Blue pill or red pill? No, it’s not the iconic scene from The Matrix, where Neo is given the choice of staying in his computerized dream world (blue pill) or leaving the Matrix and discovering reality (red pill). It’s President Obama boiling down the complex issue of health care reform on television last night: “If there’s a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price for the thing that’s going to make you well?”

The Matrix: Blue Pill or Red Pill?

Washington Examiner columnist David Freddoso had this to say:

In last night’s press conference, President Obama seemed to be reliving that famous scene from The Matrix. The main character is offered a choice between a red pill that makes him see reality for what it is, and a blue pill that allows him to continue living in a pleasant world of illusions.

Last night, President Obama appeared to have taken the blue pill before his press conference. How else could he convince himself, the Congressional Budget Office’s numbers notwithstanding, that his health care reform bill will not increase both health care costs and the federal deficit? How else can he continue to make the argument that a massive expansion of government spending on health care will solve rather than exacerbate the current problems? How can he repeatedly express such absolute certainty that such a measure will easily pay for itself several times over in the long run? Why can he not at least acknowledge the possibility that it will become a costly and useless trillion-dollar boondoggle that follows in the footsteps of his stimulus package?

For an Acton Commentary on the problems with socialized medicine, see this piece by Dr. Donald Condit.

Also, Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a health policy research organization, spoke at the Acton Lecture Series on the topic “Can We Repair What’s Wrong with our Health Care System through Christian Principles?” An online video of this excellent speech is available here.

We’ve said a lot already and will probably say a lot more about health care reform—its importance justifies the attention—but here are a few brief responses to President Obama’s remarks last night (based on the prepared notes posted at the White House web site).

If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. These are the consequences of inaction.

I agree that reform is necessary. The potential for cost-savings by enhancing competitive incentives and bolstering individual responsibility is enormous. The proposed plans currently in congressional committees go the wrong way, and therefore, inaction is preferable.

If you already have health insurance, the reform we’re proposing will provide you with more security and more stability. It will keep government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it.

It is hard to believe that this claim is sincere. Obama has made a “government option” an essential element of any reform. A government option will almost certainly drive out private options, no matter how many promises concerning level playing fields are made. It seems reasonable to read this statement as, “If you’re very rich and money is no object, then you’ll be free to maintain expensive private insurance that contains all the special interest and ideology-driven mandates federal regulators will enact. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with government health care.”

I have great health insurance, and so does every Member of Congress.

He’s on to something here. Federal employees don’t participate in Social Security, for example: they have a separate retirement program that invests actively in the stock market and delivers returns far superior to the New Deal dinosaur that the rest of us are compelled to fund [This claim in the original post is erroneous; see correction in comments below]. Any health reform plan must cover federal employees, including Congress. And no escape clauses (as in public schooling, which more than 4 in 10 congresspeople opt out of by sending their children to private schools): Members of Congress must be affected by health care reform in the same way that a majority of Americans are. So if a majority ends up covered by the public option, then every member of Congress must also be so covered (and no international medical tourism permitted).

A recent Fox News piece on President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, makes for spooky reading, dramatizing where well-intended intellectuals can end up when they take a zero-sum view of our planet’s resources.

In a 1977 course book that Holdren co-authored with environmental activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the three make an extended case for aggressive global population control. As the Fox News article explains:

Holdren and the Ehrlichs offer ideas for “coercive,” “involuntary fertility control,” including “a program of sterilizing women after their second or third child,” which doctors would be expected to do right after a woman gives birth.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “such a program therefore is not practical for most less developed countries,” where doctors are not often present when a woman is in labor.

The Most Dangerous Game

The article provides a pdf of the relevant pages of the 1977 course book (go here). Reading these several pages makes it difficult to take seriously a statement by Holdren’s office that Dr. Holdren “does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth.” At best, a passage at the end of 788 and the beginning of 789 suggests that the three authors would happily opt for less coercive measures, provided those measures work to their satisfaction.

Holdren and the Ehrlichs are not alone. There’s a long history, dating back at least to the 1700s, of doomsters insisting that population growth coupled with a scarcity of natural resources will very soon ruin civilization.

What’s behind this pessimism, a pessimism apparently immune to contrary historical evidence? In Acton’s new Effective Stewardship DVD curriculum, soon to be released by Zondervan (go here), Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico puts the matter in philosophical and theological context. There he argues that the problem is rooted in a false anthropology, one in which the doctrine of the imago dei is eclipsed, and with it the powerful role of human creativity:

There are many people, including religious leaders, who say that the essential problem is a problem of resource, and that if it’s a problem of resource then it’s a problem of population. This is what I call humaniphobia.

The image in the humaniphobe’s mind is that the human person is one big mouth that is constantly ingesting, and then polluting.

On such a view, humans are the problem rather than the solution. The takeaway question is this: Do we really want to hand our health care over to the U.S. government when a science adviser like Holdren has the president’s ear?

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In the July 22 Wall Street Journal, the editorial staff takes off on Congress for “bashing career colleges.” As a recruiter focusing primarily on manufacturing industries — where machines pound, pour, slit, weld, paint and deliver what the public demands and the guys up front have been able to book — I’ve noticed an increased lack of capable and eager young people for both the jobs on the shop floor and the ones in engineering.

The WSJ article suggests that career schools are looked at disparagingly by the state house and D.C. subsidy providers because they are mostly private and make profits. And I can testify to their being expensive because I’ve interviewed those who went to these schools for IT and “programming” training and have been told what their college loan balances are. They are not cheap at all. The larger question is why they have a place in the market.

At a high school I’m familiar with in southern California — I dare say at more than one — there is a thoroughly equipped wood shop. But the teacher on staff has only one course — CADD design. The machines are silent. And the same goes for many Catholic boy’s high schools that at one time filled the gap for a young man whose talents trended toward the engine of a car and not finding allusions in the poetry of Alexander Pope. “It’s all college prep now,” my very good Christian Brother friend informs me.

Well, if you read Charles Murray — I know, but let’s move past The Bell Curve for now, okay? — what you discover is a huge amount of research material that points toward an inescapable conclusion that not everyone should be going to college per se. “But, oh my God,” your wife intones, “what will they become without college?”

Those of you who’ve read my stuff over a period of time know I’m a movie guy. I periodically watch stories that give me an inspirational boost. In The Cowboys staring John Wayne, a rancher enlists the help of a dozen mostly pre-pubic young men from the town’s one-room school to help him drive his herd north for sale. It’s obviously a tough labor market. We learn it’s due to a gold rush. Wayne’s character doesn’t suffer fools easily but that’s not a bad thing and the boys are quickly transformed with the assistance of the hired cook played by Roscoe Lee Browne.

Along the way they meet a fellow who lies, has been in prison, tried gold but it required digging and has veered toward something he’s good at — taking other people’s property. His end is just. These are not boys anymore.

Murray suggests that the regime of college — and here let me be clear that I’m talking about a curriculum that presupposes a high school of preparation — is not suited to more than 30% of the population. While our culture has embraced “thinking man” and “debunker man” we’ve allowed “working man” to be neglected and looked down upon. That’s a bad thing. We’re not all rocket scientists and we all can’t get jobs working on rockets. And I have to tell you from experience, even jobs in exciting innovative industries can be menial to some who work there. I’ve listened to them complain.

When Leo XIII issued Rerun Novarum in 1891, a transitioning world and industrialization were in full stride. A division of labor was developing as processes became more complex than plant-harvest-eat. And we know markets are slow to adapt and unless all of us are on the straight and narrow — yea, lots of luck — we’re likely to meet guys like the one in the movie who takes “other people’s property” for a living. The operative word here is property because our talent, our time and what it provides us is OUR property. But this works only in a world where certain truths are known and become part of our formation as persons.

For me in my clumsy way — this is my understanding of Benedict’s reminder in Caritas in Veritate. And my illustration of the cattle drive strives to incorporate an example of subsidiarity — in this case a small family business. Just look at all the things it provided those boys, even the ones who didn’t make it home.

So, what do we do with Murray? The WSJ people are assuming that the only place we have to go is from where we are. But that means were laying courses on top of a foundation — oh God, I’ve used Obama’s illusion — that may not have any reinforcing steel in it. You know, lots of soil is expansive and steel helps tie things together. [Does "How firm a foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord" come to mind?]

It’s very illuminating to read letters from our Civil War soldiers to loved ones. They’re eloquent and most contain allusions found within the good book they had learned to read at home. They were mostly farmers and one among many children. And their letters are far better written than most emails I receive and covering letters sent to me with resumes from many who think they’re ready for the world of work.

We need to start school all over again, from scratch. And yes, there are models.

Back in 1983, economist Thomas Sowell wrote The Economics and Politics of Race, an in-depth look at how different ethnic and immigrant groups fared in different countries throughout human history. He noted that some groups, like the overseas Chinese, Japanese, and Jews, tended to thrive economically no matter where they went, bringing new skills to the countries that they arrived in and often achieving social acceptance even after facing considerable hatred and violence. Other groups, like the Irish and the Africans, tended to lag economically and found it difficult to become prosperous.

Sowell explained many of these differences by looking at the cultures both of the immigrant groups and of the dominant powers in the countries that they moved to. The Chinese, Japanese, and Jews, for example, valued work. They often arrived in countries with little more than the clothes on their backs, but they worked long and hard hours in menial labor and saved money scrupulously to make life better for their children. Even if they lacked social acceptance, they were allowed the freedom to develop their talents and contribute to the economic life of their new homes.

Irish and African cultures were never offered these opportunities. Ireland’s feuding lords had prevented hard work from being rewarded in Ireland, a situation that only got worse with British occupation. Sowell shows how Africans were similarly discouraged from working hard because slavery and the Jim Crow Era made it impossible for skills and effort to pay off in better standards of living. So long as hard work never paid off, there was no incentive for Irish or African cultures to emphasize entrepreneurship, and the members of these ethnic groups suffered from poverty rates much higher than those of other populations in the places they lived.

Fast forward to 2009. With many of the institutional barriers to the advancement of ethnic minorities gone from most countries, historically disadvantaged groups are catching up with the general population in economic terms. Pope Benedict revisited the theme of economics and culture in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, coming to similar conclusions as Sowell does about the role that culture plays in the development of the human person. (more…)

The ius gentium, or law of nations, has an important place in legal history. Variously conceived, the law of nations often referred to the code of conduct for dealing with foreign peoples according to their own local, national, or regional standards. As a form of natural law, the ius gentium has often been appealed to as a basis for determining what has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone. It’s an approach used, for instance, with some qualification by C.S. Lewis in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man, “Illustrations of the Tao.”

It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (it includes input from Brad Pitt on the question “Can I Answer My Cell at a Movie if It Seems Urgent?”) and risqué (to be generous), but the editors at Wired magazine have developed a set of rules for digital behavior, in conjunction with a group of social scientists who determine descriptively what the proper etiquette for life in the 21st century. In “How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans,” the feature takes a “scientific approach” in determining the “new rules.”

As NPR’s All Things Considered reports, Wired editors faced the problem of determining normativity. “There was a lot of subjective opinion on how to behave,” Wired editor Nancy Miller says. “We sort of decided that the best way to go about this was the Wired way, which is try to find a scientific approach … to explain why and how we behave like we do, and what makes sense in this new era of technology.”

What we have in this Wired magazine article is something like an attempt to articulate the ius digitus, the law of the digital world as gleaned from its own sources. Potentially, at least, such a method might prove helpful, if not comprehensive. Awhile back I sketched out a framework for ethical digital discourse, and interacting with the established or not-so-established norms of digital behavior seems to be an important line of development.

Buzz Aldrin walks on moonToday marks the 40th Anniversary of the one of the greatest feats of human exploration, courage and innovation: man’s setting foot on the surface of the moon.

Responding heroically to the challenges of the “Space Race” (while its arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union, was clearly in the lead), the United States stood proud to represent the free and enterprising West. To put the challenges of victory into perspective, America was running adrift amid pretty rough waters at the time: two great wars in Asia had taken their tolls on the government’s treasury; cities and communities were torn by civil riots; national inflation was escalating at a record pace; and an irreversible paradigm shift was occurring in its traditional moral values. Sound painstakingly familiar?

Yet, America loved (and still loves) challenges and risks. It excels (and still wants to excel) under pressure. It was the land forged by underdogs, the under-rated, the under-financed, while driven by an ever-zealous entrepreneurial optimism and creativity when facing life’s “insuperable” obstacles.

And all these great values were apparently at stake, as the United States stood boldly united to beat the Russians in a manned-mission to the moon. Americans knew full well that the tides of history would be turned against them had the Hammer and Sickle been raised before the Stars and Stripes on that powdery lunar desert. The American “brand” of innovation and entrepreneurship its citizens had worked so hard to achieve would have received a disgraceful black-eye. (more…)

Rev. Robert A. Sirico had two recent appearances on Relevant Radio’s Drew Mariani Show to discuss the new social encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI.  His first appearance was prior to the release of the encyclical and he explained how Christians who support the free economy believe that it should not be based on greed.  To have a just society, we must have just people.  When money becomes the end of a person, and a person’s whole life is directed to that end, Rev. Sirico points out that then a person is destroyed.  Finally, he closes with an important message: If we do no understand love then we do not understand ourselves because we are the result of God’s love.

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In his second appearance, Rev. Sirico explains why Pope Benedict XVI does not have any intention to declare himself in the middle of a political debate with the release of Caritas in Veritate.  The pope does not recommend a political model.  Instead, Caritas in Veritate is meant to lay down the principles on how to govern a society.  The encyclical accepts the reality and benefits of a market economy but states a market economy does not contain the moral guide that a society needs.  Rev. Sirico also asserts that the ambiguities that are in Caritas in Veritate are intentional.  Certain principles need an application which requires the virtue of prudence.  The pope allows ambiguity because this will foster a debate and from the debate the Church can gain a greater insight from what it is trying to get to and then re-articulate its message.  Rev. Sirico reminds us that it is important to understand that the Church’s social teaching is not a dogmatic pronouncement that is not debatable.  Instead, it is a dynamic process.

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Kathryn Lopez, editor of National Review Online, has a Townhall.com column on Caritas in Veritate titled, “Liberal Catholics Can’t Handle the Truth.”  Lopez looks at the commentary on Caritas in Veritate, especially by the left, and shows why the encyclical should not be politicized.  The encyclical is about truth, which can not be bent to advance a political agenda, she asserts.  Kishore Jayabalan, director of Acton’s Rome office, was also quoted in Lopez’s article:

Neither side . . . seems ready to take Benedict’s theology — his own field of expertise — seriously. Part of this is a result of our habitual, liberal-democratic tendency to separate Church and State and not let theological arguments influence our politics. This tendency invariably blinds us to the pope’s combination of respect for life with the demands of social justice. … Reading ‘Charity in Truth’ for partisan purposes can yield moments of agony and ecstasy for left and right alike.

Both Jayabalan and Lopez remind us to read Caritas in Veritate without politicizing it or categorizing it left or right.

John Hartley, the founder and editor of the International Journal of Cultural Studies, does for that journal something like what I did for the Journal of Markets & Morality awhile back. He takes his experience as an editor to reflect on the current state of the scholarly journal amid the challenges and opportunities in the digital age.

Hartley opens his study, “Lament for a Lost Running Order? Obsolescence and Academic Journals,” by concluding that “the academic journal is obsolete,” at least as regards to its “form – especially the print journal.”

There are a number of particular assertions made in support of this conclusion with which I would quibble. I stand by the prediction in my earlier piece, “Scholarship at the Crossroads: The Journal of Markets & Morality Case Study,” (PDF) in which I state, “for the foreseeable future electronic journals will not replace print journals, but both will exist together in a complementary fashion, each addressing different demands.”

But Hartley’s is an interesting and valuable perspective on the impact of digitization on academic journals. And I certainly agree with him that the complete digitization of journals and casting off the printed form “may reduce collegiate trust and fellow-feeling, increase individualist competitiveness, and inhibit innovation.”

He’s also certainly right in his preferred response to such possibilities: “In the face of that prospect, I’m going to keep on thinking about covers, running orders, referees and reading until the role of editor is obsolete too.”

One of the conclusions that resulted from the JMM case study was that instead of unlimited free access to all journal content, we would distinguish between “current” issues and “archived” issues. The former would require subscription to be accessed digitally, and the latter would be freely accessible (with some exceptions for special content). Thus far this solution seems to have worked well, despite the argument by some that in the “network” economy, “value is derived from plentitude” rather than scarcity.

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