Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Sex and Neo-Platonism Commission

...sed noli modo

No cross, no crown. With that economical maxim the old Methodist preachers summarized their theology. “For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure”, writes Saint Paul, “bear no comparison with the splendor yet unrevealed.” Secular versions of the idea are not difficult to find. “Anything worth having is worth striving for”. On the other hand, we hear that such and such isn’t worth the hassle, or the aggro, or the whatever—suggesting that if such and such were something else, it might be worth it.

I have been led to ponder these ascetic tropes in the course of the recent “debate” about the wisdom of increasing the federal debt ceiling. In particular I was struck by President Obama’s advocacy of a “balanced approach” that involves “shared sacrifice.” To sacrifice means voluntarily to give up something good or desirable with the aim of achieving something better and more desirable, or at least something of necessity on which the very possibility of the good and the desirable may depend. He speaks also of sharing the pain. No pain, no gain. Again the language used to express the view that present unpleasantness is the necessary prerequisite of future bliss has been interesting. We hear of having to “take the plunge” or “take our medicine”. The British Prime Minister, who of course talks Brit-speak, bravely “seized the nettle” of budget reform. One of President Obama’s curious expressions was new to me. He said we had to “eat our peas”. That one doesn’t work for me. There is nothing more delicious than peas, especially when young and not overcooked, and even more especially when served up with a little chopped onion and maybe some shards of fatback. The pea is much to be preferred to the lotus, and we have already done too much national lotus-eating.

As regards the fiscal crisis, I actually do believe in a balanced approach, if by that what is meant is a program that might balance our books. They are very unbalanced at the moment, so unbalanced in my view that the only plausible road to equilibrium necessitates both significant economies (aka “cuts”) in the bankrupting entitlements of Medicare and Social Security and significantly augmented revenues (aka “new taxes”) for the national Treasury.

What makes the achievement of this balanced approach a mere pipe dream is the Augustinianism rampant in Washington. Augustinianism has infected our Congress, and holds the President as a thrall. Yes, I do refer Aurelius Augustinus, alias Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430); but the Augustinianism I have in mind is that of the callow youth, not that of the mature bishop. He was one of the most famous Christian converts in all history, and the history of his conversion the most famous in all literature. Like the Congress, like President Obama, Augustine knew what he had to do, but sought ingenious ways to postpone it.

Young Augustine longed for the God of the Christians, but two obstacles blocked his way: sex and neo-Platonism. That is a dilemma that even across the ages most readers will be able to at least half understand. Augustine fretted a great deal about these matters, and with regard to the sex bit he prayed especially hard. He prayed one of history’s more famous prayers: Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, he implored the Lord, sed noli modo. “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet!” In other words, he chose to temporize by turning the question of his salvation over to a Sex and Neo-Platonism Commission— of course with sex and neo-Platonism “off the table” from the start.

Sex probably is better off the table, actually, and the concept of neo-Platonism on a table is too postmodern for my old mind. I am sure you grasp my point nonetheless. It concerns the fecklessness of our elected officials. Augustine’s actual moment of conversion, when it did come, was dramatic and nearly instantaneous. He walked into a garden with a bible, sat beneath a tree, and heard the sing-song voices of children at play repeating the phrase Tolle, lege; tolle, lege. “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” He picked it up and read it. I’d give the same advice to our elected officials. The it could be, among so many other volumes in our grim library of discontents, the national balance sheet, the front page of most world newspapers, the report of the last Budget Commission, or the last poll of public opinion concerning the quality of work done by the Congress. Just tolle, 


  1. I can't help a little "yes but..." here because I think there are forces who are not looking at the national balance sheet in anything like a disinterested fashion. These people want two things (1) Obama to fail and thereby not be reelected (2) a very tiny to non-existent government in the Pre New Deal sense of the word. If in the course of things this also means America suffers (and a lot of Americans suffer), that's simply the price to be paid to "get our fiscal house in order".

    This is Newspeak for "get that African American (and possibly African born American) with his hoity-toity views, Savile Row suits and glib articulateness out of the "white" house and let's get back to the good old-fashioned America of the Eisenhower years."

    The American system isn't working because some people don't want it to.

  2. Dear Professor,

    It has been some time since I studied or commented at your estimable blogspot. Your comments on the recent debt ceiling fight in Washington, however, prompt a few reflections.

    First of all, I am surprised that a man of your evident literary abilities and your knowledge of twentieth-century ideological literature does not recognize the President's pronouncements for the Marxist-Leninist codswallop they are.

    You don't seem to understand that what the President means by a "balanced" approach is a further assault on the producers in our economy, and a further weakening of our country economically and militarily.

    The President himself has said that the most important thing about taxes for him is not raising revenue for the Federal government, but "fairness." He explicitly said so when asked what he would do if it were shown that lowering the capital gains tax rate would increase revenue.

    If the socialists who control the White House and Senate were actually interested in increasing Federal revenue, they would lower the tax rates. That's the remedy that worked for President George W. Bush, President Ronald W. Reagan, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and President Calvin Coolidge.


  3. (continuation)

    The economist Thomas Sowell recently published a 3-part article in Investor's Business Daily (you can begin reading it here: http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/Article/578623/201107181638/Dissecting-The-Demagoguery-About-Tax-Cuts-For-The-Rich.aspx) in which he described the effect of the tax rate cuts during the Coolidge administration. In part, Sowell wrote as follows:

    "The facts are unmistakably plain, for those who bother to check the facts. In 1921, when the tax rate on people making over $100,000 a year was 73%, the federal government collected a little over $700 million in income taxes, of which 30% was paid by those making over $100,000.

    "Revenue spiked as tax rates were slashed.

    "By 1929, after a series of tax-rate reductions had cut the tax rate to 24% on those making over $100,000, the federal government collected more than a billion dollars in income taxes, of which 65% was collected from those making over $100,000.

    "There is nothing mysterious about this. Under the sharply rising tax rates during the Wilson administration, fewer and fewer people reported high taxable incomes, whether by putting their money into tax-exempt securities or by any of the other ways of rearranging their financial affairs to minimize their tax liability.

    "Under Wilson's escalating income-tax rates to pay for the high costs of the First World War, the number of people reporting taxable incomes of more than $300,000 — a huge sum in the money of that era — declined from well over a thousand in 1916 to fewer than three hundred in 1921. The total amount of taxable income earned by people making over $300,000 declined by more than four-fifths in those years."

    The rest of the 3-part article is just as good, and you will be both educated and entertained by reading it all.

    However, it also has to be said that increasing Federal revenue will never suffice to close the deficit gap that the Obama administration's socialist program has opened up. Federal revenues remain fairly close to where they have always been, in the income tax era, at about 18 to 19 percent of GDP. What has drastically increased under Obama is the spending, which is now far more than the 21 to 23% of GDP it has been.

    Taking money away from the creators and producers and putting it in the hands of bureaucrats will not help the economy and create jobs. Allowing small businesses to invest themselves the wealth they create will do so.

    As to whether our government is "working" or not, I would have to say that the Founders would probably think that it is working rather well, and in accordance with their plans for a weak and divided national government.

    The fact that an anti-American Marxist-Leninist President can't seem to push through 100% of his desires does not prove that there is anything wrong with our system. The contrary is true. The fact that during 2 years of his administration, when his Party controlled both Houses of Congress, he was unable to destroy any more of our institutions than he has, is proof of the resilience and wisdom of the Constitution.

    Of course, that failure may also be laid at his inexperience, narcissistic personality, and incompetence.

    And as far as the Eisenhower years mentioned by your previous commenter are concerned, black people made far more economic and political progress during the Eisenhower administration than during the Obama administration. Black unemployment is now higher than it was under any previous President.

    Face it, Professor, when you voted for Obama you were hoodwinked and bamboozled.


    Your friend Punditarian