Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bring back the fire

In many ways, America was founded by a tax revolt. Yes, human rights and the freedom of individuals against authoritarian governments were the sacred principles, but taxation -- governments confiscating from people the fruits of their labor -- was one of the primary violations of rights and liberty that spurred our founders to take up arms against the crown. That anti-tax spirit has remained strong and even somewhat bipartisan ever since, as evidenced by the 1960's "JFK tax cuts" being passed under LBJ, and by Ronald Reagan's sweeping cuts helping propel him to a 49-state landslide reelection, and by even the tax-loving Bill Clinton being forced to promise lower rates in order to get elected.

But unfortunately, these days we don't hear as much griping about taxes these days as we used to -- at least not in public -- and that does not bode well for public knowledge or national vigor.

As reported yesterday in this article, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, Americans spend more money each year on taxes than they do on food and clothing combined. The average annual household tax bill is $10,489, whereas the average annual food-plus-clothing bill is $9,006, which works out to a difference of more than 16 percent. Perhaps more alarming, that tax bill increased by more than 45 percent from 2013 to 2016 (from $7,203 to $10,489) and that sure as hell ain't because the average household income increased by that much.

These days, if anyone complains about taxes they will be told by noisy know-nothings that they are nothing more than greedy money-grubbers who only care about "tax cuts for the rich." What they don't realize is that that average annual household tax bill does not come only in the form of federal income taxes (which plenty of low income families don't pay) but in the form of all stripes of federal, state, and local taxation.

One big problem is that millions of Americans are economically harmed by taxes but are unaware of it, thanks (?) to paycheck withholding. They never think about what they are paying because it gets heisted from their own paychecks before they ever see it; and since they don't have to write a check or hand over their debit card number when April 15th rolls around, they do not realize what they are being forced to shell out.

The same is true with sales taxes. They get added to the bill when you pay for dinner, buy a new jacket, or whatever, but because you don't swipe a second transaction to send money to Master Government, it never quite registers in the brain how much you're paying Master Government.

And it's not like we are getting a good return on investment from all those tax dollars we shell out. Our infrastructure is out of date and questionably maintained. Our electrical grid is not hardened to protect it from an EMP attack that would wipe it out and instantly send us back to the stone age. In many ways and in many jurisdictions, our justice system is anything but. Our metastasized bureaucracies stifle our personal freedom and obstruct our ability to innovate. And although our military is well-armed, in many areas of vital importance it is shockingly shrunken and spread way too thin.

It is long past time for the American people to reassert their control over the American government. Becoming mad as hell about the taxes we are forced to pay would be a good first step in that direction. 'Tis time to rekindle the anti-tax fire that has fueled our nation from the start.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Kickoff Time

The first two games of the 2017 college football season take place tonight, so it feels right to republish my post from nine years ago:

College football finally returns this week, and in the coming month campuses will come alive all over the land. From Baton Rouge to Boulder and Clemson to Corvallis and Morgantown to Madison, alumni will return in their RV’s and the aroma of beer and beef will waft through their tailgate parties.

There is nothing on earth like college football. Because a single loss can take you out of the running for the national title and maybe even your conference title, college football has the most important regular season in all of American sports.

It is the only sport in which you can win every game but one, yet the whole year is remembered in a bad light because the one loss came against your archrival. Likewise, it is the only sport in which a season-ending win against your archrival can turn an otherwise bad year into one worth celebrating.

In different corners of America, longtime rivals play for chintzy but endearing objects: Minnesota and Michigan for the Little Brown Jug, Purdue and Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket, Tennessee and Kentucky for the Beer Barrel.

Alumni from different schools argue that not only does their alma matter have the best football team on any given Saturday, but that every aspect of their alma matter is better than every aspect of every other school in America.

It is obvious that Auburn’s “War Eagle” is the greatest fight song ever played. Yet Michigan grads will tell you that no song is as stirring as “The Victors.”

It is obvious that the sweeping angles of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium make it the best place on earth to watch a football game. Yet Arizona State grads will tell you there’s no better place than the upper deck of Sun Devil Stadium at sundown, from which you can watch a game and see the desert turn to fire at the same time.

And it is obvious that Auburn-Alabama is the most heated rivalry in the world. Yet, inexplicably, some will say that title belongs to Michigan-Ohio State or Texas-Oklahoma or Army-Navy.

Meanwhile, Tennessee grads claim that the greatest pre-game tradition in America is the procession of their Vol Navy, when alumni arrive by boats on the Tennessee River.

And Wisconsin grads claim that the greatest post-game tradition is their Fifth Quarter, when the band stays in the stadium to play and the fans stay in the stadium to party, regardless of who won.

As someone who was born and raised in the Tampa Bay area, I watch Bucs games while feeling my stomach boil with intensity, but I have little interest in spending hours of my life watching other professional games. On the other hand, as someone who graduated from Auburn, I watch Auburn games while feeling heart-stopping anxiety – and I also watch any other college game that’s on TV when Auburn is not. I will stay up into the wee hours of the morning to see Boise State vs. Hawaii and enjoy every minute of it.

College football fans do things like that. And they wonder about all kinds of topics that relate to the sport but not to their school, such as: Will Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno end the year with more career victories? Will Ohio State make it to the national championship game yet again, only to get embarrassed yet again? Will Notre Dame continue its downward spiral that enables millions of Americans to revel in schadenfreude?

No other sport can match college football’s blend of pageantry, passion, and season-long drama. So cue the marching bands, let the cheerleaders adorn our televisions, and let us all argue about who’s number one. I am ready.

Note: It's interesting to re-read this post and think about what has changed. Bowden and Paterno are no longer coaching... Paterno is no longer even walking the Earth, and his once stainless reputation has been shredded by the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal... Ohio State has, yes, made it to the national championship; but far from getting embarrassed, the Buckeyes won it resoundingly... the BCS has given way to playoffs... a lot happens as time passes, my friends.

Monday, August 14, 2017

V-J Day

72 years ago today, the bloodiest war in human history came to an end when Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The announcement of Japan's surrender set off celebraions around the globe, including the one in Times Square during which this iconic picture was taken.

After six years, during which more than 60 million people from 27 different countries were killed, World War II was finally over. In the United States, August 15th came to be known as V-J Day, for Victory in Japan Day, since our European enemies had surrendered three months earlier.

Despite the fact that America was brought into the war when it was bombed by Japan, and despite the fact that atomic weapons were used to hasten the war's end, and despite enormous cultural differences, the two countries became strong and lasting friends whose alliance is now one of the most dependable on earth.

That is a direct result of the respectful and helping way America dealt with Japan after the war ended. One of the reasons we are unique in world history is that as conflicts conclude, we always seek to befriend our antagonists and to better their lot as well as our own. That fact needs to be burned into the hearts and minds of those who believe America is always the aggessor.

In my younger days, V-J Day was noted on calendars. Today it is not. This is not how it should be.

The Greatest Generation is rapidly passing to the other side of eternity's veil. Before its members are gone, may the rest of us thank them for the freedom they transmitted to us. And may we resolve that their sacrifice shall never be forgotten, and that it shall not have been made in vain.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thoughts on Divinity: Part 3 of ?

This is the third post in a series about God and the evidence that He exists. The first two can be read here and here.

My previous installment argued that the meticulous workings of nature could not have resulted from random chance; in other words, that the facts of life on Earth, made possible by Earth's placement at this precise distance from the sun, furnishes overwhelming evidence of a Creator.

That premise is far from original.

Going back at least as far as Cicero (who died in 43 B.C.) many thinkers have expressed variations of the watchmaker analogy, which holds that the universe functions in ways that are as finely tuned as an always-accurate timepiece, and that it thus implies the existence of a divine watchmaker. Those thinkers include such scientific titans as Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes.

Thomas Paine was one of America's most brilliant founding fathers. He was also an opponent of organized religion, and his 1794 book The Age of Reason fiercely criticized many parts of the Bible itself. Yet, based on logic and deduction, even he was a firm believer in the Divine -- so much so that right there in The Age of Reason he stated "the creation we behold is the real and ever-existing word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaimeth his power, it demonstrates his wisdom, it manifests his goodness and beneficence."

The same year Thomas Paine died in New York, a baby was born in Shrewsbury, England, who would grow to up to become a leading man of science. At the age of 50, that man wrote a book and concluded it with a sentence in which he professed that life was "originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one." At the age of 64 he remarked that (emphasis mine) "the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God." Six years after that, in a private letter, he wrote the words "I have never been an Atheist." That man was Charles Darwin, and the book in which he talked of life being "breathed by the Creator" was On the Origin of Species, the very same one in which he posited the theory of evolution.

Three years before Darwin died, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany. Einstein also lived to assert "I am not an atheist," and in 1936 he wrote that (emphasis mine) "in all the laws of the universe is manifest a spirit vastly superior to man, and to which we with our powers must be humble."

Francis Collins, who currently heads the Human Genome Project and is director of America's National Institutes of Health, wrote the following for CNN: "I have found that there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship."

The more we learn about science (whether the science be biology, astronomy, physics, or anything else) the more evidence we find that the world and universe were deliberately designed. Not only do we find more evidence, we find continuously stronger evidence, for we always learn that nature is even more complex and entwined than we thought the day before but that it continues to hum along no matter what -- like a flawless watch crafted by an infallible watchmaker, if you don't mind me going back to the old analogy.

But of course you would never know this by listening to the combined forces of our cultural vanguards and mainstream media, or as I have decided to start calling them, the CMC, for Culture-Media Complex.

The religion of choice for members of the CMC is atheism, though they often try to obscure that fact by calling themselves merely "agnostic" or "secular." And in order to advance and defend their religion, they wield the exact same tools they accuse preachers from other faiths of using: fervor and rigidity.

The CMC's fervor and rigidity are evident from the way its members start off by suggesting that they are smarter than those who believe in God, then use that suggestion to automatically dismiss the thought that there might be empirical evidence of God. With a figurative wave of their hand and implied roll of their eyes, all they need do is utter that "everyone knows" there's no evidence of God and that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded, and their like-minded co-stars and co-hosts nod in agreement and start tsk-tsk'ing about Bible-thumping rubes in backwater hick towns. All the while, no one in the CMC ever gets asked to provide any support for what they say, and none of them ever get asked to comprehend or even acknowledge the many rational reasons for thinking differently than they do.

Unfortunately this same impulse (to wall one's self off from opposing thoughts and evidence) plagues the world of science as well. And the impulse is exponentially worse in the world of science, because even though scientists are supposed to evaluate all evidence and consider all possibilities before reaching any conclusions, many of them do the exact opposite when it comes to the central question facing humankind. They are humans, not robots, and just like poets and politicians and accountants and everyone else, scientists can be very guilty of the ancient sins of pride, arrogance, and pre-judgment; their job title does not erase their humanity, nor does their schooling prevent confirmation bias in their work.

Scientists, seemingly above all others, should grasp the enormity of the conundrum I mentioned in my previous post when talking about how life on Earth could have come to be after the big bang: "The number of things that had to happen just so and fall into place just so for all this to occur is so large that it is impossible to calculate. What are the odds that all these things could randomly happen precisely as they needed to, and in the exact order they needed to? The odds are so small they can not be measured or even conceived, which, mathematically speaking, means the odds are zero."

Of course there is no shortage of scientists who have looked at the conundrum and concluded that a deity exists. Their conclusions are also based on their evaluation of the bottomless intricacy of life's continued existence, for example the functioning of gills that allow fish to breathe underwater; the presence of hundreds of different kinds of wings that allow thousands of different kinds of creatures to take to the skies; the physiological slowdown that allows Siberian brown bears to survive the long foodless winter by hibernating until it's over; and the symbiotic relationship between Joshua trees and yucca moths that allows both species to survive in the harsh habitat of the Mojave uplands, where a disappearance of either species would cause the other to go extinct.

But of course there is also no shortage of scientists who reflexively ignore the conundrum without giving it a passing thought, who never bother to look at evidence of a deity because they reject out of hand the very notion of a deity. Their knee-jerk rejection of contrary input is decidedly unscientific and renders them extremely vulnerable to the second half of Keirkegaard's warning: There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Regrettably, the CMC automatically portrays scientists from the latter camp as credible and those from the former camp as nutty... and meanwhile, scientists from a third camp -- those who have yet to study the matter, or who have started to study it but have not yet drawn conclusions -- seem practically invisible because they aren't mentioned at all... and this state of affairs is shameful, because it leaves billions of us ordinary people misinformed about the topic that happens to be the most important one in each of our lives.

To be continued...