Hate Crimes are Worse.

The recent horrible story of four black Chicago youths torturing a mentally challenged white teenager focused our attention on hate crimes.  First, was this a hate cnonazirime?  Obviously it was.  Second, should we have hate crime laws in the first place?

The logic against hate crime laws is that a crime is a crime. If a person is beat up, the person is not more beat up because of the motive.  The legal system should punish the action, not the intention.  Therefore, we should not have hate crime laws.  This link from Victor Davis Hanson, “Time to Scrap Hate Crime Laws“, reflects this position.

I have two arguments against this.  First, the legal system routinely includes intent in determining the severity of the crime.  First degree, premeditated, murder results in much harder sentences than manslaughter.Second, hate crimes have many more victims than the person directly affected.

For example, one person is beat up because the assailant doesn’t like him.  The victims here are the person assaulted along with friends and family who care about this person. Another assailant beats up a person because he is black or gay or Jewish or part of any other hated group.  Here we have additional victims:  the entire community of the hated group.  The criminal is terrorizing an entire community, sending a message that I attacked this person today and it might be you tomorrow.

Due to this terror, a hate crime is worse even if superficially the damage is the same. Therefore, it is proper for our legal system to have harsher penalties for hate crimes.

Why do intelligent, well-meaning people disagree?

I have changed the tag line of my site with this question.  I have also added it as a permanent page to the blog.  The text below is now on this new page.

I am blessed to have wonderful friends and family.  They are good people.  They wish for peace and prosperity for themselves, the people they care about, their country, and the world.  They are very intelligent, thoughtful people who take an interest in the world and are reasonably well informed.  I also think that I am a reasonably good, reasonably intelligent person.  So why is it that when it comes to politics, most of my friends, my family, and I profoundly disagree?

Why do intelligent, well-meaning people disagree?   I have never seen anybody else seriously address this issue. This subject fascinates me.  My blog can go in many directions, from memorable movies to global warming, but the majority of my blog focuses on this key question.

I am a computer programmer.  In computers, we think in terms of input, process, and output.  If we share common goals, basically peace and prosperity, we desire the same output.  If we are intelligent, we have reasonably good process.  I believe the disagreement is primarily due to the input, the assumptions we make and how we frame the issue.

Early in life we form assumptions about how the world works.  We make these assumptions based upon our observations and what we believe to be common sense.  Once we make an assumption, this becomes the starting point for our thoughts on everything else.  We seldom re-examine our assumptions and we tend to hold our assumptions with a religious fervor, rejecting outright any argument that violates our assumptions.

To a certain amount this makes sense.  If a person starts with the assumption that 2+2=5, that person may be able to brilliantly argue that 4+4=10, but that argument is worthless as it is built on a faulty assumption.  You and I have better things to do with our time than to listen to this argument.

People can only have a reasonable discussion when the discussion begins with common assumptions.  Two Christians can have a fascinating debate using the text of the new testament as the basis for their arguments, but if you are a Jew, a Buddhist, or an Atheist, for example, their arguments mean absolutely nothing to you as you don’t accept their underlying assumptions.

In this blog, I try to examine our underlying assumptions, both good and bad.  It is only at this level that people of differing political philosophies can have any kind of meaningful discussion.  I, of course, tend to think my assumptions are good and try to justify them.  I welcome others to point out any flaws in my arguments.  If my assumptions are wrong, I want to re-examine them.  For example, a book I read recently by Malcolm Gladwell caused me to modify an assumption I had held for over forty years.

Bad assumptions aren’t the only type of input that causes well-meaning, intelligent people to disagree.  I think another problem is that we frequently don’t frame the issue properly.   For example, someone might say that he or she supports government program XYZ because it is a good program that helps people. I would ask is XYZ such a good program that it is worth borrowing money from China that our children and grandchildren will have to repay. Because of this debt they will not be able to afford many other good programs.  If this is true, do you still support XYZ?

I care about what causes intelligent, well-meaning people to disagree.  I don’t care about analyzing the opinions of people who don’t fit this category.  I don’t care about the haters, who are on both the left and the right politically.  I don’t care about the opinions of clueless, people who can’t identify China on a world map and give no thought to these opinions.

I hope through this blog to find others who find this topic fascinating.  While I will venture off into other areas that interest me, this is the predominant theme of the blog.  I hope you find it fascinating too.

Indiana and Shades of Gray

Most of the time when politics and morality combine, it doesn’t take me too long to decide where I stand on the issue; however, sometimes an issue arises where two important values seemingly collide.   The controversy over the Indiana Religious Freedom law is in one of these grey areas.  Basically, the law was in reaction to the uproar caused when a bakery, citing religious values, refused to make a cake for a gay wedding.  The law led to a furor of opposition and a boycott of Indiana saying that it legalized discrimination of gays.  This resulted in a counter-furor from those saying the law did not discriminate and is being unfairly maligned and it just protects the rights of people to exercise their conscience.

It is not my intent here to debate the Indiana law itself.  I am not a lawyer and I make no claim either way on the merits of the law.  What intrigues me is the underlying issue.  Should government require the bakery to make the cake for the gay wedding?

Let me preface this by saying that I personally support gay marriage.  I have stated repeatedly on this blog that I believe that adults should be able to engage in any voluntary interaction, whether that be business or personal, without government interference.  Gay marriage certainly fits this criteria.

The grey area results from the apparent conflict in two values I hold deeply:

  • I believe that discrimination is reprehensible.
  • I believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit unless their free choices interfere with the rights of other people to live their lives as they see fit.

In the simplest case, there can be a conflict if, for example, a person says that it should be his freedom to not serve gays, or blacks, or Jews, or people with red hair in his bakery.   I don’t want to take the time to argue this out here (perhaps in a future post), but to keep it short, I feel that the value against discrimination is stronger than the value for personal freedom.   Why then is my gut instinct to say that while the bakery should be required to serve gays who show up to buy a cake, the baker should not be required to make a cake for a gay wedding.  Why is there a difference?  They both appear to be discrimination.

First, I want to say more about what this issue is not about.  In many discussions of discrimination, one can  argue if there really is discrimination.  If a police department does not hire many black policemen, is it discrimination against blacks or is it because there aren’t enough qualified black candidates?  In this case the baker clearly stated that the reason was because he did not want to cater the wedding because it was gay.  This is clearly intentional discrimination.  Second, in many instances of discrimination there is a question of public vs. private.  It can be legally acceptable to say you will not invite a minority to join a private club, but you can’t refuse the minority entrance to your business.  In this case, it is a business and clearly it is public and not private.

So this brings me back to my gut instinct.  My first thoughts were that I cannot morally justify this instinct.  Refusing to cater a gay wedding isn’t substantially different than refusing to sell a gay person a cake.  There are a couple of techniques I use when I am trying to battle a moral gray issue.  The first technique is that if I am not the aggrieved party, I try to come up with a comparable situation where I would be the aggrieved party and then see if my reaction would be the same.  I am not gay but I am Jewish.  If my son was having a Bar Mitzvah and the baker told me he refused to cater Bar Mitzvahs, how would I feel then.  I believe I would be angry, but I would certainly not hire a lawyer and try to force the baker to cater the Bar Mitzvah.  I would not be happy, and I would probably tell everybody I knew to never go to that baker, but I wouldn’t think there should be a law forcing the baker to do the catering.

My other technique is to reverse the situation and see if it changes the way I feel.   If the baker strongly supported gay marriage and was asked to cater a convention dedicated to banning gay marriage, should the baker be forced to cater the convention?  Should a strong Democrat be forced to cater a Republican event?  Should anybody be forced to cater a Ku Klux Klan rally?  Reversing the situation didn’t change my views on this issue.  It actually made them much stronger.  So I decided I was right in my views.  I just still had no understanding of why I was right.  What is the moral distinction between saying that the baker must serve gays and not saying the baker must cater a gay wedding?

I finally found what I believe is the answer.  Before stating it, I think it is important to broaden the issue.  First, while the Indiana law cites religious concerns, I think that religion is much too restrictive in discussing this issue.  I would like to say that the issue involves someone who has any type of moral concern, whether it stems from religion or a deeply held conviction that is not based on religion.   The opposition of an atheist to catering the Ku Klux Klan should bear no less weight than the opposition of a Catholic for example.  Second, my opinion on the actual issues should not matter.  The rights of a Democrat to refuse to cater a Republican event or a Republican to cater a Democrat event should be the same.  Finally, of course, we are talking about much more than serving customers or catering.  The issue refers to any form of public interaction.  For example, should a politician be required to speak at a pro-choice or a pro-life organization?

I finally decided that the difference is that if the baker refused to serve gays, he is refusing to serve people based upon who they are.  When he refused to cater a gay wedding, he refused to support the statement they were making.   A wedding makes the statement that two people love each other.  A gay wedding makes the statement that two people of the same gender love each other and that this is good.  Refusing to support a statement is exercising first amendment rights for free speech.  Refusing to serve a person just because of who they are is not free speech.  It is just discrimination.

When I have a Bar Mitzvah for my son, I am making a statement that I think that the Jewish heritage is good.  When someone holds a political event, the event is clearly making a statement.  In every instance where I felt that the government should not force the business to serve the customer, the event was making a statement.   In the instances where I felt the  business should be forced, there was no statement.  While it can be argued that, for example in the famous civil rights lunch counter protests, the blacks who showed up at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina were certainly making a statement, the general behavior of people showing up at a lunch counter is not a statement.  They are just hungry.  Once again, it shouldn’t make a difference on which side of an issue I lean to in determining if the person should be forced to do something he or she does not morally agree with.  The operative philosophy can be paraphrased by the famous quote,  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

One argument against what I just stated could be that by participating in an event that makes a statement, you are not inherently supporting that statement.  For those who make this argument, I would like to refer them to the recent event where the Republican House Majority whip Steve Scalise was castigated for speaking to a white supremacist organization and he finally apologized for it.  People may associate you, rightly or wrongly, with any statement made by any event you participate in.  By participating, you may not be actively supporting the statement, but you certainly aren’t opposing it enough to refuse to participate.  Even if others don’t think that, you might think that yourself.  That should be enough.  Therefore I believe that forcing a person to support a statement is a violation of the person’s right to free speech.

One might also argue refusing to cater the event is not speech, it is actually non-speech.  Clearly though non speech is a form of political speech.  Frequently in history tyrants have required subjects to say loyalty oaths.  Failure to say the oath could result in execution, torture, or imprisonment.  Certainly the tyrants thought that non-speech was a form of political speech.  So should we.

I think that this key distinction helps clarify the issue.  This may not remove all of the shades of grey from the discussion, but to me at least it adds a framework for looking at a difficult issue.  I would be interested in how others look at this.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 6 – Every problem has a good solution.

Alternate Assumption:  Some problems have no good solution.  We need to find the least bad solution.

I have an acquaintance who shall remain nameless.  In a recent election one candidate agreed with 90% of his views the other candidate agreed with 10%.  He refused to vote for the 90% candidate because of their differences.  I told him that if there was an election between Lincoln and Hitler he would say that Lincoln suspended Habeus Corpus so he wouldn’t vote at all or he would vote for Hitler.

We all like to think that every problem has a solution.  We strive for that perfect solution.  Unfortunately some problems are not soluble.  We seek to eliminate poverty, but there has always been poverty and there always will be.  There may never be peace in the Middle East.  The irony is that too often we reject solutions that might make things better because they aren’t perfect.  To quote Voltaire, “Perfect is the enemy of better!”

The perfect solution assumption hinders both the left and the right.  On the left, environmentalists predict that global warming due to carbon emissions will devastate the climate.  Lets assume for the moment that this is correct.  Cheaper natural gas produced from fracking has caused many power plants to convert away from high carbon emitting coal to clean natural gas.  So far, fracking has shown itself to be the only practical method for substantially reducing carbon emissions.  Environmentalists, however, oppose fracking because of environmental concerns about contamination.  Let’s assume now that these concerns are also valid.

The environmentalists predictions of the devastation caused by global warming far exceeds their predictions of damage caused by fracking.  To environmentalists, fracking should be the least bad of two bad alternatives.  Environmentalists though strongly oppose fracking.  Perfect is the enemy of better.

On the right, conservatives oppose Obamacare and want it repealed.  They wanted Congress to defund Obamacare which would of course result in an Obama veto and shutdown of the government.  Historical evidence shows that this would be very unpopular and it would reduce the chance of electing a Republican in the next election who might actually repeal it.  Perfect is the enemy of better.

The current Iran situation is a vivid example of this problem.  If economic sanctions don’t deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and there is no indication that they will deter Iran, then the world may have to choose between two horrible choices:

  • We can do nothing and let Iran, who supports terrorists, and has vowed to to annihilate Israel develop a nuclear bomb.
  • We can use military force to attack Iran to try to forcibly stop them.   This would throw the world into turmoil and might not even  be successful.

Both of these choices are terrible.  Which is worse?  If we do nothing, we have made a choice.

The search for the perfect solution often sounds very noble.  In real life, it can have devastating consequences.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 5 – The way to peace is to be so nice that nobody will want to attack us.

Alternate Assumption:  The way to peace is to be strong enough that nobody will dare to attack us.

The debate on whether it is better to wear iron or velvet gloves is not new.   Before World War II Winston Churchill argued that we needed to be strong and forceful to stop the Nazis.  Instead Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of England at that time, appeased Hitler and declared that he had achieved “peace in our time”.  We all know what happened after that.  During the cold war the nuclear freeze movement argued that if we stop building nuclear weapons and eventually disarm, the Russians will stop being afraid of us and this will lead to peace.  In current times, we are fighting Islamic extremists.  The debate centers over whether we need to destroy the extremists or whether we need to stop provoking them.

It is easy to point to Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement as proof of the need for peace through strength.  It isn’t that simple though.  The post-war Marshall plan achieved subsequent peace in western Europe through kindness.  In his book  “David vs. Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell shows how the brutality of the British troops in Northern Ireland caused the country to explode.  I also think it is fair to state that over two hundred years ago if the British had been a lot nicer to the American colonists, there may never have been an American Revolution.

So it seems that sometimes “Peace through Strength” works best and sometimes “Peace through Kindness” works best.  How do we determine which to use then?  I believe that it depends on the mindset of who we are dealing with. The key words are “Live and Let Live”.

If you are dealing with “Live and Let Live” people then kindness is the best approach and you can negotiate for a “win/win” solution where both sides benefit.  These people don’t want to hurt you.  They just want to live their lives without you hurting them.

If, on the other hand, we are dealing with people who already want to kill you, who espouse a philosophy of “Live and Let Die”, then kindness  becomes appeasement.  These people do not believe in a “win/win” solution.  They only want “win/lose”.  In a win/win” negotiation, then a concession is seen as a first step to which the other side must also take a step towards you by making their own concession.  In a “win/lose” negotiation, any concession you make is seen as a sign of weakness and the other side hardens its demands, taking a step away from you.  Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded on almost every issue to the Palestinians, giving them over 90% of their demands.  PLO leader Yasser Arafat responded by launching the infitada and its suicide bombers at Israel.

So when I say that “Peace through Kindness” is a bad assumption, I don’t mean that it is always wrong and without merit.  I believe it is a dangerous assumption when you are dealing with people who want to kill you.  When people have a “Live and Let Die” philosophy, you must be strong enough so they know they can’t kill you and live.  We avoided nuclear war throughout the cold war because the Russians knew if they killed us, we would kill them too.

Now we have a new challenge with enemies who have a philosophy of “Die and Let Die”.  These people can’t be deterred through kindness or strength.  They can only be destroyed.  Of course in the act of destroying them we risk turning other people who might currently “Live and Let Live” to “Live and Let Die”.

There is no simple, clean solution.  And that is the segue into the next bad assumption…

Misrepresenting Ayn Rand

I am taking a break from my top ten list of bad assumptions to respond to an article posted to Facebook about Rand.  This friend, whom I happen to think is a wonderful person, posted a link to an article saying how Ayn Rand devotees are greedy and selfish and are making America a bad country.  Here is the link:


This article starts with the following quote:

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961

The author of this article, Bruce Levine, makes in essence two main arguments:

  • Ayn Rand herself was a horrible person.
  • Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that you shouldn’t care about anybody but yourself.  This philosophy causes people to be ruthless and manipulative and is evil.

First, let me address the attack on Ayn Rand as a person.  As a start, the events described in this article are, to my memory, consistent with the biography “Ayn Rand and The World She Made” by Anne Heller.    I can’t state how fairly this biography portrays Ayn Rand.  It shows both the good and not so good of Rand.  In his article Levine emphasizes two of the less flattering aspects of Rand’s life.

Before discussing the actual attacks on Rand’s personal life, I would like to point out this is an “ad hominem” attack, an  the attack on character rather than an attack on the idea.  This is a common fallacy.  For example, if I a scientist proves that smoking causes cancer, but still smokes, one might attack his research on the grounds that he a smoker and that if he believed his own research, he wouldn’t smoke.  His smoking may be evidence that he is personally flawed, but it has no relevance on the validity of his research.  Likewise, pointing out Ayn Rand’s flaws has no relevance to her philosophy and arguments.  It only can prove that she is not the Messiah.  Still, people do look to the philosopher when judging the philosophy, so I would like to address these two key aspects.

Levine dwells upon Rand’s extra-marital sexual relationship with her disciple Nathaniel Brandon, for which Rand gained the consent of both of their spouses.  In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroine Dagne Taggert had an affair with one of her heroes, Hank Reardon, so it would not be fair to claim that monogamy was central to Rand’s philosophy or that Rand was being hypocritical in this regard.  Rand did stress honesty.   She believed she was honest in her relationship.  She got angry when she felt she was betrayed and that her lover Brandon was not honest with her.  One may approve or disapprove of her actions here, but she was not inconsistent with her stated philosophy.

The second issue is one that I found more troubling when I read the biography.  Rand stressed using logic based upon objective facts.   She often stated that people need to think for themselves and not blindly follow others.  Yet when somebody in her circle developed conclusions that significantly differed from hers, she would treat this person as a heretic and cut the person out of the circle.  I personally do find this disturbing.  I also think it is entirely irrelevant to her whether her ideas are good or bad.

So now let’s go to the attack against her idea, primarily the attack that she promotes selfishness and not caring about others.  Levine offers us the following quote:

My ex-husband wasn’t a bad guy until he started reading Ayn Rand. Then he became a completely selfish jerk who destroyed our family, and our children no longer even talk to him.

I believe that this is a good example of what I have long felt is a glaring misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Much of the blame for this misinterpretation falls on Rand herself.  Rand did not respect conventional thinking.  She loved to taunt those she disagreed with.  She wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness”.   I’m sure she chose this title to be provocative.   Rand, however, uses the word selfishness differently than most people use the word selfishness.  I think she did her philosophy a disservice in her choice of this word.  What does she mean by it then?

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is Ayn Rand’s primary hero.  Rand described him as the perfect man.  I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy can best be summarized by John Galt’s oath.

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Galt’s oath is fairly straightforward.  He is proclaiming that everybody has the right to live for him or herself and not for the purposes of others.  The primary misinterpretation of Ayn Rand is that people focus on the first part of the oath and not the second.  They say that Rand advocates exploiting others.  If you look at this simple statement, nothing could be further from the truth.  Rand is explicitly stating that we have no right to ask other people to subjugate their own desires and happiness to our own.

Moreover, Ayn Rand’s heroes keep their word no matter what.  Rand decries how people make excuses to explain why they can’t keep their word with lines like “It was beyond my control.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s not my fault.”  Rand’s heroes do not believe people should be able to force them into obligation against their will, but when they voluntarily make an obligation they must fulfill it no matter how difficult this may be.  For example, in Atlas Shrugged Dagne Taggert promised that a key customer that rail line would be completed on time.  When it looked like her railroad company would not be able to make this deadline due to the unavailability of a key part, the railroad bought a manufacturer for the sole reason of having it produce the part on time.

So when Levine cites the wife whose husband became a Rand-reading selfish jerk, this husband certainly was not following the philosophies of Ayn Rand.  When one has a family, one has voluntarily made an obligation. and one always fulfills a freely-chosen obligation.

Also, a common misinterpretation of Ayn Rand is the statement that Rand believes we should never help others.  Rand frequently stated that she has nothing against people helping others.  She just didn’t believe that people should be able to force others to help them.  Ayn Rand’s characters make huge sacrifices for those they care about, including undergoing torture and risking death.  They choose to make these sacrifices because the people they make them for are important to them.

As I stated earlier, I believe one main reason that Ayn Rand is so misinterpreted is that her definition of selfishness, which she thinks is good, differs from the standard definition of selfishness, which most people think is bad.  I would state that the standard definition of selfishness is thinking of oneself first without respect for the rights of others.  I would say that Ayn Rand’s definition of selfishness is thinking of oneself first with full respect for the rights of others.

Levine also made this statement in his article:

While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage.

Quite frankly, I don’t see how anybody who actually read Atlas Shrugged could make that statement.  Ayn Rand despised crony capitalism where corporations conspire with government to gain an unfair advantage.  One of the main villains in Atlas Shrugged, James Taggert, is a crony capitalist and Rand attacks this practice throughout the book.

The purpose of this post is not for me at this time to explain or defend Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  It just got my goat that this article called her philosophy “evil” and then justified this rather damning accusation by attacking her character and by totally misrepresenting her philosophy.  Ayn Rand believed in logic.  Rand built her philosophy by starting at very low levels and painstakingly building logical arguments.  I have seen many attacks on Ayn Rand.  I have yet to see an attack that focuses on refuting her actual logic.  I would very much welcome it if anybody sees this who can post a comment pointing me to a good, fair refutation of Rand’s logic.

Ayn Rand was a staunch supporter of capitalism and an enemy of communism and socialism.   Capitalism epitomizes the belief that a person can pursue their own dreams.   Communism epitomizes the belief that a people should forsake their own dreams for the betterment of the greater good. In the last twenty five years both China and India have turned from socialism to capitalism and as a result have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.  In the name of Communism, China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries murdered tens of millions of their own people.  Yet Levine and others call Ayn Rand’s philosophy evil.  How interesting.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 4 – Government helps people. Business exploits people.

Alternate Assumption:  People are helpful when they have an incentive to be helpful.

We hear this all the time.  Government is compassionate and caring.  Business is heartless and cruel.  This assumption was a cornerstone of the argument for nationalizing healthcare.  Health insurance companies have a reputation, deserved or not, for denying benefits.  I have seen countless stories in the newspaper about a very ill person whose insurance company denies a needed operation or medication.  If only government ran healthcare, it would be much more compassionate.

Before we even look at government, let’s look at a different type of insurance.  My city of St. Louis was hit by a major hailstorm a few years ago and my roof was damaged.  Within two days my insurance company had an adjuster at our house.  The adjuster was based out of Dallas.  After the hailstorm, the insurance company flew in adjusters from all over the country to quickly handle the huge influx of claims.  The insurance company could not have been nicer to work with and they quickly paid the claim.  I heard similar stories from friends and neighbors who had different insurance companies.

Should we assume from this that people who work for property insurance companies are nicer than people who work for health insurance companies, or is there another factor here?  Property insurance is an extremely competitive business.  There are many different companies.  Everybody chooses his or her own insurance.  The insurance company’s reputation for being easy to work with and prompt in paying claims is a key factor in the sale.  If a property insurance company gets a bad reputation, their sales plummet.  The property insurance companies have a very strong incentive to be fast and fair in paying claims.

Contrast this with health insurance.  Due to regulations, there are very few health insurance companies to choose from in a state.  Moreover, most people don’t choose their own health insurance.  Their employer chooses the health insurance.  You can’t change your health insurance without changing your job.  The employer wants a benefits package that on paper is at least comparable to health insurance offered by other employers.  If the benefits package appears inadequate, the user might lose values employees or might have to pay additional salary to compensate.  For a given benefits package, the employer is then looking for the insurer who can provide it for the cheapest cost.

Nowhere in this sales equation is there a factor for how promptly, fairly, and courteously the insurance company handles claims.  If a health insurance company is especially generous in handling claims, it may raise their cost basis which would make them less competitive and therefore hurt their business.  Property insurance companies have the incentive to be helpful and health insurance companies have the incentive to not be helpful.

The Veteran’s Administration is a current example of where government runs healthcare.  It is known for providing poor healthcare.  In a recent scandal, veterans died as they were on a months long waiting list for care.

My belief is that neither government nor business is inherently good or bad.  All organizations are composed of people, both good and bad.  Most of us are good when it comes with family and friends we care about.  When we deal with strangers, while there are a few Mother Theresa’s in the world, but most of us try to be polite. On occasion we are more than polite, but on an every day basis, we don’t go out of our way to help people if there is no advantage to us in helping them.  While we may wish that everybody was a whole lot nicer, this is the way that people are, and we are not going to change human nature.

So, for example, if we want to make health insurance more responsive, would it be better to make the health insurance industry more competitive and more like the property insurance industry, or would it be better to make it less competitive and more like the Veteran’s Administration?

If government was inherently more helpful, then everybody would have loved living in the Communist countries where government did everything.  The Berlin wall would have been built to keep the West Berliners from heading east.

Businesses have people.  Governments have people.  With people you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.  This applies to helpfulness.  It applies to everything.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 3 – America should not favor Americans.

Alternate Assumption:  America should favor American citizens.

I had been planning to discuss this assumption later in the process but this assumption so underpins Obama’s recent executive action on immigration and the entire immigration debate I have moved it up a bit.

First it is important to note that this is strictly a values assumption.  There are no facts to argue here.

The basic assumption is that we are citizens of the world.  Americans are not inherently better than other people in the world.  If our policies favor Americans over other people, we are implying that Americans are more worthy than anybody else.  The moral approach is to treat everybody equally.  Immigration restrictions are immoral because they state that existing Americans have more of a right to be in America than other people in the world.  Moreover, unless you are a native American, you are an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants so it is hypocritical for you to try to restrict immigration.

As Barack Obama said just a few days ago on November 24, 2014 in his immigration speech in Chicago:

If you look at the history of immigration in this country, each successive wave, there have been periods where the folks who were already here suddenly say, well, I don’t want those folks.  Even though the only people who have the right to say that are some Native Americans.

It is clear that the belief that America should not favor Americans is a core value behind President Obama’s immigration approach.    The purpose of this post is not to debate immigration.  I want to look at the core value itself.

This assumption has a further assumption below it.  It states that whenever someone favors one person over another, that person is stating that the more favored person is somehow superior to the less favored person.  I believe that this is a false assumption.  When a parent cares for his or her child, the parent is not saying that this child is more worthy than all other children.  The parent cares for the child because of an emotional attachment and because the parent has assumed a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of the child.

Now let’s move up from the individual to local levels of government.  At the governmental level, we no longer have the emotional attachment, but the fiduciary duty still holds.  A fire department, for example, has the fiduciary duty to protect the homes and businesses within the district from fire.  It does not have the same fiduciary duty to protect the homes in neighboring districts.  This doesn’t mean that if a neighboring district has a fire and there is not currently a fire in the district, that the local fire department shouldn’t assist the neighboring fire department.  If there are simultaneous fires in both districts, however, the local fire department needs to take care of its own residents first.

At the state level, the Missouri government has a duty to protect the citizens of Missouri.  The Illinois government has a duty to protect the citizens of Illinois.  In doing this, neither state is saying that the citizens of its state are better or more worthy people than citizens of the other state.

It is the same at the federal level.  The United States government has a duty to the citizens of the United States.  The Mexican government has a duty to the citizens of Mexico, and the Nigerian government has a duty to the citizens of Nigeria.  This is not racism or any other form of discrimination.  It is a government fulfilling the duty that the government was created for.

Therefore America should favor Americans.  This does not mean that America has the right to attack other countries or expect countries to favor Americans over its own citizens.  America has not only the right but the moral obligation to put the interests of its own citizens first while respecting the obligation of every other country to put its citizens first as well.  Greece should favor Greeks.  Mexico should favor Mexicans.  America should favor Americans.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 1 – If we disagree, you are either mean or stupid.

Alternate Assumption:  If we disagree, we may have differing assumptions.

This is the first in a top ten list on bad assumptions.  I am interested in why people disagree.  In particular, I am interested why people who I know are intelligent, caring people often strongly disagree with me when it comes to politics.  If I know them to be intelligent and caring, does that mean I am stupid or uncaring?

I am a computer programmer.  I know that any process has three components:  input, process, and output.  If we disagree, we must differ in one or more of these.

The output is our goal, our desired outcome.   We may have differing goals.  If my goals are noble and pure then you must be mean, racist, selfish, unpatriotic or have some other horrible motivation.

The process is our logic.  If I think you might not be a horrible person, then the alternative is that your logic is flawed.  You are stupid.  You are incapable of thinking rationally.  If you weren’t stupid, clearly you would agree with me.

The input is the facts.  Maybe you aren’t mean or stupid.  Maybe you just don’t know the facts.  We disagree because you don’t know the facts.  I present the facts to you and we still disagree.  This means that you are either mean or stupid after all.

I see this thought process all the time.  It seems so obvious, so logical, so true.  There is one missing piece.  The missing piece is assumptions.  Input is more than just facts.  Input is facts and assumptions.  The assumptions are what we believe to be self-evidently true.  For example, one assumption can be that the United States is a great country.  An alternate assumption is that the United States is a terrible country.  There are countless facts that can be used to support or attack the United States.  We don’t go through these facts every time we make a decision though.  We start with are underlying assumption as an input and we go from there.

There are some assumptions that can’t be supported or attacked by facts.  For example, the key assumption in the abortion debate is whether the fetus is a human life.  If you believe that the fetus is a human life, then abortion is simply murder and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you support abortion rights, you support murder.  Alternatively, if you believe that the fetus is not a human life, then abortion is simply a matter of a woman’s right to control her own body and there is nothing else to talk about.  If you don’t support abortion rights, you are either a nut or you hate women.  In actuality, science can not prove or disprove whether a fetus is a human life.  It is a value judgment.

I think that assumptions are very important, and nobody ever talks about them.  If we don’t share the same assumptions, we can’t converse.   If a person’s assumption is that 2+2=5, that person can prove to you with brilliant logic that 4+4=10.  If you don’t share this assumption, however, their logic from that point is meaningless.  As we say in the computer world:  garbage in, garbage out.

The only point where we can hold a meaningful conversation is at the point where we hold common assumptions and our opinions at this point differ.  For example, two priests can have a meaningful conversation about moral values using the New Testament as a starting point and citing scripture to prove their points.  A priest cannot have this same conversation with an Atheist who does not share this same assumption that the New Testament is the authoritative source for moral decisions.

I think that everybody has some bad assumptions that can and should be re-examined.  I am sure that I have bad assumptions.  True discourse comes from reaching that level where we first disagree and then examining our beliefs from there.  This was Socrates’ contribution to the world.  Socrates would start where he and his opponent first agreed and get this opponent to say yes.  He would then build on that with a series of questions to which his opponent had to continue to say yes.  By the end, his opponent had agreed himself into a position that was totally opposed to his original position.

If we say, however, that our opponents are mean or stupid, then we don’t have to listen to their arguments.  Why should we listen to the arguments of stupid and mean people?  Yes there are mean people and the world and there are stupid people in the world.  Rather than initially assuming that our opponents are mean or stupid, I think it important that we assume that they are intelligent people and that we all want the same things.  Most of us all want peace and prosperity and a bright future for our children.  We all would prefer a world where everyone can be happy than a world where everybody is miserable.  Yes there are mean people in the world and there are stupid people in the world.  After we fairly evaluate their arguments, we might conclude they are mean or stupid, but this should not be the starting point.

This is why the first bad assumption in my top ten list of bad assumptions is the belief that if we disagree, you must be mean or stupid.  If we make this assumption, we will never be able to learn from anybody else.  We will never be able to correct our own bad assumptions.

In this series I will be listing what I believe to be bad assumptions along with what I believe to be more valid assumptions, and I will be arguing for my assumptions.  I will state here that my assumptions might be wrong as well.  If anybody reading this finds a flaw in my assumptions, please feel free to point them out.  Unlikely as it may seem, maybe I am the one with the bad assumptions.

Let’s find out.

Helping People Who Cannot Help Themselves: What is Government’s Role?

In the previous segment, I talked about the role of government.  Helping people who cannot help themselves, is typically considered a key role of government.  First, let me state that I think helping people who truly need help is generally a good thing.  Most people are good people and we want to help the needy.  We all know people, good people, who depend on government assistance.  Without this assistance, they might not have the basic necessities of life.  On the surface, it seems that only a cruel, selfish person would question if government should be providing this assistance.

We all see the positive benefits of government aid.  What, however, are the negative effects?

The key phrase to keep in mind in analyzing this, or basically any, issue is “You Get What You Reward”.  (See my previous post https://ralphkoppel.com/2014/03/05/you-get-what-you-reward/).  Whenever we say we will help people who are helpless, we are rewarding helplessness.  As a consequence, we get more helplessness.  For purposes of discussion, lets not talk about people who may or may not be able to help themselves such as an unemployed worker who might or might not be able to get a job.  Let’s talk about a very young child whose parents c,annot or will not provide basic necessities such as food and shelter.

If the government takes care of the child of a neglectful parent, the problem isn’t that we are rewarding the child.  The problem is that we are rewarding the neglectful parent.  For example, we have two single mothers with very limited money.  Mother A uses her money for food and clothing for Child A.  Mother B uses her money to party and have fun.  Without intervention, Child B will starve.  If the government takes over and feeds Child B, then both Child A and Child B are fed.  Mother A though has no fun and Mother B has fun.  We are rewarding Mother B’s neglectful behavior.

When we look at an entire population, people don’t easily divide into two groups.  Rather, we have a spectrum.  In this case, at one end of the spectrum are mothers who will take care of their child on their own, no matter what, and would not accept any aid.  At the other end are mothers who won’t care for their child, no matter what, and will party and have fun without regard to the child.  Most mothers fall somewhere in between.  The more aid government provides, the more likely the mother is to have fun and leave the care of the child to the government.

The same analysis can be used with any kind of government aid.  Whenever we provide more aid, due to the inherent rewards, we get more people who need the aid.  In short, society has in essence three options when it comes to people who can’t help themselves.

  • Society can provide no aid and let the truly helpless people starve.
  • Government can provide aid to helpless people and as a result, we will get more helpless people.
  • Charities, friends, and family can provide aid to helpless people.  This might seem to be the best solution, but what then if private individuals can’t provide enough aid?

In short, there isn’t a good option here.  So is it the proper role of government to help people who can’t help themselves?  I’m still torn on this one.  I know that government aid in the long run often does more harm than good.  On the other side, I am sickened when truly helpless people can’t get the basic necessities.  There really isn’t a good answer.  In the real world, however, none of the above isn’t one of the options we have to choose from.

I would say that whenever possible we should look to friends, families, and charities to provide aid.  This should be the first choice.  As a last step, I do think government does need to have a role in helping people who can’t help themselves.  Any government policies need to be fully aware of the negative consequences of government aid and should be designed to at least attempt to mitigate these consequences.

Is this a good approach?  No, it isn’t.  I do think though it is the least bad of all of the bad approaches available.