Yard Sale of the Mind

The Price is Right

Quote of the Day

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 24, 2014

The particular topic being addressed is secondary to the general applicability of this statement:

After the tired thoughtlessness of USA Today, it’s almost refreshing to get a real argument by someone who’s deeply read on the subject, even if he is a heretic. 

Testify, brother! It’s so refreshing to read a real argument, even when the steps are faulty and the conclusions are wrong, after being dirtied for so long under the mud-slinging that is often passed off as argument. Like, for example, the ‘argument’ being dissected here.

Posted in Catholicism, Culture | Leave a Comment »

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 21, 2014

Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises).

(Deacon: The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.)
Deacon: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Deacon: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

It is truly right and just,
with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.

Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.

These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.

This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night
that even now throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.

This is the night
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!

happy fault
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!

This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.

The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
a flame divided but undimmed,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honour of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.

O sons and daughters, let us sing!
The King of Heaven, the glorious King,
Over death today rose triumphing.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

That Easter morn, at break of day,
The faithful women went their way
To seek the tomb where Jesus lay.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

An angel clad in white they see,
Who sat, and spake unto the three,
“Your Lord doth go to Galilee.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

That night th’apostles met in fear;
Amidst them came their Lord most dear,
And said, “My peace be on all here.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

When Thomas first the tidings heard,
How they had seen the risen Lord,
He doubted the disciples’ word.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

“My piercèd side, O Thomas, see;
My hands, My feet, I show to thee;
Not faithless but believing be.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

No longer Thomas then denied;
He saw the feet, the hands, the side;
“Thou art my Lord and God,” he cried.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

How blessed are they who have not seen,
And yet whose faith has constant been;
For they eternal life shall win.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

On this most holy day of days
Our hearts and voices, Lord, we raise
To Thee, in jubilee and praise.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

(The internets have semi-failed me yet again! Where is the version of this beloved song sung by a medium sized, good, enthusiastic choir at non-dirge tempo? This version has a descent tempo, and the singers are OK, but the acoustices  suggest 5 people in college dorm bathroom. But let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o – this is a happy occasion!)

Posted in Art, Catholicism, Culture, Music | 2 Comments »

Good Friday of the Most Holy Triduum

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 18, 2014

Some appropriate music:

A nice bit from Choral Public Domain Library about the Lamentations of Jeremiah:

The Lamentations have received a peculiar distinction in the Liturgy of the Church in the Office of Passion Week. If Christ Himself designated His death as the destruction of a temple, “he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21), then the Church surely has a right to pour out her grief over His death in those Lamentations which were sung over the ruins of the temple destroyed by the sins of the nation.

The text of the above, just a snippet from the Lamentations:

Chapter 2

2:8 HETH. The LORD determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he marked it off by the line; he restrained not his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament, they languish together.

2:9 TETH. Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the LORD.

2:10 IOD. The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have cast dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the maidens of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.

Victoria also did a beautiful setting of another part of the text:

May the blessings of Our Lord be upon you this Triduum!

Posted in Art, Catholicism, Music | Leave a Comment »

Math in the Real World: Case Study

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 17, 2014

A couple of smart guys working for a giant company everybody has heard of are given an impossible task: Build a model that generates usable economic numbers reflecting behaviors for which there are no data.

Monte Carlo Integration screenshot 1 - Monte Carlo Integration is a model that helps you view a simulation of this algorithm.

Sorry if I’m being too vague here – it’s just business. The model is fairly straight-forward: a few user inputs, a bunch of basic arithmetic, a tiny bit of algebra – and, bada-boom, you got some numbers that look reasonable.

Except for one thing: one critical piece of information comes from a Monte Carlo simulation of expected behavior for which they have no data. The philosophical question: what does it even mean to do a Monte Carlo simulation on data you don’t have?

Now, these guys are smart – they know they don’t have the data. But the boss wanted a model, so they built one, right on down to an embedded Monte Carlo simulator. What does it simulate? Why, whatever you want it to! They thoughtfully built an interface that allows four different methods by which a user could input (made up) data to drive the simulation, which dutifully provides a range of possible outcomes, each with an estimated likelihood expressed as percentages out to 2 decimal places – an outcome of X is 13.72% likely to obtain, for example. These values, when plugged into the rest of the model, generate numbers upon which economic decisions will be made. Real money is intended to change hands as a result of the output.

It’s all very beautiful and accurate sounding. My role in all this: to give an opinion as to whether the model as explained could be implemented as part of project I’m working on. Sure! It’s just a bunch of math. We can implement math all week long and twice on Sundays! (Whatever that means.) Of course, I did venture that actually using it would in fact generate the sort of data needed to make it useful – that they would obtain as feedback the actual pertinent information they currently lacked. Therefore, the strategy should be to try hard not to loose their collective shirts before they have enough real data to populate the model well enough for it to generate meaningful results. Then, lose the model, use the hard-won data, and Bingo! everybody makes a lot of dough. In theory, at least.

We’ll see how this goes. The model is expected to be refined over time. No plan for how the key refinement – getting the actual data upon which you build the simulations – was offered. Maybe they have one they didn’t share, who knows.

Posted in Business People, Skepticism | Leave a Comment »

A Happy, Holy & Blessed Holy Thursday!

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 17, 2014

Mystical Supper, Simon Ushakov (1626-1686)

Let’s go with the King James translation:

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Genesis 1


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

John 1


48 I am that bread of life.

49 Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.

50 This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.

51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

52 The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

55 For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

57 As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.

58 This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

John 6


26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;

28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

Matthew 26


16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

1 Corinthians 10


Then, we have St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of Peter and John, from around 110 AD:

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chs.6-7

Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.

Letter to the Philadelphians, Ch. 4

…and so on, through the ages, down to the present day.

In the lovely Catholicism series, Fr, Barron makes a great point: the Christ in John 1 is He through whom everything described in Genesis 1 was created. By His Word, everything that is came to be. What He says becomes what He tells it to be – that is what it means to be the Creator. So, when says “this is My Body” and “this is My Blood”, His Word makes it so – it is His Word that has called  into and sustains everything in being.

The Triduum is more the feast of the Incarnation than even Christmas and the Annunciation. Those beautiful feasts announce Christ’s entry into time, while the Triduum shows forth the fullness of the Incarnation in supper, sacrifice and glory. The Triduum announces our entry into eternal life as members of Christ’s Body.

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Random Flotsam

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 7, 2014

1. Tyson recalls (not fondly, one assumes) 75,000 lbs of nuggets -

Tyson Foods last week said it is recalling 75,320 pounds of frozen chicken nuggets because they could contain small pieces of plastic in the filling, a situation that has already caused injuries to consumers unlucky enough to bite into the tainted nuggets.

I post this only because “Tainted Nuggets” would be a pretty good name for a rock band.

2. This is not what this story is about. It appears under Google’s Science news feed.

Researchers net ‘zombie bass’ with electricity

Not this:

Zombie Fish

Shark, bass – whatever. The internets let me down: no pictures specifically of zombie bass. My life is naught but a swamp of disappointments…

But rather:

Momentarily incapacitated by a weak electrical charge that’s fed into the water from a boat equipped with a humming generator, fish large and small floated motionless to the surface during an electrofishing trip last week. They were scooped up with a net and placed into an aerated holding tank.

Eyes wide and mouths agape, stunned fish were measured, weighed and checked for illnesses and parasites. Within a few minutes the animals snapped out of a zombie-like state, and workers put them back in the water to swim away.

Oh. Never mind.

3. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Getting Major Makeover

About time. Ever since they lost track of all that valuable air and space, something needed to be done.

Next, someone needs to look into the 16 1/2 prime acres missing from the Field Museum.

(On a geek-out note: a few years back, took the family to D.C. on our way to a family wedding – of all the very cool things in the Air & Space museum, the Me 262 had me twitching: first production jet. Like how the Monitor ironclad got all the wooden warship orders cancelled, once that Me 262 went jetting past the wonderful state of the art prop driven P-51 Mustangs, the era of prop-driven fighters was effectively over. Anyway – they have one of the very few surviving Me 262s there – they look like lethal catfish.)

4. Mars finally comes to opposition this week

After years of laboring under false consciousness, Mars, the God of War,  finally grasped the fundamental and all-explaining TRVTH of Marxism, and crossed over to the more Progressive camp in Parliament, joining the not all that loyal opposition….

Oh, wait – that’s not it at all! It’s the word ‘finally’ that threw me – like, we were waiting impatiently for Mars to get around to opposition? Heck, Ptolemy could have told you when the opposition was going to take place with more than passing accuracy.

5. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Pluto Is Not A Planet So ‘Get Over It’. Big whoop. I’m not even going to link to this. What gets me is how some fairly arcane classification system gets developed over time, and people in charge of it think somehow it makes any difference at all to the rest of the world. It reminds me of the New Atheist gotcha about the Bible classifying bats as birds, therefore no God – nobody asks who gets to make up the classification categories,  when they get made up, and whether it makes any difference to anybody who is not a specialist.  Or Melville having Ishmael make a long argument in the middle of Moby Dick about whales being fish or not.

So: if you are not teaching astronomy, go ahead and call Pluto a planet if you feel like it. It just doesn’t matter what the professional astronomers want to call it. NdGT (yes, he is now a set of initials, with a precious small ‘d’ and everything) will just have to get over it.

Posted in Humor, In the News, Science! | 2 Comments »

Quick Science! Headline:

Posted by Joseph Moore on April 4, 2014

Doh!People use more facial expressions than thought, study says

It’s much easier to smirk or scowl than it is to think. Not to mention that thought is only slightly less rare than Ivory-billed Woodpeckers these days, while facial expressions are just about everywhere.

That is all.



Posted in Humor, Science! | Leave a Comment »

Links and Weekend Update

Posted by Joseph Moore on March 30, 2014

1. Here, in a guest post by Jim Fedako on the Statistician to the Stars blog, is some information on the philosophical stylings of John Dewey, a crucial facilitator of modern schooling in America:

Into the fray—the internecine war between Stalinism and Trotskyism—entered John Dewey. Now Dewey had previously ventured into the Marxist morality play when his “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trial” allowed Trotsky to defend his good name after being tried and sentenced to death in absentia by the Stalinists at the Moscow Show Trials in 1936. That the commission provided Trotsky with a western pulpit to justify his beliefs and actions goes a long way in explaining Dewey’s critique of Trotsky’s defense of Bolshevik morality.

In his response, Dewey agrees with Trotsky in the rejection of moral truths and absolutist ethics:

“Since Mr. Trotsky also indicates that the only alternative position to the idea that the end justifies the means is some form of absolutistic ethics based on the alleged deliverances of conscience, or a moral sense, or some brand of eternal truths, I wish to say that I write from a standpoint that rejects all such doctrines as definitely as does Mr. Trotsky himself, and that I hold that the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed.”

Yet, he also claims, “The liberation of mankind is an end to be striven for. In any legitimate sense of ‘moral,’ it is a moral end.” That Dewey claims the existence of a self-justifying, absolute truth—the liberation of man—while rejecting the existence of such a truth shows a serious misstep in logic. But such is life in progressive academia.

Read the whole thing.

2. Click the link to Dewey’s full essay – now, there’s some thinking for ya:

But for my present purpose, it is important to note that the word “end” is here used to cover two things – the final justifying end and ends that are themselves means to this final end. For while it is not said in so many words that some ends are but means, that proposition is certainly implied in the statement that some ends “lead to increasing the power of man over nature, etc.” Mr. Trotsky goes on to explain that the principle that the end justifies the means does not mean that every means is permissible. “That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind.”

Were the latter statement consistently adhered to and followed through it would be consistent with the sound principle of interdependence of means and end. Being in accord with it, it would lead to scrupulous examination of the means that are used, to ascertain what their actual objective consequences will be as far as it is humanly possible to tell – to show that they do “really” lead to the liberation of mankind. It is at this point that the double significance of end becomes important. As far as it means consequences actually reached, it is clearly dependent upon means used, while measures in their capacity of means are dependent upon the end in the sense that they have to be viewed and judged on the ground of their actual objective results. On this basis, an end-in-view represents or is an idea of the final consequences, in case the idea is formed on the ground of the means that are judged to be most likely to produce the end. The end in view is thus itself a means for directing action – just as a man’s idea of health to be attained or a house to be built is not identical with end in the sense of actual outcome but is a means for directing action to achieve that end.

In this one hears the clear echo of Pierce’s Pragmatic Maxim:

Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.

Pierce and perhaps Dewey would have been appalled by the mass murder and mayhem that became the means to achieve the effects that the objects of Stalin’s conceptions had – but that would be quibbling over matters of taste and style, as there is no objective measure of horror and evil – it’s just however much you can stomach. Stalin could stomach plenty, and there’s nothing much else to say about it. Not that Dewey and other apologists don’t say it. The rest of the essay that follows that quoted above is exactly that sort of claptrap – Dewey objects that, no, not everything is permissible – only those things that really work. Or something. Thus, we have our second logical full fail: the first is claiming absolutely that there are no absolutes; the next is basing justification of means on whether they actually achieve the ends – which cannot be known until the ends are achieved. This logical dog is chasing its tail.

Dewey, in a thoroughly modern way, fears only absolutism. If only he had feared illogic and unreason half so much. On the current schedule, I’ll get around to reading Dewey around September, 2019. Ish. So far, just sampled some of his less coherent stuff – this here is frightfully coherent. Not sure I don’t like the opaque and obfuscatory stuff better.

Trofim Lysenko

This guy doesn’t look crazy or anything at all.

3. Yet more Briggs. I just had a wonderful fantasy, in which the efforts of modern Lysenkos to arrest and imprison (and kill, of course – history wouldn’t have it any other way) “climate deniers” leads to an “I am Spartacus” moment among all honest men.

Hey, a man’s gotta dream.

4. You want to know what makes me tired? No? Tough: People who don’t seem to get that having herds of deer in suburbia makes them, you know, an invasive species, to be controlled or even rooted out like so many Asian carp. They are not Bambi. They are only as cute as someone who dies in a car crash after hitting one, or trying not to hit one.

See, in their natural environment, there would not be so many deer that we’d be hitting them with our cars and chasing them out of our gardens daily. Because – follow this closely – in their natural environment, predators would kill and eat them. Their natural predators include wolves, bears, cougars – and people. Soooo, in the Great Circle of Life, we are supposed to kill and eat them. That’s what the Lion King would do, to put it in terms even goofballs can understand. We do not try to feed them birth control bills, or shoot them with birth control  shots.  We do not have them fixed. We eat them. If we don’t, we’re inviting the wolves and bears and cougars to come do it for us – and those predators are plenty smart enough to figure out that a human is a lot less work to kill and eat than a deer.  So, like, we want to be the ones doing the predation, not the ones being preyed upon. Trust me on this.


Darwin Catholic understands.

5. So, as y’all (all three of you) can tell, got a few hours to write over the last few days, so finished up a few drafts. Now, it’s back to the schedule that will pretty much prevent me from writing except on weekends. Try to soldier on.

Posted in Culture, Education History, In the News, Science! | Leave a Comment »

The Nature of Our Addiction

Posted by Joseph Moore on March 29, 2014

Let us assume for a moment that we agree on a few basic points, points frequently made on this blog:

  1. That the education system as it exists now is the product of the efforts of a relatively small group of people who created it to further the goals of Johann Gottlieb Fichte: a docile population incapable of thinking anything their betters don’t want them to think, who have been successfully divorced from the loyalty and honor naturally accorded to their families, native cultures, religions and physical places the better to serve their masters;
  2. That this project has been a smashing success in America and Europe, among other places: that the mindless stupidity and mule-headed stubbornness with which we cling to conventional nonsense, the imperviousness to any real thought or ideas, the slavish sycophancy of the courtier classes in the media and elsewhere – these are the intended results of this project;
  3. That a key and insidious part of this project is to inoculate us against thought: despite all evidence, we are convinced that we are the brightest, most open-minded people ever, and thus must conclusively dismiss any ideas or evidence that suggests otherwise;
  4. That all basic skills that might, if applied to conventional beliefs, cause us to rebel against these controls are to be ruthlessly suppressed or channeled into the service of our betters: it is no accident that history, philosophy, science, math and logic have not only not been systematically taught in our schools, but instead have been rendered so boring and meaningless as to drive off all but a few eccentrics. The claim that ‘I hate math’ for example, is the sign that things are working as planned;
  5. Finally, that to escape from this morass, we need to reject the system of controls that create and enforce it – the compulsory, centrally controlled graded classroom model: drop into culture by loving what the system hates – Great Books, logic, history, science (real science, not Cosmos-level gee-whiz pablum, which merely serves the cause), family, religion and each other.

The progress of this effort across American history is clear. As one wag put it, we’ve gone in 100 years from teaching Greek and Latin in high school to teaching remedial English in college.

For the sake of the following argument, let us assume we agree on these propositions. I contend that this puts virtually all of in the position of an addict, someone whose life has become completely structured around feeding our addiction. Further, when we have those stray moments of epiphany, when the veil begins to lift and we begin to suspect things are not as they seem – that is exactly the point at which all those years of training, all those carefully ingrained habits of mind, kick in to prevent us from having any real thoughts.


gahan wilson flasher

The kimono, I mean raincoat, parts.

Note that I’m speaking here of the products of our schools, which includes here any school that follows the graded classroom model, whether public public, private or religious, with one important caveat: it has only been since the 1930s that a majority of people have been educated this way, and only since the 1940s that almost everyone was, and only since the 1970s that the entire mechanism was universally in place. So, it’s possible, if one is old enough and happened to get schooled in some barbarous hinterland or other, that you got some real education. I, at age 56, managed, in retrospect, to straddle the conversion of Catholic grade school education in Southern California from something essentially subversive to a merely kinder, gentler and more selective version of the state schools. I suspect, in my case at least, that a little education snuck past the schooling. But, fundamentally, I’m as much a product of this system as anyone.  People older than me, especially if they were educated away from the great population centers, stand a better chance of having gotten some real education. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Culture, Education History, Fichte, Politics, Schooling | Leave a Comment »

Math is Remorseless, Redux

Posted by Joseph Moore on March 28, 2014

To expand a little more on the notion of identified beneficiaries and hidden losers:

The model of government action is, perhaps, building a bridge: while the benefits of a bridge might be obvious to the people on both sides of the river, the cost and organization needed to get it built may be beyond any private party’s capabilities. So, money is appropriated by a government from a wide range of taxpayers, an entity is set up to build the bridge. Once completed, the bridge makes travel – and commerce – easier, and the amount spent to build it is eventually recovered by the private sector through the increased economic activity the bridge makes happen. Everybody wins.

Well, not everybody. It is almost certain that some people or businesses got taxed beyond any benefit they personally received from the bridge – they live far away, they’re retired and don’t care, or their activities were otherwise not aided by the bridge. But hey, nothing is perfect in this world, and it’s easy to conclude that the benefits far outweigh the costs, and that the bridge remains a success and a good idea.

But consider cash transfers. A large percentage of government activity is moving money from one set of people – taxpayers – to another set of people. The premise is that the payers have more than they need, and the payees need the money. We are encouraged to think fat cat bankers as the payers, and orphans and widows as the recipients (and to ignore the bureaucratic mechanisms required to effect the transfer, which consumes much, sometimes even most, of the money the payers have paid).

In practice, what happens is often almost exactly the opposite: money collected from middle-class tax payers is transferred to the fat cats, sometimes rather baldly, as in the case where Goldman Sachs paid bonuses out of the money it got as a result of the government bailouts it engineered for its creditors. More often, the tax money gets to the fat cats through a more circuitous route, such as how the makers of name-brand contraceptives, which cost much more than the generics, will now get government funding as part of the contraceptive mandate – a little pork to grease the wheels.

But let’s stick to the cases that are more appealing to Christian sensibilities and less criminally outrageous. We tend to think that the benefits of transfer payments to the needy are clearly greater than the cost. The taxes paid by the middle class is often an average of a few dollars per tax payer for any particular program, an amount we’d hardly miss, yet the program really makes a difference to real people in need.

Now I go to a place that is easily vilified. Please keep in mind that nothing I say here is meant n any way to relieve our Christian duty to care for the poor, nor does it make camels any smaller or needles eye’s any bigger. It’s just math.

Any money you take away from people does not get spent by those people as they might otherwise spend it. Say a worthy program, one that feeds moms and their babies, costs the typical taxpayer $5 a year, and there are 1 million people paying taxes in this theoretical example. OK, so that’s $5 million dollars, of which – we’re being very generous here – the government manages to get $4M to the moms. While a mom is going to spent my $4 ($5 minus the $1 for government administration) on groceries,  as a tax payer, I might have spent that $5 I no longer have on a latte at a local espresso bar – a comparatively frivolous purchase, to be sure.

Now for the repercussions: a local grocery store gets $4 more dollars than it might otherwise have gotten. Ultimately, it and other grocery stores in the area get the whole $4M, since, let us assume, groceries are the only items the moms can buy with the money. The margins on groceries (what the store gets paid for carrots and hamburger minus what it costs the store to put the carrots and hamburgers on sale) is very slim – along the lines of 2-3%. So, with the $120K (3% of $4M) gross margin, maybe the local grocery stores hire the equivalent of an extra checker and a bagger or 3 – at least, this program has made it economically possible for them to do so.

The other $1M goes to pay for the bureaucracy someplace – some office space, a few salaries, paperclips, and so on. If is just so happens to happen locally – that the government agents are located where the dollars would have gotten spent anyway – then the money is not lost, just redirected. Instead of me getting a latte, some government office next door is stocked with paperclips.

That’s if the money is redistributed: the moms and kids get fed a little better, and the grocery stores and the sellers of paperclip make a little more money. And a handful of jobs – something like a few nice government jobs, and a descent checker job and a couple of entry-level bagger jobs – get created.

(At this point, if you’re still awake, you know painfully well why economics is called the Dismal Science.)

If that was all that happened – and remember, we’re using a fairly rosy case here – and if there were only a few such carefully targeted and efficiently run programs, then I don’t think any sane person would object.

But this isn’t all that happens.

Now, let’s look at our frivolous purchase of a latte. Make mine a large Peet’s, 2%. The margin on lattes is pretty darn good – not sure about Peet’s in particular, but I’d bet over 50% gross, and maybe 15% net. (Starbucks had a 13% net profit on all its operations – I’m guessing lattes are among the better margin products.) So, using these numbers, and assuming everybody spends the $5 on lattes that they didn’t pay in taxes to feed mothers and babies, the espresso joint in the area take in an additional $5M, which, at 15% margins, gives them a profit – there’s that dirty word – of  $750,000. If they wanted to, they could hire about 3o employees at $10/hr. Some of those employees might even be single moms with babies, who knows? All we do know is that those potential 30 jobs are not economically feasible if we tax that $5 away. Jobs don’t just happen – somebody’s got to pay for them. Businesses generally want to see the money coming in before they hire people.

Not saying those jobs would actually happen – most likely, some lesser number of jobs would get created, or maybe none at all, if the latte-making capacity of the current shops is underused (meaning, that they have workers ready to make lattes at a higher rate than they have customers to buy them, most of the time).  And the grocery stores might not hire anyone, either. The only near sure bet, job wise, are the government workers.

This is just an example. It’s possible to pick ones that go the other way – where the money being redistributed tends to make jobs more jobs at the task toward which it is being redirected than it would if left in taxpayers hands. The whole point here is that there’s a trade-off, every time: whatever good deed we think we’re doing is always offset by things that didn’t happen – things that might have even helped more.

And that’s all I’m trying to illustrate here: shuffling money around through taxes and programs is never without its costs. Sometimes, those costs might even be more than any benefits. One does not have to be a cold-hearted meanie to wonder about these costs, and wonder if there might not be a better way.

And none of this fulfills our Christian duty toward our fellow man. And that works both ways: No one fulfill any Christian duty* of mercy by paying taxes, or voting for programs, or voting for people who promise programs. Nope. You have to do it yourself, nobody, including the government, can do it for you. And  if don’t pay the tax or vote for the program, you still need to do your duty.  You may vote for or against anything, based on your prudential judgement (hey, another dirty word!), but that in no way removes or mitigates the duty of  each one of us to love our neighbor.

*One does fulfill ones Christian duty to honor and obey the legitimate government when one pays taxes – but that’s a different duty altogether than our duty to love our neighbors.

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