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.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few thoughts on Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand has been in the news lately since Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan is on record as saying that his thoughts on government have been influenced by her.

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my late twenties and can honestly say I count it among the handful of books that truly shaped the way I live my life. Before reading Atlas Shrugged, I mostly described myself as an agnostic. People seemed more accepting of this than of outright atheism. Agnosticism seems to leave some wiggle room, saying, "I don't know if I'm right, and I can't say if you're wrong." Rand's forceful arguments against religion really knocked me off that fence into full-fledged public atheism. If it made other people like me less, so be it. What was important was that I was honest with myself and with others, which in the end made me happier than when I hid part of myself.

The fact I read Rand and came out a confident atheist is why I find it bizarre that so many of her biggest fans are right-wing Republicans. Yeah, she hated collectivism, and sure she was pro-capitalism, but most of all she was pro-reason. For her faith-based thinking was weak-minded failure. She was also strongly in favor of abortion rights, refusing to see how an unthinking mass of cells could have rights that trumped the rights of an adult woman. If she were still alive today, no Republican who dreamed of getting votes would ever dare be photographed shaking hands with her in public. But, it's okay to have her on a bookshelf, since then you can treat Atlas Shrugged like a second Bible, picking and choosing the parts you wish to live by, ignoring the rest.

Of course, I pick and choose from her writings as well. I love her defense of reason, and whole-heartedly agree that the individual's highest virtue is to pursue his own happiness. Some people denounce this as selfishness, but I've never found the conflict. I don't see how my happiness or success harms anyone else.

I also think that the brand of capitalism she presents in Atlas Shrugged is a virtuous one far removed from what's practiced today. And while a lot of people feel that she celebrated wealth, they ignore that many of her central characters pass up wealth to pursue their dreams. You don't have to read between the lines to see that she thought that the pursuit of wealth was not the same goal as the pursuit of happiness, and many of her villains are those whose lives are driven purely by material things.

Where I jump ship with Rand is, ultimately, her blind faith in reason. The worst parts of Atlas Shrugged are the romances, which unfold under the veneer of logic. When the heroine dumps one boyfriend for a different man, everyone involved agrees it's the rational, sensible thing to do, and there are no hurt feelings. Her happiness is a rational happiness, but real life happiness is often completely independent of logic. I may be an atheist, but I'm also a realist, and humans have evolved to operate more on faith and emotion than reason. Reason is often called in in the aftermath of a decision made on instinct in order to explain or justify it, but I believe it isn't a driving force behind most human activities.

Nor should it be. Reason is an intellectual tool that provides useful insights into the world and can help guide us in decisions. But, we are, deep in our DNA, mere animals, and plenty of good can come from following our animal instincts. For instance, right now, while writing this, I've started feeling hungry. So I'm going to eat a sandwich. And I'll be happy about it, even though there are people in the world who don't have sandwiches. Does that make me selfish?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Social Darwinism

Robert Reich had an opinion column after the Paul Ryan pick for VP in which he said, "Ryan exemplifies the social Darwinism at the core of today’s Republican Party: Reward the rich, penalize the poor, let everyone else fend for themselves."

I've gone on to read the "social Darwinism" label in a half dozen other editorials, but it was Reich's definition that really got me thinking about government and it's relationship with the poor, the rich, and everyone else.

First of all, I think in terms of where money is actually spent, the vast, vast bulk of our spending goes to the "everyone else" category. Social security and medicare go to elderly people regardless of income. Combined, they make up about 44% of our budget. The next biggest slice of the pie is defense, at almost 25% of the budget, but this again seems to be an "everyone else" program. In theory, we all share equally in the benefits (and liabilities).

Welfare, which we would think of mostly as money going to the poor, is about 12% of the budget.

The rewards to the rich are much more difficult to quantify. A lot of their income is taxed different and at a much lower rate than ordinary income. They obviously also benefit the most from a low inheritance tax rate. Mortgage rate deductions also benefit the wealthy more than the poor or even the middle class. If you have a million dollar mortgage, you get a much bigger tax break than if you live in a double-wide. The wealthy also don't pay as much in social security taxes, since there's a wage cap on how much income is taxed. But the most expensive tax break I could find was the one for employer provided health insurance. It's true that corporations get the bulk of this tax break, but I would say that most people with employer provided health insurance probably fall into the middle class. The wealthy also sometimes avoid taxes via tax shelters, storing their money offshore. The Planet Money podcast recently did an article about this, and it's apparently fairly easy to do. But, since the top 1% of tax payers pay 37% of all income taxes, they obviously aren't hiding all their money overseas. Still, I'm willing to say that that the reason our tax code is so convoluted and confusing is because wealthy special interests spend a lot of money to tinker with it to give them advantages. My gut guess is that all the tax breaks probably add up to a much greater sum than all the money spent on welfare, but who knows?

I will say that, in classical government budget theory, you tax stuff you want less of and spend money on stuff you want more of. So, the government has a high tax on cigarettes, for instance, to drive up the cost and discourage smoking. While it's a tiny percentage of government spending, we want solar and wind power, so we spend money on these industries and give them tax advantages.

So, why do these theories not apply to wealth and poverty? If Reich is unhappy that Republicans would reward the rich and punish the poor, is he advocating that the government reward the poor and punish the rich? If we subsidise poverty by increasing spending, don't we actually increase poverty? If we punish the rich with higher tax rates, don't we just encourage them to report less and less income?

Keep in mind that I'm not a Republican. I already know that, this fall, I'll be voting for Gary Johnson on the libertarian ticket. The Ryan budget that Reich finds so draconian doesn't actually eliminate deficit spending until 2040! Nor have Romney or Ryan made any specific proposals of how they would simplify the tax code to eliminate all the loopholes, most of which represent governmental tinkering with free markets by favoring one industry over another. (For instance, the health insurance tax break favors employees of corporations over self-employed people. Or, subsidies that encourage the growth of corn over other crops.)

One final note: If you don't believe in social Darwinism, do you believe in social Intelligent Design?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

A little late to the "you didn't build that" party...

I'm late to the party on the whole "you didn't build that" controversy. Obama's statement at first struck me as just very poor phrasing. I dislike the whole "gotcha" sound-bite culture that our political campaigns have become. Obama has an actual record of policy at this point--not exactly a glowing one--but any substantive criticism of his record is going to disappear under a wave of phrases stripped from their full context. The flip will be true of Romney as well. The hours devoted to actual laws he's proposing will be swamped by the hours dedicated to playing the sound bite of him saying he likes to fire people.

But, there's something that I want to address in the larger context of Obama's remark. As I understand the spin of what he meant to say, his argument is that no one builds a successful business of their own. Successful businesses exist in the context of good infrastructure. Obama mentioned roads and the internet, but I would add to this list an impartial legal system, good public education, and a peaceful, safe, and inclusive society.

Assuming that Obama was talking about this sort of infrastructure, I think it makes his comment even worse. Because, yes, we did build it together, using our taxes and our civic participation. And when you are driving on a public highway and get pulled over, no one ever checks your tax returns to find out if you've paid your fair share. They reality is, the roads are mostly neutral; a man who earns minimum wage gets to drive on the same interstates as the wealthiest people in our nation. The only one who really gets to drive alone on the highway, as near as I can tell, is the president himself.

So, we did build the infrastructure, and we all have equal access to it. The poorest child in America can get a library card. I certainly did, and my parents were definitely on the low, low end of the economic scale.

Honestly, despite all my libertarian leanings, I'm a big fan of good government. I want good roads, I want clean water and air, I want the trash picked up on time and the streets to be safe to walk on. I want every child to learn to read and write and have opportunities to pursue their education as far as they want to take it.

The problem is that, once you admit that government can do some good, some people would then argue that even more government creates even greater good. But, there's a point of diminishing returns. For instance, I think government has done a good job of making college more accessible. The down side is, a lot of colleges have dumbed down their requirements to pull in more students. And, a lot of people graduate from college with degrees that aren't worth a heck of a lot. And, as government has intervened to see that more and more people are given grants and access to loans to go to college, most colleges have responded simply by increasing their tuition.

I suspect the same is true of medical expenses. The more government puts money into the system, the more expensive the system gets.

I personally don't despise paying taxes. I recognize that things like schools, prisons, and parks cost money and improve the quality of my life. But, I do dislike throwing money down a well. It bugs me that so many of my tax dollars go to paying interest on debts we shouldn't have incurred. It bugs me that my tax dollars fund wars at costs disproportionate to the threats we are avoiding.

And yet, the truth of all this waste is that we built that too. We keep electing people willing to run up deficits and line the pockets of their closest donors. The most conservative politician in America will vow to vote against expanding Medicare, but ask them to close an outdated military base or stop building a plane that the air force no longer wants and suddenly money is no object.

Our government isn't going to change until we as a people change. Step one will be to stop obsessing over soundbites and stop treating government like a team sport. It's time for us a nation to say, yeah, I helped build this... and now it's time to help fix it.