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TAG | barack obama

May/09

18

The Notre Dame / Obama Controversy

I was happy to see that, for the most part, President Obama was received with open arms at Notre Dame’s Commencement over the weekend.  However, the controversy surrounding Obama’s visit has prompted a number of questions, not only about abortion rights but about the value of speech and the value of tolerance.

Speech

Speech is extremely essential to any society.  The right to free speech is one of the most celebrated and long-lasting rights in America.  The First Amendment explicitly prevents the government from abridging our right to free speech.  Additionally, society generally shuns private individuals (who are not obligated to observe the 1st Amendment) who try to censor speech.

The purpose behind this celebrated right is that we recognize that humans are fallible, and that the government is not all-knowing.  We recognize that no single person or group of persons can always be right about everything.  Rather, we recognize that new, unpopular ideas may turn out to be correct.  See Galileo.  Simply because an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that climate change is man-made does not mean that we should censor the dissenters.  A belief of a large crowd can often be wrong, and if we refuse to believe that we could ever be wrong, then we risk severe harm to human civilization.

Additionally, speech is often the vehicle by which people can come to optimal solutions.  Theoretically, when we debate important ideas, and we allow many people to speak, the best ideas will rise to the top as more and more individuals become convinced.  Furthermore, speech can help us strengthen our convictions in our own beliefs.  If we learn the best and most convincing arguments of people that believe differently from us, but we can rationally reject those ideas, then presumably we must reject them because we believe our views are even more convincing.  We could not realize our own views’ strength if we did not compare them to those of others.

Although Notre Dame is not the government, and does not need to obey the 1st Amendment, Notre Dame should have been shunned if it decided to keep Obama away purely because some students do not like his views on one issue.  Keeping him away would be asserting a kind of infallibility in both the school and in the students themselves.  It would encourage students to believe that they do not need to recognize that any beliefs other than their own, and it would encourage students to shelter themselves only with those that believe the same things they do.  It would prevent the students from learning other ideas that could either strengthen their own convictions or change their mind.

Obama was not at Notre Dame to convince Catholics that killing babies was a good idea.  Primarily, he was there to say congratulations for graduation.  As a secondary matter, he was there to respond to the protests at Notre Dame, and say that although perhaps pro-lifers and pro-choicers will never agree on the issue of abortion, they still have to live with one another and be able to speak with one another.  Moreover, if there is ever to be any serious abortion-related legislation, both sides are going to have to work with each other.  If you never speak to the other side, that will never happen, and neither side will ever be able to compromise.

Tolerance

Obama’s visit also raised questions about tolerance in society.  By tolerance I do not mean that Catholics should believe that Obama’s pro-choice view is just as correct as their pro-life view.  Rather, they need to accept him as a human being despite having conflicting views with their religion.  I am a recently-confirmed Catholic.  One of the most important lessons that I learned in the Bible is that Jesus did not only associate with saints, but sinners as well.  Jesus did not fight with other people; he turned the other cheek.  Jesus loved his neighbor, and he loved his enemies.

Catholics who responded to Obama’s visit by handing out hateful pictures of aborted fetuses and calling Obama a murderer did not act the way Jesus wanted people to act.  Instead, they shut their minds and showered Obama with hatred.  The Golden Rule that not only Christians but many persons claim to obey is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Would a Catholic who had an opportunity to speak at a school that was very pro-choice have wanted to be showered with this type of hatred?

Conclusion

Those that are pro-life and pro-choice need to put down their weapons.  First, abortion is not the most important policy issue going on right now in the world.  Both sides are going to have to work together to deal with a number of other important issues.  If they refuse to talk to one another because of abortion, that will be a shame, and more important things will not get done.  Secondly, humans are not infallible.  Assuming that one is all-knowing is extremely foolish and risks a “Galileo situation.”  Finally, Catholics who treat others with hate, even those who are their greatest enemies, are contradicting Jesus’s teachings.  It sounds tacky to say this, but: can’t we all just get along?

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Since Barack Obama’s election, a whisper became a roar.  The whisper started during the presidential campaign.  The NRA, like it does in most high profile elections, started attacking Obama because he did not support gun rights as much as the other candidate, John McCain.  For instance, they created this website, which includes lots of doctored pictures of Obama looking like an evil villain, and phrases like “if you vote for Obama, you lose your rights.”

Now, that whisper has become a roar, with gun sales soaring since Obama’s election and buyers claiming that they want to buy guns now in fear that they can’t in the future.

Virginia gun owner Kyle Lewandowski said he was buying a .45-caliber pistol to “hedge my bets.”

“Every election year, you have to worry about your rights being eroded a little bit at a time,” he said. “I also knew, because of the Democrat majority and because of the election, everybody would have the same reaction I did,” he added

Notwithstanding the fear-mongering tactics of the NRA (which, in my opinion, are just as bad as the animal rights and anti-hunting groups on the other side of the spectrum), are people really this gullible?  When I hear people talking about “Obama is going to take away our guns,” I cannot help but wonder if these people are joking or serious.  I sincerely doubt that Barack Obama will attempt to use his influence to alter gun rights in the US.

It is preposterous that anyone thinks that increasing or restricting gun rights is a priority for the US right now.  The country is deeply involved in military conflict.  The economy is tanking.  The national debt is climbing closer and closer to an unhealthy level.  Do you really think that Obama is going to get into office and say: “OK, Congress, let’s destroy all the political capital I have right now and try to do something radical about gun rights.”  That is not going to happen.  Obama needs all the political capital he can get right now to attack all of the serious problems in the United States and the world.  If he decides to waste it dealing with a pet issue, he is a moron.

Moreover, the evidence that Obama wants to “ban gunsis just not there.  Obama himself stated:

The bottom line is this. If you’ve got a rifle, you’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got a gun in your house, I’m not taking it away. Alright? So they can keep on talking about it but this is just not true. And by the way, here’s another thing you’ve got to understand. Even if I wanted to take it away, I couldn’t get it done. I don’t have the votes in Congress.

The fact that Americans can be tricked this easily is exactly what is wrong with the political process today.

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Both John McCain and Barack Obama, like many politicians, are guilty of overusing rhetoric and eschewing substance.  Particularly, there has been a lot of talk by both candidates about helping “main street” rather than “wall street.”  I wanted to write about this, but the latest issue of The Economist did a better job of expressing my feelings than I could have.

Bankers have always earned their crust by committing money for long periods and financing that with short-term deposits and borrowing. Today, that model has warped into self-parody: many of the banks’ assets are unsellable even as they have to return to the market each day to ask for lenders to vote on their survival. No wonder they are hoarding cash.

This is why those politicians who set the interests of Main Street against those of Wall Street are so wrong. Sooner or later the money markets affect every business. Companies face higher interest charges and the fear that they may one day lose access to bank loans altogether. So they, too, hoard cash, cancelling acquisitions and investments, in order to pay down debt. Managers delay new products, leave factories unbuilt, pull the plug on loss-making divisions, and cut costs and jobs. Carmakers and other manufacturers will no longer extend credit (see article) and loans will become elusive and expensive. Consumers will suffer. Unemployment will rise. Even if the credit markets work well, the rich economies will slow as the asset-price bubble pops. If credit is choked off, that slowdown could turn into a deep recession.

Financial markets need governments to set rules for them; and when markets fail, governments are often best placed to get them going again. That’s pragmatism, not socialism. Helping bankers is not an end in itself. If the government could save the credit markets without bailing out the bankers, it should do so. But it cannot. Main Street needs Wall Street; and both need Washington. Politicians—and President George Bush is the most culpable among them (see article)—have failed to explain this.

I feel as if it is common knowledge that the whole idea of a bailout package is to prevent a catastrophic economic event.  If this is the case, why are politicians allowed to get away with this “Main Street v. Wall Street” stuff?  Why are moderators not calling them on this stuff in debates?

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Jul/08

12

Faking the Issues

Generally, candidates for any election in the United States do quite a bit of pandering.  And generally, the pandering they do is a wholly illegitimate take on a given issue.  One such issue that strikes me in particular is free trade.  Politicians regularly attack free trade by claiming that trade takes away jobs from Americans, and that it is bad for the country, etcetera.  They do so even though virtually 100% of economists agree that free trade helps a lot more than it hurts.  Yet, somehow, politicians get votes by bashing free trade.

My question is: how in the world is this strategy successful?  For instance, during the nasty Obama-Clinton primary debates, both candidates continually tried to one-up each other by bashing free trade.  Obama is now backpedaling on that issue for the general election, which indicates he was probably just trying to pander during the primary.  If that is the case, then why would he not respond to Clinton’s anti-free-trade rhetoric with: “Your assertions are wrong.  All economists disagree with you.  Economists are trained to know whether free trade is good or bad.  Would you want a professional bowler to act as your doctor when a doctor says the bowler is wrong?  No.  Would you want a doctor doing your taxes when a tax professional says the doctor is wrong?  No.  Would you want Joe Schmo down the street telling you how to set trade policy when all economists say he is wrong?  Hell no.”

Or, better yet, he could explain why economists think trade is so great.  He could explain that, yes, indeed, there are some downsides to trade, but the upsides are much greater.  He could explain the concept of comparative advantage once explained by David Ricardo and the basic idea of the source of wealth from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  It would be a glorious moment for Mr. Obama and the entire country.  It would be a rare occasion when a politician actually explained the pros and cons of an issue in a debate, and then explained why his side prevailed.  It would not be the generic politician’s response to a question: say something incomprehensible and then throw as many buzz words and campaign slogans out to the crowd as possible.  And significantly, it would require the opposing candidate to respond in a substantive manner.

How would someone respond to a clear argument about the benefits of free trade, an argument supported by an entire profession, followed by the question: if you disagree, please explain why?

If two candidates were in a debate, with one candidate pro-trade and the other anti-trade, and the pro-trade candidate explained the benefits of trade and uttered the “explain why” question, it would be a glorious moment of awakening in this country for several reasons.  First, everyone watching the debate would learn about free trade – a topic most Americans are ignorant about.  Secondly, it would be a rare occasion when a politicians in a major election actually debated the pros and cons of an issue rather than uttering buzz words and catch phrases to pander to whom he or she hopes is the majority voter.  Finally, the candidate willing to actually debate the facts of an issue would likely be one of the smartest, most candid, and best candidates the country has seen for a long time.

The cynic in me says this would never work.  The cynic in me says that Americans are too stupid to listen to real pros and cons of issues and figure out their own opinions – that is why buzz words and catch phrases at debates work so well.  The cynic in me says that Americans would rather hear “I’ll get the government out of your pockets” than “A study by this prominent professor shows that tax structure X is better than tax structure Y.”

But I believe that this country is smart enough for real facts to come to surface in major political debates.  Back in the revolutionary era, our founding fathers had nowhere near the kind of education that Americans have today.  Even the worst educational systems in America today are miles ahead of anything our founding fathers had.  Yet our founding fathers debated serious issues in politics, and people were very interested in knowing the cold hard facts.  I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that politicians in those days treated the voters with respect.  They didn’t try to pander the way politicians do today – they debated the theories of Locke and Montesquieu and argued passionately and intelligently.  Regular citizens regularly read what the prominent politicians had to say and often wrote to the papers to voice their opinions.  There are plenty of people out there today that would do the same, if today’s politicians would treat them like adults and argue the issues, rather than trying to argue using empty dialect.

This article is not an endorsement of either Barack Obama or John McCain.

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Apparently, one of Barack Obama’s largest political liabilities is that 15% of voters think he is a Muslim, and do not feel comfortable voting for a Muslim (AP-Yahoo Poll Conducted April 2-14) (some polls say 10%).  Notwithstanding that it is a bit crazy to think someone who just publicly dealt with his connections to a crazy Christian pastor is Muslim, it disturbs me that 15% of the country would not vote for a candidate because he is a Muslim.  Isn’t it racist to not vote for someone because he practices a particular religion?  I do not see any other way to describe these attitudes.  Isn’t the Jim Crow era over?  Haven’t we moved on?  Apparently not, for 15% of the country.

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