I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Master Plan

Back in my "Ten Reasons to Believe in God: or Why I am an Athiest" post I gave a list of what I thought were the ten best non-strawmen arguments for believing in God. Some of these reasons I've tackled in various posts over the years, but today I'm going to take a stab at one of the more interesting ones: The Master Plan.

The Master Plan argument takes two forms. First, there is the grand scale argument that overlaps with the Argument by Design. Our world exists through such an unlikely combination of chance events, it's difficult to look at it and not suspect that there must have been some sort of plan behind it all. For instance, consider the amazing oddity of solar eclipses. The sun and the moon are very different sizes and very different distances. The odds that they should have the exact same diameter in our sky are, if you'll pardon the expression, astronomical. Yet, against all odds, the sun and the moon exist at the same apparent size in our sky, to the degree that the moon can perfectly block out the sun save for a tiny, perfect circle of fire.

And here's further food for thought about eclipses: They weren't the same in pre-human history. The moon is slowly moving away from earth. When dinosaurs roamed the world, the moon was larger in they sky than the sun. In a few million years, the moon will be far enough away that it will no longer be able to produce a total eclipse. So, it's not only an amazing coincidence that the sun and the moon are the same size--they just happen to be the same size at the moment that a species on earth is capable of witnessing them and understanding them.

The unliklihood of the solar eclipse seems too amazing for it not to mean something. I feels almost like God signing his work. Yet: If God wished to sign his work, and was willing to put in the effort of building a sun and moon and earth of exactly the right sizes and positions to make this possible... couldn't he have been a little less obscure? Why leave a calling card that, while unlikely, isn't impossible to produce by pure chance? It's unlikely that you or I will ever win a lottery, yet, it's inevitible that some people win. It's unlikely that any given planet around a star will have a moon and a sun with the same apparent size, yet, since there are likely trillions of planets, it's inevitable that this alignment will happen somewhere in the universe. Our number came up.

For the possible to occur, even against long odds, requires no leaps of faith. So, I find the grand scale version of the Master Plan ultimately unpersuasive; until someone shows me something that truly could not have happened by pure chance, even if that chance was a billion to one, chance still remains a more plausible explanation than God.

The small scale argument is, I think, a more difficult one to refute. Not on a logical level, perhaps. But, on a gut level, almost everyone finds that there are events that occur in their lives that feel as if a guiding power brought them to a significant moment. I've mentioned before that I got served my divorce papers on Valentine's Day, and the official court date for the end of the marriage was April Fool's Day. It just feels so literary and appropriate that it must have some meaning; one could argue that God appreciates irony, if nothing else.

Once, while rock-climbing, the climber above dislodged a stone almost exactly the size of my head. It fell about fifty feet toward me, hit the rock in front of me, richocheted, and passed over my left shoulder, close enough to snag stray hairs sticking out from under my helmet. A few inches to the right, and it might have killed me. I almost certainly would have needed significant dental work. I know dozens of other people who share similar close calls; probably more people have these close calls than don't. It's unsatisfying to think: I was a coin flip away from being dead. You don't want to think that life can end due to such random, pointless events. It makes the world seem scary that you can die for no reason at all.

On the other hand, a close call like this can impart meaning on a life. I know people who feel that their close calls were actually wake up calls. God shakes you up a little now and then, gives you a little slap to get your attention, then steers you back onto the right path.

This is a tough argument to refute because, on some levels, I don't want to refute it. I know people who have used close calls as a reason to turn their lives around. In college I had a friend who was an alcoholic; finally, he got scared enough that he turned to God instead of a bottle. What kind of cad would I be to tell him that's the wrong path? I know another friend who told me point blank that, without his knowing that there was a loving God watching out for him, he wouldn't be able to handle all the tragedies in his life. I think of God as a product of imagination... but if this product of imagination is sufficient to give some people the strength to get out of bed in the morning, why should I make it my duty to go around kicking away people's crutches?

I don't believe that any higher power is communicating with us when we have these close calls, or the weird literary twists like a Valentine's Day divorce. Chance events happen. We may not be happy at the thought that our lives are in the hands of purely random events, yet, time and again, it's been proven that they are. It doesn't mean you can't draw lessons from them. From some of my own close calls, I don't need a higher power to draw a message: Life is short and precious. Keep moving foward while you can.

As to why I might be tempted to kick away the crutch that is God... I think that there's a certain inherent value in learning that you can stand on your own two feet. There's a famous schmaltzy fable about footprints on a beach. There are two sets of foot prints, but when the going gets rough, there's only one. The sinner knows the second set of foot prints belongs to God and says, "God, when times are tough, I see you abandoned me." God says, "No, when times were tough, that is when I carried you."

Is it such a crime to think that healthy adults don't need to be carried through their difficulties? That there's a dignity to walking the whole way through sheer will and toughness? Discovering that you are strong enough to achieve things without the support of imaginary friends is, I think, an important step toward living a fulfilling life. And if you need a master plan to give your life meaning, do what I did: Write your own.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Abuses of Power

The scandal of the week seems to be the bonuses paid to executives at AIG, a company that is only afloat because congress has okayed an almost endless pump of money to flow into it. They've spent more to keep AIG afloat in the past six months than they've spent on national parks, law enforcement, education, prisons, roads, or toilet seats for submarines. Of course, there's outrage that executives of a company that is such a sieve of tax dollars are paid any bonuses at all.

Today, congress approved at tax that is carefully crafted to take back all the money from the bonuses (save for a modest $250,000 per bonus... we don't want to leave these people homeless after all).

I've listened to the bloodlust on the radio and I find myself, once again, on the wrong side of public opinion. I'm far, far more disturbed that congress has just used our tax code -- laws that are supposed to produce the revenue to fuel our government -- as a punitive measure to single out and take the money from a few hundred employees that are currently at the top of the public's shit list. If this passes the senate, and is signed into law, this opens the door for abuses I don't even want to contemplate. If we say it's okay to tax this handful of people at rates of almost 90% in order to soothe public outrage, then what happens the next time someone unpopular suddenly finds themselves getting rich, or richer? You think, "Hey! That would be great!" Oil executives? Tax 'em until no one dares own a rig, let alone an oil refinery. Big pharma? They're all blood suckers! Let's suck them dry first. Tobacco execs? They're damn close to murderers. Don't leave them a dime.

Using the tax code to punish may sound like a good idea... as long as your friends are in power. Let's say that you are a devoted liberal, and feel that there should be strong economic penalties on tobacco execs, oil men, and people who look at cancer patients as economic resources to be exploited. You will use the power of taxation only to further the public good.

But, only a fool would think that their party and friends will hold power in Washington forever. Sooner or later, those oilmen and tobacco execs are going to run for congress since it pays better, and the next thing you know they'll have the power to tax the things they find distasteful--windmill farms and personal trainers and any movie star who goes to the third world and returns with more children than she left with.

Don't give political powers to your friends if you wouldn't trust the same powers to your enemies.

So, I really hope that congress fails to enact this tax. And, finally... is anyone else stunned that a congress that is passing a budget his year that will be over ONE TRILLION DOLLARS IN THE RED is daring to scold anyone on their economic mismanagement? It's congress who should most be ashamed that they are collecting paychecks. In December, they asked the auto company CEO's if they would be willing to work for a dollar a year until their companies were back on track. Would congress do the same until they pass a balanced budget?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Three ideas for saving the nation; or, why we are doomed.

It's pretty easy to knock the current economic plans being advanced by our leaders. The plan of Obama and the democrats basically boils down to spending a lot of borrowed money. Pouring 1.6 trillion in borrowed money into the economy may indeed prove stimulating. If I add up the credit limits on all my credit cards, I can borrow roughly $70,000 dollars. I could run out tomorrow and spend it all, maybe on a hurricane tour of Vegas. I would certainly feel very rich for a short while. A lot of businesses would feel the benefit of me throwing money around like the sy is the limit. My neighbors might look at me with envy as I pull into the driveway with a new car. I'd be high on the hog--until I had to start paying it back.

I'd probably be okay for a little while. The payments on all this would be pretty high, but I still have my job and some money in savings, so I could meet the payments for a month or two. After I pay down the debt for a couple of months, I could borrow money from the credit I'm opening up in my credit cards and make payments for another month or two.

Still, anyone with a lick of common sense is going to be able to look at my monthly income and compare to my monthly payments and come to the grim conclusion that I don't stand a chance in the long run. Bankruptcy looms; my only hope is to sell the car I bought, sell all my assets, work multiple jobs, and live on Raman noodles and tap water.

This year, our government is going to spend roughly twice as much as it takes in in taxes. If it's a stupid idea for me to do this as an individual, can some one explain why it's a good idea for us to do this collectively? The one advantage the government has is it can print money. But, it can't change the actual value of money; it tomorrow it decides to just double the amount of currency in the system, it will have the effect of halving the value of our currency. (If we're lucky, half.)

So, are we doomed? Probably. I don't see anyone rising on our political scene anytime soon who will be able to take us in the direction of fiscal sanity.

Still, just for the fun of playing make believe, here are some ideas for how we could get out of our present mess. We don't have to be doomed. I think there are actions we could take today that would result in us being a financial powerhouse again within my lifetime:

A. Stop spending more than we bring in on stuff we don't need. See my previous beaver management post. Unfortunately, cutting out trivia like beaver and cricket management will only make a small dent in the budget. To seriously impact the budget, we have to slash some sacred cows. Here are a few cuts, in order of their likelihood of causing riots:

1. I love NASA. I think that it is good for us collectively to explore Mars with robotic probes. I think that our long term survival may one day depend on our ability to find all the asteroids and comets that pass near us and be able to shoot them out of the sky. But: Mars isn't going anywhere. If we have to shut down our space program until we are back into financial health, I'm willing to make that cut. We can go back again in 50 years and it won't be all that different.

2. Social security and other benefits must be means tested. Right now, the benefits are paid blindly regardless of how wealthy you are. This is fundamentally fair. If we only gave the benefit to the poor, it would be, in effect, a penalty on responsible people who planned for their retirement. But... so what? If we don't find cuts to make somewhere, responsible people are going to be penalized anyway by hyperinflation. Social Security is the single largest item in the budget. We can't do anything that will have any real impact without at least slowing its growth.

3. Close up shop on the American empire. We currently have troops stationed in 140 different companies. Our spending on defense is more than all the other countries of the world combined. Do we really still need troops in Germany and Japan? Once we go to war, are we obligated to leave troops there forever, paying lease money on bases to the host countries? Bring the boys back home. We have 55 nuclear subs lurking in oceans around the world serving as mobile missile bases, waiting to launch a final strike in the event of nuclear war. Why? It seems like we could get the same deterent effect out of, say, 5 or 10. Assuming we even need a deterent effect any more. Pakistan has, like, 1 bomb, and we aren't going to go to war with them, even though this is the country Osama bin Laden is probably hiding in. With nukes, a little goes a long, long way.

B: If you found yourself overwhelmed by your debts, one thing you could attempt would be to sell off your assets. It's a little different from increasing revenue; if I decided to liquidate my comic book collection, I'd get a one time burst of cash, but have no comic books left. Other people might have heirloom silver or jewelry that could bring high dollars. It's heartbreaking to sell these things, but such is life. It's time to look at what the government can put up for sale.

I'm not sure what the riot factors of any of these are, but let's just go for them:

1. We own millions of acres of national park land. I'm a fan of national parks; I frequently pay visits to them. But... we aren't going to be able to enjoy these parks if the economic house of cards collapses and we revert to cannibalism. Tough choices must be made. For instance, there are long stretches of shoreline around all four coasts that are protected as national parks. Ocean front property is big dollar property. We can put half of what we own up for sale. Developers will spend billions to snap this land up. Or, alternatively, state and environmental trusts will match or beat their offers. We could rig the auctions to weight the bid of an environmental group at twice the value of a developer. And, maybe once we are back on our financial footing, we can look at buying some of this stuff back. But for now, I'm guessing this could be extremely lucrative. (Though, admittedly, this is just a guess. I'm too lazy to do actual research into the true value of the assets held by national parks.)

2: For the land we continue to manage, when we lease rights, make those rights reflect their actual worth, rather than the sweetheart deals that are currently the norm. This can go hand in hand with expanding the areas we put up for lease.

3: How's this for a radical idea: Let's sell all the books in the Library of Congress. We'll of course keep scans of everything. But, look, Ghandi's sandles and glasses just recently brought in over a million dollars at auction. The Library of Congress contains books from Thomas Jefferson's personal collection. The highest price a rare book has ever sold for was $8 million for J.J. Audubon's Birds of America. I'm guessing many of the books in the collection could match or beat this price. I'm also guessing that there's a warehouse somewhere in Washington full of all the small stuff left behind by the Presidents. Every family that moves in redecorates; you know that somewhere there's a crate that contains all the drapes and bedsheets from when Herbert Hoover lived there. Maybe Ronald Reagan left his toothbrush in the white house medicine cabinet... he was getting kind of absent minded. I bet there are Reagan worshippers out there who would pay top dollar for his toothbrush. Maybe they could capture some DNA from it and try to clone him.

And, how's this for a plan: The white house has a lot of unused bedrooms. Why not insist that our presidents have roommates? I found a roommate to help cover expenses. Obama can suck it up and do the same.

C: The American Endowment. Ivy League colleges have endowments. Someone, or groups of someones, give them big chunks of money and this money gets invested and the colleges get wealthier and wealthier, even as the government funnels more taxes to them in the form of grants. Harvard has an endowment of 34 billion dollars (at least it did before the stock market tanked). What we need is an endowment for America. We know that Barack Obama can ask people for money, and they'll give it to him. He raised more money than he could spend in a political campaign; that's just jawdropping, considering how wasteful campaigns can be.

Right now, if Obama put out a call for all American's to pay an extra hundred dollars to help offset the budget deficit, I'm willing to bet he'd collect a healthy sum, though nowhere nearly enough to actually dent the deficit. Still, one reason I'd be reluctant to contribute to such a call is I know that the money I sent in would instantly be spent. It was spent before anyone even thought to ask me for it, in fact.

But, what if we had an endowment that American's could contribute to that was going to serve as a national trust fund? We could establish it for a set number of years-twenty five would be a good target. During these 25 years, we could only put money into the fund, and draw nothing out of it. We could launch the fund with a giant telethon. Bill Clinton could play his sax. Obama could auction off baby kisses. Dick Cheney could agree to stand in a stockade and let people throw tomatoes at him for a thousand bucks a pop. At the end of the evening, we'd have tens of millions of dollars. Then... we'd invest this conservatively. Only buy stocks with P/E ratios of 15/1 or better. Have a nice mix of bonds and money market accounts. Every year at tax time, we could have a check-off box asking if you wanted to contribute $5 to the fund. We could have the world's biggest bake sale on the national mall. We keep adding to the savings, and allow the power of compound interest to grow the endowment. Then, if we got the rest of our financial house in order in the intervening 25 years, perhaps we would be in a shape that when we start drawing on the endowment 25 years from now, we could use it to pay down the national debt, which is still going to be around. Maybe we could buy back some of those parks we sold, and look at sending people to the moon again. Instead of us borrowing money from China and Saudi Arabia, maybe we'd be in a position to loan them some dough.

In short, my plan breaks down to:
1: Cut spending. Stop borrowing.
2: Sell assets to pay down debt (or, get a roommate to share expenses).
3: Put money into savings and don't mess with it for a long time.

This happens to be my own personal plan for financial health. It's common sense, requires a little discipline, and trades luxuries today for a more comfortable and financially sound future. It can be done! There is hope!

.... yeah. I know. I think we're doomed too.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Federal Beavers

McCain this week railed against the pork in the latest budget. If he'd run as this McCain, I might have voted for him; instead he tossed aside every limited government idea he ever had to support last fall's bank bailout before he'd ever seen the bill.

One of the items in the budget McCain ridiculed was $650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi. David Price, my congressman here in NC, is responsible for the earmark, and today's paper carried his impassioned defense of the importance of beaver management.

In an odd coincidence, I've lived in both North Carolina and Mississippi, and these are the only two states where I've ever seen a beaver dam. I'm going walking later today, and the last time I went a little off trail I found two beaver dams on the same stream. The banks of the Eno are lined with trees and branches showing the handiwork of beavers who, I have to say, frequently chew off more than they can bite.

The damns can cause flooding, so I can see why it's important that somebody take control and remove potentially harmful dams. And, I can also admit that $650,000 is a really trivial amount of money as far as the federal government goes. It's, what, five or six toilet seats for the space shuttle?

But, here's the larger issue: It doesn't matter if it's not much money, or if it's a good cause. If it's in the federal budget, it should be for a project of national importance. How, exactly, is a person in Nevada benifited by having even a fraction of a penny of their tax dollars go to beaver management? Conversely, if there's money in the budget for managing Mormon crickets (which there is), how does this benefit me in North Carolina? (On a side note, the existence of Mormon crickets is a real testament to the persistance of Mormon missionaries, isn't it? I also thought I'd have a praying mantis joke here, but it turns out I don't.)

I can't speak for Mississippi, but North Carolina isn't a poor state. There are houses within a mile of me that sell for more than $650,000. If the people of North Carolina want to manage their beavers, we should hassle our state government to do the job. We could pay for the cost of the whole thing by issuing a "Busy Beaver" scratch off ticket through the state lottery.

Once you decide that it's appropriate to spend federal taxes on limited, local problems that are well within the scopes of local governments to pay for, what are the limits to federal spending? If you start funding beaver management, the day will come when you fund Elvis museums and gene-mapping for tobacco and rescue plans for car companies. It's the slippery slope argument--except that the slippery slope is often a fallacy, but in this case we're already sliding down the slope, full speed toward the cliff.

Is there no one left to put on the brakes?