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.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Legally Enforcing Responsible Behavior

So, Obama finally has a health care bill he can sign. I confess, I was certain the whole affair was doomed after Scott Brown was sworn in and Republicans had the power to filibuster again. But, in a truly amazing display of legislative force, Nancy Pelosi found the votes to pass the already passed senate bill. You can complain about backroom deals and legislative tricks all you want, but you have to respect the fact that Pelosi wasn't afraid to use the power available to her at this moment. This is probably the high water mark of Democratic power for at least a decade. If she couldn't pass this law now, then it would never be passed. Even if you completely disagree with the law, you have to admire Pelosi's political talent and courage. She knew democrats were going to lose seats whether or not this passed. A more timid politician might have tried to cut their losses. She instead got the bill passed, and seems willing to deal with the political consequences. If she was doing this in support of something I was enthusiastic about, like deficit reduction, I would sing the praises of her great leadership. Even though I don't like where she's heading, I still recognize that this was an act of leadership that will go down in the history books.

One of the curious things about this bill is that its most important element is essentially very conservative. There is now a federal requirement that all adults purchase health insurance. This is solid, responsible behavior, the kind of thing that the vast majority of adults already took steps to secure for themselves and their loved ones. It's closest parallel that I can think of are seat belt laws and helmet laws for motorcycles. Intelligent, responsible people were already going to be doing these things. But, because the number of stupid, irresponsible people isn't trivial, we wind up with laws on the books requiring us to do what's obviously right. Not having health insurance in today's world is an increasingly risky gamble that gets subsidized by the higher and higher health care costs of those of us who do bother to pay thier bills.

On a purely libertarian level, I have a philosophical stake in defending the rights of people to behave irresponsibly. But, my theoretical libertarianism often crashes up against my real world pragmatism. For instance, on an abstract level, I believe that people should be as free from micromanagement of their activities as possible. But, a few years ago, I got rear-ended by another driver who was distracted by his cell phone. Now, if the state banned cell phone use in cars, and especially text messaging, the libertarian philosopher in my brain would go, "Tsk, tsk, what a shameful incursion on individual liberty," while the real world commuter inside me would go, "Yeah! And outlaw eating and driving while you're at it!"

So, on a purely practical level, I think the individual mandate to purchase health care is a good thing. Where it goes off the rails, of course, is that the government is going to step in and subsidize it. The problem with this is that we are, as a nation, living so far beyond our means it's really just not funny anymore. We have to borrow money just to keep the lights on in our federal offices. It's nice that the government wants to do good things for people. But, once you start doing it on borrowed money, doing good quickly becomes a form of doing bad. It's nice that some additional people will have health insurance. It's not so nice that we will be facing future tax rates of twice what we pay today, if not more, or else experience hyper inflation that renders the money I've managed to save to date worthless.

It would be nice if Congress, while it's passing laws mandating that the citizens behave like responsible adults, would show a little inclination toward responsibility as well. But, of course, they would, if more citizens would behave responsibly by staying informed on the issues and, you know, voting. Congress would be a much more functional institution if more than 20% of the citizens in a congressional district could actually identify their congressman by name.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Memory and Fire and Greg

I came home from work today and built a fire in the backyard. Cheryl has one of those little steel fire-bowls. She's had some pretty big limbs in her yard that blew down months ago and there was something in the chill of the wind as I arrived home that made me think, "It's time to stare at some flames."

Staring at fire is good for people. At least, it's good for me. I find it almost impossible to watch flames dancing without opening a floodgate of memories. My memories today were mostly of Greg Hungerford, my best friend, who departed this world a few months ago. Greg and I lived about a two hour drive apart for the last five or six years; our time together during these years didn't involve much in the way of setting fires. But once... once...

For several years, I lived on the outskirts of a little town called Stokesdale, NC. I had a two acre lot near the end of a dead end road, and at some point before I bought the property a storm had torn through a stand of pine trees behind a huge shed and knocked over a dozen or so of them. Pretty much the day I moved in, I invested in a chain saw and some cinder blocks. I used the cinder blocks to form a large circle to serve as a firepit behind the shed, and set to work clearing out all the fallen trees one bonfire at a time. Some of these were party events, attended by dozens of people. But, most of them were just me, going out behind the shed in the evening, with a chainsaw and an axe, turning a half acre of fallen trees into an slowly growing empty space.

Back then, Greg lived only ten miles away, so at least once a week, sometimes more, he'd come over in the evenings and we'd stand around the fire, arguing politics and melting things. Glass bottles melt up nicely in a hot fire. And, if you get a fire hot enough and big enough, you can stand out in the woods in the middle of a fairly decent snow storm and still stay warm and semi-dry.

Something about standing in a small, hot circle of light in the middle of a dark winter night is conducive to honest conversation. Greg and I were both going through some struggles back them. My marriage was falling apart. He was a single father with a young daughter and was having trouble back then holding down a job. Both of us were in that phase of life where it was getting harder and harder to pretend we were still young men just starting out in the world. We were in our late thirties, and beginning to become aware that maybe we hadn't accomplished all we wanted to yet, and were somewhat at a loss to say where things had gone wrong, or even, truth be told, what it was that we had wanted. Clear goal setting wasn't a particular strength for either of us. Even a month before he died, Greg was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. I, on the other hand, have known since my mid-twenties exactly what I wanted to do with my life--I wanted to be a novelist, and to make a living at it. I just have never quite figured out the sure path to get there. The whole writing the books part... that I've got sussed. But making a living at it? Still a mystery.

So, Greg and I would talk about our doubts, as well as our dreams, as we turned pine trees into ash. And, I know there are people who go to therapists to talk through their problems, and some people who turn to religion, or even medication, to find a little peace. But, I really believe that what kept Greg and me sane through those tough years was the ability to go out and start a fire. There's something very primal about tending a fire beneath the stars. Something that connects back to the deepest human roots, reminds us of how we have pulled ourselves up out of animalness, that we are not just creatures of instincts and urges that we can't understand or control but are, in fact, masters of our world. We have the intelligence to build a fire, a dangerous, destructive thing, and keep it safely controlled, and take from it light and heat and memories.

Of course, eventually, with all fires, there comes a point where you've burned up all the fuel, and the embers that remain begin to smother beneath their own ash. Perhaps that's true of life as well; all that brightness and warmth must inevitably turn to cooling, ashed over cinders. You can't burn forever. But sometimes, even when the fire has died down to flickering wisps, you can still stir the ashes and send a shower of sparks heavenward.

Tonight, my memories of Greg are such sparks.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Logic, facts, and moving the world's rocks.

Recently in Wake County, a republican majority was elected on a plank of wanting to eliminate the bussing programs that helped ensure diverse student populations. This post will not be about that subject. Instead, it's going to be about a discussion I've been following on a local atheist meetup board where the bussing policy is being hotly debated.

Most people probably assume atheists are usually liberal democrats. After all, we are the targets of venom and scorn from the religious right republicans. But, in practice, I find that the atheists I know inhabit a fairly broad political spectrum. While you don't find social conservatives among them, you do find fiscal conservatives and hard core libertarians who oppose most liberal policies. So, while an actual republican among atheists is a rare thing, about half of the atheists taking a position on bussing are supporting republican goals to eliminate it, while the other half is jumping in to make the case that bussing is good for everyone.

Again, this post isn't about the pros and cons of bussing. Instead, reading the thread, it became pretty obvious to me that both sides were absolutely right. Both sides, as befits atheists, are being logical. Both sides are bringing facts to the table. In a simple world, one side would be right and one side would be wrong. But, we happen to live in a world in which two completely contradictory positions can be right.

Bussing probably does help some children, and probably does harm others. Environmental regulations no doubt do some good while having other, unintended harmful consequences. A war might save some lives at the expense of others. Not going to war might save some lives and twenty years down the road lead to nightmarish consequences.

James Carville, democratic strategist, wrote a book called "We're Right, They're Wrong." You can put these words into the mouths of almost any prominent political pundit. It would seem that, in a world of logic and facts, you could arrive at a single truth. Legal abortion is good for the world, or bad for it. A heavily armed populace is a good thing, or a bad thing. Social safety nets like Medicare help the world, or they harm it.

Our politics are binary. On/off. Black/white. Right/Left. Good/evil.

Reality is so much more complicated. Observing the debate on bussing, I'm left with a feeling of despair that the world is ever going to solve it's problems. If there is no clear right or wrong to move toward, must we forever squabble and move about randomly?

But, of course, perhaps all I need to feel better is to adopt the right metaphor. You need these truthful, real, opposing forces to accomplish things in the world. You have a left hand and a right hand. If you are going to pick up a heavy rock, they will cooperate by acting in opposition to one another to clamp down on the rock so it can be lifted. Maybe that's how the world's rocks eventually get moved as well.