Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why Obama Doesn’t Seem to Relate--emotionally

Tibor R. Machan

Most of the time when I hear about how President Obama lacks
the emotional disposition that most Americans would like to see him
demonstrate, I am disinclined to make much of the point. What I want
from someone in the role of the presidency is good thinking and not

Nonetheless I have been paying a bit more attention to this
criticism of the President because as I have been following his
efforts to bolster the chances of Democrats to remain in power in
Washington, DC, I have noticed that there is something amiss with how
he comes over emotionally.

As a start, Mr. Obama is always glib, as if nothing on earth
could phase him, as if it is all old hat to him, he is way ahead of
everyone. This comes through, for instance, in his repeated dismissal
of anything that members of the Tea Party complain about. And that’s
just the beginning.

One related steady emotional theme in the president’s talks is
the effort to be accommodating toward critics and enemies of America.
Indeed, the very idea that Mr. Obama would identify anyone as an enemy
of the United States of America seems off base. This is because it
looks like he is mostly interested in building bridges between us and
them, however barbaric they may be.

Mr. Obama is one of those American intellectuals who appears to
be stopped from criticizing anyone abroad because, well, this country
has had slavery and segregation and poverty so how could it justify
being critical of anyone. It shows a spirit of perpetual
self-criticism and mea culpa, attitudes that appear to dominate the
president’s conscience (and we are here talking about appearances).
There is no black and white for the man--no one, not even a vicious
terrorist and a leader of a country in which women are systematically
and barbarically oppressed, justifies for him any sort of firm moral
condemnation. Like those ever-permissive parents who always have an
excuse for what their offspring are doing, no matter how mischievous
or outright evil it manages to be, for Mr. Obama those who attack
America, actually attack innocents everywhere, just could not be all
bad, unworthy of understanding.

This mentality of turning the other cheek, no matter what,
appears to underlie the widespread distrust people have of Mr. Obama’s
emotional makeup. Emotions, although they are ultimately unreliable
guidelines to action, are pretty good clues to what system of values
someone has internalized. If one has to force oneself disapprove of
or condemn vicious conduct and people and it doesn’t arise naturally,
people who do have a sense of just how bad some others can be will
become suspicious.

President Obama and his cheerleaders must realize that
eloquence is no substitute for emotional balance, for being in tune
emotionally with what those deserve who comport themselves
villainously. Being well spoken is not enough. One must also have a
sense of what needs to be said, have substance to communicate, a sense
of justice, if you will.

Or perhaps Mr. Obama just despises being disliked by people,
even by vicious rulers abroad. But that, too, reveals his emotional
priorities. Mr. Obama needs to open himself up to the possibility
that some people should really be hated, that they are evil and not
merely misguided, sick, or deranged.

Human life is distinctive in the world precisely because human
beings have a moral nature and they can act irresponsibly, morally
deplorably, contemptibly, as well as admirably, demonstrating moral
excellence. And while that idea has always had its detractors, the
moral skeptics, they simply cannot sustain their denial that people
are moral agents and capable of doing vile things for which they ought
to be condemned. They do not deserve sympathy but contempt.

And this is evident from the fact that the one exception to the
skeptics’ ambivalence about morality is their own utter contempt for
those who do take morality seriously. They tend to be dismissed, even
derided, as fundamentalists or moralizers, which is clearly and
paradoxically something (morally?) contemptible to the skeptics!

Moral skeptics usually are hoisted on their own petard. Their
amoral stance isn’t philosophically sustainable because human beings
are indeed moral beings, unlike the rest the members of the living
world. And one result of having a moral nature and admitting to it is
that one will openly cope with moral evil as well as moral excellent.
If one denies this, as it seems President Obama does when it comes to
America’s enemies, it will eventually stand in the way of reaching out
to ordinary people.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Amorality of Macroeconomics

Tibor R. Machan

In a surprisingly sensible essay in The New York Times, on Sunday October 17, 2010, David Segal gives a pretty good explanation of why macroeconomics is so unsuccessful. It’s human nature, stupid. People just aren’t predictable--will they do this or that when provided with easy money from the government? Is soaking the rich really a good idea--suppose they would do much more good with their money than would government? Do the poor really deserve a break in tax policy or are some quite irresponsible and thus not good candidates for giving them tax breaks?

As Segal concludes his piece, “But the economy is a hugely complex problem. So we either simplify the problem and offer a solution, or embrace the complexity and do nothing.” Yes indeed, and it is the second alternative that makes the best sense. Why?

Because while “we”--which is to say, governments--may do nothing, that is by no means the end of the story. While governments do nothing, the rest of us may very well do a great deal. Indeed, it is probably in large measure because the government does nothing that most of us do something, something with the funds the government does not extort from us. If we can keep those funds, they will not usually be put under our mattresses but spent on various projects that we want to get done and which then will create jobs that are actually achieving something that is wanted by people instead of the allegedly “shovel ready” jobs no one needs and government merely invents (like all that road work in my neighborhood that involves repairing what does not by any reasonable assessment require being repaired).

One thing that Mr. Segal’s essay brings to light is just how unprincipled is much of macroeconomic theory, the type that fancies itself capable of managing a country’s economy. In one of his passages Segal relates Harvard econ professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s thought experiment from his book Principles of Economics (Thomson/South-Western, 2004), in which “a town must maintain a well. Peter, who earns $100,000, is taxed $10,000, or 10 percent of his income, while Paula, who earns $20,000, hands over $4,000, or 20 per cent of her income.” Never mind that being taxed isn’t exactly “handing over” a portion of one’s income (although such language does show just how thoughtless is a lot of macroeconomic thinking). Notice, instead, that in the thought experiment, which is, all in all, a pretty realistic one, it is taken as given that the town must maintain a well.

But towns are not people. They are not even corporations--they are populated by people, some of whom may not want or need a well at all, some of whom do, and some of whom may find a well useful up to a point, after which they might elect to pay for water brought in from somewhere else. The kind of thinking that treats the people of the town as some kind of beehive or ant colony is way off.

A town--and, of course, a country like the USA which the government macro-economists embark upon managing--is made up of a lot of very different individuals, with very different goals, abilities, virtues and vices, and so forth, and to lump them together is utterly misguided and must produce bad policies. And once the economic issues are treated not as those faced by towns but by various individual human beings in the various groupings of their own choice, the situation presents itself quite differently. For one, ethics enters the picture. And in nearly any ethical code human beings have identified as guidelines to how they ought to conduct themselves, it is unacceptable to confiscate funds from Peter and use it to support Paula unless the two of them reach an agreement to enter some such arrangement. It is not to be dictated from above, as is macroeconomic policy, with no regard for the niceties of ethics or morality. (Which is what’s so bad about centrally planned economies.)

One reason the human race has come up with certain general ethical principles--contained in, for example, Aristotle’s list of virtues, the Ten Commandments, Kant’s categorical imperative, or the various school of morality--is that these are thought to be sound clues to what kind of actions people may take and what they ought to avoid taking. Not everyone will follow the advice but it is no surprise that if they do not, mayhem is produced.

And that is just what happens in interventionist macroeconomic policy. So not doing anything--given the real complexity of human affairs and the broad ethical guidelines that actually prohibit doing what macro-economists propose doing--is a good alternative to simplistic meddling.