Who told him how atheists think?

When I commented that Michael Gerson is full of wrong ideas, I didn’t expect him to so quickly be the gift that keeps giving, this time with a ramble about questions unanswerable by atheists. I am not an atheist, so Mr. Gerson’s nonsense isn’t directed at people like me. Many of his assumptions are, because the questions answered by belief in Mr. Gerson’s god rely on irrationality. For example:

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

How do we choose? This is a trick question, right? How about we use our subjective reasoning to decide what we value most. I could be cruel to someone weaker than me. The opportunity presents itself and it’s in human nature to act on that. Why not act on it?

Mr. Gerson knows the answers, of course, although he only offers one option for the atheist (and non-religious).

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

It’s not particularly absurd to claim that a fear of bad consequences influences our behavior. If a person has a marginal appreciation for what we consider ethics and morals, however and from wherever they derive, the fear of bad consequences will matter. If that person values something, but is unconcerned with taking from another to acquire it, the threat of prison looms. (Except for politicians, of course.) So he makes a choice. Society responds accordingly, if he chooses what it prohibits.

But that’s not all there is, of course. Mr. Gerson seems compelled to believe that God put in many wonderful features in human nature, yet he implicitly dismisses any concept that atheists might value these features more than the opportunity to cruelly exploit, rage uncontrollably, and so on. If atheists understand that such negatives exist, even if they believe them to be a result of evolution, surely they are capable of understanding and acting on the positives. Such evaluations are subjective. Without God, the evaluation is not doomed to embrace Lord of the Flies.

All of this leads Mr. Gerson to conclude that atheists and theists alike agree that humans “have an innate desire for morality and purpose”. Right, because it’s human nature. This is complicated? But theists are somehow acting rationally because they believe that God is in control of this. Atheists?

In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

Do atheists never find love? Purpose? Meaning? The evidence doesn’t hold up, of course, because there are more than enough atheists to disprove Mr. Gerson’s ridiculous assumption. But it’s pleasant to know that believing in a loving god who has us all “destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire” because we cave to the negative temptations of human nature he presumably gave us is the only reasonable and justifiable position.


Mr. Gerson makes this statement as parenthetical aside in his column, so I didn’t include it in my primary focus. Still, it’s worth mentioning because Mr. Gerson has made this error before.

… An irreverent trinity — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn’t approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.

Forced genital cutting without medical indication is genital mutilation. Forget spiritual tyranny. It is physical tyranny. Mr. Gerson can advocate for the circumcision of male children as often as he likes, and dress it up with as many biblical references as he pleases to justify such mutilation. He will be wrong every time. The medical facts do not support him, but what he implicitly argues here, that circumcision is acceptable because people attach religious meaning to perpetuating it upon male infants, is irrelevant. We live in a civil society of guaranteed, inherent rights. The right to remain free of medically-unnecessary surgery without explicit consent is among those rights.

I will repeat myself as often as necessary. Any god who would demand such an abomination is not a god who deserves respect or allegiance.

House Backs Meddling in Different Ways

When writing legislation to tinker with an already broken system, it’s best to understand which assumptions are flawed. First, the set up:

House Democrats pushed through legislation yesterday that would boost government-subsidized student loans and other college financial aid by $18 billion over the next five years, despite strong opposition from Republican lawmakers and a White House veto threat.

The legislation, passed in a 273 to 149 vote, would cut interest rates on federally backed student loans in half and increase Pell grants for low-income students. It would pay for the measures by slashing subsidies to lending companies by about $19 billion over five years and use about $1 billion of remaining savings to reduce the federal deficit.

Cutting subsidies is always good, but to divert the savings to grants and interest-rate cuts, as if Congress can legitimately and arbitrarily cut them to a desired rate and have the outcome be economic efficiency is folly of the highest order. This plan will no more help students go to college affordably than anything else Congress has tried since it began subsidizing higher education.

But that’s not the fun part. Consider this:

House Republicans also offered a plan yesterday to substitute increased Pell grant funding for the interest rate cuts. They said they favor that approach because more of the money would be targeted to lower-income students, whereas interest rate cuts benefit middle-income borrowers as well.

The most fundamental flaw in higher education is the silly notion that government policy should establish parents as best suited to pay for college. Nonsense. College students are adults, and should be expected to bear the burden. If their parents want to pay, fine. That’s a decision within the individual family. Government should not step in the way.

But undergraduates are almost exclusively lower-income students. They would be lower-income borrowers. If the student’s parents are middle- or high-income, but choose not to pay for college, how is that student any different than the student whose parents would pay for college if they could afford it? The outcome is exactly the same, except the student whose parents are lower-income will get free money from the government. Once again, the government is picking winners and losers based on criteria other than facts.

I wonder why?

[Rep. George] Miller said the changes were necessary to make college affordable to all Americans. “We have an obligation to make sure that students have the maximum opportunity to take advantage of a college education,” he said.

Congress does not have any such obligation. It only has a Constitutional obligation to stay out of the market for college and student loans. If having a college degree is so wonderful, and my two degrees suggest I think it is, supply and demand will sync without help from Congress.

Full disclosure: I received Pell grants all four years as an undergraduate. I also had to repay a significant portion of my student loans early because it was in my mother’s name. Government requirements wouldn’t let me borrow everything in my name, even though I received zero financial support. I repaid the loan early because it was restricting my mother’s access to credit for her needs.

There is a comparison to be made.

I hadn’t planned to offer any discussion of male circumcision from the story in yesterday’s entry about FGM. However, it’s important to highlight this description from the article.

The term female circumcision [sic] covers a range of procedures from minor symbolic cuts to the genitals to attacks that involve the complete amputation of external body parts.

That matches what the WHO says about FGM. The question is obvious, but almost everyone wants to ignore it. Why is even a minor symbolic cut on the genitals of a female minor always unacceptable [ed. note: it is], but undeniably more destructive cutting on males is okay?

Because we can look into the future and find potential benefits? Because we pretty up the surgery with religious or cultural significance? Those can be valid reasons for an adult choosing it for himself (or herself), but when applied to children (of either gender), they are nonsense.

Before anyone gets upset, yes, this matters when comparing female to male genital cutting:

Police said instruments such as rusty tin can lids, razor blades and broken glass have been used to cut them, and thorns used to stitch up the wounds.

I’ve always acknowledged that the difference in degree between female and male genital cutting is significant. FGM is also often done to repress or eliminate female sexual pleasure. I readily concede both points.

But neither point is always the case when a female’s genitals are cut. The justifications can be similar. When those non-medical reasons are applied to females, we dismiss them, often labeling them misogynistic. We see through the irrationality.

With males, we are blind. As I’ve said before, it takes more than a clean operating room and good intentions to justify genital surgery on children. Gender should be irrelevant. This is an issue of cutting the genitals of a child without medical indication.

Fighting FGM in Western Countries

Regardless how many laws we make against an activity, that doesn’t mean the activity will cease. The Female Genital Mutilation Act prohibits all medically unnecessary genital cutting on female minors in the United States. Such a law is appropriate and should’ve arisen the first time lawmakers became aware of such barbarism. That it took until the middle of the 1990s is absurd. Still, I am not naive enough to think FGM doesn’t occur either in America or to American girls taken outside the country.

Britain is no different, so London police are making a direct effort to bring attention to FGM:

A £20,000 reward has been offered to bring the first person in the UK to justice for performing female circumcision.

A clinic in London is treating up to 500 women every year for health problems linked to female circumcision.

[Metropolitan Police’s child abuse unit] warned that many children are taken overseas during the summer holiday to undergo the procedure.

I’m saddened that we live in a world where police have to offer a reward for people to bring such criminals to justice. If that’s what it takes, though, so be it. I don’t imagine we’d find much resistance in the U.S. to such a tactic by police.

Partisanship vs. the People

Michael Gerson, who’s too regularly full of wrong ideas, discusses child health insurance in today’s Washington Post.

The column is useful enough, since it discusses how to get children covered by health insurance, as well as a glossed-over failure within the existing government structure of providing insurance for children. There’s room for disagreement, despite his opening suggestion, but his conclusion is better than creating a new bureaucracy to do what the government already does. (The government shouldn’t be doing this, and his solution for adults is lacking.)

One sentence is worth excerpting. The story is lost a bit when reading this in isolation, but the context remains.

Fulfilling the most basic parental responsibilities can’t be legislated.

Why not? Politicians (and pundits) seem convinced that many such actions can and should be legislated. At least in Virginia, the laws for restraining children minors under the age of 16 while riding in motor vehicles suggests that basic parental responsibilities are legislated.

I happen to agree with his original statement. (We legislate feeding children sufficiently, for example, but that’s not what Mr. Gerson means by most basic.) As he mentions in his column, almost 6 million children eligible for Medicaid or State Children’s Health Insurance Program aren’t signed up because their parents haven’t filled out the paperwork. That makes no sense. I’m sure most of those 6 million children aren’t signed up because their parents don’t know they’re eligible, but I don’t see how a free society can force people to sign up for public insurance, just because they’re eligible. Providing health care to their children, yes. Accepting public assistance, no.

When we hear that 47 million Americans don’t have health insurance, that means 250 million do. We should learn from the majority more than we decipher problems from the minority. I’m left wondering why, with programs already available, we should create new programs for children and adults in the hopes that we’ll eventually get to everyone. Shouldn’t we investigate why parents aren’t signing up for something that already exists rather than create a new boondoggle that will fall short of politicians’ plans? Our current crop of presidential candidates don’t think so, so the real lesson is that big government conservatism and big government liberalism are more interested in big government than political philosophy. Surprise. Won’t single-payer health care be fun?!?


A little Michael Gerson bonus, extending from his statement. As he concluded in his Independence Day column:

In America we respect, defend and obey the Constitution — but we change it when it is inconsistent with our ideals. Those ideals are defined by the Declaration of Independence. We have not always lived up to them. But we would not change them for anything on Earth.

So what’s in the Declaration of Independence that Mr. Gerson cherishes?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How is same-sex marriage, which Mr. Gerson opposes, not the pursuit of happiness? Is he going to get ignorantly stuck on the reference to the individual’s Creator, read that as a euphemism for his God, and call government intervention okay? He clearly believes he can legislate happiness. If he believes we can’t legislate the most basic parental responsibilities, why not? Legislating signing up for insurance is easier and likely to be more effective than legislating happiness.

One more, just because it’s worth pointing out.

From the same Sen. Obama speech:

If you’re willing to teach in a high-need subject like math or science or special education, we’ll pay you even more.

The central planner always knows best which area is a “high-need”. Should Sen. Obama become president and get this change through Congress, welcome the coming glut of math, science, and special education teachers. And they’ll all be making more money, without concern for supply and demand. Really, who needs to worry about such bothersome economic laws. Sen. Obama knows, and he’ll direct government to benevolently provide.

Who believes that government can never be the core problem?

Looking at the speech where Sen. Barack Obama discussed the idea of merit pay (from yesterday), it’s not hard to figure out that, while he may truly be interested in fighting for merit pay in schools, he’s not interested in reform if it doesn’t conform to rhetoric.

The ideal of a public education has always been at the heart of the American promise. It’s why we are committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers. Because in America, it’s the promise of a good education for all that makes it possible for any child to transcend the barriers of race or class or background and achieve their God-given potential.

Everything wrong with Sen. Obama’s candidacy is wrapped up in one paragraph. Vouchers – public financing without public provision – equates to nothing more than “abandoning” our schools, and presumably our children. I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm.

Exhibit A:

There’s no better example of this neglect than the law that has become one of the emptiest slogans in the history of politics – No Child Left Behind.

But don’t come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind. …

He’s right that No Child Left Behind is a flaming turd. Worse, it’s a federal flaming turd, when the federal government has no legitimate authority to insert itself into public education. But if he thinks that it’s a flaming turd only because it doesn’t have enough money backing it, even if the extra money goes to better pay¹ for quality teachers, he’s either an opportunist or a moron.

Let’s assume he becomes president and fixes the unfixable No Child Left behind by throwing more money at it, even if it’s only to offer merit pay to teachers. Is it a cheap shot, or merely pointing out the obvious, to suggest that if those children “transcend the barriers of race or class or background and achieve their God-given potential”, Sen. Obama will be more than happy to have government take a considerable portion of the fruits of that achievement? You know, to level the playing field.

When liberals progressives talk about equality, they never mean equality of opportunity. Never. It’s always equality of outcome. Sen. Obama wouldn’t be advocating single-payer health care with huge tax increases if he didn’t advocate equality of outcome.

To be fair, I’m sure he’s being honest when he says he wants children to reach their potential. (Why the need to include “God-given”, if not to appear religious?) But that leaves him, at best, as inconsistent and unprincipled. I want consistent principles in a president.

Link to Sen. Obama’s speech courtesy of Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post.

¹ I guess the assumption isn’t that bad teachers shouldn’t make less than they currently make. They’re paid correctly. We need more money to pay the good teachers. Wouldn’t a voucher system or other privatizing plan achieve the same thing, if that’s the right problem with teacher pay? What if it’s not the right problem with teacher pay?

The wheels of injustice turn quickly in China.

Kip has a running series titled “China is Still a Dictatorship”. See if you think this news fits that:

Moving to address mounting concerns about the safety of its exports, China announced Tuesday that it had executed the former head of its food and drug safety agency for accepting bribes in exchange for approving substandard medicines.

At a news conference, State Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Yan Jianyang said officials like Zheng Xiaoyu — who was sentenced to death in May after he was found guilty of accepting cash and gifts worth more than $800,000 — had brought “shame” to the agency and caused serious problems.

There are arguments here about the death penalty, as well as whether or not bribery should result in a death sentence. (The substandard medicines Zheng approved caused deaths, if I’m not mistaken, but I understand the charges to be bribery rather than something related to those deaths.) But Zheng was sentenced in May. Roughly two months from conviction to execution. I have a hard time believing that China is capable of quality appeals in two months.

I’m not confident China is capable – or interested – in quality appeals, which is ultimately the larger issue. Commenting on reforms to food safety standards, this:

The reforms show that “the Chinese government is a responsible government and has placed a great deal of importance on the quality and safety of its exports,” said Lin Wei, the deputy director general of the Import and Export Food Safety Bureau.

The Chinese government is not responsible. It is a dictatorship and it behaves like all dictatorships. Forgive me if I fail to admire it for its economic “miracle” and foray into what can not even loosely be defined as capitalism.

Politicians should get merit-based pay.

Andrew Sullivan links to discussion about Barack Obama floating the idea of merit pay for teachers. I wonder if the idea has any staying power. In the system we have, it’s necessary and there should be no resistance to such common sense. Of course, debating this distracts from the need to get government out of the provision of education, but we may need to try smaller market-based reforms first. So be it.

It won’t make me vote for Sen. Obama, though. I have a hard time getting excited about a politician wanting to give some people a pay raise when all he intends to do with that raise is tax it more than it’s already being taxed. That’s nothing more than a shell game. I’m not interested.

Stirring Incomplete Information from Michael Moore

I touched on this yesterday, especially in the comments, but Michael Moore has trouble with facts. I wouldn’t call him a liar, because he’s a skilled propagandist. The facts, out of context, are still the facts. Forget that such abuse of context fails to reveal anything intelligent about policy. As long as it’s a fact, it can be defended.

That’s his tactic today in challenging CNN’s reporting on Sicko, with the requisite omission of any context. For example, Moore praises Cuba’s health system, although the WHO ranks Cuba 39th compared to the U.S. ranking at 37. Moore rebuts this “gotcha” moment from CNN by stating that he put this figure in the movie. Fair enough; I don’t doubt that he did. He’s generally guilty of omission, not commission. He’s a propagandist, so no surprises.

What he fails to do is provide any context for those rankings. The latest link I can find describes it’s methodology in determining that ranking:

In designing the framework for health system performance, WHO broke new methodological ground, employing a technique not previously used for health systems. It compares each country’s system to what the experts estimate to be the upper limit of what can be done with the level of resources available in that country. It also measures what each country’s system has accomplished in comparison with those of other countries.

WHO’s assessment system was based on five indicators: overall level of population health; health inequalities (or disparities) within the population; overall level of health system responsiveness (a combination of patient satisfaction and how well the system acts); distribution of responsiveness within the population (how well people of varying economic status find that they are served by the health system); and the distribution of the health system’s financial burden within the population (who pays the costs).

Broke new methodological ground. Oh, and employing a technique not previously used for health systems. Don’t forget comparing to what the experts estimate. Is it possible to have methodological flaws, or to at least draw irrelevant conclusions based on estimates?

But let’s get to the last two measures. For distribution of responsiveness, how many people in the United States are denied adequate health care, a question independent of whether or not they’ll face an economic burden from that health care? In the answer, would you rather be the average American or the average Cuban? I suppose if you believe that Moore’s visit to Cuba first-rate hospitals was more honest than mere propaganda from a Communist state, the answer isn’t obvious. But any answer other than the U.S. is wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we have the financial burdens perfectly figured out, which is the last measure from the WHO. Again, no one is denied medical care, which should matter. Moore ignores that when he (apparently¹) fails to mention long waits and rationing for essential services in countries with single-payer health care. But specifically to funding, it’s not objective to decide that too many people face economic ruin (not a percentage of bankruptcies, as Moore states, but how many people?) from the system we have, so we should place the burden exclusively on taxpayers. That’s a pre-determined solution without concern for the actual problem, which is economic burden.

If we’re looking to reduce the economic burden from a health crisis, insurance to cover catastrophic medical care is the way to go. Have people pay for their own preventive care, or buy separate insurance for that, if they choose. But disentangle coverage for catastrophic events from coverage for routine care. The current situation we have where the two are co-mingled is largely a government-created problem. Fix the broken government incentive problem by removing improperly targeted incentives, such as tax-subsidized employer health insurance.

Instead we’re left with disingenuous framing of the problem while ignoring what would actually resolve the issues we face. This quote exemplifies focusing on wrong assumptions:

“It is especially beneficial to make sure that as large a percentage as possible of the poorest people in each country can get insurance,” says [Dr Julio Frenk, Executive Director for Evidence and Information for Policy at WHO]. “Insurance protects people against the catastrophic effects of poor health. What we are seeing is that in many countries, the poor pay a higher percentage of their income on health care than the rich.”

Dr. Frenk’s opening sentence is fine, if he understands the true problem. The rest of his quote suggests he does not. If he understood, he would’ve stated that insurance against catastrophic medical events protects people from the catastrophic financial effects. He didn’t, offering only the empty, obvious fact that the poor pay a higher percentage of their income on heath care than the rich. Of course they do, just like the poor pay a higher percentage of their income on food, housing, gasoline, clothing, and every other generally necessary expense. This is not news, nor is it specific cause for government intervention through economic redistribution² and health care financing and provision, contrary to what Moore believes.

Moore also thinks the 20 to 30 percent of Canadians who disapprove of their waiting times for health care don’t matter. The minority never matters to a populist, or the liberty lost to mob rule. Now ask yourself if Moore’s comparison of American and Cuban infant mortality rates, for example, might have a bit more nuance than he’s letting on.

Link to Moore’s rant via Boing Boing. Moore’s rant on CNN here.

¹ Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Sicko. Viewing it isn’t necessary for my analysis here. Also, I have no respect for the WHO, since it promotes a gender bias in unnecessary, forced genital cutting, and it’s incapable of understanding that circumcision to prevent HIV infection is better suited for sexually active adults who volunteer for the procedure based on their own evaluation, rather than forcing the surgery on infants who will not be sexually active for well over a decade.

² I wonder what Dr. Frenk’s position would be on taxes to pay for health care. Would he be as distressed that the rich pay a (much) higher percentage of their income in taxes than the poor? If it’s about fairness in percentage, a little fairness in analysis might be useful.