Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The IRS thing isn't what you think...

I'm pleasantly surprised that its only been since October...I thought it was like March of last year.  Heh.

As to this IRS thing, this TOTALLY makes sense to me only because of the nature of the office itself.  I'll explain:

-  The IRS gathers financial and personal information from every person and group in the US.  As a result, its employees have access to more information on any one of us than any other office does during the normal course of business.  Sure, the CIA and FBI will gather info, but only if necessary, when a situation warrants.  However, it is the job of the IRS to gather information and then analyze and store that information. 

-  The IRS has human employees, which means that ethical mistakes are bound to happen.  From experience, I know that not everyone can be trusted with supposedly confidential information.  I can totally see individuals looking into information they shouldn't on people they know, people they hear about, etc.  They probably don't do anything with that information, but they've violated the ethical principle that an individual's personal information is the property of that individual.  In short, there are people who work at the IRS that are perfectly willing to look deeper than they should into our personal information.

Steve Miller, Head of IRS (for now)


-  In any operation, there are people who are go-getters, who go above and beyond the call of duty to provide a better service and make themselves more useful than the next guy.  They may notice that they have access to potentially useful information, and then begin to track that information, in the case it may be useful to their superiors.  In my experience, not every superior cares that such information is being tracked...but some do, and make a note of who was willing to put forth the effort.  When a time comes for need of such services, the superior knows where to go.  Summary: the IRS has people that are using other people's information as a means of career advancement.

-  In a famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, it was shown that people have a strong tendency to obey their authority figures, even if they know what they are being told to do is morally, ethically, and legally wrong.  Milgram and others postulated that their obedience had to do with fear (of retribution), blind trust (the authority must know what they are doing, right?), self-preservation (if I don't do this, my chances at getting a raise are slim) or detachment (just following orders, its the authority's fault for asking me).  Summary: the employees of the IRS, including its supervisors, will most likely obey orders from the higher ups.

Here we have a purely natural thing in which information is easily available, and people are willing to track certain things with the data available, and obey their superiors' requests.  This entire SYSTEM is set up for something like this to happen.  The Obama admin is NOT the first administration to use the IRS to intimidate, acquire dirt on, or investigate political opponents.  One of Nixon's impeachment articles referred to the use of the IRS to intimidate an opponent.  Under President Clinton, conservative personalities like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck were audited often.  I'm sure that under Bush, there was information being gathered on Code Pink and the like.  The question becomes, how complicit was the White House in any of it?

I'm not so sure much at all, at least in the previous administrations (excepting, of course, Nixon).  Its simple.  In the Bible, there are two stories about how servants of King David are punished for doing things ON THEIR OWN that they thought would be appreciated by the King (one of them includes the killing of the King's son, Absolom, who was in open insurrection).  During the reign of Henry II, four loyal knights murdered St. Thomas Beckett, assuming the king wanted him dead.  It isn't without precedent, therefore, that eager-to-please IRS agents would begin such activities, assuming their political bosses in the White House at the least, would turn a blind eye.  I'm quite certain that in every administration, there is someone within the IRS who thinks their doing The Boss a favor by starting an audit on a political opponent, or scrutinizing their returns a bit more closely.

To anyone paying attention, this current Administration has not been above intimidation to get what it wants.  It should surprise no one, then, that when it became clear that the IRS would be willing to help out, the Administration was more than willing to use all of its resources. 

As of this writing, I'm not convinced this was instigated by the White House, or the Treasury Dept.  I think it entirely logical that, seeing as this sort of thing is most likely common within the IRS, some go-getter on the rise suggested this, and the Administration jumped on it.  I could be wrong, though...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Killing the Cowboys, Debates, and Human Dignity

My take on the foreign policy debate and a little background story to set the stage:


 

I'm a Jets fan, so consequently the loathing I have for Bill Belichek, Tom Brady and the Patriots is intense...HOWEVER, one cannot deny the success they've enjoyed due to an excellently coached team and good QB (this sentiment is similar to my take on Romney...my candidate dropped out of the race, and I'm not a Romney fan, but I have a healthy respect for his experiences). A few years ago, Uncle Screwtape (the Patriots) had a very successfull season in which, during the regular season, they defeated every opponenent. At one point in the season, Uncle Screwtape played Satan himself--The Dallas Cowboys. To summarize my take on this game, when Tom Brady and the rest of the starters were removed in the 3rd quarter, I was extremely displeased: I was hoping that Uncle Screwtape (that vile demon that he is), would thoroughly and entirely humiliate Satan by putting up 100 points on him. This desire reflected the absolute loathing I have for the Cowboys.


 

Thus was my hope for last night's debate: that Mitt would use the ample material provided to him by the president to simply annihilate the President, to publically humiliate him as payback for all he's done to America. Sometimes, however such a confrontation, while essentially necessary (currently, the biggest threat to national security isn't a nuclear Iran or Russia, but the incompetent presidential administration responsible for Fast and Furious and Benghazi-gate), isn't the right course of action.


 

When the softball question of Libya and Benghazi was tossed to Mitt, he took the pitch. I didn't know why, or what he was playing at. Mitt never used a killing shot to publically repudiate the president's glaring foreign policy incompetence. He didn't need to.


 

My impression of the debate was different than a lot of people's, from what I can see perusing the interwebs. I noticed some things during the debate that only came together at the end. First, I noticed that unlike debate 2 (and to a large part debate 1), Romney didn't interrupt the President often at all...unlike the President who consistently cut into what Romney said (how true this was or not, I don't know…this is just the impression I got). Second, Romney's focus was always on his vision, his message. He occasionally would criticize the President's poor record, but that wasn't his theme. Third, I noticed a certain facial expression on the President when Romney spoke concerning Pakistan and China, an expression I've seen on kids in the classroom when they are actually learning something. This wasn't a paying-attention-to-see-what-I-can-rebut look. This was rapt attention, soaking in what was being TAUGHT. Facial expressions don't lie: a career businessman was teaching the President of the United States things he didn't know about foreign policy. Third, near the end, Bob Schieffer NATURALLY started giving Romney more time to answer, and cut the president off. This was most pronounced during the last questions, when Romney appeared to speak the most, and Schieffer just kept asking him more and more, not even letting the President (who was, as I said, paying rapt attention to what Romney was saying) say much in rebuttal. This seemed natural to me, because it was exactly what I would have done. At that point in the debate, the president had nothing of value to add, nothing to add to the discussion.


 

During the closing statements, I realized what had happened, what I witnessed. There was an emotion behind Mitt Romney's voice: he was speaking from the heart, not talking points or regurgitated campaign stump speeches. At that point, I realized that Romney didn't need to humiliate the President. The debate started as a good give and take, the President making good points, Romney making good points, and was essentially a toss-up. By the end, that was not the case: Romney commanded the debate and set the tone. This has really nothing to do with substance or ideas, but presentation.

The president's actions toward his political opponent have not been atypical of his policies. His anti-terrorist policy is simply to kill people, as he seemingly admitted last night. He has no respect for human life of human dignity, save when it helps him—we need no more proof of this than his response to the Trayvon Martin case (in which he demonized George Zimmerman immediately), or Fast and Furious (in which his support of his DOJ and ATF is tantamount to approval). Thus, he has no problem with demonizing his opponent, making him appear somehow less than human. His entire campaign has revolved around the rich vs. poor meme, class warfare and class envy. He doesn't care if he accurately depicts Mitt Romney's policies or if he ridicules his opponent. At the end of the debate, Mitt Romney had not stooped to that level. He did not denigrate his opponent, he did not ridicule. He clearly presented his ideas, his perspective to the American people.


 

As I reflected on the final moments of the debate last night, I realized that my ambition, my desire made me no better than the President. I wanted him humiliated, publically and brutally. How is this any better than the President's willy-nilly killing of Afghanis, or letting Americans die in Benghazi because its "simply a bump in the road" and then lying about the actions to save face? Just like every single terrorist, President Obama is human person, and as such, does not deserve the public humiliation for his administrations ineptitude.


 

In short, despite his political shortcomings, it is clear that Mitt Romney was the better man last night. Not just better than the president, but better than me. He did something I wouldn't have done. He did the right thing.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The “Sin” of Progressivism

I saw this headline and started thinking.

At work, we've got quite a few individuals who are politically astute (which makes for fun conversation), and we've been discussing the difference between "liberals", "socialists", "Communists" and "progressives". Being the student of history that I am, the four terms are NOT interchangeable.

For one, "liberal" is a relative term, as a "liberal" strictly speaking, seeks change from the status quo. Seeing as the status quo is constantly changing, what is "liberal" in one decade is "conservative" or "radical" in another. Consider that a few short decades ago, what passes today as "conservative" was actually "liberal". Further, classical "liberalism" was for increased voting rights, small and limited government, and a free market, which are the bedrock of modern conservativism.

For another, while many use "socialist" and "communist" interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Marx's communism was localized and small, a situation where small communities of people would work together for their common needs, with nothing held in private, and no over-arching governing structure. Socialism is large-scale communism, but in order to make it work, the government, on the premise of representing the people, makes the decisions on what the society needs, and how to meet those needs. To be a "socialist" is to also be a statist: to put the state as all important, and the individual as a servant to the state and its all-powerful central government. To be a communist is to be an anarchist (in that within communism there is no government), and private property doesn't exist.

Finally, there is the term "progressive". The term has been used to describe Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, as well as others, like Newt Gingrich, and most of politicians in the American "left". However, progressivism is not synonymous with socialism, or communism, or even liberalism. The term denotes a belief in the "progress" of society; a belief that human society will progress inevitably to some idealized utopia. Progressives are elitists, because only the elite can put together programs, or systems that can solve current or future problems. Progressives are humanist, because they believe that it is up to us humans to create the perfect society.

This is where the problem lies for the Christian. As Christians, we believe in the concept of Original Sin, that all humans have the propensity to sin. To believe that the goal of progressivism is possible is tantamount to rejecting the Creed of Christianity:

  1. Christians believe that our sinful nature means that mankind cannot bring about its own salvation, but salvation comes only from God.
  2. Jesus Christ came to Earth to suffer and die, and therefore purchase for us the reward of eternal life, as a result of our inability to do it for ourselves.
  3. Progressives believe that we can create our own perfect society…thus "saving" us.
  4. This rejects the need for God.
  5. That rejects the sacrifice of Christ.

Rejecting the Sacrifice of Christ essentially means you are no longer a Christian. Thus, by adhering to a progressive mentality, you are, whether you know it or not rejecting your Christian faith.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Finished…so now what?

I finished War and Peace this morning. Not sure what to make of it. I really enjoyed reading it, but came away unsatisfied as far as the story goes. This is, of course, because my favorite character, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky died, and his son, who lived with his aunt, Marya (my second favorite character) has no real father figure. Seriously, I almost stopped reading after Andrey died, there was no real point in continuing. I'm glad I continued though, because had I stopped, I never would have read the epilogue.

In the epilogue, Tolstoy says: "Then as now much time was spent arguing about the rights of women, husband-and-wife relationships and freedom and rights within marriage…. Questions like these, then as now, existed exclusively for people who see marriage only in terms of satisfaction given and received by the married couple, though this is only one principle of married life rather than its overall meaning, which lies in the family. All the latest issues and debates, such as the problem of getting maximum pleasure out of eating your dinner, did not exist then, and do not exist now for people who see dinner as a source of nourishment, and family life as the aim of marriage."

The epilogue is centered around two families that are very much alike: wives utterly devoted to their husbands, and husbands utterly devoted to their wives…and both completely devoted to their children. Unlike the other women of their class, who spent their time getting dolled up for soirees and pursuing their own interests, Natasha and Marya focus their lives around their families. Unlike the men of their class, Nikolay and Pierre do their work, but neglect the wealthy society and focus on their family (Nikolay was not well liked by the gentry, because he actually treated the peasants as people, fancy that…). For these families, social and political connections aren't the goal…the goal is their family. In the end, these two couples are infinitely happier than they could ever have imagined, because 1) they are devoted to each other, 2) they have adopted a certain order in their households which creates stability, and 3) they are devoted to their children.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The “Right to Crime”

Leo Tolstoy's writing style has a way to illustrate a depth of knowledge of the human condition and therefore, to explain certain actions. In Volume IV Part I Chapter 4 of War and Peace, he says "The ones who were actually making an effort to follow the federal course of events, and trying to get involved through self-sacrifice and heroic conduct, were the least useful members of society; they looked at things the wrong way round, and everything they did, with the best of intentions, turned out to be useless and absurd…." This particular sentence, coming when it does in the text is powerful.

On the one hand, we've seen the heroic deeds and self-sacrifice of Muscovites and Russian soldiers who are in the thick of the fight. In the text, we've seen men storm burning buildings looking for trapped children, and men coming to the rescue of young Russian women who are being harassed by the French. We've seen nobility lose everything in flames (or consumed by the French). These people are acting out of necessity. As psychologist Phil Zimbardo discusses in his book Lucifer Effect, these individuals are reacting to stimulus according to the moral training they've received throughout their lifetimes. In short, they are acting just like they've been taught to act, and are responding to extreme stimulus accordingly.

On the other hand, we see the less than heroic deeds of individuals who have inflated their own self worth to dedicate themselves to being heroic and to self-sacrifice. These individuals have gotten in the way and even hindered those noted above. These people are acting, far removed from any real stimulus, on their own idealized intellectual fancies.

From this simple quote, I have two observations. First, those that are "in the trenches" get things done and are a real boon to the "cause" (whatever the cause is) because of their knowledge of what is really going on. Along those lines, those that are "armchair quarterbacks" and use their education (rather than hands-on, firsthand experience) to theorize on how to solve a problem, serve to, at the least, get in the way, while at most hinder real progress. In this regard, from a standpoint of strict efficiency, using the idea of subsidiarity (principle stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively) to solve social problems makes more sense that using socialism or statism. For certain, many advocates of socialism or statism have good intentions, but inevitably, their lack of true understanding and their over-reliance on their intellectual capabilities, will only hinder any real solution.

Second, the so-called "right to crime" is somewhat alluded to here. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky mentions this "right" to explain how certain "great" men were able to become "great". In short, they were willing to do what others weren't to achieve their own allegedly noble ends: transgress the law (either civil or natural). In fact, the idea goes so far as to infer that the truly great MUST violate the law, usually by spilling blood, to become great. In this quote, we see how utterly false this idea is. On the one hand, the truly great ones (like the truly heroic in Tolstoy's story) are those that do not use their reason to inflate their value to mankind or to make their goals somehow so noble that bloodshed is not an issue. The truly great act nobly based on 1) their moral formation throughout their lives, and 2) on the specific stimuli at hand (along these lines, I am thinking of George Washington, whom George III praised as the greatest man alive for stepping down as President of the US after two terms and near unanimous support among the people—essentially unlimited power due to his popularity). On the other hand, those that rationalize the spilling of blood to further their goals, like Che Guevera, Napoleon, Robespierre, Muhammad, Hitler, Bismarck, and many, many more are not a benefit to humankind, but a hindrance. None of these men added to humanity in any long-lasting and profitable or positive manner. Most have led to more pain, more suffering, and more death as a result of their intellectually driven machinations.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pride, Honor, and Self-Service

I've reached the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in War and Peace, which begins in Volume III, Part I, Chapter I. Tolstoy begins this by undertaking to briefly explain why this rather pointless waste of human life began in the first place. He glosses the reasons illumined by the historians of his day (Napoleon's megalomania, Alexander's obstinacy, an affront to the Duke of Oldenburg, the failure of the Continental System, and machinations of the English), and then puts in some common sense observations from a non-historian point of view.

What is interesting is that he neglects a certain, perhaps vital cause that actually is illuminated throughout his work: the view that military service was a source of pride, and means of extolling one's own honor, and obtaining status within European society. All one needs to do is to look at the characters of the book. Boris is essentially thrust into the service, hoping to win himself a decent position in society. His service isn't about serving the Tsar or his country, but about his own self-aggrandizement. He realizes that with his mother's seemingly deplorable social and financial status, his only hope is to win glory for himself and then win the hand of a wealthy heiress. Further, what of Anatole, whose father uses his contacts to thrust him into military service in the hopes of whipping him into shape. Further is Nikolay Rostov, whose enlistment in the service was an attempt to win himself a nice position and help his family out.

Now, military service is pointless without conflicts to support the presence of a standing army. Could Boris, or Anatole, or Nikolay hope to gain the honors or promotions without some heroic service in wartime or conflict? Of course not. The fact remains that Tolstoy's work highlights and treats casually the understanding that war is honorable and military service is an ideal career path. Such an attitude makes such slight inconveniences like Alexander's obstinacy, a mere affront to a Duke, and other small things lead to war. In a society that is hell-bent on its men proving themselves in war, war is inevitable.

Of course, this says nothing of the historical fact that Napoleon Bonaparte based his entire political career off of his military successes. A cursory overview of the Napoleonic era reveals that when the going got tough at home, the French went to war. In a classic political maneuver that drew citizens' eyes away from unsavory conditions at home to the patriotic duty to war, Napoleon used his Grand Army to his political advantage: as long as he racked up victories, his support with the French people would be solidified. The Austrian general, von Clausewitz once claimed that war was an extension of policy. One could argue that with Napoleon, war was policy…it needed to be lest he lose popularity and support back home.

War and Peace and Immanent Destruction

I've been reading War and Peace and am so far enjoying it. Unlike Crime and Punishment which is ahistorical in that it doesn't necessarily mention the exact time-period in which it takes place, War and Peace is historical, naming names, events, and movements within Russian society. Further differences include the setting: Crime and Punishment takes place in the Russian underclass/peasantry (presumably after the freeing of the serfs), while War and Peace involves the Russian upper class.

While reading the novel, I can't help a sense of foreboding, of impending destruction setting over the whole thing. How can you possibly connect with the characters, many of them noble, good people, knowing that in a few short years after these events take place, their entire world will be destroyed, violently and horrifically, by the Bolsheviks and their fellow communists? It saddens me to realize how much was lost when the greedy, power hungry, and selfish communists wiped out all of Russian society to put in place their misguided, inherently demeaning philosophy of strife, struggle, control, and jealousy.

What is truly saddening is that, like the French immediately after the meeting of the Estates General in 1789, the Russians were gradually working towards meaningful reform. You can't just impose a constitutional democracy on a people overnight. It has to be worked at, tweaked, and made to fit the socio-political culture of that people. The US Constitution wasn't adopted immediately after the American Revolution; there was the inter-regnum period of the Articles of Confederation, which taught the leaders of the country a great deal about federalism, cooperation, and interdependency. The Tsars and their aristocratic advisors slowly worked to modernize and liberalize their incredibly conservative country bit by bit, and by 1917, great strides had been taken. All those strides were for naught. All the hard work of the liberals (referring to republicans, and free-market entrepreneurs) in Russian government and society was utterly destroyed by the usurpation of the Bolsheviks.

Now, I doubt that the Russians of today, after 70 years of devastating communist rule, could recognize the Russia in War and Peace, which is a sad thing.