Thursday, June 06, 2013

Reflections in a Clouded Eye

There was a young man who worked the night trick in the L&N's Choctaw Yard, a lonely place on the Mobile waterfront where he kept records of box cars awaiting their ship. The work took no more than a couple of hours, so for most of the night the young man found himself idle and alone.

But one night, just after he came to work, he saw a small black dog, apparently sick to its death, lying near the track-four switch stand. For the rest of the night, when his work brought him near the dying dog, he found reason to steer away. He knew a sick dog might be rabid or driven by pain to viciousness

Still, the thought of the dog troubled him. Thirty yards away death was creeping into the body of a living being. More than he feared the threat of a sick dog, the boy feared the lurking stranger, a feeling hardly accountable in one so young.

Near four in the morning, death finished its job. The froth on the dog’s mouth hardened into a dry caulk. Its blind eyes, like chalky marbles, reflected neither light nor life.

The boy might have forgotten the dog, but just as he was finishing his chores, just as the light of day reached the chocked-up caboose that served as an office, a man appeared at the door, propped a foot on the stoop, and called to the boy. "I have a sick animal here. Can you help? We may be able to do something for him."

The boy stepped outside. The man seemed okay, not just another hobo. He stood straight and looked straight into the boy's eyes. He wore neat khakis, a checkered Eisenhower jacket, and a peaked cap of the sort worn by baseball players. But the boy paid little attention to the man's clothes, for in his outstretched hands the man held the limp and lifeless body of the dead dog, its eyes frozen open, arid as sand and seeing nothing.

"I found him over by the rails," the man said. "He seems to have been there for some time. Did you see him earlier?"

The boy almost lied; he didn't want to confess he'd seen the dog and done nothing. “Yes, I saw him. I thought he was sick. I was afraid to go near him."

"I can understand that. It's better to play it safe around strange dogs with unknown illnesses."

"You don't seem to be afraid."

"Well, you see," holding the lifeless dog higher, "he's really harmless."

The man knelt and laid the dog's body across the ground, resting its head on a tuft of grass.

"I think the little fellow's going to be alright," he said.

"I don't know," the boy muttered, fearful of contradicting the man's quiet confidence. "He hasn't moved all night. He looks pretty bad to me."

Caressing the dog’s lifeless fur, the man stared upward into the boy's eyes. "Yes, I suppose you're right," he said. "He does look bad. But then you look fine to me and perhaps I look alright to you, but who knows what the next moment holds for either of us?"

The boy could not bring himself to take the question seriously. The man was kneeling beside a dead dog and treating it as if it were alive. Instead of answering he asked the man where he had come from. "I haven't seen you around here before."

"I spent the night in your rail yard, and the night before."

The boy knew every car in the yard was loaded and sealed. He had been writing the seal numbers in a report when the man arrived. The man's trousers were trimly creased. "You don't look like you spent the night in a box car."

The man reacted as if the question of his appearance were not worth considering. He looked up from the dog into the boy’s face, and with utter seriousness spoke words the boy would never forget.

"You think this animal is dead because he seems dead. You think yourself alive because you move about and do things only a person alive is able to do. But if the dog, though dead, is alive, if he is in fact healthy and robust, could it be that you, though alive, are dead?"

The effect would have been the same if the man had slapped the boy's face. No one had ever spoken such words to him. But the young man, feeling too much of everything to feel anything, lowered his eyes and leaned heavily against the caboose. The man tilted his head to one side and dropped his chin slightly to peer upward into the boy's face. The gentle firmness of the man’s eyes spoke of a mysterious understanding. He lifted a questioning hand palm-upward toward the boy. Seeing no response, he stroked the dog's fur in a final gesture, and rose from his kneeling place to lay a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Why don't you go in and call someone for the little guy. Perhaps that's all there is to do for him, cart him off."

For a moment the boy stared into the kindest and, yet, the most accusing eyes he had ever seen. All his knowledge left him. Before, he had been as certain of nearly everything as the brilliant and nineteen can be, but in that waking moment, as the man's eyes convicted him of sins for which names had not been invented, the boy knew that, all along, he had been ignorant of everything including his own ignorance. But he was enough awake to understand that the little guy the man was talking about was not the dog.

Afraid to ask the questions brewing inside, the boy lowered his eyes and answered: "I'll call Mister Watson, the humane officer. It's early, but he'll come." The boy went inside to call the number which was written on a card tacked to the wall. He dialed, but received no answer.

A moment later, when the boy walked again into the sunlight, the man had vanished, and the little black dog was leaping joyfully at my feet, licking my hand, healthy and robust.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

To Make or Balance a Budget

In a democratic republic three methods exist by which to bring a budget into balance:

1. Raise taxes.

2. Cut spending.

3. Benefit from a booming economy.

To some extent, each of the first two negatively affects the third. That's bad since, barring inflation, a booming economy costs nothing and benefits everyone. Booms increase revenue without raising tax rates, and thus enable government to pay its bills without cutting spending.

Raising taxes, especially on people with low incomes, takes money -- i.e. demand -- out of the market. Government spending directly puts money into the economy, consequently cutting spending has the same effect as raising taxes.

For these reasons, when the economy has entered recession a government should avoid either raising taxes or cutting spending. It ought to raise taxes during boom times only if the boom is creating inflation, i.e., when the value of money falls too sharply. It may cut spending for similar reasons OR when the need for a particular expenditure no longer exists, as when, for example, a war has ended. Excess funds generated by booming economies, or by suspended needs, ought always to be used to reduce debt.

Wisdom suggests that ideological concerns ought never be entertained in the preparation or balancing of a budget, but because the people seldom think or act wisely, the government's leadership  may be compelled to employ rhetoric and misleading statements in order to maintain a sane budgetary approach. This advice will be extremely difficult to follow since the leadership is typically more ideologically driven than the people.

Nothing further need be said about making or balancing a budget.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Romney’s Tax Plan Doesn’t “Add Up”

Start with the point I made in my previous blog. If in fact Romney offsets the 20% across the board tax cut by eliminating deductions, then there would in fact – as he said – be no tax cut. The decrease in tax rates would be compensated by deductions that no longer exist. So if the tax cut constituted the most powerful ammunition in Romney’s plan to grow the economy, the fact that it would actually put no money in the pockets of consumers defuses that tactic. Nevertheless, Mr. Romney continues to say the tax cut will benefit small businesses. How can that happen if there is in fact no tax cut?

He has also claimed that the tax cut will not impact the deficit. That would be true but only if the point made above were actually the case. If the amount of revenue flowing into the treasury remains the same before and after the so-called tax cut, the deficit would not be affected. Let us ask, however, just how likely is it that the tax cut will be offset by the elimination of deductions?

 The oath most Republicans have made to Grover Norquist bears heavily on this question. Mr. Norquist has quite logically concluded that the elimination of a tax deduction is in fact a tax increase. He will thus score any legislator who votes to eliminate a deduction (such as, for example the oil depletion allowance) as an oath-breaker. Given that those Republicans who have signed up to honor Mr. Norquist have in the past marched lockstep with their oath, it is highly unlikely that they will break their pledge and vote for the elimination of deductions.
 This may seem on the surface like a good thing; the taxpayers will get to keep their deductions, and if the 20% tax cut is passed into law everyone would get a big tax cut. That would certainly help the economy but would just as certainly send the deficit through the roof (or into the clouds: it’s already on the roof).

 It’s difficult to say how Mr. Romney would react to this. He has said that he will cut the tax rates by 20%, but that he would not do it if it impacted the deficit. My guess is that, if elected, he would introduce a bill to cut taxes. It will pass the House (if it remains in Republican hands) but be defeated (or filibustered) in the Senate. He would have kept his promise, but the economy would continue on its present heading: gradually upward.
[An aside: I’m sure President Obama, if he is defeated, will feel rather badly about the fact that he was saddled with Bush’s recession and that his successor will be the beneficiary of the recovery he has set in motion. Life’s a bitch.]

Taking a further look at the 20% tax cut, I wonder about folks like me. I don’t itemize deductions. Our house is paid for and we have no kids to claim. This last tax year we paid exactly zero state taxes, and we are sufficiently insured that our out-of-pocket medical expenses never rise above the threshold at which they might be claimed. But if Romney – by some miracle – does in fact pass his 20% tax cut into law, I will receive about $8000 of new income. Some of this may be offset if Romney also deletes the standard deduction portion of the tax code. My standard deduction was $13,900 and I paid taxes in the 28% bracket. So if that deduction is eliminated my gift from the government will be reduced by $3,892 (13900 X .28) leaving me a shade over $4,000 of new money to spend.
But looked at another way, the government will lose that $4,000. Very wealthy tax payers who live in circumstances similar to mine (no deductions to speak of) and whose income consists of capital gains, if they also lose the $13,900 standard deduction, they will gain $5,915 (13900 X .15). That is under identical circumstances, the wealthy taxpayer will receive $1,900 more than me.
Odds are, though, that wealthy people who take the standard deduction are, at present, few in number. They itemize. Romney, for example deducted several millions for charitable deductions and probably a similar amount for interest paid on the mortgages of his several homes. If Romney’s tax plan does in fact eliminate all deductions (in order to make the tax cut revenue neutral), then he would wind up paying very, very much more than he is currently paying. That is, the rich would be paying more while folks like me would be paying less.
OK, but doesn’t that sound like Obama’s plan: increase taxes on the wealthy while cutting taxes on the middle class? Of course it does, and that makes me think Romney has a few aces hidden up his sleeve. I know this must be so because he said in the recent debate that the “top 5% of the taxpayers will [under his plan] continue to pay 60% of all taxes” [presumably, as they do now]. We get a clue – but no details – from a rumor he circulated, that something like a $17,000 or $25,000 cap will be placed on deductions. (This would not be a standard deduction but only a limit on the amounts that could be claimed.) But his clue leaves me still wondering how the wealthy are going to pay only 60% of the total when the numbers seem to imply that they will pay much, much more. Something tells me he has more than aces up his sleeve.

OK. That’s a mystery, but there are other aspects of the Romney plan that are in plain sight. If he does actually cut all marginal rates by 20% then the top rate (currently 35% on earned income) would be reduced by 7% while the 28% rate would be reduced by only 5.6%. That is, the wealthiest among us would get a larger percentage decrease than the less wealthy. (Bush pulled a similar trick (twice) and got away with it – if adding trillions to the national debt can be so considered.) If Romney had said instead that he was going to reduce taxes by trimming 5 points off each rate, the difference would have been less of a card sharp’s trick. In actual dollars, however, even at that more equitable adjustment, the wealthy would receive much more than the rest of us.

I get it. Romney is sharp practicing the numbers. By promising a 20% reduction across the board, he has loaded it up so the wealthy get a greater percentage deduction. But his claim that the wealthy are still going to pay 60% of all taxes can betrue only by further unexpected consequences. If the government’s total income from taxes is significantly reduced by the tax cut (and if all the mysteries surrounding deductions are removed) the rich, while still paying 60% of all taxes, would actually be paying less in actual money.

This brings us back to Mr. Norquist and his co-conspirators in the Congress. His aim and theirs is, as he said, to reduce the size of government to such an extent that “it could bathe in a bathtub.” Methinks Mr. Romney is well aware of what that means and what it aims to achieve. Norquist and the confederacy of dunces that have signed up to assist him in his aims, want to eliminate Social Security and any other high-cost program that benefits the people. He wants to go back to the government of the 1920’s, before the New Deal, before fair labor practices were enacted, before in fact all the social safety nets were put in place. They seem to believe that if government were smaller, if the people were left to fend for themselves in what Hobbes referred to as a struggle of all against all, the world would be a better place. That argument has been made and lost many times over. The fact is that when ordinary people (not your fictitious John Galt’s) feel there’s a net below them that will catch them if their ambitions fail, they are more prone to take the risks associated with entrepreneurship. In other words, the New Deal created a society within which growth was made more possible. The six decades following WW II demonstrate the effectiveness of that idea. Norquist is running against the facts of history and seems proud of it. He’s dead wrong

And so is Romney’s tax plan for it can end no place but where Grover wants it to end: in a nation constantly teetering on the edge of destruction. I’m voting against that.

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Several Roads to Serfdom. It’s not exactly on topic but it illustrates another of the many attempts of the rich to get richer at the expense of the rest of us.

They [Norquist and his Republican cronies] seek to eliminate taxes on all forms of profit from capital investment—no more taxes on interest, dividends, and corporate profits. In the long run this strategy will lead (certainly) to the amassing of huge sums of capital, which in turn will lead (supposedly) to a greatly expanded industrial base . . . . By long run these planners mean something on the order of a decade or so. We know, however, that long term economic plans become less likely to succeed as the length of the term increases. Some horrible event like an unwanted war may reverse the trends, or the holders of all that capital may choose to invest it in cheap labor markets overseas. [These paragraphs were written in 2005] . . . Common Sense suggests that the great capital accumulations will be invested where the cheapest labor and most unsatisfied demand can be found. Thus, the working classes in the already industrialized nations will probably receive little of the benefits of the capital accumulation, with labor in third-world countries being the primary benefactors. It is indeed likely that workers in industrialized nations will take home lower real wages than they do now. The plan, thus, may never directly benefit the nation that made the changes to its tax structure.

But two things are certain. If the Congress actually implements the plan, those among us who derive their income from investments will live free of all income taxes, while (if the size of government remains relatively the same) taxes on income earned by labor will increase.

And here’s another certainty. Even if the great masses of capital do not produce the intended result, even if the plan completely fails, those whose taxes were reduced to zero will have become fabulously wealthy. At the same time, those who earn their living by the sweat of their brow will benefit only if the plan does work. That is, labor takes all the risk, capital none.
Altman [who was quoted earlier] did not mention that this scheme was given a trial run in Chile during the reign of Augusto Pinochet. At the dictator’s request, Milton Friedman—the economist who wrote the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Road to Serfdom—dispatched a swarm of his trainees to Chile. They convinced Chile’s dictator that so-called supply-side economics would produce great wealth. The plan was implemented in the mid-70s. Fifteen years later Chile was in deep recession, with wages down almost 20% and the numbers of people living in poverty having doubled from pre-Friedman levels. The plan did, however, work exactly as planned—the wealthy people of Chile got wealthier. Pinochet finally sent Friedman’s pack packing . . . and reverted to the economic tactics of Salvador Allende, the legally elected president Pinochet had assassinated in a 1973 coup.
Illustrative of how the world now works, the Friedmanites and their cronies in [Reagan’s] State Department branded that colossal failure of supply side economics, “The Miracle of Chile.”
But Neoconomy may not be an evil scheme. It may be that it just looks like one. It could turn out that our current planners really have their hearts in the right place, and the fact that they are all wealthy men has nothing to do with the nature of the plan they’ve concocted. But how can we know this? Any means by which the facts could be communicated to us flow through channels controlled by the suspects. If these devils are really Devils, the poor working stiffs may be eight months pregnant before they begin to show.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Points Obama might have made (but didn't)

Mr. Romney, I must admit I am surprised that you now claim to have no intention of actually implementing the 20% across-the-board income tax cuts your campaign has been trumpeting for the past three months. I suppose I made the mistake of believing you were telling the truth when you and your running mate outlined that intention. As I recall, this 20% tax cut was at the heart of your plan to, as you say, “grow the economy.” If in fact you really didn’t mean it, then you’re left with so-called de-regulation as the only arrow left in your quiver.

              Of course, you knew this, so now you say you really do plan to cut taxes by 20% but only if it can be implemented in a way that would not impact the national debt. By this I guess you mean that the tax cuts, if they’re implemented, will be revenue-neutral, as Mr. Ryan has been claiming. That delightful outcome can only be realized if you can close enough loopholes to equal the amount of the 20% tax cut. If you actually can do this – and I doubt it – then the net effect of your tax cut will actually be nothing. The amount of taxes paid by the American people would remain exactly the same as they are now. I ask you: How can that sort of so-called tax plan lead to growth? Well, it couldn’t. Growth might be brought about by tax cuts, but if and only if they put more money in the pockets of consumers. A so-called revenue-neutral plan doesn’t do that. So your tax plan is simply a legislative exercise. Its only benefit, if you could call it that, would be that tax payers wouldn’t have to be worried about keeping track of their charitable contributions, the money paid in home mortgage interest, child care expenses, and a score or so of other deductions tax payers currently enjoy.

              But there’s a hidden danger in this. I’m sure you’re as aware as I am that almost 99% of the Republicans serving in the Senate and House have signed away to Grover Norquist their constitutional right to levy taxes. If those senators and congressmen remain faithful to Mr. Norquist, and not to the American people, taxes can never go in any direction but down. Every cut would work kike a ratchet; once cut, taxes could never be increased. As wonderful as this may seem to some of your supporters on the fringes of the right, this ratcheting effect would effectively deny tax increases even if the nation’s life were in danger. And I assure you, when I took office; the nation’s very life was on the brink of death.

Those Republican politicians who have pledged allegiance to Grover Norquist have, in effect, signed away one of the two means available to balance the budget: (1) raise taxes, and/or (2) cut spending. But as you have no doubt discovered in trying to find a way to justify your 5 trillion dollar tax cut, there’s a limit to how much spending can be reduced without cutting the throats of many American people or endangering the nation’s defenses and infrastructure. When that limit is reached, when spending can be cut no further, and when the inevitable economic downturn reduces the government’s income (as has happened after the disastrous recession of 2008 and 9) there remains only one way to balance the budget: tax increases. But as any sophomore knows, in an economic slowdown the last thing you want to do is raise taxes. That’s why I cut taxes on the middle class, and it explains why, in this unbalanced recovery where the majority still suffers and the wealthy have prospered, I want and intend to raise taxes on those who can afford it.  I know the objection that any tax increase in a stagnant economy is a bad thing, but if we still aim to turn the tables on deficit spending we have to take that painful step.

Which brings up another surprise: You continue to repeat the falsehood that I have proposed a 716 billion cut in Medicare. I honestly thought you understood what was going on. Your running mate certainly does because in his infamous budget proposal he “cut” Medicare by exactly the same amount. Now I confess, I haven’t yet been able to figure out where his 716 billion is coming from, but I know precisely where mine originates. I’m not reducing the services delivered by Medicare; I’m only reducing the cost of those services. Take this example: if every day you bought, say, a can of soup for $1.00, in ten years you would have bought roughly 3,650 cans of soup at a total cost of $3650. But if by some policy or market force the average price of soup were reduced to 90 cents, those same 3650 cans of soup would have cost you $365 less. Now a politician trying to make hay might say, “You’ve cut the soup program by $365;” but as Bill Clinton might say in reply, “Mitt, you still have the same amount of soup. Are you complaining that soup is just less expensive now than before?” Your answer was that, when such savings occur in Medicare, some hospitals and doctors would refuse to take Medicare patients. That might happen, also might not. That’s a problem for the hospitals and doctors to work out in their consciences. But one thing is certain: your continued characterization of that savings as a “cut in Medicare” is purely false. And here’s the disgusting part: I think you know it’s false, but continue to pretend that you don’t know, otherwise you would be compelled to give up on that particular criticism. That’s something you should have worked out in your conscience . . . but apparently your conscience lost.

Which brings me to the most disturbing fact that has come up in your campaign: the fact that you believe that 47% of the people who will not vote for you are moochers who consider themselves as victims, who desire noting but handouts – free food, free housing, free health care, free everything – and who it is not in your power to convince that they should take responsibility for their lives and for whom you therefore do not care about. That’s, of course, a statement you wish had not been made public. But in a way, you might find an excuse by claiming that by saying that your lack of caring meant only that you would not waste campaign dollars seeking their votes. Politicians – all of us – have to make hard decisions of that sort. But that excuse will not forgive you of feeling about those people the way you do. It’s certainly not a political necessity that you think these people are all moochers, not a political necessity that you think of them as people who will not take responsibility for their lives. Those are personal feelings that have meaning only if they are sincerely felt. Those words tell us about Mitt Romney. “Oh but,” you might say, “I was doing something most politicians do at one time or another. I was just telling that audience what they wanted to hear.” Well, Mitt let me tell you: that’s absolutely the least politically brilliant statement you might make. When you made your 47% remark you were speaking to what might symbolically be referred to as the heart and soul of your party – the fat cats who finance it. If you were simply telling them what they wanted to hear, then you have politically crucified your entire party. You have said, in effect, that the moral imperative driving the Republican Party bears no relationship whatsoever to the ethics preached by Jesus of Nazareth. Your party would reduce Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan to a mere fairy tale, not intended to taken seriously as a guide to moral behavior. Better, Mitt, that you should simply apologize for your unchristian remark and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what a noble man would have done . . . if in fact he had made such an ignoble statement.

I wish I had said these things to you last Wednesday evening. I thought to, but didn’t. Forgive me. In remaining less than forthright on these issues I have rendered you a disservice: I’ve left you the man you were when you walked onto the stage, when I could have, by moral conviction,  perhaps opened your eyes to a nobler self within and to a new way to live your life. By remaining relatively silent on these matters, I left you in a make-believe world where, if someone doesn’t soon set you right, your mental health will surely deteriorate.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Amorphous Tea Partier

The original Bostonian protesters against a tea tax were focused in what they were against. It wasn't the tax per se. It was that they didn't like it that the tax had been levied by the British Parliament instead of their local legislature.

The modern brand of protester is somewhat less precise in his complaint. Taken at face value the Tea Partiers seem to be protesting taxes in general. That would mean they are against paying for the Defense Department, debt service, Medicare, and Social Security. Remove these four from the tax burden and you're left with a piddling amount.

I may be wrong, but I doubt that the average Tea Partier is against any of those. He may not like paying for them, but he doesn't want to do away with them either.

There is, however, a segment of the population which would like to see two of these (excluding debt service and the Defense Department) go away. I refer to that 1% of the population that controls 80% of the nation's wealth. They have no need, and thus no use for Medicare and Social Security. It's paradoxical that this minuscule minority has somehow coaxed a sizeable segment of the population into a protest against its own best interest. Strange.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Needs Saying (Again)

Perhaps we ask the impossible if we demand that all the people should be informed of all the facts before deciding significant issues. We are after all a republic in which elected representatives make decisions of the war-or-peace sort for us. Most of us have neither the time nor the intellect to devote to an assessment of the relevant issues. But even if time were afforded us, and even if all of us were reasonably educated concerning foreign affairs, our ability to determine the truth of the matter would still be impaired by the fact that we are often compelled by unconscious forces to believe the lie and doubt the truth. Difficulties far greater than those facing Pavlov’s dog face those whose “bells” are not mere bells but are plausible theories indelibly imprinted upon their minds. We love our freedom, and would be willing to die for it, but attach the word “freedom” to broad expanses of our neuronal territory, let it be emotionally interleaved with all our conceptions of thought – not merely the most fundamental – and we will find ourselves dying for causes that have little or nothing to do with actual freedom, ours or anyone else’s.

When, for example, the word “freedom” is repeated to us like a meditator’s mantra to justify the ambitions of a deluded politician, it is only by an almost superhuman effort that we ask whether an Iraqi would, to obtain his freedom, be willing to be killed by a foreigner who may be driven as much by a need for the approbation of his constituents (or contributors) as by a genuine care for the Iraqi, his wife, their sisters, brothers, and children – those the foreigner must slaughter in order to obtain the Iraqi’s freedom for him. And even if we were to ask ourselves that question, perhaps the word “freedom” will have been so positively charged by our own history, that we would answer for the Iraqi – who had no say in the matter – that he would surely welcome death if only his heirs could be assured a portion of that blessed freedom. It would perhaps never occur to us to wonder if the word “freedom” means to the Iraqi what it means to us.

To people unfamiliar with the Arab culture, that last sentence may seem only a rhetorical conjecture. It may seem that even if the Iraqi has a notion of freedom different from ours, his must certainly be false. Those so deluded will perhaps never have understood that all words – all but a logical few – have gotten their meanings out of human experience. T. E. Lawrence’s words provide a taste of the meaning of “freedom” as it might feel in the Arab mind, a feeling I can understand but do not share.

We had ridden far out over the rolling plains of North Syria to a ruin of the Roman period which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert-palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded for greater richness, not with water, but with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room saying ‘This is jessamine, this violet, this rose.’

But at last Dahoun drew me: ’Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all’ – and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert….

‘This,’ they told me, ‘is the best….’

[Fron “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”]

I have seen a lot of desert country, mostly in Arizona, but have experienced nothing like the exhilaration Lawrence was describing. To me the desert is a hot place. In no way does it figure into my idea of freedom. But just as I might include aspects of “cowboy life” in the feeling that goes along with my conception of freedom, so must the desert involve itself in the experiential life of the Arab. The author from whose book I grabbed the Lawrence quote spoke with great understanding of the Bedouin’s nomadic life, particularly of the ghazzu, which he briefly defined as “the raid,” but which another Englishman defined as “a cross between Arthurian chivalry and County Cricket.” [Page 27, "The Kingdom, by Robert Lacey.]

The idea was to steal another tribe’s camels, but in doing so, one had to obey the rules of the game: no molesting women and no raids between certain hours of the night. If your ghazzu failed and you were captured, the rules also required that you be fed well, and then turned loose, but your “team’s” camels and all but one firearm were confiscated. The “trudging back to camp after an unsuccessful raid was, apparently, a part of the game.” Perhaps in the Bedouin mind freedom feels something like being out on a raid, knowing that even if you fail, the rules of the game will be followed, something like the feeling I get when I think of home.

[Excerpt from a future book]

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Sunday Sermon

[Following the publication of my book, "Spinoza's God," my church, The Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge, asked me to deliver a talk focused on the book. The following "sermon" is what came of their request, last Sunday. It seems to have worked.]

Once upon a time, in seventeenth century Amsterdam, there lived a young Jewish man named Baruch Spinoza. Like most young Jewish fellows he had been brought up to revere the God of Moses, and for the better part of the first two decades of his life, that’s apparently what he did. We know he received a thorough education in the Hebrew language and in the laws and traditions of the Jewish faith. I can imagine him as a dedicated attendee in what we might call Religious Education class, like most bright young people, peppering his teachers with questions, in his case, many questions. The word “Spinoza” means, in Portuguese, “thorn” as in the spiny stickers on the stems of roses. And that’s what Spinoza became, a thorn in the side of the Jewish community of seventeenth century Amsterdam.

Somewhere along the way Baruch had run across the works of Rene Descartes, the most famous free thinker of that time. In intellectual circles, Descartes was the rogue in vogue. He was the philosopher you had to deal with if you wished to be recognized as a “learned person.” We know that a bit later, Spinoza’s ideas diverged from Descartes’, but we can easily imagine this bright young man as a teenager, challenging his teachers with Descartes’ new fangled ideas.

But Spinoza wasn’t just playing games. He had not simply read Descartes. He caught on to what that wily Frenchman was talking about. Descartes challenged people like the young Spinoza to question their ideas and to keep on questioning until they knew they had reached the base of their beliefs. It was not good enough to simply know things; it was infinitely more important to understand why you trusted your knowledge as the truth.

Eventually, Spinoza would fine tune that particular thought of Descartes’, but that’s skipping over the juicy part. In the meanwhile our young man of Amsterdam got himself in deep trouble with the Rabbis. His ideas, you see, were not simply challenging the Hebrew faith – they were apparently threatening the safety of the entire Jewish community. We know from our own history that the Pilgrims who eventually settled in America had first migrated to the Netherlands in search of a place where they could worship as they pleased. The Jews were also welcome in Amsterdam. But in the minds of the Rabbis, Spinoza’s ideas were raising dangerous questions about the fundamentals of Christianity. The Rabbis sought to protect their community from the same sort of treatment being dealt out to Jews in Spain and Portugal, so they took action against our young hero.

First they offered him a sizeable pension if he would publicly deny his heretical ideas. When Spinoza refused, they excommunicated him. He did not bother to attend the formal ceremony, but he was no doubt made aware of the harsh words with which he was drummed out of the faith.

Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying down. and accursed in his rising up. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man.

And in what could have been the unkindest cut of all ...

Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him or written by his hand.

Spinoza was not yet twenty-four years old.

A scant twenty-one years later, he died, leaving us two books dealing with his philosophy, another on Descartes, and two unfinished books. One of those unfinished books was actually the first he sat down to write. It’s called “A Treatise on the Improvement of the Intellect.” It begins with these romantic words.

I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.

A page or so later in that book we see Spinoza paraphrasing the thoughts Solomon had written in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Young Spinoza saw that fame, fortune, and the other achievements of what we normally call success, could not fill the bill of affording a joy to all eternity. It was from that awakening that he turned to philosophy.

His first published book was the commentary on Descartes, but in the preface to that book, he says straight out that his intention there was merely to explain Descartes and that he did not in all cases endorse those ideas. As it turned out, though, that was the only book Spinoza published in his lifetime that bore his name on the cover.

His second major work, “A Treatise on Theology and Politics,” not only does not bear his name but, for very prudent reasons, even the name of the publisher was fictitious. Today the TTP, as that book is called, is generally acknowledged as having fired the starting gun for the higher criticism of the Bible. It was the first book ever published that clearly asked and answered the question, “who wrote the Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible. Spinoza claimed the author wasn’t Moses, but rather an assemblage of writers and editors who lived as much as 500 years after the death of Moses. The knowledge contained in Spinoza’s TTP has been so thoroughly verified by modern research, that the book is now seldom studied in the higher ranks of academia. It remains, however, Spinoza’s most readable book, one that any group of liberal religionist lay persons would find great pleasure in studying. It’s still in print, and the author’s name is now on the cover. I’ll quote the book’s opening sentence: “If men were able to exercise complete control over all their circumstances, or if continuous good fortune were always their lot, they would never be prey to superstition.” As a Unitarian Universalist, I just love those words.

Spinoza’s final completed work, his masterpiece, is called, “Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated.” This book is not called a masterpiece because of its clarity. The last words of the book read like this, “. . . for all great things are as difficult as they are noble.” I remember thinking, after I had ploughed through the Ethics for the first time, that I wish Spinoza had not made his “great things” so hellishly difficult to understand. But I guess, if the Ethics were an easy read there would be no need for books like the one I just wrote, or the many others that have been written to “explain” what Spinoza was talking about.

What makes the Ethics so difficult, apart from the style in which it is presented, is that its ideas fly harshly right into the face of our superstitions. All Christians, Jews, and Muslims had been taught that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That verse creates God as a being separate from the universe. God is one thing, the universe is another. But Spinoza spends the first few pages of the Ethics telling us, and trying logically to convince us, that God and the universe are one and the same thing. This idea is so blatantly different from what we’ve been taught that we don’t realize until much later that what Spinoza is actually telling us is this: if God were something apart from the universe, then we humans would have no means to learn of God and no reason to trust anything we’ve been taught about the nature of God. If we cannot deduce our knowledge of God from our experience of the world, then all bets are off as to what God actually is. If God is wholly other, then any and all theological statements about him are equally valid . . . and equally invalid. That is, all faiths based on so-called revelation, however foolish or wise they may seem, have an equal claim to the truth about God – none at all.

I now know that one of the things that made Spinoza’s Ethics so hard to understand for me was the fact that when I first read it I did not want to understand it. It wasn’t that I as an inquisitive young man did not consciously seek understanding. It was that I could not break the unconscious bonds that tied me so comfortably to my inherited beliefs. It’s one thing to be a brash kid challenging his elders, but another thing entirely to truly understand why you’re doing it.

You see, Spinoza was not, with his masterpiece, merely challenging this or that spurious belief. He was setting up an entire new system, one that took in, not only the relationship of Man to God, but of all of us to each other. It was not by accident that the word “ethics” appears in the title of his book. Every word in it is about ethics.

According to the dictionary, ethics is “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends.” Briefly, and philosophically, ethics is the search for the good. Practically every word written by Plato can be understood in terms of that search. Until the late 18th century philosophers were doing nothing other than trying to find a coherent answer to the question: what is the good?

I don’t want to diverge too far here, but it was shortly after Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” appeared in 1784 that philosophers began to take seriously the questions Descartes had asked. The answer modern philosophers finally came up with runs along these lines: everything we believe is a product of the human mind, and the human mind is enslaved by language. All our words were made up by the human mind, so in effect, what we have here Luke is not so much a failure to communicate, but rather a vicious circle in which we make up arrangements of words to justify, prove, or explain other arrangements of words.

You don’t have to think too hard to see that in order to question that idea you will be compelled to use words. And there you will find yourself . . . right in the traps laid by post-modern philosophy.

But five years after the first great world war, there came Bertrand Russell and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. Russell saw it first, Wittgenstein later, that 250 years before that great war, Spinoza had seen that post-modernism was where philosophy was headed. Baruch did not say in the Ethics that his philosophy was “true for all possible worlds.” He said it is true for this world. Spinozism is true for beings like human beings whose knowledge of reality is limited by their ability to experience only body-like things and idea-like things. Spinoza saw that we are absolutely free to have ideas – good ideas, bad ideas, true ideas, false ideas – but that we are also, as bodies, just as absolutely bound by the laws of the physical universe. But for each and all of our ideas, good bad, or what-have-you, there exists a physical counterpart in the brain, and that physical counterpart, because it is physical, is absolutely obedient to the laws of Nature.

We may imagine we can fly like birds, we may even believe we can. We are absolutely free to have such thoughts. But the unchangeable laws of God make sure that we cannot actually do it.

It’s not the words of those last few sentences that make them true. Those statements are true because we find it impossible to deny them. We do not need proof that we can imagine ourselves flying like birds; all we have to do is to think that thought, and our freedom to think such a thought is proven. Nor do we need proof that we cannot actually fly like birds. We do not need to flap our arms trying to fly. We know without trying that the unaided human body cannot fly. No philosopher has convinced us of those facts. Out of what we are, we simply know those statements are true.

Plato had his hero Socrates constantly asking: what is justice? He never gave us a clear answer. Here’s what Spinoza might have had Socrates say: Justice is a possibility made possible because God, as Nature, is deaf, dumb, and blind to this or that creature’s needs. Nature treats us all the same. We are in fact all equal in the sight of God. To quote a famous Rabbi, “The rest is detail.”

Some 20th century philosophers, particularly the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, perhaps echoing Nietzsche’s infamous declaration that God is dead, expressed a deeply felt anxiety over the fact that we appear to be alone in the universe. Apart from ourselves, there’s nothing in the universe that intends to help us out. That’s a logical conclusion we can draw from the fact that God plays no favorites. We can also conclude from this fact that we human beings are entirely and completely responsible for our thoughts, our feelings, and finally for our behavior.

But still, we’re not alone. If we were actually alone in the universe, we would be like an imaginary thing that obeys no law, but moves in and out of existence, in this or that direction, up, down, sideways, or no way at all, for no intelligible reason. If that were the case we would in fact be absolutely alone, without any sense of what’s possible and what’s impossible. Today, we might actually be able to fly like birds, and tomorrow, be able only to fly like rocks. There would be no order in the universe.

But that does not happen to be the case. We are not alone. We abide with Nature and her unbendable laws. We exist in and as integral parts of the logos, the intelligible whole that Spinoza decided to refer to as God. If we see ourselves committing atrocities, we know it’s possible for humans to do that. If we see ourselves creating great works of art, composing unbelievably beautiful pieces of music, we know it’s possible for us to do that, too. Operating within the logos that is God, we are responsible for all the ugliness and all the beauty we have created. Perhaps it helps us to know that there is no evil in God, nor any beauty, that all the goodness and all the horror are of our making. That leaves us more or less in charge of our destiny.

And perhaps, as Unitarian Universalists, we can begin to appreciate why it is that we do not entrust our souls to dogmatic creeds, but rather place our faith in the final and most convincing lesson Spinoza has taught us: we are the makers of meaning. When we occasionally in our mind’s eye catch a fleeting glimpse of a more meaningful, a more beautiful way the world might be, and then see in the next instant the meaning we have actually created in the world, we see that we have somehow failed as makers of meaning. We see the difference between what we actually have created and what we might have created out of a more perfect understanding of what we are, what God is, and how the world works.

We are the makers of meaning, and until the world is actually working in ways that everyone in his or her right mind would say is good, the meaning we have created will remain, fragmented, confused, incomplete.

Whether we know it or not – and I suspect most UUs do know it – humanity dwells in the shadow of a fact we cannot deny: ultimate beauty consists in seeking the beautiful, ever seeking to create beauty, in ourselves, in each other, in the world. That’s an idea, an idea we are absolutely free to hold dearest and highest in our hearts. Ultimate beauty, ultimate love, is the ultimate task and service of true religion.

[Spinoza's God, 265 pages, $18.95, postpaid, is available at]

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