Friday, July 31, 2009

Are People Born Evil?

There are quite a number of Christians who believe that humans are born evil. Several prominent doctrines emphasize this belief and attempt to support it with Scripture. Though there are elements of truth in these sorts of doctrine, it seems clear that the Bible certainly does not take such an extreme stance. In this essay, we will examine some of the evidence and see what doctrine is actually consistent with Scripture. By the end of this essay we should be able to answer two different questions. Are humans born evil? Do people sin because they are sinners, or are they sinners because they sin?

To properly begin our inquiry, we must determine what the initial state of mankind is. Going back to the creation story in Genesis is the best way to clearly see how God made the universe, and what are the most important intrinsic qualities of humans. Near the end of the first chapter we see that God creates people in His own image. After blessing them and giving them a purpose in the world, He steps back and looks at all of His creation. "Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good." (Genesis 1:31a) God is a skilled craftman who is quite capable of creating everything exactly how He wants it; the pages of Scripture clearly declare that everything God created was very good. At the beginning of the universe, people were intrinisically good, naturally righteous, and perfectly formed in the image of God. Originally, all humans were completely righteous.

If there is any merit to the claim that people are born evil, it must be proven that some form of radical change has taken place. This radical change must be one which alters the very essence of human nature, so that each new person who is born is intrinsically evil. If no such change can be proven, then it would be unreasonable to assume that mankind is evil, since there is clear evidence that God created humans naturally good. If one searches the pages of Scripture, there is no place at all where the Bible says that people are born evil. There are many references to people being sinners, but shockingly few references to people being born into sin and no references to people being born sinners. One commonly cited verse, Psalms 51:5, says, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." This suggests that a person is conceived in sin and is born in the midst of iniquity but not that a newborn baby is yet sinful. Since there is no verse that specifically says humans are born evil, or even that people are born sinners, then we must more clearly determine why people are sinners.

While the idea is that people are sinners is an incontrovertible truth, what it means to be a sinner is not as well defined. Are people sinners because they have sinned? Or, do people sin because they are sinners whose nature prevents them from behaving righteously? When we say that someone is a thief, we mean one of two things. Either we mean that the person in question stole something at least once in their life, or we mean that the thief is someone who engages in thievery regularly. But, a person who has never stolen anything could not possibly be considered a thief. Likewise, when we say someone is a murderer we either mean that one time the murderer killed someone, or we mean that the murderer lives a life that is characterized by murdering people. However, regardless of which way we use such a term, there is no murderer who has not committed at least one murder. To be a murderer, you must have committed murder. To be a thief, you must have stolen something. To be a liar, you must have told a lie. To be an adulterer, you must have committed adultery. In the same manner, when the Bible says that someone is a sinner, it means one of two things. Either a sinner is a person who committed one sin at some point or a sinner is someone whose life is characterized by sinful actions. If a person has not sinned, there is no possible way that they can correctly be referred to as a sinner. When a newborn baby enters the world, is the baby already a sinner? Only if the baby has already sinned.

What is sin? Sin is any personal action that is contrary to the revealed will of God. Some would contest that sin also includes actions that contrary to the unrevealed will of God, but this is not Biblical; Romans 5:13b says, "Sin is not imputed where there is no law." Also, sin is a personal action and not a communal action. Some would argue that all humans bear the guilt and penalty for Adam's sin. After all, speaking of Adam's sin, Romans 5:18 says, "...through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation..." However, this is not how God works. God's judgment is based on the actions of each individual person, and no person bears the guilt for another's sin. Revelation 20:12-13 says, "And the dead were judged according to their works... each one according to his works." Ezekiel 18 makes this even more clear. "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20) Therefore, it is clear that until a sin is committed by a specific person against the revealed will of God, no such person is a sinner.

Has a newborn baby committed any actions? No. Therefore, a newborn baby cannot have sinned. If a newborn baby has not yet sinned, then clearly the newborn baby is not yet a sinner. On the basis of this argument, it logically follows that people are not born sinners. But, whether or not someone is a sinner does not determine whether or not they are evil, since the the two are not synonymous.

What is meant by saying that a person is evil? This is where a distinction must be made between intrinsic human properties (such as being sensory beings, having parents, possessing a body, capacity for some measure of intelligence, having eyes of a certain color...etc.), extrinsic human properties (such as being an American, working as an author, labeling oneself as a Democrat, belonging to a particular family...etc.) and temporary states of being (such as being hungry, having clothes on, feeling hot, having a disease, visiting India...etc.). Therefore, when we say that a person is evil we must mean one of three things. Either we mean that being evil is an intrinsic human characteristic which is true of all humans, at all times, in all places, or we mean that a specific person or group of people is characterized by evil, else we mean that a person is in an evil sort of a mood. Clearly evil cannot be an intrinsic human characteristic because we have established that at least newborn babies and Jesus Christ are not evil. Likewise, we are obviously not referring to a transitory state of being, since otherwise we only mean that people are born being in an evil mood, in the same sort of a way that a baby would be born hungry, thirsty or tired; this is not what is meant at all. Evil, then, is an extrinsic characteristic that applies to some people and not others; also, it is a long-term characteristic rather than a mere momentary whim or instinct. Some people are Americans. Some people are tall. Some people look attractive. Some people are evil.

What sort of people can be accurately described as evil? The Bible is very vocal about what sorts of people are good and what sorts are evil. Abraham was a righteous man who lived by faith and pleased God. David was described as a man after God's own heart. Moses was a righteous man whom God appointed to lead His chosen people, Israel. None of these people were perfect and none of them were sinless. Two of them were murderers. Two of them had extramarital sexual trysts. Yet, God calls them righteous. Why? Because their lives were consistently characterized by righteous actions and hearts that were committed to following God. Contrarily, Ahab was an evil king who rejected God's ways and sought false gods. Ahaziah offered his own children as offerings to idols and burned them on altars. Pharoah enslaved God's people and refused to let the Israelites go. These men God considers evil because their lives were characterized by opposition to God, a refusal to listen to the voice of the prophets, and hearts that were set on rebellion. Ezekiel 18 offers lots of clear examples of the sorts of things that characterize righteous people and wicked people. People are considered righteous or wicked based on what sort of actions they consistently take.

Therefore, what can we conclude? We know that all people are sinners because all have sinned. We also know that some people are righteous and some people are evil. It logically follows that not all sinners are evil. Are people born sinners? No. Are people born evil? For two reasons we can answer with a resounding no. First of all, one cannot be considered evil if one has not sinned. Secondly, one cannot be considered to be characterized by a lifestyle of evil until one has lived a while and made a series of decision. Only after looking at a series of choices made by a person can someone be described as good or evil. People who are just born do not meet that criteria. We see then that no person is born evil, though all have a tendency to choose to act sinfully.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Opposition to a Public Healthcare Plan a Sign of Miserliness?

Recently several friends and I were having a discussion about whether people with medical conditions (specifically obesity) should be charged more than other people for healthcare coverage plans. In response to my opinion that people's premiums should be proportionate to the amount of services actually used, someone wrote:

I didn't take you for the type who would rather keep that little bit of cash per month instead of helping your fellow man. Is a relatively insignificant amount of money really that important to people when it's going towards the good of everyone?
I certainly believe in giving money to help my fellow man. However, I think that the government is horribly inefficient and ineffective at actually helping people in need. More specifically, I am convinced that paying the government to help people results in less help for people in need at a higher cost than contributing directly to the needy or through a non-profit organization.

If the government were skilled at determining who to help, and actually put a large percentage of the money towards helping people, then I would be in favor of such a thing. But, when I know for a fact that a large percentage of the money I give is going to line the pockets of corrupt politicians rather than actually helping people, I feel disinclined to give (through that means) at all.

Addditionally, I don't believe in the "good of everyone." "Everyone" is not some single entity like a corporation or a nation. Everyone consists of a large number of individual people. Paying money for a public healthcare plan or making a donation to a research group that seeks a cure for cancer does not benefit everyone. It benefits a few specific individuals (or for a larger group, a specific subset of individuals) at the expense of everyone else. For example, in the case of a public healthcare plan, if I am giving money, my money does not directly benefit you. My money does not benefit people who are denied access to the program. My money does not benefit healthy people who have no need of health services. It only helps the subset of people who are eligible to receive benefits and who actually utilize those benefits. Therefore, even things that are for the "good of everyone" only benefit a select few.

The raises the question of whether more benefits are granted or costs are incurred. Since with a mandatory public healthcare plan, all citizens are required to pay into the plan, even if they can barely afford it, every single contributor directly incurs a cost. Each person who puts in more than they receive is being harmed by the plan, proportional to the difference between contribution and services received. Each person who receives more than they put in is being benefitted by the plan, proportional to the difference between the services received and the amount contributed. Given the fact that any administrated solution necessarily involves inefficiency, it is clear that out of 100% of the monies put in, even with a highly efficient system only 95% percent (at most) of the monies actually go towards the desired result. Therefore the total benefits received by society is only 95% of the costs cumulatively incurred. Though a few individuals will be better off, society as a whole finds themselves collectively worse off than if no public plan was enacted.
(The 95% efficiency figure is deliberately a low-end figure. Here are a couple of studies on the current administrative costs of the Medicare system: Medicare Administrative Costs Are Higher, Not Lower, Than for Private Insurance, Medicare's Hidden Administrative Costs)

Let us contrast this with personal giving or giving through non-profit organizations. For example, let us suppose that I have a friend who needs an expensive medical operation and has no insurance. If I give him $100 to help him cover the expense, 100% of that $100 goes directly toward helping him cover the cost. This is a maximally efficient system since there is no loss due to administration. Also, I know for a fact that whoever receives the money that I give will actually spent it to cover their need, because I know the people that I give money to. For this reason, I love giving anonymous gifts to people who need help. I know that all of my money is going directly towards a good purpose and benefits society a maximal amount. If I give $100 to the government to help someone out, I have to wonder how much of it will really help those in need.

Likewise, if I give to organizations whose values I admire, I can be sure that even though some administrative inefficiency may be involved, that they will have a better selection process in determining whom to help. The government will never go and hand out bagged lunches to homeless people. If I give money to CrossStreets, I know that 100% of the money goes directly to helping the homeless. Since all of the members of CrossStreets are unpaid volunteers who willingly give their time and resources, I have assurance that they will go and find people who are truly in need, give them food, offer them clothing and tell them about the gift of salvation that Jesus Christ offers, which is a power that can break the devastating cycles of addiction and irresponsibility that most of them face. The government isn't going to help those people. They aren't going to offer friendship, love and spiritual support.

Because of this, I believe that helping individuals directly (or through more efficient means) provides society with a greater benefit than a public healthcare plan. The necessary government inefficiency guarantees that a percentage of resources are lost in the process of providing healthcare. As the study from the Heritage Foundation shows, when you have something as vast a public plan, not only is there a higher administrative cost per person, but there are many times more dollars being funneled through the system, which guarantees millions and millions of dollars of waste. Additionally, when giving is more personal and directly, there are relational benefits to society that the government can never hope to provide.

Lastly, I am strongly opposed to any form of mandantory "giving." The whole point of giving (and the joy of giving) stems from giving something completely out of the goodness of your heart. That which is mandatory neither has the same value to the recipient, nor provides the same joy to the giver. The beauty of giving is that you are freely contributing to the well-being of another person just because you want to. That makes it special. Personal giving is relational in nature. Contrarily, when you are forced to contribute to something, the obligation strips the joy of blessing someone with your gift. Whether you want to give or not, you have to. You have no idea who is going to be benefitted by your contributed. You will probably never see the happiness of the person receiving your gift. The giving is reduced to a mere mechnical process, devoid of any heart-to-heart emotional connection. Also, in the case of government-mandated "giving" it is much more akin to robbery, since there is a material threat to your well-being if you don't comply. If you don't contribute to the mandatory public plan, then you are subject to prosecution, fines and possible jail time. How is this different than a mugger threatening you with violence if you don't "give" him your money and possessions? The method is intrinsically one that dehumanizes the process of giving and is enforced by a method that has more similiarity to organized crime than it does to a benevolent organization looking for generous donors.

As you can see, I am not at all opposed to giving and to helping people in need. I typically give about 20% of my income to charitable organizations. However, I don't think that the government is very skilled at helping people, and I certainly believe that they have no right to demand contribution.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Is Magic Evil? - A Christian Perspective

Contemporary pop culture is a powerful force in our generation. The continual exposure of the modern mind to the pervasive onslaught of television, movies, music, books and video games requires Christians to be wise and discerning in what they allow their minds to feed upon. There are certainly a large number of dangerous philosophies and fallacious solutions that must be intentionally resisted and purged from the soul.

Magic, in particular, is a subject matter that incites major controversy in Christian circles. To some, magic is a harmless fictitious convention used to spice up children's books and fairy tales. To others, magic is an evil gateway that leads to demon-worship and dark rituals. This is no small semantic difference! If magic is something that is truly evil and destructive to the soul, then it should be avoided at all costs. If magic is merely harmless fun, then we needn't give it a second thought. How a Christian views magic will have a profound impact on what entertainment he will enjoy or permit his family to enjoy. With the prevalence of magic in today's world, it is important for Christians to know exactly where they stand on the issue of magic. In this essay, I hope to define what magic is, look into it's contemporary usage, and then examine the morality of magic itself. Fundamentally, this essay seeks to answer the question, "Is magic intrinsically evil?" Secondarily, this essay seeks to propose a practical Christian perspective regarding the magic that is so pervasive in contemporary entertainment.

What is magic?

At first glance, this is a deceptively difficult question to answer. As with any defining process, a working definition must include that which does fit within the category of magic and it must exclude that which cannot be properly considered magic. For now, I would like to propose that we define magic as: "anything that supernaturally differs from the ordinary." Let's look at some of the sorts of magic that are prevalent and see what this definition would include and exclude.

Magic is everywhere! There are many sorts of magic both in contemporary media and in ancient literature. The Bible itself includes a surprising amount of magic. This essay will primarily draw upon examples from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, popular fairy tales, and the Bible. There are innumerable kinds of magic and widely varying sorts of people who do magic!

One sort of magic, divination, occurs whenever a person learns information by supernatural means. This includes prophecies, visions, revelations, premonitions and other similar sorts of things. You see prophecies in Harry Potter concerning the necessary enmity between him and Lord Voldemort, his nemesis. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy finds a magical book that allows her to witness a couple of classmates talking about her behind her back. There are magical orbs in Lord of the Rings that allow people to magically see distant places or future events. The Bible itself is chock full of prophets and revelations. Concerning the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ, there are over 300 prophecies in the Old Testament. In the New Testament you also see many examples of prophecy. In particular, when Paul was being transported as a prisoner by ship to Italy, he warned the centurion that a particular leg of the journey would end in disaster with the loss of the ship and its cargo. The centurion did not heed Paul and they entire crew, along with all the prisoners were shipwrecked. This is one example among many; consider what was revealed to Peter concerning Ananias and Sapphira, or Jesus' knowledge about the Samaritan woman at the well.

Transmutation is another kind of magic, which transforms a person or object either subtly or obviously. The fairy godmother who turns a pumpkin and some mice into a royal coach pulled by noble horses is performing transmutation. Alchemists of old were endlessly seeking ways to turn lead into gold. In Harry Potter, the young wizards and witches are taught by Professor McGonagall how to turn beetles into buttons and matchsticks into needles. There is the classic fairy tale of the prince who was cursed by an evil witch and turned into a frog. In Exodus, Aaron performs transmutation when he turns his staff into a serpent before Pharoah's court, at which point several of Pharoah's sorcerers also transmute their rods into snakes. In the gospel of John, the first recorded miracle that Jesus performed was to transmute water into wine. These are all examples of transmutation; transmutation is a very prevalent kind of magic.

Evocation is a kind of magic that involves manipulating energy or creating something out of nothing. In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship is attacked by wargs after trying to cross the mountain pass, and Gandalf sets all the nearby trees ablaze with fire to scare them away. When Elijah the prophet is led by God to live with the widow of Zarephath, she has only a handful of flour and a little bit of oil in a jar left to eat, but during Elijah's stay at her house, the flour and oil never run out. In Harry Potter, there is a very frequently used spell that causes a narrow beam of light to shine from the tip of a magic wand which is used to provide light in dark places. At the beginning of the world of Narnia, there is nothing but blackness as Aslan sings the world into existence. Jesus himself performs a miracle of evocation when He blesses the five loaves and two fish, turning them into enough food enough to feed an entire multitude. Evocation is the kind of magic most commonly thought of regarding powerful spells or pulling things out of mid-air.

And these are just a few kinds of magic. There is countless more magic in all of these books including everything from teleportation, summoning angelic beings, enchanting people, casting out demons, magical creatures of all sorts, mind control, spells that unlock doors, exerting control over the forces of nature, making things and people invisible, to other darker magics which are used to torment people, make fig trees wither, clouds people's minds, curse people, places hexes on various objects, turn people to stone and much more. There are numerous sorts of people and beings that perform magic or use magical items. We see wise old men like Gandalf, young children such as Harry Potter and his friends, foreign slaves such as Daniel in the Bible, untrained blue-collar workers like Jesus' disciples, Aslan the talking lion and countless others. There are numerous reasons why magic is performed and sources of power that magic draws from. Clearly, there can be no cut and dry answer to the question, "Is magic intrinsically evil?" Instead, I would suggest there are several important questions that must be asked to determine whether any given instance of magic is good or evil.

What is the source of magical power?

The first question that should be asked is the question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus Christ, after He performed various miracles and rode the colt into Jerusalem. They asked: "By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23) The truth is, the source of something matters very much. The potency of any sort of magic or miracle depends on the source of its power. The Pharisees were either horribly confused about the source of Jesus' power, or they were deliberately lying about it. After Jesus casts out a demon from a blind, mute, demon-possessed man, the Pharisees said, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons." (Matthew 12:24) Jesus immediately denied this by pointing out that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In other passages, Jesus bears clear witness to the source of His power and authority."The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works." (John 14:10)

In the real world, there are really only two sources of supernatural power: power that comes from God, and power that comes from demons. The two are quite distinct in their origin, utterly different in their practical usage and acheive widely divergent ends. Demonic magic is used to enslave, to deceive, to bring death, and to cause people to rely on their own power rather than the wisdom of God. Even seemingly harmless spells that are fueled by demonic power have a darkness in them that affects the soul of those who use them. Quite clearly, God is quite opposed to this sort of magic in whatever form it takes. In the Judaic law, there is clear condemnation of mediums, spiritists, sorcerers, soothsayers and all those who practice witchcraft because all of these sorts of people do not derive their magical power from God but from demonic sources.

However, most of the magic that is recorded in the Bible does stem from God. While diviners and soothsayers were an abomination to God, He Himself sent many prophets, caused many people to see visions and made very powerful revelations to certain people whose hearts were right. Though talking with the dead through a medium or spiritist was strictly forbidden, Jesus was seen on the Mount of Transfiguration speaking with both Moses and Elijah. There are numerous accounts of God's Spirit directly empowering people with supernatural strength, like Samson, who was a mighty warrior, or the soldiers of Israel as they drove out the Canaanites, often fighting large battles without a single casualty. Countless people received miraculous healing through the ministry of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Daniel was so blessed by God that Nebuchadnezzar made him the chief of magicians in Babylon. The ark of the covenant was a powerful artifact that bore God's blessing to Israel wherever it went and brought disaster among the enemies of Israel when they stole it. Moses and Aaron performed powerful magic before Pharoah to convince him to release the people of Israel from slavery and allow them to be free. Elisha called down fire from heaven to consume the regiments of soliders that were supposed to escort him to King Ahaziah. All of these are just a small fraction of the mystical, supernatural deeds that are recorded in the Scriptures. From the perspective of the Bible, God most definitely has a monopoly on all of the really dazzling and impressive magic that actually happens!

Though there are only two types of supernatural power in the real world, when dealing with fiction no such constraints. Since the imagination is a rich and plentiful source of inspiration, there is no limitation to what sorts of supernatural power can exist. Though there are warlocks who make pacts with demonic beings in exchange for magical power, this is just one sort of power that is available. Many wizards and sorcerers in fanstasy literature have innate power of their own. In the Lord of the Rings, we see Gandalf and the other wizards who derive power from themselves. They do not perform magic fueled by any external being, but are capable of it intrinsically. Likewise, Jadis, the evil white witch in the Chronicles of Narnia, possesses magical powers innately and uses them to enslave the world of Narnia. Many fairy tales have fairy godmothers who can do magic just because they are fairies. Even of these sorts of internal power, there is quite a variety of means of gaining magical power. For example, an incantation is a type of spell whose power resides in the very words themselves. Simply knowing the right words and saying them correctly will allow a person to perform magic. Sometimes the magical power is derived from the instrument used. In the Lord of Rings, a wizard is completely powerless without his staff. When Gandalf confronts Saruman and reveals himself as Gandalf the White, Saruman's staff breaks in two and his power is stripped from him. Some wizards are capable of powerful magic because of years of study and learning. Other mages find that magic is something that simply stems from the soul and cannot be learned or studied, but must be practiced in order to grow stronger; this is akin to a weightlifter who cannot get stronger by studying, but instead must spend hours and hours at the gym to become stronger. Clearly, there is a limitless array of possibilities in the world of fictious magic, and we are not confined to specific sources of supernatural power.

What can we say then? It is clear that magic originating from a evil source will always be evil. Likewise, magic that stems from a good source must be good. However, for morally neutral sources of power, or when a power source is unspecified, we cannot make a simple determination based on the source of power. Instead, we need a different test.

What sort of magical deed is being done?

Whenever the source of something isn't entirely clear, we must critique any magical deed in the same way we would analyze any other sort of moral action. The Bible is very clear in its rules concerning morality. Some deeds are inherently righteous. Other deeds are intrinsically wicked. Yet, a large preponderance of actions are morally neutral. We could examine many examples of each of these categories. Giving to the needy, loving one's family, worshipping God, proclaiming the gospel, working diligently, treating people with compassion and being a peacemaker are all righteous actions. Likewise, murdering people, commiting adultery, picking pockets, doing business deceptively, being legalistic, living slothfully, causing dissention, spreading gossip and engaging in homosexuality are actions which are always wicked. In the third category we have things like eating watermelon, writing a book, telling jokes, going for a drive, swimming at the beach, digging for treasure, building a house, writing a song and having a waterfight, all of which are not necessarily good or bad, but could potentially be done for right or wrong motives or done in appropriate or inappropriate ways; these are morally neutral actions. If you have any familiarity with any sort of moral code, then you already have a good idea of what sorts of things are good and what sorts of things are bad.

This serves as an effective test for magic. Is the magic being done good, evil, or intrinsically neutral? Enchanting a car so that it can fly is neutral. Torturing an animal is evil. Unlocking a door is neutral. Turning water into wine is neutral. Casting a spell to harm or kill an innocent person is evil. Brewing a potion to heal a sick person is good. Turning someone's teddy bear invisible is a harmless prank. Summoning a powerful demon is evil. Traveling back in time to save an innocent animal from an unjust execution is righteous. Casting a spell to kill an evil wizard is good. Using a potion to cheat in a sports competition is wrong. I could list countless other examples, but that is hardly necessary. What is clear is that for magical actions we can apply the same tests of morality that we do to normal actions. They are not exempt from the ordinary rules of morality, nor are they too complicated to judge by standard tests of morality. Therefore, we can determine whether a specific instance of magic is good or evil by whether the action itself is good or evil. But, this still leaves us with the quandary of determining whether morally neutral magics done by a morally neutral source of power are good or evil. We need one more test.

What are the results of the magic?

Another important test is the test of results. As Jesus wisely says, "You will know them by their fruits... every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit... Therefore by their fruits you will know them." (Matthew 7:16-20) The Bible teaches again and again that cause and effect are inextricably linked and that even when you can't determine the moral goodness of something by its cause, the effects will make everything clear. In the case of magic, since the results are directly caused by the specific form of magic, its source of power, and the motive behind the magic, the results are the best way to judge the morality of a complicated instance.

For example, when Elijah called down fire to consume the soldiers who came to escort him to King Ahaziah, it's not easy to immediately determine whether that is a good or evil thing. Killing is righteous in some circumstances and wicked in others. On the surface, calling down fire to kill fifty people seems evil. But, we know that Elijah was a prophet of God and that God had specifically sent him to rebuke Ahaziah for seeking answers from false gods instead of the God of Israel. From the context it is clear that Elijah was acting on behalf of God since we see that with the last regiment sent to Elijah, he spared their lives because God commanded him to. Elijah was a righteous man who followed God whole-heartedly and whose magic was continually used to remind the people that they should worship and serve God alone. Therefore, the fruit of Elijah's actions were good.

As an example from Harry Potter, when Harry and his friends are sneaking out of their bedroom to prevent the Sorcerer's Stone from being stolen, Neville confronts them and refuses to let them break the rules again by wandering the school halls at night. After trying to reason with him, Hermione casts a spell that paralyzes him and they sneak out to thwart Lord Voldemort's scheme to steal the stone. This is another such instance that is difficult to immediately judge. Ordinarily, paralyzing innocent people is wrong. However, in this case we see that Hermione paralyzed him in order to prevent a greater evil from occurring, that the spell she cast did no lasting harm to Neville and that none of them had any evil motives or desire to hurt Neville. The resulting fruit of Hermione's action is that Lord Voldemort's evil scheme was thwarted and justice prevailed.

Moral dilemmas are rarely simple and easy to determine. Whether dealing with magic or not, there are often complex nuances involved in passing any sort of moral judgement on an action. Since the Bible treats morality as important, it is important to critically consider what sorts of magic a person consistently practices, by what source they derive their power, and what the resultant effects are. The only difference in judging magical actions, compared to judging ordinary moral actions, is that magic has a supernatural power source that must be considered. Beyond that, the ordinary rules of morality apply to magic and we can determine whether a specific occurrence of magic is evil by evaluating it under that criteria.

Concerning Magic In Contemporary Media

As Christians who believe in the veracity and the inspired nature of the Bible, we should be the first to affirm that there are very real supernatural forces in the world. Magic is everywhere! Both in fiction and in history, magic has existed since the dawn of the world, as seen in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Greek and Roman Empires, and woven throughout the plenteous supply of legends and myths that are as old as our planet is. From the pages of Scripture, to classic fairy tales over a hundred years old, to the modern epic fantasy series we have today, magic is in no short supply. It appears in countless forms and has been practiced by numerous people, both ficticious and real, for thousands of years. To suggest that all magic is evil would be blatantly ridiculous since that would spread a blanket of condemnation over all of Christian doctrine and all of the stories of the Bible in a attempt to root out a little evil. Obviously, we must be careful not to swallow a camel while straining out a gnat. Therefore, the simple answer to the question, "Is magic intrinsically evil?" is a very short and concise one. No. Magically is not intrinsically evil. Some magic is evil, some magic is good, and some of it is simply neutral. Like any other sort of moral action, magic must be taken on a case-by-case basis and each instance should be critiqued on its own merits. The best tests for determining whether a specific instance of magic is evil are quite simple. What is the source of the magical power? What sort of magical deed is being done? What are the results of the magic?

Should magic that appears in contemporary media be avoided? There is no legitimate basis for seeking to arbitrarily avoid or shelter oneself or one's family from media containing magic. Though specific movies or books may be deemed to be immoral or be judged to teach harmful values, they should be rejected on the basis of their moral content, not based on their magical content. Since magic is just like any other sort of moral action, we should weigh it on the basis of morality and determine whether a given work has a positive or a negative influence. However, to declare all magic as evil and seek to avoid it in any form puts a person on the path of religious legalism and encourages conformity to blatantly un-Christian dogma rather than encouraging a spirit of Godly discernment and wise judgement.

It seems telling that three of the most well-known magical series of the past hundred years are written by Christian authors. J.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of The Rings, C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, are all Christians who deliberately embrace magic and the use of Biblical allusion in their works. All three works are very powerful tales that vividly illustrate the conflict of good and evil, the inner tension that even good characters face in choosing to behave righteously, and the seductive offer of evil power. All three works have central characters that clearly allude to Jesus Christ and His sacrificial work on the cross. To me, this is no coincidence. On the opposing side, there are many liberal Christian theologicians who are continually seeking to "de-mystify" the Bible. Rather than accepting the account of Biblical miracles and the magic that flows throughout the pages of Scripture, they seek to explain away all the supernatural actions and show how none of them is really supernatural at all. Why is this? Why is it that people who don't value Scripture are seeking to deny magic, while Christians who love the rich drama of the Bible happily embrace magic and use their imaginations to create compelling epic tales?

I can't say I know for sure. But this I do know. As long as magic comes from the right source and is done for the right reason, God loves magic, Jesus Christ loves magic, and so do I!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Evolutionary Biology Tries To Offer Economic Answers

This article was quite a fascinating read. It's always amusing to me how much the theory of evolution purports to be the be-all, end-all answer to human behavior, whether regarding sexual selection or, in this case, economic theory.

The push for financial regulatory reform has highlighted an important debate surrounding the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH), the idea that market prices are rationally determined and fully reflect all available information. If true, the EMH implies that regulation is largely unnecessary because markets allocate resources and risks efficiently via the "Invisible Hand".
However, critics of the EMH argue that human behaviour is hardly rational, but is driven by "animal spirits" that generate market bubbles and busts, and regulation is essential for reining in misbehaviour.

Initially confined to academia, the battle between EMH disciples and behaviouralists has spilled over to central bankers, regulators, and politicians, and the new regulatory landscape may depend on the outcome of this conflict. The strong convictions fuelling this debate have created a false dichotomy between the two schools of thought - in fact, both perspectives contain elements of truth, but neither is a complete picture of economic reality. Markets do function quite efficiently most of the time, aggregating vast amounts of disparate information into a single number - the price - on the basis of which millions of decisions are made. This feature of capitalism is an example of Surowiecki's "wisdom of crowds". But every so often, markets can break down, and the wisdom of crowds can become the "madness of mobs".

Why do markets break down? Animal spirits! Recent neuroscientific research has shown that what we consider to be "rational" behaviour is the outcome of a delicate balance among several distinct brain functions, including emotion, logical deliberation, and memory. If that balance is upset - say, by the strong stimulus of a life-threatening event - then reason may be cast aside in favour of more instinctive behaviours like herding or the fight-or-flight response.

Although few of us encounter such threats on a daily basis, much of our instincts are still adapted to the plains of the African savannah 50,000 years ago.
Personally, I don't agree with the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), even though it does have some elements in common with classical Austrian economic thought. Though EMH may suggest that human behavioral is primarily rational, classical economics and the functioning of the "Invisible Hand" is not dependent on the rationality of buyers and sellers. Though the market may experience various oddities such as price distortion, overly-optimistic market speculation and dramatic temporal spikes in supply and demand, the Austrian position is simply that the invisible hand will naturally correct for these phenomenon and restore the market to a balanced state. For example, when an easy credit market creates a surge in short-term demand for real estate, resulting in the housing bubble that we have recently witnessed, the invisible hand simply ensures that prices will return to their real levels eventually. In this case, since housing prices were artificially high, market correction is occurring as the prices nosedive. Soon, the prices will rise slightly, returning to approximate real housing values. The invisible hand doesn't depend on people behaving rationally. In fact, I would quite agree that many people made poor choices in taking out loans to buy houses they really couldn't afford. This irrational behavior caused an artificially high level of housing demand. But unless people continue to act irrationally for long periods of time, the invisible hand will always restore equilibrium. And a family can hardly continue to act irrationally when they've been evicted for failing to make mortgage payments. The invisible hand itself forces people, whose excessive spending swiftly brings them face to face with economic reality, to return to reasonably rational spending. They can't afford not to!

However flawed the efficient markets hypothesis may be, I think the evolutionary position is utterly ridiculous. I love it! Rather than explaining what thoughts or emotions led people to make the economic decisions they did, behavioral economists claim that the whole problem is animal spirits! Animal spirits! Animal spirits are the reason that we are in the midst of an economic depression. What in the world does this mean? Thankfully, the article explains. The problem is that even though humans have evolved and learned to thrive in our modern environment, for some odd reason we still have instincts that are 50,000 years old. Apparently, all irrational human behavior is just because our behavior hasn't had enough time to adapt to a modern context. Naturally, if we just had a few million more years we might figure out how to buy things in a rational manner!

As an Austrian economist, my position is that a laissez-faire approach to economic will typically have the best results. Most regulation only serves to artificially limit the market and will always cause distortion or even market failure. I'm not at all worried about human economic "misbehavior" as they call it, since in a market where fair-play is ensured, irresponsible financial decisions only harm those who make them. If a family buys a house they can't afford, then only two parties are harmed: the family who has chosen to spend beyond their means, and the bank who took a risk by making an unwise loan. The only regulation we need is regulation that ensures fair competition. People will learn the rest through trial and error, since even people who behave irrationally often learn from their own mistakes.

But of course, if we really are nothing more than car-driving, newspaper reading, web-surfing gorillas, whose instincts are 50,000 years outdated, making choices on the basis of mystical animals spirits from the African savannah, then my theory could be wrong.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Universal Healthcare Myth: Will Result in Rising Costs

I'm happy that some people in Congress are standing up and pointing out the flaws in Obama's healthcare reform bill. This morning House Republican Leader John Boehner wrote a short column on how the Democrats' prospective health plan will result in higher costs for everyone.

Last week, Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sent shockwaves through Washington when he told Congress that the Democrats’ plans would make health care more costly. Throughout this debate, President Obama has spoken of the need to “bend the cost curve” or drive health care costs down. During a congressional hearing, however, Mr. Elmendorf testified that the Democrats’ plans would have the opposite effect, saying that under their proposals, “The curve is being raised” and costs would “significantly expand.” That’s because the Democrats’ plan adds a new layer of taxes, mandates, and bureaucracy on top of the current system. If that’s not bad enough, the Democrats’ plan cuts Medicare and takes away choices for millions of seniors. What does all of this mean? Higher costs for the medicine and treatments you need.
I'll be honest, the objectives of the healthcare reform bill actually sound quite reasonable. Keeping costs low and having a broad array of affordable health care choices for consumers are definitely laudable goals. I also agree with the government's stance that healthcare costs are rising too rapidly and may cause major economic problems for our nation both now and in the future. However, the current ideas that are being discussed and analyzed are not a solution to any of these problems. Instead, the proposed bill will have the opposite of its desired effect.

There are several reasons that healthcare costs have risen so dramatically: the cost of cutting-edge technology used in American medical facilities, stringent government regulations reducing competition for medical supplies, and health insurance plans that encourage consumer irresponsibility. These are all very simple economic reasons for why the price of healthcare has risen. Let's look at these factors briefly.

Living in country that is as technologically advanced as ours has its advantages. Many diseases and conditions that would be fatal in other countries are treatable here in the United States. However, this benefit comes at a high cost. The medicines and machines that are used for advanced medical proceudres are not cheap at all. As a column from Business Week says:
Technological advances go hand in hand with productivity gains in most industries, but in medicine, better technology almost always means higher expenses.

Rising costs could be seen as a sign of progress: The cheapest medical outcome, after all, is death. Major advances in the treatment of heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disorders, and a broad range of once-fatal diseases have prolonged life, but the longer the life, the higher the medical costs. "We're not realizing cost reductions as a result of increased longevity," says Michael Thompson, principal with PriceWaterhouse Coopers. Survive a heart attack, for example, and you raise your chances of living long enough to die of cancer or Alzheimer's disease, two of the most expensive diseases. Not to mention the cost of the drugs and follow-up care you'll need to avoid another heart attack.
We have made a trade-off in America. Longevity and survival is something that we have determined is worth any cost. Therefore, when given an option between a less-expensive treatment and a more-expensive modern treatment, many patients are demanding the higher-cost option, even if it will not provide a significantly better treatment. The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results are derived from 20% of the inputs. To improve something beyond a certain level of functionality requires a relatively large investment for a very small functional gain. In the case of medical procedures, many doctors and patients are choosing to use hugely expensive machines and medicines that are only slightly better than ordinary ones. You see a similar phenomenon with cars or computers, where a car lover would rather buy a Lamborghini, even though it is not much functionally better than less expensive car, or where a computer-lover will spend $4,000 for a computer than is only marginally better than one which only costs $1,000. A premium price is paid for something just because it is cutting edge, even though its actual function rarely merits such a price-tag. One of the reasons healthcare is so expensive is because many Americans have chosen to pursue premium healthcare, regardless of the cost.

Another reason why healthcare is so expensive is because there are challenging barriers to market-entry, which results in fewer suppliers of medicines and medical technology. The high aggregate demand meets a lower than desirable aggregate supply, which sets the equilibrium prices higher than they should be. This is very similar to the problem of having a monopoly or oligopoly; prices are much higher than they would be if there was more competition. If this were a naturally-occuring phenomenon, it wouldn't be such a horrible thing; prices would be high simply because not many suppliers see a chance to make a profit. But, this is not a natural economic phenomenon. Instead, it is a case of market failure. The FDA is a branch of our Federal Government which oversees and regulates the medicines and medical products that can be legally sold. Before any drug or medical device is sold to the public or used in medical facilities, it must undergo a stringent period of testing and approval. The regulations governing health products are extremely restrictive, such that the sale of a product often entangles years of red tape and bureaucratic finagling. I currently work for a small company that manufactures cutting-edge blood testing devices that have dominated the veterinary market for years, but we're only just starting to be able to sell our machines to hospitals since it took us a long time to receive FDA approval. If we didn't already have a large client-base and ample cash-flow from our veterinary sales, our blood-testing machines, which are superior to all our competitors' blood-testing products, never would have reached the human medical market. The government's interference in the market, in the form of stringent regulations, sets a difficult hurdle for potential suppliers resulting in very little competition in the human medical market. To compete, you basically have to be a large, established company with lots of financial resources. Because of the lack of competition due to government intervention, healthcare costs are much higher than they would be in a free-market.

The third major factor contributing to high healthcare costs is the proliferation of health insurance. Health insurance is not an intrinsically harmful thing. However, the current health insurance system definitely enables consumers to make uninformed and costly decisions. Since most healthcare consumers pay only a small co-pay on most standard medical procedures, with the insurance company paying the remainder, it makes very little difference to consumers how expensive their medicines and treatments are. If you pay the same amount of out-of-pocket money for inexpensive, decent care or for expensive, cutting-edge care, you'll want the very best you can get. Since the insurance company eats most of the cost (at least initially), there is really little or no incentive for patients to find reasonably-priced treatments or perform significant research into the effectiveness of different methods of treatment. It's easier to go for the one that sounds the most modern and just pay the insurance policy's deductible than to put needless time and effort into making informed decisions. To be sure, an individual patient does economically benefit from getting expensive treatments at very low direct cost. What is not seen is the resulting effect of many patients using this sort of decision making. First of all, doctors are more likely to recommend expensive procedures rather than cheaper ones in order to maximize their profitability. Since consumers don't directly pay they cost, they are quick to consent. Then, the doctors send massive bills to the insurance companies who have to pay exorbitant piles of money for these expensive treatments. Having to pay so much for the various medical bills puts the insurance companies in a bind, and they quickly have to raise their premiums just to make ends meet. Consequently, because of the expensive treatments some patients elect to receive, the prices rise for everyone. Though individual consumers and doctors benefit in the short-term, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and soon the costs of health insurance skyrocket. The problem is that consumers do not have to directly pay for their own expenses, and so the consequences are artificially removed from their decisions. Separating the natural consequences of a choice from the choice itself always creates an environment that fosters irresponsibility or abuse. That's what our current proliferation of health insurance has done.

As you can see, all of these factors have contributed to the high costs of healthcare that we see today in America, which is why healthcase expenditures (as a percentage of GDP) have nearly doubled in the past thirty years. Based on these factors the solution that we need in order to achieve true healthcare reform and restore medical costs to reasonable levels must entail several factors. First of all, consumers need to take responsibility for their own healthcare and make informed, cost-effective decisions. Consumers will naturally do this as long as they face the consequences of their decisions and have to pay for their own costs rather than riding on a system where everyone contributes. Americans will be more likely to be proactive towards their own health if they don't have a safety net of insurance and government guarantees to pay for an infinite array of costly medical treatments. Secondly, the FDA needs to take a step back and reduce their smothering regulations on medical products, so that more suppliers will be able to compete in the medical market. Once more suppliers enter the medical market, all medical suppliers will be forced to be more efficient, eliminate waste and cut costs in order to sell high-quality products at reasonable prices. Those companies who don't find ways to lower their prices dramatically will quickly find their market share decreasing as new suppliers create superior products and sell them at better prices. No longer will a few companies have so much market dominance that they can engage in price-fixing. In short, what we need to ensure effective healthcare reform is a narrower form of health insurance that leaves more responsibility with the consumer and we need less government medical regulation.

Now, let us examine what the government is seeking to do with the currently proposed healthcare reform bill. They are seeking to increase government regulation over the medical industry and they are seeking to expand healthcare coverage to those who can't afford it. As regulation increases further, there will be even less competition in both the health insurance market and the medical products market. Because there will be even fewer medical suppliers, the current medical suppliers will solidify their iron grip on the market, allowing for more price-fixing and ultimately causing treatment costs to rise further. Additionally, since there will be more insured Americans, if the government's new insurance program is even remotely like the current HMOs, the government will be directly encouraging more consumer irresponsibility. Because more people will be electing to receive expensive treatments than before, premiums and healthcare expenditures will rise even further. The effect of the proposed healthcare bill will be exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. Rather than bringing prices back down and ensuring that healthcare is affordable for everyone, this bill will cause the already out-of-control prices to leap for the sky and guarantee that only the wealthy will be able to afford healthcare.

Therefore, we see that not only is the new healthcare bill founded on a lie, but it will only serve to exacerbate the conditions that currently haunt the American healthcare market, resulting in higher costs and lower-quality service than before. Do not be deceived by government propaganda about the alleged benefits of this brand of healthcare reform. America would be stupid to adopt any such legislation!

Friday, July 17, 2009

One Trillion Dollars Short

As of this week, our government now has accumulated a deficit of more than one trillion dollars from this year alone. Personally, I find this shocking and appalling and perhaps a little bit surprising. You would think that being elected to some sort of government position would require at least basic math skills and perhaps a touch of personal responsibility. I guess not!

Though economics can be complicated at some times, balancing the budget is definitely not. Any elementary school student capable of basic subtraction could figure out how to balance the budget. The equation is very simple: Income - Expenses = Remaining Money. If your remaining money is greater than zero, then you have have a surplus. If the remainder is zero, then you have a balanced budget. If you have less than zero dollars left, then you have a deficit. Therefore, if you wish to avoid a deficit, all you must do is ensure that you don't spend money that you do not have.

Just to put this year's deficit into perspective, let us see how much this deficit will cost us. Supposing the federal government chose to collect enough money to pay off our deficit, every single man, woman and child in America would have to pay $3,268 to cover the deficit of the last six months alone. Projections for this year suggest that by the end of 2009 the deficit will rise to $1.84 trillion, essentially costing each person $6,013. That is six thousand dollars more than we've already paid in taxes. I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to have to give the government that much money!

In the case of our federal government, there are several possible reasons for why we have a deficit. The first option is that politicians simply can't do math. The second option is that politicians are simply irresponsible, evidenced by their unwillingness to trim unnecessary expenses from our budget and by their increasing government spending on numerous fronts. The third option is that perhaps politicians believe that everyone's money belongs to them and they are free to spend it how they see fit, without any accountability. Truthfully, I wouldn't be surprised if it is combination of all three.

If we actually wanted to cut our expenses it would be very simple to do. Ending the broken and out-of-control Social Security program ($617 billion a year), the poorly-managed Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP program ($599 billion a year) and withdrawing from all the pointless wars we're fighting ($625 billion a year) would save us $1.81 trillion per year. Even if we've already spent half of that on such programs this year, ending them now would save us $900 billion dollars. But, of course, the government views those all as good and necessary programs... in fact, maybe we need a few more such programs...

I'm sure that poking a few more holes in our fiscal boat will keep it from sinking!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Universal Healthcare Myth: Based on a Lie

Apparently, Democrats have vowed to pass some sort of healthcare reform bill by August. Personally, I am quite upset by the government's insistence on unreasonably interferring with the market and the free-choice of individuals in order to propagate their own socialist agenda. The truth is, the current healthcare reform bill is being enacted on the basis of a lie, it removes choices rather than adds more consumer choices, resulting in a collective loss of freedom for both businesses and individuals, and despite the claims that the government will be able to run a more efficient system, they will end up offering low-quality service at increasingly higher prices.

In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss each of those points and show why a universal healthcare plan will be very harmful to America, but today I just briefly want to talk about the lie that serves as the excuse for even trying to craft such a socialistic reform bill. Well, there are actually two lies. The first lie is that all Americans have a right to healthcare. The second lie is that there are 46 million helpless uninsured Americans who are too poor to afford healthcare. Let's break these down and see the fallacies with both.

The first lie is that all Americans should have a right to affordable healthcare. Do Americans really have a right to healthcare at all? I know that our Declaration of Independence declares that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. John Locke, the philosopher, suggests that all people have natural rights to life, liberty and property. But, I don't know of any legitmate basis for claiming that people have a right to healthcare. No person is harmed by lacking healthcare. Though healthcare may be a benefit of living in a wealthy and technologically-advanced society, there can be no reasonable basis for claiming that people have a right to healthcase. If we're going to start making up imaginary rights, then I would like to cite my right to own a huge mansion on a 500 acre-property that I am entitled to as an American citizen! I am being unreasonably deprived!

The second lie is that there are 46 million uninsured Americans. The implication is these are underprivileged people who can't even afford the healthcare that they are so desperately in need of. But, as with many manipulated statistics, this is simply not the case. The 46 million that is frequently talked about comes from the Council of Economic Advisors Health Care Report as released in June 2009. It says:

Perhaps the most visible sign of the need for health care reform is the 46 million Americans currently without health insurance. CEA projections suggest that this number will rise to about 72 million in 2040 in the absence of reform. A key factor driving this trend is the tendency of small firms not to provide coverage due to the rising cost of health care.
This statistic is intentionally misleading. First of all, that number includes people who are not American citizens. Personally I think it's stretching the truth quite a lot to claim non-Americans as part of your group of uninsured Americans, don't you? Quoting from a report by the Free Market Project:

However, the Census Bureau report “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005,” puts the initial number of uninsured people living in the country at 46.577 million.

A closer look at that report reveals the Census data includes 9.487 million people who are “not a citizen.” Subtracting the 10 million non-Americans, the number of uninsured Americans falls to roughly 37 million.
Secondly, the implication is that all these uninsured Americans are incapable of affording healthcare without government intervention of some sort. This is not the truth. The truth is that many Americans who are quite capable of affording health insurance simply don't need it. I can say this with complete confidence because I happen to be part of this group. As a healthy, fit, young person, I have no major health issues of any sort. My employer offers me health insurance but I have continually refused for the simple reason that it is more economical for me to pay for any possible health costs out of pocket than it would be to pay for health insurance. Health insurance would cost me $89 per month, or $1068 per year. In the past twelve months I have not needed to make any sort of visits to a healthcare provider. Therefore, I have saved myself $1068. The only forseeable medical cost I may have in the future is one dental filling, which would cost between $100-$250. Paying that out of pocket would still result in saving over $700 because of not being insured. And, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who is capable of affording health insurance but chooses not to be insured. I just had dinner with a friend on Friday night, and he also could afford health insurance but chooses not to. Recently, he needed some chiropractic work because of a sports incident, and he found a place that provided high-quality care at a very low cost.

To further support my point, let's look at some raw data. My conjecture is that healthy, fit people don't really need healthcare and are much more likely to try to save their money by choosing to be uninsured. What sort of people are usually the healthiest? Typically young adults who haven't been subjected to as much aging, who are naturally more energetic and active, who have stronger bones, and who haven't experienced as many health-affecting acccidents. Now, I would like to show you a graph that was included as part of the CEA Health Care Report:

According to this graph, the age group that has the highest level of uninsurance is Americans between the ages of 18-35. Young kids and elderly people are the most likely to have health coverage but there is a sharp rise in uninsurance at age 18, followed by a steady decline from 23 onwards. At 65 there is a sharp decline, since elderly people often have the most expensive medical needs. To me, this is exactly the sort of data I would expect if I believed that people are choosing to be insured or uninsurance based on economic factors. Children are typically insured under their parent's family plan. Those who are young and healthy want more money in their pockets, but if they start facing health conditions, they will buy health insurance. Also, when adults get married and start raising a family, they are more likely to have a health insurance plan that covers their family, and therefore they are more likely to be insured. This data would seem to be perfectly consistent with that idea that most uninsured Americans could afford health coverage if they wanted to, but choose not to. To provide further support for this conjecture, let me quote the Free Market Project report again:

But according to the same Census report, there are 8.3 million uninsured people who make between $50,000 and $74,999 per year and 8.74 million who make more than $75,000 a year. That’s roughly 17 million people who ought to be able to “afford” health insurance because they make substantially more than the median household income of $46,326.

“Many Americans are uninsured by choice,” wrote Dr. David Gratzer in his book “The Cure: How Capitalism Can Save American Health Care.” Gratzer cited a study of the “nonpoor uninsured” from the California Healthcare Foundation.

“Why the lack of insurance [among people who own homes and computers]? One clue is that 60 percent reported being in excellent health or very good health,” explained Gratzer.
The truth of the matter is that of the 46 million uninsured Americans only 20 million could even be realistically counted as lacking insurance because they can't afford it. And of that number I would be quite surprised if even 15 million wanted healthcare but couldn't afford it. In any case, what has been clearly shown is that the "46 million uninsured" statistic that is mentioned by politicians and used to show the necessity of health-care reform is a clear-cut case of deception. This number is intentionally misleading and does not reflect the truth. Even supposing that all 20 million Americans really can't afford insurance, it is clear that the numbers reported are 130% larger than life. That's a big lie!

In the end we see that Obama's push towards a health-care reform bill which will require coverage for all Americans is based on intentional deception. By suggesting that people are being denied an intrinsic right and by citing the existence of 46 million uninsured Americans, they are suggesting that the government must intervene for the good of the people. But, no person has such a right, and there certainly aren't 46 million who actually need healthcare. Should all Americans be forced to surrender more of their money and freedom so that the government can provide its low-quality, high-cost care to less than 6.6% of the population? I don't know how you could possibly justify such a thing either on principle or by appealing to the "greater good." Even supposing we use a utilitarian standard it would be better to leave 93.4% of the population alone, than to plunder them for the sake of 20 million people and the political careers of our "positive change" politicians.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

More Thoughts on Epistemological Nihilism

Ever since my earlier discussion with Ulcer, who claimed to be an epistemological nihilist but really wasn't, I have been wishing that I could have a conversation with a true epistemological nihilist. I wish that I could talk to someone who truly and completely believes that knowledge is a false concept and that there is no such as knowledge. In thinking about it further, I concluded that I may have to wait an eternity for such a wish to be realized. There is a very simple reason for this--no human being can possibly be a true epistemological nihilist.

In some ways I am saddened by such a realization, but the facts of life ensure that truth is non-variable and cannot be suppressed, no matter how vehemently a person seeks to deny or ignore it. Imagine a young man who decides that he isn't really sure the sun exists. As he continues to question and to systematically throw out all evidence for the sun, he eventually reaches the firm conclusion that the sun does not really exist. Clearly, it is just a common social convention, an arbitrary agreement made by people who seek to maintain the status quo. Believing in the sun, he reasons, is simply used a vehicle for personal gain. Of course, being the free-thinker that he is, he recognizes the truth that the sun doesn't really exist. Now, what would you say about such a person? Those of us who are rational human beings rightly recognize that this poor young man is self-deluded and has chosen to reject the truth. Though he consciously denies the existence of the sun, every morning it shines its bright rays into his window to make a mockery of his absurd beliefs. But, the truth of the matter is, no matter how hard this young man seeks to suppress the blinding truth, subconsciously he is incapable of ceasing to believe in its existence. It is quite impossible to live life as if there is eternal night!

Likewise, we see that with epistemological nihilism, there is no possible way to deny the existence and comprehensibility of some form of knowledge. Just like the young man, there could be many who claim that there is no such thing as knowledge, but they are no more capable of proving their position than alchemists of old could turn lead into gold. Not only are their ridiculous philosophies utterly intellectually indefensible, but even the holders of such enlightened knowledge are unable to believe the philosophies that they claim are incontrovertible.

There is one thing I admire about epistemological nihilists--they are willing to take their beliefs further than the average skeptic. But, that's not saying much. Many people adopt a worldview or set of beliefs just far enough to suit their own purposes, but stop far short of truly embracing their own beliefs. Skeptics are like a man who, feeling that he is being held captive in such a narrow and enclosed vehicle, leaps out of an airplane without a parachute and rejoices in his new-found freedom. The modern skeptic is in exactly such a plight, and yet remains quite happily oblivious to it. Overjoyed by his new freedom, he neglects to recognize the morbid fact of his impending death. The man's latter state is horrendously worse than his former.

Well, the epistemological nihilist takes things further than the modern skeptic. Where the skeptic is content to question only the things he wants to question, the nihilist realizes that if he is going to be consistently skeptical, he must question everything and not simply what he wishes. So, he is willing to question knowledge, purpose and metaphysics. The nihilist, having leapt out of the airplane, has opened his eyes and glimpsed the fast-approaching earth. And yet, he is not terrified. He realizes that the sheer force of skepticism tears apart everything it encounters, leaving nothing but smokes and ashes in its wake. What he does not realize is that skepticism stops at nothing and will completely obliterate itself! Though the nihilist knows he is free-falling towards earth and nothing can break his fall, he has not yet assimilated the fact that he is actually going to hit the ground at terminal velocity. In his foolish blindness, he remains unfazed by the laws of gravity.

But enough analogies and rhetoric; allow me demonstrate the unbridled ferocity of epistemological nihilism. When skepticism faces religion and asks, "How do you really know that the Bible is true?" or, "How do you know that God really exists?" at some point the religious man must admit, "I don't know for certain, I take those truths on faith." Likewise, when the skeptic brings his questions to common observations and asks, "How do you know that the sun really exists?" the scientific man must admit, "I believe that my eyes tell me the truth about the world; I see the sun, therefore I believe it exists." There is no denying the overwhelming power of applied skepticism. The nihilist takes his questions one step further and asks, "Can I really know anything for certain?" and finally determines that he cannot know anything at all, which means that knowledge is a utopian ideal rather than a practical reality--it is a sham! On this basis the nihilist claims that knowledge itself is a false concept since nothing can be truly known. But he stops there. Once he has questioned knowledge and determined that he can't know anything, the nihilist rests his case and seeks to figure out how to live in a world where knowledge is impossible, and how to see in a world where there is no sun that shines.

However, like the fellow speedily plummeting to his death, the nihilist has forgotten to connect the last two dots and feel the impact of his hasty leap. I would like to ask the epistemological nihilist just one more question. How do you know that knowledge is a false concept? Such a question is unanswerable. The nihilist has already claimed that nothing can be known. If he claims that he knows for certain that nothing is knowable, he contradicts himself and ceases to be a nihilist. The only rational answer a nihilist can gives is, "I don't know." And if the nihilist himself is unconvinced that knowledge is a false concept, then he certainly isn't much of a nihilist at all. The nihilist cannot provide any rational arguments in favor of epistemological nihilism since he doesn't know any. Also, the nihilist cannot be a nihilist himself, since to be a nihilist he would have to know that he can't know anything, and he certainly can't know that he doesn't know anything unless he admits to knowing that he doesn't know, which shows that there is something that he knows. As gravity prevails and the sun continues to shines, reality mocks those who attempt to suppress the truth in order to throw off the repressing forces of morality and reason so that they can create their own meaning in the world.

Reason and reality have conspired to make epistemological nihilism an untenable philosophy. As such, I will never have the opportunity to converse with a true epistemological nihilist, though I certainly wish that I could.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Epistemolgical Nihilism: A Discussion

The following are some excerpts from a discussion on a message board that I frequent regarding the concept of epistemological nihilism:

Ulcer: For me, nihilism means that virtually nothing can be 'known' with absolute certainty. Even 'knowledge' as a concept, itself, is false. What is 'knowing'? Do we truly 'know' anything? I would say we don't. What is science but mere assumptions based on a consistent record of experiences and observations made of the universe we live in? Based upon such records, we make predictions of how things will turn out, and as long as our predictions coincide with what actually transpires, we humans will mistakenly call this "knowledge" when all we are really doing is assuming. What if the experience changes? Do we truly truly know how things work, why they work, and what is going to happen, or are we just operating off of the interim utility and coincidence of our assumptions?

Nothing is true or false. Everything just is what it is. Even the very ideas of truth and falsehood are, themselves, f-- uh,...*ahem*...well, they are what they are. If certain assumptions yield dividends, then roll with them until they no longer do.

By never believing that finally we 'know' something; finally we've got it all figured out, we are free to abandon any ideas - scientific, social, moral, spiritual - once they've lost their utility, instead of allowing our intellects to become inert.

Paragon: But to say that doing or thinking something gives us consistent results (or that it doesn't) is to say that you know what you've said and done and what the results of those things are and were and whether or not you prefer those results to other ones and et cetera.

You can, in fact, know a lot of things.

Ulcer: No, I would be assuming that the things I remember that I did and the results I remember that they yielded are, in fact, memories of things that actually happened (whatever that means) instead of just conjurations of my imagination. Indeed memories become indistinguishable from dreams, over time.

TheoConfidor: Regardless of whether you admit that you make such assumptions, the way you practically live suggests that on some level you accept them to be true. Otherwise you wouldn't even mention the distinction between memories and dreams. You clearly believe that there is a difference, and use different words.

Ulcer: No, I accept them to be useful. I can distinguish the concepts, but of the actual things that those concepts refer to, I do not know which is which.

Paragon: In the context that we are talking about, how can they be useful unless they are true? An assumption that informs your actions can only be useful (i.e. resulting in the results you want) if it turned out to be true.

It sounds not so much that you're assuming as you're applying arbitrary doubt to your knowledge.

TheoConfidor: Even if you aren't 100% sure that you actually act or have any knowledge of your own past or present actions, you certainly act as if you believe them to be true and real.

Ulcer: Yes, exactly. I don't have much choice. No action, no experience.

TheoConfidor: Bingo! There is no practical difference between acting as if something is real and believing it is real. It is merely a semantic difference.

Ulcer: Fine, but my philosophy still stands (in this case) because believing isn't the same thing as knowing. Its much more like assuming. You can't know that God exists the same way you know that you exist. "I do not exist," is intrinsically self-contradictory. You can't deny your own existence because doing so proves that you exist. Denying that God exists does not automatically prove God's existence in a similar fashion. "Yahweh does not exist" is not intrinsically self-contradictory.

TheoConfidor: Though you use different words, your philosophy is no different than that of an ordinary person with humility. Though he is convinced that what he knows is true, he also is open to the possibility that he could be wrong or have flawed knowledge.

Ulcer: No, my philosphy is different, and I'm not going to repeat myself.

TheoConfidor: I readily admit the fact that I can't really know anything with 100% certainty. However, in the words of Paragon, rather than applying arbitrary doubt to my knowledge, I accept what I know to be true until presented with evidence to the contrary.

Ulcer: And at that point you would realize that it was never true to begin with, right? And how do you know that this will never happen to what you "know to be true?"

TheoConfidor: This is similar to the optimist/pessimist dichotomy. They both look at the same glass and the optimist says the glass is half full (true) while the pessimist says the glass is half empty (also true). Regarding knowledge, I say that since we do have a large degree of evidence and experience-based certainty about some things we should say that we do know something, even if we aren't completely convinced. You are suggesting that since we don't know something completely, we should say that we know hardly anything at all.

Ulcer: From this I can see that we have different ideas of what 'knowledge' is. For me its an absolute, for you its a range of values.

TheoConfidor: You are an self-proclaimed epistemological pessimist, though your actions are that of someone who accepts what he knows as useful/functional/real/true. To me, that smacks of confusion and/or intellectual dishonesty.

Ulcer: There is a difference my friend. This philosophy is consistent with acting in everyday life. I'm afraid you are the one who is confused.

TheoConfidor: Again, I repeat that it is not your philosophy that is different, but merely the meaning of your words. If by "knowledge" you mean that something has to a 100% certain absolute then knowledge is an illusory concept that has no more real meaning in our world than the flying spaghetti monster. Wait, I take that back. The flying-spaghetti monster has more usefulness as a concept because it is actually useful to demonstrate important truths, whereas the artificial concept of knowledge is simply a utopian idea that sounds nice but is utterly unachievable.

Also, I would like to mention that your use of the word knowledge is not the ordinary, English use of the word knowledge, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: "expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject." Therefore, it would be reasonable to suggest that the average person considers knowledge to be whatever a person thinks he knows, instead of resorting to some Ivory-Tower philosophical definition involving the endless epistemological debate that still finds itself unable to reach a sound conclusion.

If I agreed with your odd use of the word knowledge, it would be quite impossible to assert that anything which is not true by definition or rationally absurd can be known. Likewise, I would suggest that if you agreed with my definition of knowledge, then you would agree that humans indeed possess vast arrays of knowledge, though not all of it is completely correct. On this basis I repostulate that we do not hold differing philosophies but merely differ over the semantics used to express the philosophies.

I find it odd that people claim you can believe one thing or hold a particular philosophy and yet act in a different manner. There are many people who claim to be Christ-followers and yet rarely bother to live in the manner of a true Christ follower. There are numerous people who claim to believe certain moral codes and yet are soon caught in the the very acts that they so vehemently decry. Here we have the example of someone who claims to know nothing and that knowledge is a false concept, and yet who admits to acting on a practical basis as if he does actually possess knowledge. You really can't have it both ways.

Actions are inseparable from beliefs. If one truly believes something, he will act in accordance with such belief. Likewise, if there is someone whose actions clash with their proclaimed beliefs, the actions are the clearest indicators of what such a person truly believes. Though many say that there is a divide between thoughts and actions, such a rationalization is little more than an excuse for intellectually-inconsistent and hypocritcal living.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Agenda-Laced Words: Underprivileged

Whenever I read a news story or opinion article that uses the word "underprivileged," I can't help but wince a little bit. Though I usually enjoy creatively altered English words, paradoxes and oxymorons, the use of this particular word seems to go far beyond mere benign and playful usage. Instead, it is a value-laden term that is used to promote a specific world paradigm which is often used to justify a socialist political agenda. It suggests a perspective that is quite far from the truth of the matter. "Underprivileged" is a word which officially entered dictionaries in 1897, and carries with it some relatively complex concepts:

The notion of privileges for favored people--the wealthy, or those in the know, or those connected to the government--has been around as long as civilization. But the democratic notion of privileges for everyone came into its own in America with our adoption of the word underprivileged. To say someone is underprivileged is to imply that there is a standard of privileges to which everyone is entitled, privileges that have been unjustly withheld from the underprivileged.
Yet the concept of being "underprivileged" seems to conflict with the definition of the word privilege. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, defines privilege as, "A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste." If something is a special right or advantage, there is a clear implication that such a benefit is not enjoyed or possessed by all people; it is not normal or ordinary. Therefore, a privilege can only be considered a privilege if it is not something that is not common to all, since it must be something that is special. For example, if apples grown in Washington State are better than the rest of the apples in the nation, those who enjoy fresh Washington apples are privileged, since they enjoy a benefit that not all Americans enjoy. Likewise, if a charitable organization is not taxed by the federal government, it is a privileged organization, since it has been granted a special advantage.

The very definition of the word privilege divides people into two groups: those who enjoy a particular privilege and those who don't. There are the privileged and the non-privileged. Yet, the word underprivileged implies "that there is a standard of privileges to which everyone is entitled." What right does any person to claim entitlement to privilege? Though there are certainly arguments in favor of certain common rights, there can be no legitimate claim that any person is entitled to any sort of privilege. While those who have been unjustly stripped of an unalienable right may have a valid complaint, even someone who has no privileges cannot suggest that an injustice has been done. For an injustice to be present, some sort of harm must be shown, and no person is being harmed by not being granted privileges. The very concept of an underprivileged person is a contradiction of terms, since privilege implies that there can be no such thing as underprivilege.

Given the very specific sort of ideology that is suggested or propagated by suggesting that all people are entitled to a certain level of privilege, all rational thinkers must be wary whenever such a term is used. Often "helping the underprivileged" is used as a justification for promoting or implementing various social reform programs, placing a higher tax burden on a certain group, or enacting restrictive legislation. While many of these programs sound good, they are generally used to increase the power of the government and they typically result in more individual liberties being unjustly stripped from people in the name of "common good." Whenever the word underprivileged is used, it is critical to consider the ideologies that are being suggested. What is the author saying that a certain group of people is entitled to? Do they actually have a right to such things? Who does the author suggest should fix the problem? Could there be ulterior motives?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mid-Year Resolution Review

Given that I am someone who is dedicated to personal growth, I decided to be especially ambitious by setting 12 resolutions for myself this year. With the first-half of the year now past, I thought it would be a good idea to look at my various goals and see how well I have done at meeting them.

1 - Listen to the entire New Testament
My church set a goal to do this in 40 days at the start of the year and I am happy to say that I listened through the whole New Testament. It was quite an enriching experience. Usually I just read the Bible, so listening to it was a very different sort of experience. In some ways I found that the various books of the Bible felt more contiguous than they normally do. It was much easier to get a macro-level perspective, rather than the verse-by-verse focus that reading lends itself to. I would definitely enjoy listening through the entire Old Testament at some point.

2 - Read at least 15 new books
Reading has definitely been something I've been much enjoying. I typically have at least one or two books with me and I have learned a lot from the various books that I've read. I have finished reading: Better Off, How to Get a Date Worth Keeping, The Case for a Creator, The Broker, Digital Fortress, Sway, The Appeal, The Power of Positive Thinking, and The 4-Hour Workweek. I am currently in the middle of: Out of the Silent Planet, 1984, The Way of the Wild Heart, and Liberal Fascism. In summary, I have already read 9 new books, which means I am well over halfway into completing this goal.

3 - Deepen at least two close friendships
This goal is a lot harder to gauge, and I really won't be able to fully determine whether I have completed this until the end of the year (which is what I expected and planned for when I made the resolution). For one thing, my best friend was in Australia until a couple of weeks ago and another very close friend has been away at college. However, one of my friends graduated from college and is now back in the Bay Area, so we've been spending regular time together for the past couple of months.

4 - Connect with at least one person every day
This one comes easily to me since I love conversing with people, spending time with my friends, hanging out with my family, and meeting new people. Not a single day has gone by this year that I haven't had some meaningful connection with someone. People are awesome!

5 - Exercise at least 2 times per week (except when sick)
Though I haven't perfectly kept this goal, I can honestly say that nearly every week I have exercised at least twice, and some weeks I've exercised more than that. When the year began, I decided that running and tennis would be my main forms of exercise. However, after running sporadically for three months, I have decided that I cannot seriously continue running. I really enjoy it both for the endurance-building aspect as well as the visceral feeling of going places and enjoying the fresh air. But, my knees cannot take the constant impact and I am not willing to injure them, since I want to be able to walk and run painlessly for as much of my life as possible. For that reason, with sadness, I have given up running. Instead of running I am now doing basketball and strength-training, with other occasional athletic activities thrown into the mix. Overall, I have stayed well on target for this goal and I have no doubt that I follow through until the end of the year.

6 - Record at least 12 music tracks
Although it feels as though I haven't recorded much music this year, I have actually recorded 6 tracks to date. Right now I have 2 original compositions, 1 remix and 3 live jazz recordings with a jazz trio I'm playing in. In addition to those tracks, I have 2 tracks that I am currently recording with Decay of Entropy. One of those tracks should be finished by the end of the week, since Andrew is going to come in and lay down the vocals on Thursday night. Also, I have a couple of music tracks in the works for two different compilation albums that The Shizz is working on. I'm working on an original Progressive Metal piece which will be featured on Nevar Say Die, Volume 3, and I am collaborating with Hale-Bopp to record a cover song for a Michael Jackson tribute album, which will be released on his birthday, August 29. This resolution is precisely halfway complete, and I should have no troubles recording the other 6 tracks before 2010.

7 - Play bass in a band or orchestra (minimum 4 performances)
I haven't yet played any live performances. With Decay of Entropy we've been having trouble finding a suitable guitarist, so we haven't been able to play any shows. This week we just lost our drummer, so now we're looking for both a drummer and a bassist. I'm not sure if we'll really get off the ground any time soon. However, with the jazz trio I'm in, we are scheduled to play Saturday after next. Since we have a whole bunch of charts ready, we are starting to send out our press package and schedule gigs. I wouldn't be surprised to play at least 4 gigs in the next 2 months. Some of them will probably even be paying gigs, which makes this a productive as well as fun goal!

8 - Graduate from college
I have completed all the units that I need to graduate with a B.A. in Humanities from Thomas Edison State College. However, I still have to finish working through the administrative end, submitting my final transcripts and actually receiving my degree. Given that the hard part of this is done, it should take no more than a few hours of errands and phone calls to finish the process. I am perfectly on track for accomplishing this goal.

9 - Move out of my parents' house
Right out of the starting gate, I knocked this one off. My current roommate, Dom, and I had been looking for an apartment even before the year began. After making this resolution I kicked the search into high gear and found an amazing place to live within the week. January 10th, we moved into our apartment and I have loved every minute of being here. The location is absolutely great since I'm near all the major freeways, very close to church, closer to work, closer to school and even closer to a grocery store. I really love having a place of my own. Not only is it always peaceful, but it stays clean with very little effort. Besides, I'm happy that my fridge always has whatever food and drinks I leave in there. After living with my 10 younger siblings, that's not something I take for granted. Having my own kitchen has inspired me to do more cooking and to start creating my own recipes. What a joy it is to live in an apartment!

10 - Get rid of extraneous possessions
Moving is a time that easily lends itself to streamlining. As I prepared to move into my apartment I went through all my bookshelves, drawers and closets and pared down significantly. I made significant donations to a local thrift store. For the purposes of this resolution, I have completed my goal. Although, I will probably take one more Saturday sometime this year and pare down excess possessions again. At the moment, I think I still have too many needless pieces of clothing. If I haven't worn it even once this year, then it definitely needs to go.

11 - Establish and maintain a consistent bedtime and daily schedule
I was doing fairly well on this one for the first three months. After losing my USB Flash Drive sometime in April, I realized that I felt more restricted by this resolution than I felt freed. Though having a disciplined schedule can be good for certain periods of life, I have decided that at this point in my life I value having a freeform schedule and not arbitrarily restricting my evening activities simply for the sake of consistency. As such, I have intentionally chosen to abandon this goal, sine it does not align with my current values.

12 - Keep a progress/goals journal and write in it weekly
The goal of this resolution was simply to ensure that I stay on track in meeting my other goals. Though it was moderately useful in helping to track goal completion, upon losing my Flash Drive I lost some of my motivation to continue keeping a record, since all my previously records were unrecoverable. Additionally, since the only goals that I regularly needed track were resolutions number 4, which consistently happens even without conscious effort, number 5, which is easy enough to monitor without a log, and number 11, which I decided to abandon, I decided that the time and effort put into keeping a log and a weekly goals journal did not make sense on a pure cost-benefits basis. Due to the counter-productive nature of this goal, I chose to eliminate it. Obviously, not keeping a log has not hurt my goal accomplishment in any way.

To date, I have completed 3 resolutions, abandoned 2 goals, and am on track for completing the other 7 resolutions. The only one that I am technically behind on is number 7, which would be very easy to finish with a tiny bit of focused effort. Overall, with the exception of the abandoned 2 goals, I think that all of the resolutions I set are very achievable, easily measurable, and well-aligned with my current values and direction in life. I am quite happy with my progress and look forward to the remaining half of this amazing year!