Archive for January, 2011
Government Regulations: Demeaning and Costly
Tibor R. Machan
Every time I am dealing with an organizations like the omnipresent TIAA-CREF–which seems to have a monopoly on handling retirements at colleges and universities across the country–I am put through a labyrinth of bureaucratic procedures. With each turn, of course, there is a quite lengthy average–say, 7 to 13 minute–wait, mostly on being on hold on the phone. This happens also when I make airline reservations or deal with banks and other financial institutions but there is some competition there, although these, too, appear to be heavily regulated by the government which imposes on them innumerable rules.
Whenever I voice a protest about any of these inconveniences–actually, more than that since my life-time is being consumed when these waits go on endlessly–I am told that they cannot help it, they are required to go through all these infuriating delays by the government. Forms need to be filled out and sent off just to satisfy the state! And those people who impose these requirements are, of course, nowhere to be found so one can give them one’s opinion of their handiwork. Instead hapless office personnel are confronted with outraged citizens and are, of course, exasperated when they cannot answer their complaints with any hope of relief.
Nearly everything the bureaucrats demand is farmed out to various administrative departments at colleges and universities, primarily the offices of HR, ironically called human resources (as if what HR did at these places had any productive function are all). And, of course, when it comes to payroll offices at nearly all companies, there, too, most of the procedures are controlled by directives of governments, including that odious, vicious practice of withholding taxes, something again that the government managed to farm out to the employers who then are the object of ire of all of us who are peeved about the various tax policies.
Round and round goes the bureaucracy, treating us all as if we were robots doing service to some far off master who cannot be contacted by any of us (except in a very iffy and indirect fashion when people cast their votes). Even then, while politicians can be dismissed, bureaucrats cannot.
The one time I had anything to do in Washington, as a founding member of the Jacob K. Javits National Fellowship Program — http://smu.edu/nationalfellowships/javits.asp — I was told that the bureaucrats at the Department of Education, where this program was administered, never changed no matter who got elected. If Washington had a Democrat regime, the same folks stayed in the various bureaus as when Republicans were in office. And in time this became evident to me quite directly through the arrogance of the staff whose members never feared being dismissed or demoted. Their jobs were secure! (This may not always be the case, just as treasury bonds aren’t so secure when major financial fiascoes occur at the federal level.)
Now all of this is, of course, infuriating and utterly demeaning–you must stay on hold because no one ever is authorized to make outgoing telephone calls! I always feel like a royal subject, tempted to stand at attention until I am spoke to by these folks who are doing the government’s work, work that, of course, should not have to be done. Are we all involuntary servants of these people?
Then there is, of course, the waste of time and money involved in all of this. Each year I probably spend 20 to 40 hours or more dealing with the bureaucracy, directly or indirectly, and if one multiplies this across the country, the wasted time piles up incalculably. The economic value of this time is difficult to estimate but when some try the numbers turn out to be beyond belief. (John Stossel did his very first ABC-TV special on the topic of government regulation and the cost that he estimated for it went way beyond virtually everything else the taxpayers are force to pay for.)
Maybe some people do not care about this just as some people do not protest spousal abuse. But no matter–it is still very demeaning to be subjected to all this and it costs a bundle to boot, money spent that could very well go to genuine productive task that might even ease the unemployment problem in the private sector.
Civil Discourse Revisited
Tibor R. Machan
We were having lunch and the topic of how to frame a friendly, productive holiday conversation about politics and such came up. I had been thinking about what role a host might play in upholding standards of civility and what one can do if things get a bit ugly. For that they surely can get, especially in the current atmosphere which appears to contain very little in the way of argumentation and analysis and a whole lot of venting, name calling, besmirching, ridiculing, and caricaturing even by the most erudite of commentators.
One reason for the abundance of heat in and the absence of light from most discussions on TV, radio and even the dinner table appears to be that nearly all the moves have already been made by all the sides championing their cause, so what then is left? Few of the parties seem to be upgrading their stance, improving their evidence, honing their reasoning, probably because ofter years and years of believing as they do and repeatedly mulling it over, there seems to be no use for going through the exercise again and again. Grandma will remain true to her faith whatever the grand kids bring back from college bull sessions or even their courses in the way of challenges to her ideas. And the same would seem to go for grandpa and mom and dad and brother and sister, even. So mostly the family sticks to trivia or play–sports work well, since there is little at stake and the passions would tend to be shallow. (Why get all bent out of shape about Auburn’s various rivalries or the next Superbowl?) And even if one holds views one considers quite sound and important to promulgate, who has the time for this? On TV and radio the objective appears to be mainly to keep the floor, learn how to speak without breathing, wearing down everyone else, since the time limit is normally quite onerous.
But in fact it could be much better than this, from the Thanksgiving dinner table to the talk shows, if only a few points were kept in focus. Here is my own list, by no means complete:
* Recall that there is always time to go through the reasons why one holds one’s views and to gain the benefit of critical objections and insights from thoughtful friendly others, even if in the end one wants to be triumphant. It really isn’t about subduing one’s interlocutors but about making a decent effort to reach sound conclusions, to get at whatever truth is available to us.
* Recall, also, that while on some topics–religion, politics, child raising–one may differ quite seriously with one’s friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbors, there is much more to life than just these areas of interest. There are people one knows who fervently disagree with one’s political views, even may dislike one for holding them, while they are congenial when it comes to great many of other concerns. I have learned over the years that even some of those I most sincerely and seriously find objectionable in one area can turn out to be, quite surprisingly, candidates for comrades when it comes to other issues. (Parents, especially, may find that people whose politics or economics they disapprove of share their own ideas about raising children and handling the household budget.) One’s politics or religion isn’t everything about the person, at least in most cases. So if time is limited, perhaps talking about movies or traveling can be a friendly territory.
* Often when we dislike others it isn’t anything dire or morally important, merely a matter of a difference in style and taste. And it is quite OK to insist on one’s style and taste for oneself without insisting that everyone else share these–they can all be quite swell people but not like what you like. I do not like baseball or football or even basketball but am very keen on tennis. Others in my circles do not share this but it would be serious folly to be critical of them for this. My favorite color needn’t be anyone else’s, nor my favorite food or even restaurant or make of car. Indeed, some people just rub me the wrong way even though there is nothing I can identify that would deserve condemnation. We don’t all have to get along on all counts, despite some Utopian thinking along such lines.
* There is much more but let me just add one idea that I have found very useful: If one wants to bring up a testy topic, one that’s pretty likely to sit badly with one’s companions, it usually helps to do what I call some meta-talk, or preparatory talk. Something like, “I will make some points now that may very well be objectionable to some of you but please bear with me and let’s run through them gently.”
So, have a good dinner visiting the folks and do not focus so intensely on how much you disagree. And heed the advice of one of my daughters: you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.
The Insanity Defense Debate
Tibor R. Machan
The New York Times blog featured a debate recently, in the wake of the Tuscon massacre, among several people on the insanity defense. One of the debaters, Kent Scheidegger, wrote a comment that included a point that’s often proposed but that needs some amendment.
Scheidegger said “The traditional test [of criminal responsibility] is whether the defendant was able to understand the nature of the act and understand that it was wrong. This test … remains the proper legal and moral test. A person who understands what he is doing and that it is wrong but does it anyway is morally responsible for his act.”
There’s a problem with this idea, namely, that at times culprits place themselves into a position of being unable “to understand that nature of the act and understand that is was wrong,” as when they voluntarily become severely intoxicated by drugs or alcohol or some other behavior that leads to mental incapacitation. So strictly speaking while the crime is being committed, the understanding Scheidegger says is required for culpability is indeed missing; so by his account perpetrators cannot be held criminally or even morally responsible for what they have done. Yet, arguably, such persons would still be fully responsible since they ought to have been sufficiently prudent or careful prior to becoming unable to understand and embarking on conduct that requires care. Thus, if one sits at home alone (or with family likely to offer care if needed), and imbibes to a point of mental incapacitation, that’s one thing; but if one does so just before undertaking tasks where the effects of alcohol or drug consumption can reasonably be expected to lead to a crime, that’s another. Ignorance of those effects at the time of the commission of the crime should be no excuse–one ought to have known!
Of course these days there are innumerable reasons being offered for not holding anyone responsible for anything one does, be it criminal or noble or whatever. The most influential grounds for this come from some experiments conducted recently in which it has been determined that an agent of conduct is most often motivated un- or subconsciously. Reported cat scans of the human brain have shown that prior one’s conscious awareness of what one is intending to do, the action in question has already commenced in the brain, with consciousness coming only later. So what one is doing is in fact not in one’s conscious control. Such experiments were conducted by, among others, the famous neuro-scientist Benjamin Libet. Libet himself, while casting doubt on consciously willful conduct concludes one of his famous essays, “Do We Have Free Will?”–included in Benjamin Libert, et al., eds., The Volitional Brain, Towards a neuroscience of free will (Imprint Academic, 1999)–with the observation that free will’s “existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory.” Yet he regards the hypothesis of free will’s existence “speculative,” but does the same with the determinist position. As he puts it, “Given the speculative nature of both determinist and non-determinist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear, if it ever does).”
Since the time Libet carried out his studies there has been considerable work on the issues involved in the free will and conscious willing controversies (work that’s continuing as I write these lines–for example, at the recently established Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies at UC Santa Barbara, which, as its web site states, “is dedicated to interdisciplinary research and education to advance understanding of the nature and potential of consciousness.” Libet’s earlier work has sparked much further work and debate but a good many neuroscientists contend now that it and further work has indeed lead to the conclusion that conscious willing is not very likely–see, for example, Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT Press, 2002).
I am not going to be able to chime in very fruitfully on this topic in a short column but I do wish to call attention, briefly, to a line of argument favoring freedom of the will that seems not to be addressed much these days when only experimental science is trusted to handle the issues involved. This line of argument basically holds that the existence of free will is undeniable or on strictly conceptual or logical grounds–that is, axiomatic–since scientific knowledge itself depends on it.
Basically the point is that knowledge must involve independent, unprejudiced observation and thinking but determinism denies this since it holds that everything one does is controlled by various impersonal causes impinging on one’s conduct, including one’s observations and thinking. If that were so, then no conclusion about anything, including about the free will issue, could be considered sound since all of it would be simply imposed on us. We would not in fact be concluding from unprejudiced reasoning and observation but merely exhibiting behavior imposed on our brains and caused by such imposition.
So it is best to conclude that if science is possible, including about the human mind, free will must exist.
Confessions of a Refi Junkie
Tibor R. Machan
No, I am not actually a junkie of any sort but I sometimes feel like it when I reflect upon my history of borrowing funds against the estimated value of my home.
You see, I have been trying to encourage my and my children’s various endeavors, just as many other parents who somehow think they can are wont to do. Helping with down payments for a home, chipping in a bit with rent, or, and this is the biggie, subsidizing a love for a serious extracurricular activity, not to mention the more immediate help with daily expenses–all these and others have induced me to try to generate resources not just from productive work but at times from borrowing against anticipated income.
And so on several occasions I have done what millions have, namely, refinanced my house, mine in Southern California. I even experienced the bail-out phenomenon when I have taken over some of the credit card debts of one or another of my children.
This all has slowly subsided, of course, as they have become more productive and thus reasonably self-supporting but it has left me with fairly hefty debts which I keep paying off. (And I am now nearly where I would like to be, leaving me with just my mortgage and car loan payments.) Of course, it also means that retirement is out of the question, at least so long as I am fit to keep working and like my work reasonably well to keep me interested in it. At 70+ now, this is all a bit iffy but not beyond the pale.
In all this I believe I have behaved pretty much as most people would, given the information they possess about market conditions, public finance, etc. Once the extortion by government has transpired each year–taxes forked out on time so the dastards cannot nail me while I am relentlessly hammering at the ideology that supports their policies–I am still in a position, given the excellent management of at least one of the places where I work, to carry on, although not without constant maneuvering through the financial maze of my life.
And let’s not forget, the role of good luck in all this! I am reasonably fit, with but a few manageable maladies–back problems, sciatica, etc., and so forth–so I don’t have to shell out gobs of funds for medical care (apart from the insurance I carry through my place of employment). Not everyone has such luck and while that certainly obligates none of us to submit to servitude in their behalf, it should encourage some understanding and maybe even generosity toward the deserving unlucky among us.
In any case, if one multiplies my situation a couple of hundred million fold, leaving aside for now out and out corruption and shady dealings, it is not difficult to see that all that would lead to financial disasters, what with the government creating a political-economic environment of false signals and phony incentives which to most ordinary citizens who are trying to navigate their economic lives isn’t fully disclosed. (Who among ordinary folks knows why housing prices rose and why one could refinance on such welcoming terms? Does anyone but a small proportion of the population realize that President Clinton, among others, had foisted upon the country financial policies that made borrowing money so easy? And what about the influence of past decisions, such as making mortgage interests partly deductible from one’s taxes? Who but experts or especially savvy lay people realize the impact such policies have on the long term economy of the country and, indeed, on most of the citizenry?)
As with regular junkies–or even with people who just like to do certain things a lot and will do it more if the cost isn’t prohibitive–those who are trying to improve their economic situation will take the opportunities around them at face value and not normally realize that they often flow from the minds of tricky politicians and all their little helpers throughout the bureaucracies of the country (not to mention the academic apologists supporting them)?
That is, at least, one way to make sense of recent economic and financial undulations in America. But this is a work in progress for me, so I keep on thinking about and studying just how to make sense of it all.