Tiger's Eye

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Life of Pi is a magical adventure story whose narrator claims it will “make you believe in God.” “Impossible!” you might say. “That’s utterly irrational!” Right? Well — just you wait. The main character’s name is Pi, after all . . .

The film is framed as a story within a story within a story. The external frame involves a Canadian author with writer’s block who has come to India looking for a story. The middle story involves a young Indian boy (Suraj Sharma) with the unlikely name of “Piscine” (“swimming pool”). Piscine endures the taunts of schoolmates who pronounce the name as “pissing” until he proactively redefines himself as “Pi” through a series of remarkable classroom calisthenics. Pi, of course, is the irrational number, and that is significant for a boy who is going to defy rationality by making you believe in God.

Pi’s parents own a zoo, and when they decide to move from India to Canada, they secure passage on a cargo boat and take the animals with them. This introduces the central story, which involves Pi’s adventures when the ship sinks during a storm. Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with the zoo’s tiger. How Pi manages to do this without becoming the tiger’s dinner is pretty astounding. His resourcefulness, imagination, and determination to survive dominate this part of the film.

Even more astounding than Pi’s relationship with the tiger is the film’s cinematography. With a vast ocean as his canvas, director Ang Lee paints gorgeous pictures on film. Reflection and illusion are important both artistically and metaphorically, and Lee takes full advantage of both. It is often difficult to see where the water ends and the sky begins, as stars, clouds and sunsets are reflected off the sea. Often we discover that we are viewing the story through water — water so clear that we don’t even see it until something moves and creates ripples that distort our view. Significantly, it is the real view that seems distorted, and the illusion that seems real. Pi’s internal reflection about his plight is just as powerful, and the metaphors in this film give it a satisfying gravitas beyond the simple plot.

The film begins with long, languorous shots of beautiful exotic animals in vivid jungle scenes; Lee is in no hurry to get to the crux of the story. He has all the time in the world for storytelling — as, of course, does the shipwrecked Pi. In fact, “singing songs and telling stories” is one of the “guidelines for survival” that Pi finds in the lifeboat’s survival kit. And so he creates his story during more than three months adrift in the ocean. He creates a system for gathering dew that he and the tiger drink during the day. He devises a net for catching fish, and when he isn’t able to catch enough to satisfy the tiger’s hunger, flying fish appear like manna from heaven.

The storm and shipwreck scenes are so astounding that I literally starting feeling seasick as I watched it. (Maybe the 3D version wasn’t such a good choice . . .) As Pi struggles to come to the surface of the water, he is surrounded by sharks that he apparently does not see. That seems to be a metaphor as well. Even the “clear water” and the idea that one can believe in many religions at once seemed like a veiled reference to Hollywood’s favorite religion, Scientology. In short, the film is fairly dripping with metaphor, illusion, and allusion.

Although this is a film that purports to make you believe in God, it is not a religious film. Only the first few minutes are devoted to Pi’s religious awakening. Pi is a Hindu who discovers Christianity at the age of 12 when a priest gives him water for his thirst. (Yes, this is another allusion to water.) He says that he “found God’s love through Christ.” But he also earnestly embraces Islam and says that “the sound and feel of the words of the prayers to Allah gave peace and serenity.” Pi’s father tells him, “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.” But his mother counters with “Science can teach us more about what is out there, but not about what is in here,” touching her chest. Pi concludes that “faith is a house with many rooms” and that “you cannot know the strength of your faith without its being tested.”

If this sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo to you, don’t let it keep you from seeing this film. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate a Renaissance painting, and you don’t have to be looking for proof of God’s existence to enjoy this film. Life of Pi is a stunning work of art, whether you buy the premise of believing in God or not.

Ultimately, faith is a choice. Evidence is all around us, but we choose whether to see the reality or the distortion. We choose how to write our own stories. If there is any message to this film, that’s it. And it’s a pretty satisfying message.


Editor's Note: Review of "Life of Pi," directed by Ang Lee. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2012, 127 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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Rich, White, Mormon . . .

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In a recent piece, I suggested that Romney would likely win the Republican nomination, and since he has no history of scandals and is obviously intelligent, the Obama campaign (which cannot run on Obama’s record in office, which is risible) would attack him in the only way it can. It will try to attack him for being rich, white, and Mormon. That is, it will try to arouse envy of the rich among the poor, hatred of whites among blacks and Latinos, and anti-Mormon prejudice among the populace at large (and especially among evangelicals).

So I am not surprised that Obama is now running this sort of campaign. I am, however, surprised — and pleasantly so — at how quickly the Romney campaign and the countermedia are hitting back.

I have already described in some detail the mainstream media’s concerted attack on Romney’s faith. Two recent illustrations have just occurred. MSNBC host Martin Bashir read on air from the Book of Mormon, somehow linking it to his condemnation of Romney to hell for allegedly lying about Obama’s stellar record of job creation (a record that, by the way, should condemn Obama to hell). And Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer couldn’t resist reminding us all that Romney descends from a polygamist great-grandfather.

The countermedia hit back, pointing out that Obama’s grandfather and even his father were polygamists. So the Schweitzer attack quickly fizzled.

Then there were the attacks on Romney’s wealth. Obama felt obliged to remind us that he was “not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” and his campaign advisor and pet harpy Hilary Rosen opined that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life.

The pushback was rapid. If not a silver spoon, Obama clearly had some feet in his mouth. The blogs had a field day pointing out that his white grandmother was wealthy; she paid for him to go to the toniest prep school in Hawaii, then sent him to Occidental, a high-priced private college. The sharp-tongued Ann Coulter caused a stir when she observed that Obama was a clear beneficiary of affirmative action, which is certainly a case of being privileged.

As to Rosen’s slur, the backlash was quick and strong enough to make Obama disavow Rosen’s views and make her apologize rather quickly. Ann Romney had, as the countermedia reminded us, raised five boys, which every parent will attest must have involved endless work. The countermedia also showed that Mitt and Ann Romney started out with essentially nothing, and built their fortune together.

Of course, Rosen was just pushing a line, one found in a strain of feminism that goes back to Simone de Beauvoir. It’s the idea that women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers are being turncoats to The Cause. This may play well with Women’s Studies profs, but it clearly doesn’t resonate with most women.

Finally, it became all too clear how Obama aims to fire up his base among minority voters: look for any racial incident to exploit. One appeared, providentially, in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Knowing the game plan, the mainstream media quickly hyped the story: big, armed white man shoots innocent black child, and gets away with it in the Deep South. Obama quickly pushed racial grievance exploiters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson aside (not an easy thing to do!) to get in front of the issue. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the prez solemnly intoned.

Obama’s plan was as obnoxious as it was obvious: find and dramatize a racial incident, get minority supporters to rally behind him, then turn to the rest of the country and say, “See? You need me to keep racial tensions under control! My opponent can’t do that, because he’s white!”

However, the countermedia rapidly discovered facts that shook the Narrative. Trayvon’s shooter, George Zimmerman, was half-Hispanic; he was smaller than Martin; Martin had had trouble with the authorities; Zimmerman had wounds on the back of his head, consistent with his story of self-defense; and so on.

The president and his henchmen in the MSM will continue to assail Romney along these obvious tracks. But the countermedia seem to be pushing back, and Romney seems to be catching on to the vicious assault headed his way. He has had only a tiny appetizer — the main course awaits him.

In the meantime: entitlement programs keep heading towards collapse, war clouds appear once again in the Middle East; we remain totally dependent on volatile oil supplies (Obama having canceled the Keystone pipeline and prevented oil and gas exploitation on public lands), and the pathetically tepid “recovery” seems headed for a stall.

A country gets the government it deserves. And it gets the economy it deserves as well.




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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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The Coming Anti-Mormon Rage

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In a recent article, I reflected upon the shape that the presidential campaign against Romney will take. I suggested that the Obama administration cannot easily defend its record, and so will focus on attacking the Republican candidate — who, after Super Tuesday, is likely to be Romney. But the problem for the Obama regime is that Romney has no obvious flaws: messy divorces, past affairs, tax dodging, DUIs, misdemeanors, or what have you. So the Regime will be reduced to hammering away at the fact that Romney is rich, white, and Mormon.

The attack is already well underway.

The administration’s war-machine has three phalanxes. First is the direct reelection team, funded by perhaps a billion dollars. The second is the Obama “independent” super-PACs, funded by all those wealthy people to whom Obama gave billions in taxpayer subsidies for their "job-creating" businesses. These super-PACs, which are already being staffed by Regime members, will probably net another billion bucks to reelect their guy. Labor unions alone have pledged $400 million for the upcoming race; 96% of all union contributions go to Democrats.

But let’s not forget the third phalanx — the mainstream media. The soi-disant “journalists” of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CNN, and so on are outright whores for this administration.

No, I retract that: I don’t want to insult hookers. At least they get paid in honest money for their services. By contrast, the pseudo-journalists with the MSM cheerfully service this administration pro bono, or for some motives less creditable than money.

The Obama regime will be reduced to hammering away at the fact that Romney is rich, white, and Mormon.

You can expect the attack on Romney’s wealth (“He’s rich, so he cannot relate to you common folk!”) will be the one openly directed by the administration’s reelection committee. The race card will be played by the Regime’s allies . . . indeed, Obama just set up an “African-Americans for Obama” group to advance that attack. The open attack on Mormonism, however, will not be carried on directly by the Obama campaign, but by super-PACs and especially by the media.

The anti-Mormon card is being dealt even now, in a sudden rush of news “stories” about Romney’s faith.

Let’s start with leftist comic Stephen Colbert, who stepped up to the anti-Mormon plate with his spoof on the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead, a religious custom that has irked some people (some prominent Jews in particular). Colbert mockingly “converted” all dead Mormons to Judaism. Isn’t that hilarious? But is it purely coincidental that Colbert has only now found this obscure Mormon practice worthy of national notice? Perhaps he will next make fun of the Catholic practice of having masses for the dead. Oh, but wait — JFK, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and many other liberal icons have been — Catholic!

John Turner is concerned to appear more balanced. In a recent piece, he doesn’t say Romney had to answer for Mormon baptismal practices, although he discusses them in lavish detail. But he does say Romney should address the Mormon ban on admitting men of African descent to the priesthood, a ban that Turner notes didn’t end until Romney was 30 (in 1978). Of course, Turner never tells us what Romney could have done about the ban. But Turner got his chance to play the race card, because this issue reminds African-Americans that Romney is white.

At least hookers get paid in honest money for their services. The pseudo-journalists with the mainstream media cheerfully service this administration pro bono.

Also miming some degree of neutrality is one Randall Balmer, who recently wrote an article that obliquely warns us of the Mormon menace. Balmer is an Episcopal priest, and one usually expects Episcopal priests to have better manners. Still, prejudice drips from every line of his article. He construes the fact that only Mormons in good standing are allowed in Mormon temples as a sign of "the Mormon penchant for secrecy" and insinuates that Romney, by refusing to belabor the public with his religious beliefs, is being secretive about their nature. In fact, Mormon beliefs and practices are as well known as those of mainline Christian denominations. If you don't know about them, you're just not interested, that's all.

Balmer says that Romney’s “quest for the White House” will be “buffeted by questions about his religion.” Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! I haven’t heard many ordinary people who care about it one way or the other, outside of the mainstream media, truth be told. Romney will be buffeted on his faith only by the likes of Balmer, to whom the “essential question” is the very “nature of Mormonism,” an “upstart” religion from — New York state! But wait — isn’t Episcopalianism a variety of Protestantism — from England? From the Roman Catholic point of view, Balmer's denomination is an “upstart” religion. And from the perspective of Judaism, isn’t Christianity itself an “upstart” religion? These are questions clearly beyond Balmer’s capacity to address.

Balmer — the very model of tolerance — moves on to note that Mormons refer to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” But then, Jews refer to non-Jews as “Gentiles” — which seems to be OK with Balmer. Yet, Balmer intones gravely, “many Americans doubt" that Mormons are Christians, because they accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. What this means, of course, is that most Americans don't believe in the Book of Mormon. This passes for news — in the context of a presidential campaign.

Of course, Balmer reminds us that the Mormons “only” ended polygamy in 1890. But let me expand on this a bit. The Mormons allowed polygamy until 1890. Some Muslims, I believe, practice it to this day. But hasn’t America, at least since the Great Society craze of the 1960s, openly and completely embraced polygamy in practice? I mean, don’t our welfare laws allow — nay, encourage — a young man to impregnate as many young women as he can, secure in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for the children? Isn’t the first of the month, when welfare checks arrive, derisively called “Father’s Day” in the inner city? And don’t sperm banks allow many women to impregnate themselves from the same “donor”? I guess what I’m asking is — why all the brouhaha about Mormons allowing polygamy more than a century ago?

It doesn’t seem to occur to Bruni that the reason Romney’s faith is not a big deal in this primary fight is precisely because it is old news.

Balmer notes archly that Mormons believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired. He says that Romney should be asked how that affects his view of it. Why? I daresay many non-Mormons believe that as well. Even nonbelievers such as I think that it is, in some sense, inspired. What does it matter? The president is supposed to execute the law, not make it. He is sworn to uphold the constitution. What is Balmer's view on this? Does he think that reverence for the constitution is a vice?

Another suspicious thing about Romney, according to Balmer, is that Mormons believe they have the true faith. Strange indeed! If they didn't believe that, they would be members of some other faith.

To Balmer, Romney seems “cagey” for answering questions about his religion by saying such things as “I’m not a theologian” and “I don’t speak for my church.” What would he say if Romney proceeded to lecture everyone about the church's theology? Then Romney would be a nut or a weirdo, right? Balmer compliments Joseph Lieberman for having "patiently answered the [very few] questions [asked about his religion], declaring, for example, that he was an observant Jew, not an Orthodox Jew, and explaining the difference." However, if we consistently apply the standard that Balmer applies to Romney, shouldn’t Lieberman have gone into detail about why he is not a (mainstream) Christian, and the political implications of all that?

But after all, Lieberman ran for office on the Democratic ticket. So Balmer naturally does not apply the same standard.

So much for the Reverend Mr. Balmer. Then there is Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist and general attack dog for Obama. His recent snark-piece, “Mitt’s Muffled Soul,” went after Romney for not mentioning in his debate in Florida that his father was born in Mexico because Mitt’s grandfather had fled there to avoid the ban on polygamy that the Mormon Church had instituted. Bruni’s complaint apparently is that there is less discussion of Romney’s Mormon faith than there was four years ago. It doesn’t seem to occur to Bruni that the reason Romney’s faith is not a big deal in this primary fight is precisely because it is old news. That is, everyone on the planet now knows that Romney is a Mormon, because that was thoroughly explored in the last primary campaign. And the fact that Mormons once allowed polygamy is also old news, centuries old, in fact.

Bruni has decided that since most Americans seem indifferent to Romney’s religion — what with $5 a gallon gas and the prospect of our economy going the way of Greece’s — he is personally going to “home in on Romney’s religion.” Bruni’s claim is that the Mormon religion has left a “cultural, psychological and emotional imprint on” Romney. Are his “guardedness” and “defensiveness” due to his belonging to — get this! — a “minority tribe”? Does his stamina reflect his years as a Mormon missionary?

It never occurs to Bruni that his target has every reason to be defensive, given the attacks he and all the members of his faith have had to endure — not least from snarky journalists. The idea that maybe Romney’s stamina reflects a healthy lifestyle seems beyond Bruni's ken.

Of course, Bruni plays the race card, reminding us that the Mormons' ban on blacks in the priesthood lasted until 34 years ago.

The most extended and vitriolic hit-piece on Romney and his faith ejaculates from that monarch of snark, Frank Rich, formerly of — what else? — the New York Times, now of New York Magazine. Reptilian Rich is in a fury about Romney. (But then, he would be in a fury about any Republican — his self-appointed mission being to throw acid at anyone who dares oppose the current Regime.) In his meandering, self-contradictory screed on Romney, he is obviously frustrated at the total lack of real dirt he can find.

Rich never considers why a devout, middle-aged Mormon, trying to raise a large family, might not want to go out boozing it up at Hooters with the other Masters of the Universe.

For example, he quotes unnamed fellow Bain Capital coworkers who say that Romney was a great guy to work with, bright and good at what he did — but, “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us knew who the guy was.” The obtuse Rich never considers why a devout, middle-aged Mormon, trying to raise a large family, might not want to go out boozing it up at Hooters with the other Masters of the Universe.

With Rich, no Republican can ever win, no matter what his lifestyle. If he is known to have been a partier, such as Dubya was when younger, that will be used to attack him as a drunk. If he doesn’t party, as Romney doesn't, the Republican will be bashed for being aloof and self-contained.

Then there’s physical appearance. If the Republican candidate is out of shape or unattractive, Rich will attack him for that. If he is good looking, Rich will take the opposite approach: “Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. . . . Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.”

So Rich wants us to believe that Romney’s so good looking he’s not human! This is weird stuff — Rich comes across here like a jealous schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on the school’s quarterback.

Of course, Mitt’s whiteness becomes important: “Romney is in some ways more exotic and removed from ‘real America’ than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow.” Budding bien pensant writers please note: this is what passes for witty writing in progressive circles. Romney’s white skin camouflages what? A black interior? So if he is elected, will he be our third black president, after Clinton and Obama? In the oxymoron department: "a white shadow”? What the hell is a “white shadow?”

Rich dismisses Romney as a man of no real accomplishment — unlike Rich’s messiah, Barack Obama: “Aside from his ability to build Bain capital and pile up profits there, Romney has remarkably few visible accomplishments to show for his 64 years.”

Really? Yes, Romney’s accomplishments are truly feeble. He has only done such things as:

  • Graduated from BYU with highest honors.
  • Graduated from Harvard with both a JD and an MBA, again with honors, but — please note — without affirmative action.
  • Built a quarter-century career of distinction in the management consulting business, earning about a quarter billion dollars along the way, while helping such companies as Burlington Industries, Corning, Domino’s Pizza, Monsanto, and Staples become successful.
  • As head of Bain Capital for 14 years, helped get investors a average yearly return of 113% , and saw to it that the profits were widely shared within the company.
  • Helped these companies succeed without a nickel of taxpayer support.
  • While getting his education and then pursuing a business career, helped raise a large family.
  • Ran against Ted Kennedy for his lifetime Senate seat, giving Kennedy his closest run, and losing only after Kennedy was forced to spend a fortune in negative ads.
  • Was called to rescue the floundering, deficit- and scandal-plagued 2002 Olympics, and did so, making the games successful and financially profitable.
  • Was elected in 2002 as governor of Massachusetts, where he eliminated a $3 billion deficit and greatly improved the state's business climate.
  • Provided tens of millions of dollars to charities both secular and religious.

Reluctantly, Rich acknowledges that two reporters (Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, of the ultra-liberal Boston Globe) who set out to dig up the dirt on Romney, and published a critical biography, really couldn’t find any “bombshells.” This, however, is somehow “revealing” — revealing of more oxymoronic crap.

Rich is left to fill his piece with anti-Mormon slurs. The title tips us off: “Who in God’s Name is Mitt Romney?” Then the attacks start coming: “The big dog that has yet to bark . . . Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” “That faith is key to the Romney mystery.” “Romney is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an American-born faith . . .”

Naturally, Rich feels obligated to remind to remind us that the Mormons once practiced polygamy, while pretending to say it is irrelevant: “The questions [about Romney’s faith] are not theological. Nor are they about polygamy, the scandalous credo that earlier Romneys practiced even after the church banned it . . .” No, Rich wants to know whether Romney “countenanced or enforced [the Church’s] discriminatory treatment of blacks and women.” Does he also wonder whether Nancy Pelosi has done her part to make the Roman Catholic Church ordain women?

This is weird stuff — Rich comes across like a jealous schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on the school’s quarterback.

Rich is able to get in a dig at Romney’s wealth (yes, yes, Romney is rich) while continuing his bashing of Mormonism: “Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as ‘not very much’ . . . so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll.” And on and on. Rich obviously wants readers to share his disgust about Mormons.

Perhaps the most blatantly bigoted attack on Romney’s religion came from Charles Blow — what else but another New York Times columnist? As the aptly-named Blow listened to Romney on the CNN Republican primary debate, he tweeted his followers the constructive comment, “Let me just tell you this Mitt ‘Muddle Mouth,’ I’m a single parent and my kids are ‘amazing’! Stick that in your magic underwear.” Blow was referring in this derogatory way to the Mormon belief that certain garments are of religious significance. One wonders if Blow has derogatory ways of talking about yarmulkes, or nuns' habits.

It is amazing that nobody at the Times has demanded Blow’s resignation — considering how famously sensitive the paper is when it comes to certain kinds of slurs. Amazing, that is, until you remember that a Mormon is running against the paper's chosen messiah. Notice also that the media hypocrites I have mentioned never seem to have never uttered a peep about the religion of Harry Reid — the buffoon who shoved Obamacare down the nation’s throat. Reid is also a Mormon, but nobody asks him to explain his church’s history, theology, or religious customs.

It is even more hilariously hypocritical that none of these people are busying themselves about Obama’s religion. As far as I know, they have not demanded that Obama explain why he stayed so long in a church that held, for example, that AIDS was created by white people and deliberately inflicted on black people. When this came out in the counter-media, and Obama dropped his affiliation with Reverend Wright, the mainstream dropped what little notice it had paid to the matter. Can you doubt that, had Obama been a Mormon (for there are black Mormons), the media would never have discussed Mormonism at all?

My suggestion to the Romney campaign — not that they are looking for suggestions — is to be under no illusion about what is coming at them. Obama’s minions will attack Romney without mercy, or religious grounds.

How should he handle these attacks? Well, when they come from the press in the form of persistent questions about his faith, he should reply in the same way every time, a la Senator Lieberman: “I am an observant Mormon. Which is irrelevant to my candidacy. If you want to learn about my proposals for fixing what Obama has broken, ask me about them. But if you want to learn about my faith, may I suggest that you go to the library and check out a book?” He should avoid at all costs the media trap trying to get him to discuss any aspect of Mormon theology. Why? Because non-Mormons will then be drawn into disputing it, and then will confuse disagreement with his theology with disagreement with his policy proposals. The mainstream media is hoping that the public will be tricked by this irrelevant association.

In any election, you try to do two things: get your voters out to the polls, and get your opponent’s voters to stay home. It is likely that the Obama super-PACs will run anti-Mormon ads, especially in areas of heavy evangelical Protestant concentration, with the intention of making the evangelicals stay home, under the theory that many evangelical Protestants dislike Mormonism — which, in fact, many do.

Countering this will be a job for the pro-Romney super-PACs. Here’s my suggestion for them: tape some homilies delivered by Romney’s pastor, and play parts of them juxtaposed with the juicier parts of Reverend Wright’s rants (“God Damn America!” comes to mind), with an announcer asking in the background which is more disturbing. Rely on the fact that evangelical Christians are invariably deeply pro-American. Run these ads wherever and whenever the Obama super-PACs run their anti-Mormon propaganda.

So that the reader will know exactly what is motivating me, let me state for the record that I am completely agnostic in matters religious. I was exposed to religion early on, and it didn’t take, whereupon the nuns dropkicked my posterior out of St. Mel’s Catholic School. (They were quite within their rights so to do, and I have never blamed them for it.) Ever since, I have oscillated between total unconcern and complete indifference to religion. I believe no more in Mormonism than I do in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, or anything else. I just hate intolerance, and I profoundly despise hypocritical intolerance.

Harry Reid is also a Mormon, but nobody asks him to explain his church’s history, theology, or religious customs.

Unless one finds a religion whose practices pose a clear threat to society — say, a crazed Kali cult, setting fire to people’s homes — I see no reason to fear it or demand of its adherents that they explain and justify their faith, to me or anyone else. It’s their business.

While I am far from an expert on Mormon theology, my own eyes tell me that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are far from dangerous citizens. In general, they appear to work hard and avoid harming others. In this respect, they seem exemplary citizens.

That should be an end to it.

Sadly, it won’t be.




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Insurance — Against What?

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The brouhaha over whether Catholic institutions should be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception highlights everything that is wrong with medical insurance today. And Obama’s “compromise” of requiring insurance companies to provide contraception for free, thereby sidestepping the argument that Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to pay for it, is even worse.

No one should use insurance to pay for contraception. It is a regular, pre-planned expense of daily living. There is nothing to “insure.” There is no guesswork in whether a person will need it or not. It is the best example of the current problems with medical "insurance."

The purpose of insurance is to protect against unexpected catastrophic expenses — the kind of costs you wouldn’t be able to cover on your own. It is a way of hedging your bets against disaster. People pool their money, and whoever has a disaster gets to take money out of the pot. If too many disasters occur, the pool runs dry. The only remedy is to increase the amount each person pays into the pool, and decrease (through healthier, safer living) the number of disasters that individuals can’t pay for themselves.

Some people may never “get their money’s worth” out of their insurance premiums, because they remain healthy and accident-free. And that’s a good thing.

Insurance is the lottery you don’t want to win.

We have to stop thinking about insurance as some kind of unlimited prepaid plan in which everyone scrambles to “get their money’s worth.” For an insurance program to work, there need to be more healthy people than unhealthy people. Insurance premiums always have to outweigh medical payments. But when we start covering every little doctor’s appointment and medical expense, there isn’t enough money left for the true disasters without vastly increasing the premiums.

Contraception is a perfect example. There is nothing catastrophic or unexpected about its cost. If a person is having sex and doesn’t want to make a baby, the cost of contraception is as regular and predictable as clockwork. There is no unexpected event to insure against (unless the contraception doesn’t work — but that’s a different medical event). There is no reason to insure against the possibility that you will have sex.




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A Prayer for the Council of Economic Advisors

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Have you ever said a prayer for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)?

Neither have I.

It seems an odd thing to do, doesn’t it? To nonbelievers, it would, of course, be a pointless act, and while it would not necessarily be pointless to believers, surely even they would see it as presumptuous.

In any case, people do say prayers for their leaders, particularly in times of strife; and since we may be entering such a time, I have selected a prayer for the CEA just in case I ever feel the urge to use it.

It is a simple prayer, taken from the King James Bible, Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”




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Why Won't You Apologize?

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Apologize! Apologize! Partake in America’s national pastime.

The other day I went on Google News and got 13,803 hits for “apology” and 11,696 for “apologize.”

Apologizing has become the nation’s leading means of social therapy. Are you a professional athlete who, wonder of wonders, used a racist or sexist word? You must apologize. Are you a politician who “betrayed” his mate? You must apologize. Are you a businessman who made a silly personnel decision? Hurry up and apologize.

It’s become a social ritual. There are even websites — many of them — devoted to telling you how to apologize, offering letters you can use to make yourself sound original and sincere.

Apologizing has become another one of those secular occupations that have taken the place of religious rituals. My local greeting card dispenser devotes as much space to apology cards as it does to thank-you and I-miss-you cards, and much more than it gives to Easter, Thanksgiving, confirmation, bar mitzvah, first communion, and sympathy cards, combined.

Apologizing is not a feature of my own religion. My idea is this: If you want to apologize, you should do it as Bette Davis does in Old Acquaintance (1943). She’s finally had enough of her old friend Miriam Hopkins, so she turns, strides across the room, and grabs Hopkins by the neck. She shakes her and throws her down. Then she smiles and says, “Sorry.” Now that’s an apology.

Confession, the proverb says, is good for the soul. But modern American apology is different. It’s not about the harm that the culprit did to his soul, or to any specific other person’s soul; it’s about the grievous harm he is thought to have inflicted on the soulless body politic. The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock (at least one child), he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans, and the inhabitants of any distant planets who can monitor news broadcasts from the earth.

I deny that assumption. Arnold was the governor of my state, but his sex conduct had no moral or emotional effect on me, and my forgiveness, or lack of forgiveness, will have no effect on him, either.

Well, but what about his ludicrous performance as governor? That did indeed affect me. Nevertheless, I have no interest in his apology for that form of bad conduct, even if he were inclined to give it, which he isn’t. If he feels bad about his political career — which I’m sure he doesn’t, but suppose he suddenly read a book and discovered how wrong his ideas about government actually were — I’d appreciate his saying that his course was incorrect, and other politicians shouldn’t follow it. But again, that’s something different from an apology.

The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock, he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans.

An apology is a personal matter. It solicits a personal response. Individual people can accept an apology or reject it. In either case, it’s an attempt to restore a one-on-one relationship. But that’s not what the current swarm of media apologies attempts to do. These statements try to preserve contracts, jobs, political positions, media respect — all things that I, as an individual, am unable to offer a repentant sinner.

One of the bad characteristics I had as a child was the tendency to demand apologies when I felt aggrieved. I remember an episode — in second grade, perhaps — in which another kid (Mike Thomson) borrowed my pencil and broke it, and I kept trying to make him apologize. Reflecting on my childhood conduct on such occasions gives me irresistible reasons for believing in original sin. In adulthood, however, I did my best to reform. Yes, I’ve had relapses, because self-righteousness never sleeps, but I’ve come to associate demands for apology with childishness of the most annoying kind.

And public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them. They are most annoying to me when it is I myself who is alleged to be apologizing. I refer to the increasingly numerous episodes of national and other big-group apologies for historical wrongs. If you are a spokesman for a government or an ethnic group or some religious consortium and feel like apologizing for what the group you claim to represent allegedly did to harm some other group . . . I beg you, do it in your own name solely — and see how you sound. Go tell the American Indians that you apologize because you took their land. Say, “I am sorry. I took your land.” You’ll look pretty funny when they make the obvious response, “So then, give it back.”

Just don’t imagine that you’re apologizing on my behalf, or that of the millions of other people with whom you have illegitimately associated yourself — “Americans” or “Christians” or “white people” or whomever. If you’re apologizing for everyone in such a group . . . well, I suppose you’re apologizing for everyone in the group. But although you may want to include me in the mix, forget it; I wasn’t around. I didn’t take anybody’s land, and I have no intention of apologizing as if I had. Neither do I have any intention of lobbying any group of American Indians to apologize for massacring my family in the Wyoming Valley in the 18th century. The idea of requesting anyone in the 21st century to do such a thing is almost literally insane.

There’s another angle to this. Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying, “Apology is only egotism wrong side out.” Demands for apology let the supposed culprit know that you really care what he says, that you are pining to hear his golden words of self-reproach, that your own spiritual well-being depends upon his repentance or announced repentance. When Jimmy Swaggart wowed his television audience by shrieking hysterically, “I have sinned! I have sinned against thee, my God!”, don’t you suppose that the showman in Swaggart was more gratified than abashed?

Public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them.

In one respect at least, modern Americans are like 19th-century gentlemen: they have a code duello, and a self-dramatizing one. The slightest public slip, insignificant in itself, is thought to demand an apology, which must be instantly delivered to the (non?)injured parties. If an apology is not immediately forthcoming, the offender — now spotlighted in the national media — must fight it out with public opinion. In this combat, he has no more than a 50-50 chance of success. Yet to people whose lives are empty of drama, this too can be a gratifying experience, especially if the accused first delays, then finally succumbs to the warm flow of blather and issues an apology. The more cynical among the accused understand that if you first decline comment, then agree to meet the public at dawn (in some kind of press conference, undoubtedly), you can still fire your pistol apologetically into the air. Then the public will do the same, and you will emerge with your income and reputation not only intact but also, quite possibly, enhanced. In the sub-immortal words of Bill O’Reilly, you will have “stepped up to the plate,” and been richly rewarded for it.

So that’s what the media flacks now advise every prominent sinner to do: whether you think you did anything wrong or not, apologize, and all will be well. That’s why Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assuredly never thought he did anything wrong in his life, promptly issued a public apology for anything and everything having to do with his separation from his wife. That’s why an even dopier egotist, MSNBC’s “political commentator” Ed Schultz, couldn’t rest until he’d told everyone who would listen how wrong he was for calling Laura Ingraham a “rightwing slut”:

"I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for and I recognize the severity of what I said. I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness."

Finally Ingraham “accepted his apology,” whatever the metaphysical status of that concept may be. And so? So nothing. Yes, the remark was outrageous. Yes, it was stupid. Yes, it reflected all sorts of double standards and invidious stereotypes, political and sexual. But really, who cares? The only result of the episode was to provide Ed Schultz, a miserable nonentity, with a slender proof of his existence. Previously, he was unknown to fame. Now he has been noticed. If his appearance in this column prolongs his name recognition in any way, perhaps I should apologize as well.

Nevertheless, I won’t deny that apologies can be entertaining. Everyone has his favorite smarmy, hypocritical apologer. My favorite over the past few months, which have been rich in apologetical remarks, is Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Jackson — a chronic publicity hog, always being nominated by himself for high political office — spent 2010 hiding out. Why? The first problem was accusations of an extra-marital affair. The second problem was the Rod Blagojevich scandal. As an Associated Press story put it – delicately, delicately, as the Wicked Witch used to say – “he [Jackson] has repeatedly denied interview requests since 2008, when Blagojevich was charged with trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.” During the last election campaign, Jackson hardly appeared in his district. Alone among politicians, he didn’t stage an election-night party.

Why? His attempt at apology hadn’t done the job with his media constituents. And why should it? As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times (Sept. 21, 2010), the apology ran as follows:

“I know I have disappointed some supporters and for that I am deeply sorry. But I remain committed to serving my constituents and fighting on their behalf.”

These remarks Jackson combined with statements appearing to deny any political misconduct, labeling all the political charges “not new,” and asking for “privacy” in regard to his relations with his wife and “a social acquaintance.”

But that wasn’t a real apology, so Jackson was more or less booed off the stage. Then, on Christmas Day (when else?), he staged Apology, Part 2. He tried to creep back into the limelight by making an appearance (a double bill with his mountebank father, also in disgrace but still the top bill in the family carnival) at an appropriate location, a prison boot camp. Here JJJ gave what was called a “charismatic” address.

To St. Paul, falling short was a cause of shame. To Jesse Jackson, Jr., it was a reason why you should vote for him.

He spoke (down to) the boot camp convicts on the topic of how “everybody's falling short of the glory of God.” St. Paul said that, or something like that, though to less “charismatic” effect. To the great apostle, falling short was a cause of shame. To Triple J, it was a reason why you should vote for him. The congressman has an habitual inclination, common among our politicians, to use his debts as collateral for new mortgages on power.

"Every one of us,” he said, “has erred in their [sic] personal lives and while I don't claim to be a perfect servant, I'm a public servant. Often times we carry with us the burdens of our personal shortcomings even as we struggle to articulate and clarify a message that helps other people. That [is] what I dedicated my life to."

Ya gotta luv this stuff. Jackson never specified any of his errors. But he roped the rest of us into them: “Everybody’s falling short . . . Every one of us has erred.”

I can’t deny it. But my errors don’t justify my election to Congress. They have precisely nothing to do with any attempt I might make to “articulate and clarify a message.” And the fact that I might have dedicated my life to something (which, by the way, I haven’t, but let’s give the congressman the benefit of the doubt concerning that night, sometime in the distant past, when, according to the picture we are supposed to form in our minds, he knelt in prayer, consecrating his life to the service of various unspecified but assuredly noble aspirations) means absolutely nothing about my success or failure in “serving” that cause.

It’s hard to get more repulsive than Jesse Jackson, Jr.

But look. If you’re caught sinning, you should behave in the old-fashioned way. Either lay it out or brazen it out. Be like Pericles, who when questioned about how he’d spent the people’s money, haughtily replied, “Expended as required.” Or be like John Bunyan (the greatest master of the colloquial English language) who won people’s hearts by writing a confessional entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Meaning himself. But don’t simultaneously apologize and deny. If Bunyan and Pericles are the mountains, Triple J is the swamp, the perfect representative of the Creepy Style in modern American politics.

But now I must revert to the inevitable topic of this month’s column — the apology demanded of “Bible teacher” Harold Camping for his failed prediction that the Judgment and the Rapture would happen on May 21. Liberty readers know that I have been following the Camping story for a long time, so naturally I was interested to see what would happen when the prophecy failed. I was expecting the failure to get some media attention, but I was not prepared for it to become one of the largest news stories of the year. Nor was I fully prepared to see the media’s intense interest in whether Mr. Camping would apologize. “Will he die of shame?” seemed to me a normal question, but that was rarely heard. What we did hear was, “Will he apologize?” — quickly succeeded, as such questions usually are, by, “When will he apologize?”

On May 24, Camping held a peculiar on-air press conference. He began by reciting, at vast and lugubrious length, his peculiar theological conceptions, ideas that very few reporters could make head or tail of. Indeed, it takes some study to do so, but see my article in the December Liberty. But so what? When Camping finally allowed interruptions, the simple demand was, “Will you apologize?” His response was cheerful. “If people want me to apologize, I can apologize. Yes, I didn’t have all that as accurately worked out as I could have. . . . I’m not a genius. . . . Yes, I was wrong; I’ve said that several times tonight. It’s to be understood spiritually, not physically. . . . The world is now under judgment as it wasn’t before May 21. . . . There’s a big difference, though you can’t see it.”

In other words, sure, I’ll play your silly game, so long as you don’t expect me to believe that it matters. I’m tempted to sympathize with Camping on the apology business — though so far I haven’t given in to the temptation.

But having written the above, I need to mention something that you may think I should apologize for. On May 23, I wrote the following: “My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.”

That prophecy of mine was disconfirmed. Despite plentiful evidence that most people at Camping’s org, Family Radio, wish that he would go away, its board of directors has, so far, declined to make him do so. The FR website has been purged of almost all his end-time materials, but he is still on the air, Monday through Friday, proclaiming that what he predicted would happen on May 21 will actually happen on October 21. There is more to this story, which I will explore in detail, as it unfolds. But the fact is, I was wrong.

Do not, however, regard this as an apology. I don’t feel bad at all.




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The End Is Nigh

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In an article in the December 2010 issue of Liberty, I alerted readers to the fact that a leading network of Christian radio stations was predicting that the end of the world was absolutely, positively going to happen in 2011. According to Family Radio, which broadcasts in many countries, and which probably has a station near you, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe. In the process, almost all the inhabitants of the earth will perish.

This is the message of Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” a retired businessman named Harold Camping. His interpretations of Scripture are explained — as well as I, or probably anyone else, could explain them — in the article just mentioned, “An Experiment in Apocalypse.” You can download it here. For a less critical perspective, see Family Radio’s own website, which offers a list of stations where you can hear the apocalyptic message for yourself.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun. It is, for them, what a transit of Venus is to astronomers, what the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is to ornithologists, what an eruption on the scale of Mt. Saint Helens is to volcanologists. It’s the kind of thing that happens much less than once in a generation.

Of course, experts, religious and secular, make predictions all the time, and other people believe them. Generals predict that if they are given appropriate resources, they will be able to accomplish their mission. Scientists predict that if their policy advice goes unheeded, the environment will be subject to further degradation. Politicians predict that if you vote for them, they will initiate a new age of prosperity for the American people, and if you don’t, you will be visited by spiraling unemployment and a continuing decline in the American standard of living. Preachers say they are confident that the signs of the times point to an early return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Economists assure us that if trends continue, we can expect to see whatever they themselves have been trained to expect.

According to Family Radio, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe.

All these modes of prophecy are potent. They have effects. They get people’s attention. They lead some people to do things that otherwise they would not do — vote, go to war, buy a house, pledge more money to the church. But they are all escapable and forgettable. They never include a date on which something definitewill happen. What you see, when you look at the words and figure out what they really mean, is just a suggestion that something that is capable of almost any definition (“prosperity,” “job creation,” “depression,” “desertification,” “a world in which our children will have more (or less) opportunity than we do,” “the fulfillment of God’s plan”) will manifest itself at some time that is really not a time: “very soon,” “in our generation,” “by the end of the century,” “earlier than predicted,” “much earlier than anyone would have thought,” “with a speed that is startling even the experts,” “at the end of the day,” “eventually”).

Of course, the less definite a prediction is, the less meaning it has; but the more definite it is, the less likely it is to come true. Real economists and real theologians can tell you why. A real economist will show you that human events result from individual human choices, their motives unresolvable into quantifiable data, their possible sequences multiplying from the original motives in fantastic variety. Real theologians will tell you, in the words of the old hymn, that the Deity is not a writer of op-ed forecasts: “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; / He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

Nevertheless, it is impossible that someone’s announcement that “California is more vulnerable than ever to a catastrophic earthquake,” or that “this administration will meet the problem of the deficit, and solve it” could ever be completely disconfirmed. If the big one doesn’t destroy San Francisco during your lifetime, as you thought had been predicted, don’t use your dying breath to complain. You’ll just be told that California is even more vulnerable “today” than it was “before,” because more years have passed since the last prediction. If the politician you helped elect disappoints you by not having “solved the problem,” whatever the problem is, you’ll be told that “our plan for the new America ensures that appropriate solutions will be implemented, as soon as Congress enacts them into law.”

How can you disconfirm the ineffably smarmy language of the exhibits in the California Academy of Sciences? Once an intellectually respectable museum, it now adorns its walls with oracles like this: “If we don’t change our actions, we could condemn half of all species of life on earth to extinction in a hundred years. That adds up to almost a million types of plants and animals that could disappear.” Should you decide to argue, you can’t say much more than, “If you don’t stop purveying nonsense like that, your museum has seen the last of me, and my $29.95 admission fees, too.”

Thirty years ago there was a considerable emphasis among mainstream evangelical Christians on the prospect of Christ’s imminent return. There was a popular religious song, urging people to keep their “eyes upon the eastern skies.” Less mainstream religionists said that all indications point to the probability that the present system of things will end in 1975. Meanwhile, a very popular book, Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967), predicted that the world would soon run out of food; and scientists worried the world with predictions that “global cooling” would soon be upon us.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun.

Among these predictions were a few that, wonder of wonders, actually could be disconfirmed, and were. Though no one said that the Egyptians (often thought to be especially “vulnerable”) would begin starving to death precisely on May 21, 1975, some people came close enough to saying that; and events showed they were wrong. Yet there are escape routes available for all predictors, even those proven to be wrong. Two escape routes, really: memory and interest.

Jesus knew about this. He told his followers that no man knows the day or the hour of his Return, but that people would always be running around predicting it (Mark 13:32, Luke 21:8–9). The failed predictions, which seemed so snazzy before they failed, wouldn’t really be perceived as failures, because the failures wouldn’t be remembered, or considered interesting enough to be remembered. Watch out for predictions, he said.

There are two things going on here. One is that people die, and their enthusiasms die with them — often to be revived by the next generation, before being forgotten again. Quack medical treatments, as someone has pointed out, have a generational life, and so do quack economic and religious treatments. The Bates Eye Method, a way of using exercise to improve your eyesight, doesn’t work, and when people find that it doesn’t, they abandon it. They eventually die, and another group of people “discovers” the great idea, wants to believe it, and makes a big deal out of it, temporarily. The phony (and I mean “phony” not in the sense of “mistaken” but in the sense of “created to make money and impress people”) religious ideas of the I Am Movement have had a similar life cycle among New Age types. And when it comes to economics, where would we be without such recurrent notions as the idea that unions are responsible for “the prosperity of the middle class,” the idea that the minimum wage lifts people out of poverty, and the idea that general wellbeing can be created by forcing the price of commodities up by means of tariff regulations?

The gullible people who endorse such ideas often die with their convictions intact, although they may not succeed in passing them along to others, at least right away. In April we witnessed the death of the oldest man in the world, a gentleman named Walter Breuning. Before his death at the age of 114, Mr. Breuning gave the nation the benefit of his more than a century of experience and learning — his belief that America’s greatest achievement was . . . Social Security! Yes, if you retire at 66, as Mr. Breuning did, and collect benefits for the next 48 years, I suppose you might say that. But it’s an idea that’s likely to be ignored by people who are 30 years old and actually understand what Social Security is.

And that’s the additional factor: lack of interest. Failed ideas, and failed predictions, aren’t always forgotten — many of them have a second, third, or fourth advent. But they may be ignored. They may not be interesting, even as objects of ridicule. I suspect that most young people would say that Social Security is “good,” but it’s not as important to them as it was to Mr. Breuning. The same can be said of mainstream Christians, who agree that Christ will return, but pay little or no attention to any current predictions.

Right or wrong, as soon as an idea reveals even a vulnerability to disconfirmation, it often starts to dwindle in the public’s mind. Global cooling is a perfect example. Once, cooling was fairly big in the nation’s consciousness; then it didn’t seem to be happening, right now anyway; then it began to seem unimportant; then it disappeared, without anyone really noticing its absence.

This is what tends to happen with political and economic predictions. The smart people, and the political fanatics (such as me), go back to what Roosevelt said or Kennedy said or Obama said, and notice how wildly their promises and predictions varied from the accomplished facts; but the people in the street go their way, unshocked and unaffected. They may not have expected specific accuracy from their leaders’ forecasts, but if they did, they forgot about it. Initially, they were foolish enough to be inspired, or frightened, but they were canny enough to realize that other forecasts — equally inspiring, frightening, and vulnerable to failure — would succeed the present ones.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan.

It’s like Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs seem certain to devour the heroes, and almost manage to do so — about 1100 times. After the first few hundred near-death experiences, you realize that the only logical reason this won’t go on forever is that the theater has to be cleared for another showing of Jurassic Park. Expectation diminishes, long before the show is over — although you may be willing to see it again, in a few years, once the specific memory wears off. That’s the way the language of prediction often works, or fails to work.

As long as the idea of socialism has existed, its priests have predicted the downfall of the capitalist system. When each seemingly fatal contingency proved not to be fatal, another contingency was identified; when that failed to produce the climax, a third came into view . . . and so on. Some people were willing to return for Downfall of Capitalism 2, 3, and4; but others sensed that the plot had no logical ending, after all, and sought something different.

So new performances began in the Theater of Prognostication. Followers of Malthus demonstrated that civilization would perish through “over-breeding.” Eugenicists showed that it would end by the over-breeding of the “unfit.” For many generations, journalists computed the size of “the world’s proven fuel resources” and demonstrated that unless alternative sources of energy were found, the engines of the world would stop. In 1918, the world was assured that it was about to be made safe for “democracy.” Then it was assured that it was on the brink of unimaginable prosperity, to be produced by “technocracy.” After that, it learned it was about to be completely destroyed by a new world war. When the war came, but did not succeed in destroying the world, optimists prophesied an imminent “era of the common man,” while pessimists prophesied annihilation by the atom bomb. For generations, the “doomsday clock” of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stood at a few minutes till midnight. It still does — because now it registers not only the purported danger of atomic war, but also the purported likelihood of destruction by “climate change.” In other words, another movie has hit the theater.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan. You buy it in little doses. First, “evidence seems to show”; then, “all the evidence shows”; after that, “experts are all agreed.” The only thing lacking is clear language about exactly how and exactly when the event will happen.

In the early 20th century, many millions of words were spilled about (A) the world’s inevitable political and social progress; (B) the world’s inevitable destruction in a great war. But when the first great war began, there was nothing of inevitability about it. If Russia, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary had decided, as they might easily have decided, not to bluff one another, or to call one another’s bluffs, about the insignificant matter of Serbian nationalism, there would have been no World War I. In the 1930s, world war was regarded as inevitable by people terrorized by new types of weapons and by the traditional bogeys of “monopoly capitalism” and “western imperialism.” When war came, it wasn’t ignited by any of those things, but by the least predictable of world historical factors: the paranoid nationalism of the Shinto empire, and the weird appeal of Nazism, embodied in the unlikely figure of Adolf Hitler.

If you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.”

There’s nothing much to the predictive power of human intelligence. But if you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.” Even more repulsively, you will be told that “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” (Isn’t that clever?) You will be accused of not believing in Science, not respecting the Environment, not caring about History, and so forth. You will be accused of all the characteristics exemplified by the prophets of doom themselves: ignorance, arrogance, and not-listening-to-others.

But let’s see how Harold Camping, Family Radio’s leader and prophet, compares with the other leaders and prophets we’ve considered. In one way he is exactly similar — his use of what Freud called “projection.” In every broadcast Camping warns his audience against arrogance, unloving attitudes toward other people, impulsive and subjective interpretations of the Bible, and submission to the mere authority of so-called Bible teachers. And in every broadcast he denounces members of ordinary churches for failing to heed his prophecies; rejoices in the pain they will suffer on May 21, when they realize that he was right and they were wrong; and suggests that anyone who disagrees with him is denying the authority of the Bible itself. On April 28, his radio Bible talk concerned the dear people in the churches, whom he reluctantly compared with the 450 priests of Baal who were slaughtered by Elijah because they trusted in their own ideas and wouldn’t listen to the true prophet — a prophet who, like Camping, was favored by God because he was absolutely certain that what he said was true.

But — and this is the most important thing — Camping has a dignity and intellectual integrity denied to most other predictors, including those most esteemed in our society. He doesn’t speak in generalities. He predicts that Judgment Day will come, without any doubt or question or problem of definition, on a particular day: May 21, 2011. In all likelihood it will begin with a great earthquake, which will devastate New Zealand and the Fiji Islands, at sundown, local time. After that, the wave of destruction will circle the globe, with the setting sun. By May 22, the Rapture will have been concluded; “it will all be over!”, and everyone will know that it is; the whole thing is “completely locked in.” In making his prophecies, Camping is actually risking something. He is actually saying something, not just uttering fortune cookie oracles.

I use that phrase advisedly. The other night, Mehmet Karayel and I dined at the Mandarin, and as always we were interested in seeing what our fortune cookies had to say. Mehmet’s fortune was a typically New Age, ostensibly precise manipulation of words. It said, “You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.” Yeah, right. Or he may not attend such a party, or the customs may be “strange” only to ignorant people, or the customs may be present but not prevail, etc.

Mehmet is a real intellectual, not a person who plays one on TV, so he was not taken in by this exciting forecast. Then came the unveiling of my fortune. It was, believe it or not, “Your future looks bright.” Can you imagine a feebler thing to bake into a cookie? But Mehmet is aware of Mr. Camping’s prophecies, so he knew how to strengthen the message: “It should say, ‘YourMay 22 looks bright.’”

So Mehmet and Harold Camping, though disagreeing firmly on specifics, stand together in demanding that they be produced. Mehmet is certain that my May 22 can be bright; Camping is certain that it can’t. But they both know that only one of them can be right about a proposition like this, and that we’ll soon find out which one it is. How refreshing.

I must admit that not everybody in Camping’s outfit is up to his high intellectual standard. On April 26 I received a plea for contributions to Family Radio (which, by the way, has a good deal of wealth and doesn’t really need many contributions — but why not ask?). The plea came in two parts. One was a brief letter from Camping, requesting my “continued involvement” in FR’s ministry, because “Time is running out! The end is so very near, with May 21, 2011, rapidly approaching.” The second was a pledge card, where I could check the amount of money I planned to give “each month.” As I said in my December article, there is evidence that some people at FR are biding their time, trying to keep the organization together so it can continue — under their leadership — after the failure of May 21. My speculation is that the pledge card is their product, and they don’t mind contradicting Camping’s message in the letter. They may even be alerting “supporters” like me to keep the faith: my May 22 does indeed look bright.

But that’s a digression. Harold Camping is not a politician or a professor of environmentalism, whose prophecies can never be proven wrong because they’re ridiculously non-specific. No, he has said exactly what he means by the end of the world, and he has said exactly when the end of the world will happen. You can check it. I hope you do. Go to Family Radio’s website, find out where its nearest radio station is, and tune in during the evening of May 20 (US time), when, Camping believes, Judgment Day will begin in the Fiji Islands. Then listen through the next few days, as Family Radio responds to the disconfirmation of its prophecies. Or does not respond — until it figures out how to do so (and that should be interesting also).

As I’ve said before, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It will be much more interesting than listening to the constant din of the secular prophets — politicians, historians, economists, and environmentalists — whose intellectual stature, compared to that of Harold Camping, addlepated prophet of the End Time, is as nothing, a drop in a bucket, and the small dust that is wiped from the balance.

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Is Greed the Problem with Capitalism?

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With the opening last fall of Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street, Americans were again subjected to Hollywood’s version of how the economic system works: big business is evil, and greed is at the heart of our economic problems. The original Wall Street movie was released during the Reagan administration — aperiod that initiated significant economic expansion.Nonetheless, the movie offered a stern warning about what to expect from greed run rampant. The villain of the story was Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the powerful head of a mergers and acquisitions firm. Toward the end of the movie Gekko makes a now-well-known speech about why “greed is good,” a speech that is meant to highlight the pro-capitalistarguments often made by businesses and free market advocates. Gekko tells a group of shareholders of a company he is trying to acquire that,

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, [for] knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Of course, true to Hollywood form, in the end Gekko winds up implicated in a major fraud, thus revealing the true moral of the story, which is of course, that “greed is bad!”

Ironically, the current economic crisis has been an opportune time for Hollywood to make money by highlighting the immorality of greed (as in Money Never Sleeps). For many observers it was greed by the managers of financial institutions that led to easy loans with little to no down payments; greed by homeowners that led to purchases of houses they couldn’t afford; greed on Wall Street that led to the creation of such clever new financial instruments as mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps; greed by CEOs that led to corporate extravagances and ridiculously high executive compensation packages; and greed by consumers that led to excessive use of credit cards to buy things now, rather than waiting till they earned the money to pay for it.

Tom D’Antoni in the Huffington Post declared that “the concept that ‘Greed is Good,’ is dead. It rose to its despicable zenith in tandem with the rise of Reagan, and has been the guiding principle of industry, finance and government ever since. . . . Greed brought us to this place . . . unregulated, untrammeled, vicious greed. Greed has no morals or ethics. Greed has no regard for others. Greed feeds only the greedy and feeds on every thing and everyone within grasping distance.” John Steele Gordon, author of a book on financial history, wrote, “There is no doubt at all about how we got into this mess. … Greed, as it periodically does when traders and bankers forget the lessons of the past, clouded judgments.”

 

Religion and greed

The world’s religions almost unanimously contend that greed is wrong. Although not explicitly proscribed in the Ten Commandments, greed is implicated in their command not to covet one’s neighbor’s property or spouse. The Bible contends that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (Timothy 6:10). In the year 590, Pope Gregory declared greed to be one of the seven deadly sins, along with lust, pride, gluttony, sloth, envy, and wrath. Among the seven, greed is often considered one of the worst, if not the worst, mostly because greed can inspire many of the other sins.

In almost every major religious tradition, greed is condemned unequivocally. The Qu’ran states, “Anyone who is protected from his own stinginess, these are the successful ones.” (64:16) The Tao Te Ching states, “When there is no desire, all things are at peace” (Chapter 37). In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna declares, “There are three gates leading to this hell — lust, anger and greed. Every sane man should give these up, for they lead to the degradation of the soul” (16:21). Sulak Sivaraksa, a leading Buddhist writer, states that “Buddhism condemns greed, which can easily lead to aggression and hatred.”

We do not appeal to other peoples’ humanity when we seek our sustenance, but rather to their self-interest, or in this case their greed.

Reacting to the recent economic crisis, Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, attacked exploitative moneylenders who pursued "ruthless gain"; he urged banks not to "enrich themselves at their poor neighbours' expense." Pope Benedict, in his 2008 Christmas message, said, “If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart.” The Dalai Lama asked, “What is the real cause of this sort of economic crisis?” His answer: “Too much speculation and ultimately greed.”

 

Greed as a necessity

Greed is an easy target. It is not hard to convince most people that greed is the primary source of many of our economic woes. But is it really?

Stephen Pearlstein points out what many economists believe. He writes, “In a capitalist economy like ours, the basic premise is that everyone is motivated by a healthy dose of economic self-interest. . . . Without some measure of greed and the tension it brings to most economic transactions, capitalism wouldn't be as good as it is in allocating resources and spurring innovation.”

This is the central idea behind Adam Smith’s oft-quoted line about the butcher, the brewer, and the baker in The Wealth of Nations:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” (Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2)

Smith is arguing that the economic system provides for our wants and needs because, first and foremost, people are trying to help themselves, and they do so by producing and selling meat, beer, and bread to others. These market outcomes are not achieved because of charity. We do not appeal to other peoples’ humanity when we seek our sustenance, but rather to their self-interest, or in this case their greed.Nonetheless the modern economist’s acceptance of greed as a positive force in society has not been readily accepted, given centuries of moral teachings to the contrary.

 

Seeking a middle way

Is there a resolution to the greed paradox? Is greed evil? Is it a necessary evil? Is greed something that humankind should seek to eliminate, perhaps replacing it with altruism? Or is greed something so ingrained in the human psyche that there is no hope of eliminating it?

Perhaps we simply need to learn how to live with greed. Perhaps there is a middle way, a method of channeling greed in good rather than bad ways.

Aristotle argued that “virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6). It is the middle way that is the goal. Indeed, dictionary definitions of greed highlight not only self-interest but an “intense, selfish desire” (New Oxford American) or “an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than one needs or deserves” (American Heritage). Greed is usually not implicated if someone’s desires are average or if one achieves a moderate standard of living.

Religious writings sometimes take account of this. Thus, one hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, states, "Eat what you want and dress up as you desire, as long as extravagance and pride do not mislead you” (Hadith as reported by Abd’allah ibn Abbas, 1:645). In Judaism too, one Midrashic interpretation asserts, “Were it not for the yetzer hara [the evil urge], a man would not build a house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in commerce” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7).

There is no community or society in the world that fails to benefit from the voluntary exchanges and market activities that occur in abundance in everyday life.

Returning to the issue of our current financial crisis, some observers recognize that greed cannot be eliminated. Michael Lewis and David Einhorn of the New York Times write, “ ‘Greed’ doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character, as we are lust and envy.” Robert Sidelsky writes that John Maynard Keynes “believed that material well being is a necessary condition of the good life, but that beyond a certain standard of comfort, its pursuit can produce corruption, both for the individual and for society.”

Steven Pearlstein suggests a different perspective, that greed may not be about the degree of desire, or how much one acquires, but about how one acquires wealth: “Even before they decided to give away most of their money, nobody seemed to begrudge Bill Gates or Warren Buffett their billions or criticize them for their ‘unbridled’ greed. That seems to have a lot to do with the fact that Gates and Buffett made their money on the basis of their own ingenuity, skill and hard work.”

 

Methods of satisfying greed

The American economist Henry George (1839–1897) is mostly famous for his theory of the Single Tax, but in his book Protection or Free Trade there is a passage that can help resolve some of the tension about greed and profit seeking: “Is it not true, as has been said, that the three great orders of society are ‘working-men, beggar-men, and thieves’?” (pp. 21–22).

Prima facie this passage may seem unremarkable, or at worst confusing: after all, what exactly is an “order of society?” But if we think about it carefully in light of the current discussion, it actually provides the seeds, or kernels, for understanding “greed.”

First, let’s recognize that what George has in mind are three primary ways in which people obtain benefits for themselves, or in other words “profit.” As I’ll argue, how a person ultimately judges profit-seeking activities and whether he views greed as good or bad will depend largely on which one of George’s “great orders” he believes to be most prominent in society. But first let’s discuss each of these profit acquisition methods, beginning with the last one, “thief.”

 

Thieves: involuntary transfers

One of the simplest methods a person can use to satisfy his greed for food, clothing, automobiles, cameras, computers, or the money to acquire these things is simply to take them away from someone else. Theft has been a part of life since the beginning of society, and it is likely to remain a part of society for a long time to come.

When the rightful owner of something has it stolen by another, the thief clearly benefits. He is now in possession of the valued item. The victim suffers a loss, since he does not possess and can no longer receive benefits from the product. The victim will surely feel that an injustice has occurred and will demand the return of the stolen property and the punishment of the perpetrator, if those responses are at all possible. But regardless of what happens afterward, theft involves a transfer of an item from a legitimate possessor to an illegitimate possessor, and the transfer always occurs involuntarily. Thus the term “involuntary transfer” offers a better moniker, especially because in many situations the transfers may technically not be considered theft, but will have similar characteristics.

Around the world societies evaluate outrighttheft in similar ways. It is generally considered bad, or wrong, or perhaps evil, with perhaps only a few exceptions tolerated. These exceptions are rare, and societies have put into place an elaborate system of laws that prohibit theft in a variety of situations while providing penalties for those found guilty of having violated these laws. Suffice to say that the acquisition of benefits by means of theft is unacceptable in all societies around the world. Although this is a seemingly obvious point, it forms the basis for most of the cry-outs about injustices around the world. In brief, people claim an injustice whenever they perceive that someone is getting “ripped off” in some way.

 

Beggar-men: voluntary transfers

The second of George’s orders of society — that is, another major way in which people acquire the goods and services that their greed desire — consists of those who are given the items voluntarily by someone else. A beggar stands on the street corner and solicits money from passersby. The money they give him represents a transfer of goods and services from the giver to the recipient. Although the giver loses, the money obtained by the beggar is not ill-gotten, in a traditional legal sense, because it has been given to him willingly; it is a voluntary transfer.

From the giver’s perspective this action is called charity and the action is held in high esteem in most societies in the world. Charity is not self-serving; it is in the service of others. It is not consideredharmful, but helpful. Charity is encouraged and promoted in all of the major religions. Some people, such as Mother Teresa, who have spent their lives giving to needy people, are respected or even beatified by their religious groups.

 

Working-men: voluntary exchange

The third order of society that George mentions is “working-men.” This is another method an individual can use to acquire the goods and services that his greed may inspire. Work generates an income that can be used to purchase consumption goods, but it is important to recognize the underlying process. Work in a commercial societyis an activity devoted to producing a good or service that someone else will wish to purchase; a product that is desirable. Through the free voluntary exchange of the product for money in the marketplace, a business generates the revenue that is used to pay its workers. That money, or income, is then used by the workers to purchase other goods and services produced by other workers. In the end, when you strip away the money part of the transactions, what is really taking place in market activity is the voluntary exchange of one good for another. And since both parties to a trade exchange their goods voluntarily, it must be that both benefit from the transaction, for if not, why trade?

Voluntary exchange is the cornerstone of the world’s economic prosperity. The very first lesson in Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the principle of the division of labor: productivity can increase as the production process becomes more specialized; that is, as labor or workers are divided into more specialized tasks. But the only way to take advantage of these benefits afterwards is through exchange. If you cannot exchange, there is no incentive for specialization.

We should never portray greed in general as good or bad, right or wrong, but as something that can be satisfied in either acceptable or unacceptable ways.

Based in part on this fundamental principle, economists have long supported the free market, which essentially means allowing free and voluntary exchanges, without social or governmental impediments. Indeed, societies everywhere generally accept and promote trade both within and beyond their borders. There is no community or society in the world that fails to benefit from the voluntary exchanges and market activities that occur in abundance in everyday life. To summarize: if greed inspires work that in turn inspires voluntary exchanges in the marketplace, then the outcome is mostly good for everyone involved.

 

Distinguishing “good” greed from “bad” greed

Greed can generate either good or bad outcomes, depending on which great order of society, or in other words which method, is involved in its satisfaction. If greed inspires a person to work long hours in a business providing valuable goods and services to others in order to satisfy the needs of himself and his family, then greed should be perfectly acceptable on pragmatic grounds. If greed inspires a person to innovate and create new products that others will desire in the market, then greed is good. In each of these cases greed is satisfied through voluntary exchange. However, if greed inspires a person to acquire what he desires by taking the rightful possessions of another person without that person’s consent, then greed is not good. In this case greed does not encourage useful behavior in the marketplace, but rather fear that one’s marketable goods will be appropriated by others. For similar reasons, greed is also wrong when it inspires someone to put roadblocks in the way of others who are trying to sell their products in the marketplace. In both these cases greed is satisfied by means of involuntary transfers and is rightly condemned. Yet if greed urges one to beg for food and clothing, or to seek the charitable contributions of others, and if those items are given voluntarily, then greed is satisfied in an acceptable manner; that is, a manner that has no deleterious effects on other people’s ability to benefit themselves by means of free exchange. The compassion of charitable people, helping those less fortunate, engaging in voluntary transfers, is clearly unobjectionable.

We should never portray greed in general as good or bad, right or wrong, but as something that can be satisfied in either acceptable or unacceptable ways. The distinguishing feature isn’t the presence of greed itself or even the intensity of the greed, but the way in which greed is satisfied. Following the suggestion of George’s great orders, the greed satisfied by a working man is commendable, the greed of a beggar-man is unfortunate but acceptable when necessary, and the greed satisfied by thievery is the primary source of injustice in the world.

 

Greed and the economic crisis

Many criticisms about greed’s role in the current economic crisis are really complaints about involuntary transfers. Hollywood and liberal Democrats look at the crisis and see injustice in the high salaries of CEOs, the comparativelylow wages paid to average workers, the excessive loans made to people who could not afford the homes they were buying, and the political clout of business insiders who got rules written on their behalf. But the reason people see injustice is mostly because they believe that someone is getting ripped off. It may be the consumer or the taxpayer or the low-paid worker at the company, but in any case, the perception is that one group is receiving less because someone else is receiving more.

Frequently these complaints are correct. Big business does sometimes engage in fraud. Consider the recent scandal involving Bernie Madoff. Madoff offered investors better than average returns largely by fabricating them in financial statements and by using the principal deposited by new investors to pay the returns of investors lucky enough to get out early. His setup was a classic Ponzi scheme that inevitably collapsed when too many people demanded their money back at the same time. Clearly Madoff was greedy — as were the investors who were looking for better returns than they had any reason to expect from an honest investment scheme. However, this case is a clear example of greed fueling involuntary transfers rather than valuable production and trade. The investors were led to believe that their money was wisely invested in companies making above average profit when in reality new investor money was transferred to exiting investors as needed. As long as deposits exceeded withdrawals the Ponzi scheme could continue.

Many other prominent examples of insider trading, accounting scams, and other shady dealings have been uncovered over the years and have resulted in prosecution and jail sentences. Yes, businesses may be exploitative. Cries of injustice by the general public rang out when huge bonuses were announced for executives at the financial firms that were bailed out by the government. After the billions of TARP dollars were transferred to these failing institutions, many of the banks were quickly out of trouble and the systemic crisis was averted. However, announcements that these same companies would pay millions of dollars in overdue bonuses to executives touched off a wave of indignation.

Many companies profit both by selling desirable goods and by taking advantage of involuntary transfers.

The source of the anger is obvious. In the midst of the crisis these institutions laid off a large portion of their work forces. Meanwhile, their overextended positions on loans, with effects multiplied by their own enormous size, contributed to the crisis. Since bonuses are typically made to reward good behavior, it seemed inappropriate for executives who were implicated in the crisis and were “saved” by a taxpayer-financed bailout to be able to walk away a few months later with hefty bonuses. Reward appeared to be disconnected from achievement. Most observers would contend that these companies were restored to profitability, not by the skill and hard work of executives producing a superior product for their customers, but by involuntary transfers from taxpayers. So again, there is a sense that involuntary transfers helped to satisfy the greed of a few individuals.

The key for high salaries to be viewed as equitable, or just, is that they are deserved. As mentioned earlier, relatively few people seem to begrudge the high salaries and enormous wealth of Bill Gates, or popular figures in sport. Their earnings are generally recognized as a result of the voluntary exchange process. These people earn money by providing valuable goods and services to others around the world.

Basketball stars seldom lobby to advance their interests, but big business often does, and this is a large source of complaints about greed. Robert Reich goes so far as to describe lobbying as political corruption:

“If we define political corruption as actions causing the public to lose confidence that politicians make decisions in the public's interest rather than in the special interest of those who give them financial support, the biggest corruption of our political process is entirely legal. It comes in the form of campaign contributions that would not be made were it not for implicit quid pro quos by politicians, bestowing favors of one sort or another on the contributors.”

But what sort of favors does he mean? He continues:

“The fights that actually preoccupy Congress day by day, which consume weeks or months of congressional staffers' time and which are often the most hotly contested by squadrons of Washington lobbyists and public-relations professionals, are typically contests between competing companies or competing sectors of an industry or, occasionally, competing industries. . . . Many of these battles (e.g. over health care reform) continue but have moved into the regulatory process, where different companies, sectors, and industries are seeking rules that advantage them and disadvantage their competitors.”

Reich is arguing that the business of government has become the provision of rules and regulations that favor some over others. In other words, he is describing a completely legal, but involuntary, transfer process promulgated by government. The winners are those who have the most clout among legislators. Often they are the ones (big business and big labor) who can offer the most in campaign contributions. The losers are either the less influential competitors, or the taxpayers who must provide funding for the subsidies provided, or the consumers who pay higher prices produced by taxes or regulations.

The same process of involuntary transfer appears in connection with financial sector reform. Again, greed is said to be the source of corruption, but it is just a smokescreen. People demand that something be done; they demand that government prevent financial crises, such as occurred in 2008. Unfortunately, no one quite knows how to do that. Nevertheless, lack of knowledge won’t prevent changes from being made. That’s because there are plenty of influential organizations standing in the wings with suggestions. While all of these suggestions will be presented as important to the national interest, the changes will be particularly helpful to the organizations themselves.

Even more likely is that good ideas for regulatory reform will be paired with ideas that serve particular corporate interests. This is one of the reasons that so many pieces of legislation are thousands of pages long these days: to buy political support, commonsensical reforms must be combined with favors for powerful interests. It is no wonder that, after decades of rule writing like this, our regulatory system is a twisted web that requires companies to hire huge teams of experts and consultants simply to untangle.

 

So is greed the problem with capitalism?

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans ought to find these examples of involuntary transfers equally objectionable. Confusion arises because of the focus on greed as the culprit. Critics of business and free markets see the greed that is satisfied through fraud and other involuntary transfers, and therefore condemn all efficientprofitseeking activities. But what about businesses that are making money and paying high salaries to their executives because of the desirable goods and services they are selling to their customers — doesn’t greed inspire their activities? And if we could stamp out greed from our psyches, wouldn’t we also be eliminating a motive that makes the modern economy work? Of course the answer is yes to those questions, which is why supporters of free markets are quick to condemn the “greed” arguments made by the Left.

One apparent problem is that many companies profit both by selling desirable goods and by taking advantage of involuntary transfers. The two activities are often confounded within the same business. For instance, executives at Enron perpetrated an accounting scam that prevented shareholders from knowing that the company was sinking deeply into the red, but at the same time the company provided valuable energy services to its customers. Although some portion of the riches made by Enron executives were fraudulent, some other portion was not. Similarly, some companies that use political influence to gain favorable regulatory treatment — treatment that effectively transfers money in their direction — simultaneously produce and sell legitimate products in the marketplace. Their high salaries and profits, no doubt sought and achieved by greed, are partly due to acceptable voluntary exchanges and partly due to objectionable involuntary transfers.

This confounding effect leads to many problems of interpretation. For example, high CEO salaries are often explained by using marginal productivity theory, according to which competition in the CEO market drives the prices for those positions to the levels observed. Under this interpretation, CEO salaries are the deserved share of production in a voluntary exchange market system and thus are acceptable. On the other hand, one could interpret high CEO salaries as the consequence of an exploitative process, in which CEOs are rewarded in the competitive market because they have effectively increased their companies’ shares of wealth by means of involuntary transfers from taxpayers or consumers. Since it is very difficult to measure which portion of a large company’s income is attributable to which kind of process, different interpretations are possible. However, here the disagreement is not about principle but about the interpretation of data.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the right lessons about greed and capitalism are unlikely to be found either in recent Hollywood productions (which indiscriminately condemn all products of greed) or in recent economic theory. For theory, it may be best to revert to the old classics: read Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments; read Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law; read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom; read Henry George’s Protection or Free Trade.

In movies, the classics are also best. I mean, for example, a movie from 1954 entitled Executive Suite (starring William Holden and Frederic March). The film explores two different approaches to business; one based on reverence for the bottom line no matter what methods are used to achieve it; the other based on hard work, innovation, and the production of superior goods that the workers themselves can be proud of. By the end of the movie, the moral superiority of one over the other is obvious. The greed that inspires work, innovation, and pride (voluntary exchange) wins out over the greed that inspires fraud, blackmail, and accounting tricks (involuntary transfers).

We need to resurrect this understanding of business. We need to remember how aspiration, inspiration, and greed, appropriately directed, can create a workplace filled with well-treated, well-motivated workers striving to produce a superior product for their customers. Indeed, Hollywood can show us a way out of the current economic crisis; only it is not today’s Hollywood.

 

Works Cited

D’Antoni, Tom, “Finally the Death of Greed,” online at The Huffington Post, Dec. 11, 2008.

George, Henry (1949), Protection or Free Trade, Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York.

Gordon, John Steele, “Greed, Stupidity, Delusion — and Some More Greed,” online at the New York Times, Sept. 22, 2008.

Lewis, Michael, and David Einhorn, “The End of the Financial World as We Know It,” New York Times, Jan. 3, 2009.

Pearlstein, Steven, “Greed Is Fine. It's Stupidity That Hurts,” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2008.

Reich, Robert, “Everyday Corruption,” The American Prospect, June 21, 2010.

Sivaraksa, Sulak, “Buddhism Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict,” an interview conducted in July 1993, published in the Tamil Times. Online at http://federalidea.com/focus/archives/112.

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