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An Epiphany…

My best friend is ABD in philosophy. This means–among other things– that we have had some weird discussions along the way, especially when she was still in graduate school (How do we know that tree is really a tree?), but by and large, it has benefitted me immensely; she’s introduced me to material I  wouldn’t have read otherwise and required me to defend my more half-baked ideas.

So when she recommends a book, I buy it. Most recently, the recommendation was Plato at the Googleplex, which–after a pretty eye-glazing introduction–has proved to be a delightful modern-day take on Platonic dialogues.

The contemporary relevance of one passage in particular really struck me, because it revolved around the central question with which every society must grapple: who decides? Who gets to make the rules, and how do would-be rulers defend their right to do so?

Plato says philosophers should rule. “The one difference is that [philosophers] are able to discover, through the special talents and training that are theirs, what the facts are [about the way people should live]. So they are not imposing their personal will on others, any more than mathematicians are imposing their wills on others by informing non-mathmeticians what the mathematical truths are. They are simply sharing their knowledge with others, knowledge that others cannot access for themselves, lacking the requisite cognitive skills, a matter of both talent and training. This seems to me no more unfair than that the mathematically intelligent share their knowledge of mathematics with the mathematically unintelligent.”

I have always wondered why people–mostly but not exclusively religious people– feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live, who to love, when and whether to procreate, and why they see themselves as victims when government won’t order us to follow their dictates. How is it they don’t recognize this as chutzpah? Why can’t they live and let live?

This passage lays bare the lack of self-awareness and immense arrogance that motivates zealots and theocrats.

That arrogance is why I’ve always preferred Aristotle–who evaluated social arrangements based upon their ability to facilitate human flourishing– to Plato.

There is something chilling about the contemporary (self-styled) philosopher-kings who are quite sure that they know what morality looks like, and how others should live their lives. These scolds aren’t just sharing insights that have had meaning for them, in hopes that others will find them persuasive. They aren’t sharing at all–they are imposing, secure in their conviction that they know, and if you disagree, you are wrong. End of discussion.

Plato got one thing very wrong. Morality isn’t like math.


Governor Pence and “Good Paying Jobs”

Indiana’s always-embarrassing Governor was thrilled that Lowe’s chose Indianapolis for its new call center. The IBJ quoted him as saying “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of 1,000 good-paying jobs coming to Central Indiana.”

What our Governor considers “good paying” (for other people–he certainly wouldn’t work for these wages) is $10-14 dollars an hour. Even assuming full-time employment (40 hours a week and two weeks paid vacation, a rarity with these sorts of positions), that’s 20,000 per year at the low end–a salary that would allow a family of four to qualify for food stamps.  Those lucky folks getting full-time employment at 14 dollars per hour would be paid 28,000. (As I read Indiana’s somewhat confusing online TANF charts, children in families of four making less than 37,024 annually are eligible for support.)

And what did Indiana taxpayers shell out for the privilege of paying people wages that will qualify at least some of them for welfare? A reported 5.5 million dollars in “incentives” plus another 100,000 for training grants.

Lowe’s spokesman said they chose Indianapolis based on Hoosiers’ “work ethic.”

Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Spokesman, but that isn’t a “work ethic.” It’s desperation for a job–even a crappy one.


Well, F**K You, GOP Study Committee!!

I just read this report from Slate’s Dave Weigel on a Republican Study Committee panel’s advice to candidates on how to talk to us simple womenfolk:

The RSC, like the larger GOP, is on a messaging-to-women binge. North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, a leadership favorite who’s often put forward when the party wants a female messenger on health care or jobs, explained that men failed to bring policy “down to a woman’s level” and thus lost votes.

“Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level. Many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and how, you know, the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that … we need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go.”

Excuse me?

Earth to study committee:despite what you have evidently concluded, intellectually challenged females like Renee Ellmers, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are not typical women. They’re just typical Republican women. You may not have noticed this, since (a) you have spent the past couple of decades taking positions guaranteed to drive intelligent women out of your party; and (b) the men running today’s GOP aren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer, either, if you catch my meaning.

Actually, the utterly tone-deaf and clueless members of that study  committee probably won’t catch my meaning. Or much else.

What’s that term we used to throw around at consciousness-raising sessions in the early days of the women’s movement? Ah yes: sexist pigs.

If the snout fits….

Joseph Stiglitz: Myth Buster

In a recent essay, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz considered “The Myth of America’s Golden Age” and the measures taken by government in 2008 and after to avert another Depression.

The entire piece is well worth reading, but the following paragraph struck me as a perceptive–and straightforward–explanation of this country’s growing inequality.

If our politics leads to preferential taxation of those who earn income from capital; to an education system in which the children of the rich have access to the best schools, but the children of the poor go to mediocre ones; to exclusive access by the wealthy to talented tax lawyers and offshore banking centers to avoid paying a fair share of taxes—then it is not surprising that there will be a high level of inequality and a low level of opportunity. And that these conditions will grow even worse…

When I was a new lawyer, the partner I was assigned to told me something I’ve always remembered: there is only one legal question, and it is “what should we do?”

What’s true for the practice of law is equally true for the crafting of public policies. If Stiglitz is correct–and he clearly is–what should we do?

And in a system that has been profoundly corrupted by money, a system where even well-meaning lawmakers are beholden to rabid base voters whose fears have been expertly manipulated by the oligarchs, how do we do it?

It’s About the Rule of Law, Not Religion

Okay–this will be my last effort to explain why I am so appalled by the decision in Hobby Lobby, and it has little or nothing to do with warring definitions of religious liberty.

If Hobby Lobby were a sole proprietorship or partnership, and the Court had ruled that the Free Exercise Clause gave the owners the right to disregard a law of general application based upon their religious beliefs, I might or might not agree with the decision, but I would  see the issue as one falling properly within a long line of jurisprudence.

But Hobby Lobby–”closely held” or not–is a for-profit corporation.

When people choose to do business using the corporate form, the law grants them certain benefits that are unavailable to individuals. Most significantly, they are shielded from personal liability. If someone sues Hobby Lobby and wins a huge judgment, they can recover from whatever assets the corporation owns, but they cannot “pierce the corporate veil” and take the owners’ personal assets.

That protection against personal liability is the main reason for the legal fiction we call a corporation, and it is meant to encourage people to go into business. In effect, the government says to potential entrepreneurs “If you’ll engage in economic activity, we’ll protect you from a significant measure of risk. You may lose the business, but you won’t lose your house.”

In return for that protection, however–in return for limiting both your risk and the amount that someone you may harm can recover–the public has a right to expect you will follow laws passed by Congress that are applicable to corporate commercial ventures, whether you like them or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby want the benefits of corporate form, but not the obligations. Their argument was essentially that the rule they didn’t like shouldn’t apply to a company with “sincerely” religious shareholders.  They asked the Court to pierce the corporate veil and treat the company as a sole proprietorship, for this purpose only. (At one point, the majority explicitly noted that the company wanted to act in accordance with its owners’ religion without losing the benefits of the corporate form.)

The rule of law and the Equal Protection Clause both require government to treat equally-situated people (fictional or real) equally. In its ham-fisted effort to advantage certain religions (does anyone think the outcome would have been the same if a Muslim-owned corporation had wanted an exception from laws inconsistent with Sharia?), the Court’s majority has announced its willingness to apply the rules selectively and arbitrarily.

There are many things wrong with this decision, and Justice Ginsburg’s scathing dissent identifies most of them. But in my opinion, the damage done to the rule of law is the worst.