Saturday, June 27, 2009

100% reconciled

Since writing my previous post, I've done some serious thinking and reflecting and sought the advice of people whose opinion on the matter I respect. I now no longer feel conflicted.

I'd felt deeply ambivalent about IL's impending budget crisis, with Gov. Quinn playing a combination of hardball politics and chicken with the state legislature. I work with people who depend on state services to survive. Literally survive. If those services are cut off -- as they would be, if the legislature passed the act of political gamesmanship that is Quinn's proposed budget -- people I know will likely die, along with hundreds (and thousands?) of others. Tens or hundreds of other thousands of poor and indigent IL residents would also suffer. I don't want that to happen.

At the same time, I believe that slashing state involvement in the social service sector is the only way to help America become a truly just society. The state literally has no legitimate claim on the money it uses to fund those social services. That it may do good work with the money it steals from its citizens in no way legitimizes its taking that money.

So the question is, which is the greater evil: supporting a corrupt and immoral state in the limited good works it provides and keeping us all on the road to serfdom or refusing to support said state and allowing some people supported by that state to suffer or die? Put that way, the answer (for me at least) is clear: supporting a corrupt and immoral state is the greater evil.

As one of my friends I spoke with about this said, our task as Christians is to build as just a society as we can in this fallen world. Relying on state programs supported by theft and coercion is simply not just, not matter how much good they do. Supporting an unsustainably massive welfare state that incentivizes people to refuse to support themselves is simply not just, no matter what the stories or backgrounds of individual recipients are. If that welfare state is brought crashing down because the state doesn't collect unconscionably high taxes, many people will suffer and their suffering will be tragic. But their suffering won't make the decision to not use state funds for those activities unjust. Their suffering will be unjust because those people were enticed to rely on those coerced funds and that welfare state to begin with. Their suffering will resemble that of the victims of Bernie Madoff's ponzie scheme -- unjust because they were fooled into trusting him, not because the SEC shut his scheme down.

This is a hard conclusion, but it is not an easy world that we live in. The world of the people my organization helps is significantly harder than mine. I understand that. And I realize that we, as Christians, are obligated to give them whatever proper help they need to ease their suffering. But I also know that using the state to channel that help is a fool's bargain -- especially with this state. C.S. Lewis said of the Devil that he will gladly give us cancer to cure our chilblains. It's the same with the state -- it will gladly care for the poor and needy (our chilblains) if it can take from us whatever resources it wants at any time (the cancer).

It is wrong -- that is, evil and immoral -- to make such a bargain. It is wrong for those of us whose resources are stolen and it is wrong for those of us who are helped through those stolen resources. The members of the first group suffer the loss of their lives by being robbed of the time and talents that the stolen resources represent. The members of the second group suffer the loss of their dignity by being robbed of the sense of their obligation to care for themselves.

This obligation, as another friend of mine whom I talked with reminded me, exists regardless of a person's ability to discharge it. For the people who literally cannot take care of themselves, I think that we as Christians are obliged to help care for them in any moral way that we can. Reclaiming the system of private charities, church services, and benevolent societies that existed prior to the New Deal and the Great Society -- the systems that worked so well for us in the past -- is one huge step in building a just system to deal with the truly indigent and needy among us. But it's only a start. The real work necessary to build that just society involves changing the hearts of the individuals of society. Unless the systems we build are supported from the bottom up -- from the passions, beliefs, and energies of the individual people of the society -- than we might just as well build sand castles at the beach. We'll be accomplishing the same kind of work, and we won't leave such a mess behind us with our buildings fail and fall.

And so, I am no longer conflicted about Pat Quinn's proposed 50% budget. In fact, I welcome it and hope it passes. The fallout and suffering that would follow its passage will be terrible indeed, but the alternative -- staying the course on the road to serfdom that we've been sleepwalking down for almost three generations -- is much, much worse.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

50% conflicted

My wife and I live in Illinois. I work for a nonprofit that serves a population heavily dependent on state aid for lots of services -- housing, drug treatment, medical needs, psychological counseling and treatment, etc. Thus, I'm not jazzed about Gov. Pat Quinn's disingenuous "50% budget" gambit. But I don't necessarily disapprove of it. I am, in fact, quite ambivalent about it. Let me explain.

Earlier this year, Quinn failed to convince the state legislature to approve the 50% income tax increase he wanted to close the budget deficit. Quinn responded with a budget that was balanced in a different fashion -- by cutting state aid to most social services by up to 50%. Quinn is a fairly liberal Democrat, so we can reasonably surmise that he's not serious about these cuts. In fact, it's pretty clear that this budget is a stunt to force the legislature's hand and get his unconscionable income tax hike passed. The surprise, however, has been the number of legislators seriously entertaining the prospect of passing it.

In response to this surprise, the constituencies effected by the prospective cuts have frantically lobbied Springfield to put their funding back into the budget. That money, however, has to come from somewhere. Unlike the federal government, Illinois is required by its constitution to have a balanced budget. (There can be shortfalls due to insufficient revenue, but they can't be deliberately planned for and built into the budget in the way that Congress and the White House have been planning the national budget for almost 80 years.) But, because of the recession, state revenues are down a lot. Unless the state plans for a way to take in more revenue, the only way it can balance its budget is through making cuts of one kind or another. And whatever course of action the Illinois state government decides upon must be chosen quickly -- the new budget has to take effect July 1.

[These cuts doesn't necessarily entail cutting programs, by the way. They could, for example, mean restructuring the way the state conducts those programs so that they run more efficiently. Given the built-in inefficiencies of most government programs -- the fact of state monopoly, the common presence of overpaid (often unionized) workers on many projects, the necessity for departments to spend all their funds or risk a smaller budget to work with in the next fiscal year (leading to a lot of stupid purchases and wasteful spending) -- such restructuring is pretty difficult and seldom accomplished (especially in a state as corrupt as Illinois).]

For this reason, Quinn has basically said to the legislature, "You don't want to jack up people's income taxes? Fine. Let's see how much you like throwing homeless moms and kids on the street, closing down food pantries, and shutting down community centers." It's an adolescent political gambit, but one that will probably work. There are many other ways to balance the budget that involve neither massive cuts to social services or huge increases in taxes. Quinn, who has refused to accept that people don't want and shouldn't have huge taxes, has created a false dichotomy, though, and he's cast the legislature as the bad guys.

"I don't want moms and kids on the street," he effectively says, his hands raised in a gesture of helplessness. "If I had my way, they wouldn't be on the street. It's too bad the legislature's putting them there."

The story is framed as social services vs. income taxes, and the legislature is increasingly cast as the bad guys. But this shouldn't be so. And even if it is, I don't think they're necessarily that bad.

As a traditionalist conservative, I see a much smaller role for the state to legitimately play in society. Much of the social services they provide should, in my opinion, be provided by private actors -- individuals, churches, benevolent societies, etc. This, in fact, was the case prior to the New Deal and the Great Society. State aid has crowded out private social services, and the private sector social service provision has severely atrophied as a result. The only way to rectify the mistake of state over-involvement in social service provision is for the state to stop providing social services.

If that happens, American society will be much, much better off. The same services that are now often provided inefficiently and in a bleak and soul-crushing manner by the state (especially the so-called "passport" benefits like Medicaid which punish recipients for trying to improve themselves by working) could be provided much more effectively and with more spiritual benefits by the private sector. Our culture's insidious march to the Brave New World could be slowed -- and, just maybe, begin to be reversed -- if we were forced out of the evil delusion that we should rely on an increasingly omnipresent state for an increasing portion of our benefits.

If that happens, hundreds of thousands of people will be much, much worse off in the short-term, however. Dozens of people whom I know personally will be even worse off than they are now (and believe me when I tell you that for some of them, such a state of affairs is hardly imaginable). Several of them will likely die as a result. Those people will not see or enjoy and of the benefits that we, as individuals and as a society, will get from such a decision. It will just take too long for the private sector to regain the capacity and the expertise in once had before federal and state governments usurped their position in providing social services. I'd think it would take 3-5 years at least. What is to be done for the people negatively affected by the cuts that are required to jump-start the private sector's philanthropic capacity during that time?

Hence my ambivalence. I believe that hiking the income tax to 4.5% (from its currently outrageous 3%) is absolutely wrong. I believe that putting most, if not all, of social services currently provided by the public sector into the hands of private actors is a morally superior state of affairs. I believe that a harsh measure like the 50% budget is the only course that can achieve that morally superior state of affairs. But I also know that countless thousands of people will suffer while that state of affairs is still asserting itself.

In the immortal words of Dennis Hopper, "What do you do? What do you do?"

That's a very good question.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, even more shame on me.

In fact, it's all my fault. It's never your fault, because I fooled you before.

That, as Bruce Thorton's argues in this interesting and informative article, is the double standard that applies to the West when historical grievances are aired. Thorton's basic point is that, while the grievances of Islam against the West are real, they are outweighed (or are, at least, no worse) than the grievances of the West against Islam.
If history is to provide the foundation of grievance, however, then all of history is on the table, and that history must be factually accurate and judged by consistent standards. If, for example, the enslavement of Africans is an evil for which the West must take responsibility, then all slavery everywhere must be condemned equally. But when do we ever hear about Islamic slavery? In the three-century long heyday of Western slavery, some 10 million slaves crossed the Atlantic. Yet in the 14-century-long existence of Islamic slavery––still going on today in Africa in places such as Sudan––an equal number of black Africans were enslaved by Muslims. ... Don’t forget that included in the toll of those enslaved by Muslims were millions of Europeans taken in raids and sold for the harems, armies, and galleys of Muslim emirs, sultans, and caliphs.

So too with the presumed sins of “colonialism” and “imperialism.” The modern European presence in the Muslim Middle East lasted for less than two centuries. Yet Muslims occupied Spain for over seven centuries, and the Muslim occupation of the Balkans for half a millennium didn’t finally end until World War I. And vast regions of the Middle East––north Africa, Egypt, Turkey, the Holy Land––that were not Muslim but Christian homelands, are still “occupied” by the descendents of imperialistic, colonizing Muslim Arabs and Turks who came as alien invaders and conquered those territories.
Yet we rarely hear Westerners acknowledging those grievances, and we never hear Muslims apologizing for them. Hence, Thorton's point about the systematically applied double standard against the West.

Check the article out. It's well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

James Delingpole is my hero

His latest column, on the apoplexy and hyperventilating by so many BNP (British National Party) critics upon the BNP's winning two seats in the EU government, is pure genius: insightful, timely, biting, and witty.
In yesterday's Twittersphere the talk was of little else [beside's the BNP's victory] and the subtexts of every Tweet could be loosely translated thus: "See what a caring, lovely, non-racist person I am?","Do you know just how many black people are close personal friends of mine? An awful lot, let me tell you"; "I have a West Indian supermarket near me. It sells all sorts of marvellous ethnic things: smelly dried fish, ackee fruit. The proprietor is a delightful fellow and we always have a jolly chat. Did I mention he's black? Well he is and it doesn't affect our relationship one bit" ...

The people who voted BNP are on the front line of this debate. They don't have the luxury of being able to nip in and out of a cornucopia of simply marvellous ethnic food shops, and thrillingly directional Grime Bhangra clubs and delightful arthouse cinemas selling wholemeal samosas and showing seasons of Iranian cinema, before retreating to their lovely safe white enclaves. It's on their doorstep, all the time, and there's no escape: for the white working classes (of the North and North East especially) multiculturalism has been a disaster.
"For the white working classes ... multiculturalism has been a disaster." I don't think you can put it any more clearly or succinctly than that.

I want to be able to write that clearly and effectively. That's great writing.