Peace on earth, good will to all.
On this day, let hate be set aside for at least a moment.
The other day I was watching the History Channel’s shows on the deadly sins. The last one I watched was about greed and this got me thinking of the holiday season and the recent battle over tax cuts.
On one hand it is reasonable to see the desire of the wealthy to keep their tax cuts as being, well, reasonable. After all, as people have argued, the wealthy (sometimes) earn their money and hence have a right to keep it. Also, people argue that the tax cuts will help create jobs.
On the other hand, it is tempting to see this desire as a form of avarice. After all, it could be argued, the extremely wealthy do not actually need the tax cuts. They are, after all, extremely wealthy. As such, it would seem that the desire to keep the cuts is based on avarice, which can be seen as the desire for more for the sake of having more. Ancient thinkers, such as Aristotle, regarded this obsession with wealth as a vice. Christian thinkers also argued for its wickedness and it was eventually cast as one of the seven deadly sins.
One moral problem with avarice is that it leads to various other immoral actions. After all, when someone values wealth excessively, they will tend to do what it takes to get that wealth. Another moral problem, as authors such as Aristotle and Wollstonecraft have argued, a focus on wealth distracts people from what is truly valuable: being virtuous. A third moral problem is that those who gather up wealth in excess would seem to be morally accountable for the harm they do in denying others. For example, if someone becomes wealthy by exploiting workers or by engaging in financial witchcraft that ruins the finances of thousands (or millions), then they would seem to be acting wrongly.
Naturally, all these points can be argued against. First, people will point out that it is possible to become wealthy without doing misdeeds. I actually agree with this as did the classic virtue theorists. After all, Confucius noted that there is no shame in being wealthy when one gains the wealth in a way consistent with virtue. The problem is, of course, gaining and keeping wealth through ill means.
Second, folks will point out that it is possible to be wealthy without placing wealth as having a value beyond its true worth. Once again, I agree with this. If someone can be wealthy without placing wealth above the well being of others and so on, then I am fine with this. The problem arises when wealth is valued more than it is truly worth (in the moral sense).
Third, folks will point out that the wealthy often give to charity and some folks become wealthy in ways that do not involve taking from others or denying them the means to survive. Again, as long as the wealth is not accrued in a way that causes others to suffer or harms them, then I am fine with this.
As such, like the classic thinkers, I am not against wealth. Rather, I am against avarice. I will, of course, leave it to others to argue that avarice is actually good.
The infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was recently repealed.
As has often been argued, the policy was rather questionable. After all, it seemed to say that it was okay for homosexuals to serve provided that they did so secretly. This seems to imply that what mattered was not someone’s sexual orientation but what other people happened to know about that orientation. Of course, the “don’t ask” policy seems to have often been ignored and when confronted, military personal were supposed to tell. As such, it seemed like a rather weird sort of policy that needed to be fixed.
While some folks worked hard trying to repeal it, others worked hard to try to stall and prevent the repeal. Most famously, John McCain fought an impressively dogged defense against it (in many cases, fighting against his previous self): each time one of his conditions (such as endorsement by the Joint Chiefs) was met, he would insist on another (such as a survey). Even when all his conditions were met, he still opposed the change. However, his opposition failed and it was repealed.
As I see it, this is a good thing. The top officers and most personal seem to be fine with the situation. Also, nations that have allowed homosexuals to serve do not seem to have run into any problems specific to this factor. In fact, lifting such restrictions seems to be beneficial. See, for example, the Palm Center report on this matter. Naturally, the report can be challenged. However, doing so would seem to require presenting cases in which allowing homosexuals to serve openly was a significant causal factor in creating problems to military effectiveness. Naturally, these cases would have to be properly compared to comparable cases involving heterosexuals to determine if the cause was specific to homosexuality or due to another factor. However, the most reasonable argument against the repeal (that it would impair military effectiveness) seems to have been soundly defeated. As such, the repeal seems reasonable.
Also, if someone wishes to serve his/her country and can make such a contribution, then it would seem both wrong and wasteful to deny him/her that chance on the basis of sexual orientation. We do not, it would seem, have the luxury of prejudice, what with Iraq, Afghanistan, the endless war on terror, and with possible future conflicts with Iran and North Korea.
Naturally, if the future shows that repealing DaDT has damaged our military due to some factors that did not affect any other military, then a change should be strongly considered. After all, the military cannot (as many would argue) afford the luxury of equality at the expense of its core mission.
During this holiday season it is natural to think of food. While America is supposed to be the land of plenty, about 17% of Americans are food insecure. That is, they sometimes run out of food. About 6% of Americans have very low food security-meaning that they often run out of food.
The main cause for food insecurity is, obviously enough, a lack of money: the food runs out when the money runs out. While some of this could be attributed to poor management of money, most cases would tend to involve simply not having enough money to secure enough food.
While I have never been poor in the true sense of the term, I did live on a very limited income in graduate school. I was careful with my money, but a meager TA salary only goes so far. I never had a car and generally did not even have a phone. I never starved, but I did subsist on such things as Ramen noodles, pasta, rice-puffs and what I could scarf at university events. At the end of the month, I’d sometimes be down to eating bread and peanut butter. As such, I have a great deal of empathy for folks who live with food insecurity.
As the economy continues to limp along, we can expect even more people to end up being food insecure. While the government does provide support (1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps), state support only goes so far. I do know that everyone has stories about how they see “those food stamp” people buying cigarettes and booze, but most people on food stamps seem to be buying food. In any case, even if folks are misusing the system, my main concern is with the fact that so many people are food insecure due to poverty.
At this point, someone is no doubt thinking something like this: “hey, I see on the news all the time that Americans are obese! How can there be so many people who are food insecure when there are so many fatties? Poor fatties, too! I mean, go to Wal Mart!”
This does raise an important point. On the face of it, we seem to be involved in some sort of paradox: we have obese people who are also food insecure. However, a little consideration dissolves the apparent paradox.
One factor is this: cheap foods are often very high in calories. For example, last week I bought a name brand cake mix for $1.97 and a can of frosting for about $2. Hence, people who are short on money will tend to buy cheap foods and these will tend to be high calorie foods and this will put them at risk of obesity.
There are also other health concerns. Unfortunately, being high in calories is not the same thing as being good food. After all, a bag of sugar is high in calories, but having a bowl of sugar for each meal would not be healthy eating. healthy foods, such as lean meats and fresh produce, tend to be more expensive than the cheap, high calorie foods. As such, people who are food insecure tend to not only be lacking in food but also lacking in good nutrition.
One reason why high calorie foods are cheaper is because of government subsidies. For example, big corn growers are heavily supported by Uncle Sam and this means that high fructose corn syrup is very cheap. As such, it tends to end up in a lot of cheap foods. Ironically, the same government that subsidizes unhealthy foods also works hard to educate people about healthy eating.
As I see it, the subsidies should not go to food that is not very healthy. Rather, it would make more moral and practical sense for the state to subsidize nutritional food. After all, if we are going to spend money to make food cheaper, it should be for food that will be good for people. Otherwise, federal money is being spent in a way that contributes to poor health-which then costs the people even more money. By subsidizing healthy food, everyone could be happy: the big food companies get to stay at the public trough and people get to eat better.
Another factor is that foods that taste good to people tend to be those loaded with sugars and fats. These are high in calories and hence tend to contribute to obesity. For example, people like junk food and fast food because they taste good, although they are bad for you. These foods are, in fact, designed to be highly appealing. People with more income still buy junk-but they can also buy better food as well. While I like junk as much as the next person (probably more), it does seem reasonable to push food companies towards designing junk that is actually not junk. That way people would at least get some nutritional benefit from the junk food.
A third factor is food education. Most people do not really understand how to eat well (or exercise) and this would tend to be even more likely in the case of people with lower incomes. After all, they would be less likely to have received education in nutrition and be less likely to keep up with current findings. Of course, even if someone with a low income knew a great deal about nutrition, the high cost of good food would remain a significant factor. While food education can certainly be improved (and has improved), making healthy food more affordable would do far more.
A final factor is, of course, the matter of choice. When I was living on a very limited income in grad school, I was careful to pick the healthiest foods I could afford. I never got obese (of course, training for marathons really helped with that). I would like to think that people would eat better if they could afford it, but maybe this is not the case. Of course, I suppose it would be better to have people who are obese on nutritional diets rather than people who are obese on crappy diets.
While it is often claimed that America has the safest food in the world, a look back at various food contamination problems shows that there were serious problems in the system.
To address some of these problems, the Food Safety Modernization Act was recently passed. The final vote in the house was 215-144.
While I am reasonably well informed, I was somewhat surprised to learn that until this act passed the FDA had no power to issue recalls of foods. Instead, the companies had to voluntarily issue recalls.
While this is a step in the right direction, health issues regarding food are still are serious problem. In addition to the matter of contamination, there are also concerns about chemicals getting into foods-perhaps leaching in from the containers or otherwise getting into food.
It might be argued, as some have, that increasing the regulation of food and food safety will be bad for business and cut into profits. After all, if food companies have to ensure that their food is clean and uncontaminated by chemicals, then their operation costs will increase and this will lead to all manner of evils. There is also the worry about the state getting into the business of business.
There are two obvious replies. First, the costs that are created by contaminated food in terms of illness and so on would seem to be higher. Also, these costs are pushed onto the consumer-they have to pay when they get sick (unless they can win damages). Second, it is the job of the state to protect us from such harms. If Al Qaeda or some other terrorist groups were intentionally causing the illness and deaths caused currently by the relevant food problems, we’d be spending billions on defense, probably start another war, and Republicans would be screaming for action and demanding that liberties be set aside in the name of safety. Now, if we can do this for a minor and irregular threat like terrorism, we surely can step up our defenses against this sort of major, ongoing threat to the health and well-being of Americans.
Listening to certain pundits, one would think that Christmas was a besieged holiday and that its practitioners were forced to hide in caverns under the shopping malls lest they be cast into the arena to be devoured by liberal, ambiguously gendered lions.
Fox, as always, seems to be making a case for there being such a war. They rush to present evidence of this war and do not even let facts get in the way of their spirited defense. If evidence happens to be wanting, they seem to be willing to accept almost anyone’s word that, for example, a school has banned the use of green and red as part of an assault on Christmas. As I have argued before, professional journalists have an obligation to use at least some minimal effort to verify key facts in a story-even when the story nicely matches a specific ideological narrative.
Naturally, I do understand that journalists are busy folks and that mistakes are always possible. Heck, people point out my mistakes each time I make one (and even when I don’t). I also get that when someone feels really strongly about a matter, they tend to accept claims that fit their feelings even when the claims are not properly supported. I fall into this myself from time to time, even though I know better. However, none of this changes the fact that a professional journalist should always exert at least a minimal amount of effort to at least attempt to verify key facts. Especially when doing so is as easy as making a quick phone call.
But, some might say, while Fox does something overdo things in is zealous defense of all that is holy, there is a clear war on Christmas. After all, there is the push for people to say “happy holidays”, manger scenes are often banned from government buildings, and students get winter breaks now rather than Christmas breaks.
It is true that people say such things. It is true that manger scenes are generally not allowed in government buildings. It is also true that I am now on winter break rather than Christmas break. However, it is not clear that these things are assaults in part of a war on Christmas.
In regards to “happy holidays”, this is actually a holiday season. My Jewish friends do not cry that there is a war on Hanukkah when people say “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas.” And, of course, there is also Three King’s Day and New Year’s Day in this season of holidays. As such, the use of “holidays” does not seem to be anti-Christmas but rather an inclusive term that encompasses the various holidays. This seems consistent with the Christmas ideal of peace on earth and goodwill towards all. Using this term hardly seems to be a war like act.
As far as the manger ban goes, this does bother me. When I was a kid, we had a manger scene as part of our Christmas decorations. To this day, manger scenes bring back warm feelings of childhood Christmases. When I see one, however tacky it might be (one had flamingos) I will pause and look at it, remembering days gone by. So, it should be obvious that I have nothing against them. That said, I do agree that government buildings should not have such scenes-or any religious displays at all. This is because doing so would seem to be state support of a specific religion.
But is this not a war on Christmas? Well, no. Not having the state actively endorse a specific faith is not an attack on that faith. If the state burned manger scenes as part of a public display, then that would be rather war like. Having a general ban on religious displays is not a war on religion but rather a refusal to exalt one faith above any others. That is an important part of allowing freedom of (and from) religion.
It is also important to note that manger scenes are not banned from anywhere else. If you want to turn your entire lawn into a scene, then you are free to do so. If your church wants to put up a massive manger extravaganza, they are free to do just that.
I do admit that it still sounds odd to be on winter break. I still use the term Christmas break because old habits die hard and, for me, I am on Christmas break. However, not everyone who attends state universities is a Christian and state universities are not supposed to endorse any specific faith (private religious schools are another matter). This is, however, not an attack on Christmas anymore than not calling it Kwanzaa break is an assault on Kwanzaa.
As another point when people bemoan that the Christ has been taken out of Christmas because of this war on Christmas, there is the obvious question of just how much Christ has been a part of Christmas. After all, much of the Christmas mythology and trappings are pagan in origin. Also, when you throw in the gross commercialization of the holiday, that would seem to have done a great deal to take the Christ out of Christmas.
As a final point, if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas seems to be winning handily. Christmas trees are displayed openly. People boldly wish others a merry Christmas and are not arrested. Christmas stockings are still hung from the chimney with care, rather than being hidden away in some secret corner. You can test this yourself-boldly go to a store that sells cards and ask for Christmas cards. Approach a police officer and ask her if you can report people for celebrating Christmas. And so on. I suspect you will find no evidence of any war on Christmas.