determine your own fate persists, however, because of people like my father. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he has had job titles including words like "Executive" and "Vice President," and currently has a title that includes both. I'm proud of him, and I know he worked hard, but I also know he didn't work any harder than millions of other people. If all it took was hard work, more people would have achieved what he achieved, but his station in life is the result of what would be called "opportunity" by capitalists, and "luck" by cynics.

The truth is, there is so much outside of our control. I sense that I have perhaps not worked as hard as he has, though I'm no slouch; I still manage to accomplish quite a bit in a day, even though I could just sit on my ass while unemployed and do absolutely nothing, thanks to his hard work and "opportunity." But the truth is, I just have not been given opportunities like he has, and this is largely not because I have not gone looking for it, but because there simply isn't a lot of opportunity out there right now at this moment

Personally, I'm an optimist. I know that my father, like all people who experience upward economic mobility, was not catapulted to their current status overnight. I am not out applying for jobs as an executive and getting frustrated at my inability to instantly be on top. My father also graduated during economically hard times, granted they were not as bad as they are now, and like him, I am confident that all things change. But I have to wonder... would my father be so "lucky" if he had to cope with the financial strains of today while he was in the situation he was in when he started?

What I mean is... I can afford to be confident. I can afford to be patient. I can afford wait out the storm. I can afford these luxuries of opportunity because I come from a moderately wealthy family. Scratch that... after discussing my father's current finances, I can safely say I am the beneficiary of a 1%er's good graces. He didn't come from the bottom; he came from the middle. But now he's at the top, and by familial association, I am coming from the top, as well. The world is a different place now, and I question whether someone like my father (who I have immense respect for) could succeed in this day and age.

My father worked a few hours a week and put himself through college, and he graduated with no debt. I worked during college, and I graduated with student loan debt of over $100,000. If my father, coming from his family, was in my position, he would have six-figure debt and would perhaps still be looking for a job, as I am. However, because I am who I am, my father cut a check and paid off my student loans this year in one fell swoop, something his own father never could have afforded to do for him. My father doesn't love me more than his father loved him, he just has the means to do more for me than his father ever could have done.

I get angry when I see people criticizing the poor, especially older individuals who grew up and made their place in life during a very different time, or who come from families that were not truly poor. I don't think most people ever remove themselves from their privileged lives, where they feel entitled to all the advantages they received by virtue of which vagina they were laboriously pushed from at birth. Most poor people aren't poor by any fault of their own, they are poor by virtue of birth, and many of those who do make it have to work harder for the same results than those born into better situations.

What is most depressing, however, is that so much hard work goes unrewarded among the working class. I wish hard work was rewarded. I wish everyone truly could make something of themselves. I wish self-determinism was a part of our reality. I wish it were so, but it is not.

Which leads me back to Horatio Alger. Alger came from an affluent minister family and attended Harvard, so he didn't live the stories he told. And for all his talk of morality and personal responsibility, Alger lost his job in 1866 as the pastor of a Massachusetts church for molesting young boys. But I will give him this: he promoted honesty, and he never denied the accusations. He simply moved to New York City, continued publishing stories for young boys, and never faced justice for his crimes. How's that for personal responsibility?

The difference between men like Horatio Alger and myself is not so much our outlook on life (which is still quite at odds), it's that I don't need to write fictional stories to illustrate how I think the world works; the truth is enough.

The truth is this: I've found a strange trend. Those who truly come from poor backgrounds and make it don't preach so much about hard work and morality, they talk of giving opportunities to the poor, while those who have everything handed to them are generally the ones who never shut the hell up about how the only way to get ahead in life is hard work.

Personally, I would find it easy to say I have what I have because of my hard work. I did work hard, both in my education and while employed. It's not a lie, it's the truth, but I also know that my hard work is nothing special. I know that when opportunity comes (and it so often does for affluent white males such as myself), I will grab hold of it. But someday, when I look back on my life, I refuse to pretend I did everything myself. I will know I had help, from my family, from friends, from my wonderful wife, from society, and from whoever gives me the opportunity to succeed. I won't hog the credit, I will be grateful, and I will do my best to extend opportunities to others, because giving someone the chance to succeed is not only the greatest gift you can give someone, it's the only way anyone's hard work can really pay off.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Spanksgiving

So, I drove for 11 hours with my wife and two dogs to Indiana yesterday, and I wanted desperately to do a Wednesday Word, but I was thoroughly uninspired and drained. The only thing I could come up with was "Bastard-eyes: an illegitimate stare." I was unimpressed with what I came up with (and I mean, more so than usual), so I just turned in early and called it a night.

But my wife came up with a strange pun, "Spanksgiving." I think she meant it in the sexual connotation, but Thanksgiving is notoriously the least sexy holiday. I mean, you stuff yourself with food while watching giant balloons being paraded through New York and, later in the day, sweaty guys tackling each other. Plus, the bed is covered in a pile of coats. Not a very erotic holiday.

But when I heard "Spanksgiving," I thought she meant the day after Thanksgiving, when you have to wear a girdle just to fit into your clothes again and go out shopping on Black Friday. Then I thought maybe those Pilgrims with buckles on their hats would take the belts off and beat their kids with them if they were misbehaving.

At any rate, I hope everyone in America has a nice Thanksgiving, and to all non-Americans... have a good Thursday.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top Ten: Things to Invest In During This Recession

10. Cheap beer
9. Petroleum products
8. Tortillas
7. Bankruptcy law firms
6. Rental properties
5. Pawn shops
4. Prozac
3. Funeral homes
2. Pepper spray and tasers
1. Gold plated yachts

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Rule: Flag Burning

Once a year (I’m not sure when), the president must burn a US flag, to remind us it’s just some cloth.

How I Rank the Republican Field

To me, it’s a foregone conclusion that Romney will be the 2012 nominee. Short of the media finding his other seven wives, including a 12 year-old child-bride-to-be… I can’t really think of anything that will cause Romney to lose the nomination. He’s been consistently popular, he is way ahead in campaign funding, and he hasn’t completely embarrassed himself in the last few months, like every other front-runner.

It’s still so early, though. I say this, not because I think Romney might lose, but because at any moment, anyone else in the field might say or do something that redefines how little we think of them. There are so many debates left to go, and there are so many contemptible people in the race. Yet, how I rank people probably won’t change.

I don’t think I focus on the same things as other pundits, mostly because these are not the things I measure in order to gauge whether I support a candidate or not, but they are what I find interesting to compare in a political race.

Let’s meet the field, as I would introduce them: the order in which they were front runners.

First, you have Mitt “the Clit” Romney. I call him “the Clit” because everyone knows you don’t start with the clit, you end with it.

Michele “Crazy Eyes” Bachman was a favorite in the early days of the campaign. Then she opened her mouth.

Next up is Rick… um… shoot, I forgot his last name. Oops. I’m pretty sure he’s running on the platform that retirees with Alzheimer’s will vote for him, thinking he’s Bush.

Herman Cain is the candidate with experience. Most Republican front-runners only said things that got them in trouble when in the lead, while Herman Cain has been doing so for years.

Newt Gingrich is supposedly the new not-Romney to catch the fickle eye of Republican voters. Ultimately, it may be mutual unfaithfulness that brought voters to Gingrich’s camp.

Ron Paul is kind of like the senile grandpa who gets seated at the kids table for Thanksgiving. Sure, the young people love him, but none of the adults are listening.

Rick Santorum… is that guy seriously running? All I can think of when I hear his name is, “… frothy…”

Jon Huntsman: if you wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney, how about his clone? Come on, he speaks Mandarin!

There are others, most notably Gary Johnson, but if the majority aren’t going to bother to take them seriously, I’m not going to bother learning about them to make jokes no one will get.

So, the rest of this post will consist of me ranking these candidates in arbitrarily ridiculous criteria of my own choosing.

“True Believer” rating: from most to least, how much I think each candidate believes the bullshit coming out of their mouth

Michele Bachman
Ron Paul
Rick Santorum
Rick Perry
Herman Cain
Jon Huntsman
Newt Gingrich
Mitt Romney

I just really believe Michele Bachman is that stupid. Rick Perry would rank higher, except he showed me how little he knows about government agencies he supposedly hates… and if you can’t even remember who you hate, then you don’t hate them that much (at least until your advisors remind you backstage). I believe politicians like Newt and Mitt would say their own mothers were genocidal maniacs if it helped their chances of getting elected (don’t bother asking me how that could help… have you seen what Republican crowds cheer for these days?).

“Gladiator” rating: from highest to lowest, the likelihood that they would win an unarmed battle royale between all candidates

Mitt Romney
Herman Cain
Michele Bachman
Jon Huntsman
Rick Perry
Newt Gingrich
Ron Paul
Rick Santorum

Mitt has the height advantage on everyone but Santorum, who I’m fairly sure is just a tall chickenshit. Now, I know Paul supporters are going to be like, “What the hell?” but guys, he’s 76 years old. Mitt Romney is the age at which old guys are at their toughest without going brittle (64). The only thing Ron Paul is going to fight is osteoporosis. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michele Bachman shocked everyone and stood victorious in the end, clutching Romney’s still beating heart high above her head in victory.

“Cheers” rating: from most to least, who I would want to have a beer with

Ron Paul
Newt Gingrich
Jon Huntsman
Herman Cain
Rick Perry
Rick Santorum
Michele Bachman
Mitt Romney

Technically, Romney and Huntsman are exempt, since they don’t drink. But then again, neither do I. Wait a minute…

“Dinner Guest” rating: from most to least, who I would want to have over for dinner

Ron Paul
Jon Huntsman
Newt Gingrich
Herman Cain
Mitt Romney
Rick Perry
Rick Santorum
Michele Bachman

This is similar, but I moved some people around. To understand the logic, I moved people down if I didn’t want to actually eat a meal with them, like I imagine Newt would eat off my plate, but I don’t think he would sip from my beer in a bar. Perry moved down because I’m fairly sure he would try to start the meal with a prayer. Mitt moved up because I think it would be interesting to watch him at a meal to see if he eats out of both sides of his mouth.

“Switch” rating: from most to least, who I would like to switch lives with

Rick Santorum
Rick Perry
Mitt Romney
Jon Huntsman
Herman Cain
Newt Gingrich
Ron Paul
Michele Bachman

I think I would rather die than be anyone on this list, to be honest. Even the rich and powerful ones are old as hell (Romney is 64, Perry is 60, Gingrich is 68, Ron Paul is basically a walking corpse). Michele Bachman was almost my top choice, but then I realized: if I wanted to be married to a gay guy, there are states where I could do that now and I’d still only be 28. I went with Rick Santorum mostly because I would get a kick out of doing an erotic photo shoot with Dan Savage.

“Animal” rating: from coolest to lamest, which animal best represents each candidate

Jon Huntsman – panda
Mitt Romney – silverback gorilla
Rick Santorum – polar bear
Rick Perry – a slightly less-alpha silverback gorilla
Michelle Bachman – praying mantis
Herman Cain – black sheep
Ron Paul – vulture
Newt Gingrich – toad

I think most of these are self-explanatory, although I wanted to point out that I thought of Newt as a toad, not a newt. Yeah, both are slimy, but only the toad hops from marriage to marriage like they were lily pads.

“Reaper” rating: from first to last, the chronological order of most likely to die (based on actual flow of time, not the age they will live to)

Newt Gingrich
Ron Paul
Herman Cain
Rick Perry
Mitt Romney
Rick Santorum
Jon Huntsman
Michele Bachman

Bachman is a little older than some of the candidates, but women tend to live longer. Paul may be the oldest, but Newt looks so unhealthy, I bet he deep-fries his fingernails before he bites them. I was actually shocked to learn this, but Herman Cain is older than Newt Gingrich. I still bet Cain outlives Gingrich, however, even if he gets free pizza for life (I mean... it is a vegetable now, after all).

“Name” rating: from best to worst, how I feel about just their names

Jon Huntsman
Herman Cain
Michele Bachman
Ron Paul
Rick Perry
Mitt Romney
Newt Gingrich
Rick Santorum

The last three were the hardest. I think Mitt and Newt are the dumbest nicknames I ever heard. “Yeah, lemme introduce you to my pals, Glove and Lizard.” Or at least, that’s what I hear. Rick Santorum didn’t have a horrible name… but that changed and cannot be unchanged, no matter how many angry letters he sends to Google.

“Hollywood” rating: from best to worst, whose life would make a good movie

Newt Gingrich
Michele Bachman
Herman Cain
Mitt Romney
Ron Paul
Jon Huntsman
Rick Perry
Rick Santorum

To be honest, I don’t think I would want to sit through any of these, even if they were directed by David Fincher.

“Sell-out” rating: from most to least, who is likely to end up doing commercials after the campaigns are over

Herman Cain
Michele Bachman
Newt Gingrich
Ron Paul
Rick Perry
Rick Santorum
Jon Huntsman
Mitt Romney

I think Cain is a no-brainer, as his whole presidential run is little more than a publicity stunt for his public speaking career (well, that and the impetus for his wife to finally leave him). I can imagine Bachman doing some sort of Christian charity spot, or maybe even a disaster relief ad. Newt’s debt is what leads me to believe he’ll be hawking hearing aids or diabetes medication after this is all over. And Ron Paul is a natural for pitching gold, since the guy has been doing it pro-bono for years.

Well, that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know regarding what I thought of the Republican candidates.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Reflection #56

Extreme success and extreme failure do not change a person, they reveal who they were all along.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Conversation with Andrea, Part 2

[The long anticipated, and long, continuation of my conversation with Andrea]

Bret: You mentioned your husband is not a believer. That is similar to my parents; my mother was religious, my father wasn’t. Why do you think there are so many more religious women than men?

Andrea: I’ve been thinking about your question for several hours and although I have some ideas about it, I’m not researched and ready to formulate a more complex answer that is true and concise. So for now, I will say the short answer is that women are more sensitive to spiritual matters. For example, who did the serpent approach first?

Bret: My wife thinks it’s because women are sheltered more, and end up more dependent and uneducated. I personally have no idea why, because the opposite view has been a topic of major discussion among atheists. There are just not many atheist women out there, and I’m not willing to accept most of the vaguely misogynistic views I have seen presented. I do think there is some truth in what my wife thinks on the matter.

As for why the serpent approached Eve... I’m not sure how disobeying God means one is more sensitive to spiritual matters. If I looked at the real world, I would see that most criminals are men, that women tend to follow the rules more than men, and I would question then what the true message of the Garden story might be. I think it’s important that woman is approached first, because man is assumed to hold a position of authority, and if Adam had led Eve into sin, Eve might be seen to have just been doing her duty by obeying her man.

This is why I am inclined to agree with my wife, though I think it’s rather condescending (even for me) to assume every woman who is religious is a victim of her circumstances. Though in that respect, do you ever wonder what would happen if you were born in another place or time?

Andrea: Your wife’s theory is interesting. If women are sheltered, wouldn’t they follow their husbands??

As for your question: I believe I would still come to the same conclusion no matter what era I was born into.

Bret: Well, she views it through a Jewish lens. This is particularly true in Judaism, where a child born to a Jewish woman is “considered Jewish.”

Andrea: I didn’t know that. So it doesn’t matter what religion the father is, the child follows the mother?

Bret: According to Jewish tradition, yes. It “matters,” in that some respectable Jews won’t marry you unless your mother was Jewish, and you are officially considered Jewish if your mother is of Jewish descent.

Andrea: That’s part of religion that I would balk at, no doubt, you do too.

Bret: And since women do most of the child raising in traditional homes, religion for the mother does tend to transmit more often across the board.

Andrea: In your post about Outrage, which pastor are you talking about and what was he saying?

Bret: I’ll find the link...

Andrea: Yes, I would agree with your last statement. My son attends church with me. I know that I have a short amount of time to engage him in church otherwise he might decide that he doesn’t have to go if his father doesn’t.

Bret: Apparently he removed his blog from public view, but the contents of the post (or maybe just part of it) can be found here: I think the whole thing is nonsense. I wish atheists would chill out.

Andrea: Is that really for real? He embarrasses Christians. I’ve never heard of him - not surprising because that kind of drivel is terrible and does nothing to bridge the gap.

Bret: No he doesn’t. He doesn’t embarrass Christians anymore than Hitler does, or anymore than Stalin or Mao embarrasses atheists. I’m more worried about what the average person does, because there’s billions of average people, and only a handful of extremists.

Andrea: Have you ever heard of Hugh Ross? He’s a Christian scientist, he runs/is part of an organization called Reasons to Believe, He makes a practice of having debates with atheists. I went to a seminar with him and it was the first time I was in a room full of atheists - to be honest, I’ve never had a real conversation with an atheist because really, where would I meet one? At church? Not likely. Anyway, it was a fascinating day - my husband came with me because he had some questions about evolution vs. creation.

I wish I could recount some of the day but honestly, I walked away thinking my God is even bigger than I had thought to that point. He had very scientific sounding evidence, or at least, he poked large holes in an evolutionist theory that maybe didn’t answer all the questions but at least it offered the possibility for something more.

Anyway, just wondering if you’ve heard of him?

No, I was also going to say, that I think the Atheists in the audience acted poorly. They were disrespectful and didn’t allow Hugh to make a point without snickering and loud sighs. I don’t care if you are right in the argument, disrespecting an opposing person is low character.

Bret: I have not [heard of him].

Andrea: I’m not suggesting that I think you are showing low character. I am quite enjoying our conversation and I think you are very respectful, as you promised to be.

Bret: I try to be, but honestly... I have little control over whether a person gets offended by me or what I do. Standards are not very... standardized. I’m sure suggesting there are other gods would be considered offensive to some Christians.

Andrea: I’m not offended by the fact that there are other gods (small g) that are worshiped, but I have a relationship with the El Elyon, Most High God - the one over everything. It’s very American to suggest that there isn’t a spiritual realm outside of the one true God. Which is why America (and I include Canada in this) is so easily deceived. In many other nations, animism is predominant, which enables them to understand the spiritual warfare that we are involved in. Americans are ignorant about this - as a whole.

Bret: What is it like being married to a non-believer?

Andrea: First off, my husband is awesome; much better and more supportive than other women I know who have Christian husbands. It does drain my faith quite a bit, at time. He doesn’t have a faith grid so his solutions are limited to what he can imagine. And I can’t express my deepest desires with him.

Bret: Why are you married to an unbeliever? Is it to recruit him?

Andrea: When I married, I was a small ‘c’ Christian. My husband is a good man. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Although it was terrible for my parents, especially since we were married in Vegas. Very sinful.

My husband and I went through a traumatic period - it accounts for my ‘desert experience’ - in our second year of marriage. I was certain that we would not make it to our 3rd anniversary. This was my prayer, Lord, change my husband but leave me alone. God did the opposite of what I asked. He changed me - completely and totally. I was totally sold out for God. I was not only a capital C Christian, I was a CHRISTIAN*. It was during that period that I began to learn who God was. It’s taken me 13 years (I’ve been married for 15.5 years now) to learn about the relationship but it’s not religious (rules).

As for my husband, he hasn’t made a decision but he acknowledges that God makes an impact in our life. When we are blessed in a surprising way, he asks if I prayed for it. He seems to take for granted that I hear from God and although he doesn’t have a relationship himself (yet), he trusts my judgments and decisions because my faith is very strong.

*One time, I was riding the elevator of our apartment building, and I was heading to Bible study. I had my large teal Bible with me and another fellow got on the elevator the next floor down from mine. In the short ride down, I had a lot of thoughts run through my head. First, I was embarrassed that I was carrying a Bible and I wondered if the fellow knew if it was a Bible. But then I was ashamed that I was ashamed and by the time I reached the bottom (of 9 floors), I vowed that I would never be ashamed of the gospel again. And I haven’t. I’ve been bold. I speak about my faith - not in a terrible, condescending way, at least I hope not, but it’s part of who I am. I can no more not have a conversation about my faith as I can about not speaking about my husband or child.

Bret: Do you think morality plays any part in your relationship with God?

Andrea: How do you mean?

Bret: I am not sure how to make it any more clear... I guess I could ask a hypothetical. What’s keeping you from murdering random bystanders? Since, if you ask forgiveness, you still get to go to heaven and all.

Andrea: Yes, I can commit sin and still go to heaven but as Paul writes, do we sin so grace can abound more and more. The answer is no. I pursue holiness because that is what pleases the Father and I want to please him because we are in a relationship. I find out what the Father is pleased with and I do it.

I choose to exhibit loving-kindness to others because as I learn to see them as the Father sees them, I will love like he does. It’s about learning his perspective, not about rules that govern only my exterior behaviour.

Bret: I get the feeling you firmly believe you have an internal compass, and you call that God. Am I way off or is there something to that?

Andrea: My internal compass is not God, but a relationship with God changes my internal compass. Much like my relationship with my husband changes my internal compass towards infidelity. When I was single, I was free to date whom I chose. But now that I’m married, it wouldn’t please my husband (even though he may chose to forgive an affair, or not), so I don’t do it.

Bret: And here I was, assuming you just had a better internal compass. So you do stop yourself from doing certain things?

Andrea: Of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t have free will. A relationship HAS to be based on free will, otherwise it stops be a true and healthy relationship. If God demanded a relationship because I have no choice, then wouldn’t it become like those stories where the abductee begins to fall in love with their captor?? That isn’t real love.

You are using your free will to not have a relationship, and I am choosing to have a relationship.

And throughout my relationship, there are countless times when I haven’t wanted to listen to God any longer, because he directed me to a different course of action that I didn’t want to take. I can do what I want but in EVERY situation, I’ve learned that what I wanted wasn’t actually what I wanted.

I can also decide to think about myself first in my relationship with my husband, but if I continue to do that then we will have friction in the relationship and I don’t want that, so we learn to work together.

Bret: There actually are those who see religion as being a complex case of Stockholm Syndrome, where a person comes to identify with the religious community which has essentially abducted them. And I think it is fair to say that some people, like prisoners, become institutionalized to the point where they can’t function without their religion. But that wasn’t really what I meant.

What I mean is... hmm, how to phrase it... do you know much of anything about Freud’s idea of the id, ego and super-ego?

Andrea: Sorry, I can’t even pretend to know even a little bit about that.

Bret: Just as well. I think people think and operate on different levels, and I don’t even agree with Freud anyway. I think everyone has impulses and instincts which we tend to think of a “lower level” thought, in that we don’t even really consciously think about them. Then you have things like dreams and desires, which you may or may not have control over.

But, as some people imagine being “above” those, you have something else, and I find this differs between people a lot. For me, it’s ethics, and for some religious people, it’s their direct relationship with God, while for other religious people, it’s the moral code of their religion.

So basically, you have these animal drives, these human drives, and something greater than ourselves which is hopefully keeping those others in check.

Andrea: Yes, I would agree with you.

Bret: I find it... I don’t want to say odd, but I guess it is, that you get your cues from God. It’s odd to me since I don’t know who it is you’re talking to. Most atheists would say you’re talking to yourself, but I’m willing to accept that you’re talking to something external if you truly believe you are. My question is just: how do you know you’re talking to God? Do you ever worry it’s a demon or maybe even just an angel? Or maybe even a different God than the one in the Bible?

Andrea: Hmm, I was thinking the same thing. I can appreciate that you have a difference of opinion but I can’t even remotely fathom how you could come to the conclusion you have. I would sooner choose a different faith religion than nothing.

The closer the relationship, the tighter you are and the better you know the being you are in a relationship with. Hearing from God is what I call prophetic (different than prophet - title or calling). Everyone is, or can be prophetic, it takes practice though; like in the example I shared with you with the fellow from Ontario. I got a few details wrong but more or less I knew things about him that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

There are several ways to judge a prophetic word: it MUST be congruent with Scripture, it should “sit” well within your spirit (no alarm or warning bells), it will always produce fruit that leads you or the person you’re hearing the word for closer to God, often there is a consensus among leadership that the word is from the Lord too. That’s how I know it’s from the Lord. I recognize his voice, as I recognize the voice of the devil (or demons) as well. Quite simply, if the exchange doesn’t cause the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control then it’s probably not from God.

Bret: I find that kind of disconcerting, if only because there is so much in the Bible I would not find to be very healthy to hear (especially the Old Testament). I mean, I am infinitely glad you choose to aim for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (and I guess faithfulness in some ways is even good to an atheist). Those are all important goals, but sometimes it seems like religion takes an indirect path towards those things, and the result is that some believers act very “un-Christian” in your view, or immoral in mine.

You don’t worry at all that you may be misled? You must have seen Christians (or “Christians”) doing things in the name of faith that you find to be appalling.

Andrea: Of course I’ve seen Christians who are misled. There are countless examples that the public love to make fun of. I’ve made errors myself but I don’t ‘throw out the baby with bathwater’ so to speak. Science makes mistakes too and they have to backtrack at times. Those are ways we learn, right?

I am intent on being as close to God in my relationship as I can be so that I am always hearing correctly and so I can accurately determine the Lord’s voice from my own (or the devil). One of Jesus’ most oft repeated phrases is, “He who has ears, let him hear.”

You mention that there are things in the Bible that you wouldn’t want to hear, and I can only assume you are speaking about the violence in the OT. We are a NT church and under a new covenant - one under grace and not law, so we can usually assume that if the word doesn’t bring the fruit of the Spirit (which I mentioned above) then I’d go back to the Lord and ask for confirmation.

Bret: I would hope one would not even seek confirmation for some things, like slaughtering children or raping the women of a captured city. And yet, those are things that are explicitly commanded (I assume by God) in the Old Testament. I can’t personally picture you being in such a situation where that would come up, but for most atheists, it’s just the very fact that the door is left open to that sort of behavior.

Here in the US especially, religion has sort of weaseled its way into our politics, and yet I question if it’s really “Christian.” Just our foreign policy alone makes me wonder if every American Christian skipped over the “turn the other cheek” part of the Sermon on the Mount and instead prefer to take their cues from the Old Testament.

How do you reconcile certain aspects of the New Testament, like Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says he comes to bring not peace, but a sword, or Luke 22:36, where Jesus recommends selling your cloak to buy a sword?

Andrea: Ah yes, the sword. The passage you quote in Luke 22:36, MUST have a different meaning than literally buying a sword because in the hours that pass later, Jesus is arrested in the garden and Peter, taking Jesus’ words literally (not for the first time), cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers. Jesus heals the ear; obviously Jesus didn’t mean a literal sword, otherwise it would have been a blood bath, under the approving eye of Jesus. Jesus spoke in parables and used poetic language and metaphors.

The sword is mentioned several other places: Ephesians 6:17, says the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Hebrews 4:12, For the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul & spirit, joints & marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from his sight.

Revelation 1:26, gives a description of Jesus in heaven: and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.

Revelation 2:12, these are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

From these passages, we can understand that Jesus was not speaking about a literal sword but by words, because our enemy is not flesh and blood but by rulers, authorities and powers of the world and against spiritual forces of evil in the spiritual realms. (Eph 6:12, paraphrased)

If God spoke the world into existence and we say his is omnipotent (including his words), then our words are potent because we are created in his image. Words carry enormous authority. Jesus said that if you say to this mountain, move – it will move. He calmed the storm by speaking to it. See how that is different than OT? I’ve spoken quite a bit about the heart issue, the Bible also says from the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). And, life and death is in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).

Bret: One of the things that makes the Bible such a dangerous document in the minds of some atheists is more or less akin to the comment made by most Christians, in that the Bible is “poetry,” which implies it is open to interpretation. I tend to agree, which is why I interpret all the food analogies to mean God is going to eat believers, which I think is in keeping with the idea that no one really understands God’s motives.

But beyond my silly theories, the fact that there is so much violent imagery in the Bible, even the New Testament, means that it doesn’t take a leap of faith to use Christianity to justify atrocities. I tend to agree with your interpretation, but I think this comes down to an issue of verification.

Basically, if people are listening to voices in their head and the only document they have to verify the voices with includes calls for murder and violence... do you kind of see where I’m going with this? Assuming God is all-knowing, why did He leave the door wide open for such a grossly destructive interpretation?

Granted, there will always be people doing bad things, there are actually plenty of religions where there is no violent imagery present and the followers of those religions tend to be far more peaceful than Christians (Jainism and Buddhism come to mind, but even among Christian sects, one might point to the Amish and Quakers, or even Mennonites, as a group that has adopted Christianity in a uniformly peaceful and docile interpretation in stark comparison to the overwhelming majority).

Andrea: Those are good questions but it goes back to the relationship; without the relationship it’s so easy to stumble upon the interpretation.

Think about your relationship with a spouse or close friend/family member - there are special nuances and common phrases that identify that person to you. When you first begin to know someone, when you talk on the telephone, you have to first identify yourself but as time goes on, you can jump into the conversation by saying, ‘hey, it’s me’, or not even have to introduce yourself at all. I’m fairly certain the misguided Christians intent on destroying the world do not have an intimate relationship because their actions don’t line up with Scripture.

I once read, Jesus is perfect theology. I believe that is true. He came so that we can identify with God as a person, so that we could have a relationship with him.

Bret: You said earlier you would rather join another religion than have no religion at all. If you had to pick any other religion to join, which would it be?

Andrea: Can I pick agnostic? I would believe in something but perhaps not be able to define it because other religions are exactly that - a set of rules based on fear of punishment, rather than a relationship. I identify with the God of Israel, so perhaps I’d pick that, if push came to shove.

A few years ago, I was a guest lecturer in a world religion [online] class for an East Coast University. As preparation, I read the text book and the other required reading; I was also carefully reading the class exchanges to understand where the students were coming from. I learned quite a bit about different religions at that point.

Then I took a class myself, called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, in a field trip for that class we visited a Buddhist temple, a Sheik temple, a Hindu temple and a Mosque. For each location, we had a holy man guide us and answer questions. I was extremely grateful for the experience but in EVERY circumstance they worship at the temple and must give a tithe - those 2 things were the first items mentioned when asked what is the most important tenets of their faith.

Bret: Well, most religions tend to consider communal worship and charity to be important, so those two aspects tend to materialize in the form of worship in a sacred location and donations. Do you not value community and charity, or do you just go about it differently?

Andrea: Yes, I value them but if someone asked me to describe Christianity, I would not cite rules. It’s a relationship and from the relationship flows the desire to please the one you are in relationship with.

As far as fellowship [with others], it’s important to keep one another encouraged and to share life in community. Again, as part of the relationship, I like to gather with others that have the same interests. At the base of all relationship is a common thread.

Bret: Getting back to just the relationship itself, I find your position to be very perilous. Have you read the entire Bible?

Andrea: Yes.

Bret: Is there anything in there that you disagree with?

Andrea: There are things I don’t understand, but I hold to the base truth that God is good and that he wants a relationship with me. So the things I don’t understand, I ask questions to the Lord - some I understand but others I don’t yet, and that’s okay. God is infinite so there is no end to knowing him. As our relationship deepens, I understand his heart more and more.

Bret: It’s not necessarily about understanding. I mean... say you were asked to do something you didn’t want to do, or something you believed was wrong, but then say you happened to find that exact thing in the Bible, prescribed by God. Do you just do it or do you consider seconding-guessing what you heard?

Andrea: It’s not blind faith; that’s part of the relationship - being able to converse back and forth. If God is asking me to do something that doesn’t jive with other ways to interpret his word.

Speaking of word, there are two Greek words that describe our one word for ‘word’. Rhema is the utterance of God - meaning a fresh word, Logos is the written word. So, before I act on a directive, I have to be sure it’s God’s rhema for me and it MUST be in line with the Logos as well. Does that make sense?

Bret: Yeah, but most people would point out that the Bible is a virtual literary ink blotch. You can see anything you want to see in it. I think what you have done is adopted a virtue based faith.

Andrea: I disagree. You could misunderstand my husband when he speaks too, because you don’t have a relationship with him. I know him intimately, so I will understand when he is serious, joking or indifferent. But somehow the line of questioning seems to have changed - what are you asking? I also don’t understand what you mean by virtue-based faith.

Bret: Well, most people think of morality in terms of rules. You take the affirmative and seek virtues like goodness, kindness, peace, etc.

I guess what I was asking about was that it seems plausible that just about anything can be justified in the Bible. Maybe not all things. I doubt you can justify premarital sex, for instance, and I’m not even sure that is an important rule. But you can justify things like murder, genocide, rape, spousal abuse, slavery... the list is pretty long and the things the Bible have been used to justify have been pretty bad.

So I guess my question is... how did you come to a good conclusion, given how awful the track record is for the Bible? What did you do differently?

Andrea: As far as the violence in the OT, the best I can wrap my head around it (I don’t understand it, either) is that when you live by the law, you die by the law. It was religion and rules.

Also, the Bible records some of the events, because they happened, it doesn’t always offer a commentary on whether it was correct or not. For example, in Ezra 10, after hearing the Torah again, the people repented and rejected their foreign wives and children. I really don’t understand that because God honours covenant, so why would he allow those women & children to be loosed? The Scripture doesn’t give commentary on whether that was the correct course of action, just that it was the action they took.

However, because of Jesus, we have a new covenant (NT) and the game changes - so to speak. Our enemy is not flesh & blood but it’s about the spiritual realm and Jesus directs us to re-form our heart. In fact, Ezekial says that we will have a new heart and a new spirit. Jeremiah says that the new covenant will be written on our hearts (internal compass) and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us to put on the mind of Christ. He also says that we are a new creation - the old is gone.

Paul even goes so far as to say in Galatians that we died with Christ and no longer live, but the life I live, is Christ living in me.

Romans chapters 5-7 describe the death, we are a dead man but chapter 8 describes the new life in Jesus. Jesus is perfect theology.

Bret: I don’t know if I would trust anything Paul said. Honestly, you know Jesus as well as Paul did, as far as I’m concerned. The very presence of Paul in the New Testament is very unsettling to me. If there is any one person who says some dumb stuff in the New Testament, it was Paul.

Have you ever read any non-canonical gospels or writings from that era? Like, any of the gnostic gospels or anything that was considered but was rejected?

Andrea: I have the gospel of Judas but can’t say I’m familiar with it.

Bret: Do you know the surprise twist in the Gospel of Judas?

Andrea: Enlighten me.

Bret: Well, Judas was ordered by Jesus to turn him in, in order to facilitate the resurrection. And some people argue that Judas was the most favored apostle, and it’s even stated in the Bible many times. He was also trusted with the money. So I’m thinking the other apostles didn’t like him, so they framed him in their retellings.

Andrea: That could be true, but it doesn’t change the outcome.

Bret: No, of course not, it’s just an interesting twist. A bit of Biblical politics.

Andrea: I’m sure there were plenty. John continually refers to himself as the one Jesus loved; even James & John’s mother got involved, like a typical Jewish mom.

Bret: Which James?

Andrea: The sons of Zebbedee.

Bret: There was an early James who was supposedly related to Jesus.

Andrea: Yes, that’s true too. James, the brother of Jesus supposedly wrote the book of James.

Bret: And he supposedly ran his own church, which was overtaken at some point.

Andrea: If you had scientific evidence that God existed, would that change your views?

Bret: Like if I looked into a telescope and saw a bearded guy in the sky?

Andrea: I don’t know about that - could be true. I’m not disputing. Sure, if that’s how you want to perceive it.

Bret: Well, I’ll simplify what you said, because I wouldn’t use “science” to prove God. I would say, if there was a verifiable way of knowing there is a God, then yes, I would obviously believe in God like I believe in the Sun.

Andrea: You don’t have to include that question in the interview. I find that most people have a predisposition to think one way and will not change their mind. For example, I used to drink only Coke, even though in a taste test, I thought Pepsi tasted better.

Bret: I don’t believe in “science,” so I sort of saved you there. I wouldn’t have any reason to deny something that is plainly there. I think it would raise questions, though, like “Which god is there?” I have nothing to gain or lose in my position. Remember, it would be better for me if there was a God. There just doesn’t happen to be one, so I’m disappointed.

Andrea: Some would argue that you have eternity to gain or lose.

Bret: Well I mean, from my perspective as an atheist. If I give up atheism, I’m not losing out on atheist heaven. There’s nothing keeping me attached to atheism, I just linger there. Mostly because I’ve been down every path I have seen, and it’s pretty bleak.

Andrea: Maybe you could try relationship because from what I can tell, you don’t have one.

Bret: I have a relationship with all the voices in my head. I just don’t consult the Bible or call them gods. Well, I do consult the Bible, but as a literary work. Like I would consult the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad. I don’t begrudge people for their religion, but I don’t find what people call religion to be all that mystical.

Andrea: At least you are not lonely. :)

No, it’s not mystical.

Bret: Is that what the relationship is all about? Not being alone? How can you ever be lonely when the mind just keeps going deeper and deeper, no matter how deep you look?

Andrea: Perhaps. We benefit from the relationship but we were created for relationship with God. Genesis 2:18 is the first time that God said something wasn’t good - it’s not good for man to be alone. Without relationships, people don’t function optimally.

Bret: I’m surprised God wasn’t a bit perturbed that He wasn’t enough for Adam. God is awfully jealous in the Bible, which I find very unbecoming of a god.

Andrea: Much of what was created in Genesis was for a system that wasn’t necessary at the time of creation. Such as livestock - ever wonder why livestock was created if Adam didn’t need to toil with the ground? Livestock were used for sacrifices, which wasn’t necessary, and they didn’t need clothing or food.

God’s desire is to be in relationship with us, and he can sustain us but perhaps he created human relationships because he knew we’d need each other once sin entered the world.

Bret: Right, because you can’t have livestock after creation if He didn’t create them to begin with. That wouldn’t make sense.

Andrea: Are you mocking me?

Bret: No. Unless you wrote Genesis. If you did, I apologize. I still appreciate the bulk of your work. It doesn’t make sense though to take Genesis literally. Even religious people tend to look at it as metaphor. Like, the sun was created on day four. Day four... what defined the other days?

Andrea: Okay, then I think you misunderstood.

I tend to look at creation as literal but I’m open to other ideas. Good question about day 4, and the answer is, I don’t know. I took a class once on the first 3 verses of Genesis. It was over 12 hours of teaching - on 3 verses!! I didn’t understand quite a lot but I did walk away thinking, God is even bigger than I imagined.

What I meant about livestock is the language used to describe it. On day 6, God made wild beasts and livestock - why differentiate if there wasn’t a purpose intended for the livestock even before there was sin.

I understand this to mean that because God desired a relationship with us and he knew that sin would separate us from him so he created a system that would allow us to continue in a relationship.

Bret: Well, you know who supposedly wrote Genesis?

Andrea: Most scholars agree that Moses wrote the Torah, but there might be evidence to suggest that the Torah (including some of Genesis) was written by 4 or 5 writers.

Bret: Right, and do you think Moses wrote “beasts and livestock?”

Andrea: I don’t know. I have no reason to believe otherwise but if it wasn’t him, it was another dude. Some people are interested in that sort of thing, I’m not one of them.

Bret: I bet he wrote in terms of food that was kosher to eat and food that was trafe. I could be wrong, but I bet it was to denote animals that were edible and animals that weren’t. Adam still ate meat, right?

Andrea: I don’t believe that Adam ate meat. I think meat was introduced into the diet only after Noah, when the length of life was limited to 120 years. But your point is still the same as mine - there was a system in place before it was necessary.

Bret: True, if they didn’t eat meat. I’m rereading it and it appears God told Adam to eat plant life. Well, I have to use that in another way now.

Andrea: I’m not saying you are wrong but there is no “evidence” to suggest that they ate meat. God gave them every plant to eat and it wasn’t until Noah that God offered them to eat meat.

Bret: I’ll have to ask my wife when she gets home to check the beast/cattle thing later, but you’re definitely right about Adam being a vegan. It’s pretty clear. Even the animals are supposed to eat the herbs of the earth.

I’m imagining a grazing lion... I bet the lion was glad Adam sinned. That seems like a miserable existence for a lion. I’m surprised it wasn’t the lion who tricked Eve.

Andrea: One theory I’ve heard about that is because they had such long lives - a prolonged diet with meat leaves such amounts of proteins and hormones (naturally occuring, of course) would harm them but when the life span was only 120 years, then they couldn’t eat enough to do damage in such a short period of time.

Don’t you think it’s curious also that the serpent spoke with Eve and she didn’t freak out? I wonder if it was an everyday occurrence for them then.

Bret: It’s a garden with a forbidden tree, of course the animals talk. Maybe the animals talk now, we’re just not listening. My dog is always like, “Pet me, pet me!”

Andrea: A possibility.

Bret: I’m not saying they have anything to say worth listening to.

Andrea: God spoke through an ass, perhaps he’s still speaking through an ass.

Bret: I get the feeling a lot of asses think God is speaking through them. Present company excluded.

Andrea: Oh, of course, I wasn’t referring to you. ;)

[To be continued…]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to Appear Funny or Wise

It’s no coincidence that when you point out an amusing fallacy as a child in the presence of an adult, they used to say, “Don’t get wise with me.” Humor and wisdom are ultimately linked by the fact that humor is little more than coming to a realization that shakes your preconceived notions and makes you smile or laugh, while wisdom does the same thing, only the realization makes you feel older.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I think my thing is humor. I don’t think anyone would mistake me for being wise, but that might be because I don’t want to be taken seriously. And yet, the formulas for saying funny things is little different than the formula for saying wise things. Really, the only difference is the desired outcome; you have to perform the same processes, whether you are going for humor or wisdom.

The easiest way to sound funny or wise is to flip a phrase around. For example: people often talk about the “meaning of life,” but flip the nouns around and the whole thing changes. “Rather than seeking the meaning of life, people should pursue a life of meaning.”

Now, that isn’t funny. I also believe it’s not wise, but it sounds wise. It’s like politician speak, or a pop song: it sounds good, but there is no substance behind it. You have to fill in the blanks yourself, which is part of why it sounds wise, if you say it with serious conviction. It almost begs the listener to fill in the blanks themselves… and that is what wisdom is really all about. Wisdom isn’t just a witty saying, it’s something that does the impossible: it makes people think.

Humor makes people think, as well, which is why I love it so much. This is basically why explaining a joke kills it. Like wisdom, humor is poetry that is meant to be internalized and interpreted by individuals differently, so explaining a joke is like pulling a toy apart to see how it works, but then being left with a broken toy. We share so many experiences in this life, but the more vague you can be, the more people can fill in their personal details and relate to something on a level you could not have deliberately achieved.

I don’t know about anyone else, and I’m no professional comedy writer, but I can’t just sit down and be funny. Sometimes what I come up with is too serious to be funny, and most of what I write is pure, unadulterated shit (I mean… consider this: what I post is supposed to be the good stuff…).

So anyway, another approach you can take is to begin mundane and take a sharp detour. Like… I snore really loudly, so my wife got this special pillow. When she can’t sleep at night, she just rolls over and smothers me with it. It started pretty normal, but you didn’t expect where it was going (a similar trait to the “meaning of life” example above: begin with the familiar and move into the novel).

I think my favorite thing to do, however, is to just play on language. Much like the first one, you can just alter the implications of words (rather than their order) and you have a whole new perspective on a phrase you’ve heard a million times before. For example, people say private high schools provide a better education, but I went to one, and I find that they’re really just all smoke and mirrors… by which I mean, everyone there does pot and cocaine.

But what I think is most annoying about writing funny or wise expressions is that you have no control over when these ideas come to you. I carry a pad and pen where ever I go. I generally come up one or two things worth noting while doing the laundry or dishes. I have written down words with my finger on the glass shower door so I can jog my memory later. Over the years, I think I have written several dozen pages of notes while walking the aisles of grocery stores. And all of it is random, so the best I can do is make note of it and see if I’ll use it later.

I don’t think anyone is born funny, and I know no one is born wise. I think that those who are very funny got that way by making a conscious effort to be funny, and that in the process they were unfunny quite often, but that’s how it works. I wouldn’t know how someone goes about becoming wise, but it’s easier to sound wise than to actually be so. If you only want to appear wise, however, just try to be funny, fail, and appear to have been serious all along. Worst case scenario: no one takes you seriously, they laugh at you, and you become a comedian.

Wednesday Word: Unfuckwithable

Unfuckwithable: to be incapable of being perturbed

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Top Ten: Questions I Have for Nerds and Geeks

10. Kill, fuck, marry: Magikarp, Pikachu, Squirtle
9. Would Monty Python still be funny if they had American accents?
8. Would you rather have to watch a hologram of your parents having sex or open-mouth kiss your own clone?
7. Which 39 comic book heroes would you take on a World of Warcraft raid?
6. What are the top three hottest, fictional illustrated characters?
5. Would you rather have a lightsaber or the Iron Man suit?
4. Can Superman be turned into a vampire or zombie?
3. If you could live in any MMORPG world, which would you choose?
2. Who would win in a fist fight, Han Solo or Captain Kirk?
1. Would you rather be a wizard or a Jedi?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday Rule: Legislate Against Fear

I would have thought it goes without saying, but history has proven otherwise, so… the rights of individuals cannot be infringed simply because some people are afraid. Perhaps actually spelling this out will make a difference (it certainly can’t hurt).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Reflection #55

Often, the real choice is not whether you support one side or another, but whether you obey or resist.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Perfect Moral Code?

Andrea York, whose long-standing interview with me will continue to be published soon (I keep getting distracted by other topics, leaving it as something for me to do when I run out of ideas… which never seems to happen these days… but will undoubtedly occur eventually), made a comment I think is worth a careful look at, because it’s something all people deal with, regardless of their religion.

Andrea asked, “…who decides what is right and wrong? There must be one truth by which morality hinges, correct?”

I’ll address this in two parts, answering each question individually.

The first is simple. The only person who can decide right from wrong is you. You aren’t working from scratch here, and we all use some combination of the law, religion, philosophy, personal experience, and the influence of others to determine our morality. However, it is only the individual who can determine what is right and what is wrong.

Christians may disagree, but none of them are perfectly interpreting the Bible’s morality… and if I may be blunt, I think they’re giving it quite a favorable misinterpretation. It’s actually impressive what modern Christians have been able to do with Christianity; I find it akin to successfully travelling to outer space in a wooden rocket. They have polished a turd to a diamond luster, and I applaud them.

The second question is more interesting to me: is there one truth regarding morality?

It would be rather lazy of me to just point out that we cannot know whether there is one truth regarding morality. Falling back on the truism that we simply cannot know anything does not get us any closer to the truth. I’m not that defeatist, anyway. I will do my best to represent both sides, because I don’t have the answer, but I can see points on each side (and I have a clear opinion on which side is more likely).

If there is one truth, that would certainly be logical. If one were to assume all moral dilemmas have one correct decision, then there must be some perfect morality which is infinitely complex, but ultimately correct for all possible situations and variables. It’s more a question, then, of whether this perfect morality can be simplified into something that can be comprehended by human beings. There is no reason to believe this is impossible… or possible.

The problem here is that morality very situational. Saying “Don’t lie” isn’t technically always correct, as there are times when lying is the right decision. Don’t believe me? Well, the classic example is to imagine someone about telling a woman she looks good, but a better and more significant example would be to consider whether you would hide Jews from German officials during the Holocaust. Would it be wrong to lie to officials if you are saving the lives of innocent people? I would say no, and I question your humanity if you disagree.

There are always exceptions. Any “one truth” regarding morality would need to be a complex web, full of if’s and unless’s, because that is how real-world morality works. If morality were black and white, it wouldn’t be a mystery that has eluded the brightest minds since the beginning of recorded history.

However, it’s perfectly possible that there is no one truth. It may be that morality is completely subjective, or even evolving. It may be that what is “right” now would not have pragmatically worked in the past, and that it will change by necessity in the future. What is “wrong” certainly changes all the time, even within religions. Root beer floats and rock music used to be anathema, and the further back you go, the more embarrassing it gets.

There is certainly no “one truth” in Christianity, since there are as many variants of Christianity as there are Christians. There is also a constant evolution of the law throughout the Bible, with the most extreme edit occurring with the introduction of Jesus and his ideology. Paul further alters this, and almost two thousand years of Christian theology adds an immeasurable amount of new material (aka “interpretations) to consider.

Rather than “one truth,” maybe what is meant is “best,” or “most right.” This helps account for the fact that there are varying degrees of “right,” just as there are varying degrees of “wrong.” To give someone a dollar is not as good as giving them a job, while punching someone is not as bad as stabbing them (usually). Also, should we put precedence on a morality that actually makes someone better, or should we value abstract ideals that we imagine to be best, even if those who adhere to these unrealistic standards do not – or cannot – live up to them?

The sum of these ideas leads me to favor the notion that there is no “one truth” regarding morality. However, while I question the existence of a perfect moral code, I know that each moral dilemma is accompanied by actions that vary from very wrong to very right. I know that it’s wrong to use force unless you are preventing the unfair use of force by another. I also know it’s moral to wash your hands with soap.

What, you don’t think hygiene is a matter of morality? Jews and Muslims are already on board with me here, and I think Christians need to get a clue. How clean you are is a moral decision, because if you are infecting people with disease because of your negligence… how is that not harming other people?

Herein lies a major problem with determining moral truth: people cannot even agree on what is a moral decision. I doubt most people think of what they eat as being a matter of morality, but members of PETA would disagree. Fashion has been linked to morality throughout history, though today most Americans are far less uptight about it (if you doubt me… how many of you are offended by women wearing pants?). There is simply very little consistency regarding what is a moral decision, let alone what actions are considered moral or immoral.

But we as a society do come to quite a bit of consensus. What we can agree on as consistent is largely legislated as law, and the rest is left to personal discretion because… we just don’t know. We don’t codify every single aspect of life because not only do we not know what is best for everyone, there may not even be a universal moral imperative. Even Jesus says that what works for some may not work for everyone, as he points out in Matthew 19:11-12, when he says it may be in the best interest of some to “choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it,” meaning that it may be better for some to not marry, a sentiment echoed by Paul at times.

While I don’t believe in an absolute true morality for all people at all times, I believe every individual moral dilemma has a series of right and wrong reactions, and I am not of the opinion that “morality is relative.” Morality is never relative, it is merely situational, and the situation is rarely as clear cut as we would like. Sometimes there are no good options and you have to choose to merely minimize a bad outcome, and most of the time we are working with incomplete knowledge.

I could wax philosophical about the possibility of a perfect moral code all day, but ultimately… I must assume such a thing is like a god, and I must be presented with some evidence of such a thing before I can comfortably say it exists.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Morality and Choice

There is a basic disconnect between morality and choice that many atheists, humanists, secular philosophers, and other non-religious thinkers are guilty of perpetuating throughout their rhetoric. Too often, I see these types of people present the fallacy that if you didn’t “choose to be” a certain way, then it logically follows that it’s okay to be that way.

Hands down, the most common place I see this is in discussions of homosexuality. Gay people and pro-gay activists need to stop trying to make a big deal about “being born this way.” I do understand where they are coming from, and I think it’s certainly true that people don’t just make a conscious choice to be gay, but who cares?

There are millions of people out there who find little children sexually attractive. Does anyone think they chose to be that way, anyone at all? I so often hear how no one would choose to be gay, since they suffer so much persecution, but if this is the case… who the hell would want to be a pedophile? There is no more hated stigma in America, bar none. I firmly believe most people hate pedophiles more than they hate murderers, and yet… there are pedophiles in the world and I doubt many of them chose to be attracted to children.

However, we expect pedophiles to overcome their natural urges. Why? Because it’s wrong to sexually prey on children. Pedophilia is wrong because it hurts innocent people. Homosexuality is not wrong, because it hurts no one. Homosexuality may offend people, but no one has the right to not be offended. No one can make you outraged without your permission, so if you are offended by something, blame yourself and get over it.

Interestingly, I saw this same argument used in a recent post at Atheist Revolution. The article is well written, and I found it interesting, but I found the overall message not something I could get on board with. I agree with many of the basic premises: I didn’t choose to be an atheist, I can’t choose to start believing in something that clearly doesn’t exist, and yet there are choices atheists do clearly make (the author mentions publicly self-identifying as atheist, speaking out for atheism, and writing about atheism as examples of atheism as a choice).

Hell, my Wednesday Word yesterday implied something similar, as I defined Atheitis as “a condition whereby a person is allergic to religion.” In a sense, that is the reality: my body has rejected atheism, or rather a specific part of my body (my brain) has.

But here’s the thing: if religion were true, it wouldn’t matter how we were born. If religion were true, it would be our duty as human beings to worship God, regardless of whether we heard Him, felt His presence, or even truly knew He was there. That’s what faith is, and to say, “I was born Atheist” doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Christians assume no one is born perfect. If anything, they see that as being what makes us human. Christians still expect people to live up to the standards dictated in the Bible, not to follow our impulses.

And in a sense, they’re right. I obviously don’t think one should take moral cues from the Bible, but you cannot find morality by looking inward at your natural self. The inner you is just an animal, an amoral beast that thinks only of itself (which is probably why it tells you how awesome you are and how important it is to reflect inwardly, instead of looking outward toward things greater than yourself). If you seek only to fulfill your potential as an ape that can speak, then follow your instincts.

However, if you want to be more, you borrow ideas from the collective sum of thousands of years of human thought and experience. In fact, I think not doing so is downright impossible; unless you are abandoned as an infant and raised by wolves, there is some part of you which you value as “you” which isn’t you at all, but is rather put in you by parents, teachers, friends, the media, and society as a whole. Even if you are a wild-child raised in the woods, whatever animal raises you will impart some behaviors which were not there naturally.

I know that we are not born as pre-programmed robots, nor are we born as blank slates. I think we can all agree the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. So, why do we expect others to simply accept the argument that “this is who I am” when a) you cannot prove whether a behavior is in-born or learned, and b) it doesn’t matter whether a behavior is natural or artificial?

Morality is concerned with what is right and wrong, and genetics has nothing to do with it. Morality is about the choices we make, not the motivations and inclinations underlying those choices. You can tell yourself that good intentions matter, but you can't fix a problem or correct an error with good intentions.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Top Ten: Things On My Bucket List

10. Break dance on Ronald Reagan’s grave
9. Win a major award, and accept it while wearing jeans and a hoody
8. Eat an endangered animal (or just part of a large one)
7. Have sex in a church, again
6. Stinkpalm the Pope
5. Give away a billion dollars
4. Have a case against me go before the Supreme Court
3. Drop acid with Stephen Hawking
2. Give Scarlett Johansson a [purely medical] breast exam, orally
1. Write a book that is banned from a school library in the South or Midwest

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Rule: Eliminate the Electoral College

Presidents should be elected based on each American getting one vote that actually counts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Reflection #54

I don’t like to see “man’s nature” described as if it were some sort of virtuous ideal. After rejecting religion, I have seen many atheists (sometimes under the guise of “secular humanism”) cling to a vicious fallacy: that deep down, we’re all inherently good. I’m not suggesting that we are evil at our core. We are not born immoral, we are born amoral, and in order for us to become socially acceptable people, it takes quite a bit of explanation, persuasion, trial and error, contemplation, a varying degree of effort, and even luck of circumstance. What has made us great as a species is not our nature, it has been our ability to surpass our nature.

Friday, November 4, 2011

How Democratic Economic Policies Have Failed

The post right before this one explains in detail how conservative and regressive economic policies have failed, and while Democrats (Obama especially) are guilty of making many of the same errors, I won’t be rehashing them here. In other words, when a Democrat keeps tax rates on the wealthy low (Obama), it’s wrong; when a Democrat cuts spending on essential services for the poor (Clinton and Obama), it’s wrong; when a Democrat engages in frivolous wars (Kennedy/Johnson), it’s wrong.

While Republicans may have been able to squander America’s full potential all on their own, I think they needed the help of the Democrats to get us where we are now. With Democrats, their mistakes can be explained as one of two things: either they adopted Republican policies that don’t work, or they applied proven solutions to the wrong problem. Democrats have killed American manufacturing with shortsighted trade policy, skewed labor markets and caused inflation by raising the minimum wage, and complicated the tax code for the benefit of wealthy donors.

The signing of NAFTA by Bill Clinton in 1994 was the official beginning of the end of American manufacturing. It became not only easy, but almost necessary in certain industries to move production to another country, one where not only are workers paid a fraction of the wages, but factory construction and sometimes even maintenance are covered by the host country. It became a no-brainer to move manufacturing across the border. With all tariffs and other trade barriers out of the way, businesses fled the US, with more following the first wave in order to compete.

The trend quickly became finding the cheapest nation to exploit, where not only were workers (sometimes children or the elderly) made to work long hours for pennies a day, but other restrictions such as environmental or worker safety laws were lax, or completely non-existent. I’ve heard more than one Democrat callously remark, “Well, they wouldn’t work that job if it wasn’t the best job they could get,” or “Obviously they need the money.” I guess it’s more important to have cheap plastic crap than give a second thought to child laborers being exposed to lead, mercury, and a world that sees them as a labor commodity and nothing more. As least you have your Air Jordans, right massa?

But I can’t blame companies, because they have been over-paying minimum wage workers for a while now. The minimum wage is a good thing, it’s a guard against predatory labor practices, but the problem is, since the 90’s, Democrats have tried to use the minimum wage to close the income gap, and that doesn’t make any sense. The only reason to raise the minimum wage is if minimum wage workers are being underpaid. You can’t prop up the faltering middle class by doing anything with the minimum wage, but you can cause inflation, discourage low-level hiring, and raise the price of goods.

There is a class of workers in America who is being abused, namely undocumented workers. They are paid well below minimum wage, and they work hard labor that takes a toll on the body. The problem is… raising the minimum wage won’t help these people, either. In fact, it just discourages them from ever becoming documented, because if they have to start earning minimum wage, they would be fired for an undocumented worker who will do the same work for a fraction of the price. The way to combat this type of exploitation might require its own essay, but the long and the short of it is: you need to eliminate barriers of entry into the US, grant full citizenship to anyone who comes to our borders, and keep people honest from day one. This whole sneaking-across-the-border-and-working-while-undocumented thing is all part of a culture of deception that needs to end, for the benefit of everyone involved.

I guess I can’t talk about Democrats and the minimum wage without mentioning unions. I think it might shock some people to hear, but I don’t much care for unions. I see their very existence as being a rather shameful indictment of our system. Just to try to show you my perspective, let’s look at what unions do:

Let’s see… some people feel exploited, so they band together, elect people to represent them, and then those representatives fight for the interests of those who elected them. Good job, unions, you invented democracy… except not really.

Unions should be, in my opinion, redundant. The sad thing is, they aren’t. There isn’t anyone in government who represents workers, there aren’t politicians writing legislation that defends the rights of workers. Unions are borne out of the failure of government to actually represent the people. Unions are literally the result of failure, which in my mind, is already a red flag.

The other major problem I have with unions is… they wield power, but I have no control over them. I hate that. Call me an old fashioned, egalitarian kind of guy, but I don’t like it when rich people wield power I have no say over and I don’t like it when working-class people band together to wield power I have no say over. No one in a healthy democracy ought to have power without the express support of the population as a whole. I don’t like it when the Koch brothers have politicians at their beck and call, and I don’t like it when Democrats fawn over the AFL-CIO. Sure, the Koch brothers are just two guys and the AFL-CIO is over 12 million Americans, but America is composed of over 300 million.

This gets into the general idea of special interests, which fits nicely into another problem Democrats have. I read and hear Democrats criticize Republican politicians constantly for how corrupt they are. I have bad news for any Democrats who labor under the illusion that their party of choice is somehow any better: Democrats are as bad, if not worse, than Republicans.

In 2010, 37 large corporations reported multi-million, and sometimes even multi-billion dollar profits, while paying zero taxes. How mind-bogglingly damaging this is might be hard to grasp, because I doubt most Democrats can fathom the implications of it. America has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, at 35%. The fact that so many blue-chip companies are not even paying any taxes at all is less important from a tax revenue standpoint than it is from a business standpoint.

Suppose you start a business and you get to a point where you incorporate. There are many financial reasons to do this, most pertaining to personal liability, protection of personal assets, establishing pensions, a desire to sell public shares, establishment of an independent credit rating, or even for tax purposes. The problem is, the tax situation when it comes to businesses is not only inherently complex, it is complicated further by years of extraneous deductions, credits, and loopholes.

As a new business, unless you hire very competent corporate tax lawyers to navigate this legal landscape, you are going to be paying way too much in taxes. What’s more, your business model may not be conducive to the preferential treatment the law provides to pre-established corporations… many of which conveniently lobbied lawmakers for laws which directly benefited them. Put simply, America only has one of the world’s highest corporate tax rates if you are too small to have paid off lawmakers for the exemptions necessary to keep your business nearly tax-free. We have a tax code that benefits large, well-established businesses while being almost punitively cruel to new business ventures.

Personally, I used to think the entire corporate tax scheme should be eliminated. I still flirt with the idea as an ideal, but The Gun Toting Atheist reminded me that without a corporate tax of any kind, the owners will just buy “company cars” and “company homes” which they will then use as their own, bought with tax-free funds and at the expense of the company. In my mind, the whole point of having no corporate tax while having a high tax rate on the wealthy is that a corporate tax just takes money from the pocket of the whole company, when I just want to discourage income inequality. The way to discourage income inequality is by discouraging those at the top from hording all of the profits for themselves, and the way to do that is steep, progressive income tax rates, not corporate taxes.

Essentially, I don’t see the current business tax code to be a problem pertaining to the nation’s deficit, at least not directly. Rather, the current business tax code discourages competition in the free market by stifling start-ups and favoring those who are already successful. Many of the loopholes exploited by large businesses pertain to green initiatives, which seem good on paper, but whose end result is not a cleaner natural environment, but instead a leaner business environment. If you are paying 35% of your profits in taxes, you cannot compete with a company that already has billions of dollars while paying no taxes.

There are established solutions to all of these problems, and many of these problems have multiple solutions. The easiest is likely also the most important right now: in order to undo the damage of free trade policies to the American labor market, America can take two different approaches. Either we need to get off our ass and seriously work to educate our population, both children and adults, in order to produce a workforce that is capable of competing in the economy we have left (namely fields like medicine, electronics, and other science based industries that require skilled labor that cannot be bought for cheap elsewhere), or, if we decide we hate science… we can enact protectionist policies like trade tariffs (which would need to be preceded by negating any free trade agreements). With tariffs raising the price of imported goods, it will cease being profitable to produce most goods outside the US to be imported here, and slowly but surely, jobs will trickle back into the US (but the price of just about everything will go up, sometimes drastically at first, but this does equalize over time in most cases, except when a necessary or unique resource or product cannot be produced domestically).

The solution to the minimum wage being too high is rather simple… lower the minimum wage. Deal with the problems raising the minimum wage was meant to address in a more constructive manner, like increasing taxes on the wealthy.

The most complex problem has to be fixing the tax code. It would be easiest to just scrap what we have and start over, in my opinion; that is the lazy way out, for sure. We have a very burdensome tax code, and I honestly doubt we could come up with a worse one if we started from scratch. Well… I’m sure Republicans could find a way (9-9-9 comes to mind…), but maybe if Democrats showed a little effort and caucused as one, they could stand up to any Republican attempt to do something so idiotic (and even when Democrats fail, something like 9-9-9 could never stand the test of time-time-time).

Cynics will point out that no matter what you do, money will always find a way of weaseling into the halls of congress. I couldn’t agree more. The difference between me and a cynic, however, is that I still see the virtue in trying, because I have witnessed success (only because I cared to look for it, though). I know you cannot stop all corruption, but you can stop enough of it, and I know you can achieve economic success as a nation through a robust capitalist market regulated by a duly elected government. Too many countries have succeeded at doing this for me to just pretend that government will always fail. I guess you could say I have become skeptical of government cynicism.

Someone who is that cynical, who believes government can never do anything right, is not someone speaking the truth. They may honestly believe it, but that doesn’t make them right, it makes them ignorant. The examples are out there, all across Scandinavia and even in far-flung nations like Japan. There is even more than one path to success, but the end result always looks the same: there are rich and there are poor, but those two economic groups are more close together in successful economies than they are in the US today. They more resemble the US post-WWII, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when marginal tax rates on the rich was at or over 70% for decades, the decades in which this country experienced unprecedented (and thus far unmatched) growth for all Americans.

All you need to know about the fall of America, in my opinion, is to look at the top tax rates under Reagan. In 1980, the year before he took office, the tax on the top income bracket was 70%. When Reagan left office in 1989, it had been decreased to 28%. The rich have been getting astronomically richer ever since.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why Republican Economics Have Failed

I have started a post like this many times, and after reaching ten or so typed, single-spaced pages, I generally scrap the whole thing and just write something snarky about Republicans. To my credit, Republicans have been wrong on so many things economically, it’s hard to fit it all into a concise, simple blog post. So, armed with these failed drafts as my guide, I will attempt to enumerate the main points I find to be worth sharing.

It’s hard to know where to start, where a good beginning might be, but I think the best place (and person) to open with is Reagan. No Republican president before him more eloquently demonstrates the failure of current Republican economics like Reagan does. It was Reagan who began the Republican war on the poor, pioneered deficit spending, and popularized the idea that government is inherently bad.

Reagan “invented” American homelessness as we know it today. He slashed funding for low-income housing, public job training, legal services for the poor, public transportation, and mental health services for the underprivileged. His policies ensured that the poor could not afford housing, nor were they provided the means of helping themselves. In the 80s, America began its path towards being the only first-world nation to callously turn its back on those who were destitute, a trend Republicans proudly continue to this day.

While Reagan cut services to the poor, he spent astronomical sums in other ways. Piles of money were thrown at the military, businesses, and most notably, the unregulated savings and loan industry received an (at the time) unprecedented $87.9 billion bailout when its predatory practices led to a market meltdown (sound familiar?). Income disparity began to rise under Reagan, with the poor making less and the rich making so much more, the data almost seemed to indicate that America was experiencing prosperity, when in fact a large chunk of the population was worse off after Reagan left office than they were before he was sworn in.

It’s amazing, really, that someone would be able to spend so much government money without helping the poor. This was largely achieved through what was then an emerging idea among Republicans, summarized by Reagan in one of his typically mindless sound bytes: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” With this simple mythology, he cut benefits for the American people while lining the pockets of the already-wealthy. While government got bigger under Reagan, it “felt” smaller, since no one (except the rich) could count on the government for much during or after his presidency.

Reagan aside, Republicans today are finding new and exciting ways to run this country into the ground. After eight years of Bush driving us directly towards to the precipice of disaster, it’s quite sad what is happening with Obama and the Republicans. Obama has emulated Bush in every way possible. The result has been Republicans becoming irate… for some inexplicable reason. Oddly enough, Obama’s faithful adoption of Bush-era economic policies has emboldened Republicans to get even dumber and even more regressive in their economic views.

Republicans have managed to talk out of both sides of their ass since Obama took office. Republicans are insistent that only private industry, not the government, is able to solve the nation’s economic woes. Then again, Republicans are quick to blame the economic crisis on Obama. It’s one or the other, folks, pick a side and stick with it.

I’m of the opinion the president can do quite a lot if he wants, but that it is ultimately up to congress to actually pass economic stimulus. What the president ought to be doing is taking a more pro-active approach to encouraging solutions. He needs to be the salesman for his policies, but so far… it seems like his policies are merely business as usual. This should have Republicans excited… and it does, but for all the wrong reasons.

Perhaps smelling weakness, perhaps out of some need to differentiate themselves from current policy, Republican presidential candidates have doubled-down on stupid. Not all of them, mind you, but most Republican candidates have begun espousing regressive flat taxes, even suggesting a national consumption tax at a time when consumer spending is already stagnant. I see most of this as posturing within the race for the nomination, and the obvious heir apparent (Romney) has largely risen above such nonsense, but the fact remains: Republicans seem to be chomping at the bit for a “flat tax.”

And why wouldn’t they? Republicans hate the poor, and flat taxes always benefit the rich. Consumption taxes especially hit the poor, who are already living paycheck to paycheck (or running up debt just to get by), while the rich will keep a more sizable portion of their fortune (especially if their marginal income tax rate decreases). Sure, the rich will be discouraged through sales tax from ever spending their hard[ly]-earned wealth, but what’s the harm in concentrating wealth in the hands of a few (you know… besides political corruption, loss of innovation, and a poverty epidemic)?

There’s even social reasons for why Republicans would love a flat tax: no tax deductions. Some Republicans labor under the misguided notion that if marriage had no tax deduction, those pesky gays wouldn’t be so gung-ho about asserting their right to have their unions recognized. I mean sure, there’s only just over 1000 (1,049 to be exact) federal statutory provisions which grant benefits, rights and privileges to married couples (not even counting benefits conferred by states)… but I bet that really, gay people just want the tax deduction, right?

I think it comes down to Republicans acknowledging how dumb they are and how dumb they have made America, therefore seeing the need for a more simple tax system any idiot (see also: American) can understand. You can see it elsewhere, like in the Republican opposition to laws that are long and complex (because reading is hard…) or just in the general hostility Republicans display for science, education, teachers, professors, or really anyone who might make them realize how stupid they really are.

Which leads me to the most laughable Republican concept to come out of the erroneous Reagan-era: the Laffer Curve. As someone who likes numbers, I’ve always been upset that I could never find an accurate representation of the Laffer Curve using real life data. As it turns out, this is because the Laffer curve is bullshit.

If you actually plug in real-world data, the Laffer Curve is not an upside-down U, as conservatives insist it logically must be. Instead, it is a U, with the highest tax revenues collected as the highest marginal tax rate increases.

When people point to Reagan and insist his policies demonstrate that lowering taxes increases tax revenue, there is a fundamental lapse in logic. Namely, Reagan used deficit spending to stimulate the economy. In other words, Reagan was a huge Keynesian Socialist. He used more government money that any president before him, more than he even took in through taxes. The rise in revenue was the direct result of his government policies fostering business interests. Arguably, it’s the one thing Reagan almost did right. Rather than leave the market to the invisible hand, Reagan spent like there was no tomorrow, and business flourished.

Except… not everyone felt the “trickle down” he promised, and there’s a simple explanation for why this is.

Imagine you run a company. Let’s say your operating expenses before factoring in your payroll for your workers last year totaled $10 million, and the company earned $15 million, after corporate taxes. In this scenario, you have $5 million dollars to pay your workers, yourself, and to grow your business. Not bad right?

Now, let’s suppose you have 49 workers, and yourself. How do you spend the money?

Here’s how a business owner today would probably handle that: he would pay the base salary of his workers, grow his business to meet any perceived increase in demand within the market (hiring more people, advertising, developing/improving products, etc.), and the rest is a big, fat bonus (and perhaps a raise next year) for yourself. In the current model, there is no incentive to give your workers more money, and there is some incentive to grow our business, but ultimately, the biggest benefactor of a company’s success will occur for the one(s) at the top who are making their paycheck out to themselves.

It’s quite simple as to why this is: there is no exterior force discouraging individual greed among top earners in any given business. Even if the greed of the individuals at the top bankrupts a company, those at the top have no reason to care; they got their share, and they’ll be taken care of. Plus, in the process of taking the company down, the pensions of all the lowly workers actually doing the jobs necessary for making the company run are often pillaged by those at the top. The rich get what they want and they can move on to exploit another group of people in a new company.

I believe in very progressive income taxes. Bare minimum, 60-65% on income over $400k is what is necessary for allowing private industry to redistribute the wealth itself. What do I mean by that?

Suppose you run that company that made $5 million in profit. You pay your 49 workers an average salary of $59,000 (which is well above average, but I factored in benefits like health insurance, and assumed that some people made well above average salaries). That costs you just under $3 million, for 49 people. That leaves you just over $2 million dollars to grow your business and pay yourself.

Now, suppose your salary is $500,000. And why not? Your daddy was rich, he sent you to the best schools where you got the best education money could buy, and his fortune helped you get started in your third business (he also helped in the first two, which tanked). You had every advantage in life, but you worked hard (mostly getting other people to work hard for you, though I digress…). You “cannot be replaced,” unless the company had some ability to vote you out and they would find some other person willing to tell others to work harder for half a million dollars a year [I’m available for 1/10th of that, if anyone is interested].

So, take out your salary, and you have about $1.5 million left to play with. Now… you could hire more people, or give a bonus to your best workers who helped make this such a good year. Or… you could pocket some, most, or even all of it as a bonus. No one is stopping you. In fact, the only barrier to taking in multi-million dollar paychecks and bonuses is your marginal tax rate.

I take for granted that people know what a “marginal tax rate” is. In layman’s terms, it’s just the tax rate on the last dollar you earned. In a progressive tax system, income up to a certain point is usually not taxed at all (in the US, we have a tax of 10% up to $8,500 a year, but most people earning that little are generally exempt from income tax due to deductions), and then each subsequent dollar earned is taxed at an ever increasing rate. In America, our income taxes are divided into quintiles, meaning we have five “tax brackets.” If this is already common knowledge to you, don’t worry, I’m finished with the remedial stuff.

Someone earning $500,000 dollars is taxed 35% on each additional dollar they earn, because the cutoff for the highest tax rate is $379,151. We have incredibly low taxes on the rich, less than hardly any other developed nation on Earth. The rich can keep more of the money they “earn” in America than nearly anywhere else.

Here’s what happens when the tax rates are so low: look around. The poor stay poor, the middle class dries up and does not grow to meet inflation, and the rich get richer… because they can. There is nothing stopping the rich from stifling growth by pocketing the profits earned on the backs of the poor and middle class.

Here’s what happens when the tax rate on high earners is raised: look at Scandinavia, Japan, Germany, and the US in the 1950s-60s. The US in particular had marginal tax rates of 98% on the highest income earners under Eisenhower, and while I wouldn’t personally suggest such a high rate, it helped us pay for World War II and essentially created the middle class.

Rather than pocketing the money for themselves, few people at the top are willing to write checks to themselves for millions of dollars if they are only going to keep 2% of it. It was in the best interests of the rich to reinvest that money in their company, to ensure the company’s success. A rich person used to depend on their company for their yearly income, as opposed to now, when the rich take a lifetime’s worth of wealth over the course of a few years, and then sail away with a golden parachute (often made of the pensions their employees) as the plane goes down in flames.

When fans of Reaganomics discuss “maximizing tax revenues,” they miss the point entirely. The goal of the government is not to maximize profits, like some kind of business. The goal of government is to enact policies for the greater good. Putting aside the fallacy of the Laffer Curve, even if lower taxes could increase the revenues of a government, I wouldn’t support it. It’s far better to cut spending (and let’s start with the military) than it is to try to bleed the country dry of as much money as possible.

The mechanism by which high tax rates on high income earners helps to provide stable growth for a country has nothing to do with tax revenues, but instead has everything to do with encouraging private businesses across the country to “distribute the wealth.” Perhaps the greatest fallacy of Republicanism is the idea that liberals see taxes as “wealth distribution.” Quite the contrary, a proper progressive tax allows private decisions to be made which encourage the growth of the middle class, which is ultimately what is required for sustaining a healthy economy. Private individuals distribute the wealth in a healthy progressive income tax system.

Without a middle class with disposable income, America turns into a nation of haves and have-nots, mostly have-nots. The haves horde their wealth, spending a far lower percentage of their money than middle and low income earners. This decreases consumption, which is the primary driving force in any economy. Without people willing and able to buy your products, there is no production, and in a worldwide economic crisis like we are in now, there is not enough foreign demand to compensate (especially when American deregulation has resulted in so many American products, from cars to food, being literally illegal to purchase in many developed nations).

This is how Republicans have economically ruined America.
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