Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Decisively Noncommittal

There are two phrases that economists use (frequently) that pundits, activists, and politicians just hate: “it depends,” and “all other things held equal.” As it turns out, whether something is true or false absolutely depends on these two relativistic phrases. I understand that they do not create ideal conditions for political frenzy, and that they do create the unpleasant necessity of actually studying the issue, instead of just screaming about it, but that’s life. Deal with it.

Case in point: “quantitative easing” and inflation. Conservatives seem to have reached the shrill pitch of a dog whistle over the Federal Funds rate and current monetary policy. The consensus orthodox Tea Party position seems to be that: 1) abnormally low interest rates created conditions of low returns, forcing lenders to make riskier loans, and 2) increases in money supply driven by the Treasury will cause inflation to spiral out of control. These arguments are driven by simple macro-economic heuristics that may or may not hold true, depending upon circumstances. What people don’t seem to be willing to do, either because it doesn’t serve their political purposes or just because they have no idea what they’re talking about, is to actually look at the data and question the assumptions which underlie their arguments. You might, if you actually cared to know the truth, ask the following sets of questions:

  1. . Does the Fed actually control commercial interest rates? What’s the relationship between the Federal Funds rate and the prime rate? If they move together, what explains the difference? Is it random? What market factors drive that difference? You might, having asked these questions, be in a better position to test the hypothesis (or unreasoned assertion) that Fed policy led to risky lending. Just sayin’.
  2. If money supply is increased, what is the prevailing tendency on inflation? What happens to Treasury yields for long-term notes? Are these tendencies currently being observed? If not, what other factors could influence Treasury bond yields? What happens when we take into consideration GDP growth and employment? What if we look at sentiment about other currencies and foreign sovereign debt?

Yes, Wally, you do actually have to ask these questions, and they really do matter. They matter enough to make something true or false, and not just the little insignificant somethings, either. I’m not arguing that these positions have no merit – I’m just arguing that they need to be argued. Start with the data. As some of you may have noticed, I created a WolframAlpha widget and added it to Contrendium. No commercial interest, but you should go check them out.

Create your own queries and widgets – you will be amazed by how much cool data they have. At least play with MacSanitizer (my widget). Want to test that thesis about money supply and inflation? Go for it. The Federal Funds rate and the prime rate? Have a ball. Cumulative Federal debt and Treasury yields? Knock yourselves out. People can make any argument they wish, but to quote Deming, “In God we trust . . . all others must bring data.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Contracepting Conservatives

I’m sorry, guys, but you’re not getting it both ways on this one. Unless there’s a clear Constitutional basis for excluding homosexuals from the benefits of marriage (I am not, of course, discussing the sacrament of marriage – only the social entitlements of the state’s recognition of some sort of unique and prolonged state of unity, whatever you may wish to call it), then the argument must be that marriage between man and woman brings some unique benefit to the state, and therefore deserves social protection and patronage. And, if this is the contention, then it must be made on the basis of Natural Law.

Conservatives love Natural Law. We abhor the notion that law may simply be posited on the caprice of the judiciary. We believe that the world is structured in such a way that careful observation and the application of reason allows us to discern a right way of living, and that this transcends the vicissitudes of fashion and culture. For this reason, there is not just “law,” but “good laws” and “bad laws.” Laws are good insofar as they express the natural order of things, and God’s intention for how we live our lives, individually and communally.

And so if we are to contend that marriage between man and wife is a relation that contributes uniquely to the social good, we ought to be able to identify a specific difference – some aspect through which this relationship is different from all others. The specific difference does not wholly express that relationship, but it is that through which we differentiate one kind of thing from another. Thus, we say the specific difference of man, through which he is differentiated from beasts, is rationality. I don’t mean that I think he is just rationality – but it is the part of man’s “whatness” that I can put my finger on that allows me to see that my children and my pets are, indeed, very different kinds of beings. At least on their better days (my children’s, that is).

Although there are many kinds of intimate and loving relationships, there is one unique to that between man and wife, and that thing which makes it unique is the begetting and rearing of children. Just like “rationality,” I do not think this difference sums up the entirety of the married state, but it is the thing which is different about this love than the love between parent and child or the love between dear friends, or any other human relationship. This relationship is not unique in the state by some random assertion. Deep down to its very roots, it is unique.

When we say that somehow technology has liberated us from the natural constraints of marriage, what we are really saying is that it has liberated us right out of what marriage is. A thing is always defined by its limits. You might want to see how far those limits extend, but you can find yourself going to a point where you have left the thing behind, altogether. In this conquest of technology over nature, and the reorientation or reduction of the conjugal act towards pleasure (or I will even grant “intimacy”), we have lost an appeal to the unique difference in the relation between man and wife to other unions and relationships that fulfill a variety of human needs and appetites. Why, indeed, should this new order of marriage between man and wife be considered as fundamentally different from these other relationships? And if we are to afford this relationship special privileges and benefits, on what basis are we to argue that this differentiation is rational or just? It makes sense for an insurer, for instance, to deny coverage of obstetrical care for men, the basis of this discrimination being the unavoidable fact that men don’t have a uterus. That natural and undeniable fact is the reason we consider this to be common sense, and not really discrimination. It’s not a question of rights, or of justice. It just is.

I am not arguing that there is absolutely no differentiation between homosexual relations and marriage where contraception is a given. I’m just arguing that when we accept contraception, we have given up the single most important basis for differentiation in human relations. The conservative position on marriage will inevitably fall, unless conservatives return to the traditional teachings of the Church. It may take time for homosexuality to become an accepted social norm, but it will happen. When it does, any abstract theoretical distinctions will prove to be an inadequate platform for legal distinctions. Marriage, as we know it, will become a meaningless term.