Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The National Debt is bad [Updated]

Call me simple-minded if you will, but I think this is a brilliant video:

I have listened with some frustration and some puzzlement to fellow conservatives of my acquaintance who evidently don't think things are this bad, or don't think it was a good idea for the Republicans to try not to raise the debt ceiling, or don't think that America's continually going deeper and deeper into debt is a big deal.

It seems to me that the only way that you can think that things are not this bad and that it is not insanity to keep not only borrowing more but even increasing the amount we borrow each year as a country is because you think there is something so different about "being a country in debt" from being an individual in debt. Of course there are plenty of differences, but as far as I'm concerned, these differences only make matters worse. As, for example, that the actual individual people making this decision don't actually have to have their individual lives ruined by it. Or consider that the debt is denominated in currency which is controlled by the entity (the U.S. government) that owes the debt. This means that in theory the government could utterly trash the currency and monetize huge chunks of the debt to "get itself out of debt." Oh, joy. That actually should mean a duty for more fiscal restraint, not less. It should cause us to resist the temptation to think that our government can just borrow money, use the money to pay for real things--real goods and services--and then print (or e-print) "money" out of nowhere to pay back the debt for the money borrowed to purchase or manufacture those real things. And that we can do this indefinitely. If that isn't pretending that something comes from nothing, I don't know what is.

One "argument" I heard was that Congress had to vote to raise the debt ceiling because Congress already passed an appropriations bill previously that assumed the availability of an amount of money that required that we borrow more money than the then-current debt ceiling would allow. That's a terrible argument. If Congress passed such an appropriations bill, the obvious thing to do is go back and fix it, to pass a different appropriations bill instead that doesn't assume that we're going to go even deeper into new debt than last year. This seems obvious, but evidently not to everybody. Are we really just resigned entirely to the idea that our government should be permitted to borrow money on our behalf without upper limit for whatever the heck they want to spend it on? That not only must our country take on new debt with every year that passes, not only must it never pay down the crushing weight of debt it already has, but that it must increase the degree to which it takes on new debt with every year that passes? Otherwise WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! Speaking for myself, I'm not resigned to any such thing.

The final argument was just that making even the smallest baby steps towards minimal fiscal responsibility is politically impossible, that the Republicans would just lose and be blamed, and that this would have large, negative political consequences which conservatives should want to avoid. But that assumes that fiscal responsibility has no importance in itself whatsoever and hence isn't worth taking any kind of a stand for. In fact, it assumes that conservative politicians should be active enablers of wild fiscal irresponsibility just to avoid getting (admittedly unfairly) voted out of office, since their presence in office is for the greater public good. That amounts to a pretty disturbing implication that the fiscal insanity, not to mention the cruelty to later generations, highlighted in the above video is not very important after all.

So I'm with Cruz on this one, and America will have cause to rue the day that he lost his fight.

If this be simple-mindedness, make the most of it.

Update: Further research, motivated by correspondence with my blog colleague at W4, Paul Cella, has made clear to me that what Congress gave in and agreed to raise was not, as I had thought, the deficit limit for a particular year (i.e., to allow a bigger deficit and more borrowing this year than last) but rather the debt limit--that is, a limit on the total amount of U.S. debt. Such a vote would arise in any year in which there was any deficit. Partly because the deficit in immediately previous fiscal years has been astronomical, it turns out that the deficit in fiscal 2013 is actually somewhat less than in immediately previous years, contrary to implications in the above post. I'm glad to correct the error. However, the video does not seem to suffer from the confusion that I was under. Raising your line of credit simply is being allowed to go deeper into debt than you already are without paying down any of the debt you currently have. Naturally, my position is still that Congress should have gone back and balanced the budget instead, at which point pirouetting pigs would have appeared to perform an aerial ballet over Washington, D.C.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Community" and altar rails

Being an Anglican, and not a very good one either, I'm venturing into strange territory by giving an opinion on this subject, but here goes: I understand that it's common in the Novus Ordo Mass in the Roman Catholic Church for the priest to stand facing the people and also for there to be no altar rails. The people instead come up and stand in lines and receive the Host while standing. As I understand it, one point of both practices is to increase a sense of "community" among the people and to emphasize the fact that the original Last Supper was a meal and that the early Church combined the celebration of the Lord's Supper with a meal.

Both of those latter facts are undeniably true as an historical matter. But it's not at all clear to me that they imply that our current liturgical practice should be a self-conscious attempt to "encourage community," still less that this is best done by having the celebrant face the people rather than facing the east and praying on behalf of both himself and the people to God. And how does having people stand in line to receive the Sacrament make them feel more connected to one another?

For whatever this is worth as a fact of personal psychological experience, it occurred to me this morning that, when I go up to the altar rail and kneel with other members of my own small congregation, this gives me a very strong sense of community. It is not a self-conscious thing, not forced in any way. It's just that, in fact, we are going and kneeling together, different though we all are from each other, to receive the Eucharist. Our commonality, our sense of community, does not come from celebrating that community per se. Rather, it comes from a shared focus on God, on our need for God, and our need to kneel before God and receive Holy Communion.

This seems to me to be a fact of human life which C.S. Lewis referred to as "them that asks don't get." What I think he meant was that when we demand a certain feeling as an end in itself, we don't get it. Hence, joy comes not from insistently demanding that life be enjoyable but from focusing on something worthwhile outside of oneself. If we go around demanding peace we probably won't feel peaceful. And so on through the whole gamut of human emotion. And so with community. Esprit de corps is not going to arise from saying, "Okay, folks, we're all one community. What can we do to emphasize that?" Rather, it's going to come from having something that, in fact, we really are all trying to do together.

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir if I tell any of my Catholic readers that you have my sympathy if you don't have altar rails. I hope you get them back again. And if you have anything to do with the decision, definitely plump for the altar rails and for having a bunch of people kneel at them together to receive. Among other things, it's good for community, because it's about Something Else, something much more important, than community.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday guessing game

Taking a leaf from Bill Luse, who occasionally does guessing games of this sort:

Without looking it up via Google or any other method, can you name the following song and singer given this snippet?
Have you been half asleep
And have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailor?
The voice might be one and the same.
Hint: These lyrics are surprisingly profound given their source. Also, if you can identify them without looking them up, you will probably enable other people to peg your approximate age.

I admit, I'd forgotten all about the song and its source until reminded by a Facebook friend yesterday.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Anti-evidentialism and Christian Science

Among other things, Christian Science adherents believe that evil is an illusion. It is quite clear to the rest of us that their belief that evil is an illusion does not make evil disappear. It simply mires them in the illusion that evil is an illusion.

Unfortunately, anti-evidential theories regarding Christian belief and apologetics are rather like Christian Science. For example: The evidentialist will be told that his view of Christian belief is defective because it does not "give" people absolute certainty, whereas on some other theory we Christians have absolute certainty of, say, the truth of the Gospel. But a metatheory about what we have cannot give us that thing! Saying that we have absolute certainty doesn't give us absolute certainty. The question is whether the theory is true. If it is false, then saying that we have absolute certainty is simply pretending that we can dismiss residual decimal points of uncertainty by disbelieving in them, rather as a Christian Scientist thinks that he can make evil disappear by disbelieving in it.

To be clear, I think that sometimes the problem is at least partly terminological. The evidentialist can and does often say that we can have what used to be called "moral certainty"--that is, that my belief that Jesus rose from the dead can be overwhelmingly strongly justified. After all, I don't have absolute, Cartesian certainty that I had a cup of coffee for breakfast this morning or that the sun will rise tomorrow. That doesn't make these things uncertain in some invidious sense--that is, it does not make them shaky. But such assurances are usually not enough for the advocates of "absolute certainty," who think that we are somehow short-changing ourselves as Christians by not declaring ourselves to have absolute certainty.

In a related vein, I was asked recently about the alleged problem that, on an evidential view, some Christians are not in fact well-justified in their Christian faith. I find the objection puzzling. Can I simply make it the case that all Christians are well-justified in their Christian belief by declaring it to be so? That is a kind of epistemic magical thinking. You don't make people well-justified by adopting a gerrymandered theory that says that they are all well-justified! Again, just as Christian Science doesn't make evil an illusion by declaring it to be an illusion, one cannot make people's lack of good justification for the Christianity they hold disappear by declaring that deficiency to be an illusion. I cannot make fideism into rational belief by waving a magic wand over it and declaring it to be a Good Thing.

To a large extent, Christians' lack of good reasons for Christianity is a result of contingency. (So is non-Christians' lack of good reasons, for that matter.) They haven't happened to come across the people or the books or the websites that tell them about the good evidence for Christianity. Sometimes they've been taught wrong, taught to base their belief on private experience or blind faith. To use somewhat more Catholic terminology, their "formation" has been defective. That isn't their fault, but it is a tragedy, and declaring it to be no problem doesn't make it no problem. It's entirely possible to have a shaky basis for your Christian faith, not because the evidence available is shaky (see previous paragraph), but because you haven't happened to be told the evidence.

One final note. We must not confuse epistemic justification with theological justification. The evidentialist who deplores the widespread fideism and lack of information in the church today is not saying that all these people are going to hell even though they think they are going to heaven. God doesn't say, "You can't be saved if you don't have a good argument for believing in me." God, in His infinite humility, accepts the saving faith of people who, through bad teaching, think that He has given them far less evidence than He has really given.

Unfortunately, people do far too often deconvert from Christianity when their faith is not well-grounded in fact. This is even more likely now in the age of the Internet, nor are the young the only ones who are vulnerable. So if you have any worries or doubts about the ultimate salvation of the man who changes from being a self-styled Bible-believing Christian to being an outspoken atheist, you should be concerned about evidences. This, however, is not because God doesn't allow people to go to heaven if they believe in Him on the basis of insufficient evidence.