Category Archives: Current Events

Better than Eden (a reaction to the 2012 election)

In the last week, I’ve witnessed an overriding theme develop among conservatives in the analysis of the recent election.  From Mark Steyn to Rabbi Pruzansky they see a fundamental shift in the American spirit: Americans have become big babies begging for a nanny state to take care of them. They like free stuff and will surrender liberties and common sense to get it. In essence, Americans will stop making their own decisions in exchange for a nice big lollipop. This realization has driven conservatives to despair. Their advice varies from running away from home to disowning the nanny to just grinning and bearing it until it gets so bad the nanny begins hitting the crack pipe even harder and the other babies realize they need to get their own acts together.

These are not hopeful visions.

Underlying the despair is a simple economic argument: when people get free stuff they don’t just give up their liberties, they tend to stop producing. Economies collapse when you eliminate the negative incentives of not working. And this phenomenon can lead to the decline of the military and political power of the United States. Our vision of the City upon the Hill will be erased.

And the world will suffer.

But why isn’t free stuff good? Isn’t this our vision of the Garden of Eden: mankind living without any work required, trees ripe for the picking whenever the desire appears? Heck, I think G-d even provided healthcare. Talk about single payer!

So what’s wrong with this vision?

Haven’t modern leftists simply replaced the Nanny God of past imaginings with the Nanny State of future theory? Haven’t they simply constructed a new city upon the same hill? And if the nanny state could be tuned to work economically, what would be wrong with it?

To put it another way, Man and woman were happy in the Garden of Eden. They were kickin’ back in the original nudist colony. Love was free. All was well. And then G-d sent along the snake and they learned about Good and Evil and life began to suck.

Whether or not you believe G-d wrote the Bible, you have to ask: why would G-d do that?

Disney knows the answer. ‘kahuna matata’ isn’t a fulfilling way of life. If people don’t create – if they don’t produce – moral rot sets in. And, in Genesis, G-d sees this. G-d uses the word ‘good’ to assess his own creations; He creates the plants and sees they are good. But man stands out. He is the first of the creations G-d does not see as good. Why? Because man was created in the image of G-d – and for man goodness is not in his creation itself but in what he himself creates.

So, G-d, adds Eve. But even that isn’t enough. Man still isn’t creating So he adds the snake to the mix and breaks down the garden.

How does the snake help?

It was clearly necessary for Adam and Eve to experience risk before they’d be productive. He needed to experience evil – which is the absence of divine and risk free peace – before he could be pushed into creating the good. Prior to that, man was like a large child, using his eyes and his nose to guide him towards pleasure – a false good. According to some Jewish traditions, the forbidden fruit was an Etrog. It looks beautiful. It smells beautiful. And if you are guided by your eyes and nose, you would want to eat it. But it tastes awful. In the Garden, it revealed the shallowness of our base desires.

And that, not economic risk, is the fundamental problem with the modern nanny state. We are trying to recreate the Garden of Eden – a world without risk. But we haven’t addressed the fundamental issue – that most people become children, thoughtlessly chasing pleasure and nothing more satisfying, when things are too easy. It is an underlying cause of our sexual culture. We don’t build families on shared purpose and physically reinforced love. We just [expletive].

The fact is, at some point those who pursue pleasure open their eyes and realize that what looked good, smelt good and felt good left them empty and depressed. It distances them from peace just as Eve’s choice distanced her from G-d.

The Bible sees this and in the Garden is presents our fundamental and continuing moral weakness; we need evil to create good.

But that is not the ideal.

The ideal is a world without risk, but one in which we create nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where everybody has healthcare and a worry free life – but continues to add to the world nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where, on a regular basis, people stop producing to celebrate family and community – and thus add meaning and value to the labors of the period passed. As a religious Jew, I would say that the ideal is a week in which we work, and a Sabbath on which we rest with the divine; thus making creations out of the labor just accomplished.

This is an image which (while the terminology might change) classical liberals and modern liberals and fascists and communists can all share.

What we don’t share is how to get there.

Classical liberals emphasize reinforcing the avenues of the good – so all will be spurned to create more and innovate more and find ways to reduce the experience of evil. They emphasize the work week before the Sabbath.

Modern liberals emphasize eliminating evil (risk) by sharing resources – and hope mankind will be creative and productive due to a community spirit or (for the recalcitrant) government coercion. They emphasize the Sabbath before the work week.

We can see this dichotomy in healthcare. Classical liberals emphasize innovation driven by market-based models. This will create cheaper healthcare and new technologies to serve people better. But some will be left out in the cold and will not experience peace. Modern liberals emphasize universal coverage. There will be less innovation and more cost/unit of care delivered. But the evil of not helping those with therapies that are available to some will be eliminated. And modern liberals hope innovation will occur even without profit incentives for revolutionary technologies.

In reality, neither party gets what it wants. We have a system that rewards better outcomes but because it is not market-based, new technologies do not compete on price. And we’re getting a system that will result in rationing and a major reduction in innovation – so all will experience more evil. But that evil will be hidden because we can’t see innovations that haven’t occurred.

We have neither creation nor rest.

Of the two paths, I see far more promise in the classical liberal one. Our standard of living is far higher that it has even been in human history – and a major driver of that is innovation and creation. We don’t want to hamper those forces in the name of a premature Eden.

But I don’t see Eden at the end of the classical liberal road. I just see a never-ending road with ever improving creations and ever improving quality of life – and the constant necessity of risk for those who can’t or won’t get on the path of creation. Many free market conservatives people give an unusually high proportion of their income to charity. But even while doing so, they understand that when this charity becomes a handout rather than a hand-up, its character changes. Instead of reducing risk (evil), it can undermine the creative goodness of the receivers.

In the world as it works, with people who react to prosperity as we do, we cannot conceive of a risk-free Garden in which mankind produces.

But despite this, I do not despair.

There is a way back to the Garden, as it should have been not as it was.

This way involves one very challenging task – getting people to create when they don’t need to.

And that is the clarion call of this election.

We have ample evidence of what doesn’t work in trying to make creators of those who don’t need to be producers.

Communism and the New Man don’t work – the human spirit can’t be badgered into a new form.

Prayer and religious devotion – by themselves – don’t work. We had a personal relationship with G-d in the Garden – and it wasn’t enough.

Taking away the rewards of creation in a spirit of fairness or universal equality doesn’t work. The experience of the good doesn’t exist if somebody can’t claim some ownership of their own work. And yes, deciding to gift the product of one’s labors – or accepting payment for those labors – is ownership. Any society that does not allow ownership is a slave society. Slaves in the American south were far better fed than Ukrainian peasants, but it made them no more free.

So what does work?

The American example is the closest we’ve come to encouraging creation even when risks were reduced. The low-regulation and low-tax example – combined with a social safety net and massive charitable giving – produced many people who would work and produce even while at peace. But we still needed the risk – the risk of falling off the path of productive employment.

But because that risk was not sustained, our example has been derailed. The safety net has become a way of life, and more and more people have been lulled out of their creative drive. Recent attempts to combat risk have focused not on providing the poor with temporary food help or medical care – but on issues like reducing the risk of fertilization. In other words, we have once again become adolescents primarily motivated by the opportunity for sex.

As it stands, the American example is now in the process of collapsing in on itself.

So how do we proceed?

The solutions are more fundamental than government. The solutions lay in the development of human goodness. And that is a process not of mass media, coercive power or shouting – but of daily rigorous self and civil improvement.

And we know it can work.

Our example is William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a man who had everything – wealth and a best friend who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 24. And yet, he both spread productivity and fought evil. He is primarily known for playing a major role in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire – thus eliminating a major source of evil and opening up the opportunity for productive lives to millions of Africans.

But he did something perhaps even more remarkable. He reformed English society.

We like to laugh at the Victorian Age and its hypocrisy. However, England before Wilberforce was far worse off than the United States today. In Wilberforce’s day, 25% of single women in London were prostitutes and poverty and vice were rampant. Britain was an old empire by then (after all it had been 200 years since Queen Elizabeth had sunk the Spanish Armada). And Britain was socially unraveling.

Wilberforce reformed this society. Not all of his efforts were laudable or successful. For example, he tried coercive vice laws but they were no more effective in creating better people than was communism under Lenin. But he tried something else as well; education. And this education was not just skills training or political training, but a concerted effort “to train up the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue.”

In other words, he used education to encourage industrious behavior (which creates good) and virtue (which mitigates risk). Virtue, of course, includes both the personal mitigation of risk (like avoiding drink) and the mitigating of other’s risks by giving support and charity in times of need.

Over time, many in the upper classes took it upon themselves not just to employ servants, but to look in on and safeguard their moral development. We like to mock this – after all it is a major conceit to assume the lady of the house was in some way better than her maid – but it produced results. Perhaps the lady of the house was improved by trying to make a positive example of herself. And perhaps her involvement in the salvation of her servants enabled her to occasionally see their humanity and share in it. After all, even in the presence of hypocrisy, there is merit and value in attempting to live up to higher ideals.

As we look ahead, we should look back to this example. While we may be laughed at by the cool kids, it is indeed incumbent upon us to reinforce the lessons of industry and virtue.

In our personal development, and in our interactions with others, we should do everything we can to introduce those mired in the drunken and false pleasure of the subsidized life, to the far more fundamental pleasures of the act of creation and the experience of Sabbaths built upon one’s own labors. And we should honor those who achieve – even imperfectly – those goals.

This is an exercise in charity, in conversation, in education and in self-development.

Yes, politics are important, but the fundamental solutions to our nation’s challenges lay closer at hand.

People are meant for something greater than the pursuit of that which is looks and smells good from a distance.

We are meant to have lives that are fulfilling even as they are filled with true peace.

And whether those on the left or those on right lead our country, our obligations to pursue and share this vision remain the same.

 

May you be blessed in your endeavors,

Joseph Cox

Syria – Sept 3, 2013

I’ve been struggling with what the proper U.S. response should be to the crises in Syria. Both obvious answers (intervention or not) leave a tremendous amount to be desired. I will assume the readers of this thought are well informed and spare them the recap. I do, however, highly recommend the work of Michael Totten. He has an incredible grasp for the dynamics of the neighborhood.

At this point in this post, I don’t place myself in the knee-jerk intervention or knee-jerk non-intervention departments. By the end of the post, I will probably have a clear position. I just don’t know what it is yet 🙂

Going back to fundamentals, I believe law should support creation while enabling people to rest and thus spiritually capitalize on the fruits of their creative activity. This in turn enables them to create – as Diana Nyad said after her historic swim across the Florida Strait, “It’s amazing how the emotional can lift the physical.”

There is, potentially, a virtuous circle.

This concept has a few implications. For example, law should be predictable. If it isn’t then people will:

  • be unlikely to invest and create
  • be unable to experience rest due to the lack of predictability around them

In my analysis, law that supports the principles of creation and rest will be:

  • Predictable (and with it, understandable etc…)
  • Embedded in the fabric of the community (not just a legal or governmental function)
  • Supportive of creative work and investment (in part by enabling people to reap the rewards of their creative work)
  • Protective against real world risks (e.g. through welfare, government or not)
  • Connective us to times past and future
  • (you’ll notice I’m missing many standard rule of law criteria like equality, that’s a discussion for another day)

The obvious question to ask is, what does this have to do with Syria?

A law, of some form, emerges in any community. It can be a community of individuals or a community of nations. The law of nations is not written by the U.N. or set by treaty – those laws only have force if the involved nations actually, basically, obey them. Israel and the U.S. are rare for generally not signing conventions they won’t adhere to. A traditional law – maybe not a good one – is that the big boy will flatten you if you piss him off.

I see international law as having two levels. Law between states and international agreements on laws within states. Laws between states can be predictable, embedded, risk mitigating and connective to times forward and past. However, states themselves don’t tend to be productive – their citizens do. Laws within states, on the other hand, can have the full package.

So what is the state of international law? I would say historically that this period in human history has more mitigation of international risk than most. Democracies (of which there are many) don’t go to war willy nilly. The costs of war are so detrimental to modern state structures – even non-democratic – that they tend to shy away from it. The real war mongers are non-state actors like Al Qaeda. I found France’s effort in Mali and the Sunni Awakening to be comforting. They reinforces the notion that embedded international law doesn’t support these wild-card actors.

On the internal measures, we are terrible. We have lots of treaties that guarantee many many things for individuals and groups and that are routinely ignored (in some cases, for the better).  The embedded law of the nations is quite different from the paper law of the U.N. This gas attack is just the latest example. For these laws to be followed, there needs to be a realistic threat of enforcement. But there is no enforcer.

Obama talks about the U.S. as a potential enforcer (e.g. we can’t allow people to flaunt international conventions). However, even if we had the power (which we might) and the will (which we don’t) we lack the track record to be that enforcer. An enforcer who has a reputation for backing off when the enforcement gets tough is worse than useless – it is like a parent who threatens to spank their child but gives in after a minute of caterwauling. The threat becomes useless – so you have to follow through every time instead of setting a few examples and having others believe. It gets expensive for all parties while never establishing the rules at hand.

On predictability, we score a bit lower than some other periods. When I look at long-term minority populations around the world a remarkable trend emerges. Each of them has a predictable coping pattern. I know I am oversimplifying here, but I think the overall trend is very real. Here are some examples:

  • Jews (traditionally), had a few key people embed themselves as useful knowledge workers to people in power. They supplied advisory services, banking services etc… In return, they worked to protect their greater communities. There were few reservations about cheating to survive. When things hit the fan, they kept their heads low. They were predictable.
  • Druze go with the wind. They are loyal to whomever is in power in their area. If the winds of power shift, so do they. They are predictable.
  • Alawites (traditionally) assassinate those who oppress them. It kept a cap on anti-Alawite activity. And it was predictable.
  • Sikh hired themselves out as mercenaries – but if you got them angry you’d know they’d attack you and with enough concentrated force to be problem. It was predictable.
  • etc….

The trend is that these groups behave predictably – although individuals might be different. Because you know what to expect, you can interact with them appropriately. But recently, the position of some of these groups (notably Jews and Alawites) has changed dramatically. They suddenly don’t know how to behave – although the old habits die hard. The Alawites are brutal assassins to protect their interests – but the tool doesn’t work the same way when you’re in power.

Among the unpredictable groups is the U.S. We ride to the rescue when things go really really bad. We protect our own interests – but occasionally feel badly enough about it that we stop. And we sort of spasticaly get involved in protecting what I’d call good law within nations. This all gets worse because we are *so* powerful. We have a lot of weight to throw around, but we actually make international law less predictable because nobody knows when we’ll do it. If they knew, Iran and Syria wouldn’t be on their current path and we wouldn’t need to threaten them.

In looking directly at Syria there are a few clear factors.

First, we aren’t seen as predictable. Our long-term threats carry no weight. People know we won’t do it. We do blow the crap out of things occasionally. But because we’re afraid of entanglement, and our enemies know it,  they can win if they can survive an initial burst of activity.

Second, the Alawites will slaughter people to survive. It is what they they do. They have chemical weapons for a reason – to use them. I don’t think they’ll do it if they don’t feel fundamentally threatened. We can depose them – in a few hours we could eliminate their airport capacity and stop the flow of arms into and around the country (as well as air support functions). But if we do that, they will feel fundamentally threatened. They might realistically be genocided by their neighbors. They’ll line the runways with prisoners (done that already) and on the way out, they’ll gas everything and fly kamikaze missions into our ships (promised this).

The only way they won’t feel fundamentally threatened while we threaten to punish them is if we simultaneously promise to depose them and protect them. For example, we could offer to protect an Alawite homeland and secure a % of Syrian oil revenues in return for their retreat. The problem is, nobody believes we’re reliable enough to guarantee this sort of deal. Ironically the only people who could guarantee the (non-oil) protection and be trusted is Israel. Israel could populate the Golan with exiled Alawites (by the way, Israel developed a plan to do this over two years ago).

In theory we do need to enforce our red-lines. But a half response won’t make us believable and a full response will be too risky. The reason we need to enforce them over this little issue is so that others will believe we’ll enforce them on things that matter far more to our national interests (e.g. energy and nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists). But a Syrian attack is risk for a potentially very minor credibility win. Furthermore, the real issues can be addressed with a short and devastating attack that won’t trigger chemical revenge.

With these issues in mind, I think the appropriate U.S. response is two-fold.

  1. Ignore Syria. Nobody will believe us even if we launch the missiles and the side effects are tremendously dangerous. We won’t establish any of the credibility we already lack. Plus, Syria isn’t the real threat, Iran is.
  2. Do the short-term mission that we have to do because our red-lines aren’t trusted. Bomb the crap out of Iran’s nuclear establishment and religious leadership. It will cost more in munitions – but it will cost less in fallout. The Persians aren’t going anywhere, we can protect oil shipping, and I doubt they think we’ll care much if they decide to create a little pain in their immediate neighborhood.

To be clear, I’d love international law – between and within states – to be predictable etc… But we don’t have that. I do think a consistent U.S. approach to threats and acts of evil would go a long way towards creating it. That, however, is an issue for another day.

For now, while we might arm our proxies in this way we should stay out of direct involvement. We should, post haste, get to frying the real fish.

What do you think?