Thursday, October 30, 2008

The CommonGood Stock Exchange

I have noticed a trend in my discussions with conservatives and pseudo-libertarians. On non-social domestic issues (that is to say healthcare, not marriage) we often agree on the end point (people getting medical care) but disagree on the way to get there. That disagreement can be boiled down to a two line Mexican standoff that goes something like this.

Conservative: Why would you put your faith in the government?
Liberal: Why would you put your faith in the market?

And let us not kid ourselves, it is faith, on both sides. No true democracy (what the liberal has in mind when he thinks 'government') has existed in modern times, nor a true free market (what the conservative has in mind, not the corporate-welfare system that exists today). If the endpoint is the same, and we only have reality on which to base our premises, then I would submit the following:

Government is more likely to achieve that endpoint swifter, and with far less cost to the public, than Markets.

Before I begin explaining myself, I would like to define some terms. Let us consider any step towards this hypothetical endpoint to have a value equal to 1 unit of CommonGood (CG). Likewise we will consider any step solely towards personal gains to have a value equal to 1 unit of PersonalGood (PG). To rephrase my statement in this light, Government is a body dedicated to the accumulation of CGs at the cost of PGs, whereas the Market is a body dedicated to the maximization of PGs at the cost of CGs.

Businesses, even publicly traded ones, are private institutions. The Enron scandal is but one among many examples of companies putting PG profits (personal or corporate) in front of CG profits. Thus, while Enron CEOs were racking up the dough, they were in turn robbing the public of CGs. This is because companies aren't judged by how well they're doing on the CommonGood Stock Exchange, but by how much money they are making. There is nothing wrong with this (unless you think it is the Market's job to produce social change). Due to that very nature, free (or freeish) markets will always resist regulation. The government, amongst other things, is a public institution. Its very purpose is to accumulate CGs and has built into it mechanisms for ensuring accountability and removal of those converting CGs into PGs.

We are all shareholders in USA Inc., and as such we have the ability to demand transparency and accountability (those necessary treatments for corruption and waste) in a way that we cannot demand from businesses. When the bottom line for the voters is the country, even politicians must take that into account. CEOs only need to watch their own bottom line, and make sure that golden ripcord is within arm's reach.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Where Have All The Dollars Gone?

It may well behoove me to create a titled series - like the "Questions of the Day" - dedicated to clearing up stupid conservative myths that the liberals have not adequately countered. The only problem is that I could write one entry per day, from now until the end of time.

Today's conservative canard: the Black Hole of Government.

Conservative economic rhetoric is still fundamentally based on the principle of Reaganomics - the trickle-down economy. Rich people, they say, should not be taxed more than everyone else, because they're such a crucial consumer group - their money goes into the pockets of hundreds of people they employ and make purchases from, thereby stimulating the economy. They take offense, for example, at the liberal notion that we're simply stopping a millionaire from buying that third yacht - we're not just punishing him, they argue, but they hundreds of people that built it and worked on it and will be required to pilot it for him. That yacht creates jobs, and that millionaire's cash output stimulates the economy. What's wrong with us?

This entire myth is based on a fundamentally mistaken premise, which is that money taken in by the federal government as tax revenue immediately vanishes from the economy. This is an absolute cornerstone of the conservative rhetoric; it's also a ridiculous farce, and I really shouldn't have to point out why. It can be easily countered in four words: the Government spends money.

Almost every dime the government takes in as tax revenue almost immediately re-enters the economy through exactly the ordinary channels. Let's take our defense budget as an easy example: that tax money goes to pay DoD employees, defense contractors, raw-goods manufacturers...tens of thousands of people are employed by our defense budget. Public works - roads, bridges - employ tens of thousands more, as epochal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt understood better than most. Even supposed financial sinkholes like Welfare are going straight back into the pocket of consumers - which, like it or not, poor people certainly are. They take their welfare checks, pay their rent, and make their landlord wealthier - at which point he can, indeed, stimulate the economy by making purchases. The government is not a fiscal black hole; they are simply a hugely wealthy consumer.

Even that small percentage of the American budget that does not go right back into the American market simply goes into overseas markets - in which we profitably participate. Overseas aid, for example - even if we give it in the form of cash - might well be spent on wheat (of which we are the world's largest producer) and drugs (a huge percentage of which are of American make). If that money isn't paid to us directly, there is still no reason to assume we will never see it again. We are members of the global market economy.

In short, it is very, very difficult to remove money from the economy. One of the only long-term ways to do so, in fact, is to stash it in a savings account to accrue interest - and I'm sure no one will suggest our government is doing that. Stop pretending taxation = money lost from the economy. The equation has no merit.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Shotguns are more Democratic or: Why I can't stand this Bullshit about ACORN

I know I may be a couple of news cycles late on this story (I guess we're making things up about Biden now?), but I ran across an article that made me get mad all over again. So. ACORN. Other people have defended ACORN with sense and eloquence, and I won't rehash their arguments here (just link you to them). In the last Presidential debate McCain said (preposterously) that ACORN was "destroying the fabric of democracy." To most people (who understand that the charges against ACORN are bullshit) this seems like a ridiculous statement. But what if, instead of just being overstated rhetoric to stir up anti-ACORN sentiments and set the stage for a post-election blame-it-on-ACORN strategy, it also revealed an essential truth about the way the Republicans view democracy? If you think that more people voting is "destroying the fabric of democracy," what does it say about what you think that fabric is made out of?

I was reminded of all this by a post on Part of that post is an interview with Chris Schoenewald, Chairman of the Albemarle County Republican Committee (Albermarle is the county seat of Charlottsville, VA) in which he discusses the differences between the Republican and Democratic party's methods of voter registration:
We discussed voter registration, and the varied approach each party's campaign takes. "Democrats use a shotgun approach to voter registration. Republicans use a rifle." If Democrats are setting up a voter registration table on the Downtown Mall, for example, "they're registering a lot of Republicans." By contrast, Schoenewald said, "we're going after very targeted people."
Does this mean that the Dems are being sloppy? No. This means that Democrats are more interested in getting more people to vote than they are in getting their own guys to vote. I'm not blaming Mr. Schoenewald for their sharpshooter registration, but it is indicative of a a larger truth. The fact is that the Democrats believe in a democracy where everyone gets to vote, because they have faith that the more Americans who take part in an election, the more likely the party that deserves to will win it. And in this day and age, that means them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe the Plumber: Ordinary People?

I can't possibly imagine that anyone who actually inhabits the Planet Earth is unfamiliar with a man named Joe the Plumber.

For those of you from Betelgeuse who have deigned to fuse your hive computer with the World Wide Web, Joe the Plumber is some random guy from some random place who asked Barack Obama some random question that got him called a socialist. For those of you from Venus who have not brushed up on American politics, a socialist is something most Democrats basically are but don't like to admit it.

I think we're all up to speed. Let us continue.

The question I'd like to raise is about a very popular concept in modern American politics and culture - the "elite." I think we've probably heard more about the so-called in this election than any other in American history - and none of it was very good. When John McCain calls Barack Obama a "member of the liberal elite," he doesn't mean that as a compliment; when Sarah Palin says she's not a "member of the Washington elite," she doesn't mean she wants to join. "Elite" has become synonymous with "elitist" - rich, snobbish, out of touch. The elite, it's implied, are superior sumbitches - convinced their wealth and education make them better than the Average Joe. Or the Average Plumber. see where I'm going with this.

My question, then, is this: what makes the elite, elite?

The reason I ask is pretty personal: when a conservative talks about the "liberal elite," he pretty much means me. I went to a private grade school, attended a competitive high school, and am now in college on my parents' dime - and eager for a position in scholarly academia. I am also - in what many would see as no coincidence - aggressively liberal. The current political discourse, particularly the conservative discourse, would love to argue that those characteristics make me a card-carrying member of the "liberal elite."

But let's take another look at Joe the Plumber - the reason, you may recall, that he was irritated with Obama is because he'd been planning to buy the plumbing business for which he'd worked these last 100,000 years. If he bought it, however, he'd be making more than $250,000 a year, and Obama's tax plan would 'unfairly' increase his tax burden. No sooner had he asked his question than Joe the Plumber became a symbol of working-class ill-will towards Obama; and so John McCain, friend to the working man, echoed Joe's question to Obama. Why?

Now, my father, under whose auspices I might be considered a member of the "liberal elite" made - in a good year - $60-70,000. That was before his retirement, and only during those years in which he sold a book, or made particularly generous royalties. Joe, on the other hand, that blue-collar Everyman, is complaining because he might be about to make over a quarter of a million dollars.

To return to my original question, what makes Joe the Plumber 'working-class' and me 'elite?' Doesn't the working-class cease to become an actual 'class' when it starts running the gamut from six-figure salaries to just above the poverty line? Doesn't the 'elite' stop being 'elite' when the supposedly average characters who hate them make four to five times as much - or does 'elite' perhaps mean more than just an economic class? If so, is the entire vocabulary of this debate faulty? Do these terms have a practical definition?

This is an idea in progress, and I feel as though I have not yet gotten to the heart of the matter. The fundamental paradox, though, is that Americans who are just plain rich - big houses, fast cars, trophy wives - have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the dirt-poor and struggling and said "Washington economic policies privilege the elite at our expense."

Who are they talking about?

UPDATE: Apparently, Joe the Plumber just revealed that he had misunderstood Obama's tax plan, and would NOT be making more than $250,000 a year. What? Ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans don't make a quarter million dollars? Will wonders never cease?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Question of the Day: Portrait of the Artist?

More on this to come, but am I the only one who thinks that pictures of yourself are yours to do with as you see fit, under any and all circumstances whatsoever?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lost Odyssey

This is not about politics, but certainly pertains to the downfall of society as we know it.

Those of you who know me know that I have a strong affection for Ancient Greek and Roman literature, particularly the epics - the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. I often wonder aloud why these don't get adapted into film more often - I mean, there was "Troy," but that wasn't a faithful Iliad adaptation (although I still liked it), and to my knowledge there has been no big-screen adaptation of the Odyssey or the Aeneid in my lifetime. In fact, there has never to my knowledge been a big-screen adaptation of Aeneas' tale.

First of all, I'd like to ask - why not? Even "Troy," which was not terribly well-reviewed, made money hand over fist and became one of its year's biggest hits. Odyssey and Aeneid would both be ideal star vehicles, provided you found someone who could convincingly sound archaic (I'm talking to you, Guy Who Hired Brad Pitt) and lavished millions on the production design and art direction. I mean, these movies have all the makings of another "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, with a completely different cultural milieu.

Apparently, someone heard my cries for help...some genie slumbering in a magic lamp heard my fervent prayers and said "yes, master. You shall have what you wish for. There shall be a film of the Odyssey...

...set in outer space."



Are you being serious? Is this what it's come to? Forget the immense commercial successes of "Troy" and "300" - Hollywood has decided we are all so burnt out on Ancient Greece that the only way to make the Odyssey compelling is to put it in space? It's as though the genie who heard my wish was malevolent - bitter, perhaps, at his imprisonment - and decided to teach me a lesson: be careful what you wish for.

Coming in 2010 - "Troy 2: Troyz n the Hood."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Last Hurrah

So, the moment has passed. The debates are over. Shall we discuss?

Before we get to anything about the content, I want to describe something that happened the first time the two candidates engaged in serious, face-to-face debate. I felt a Great Disturbance in the Force - as though thousands of Tom Brokaws and Gwen Ifills cried out, and were suddenly silenced.

Could Bob Schieffer have shamed his predecessors any more?

I think we were given more serious discussion of the issues during those 90 minutes than during the entire campaign to date. God knows the candidates - both candidates - had to be horse-whipped into providing that substance, but Bob Schieffer was both willing and able to carry that whip. I think he emerges as the winner of the debate - in fact, with his help, the true winner was the viewer. We were able to hold the candidates' feet to the fire and get some serious answers.

Well, okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. It was pretty great, though.

I was particularly pleased that domestic and social issues - which have received such short shrift over the course of this election - finally managed to get a modicum of attention. To my knowledge, for example, abortion has failed to receive even a single mention during any of the previous debates - much to my chagrin, given its central importance to my political philosophy. In fact, I'm not sure I've gotten much out of the debates in general; because...well, because...

I, um...*cough*

I don't actually care that much about the economy.

Now, again, I've exaggerated for effect. Of course I care; I hope to eventually buy a house, or have a job, or even provide my family with multiple meals in the course of a single day. I'm certainly concerned, therefore, that all these goals have been seriously jeopardized by the current financial crisis, and would love to see us elect a President who can mitigate or remedy this catastrophe.

But I don't really know anything about the economy. None of us do; we've all deluded ourselves into thinking we're junior economists, but we're not. I'd be willing to wager not on in 10 Americans can actually explain what really happened here; you'd hear a lot of "subprime mortgages" and "risky lending" and "defaulted on their loans," but you wouldn't hear these ideas strung together in any kind of a coherent sentence. We're not totally sure who Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are, we don't know what AIG is, we don't know whether the bailout will work or not, and if it does work we won't know why it did. We know what CNN told us, but we don't know who they asked, or if they're right, or why they're right. We don't know a damned thing.

Yes, we! You too! Don't lie to me, or yourself. You're not an economist. You didn't even do an economics minor during undergrad. You don't know what's going on.

More importantly (or perhaps more disturbingly), neither do either of our candidates. Now, of course, they know more than we do. They may even be able to define all the terms I listed above, even if they can't say how they all work together. And God only knows they have pet economists waiting in the wings to supply them with quotes about stimulus package this and regulation that. The fact remains, though, that they're not economics professionals; both of them have extensive training in completely unrelated areas. Whichever one of them is elected President is not going to be responsible for creating an economic plan personally; their job will be to hire the right advisors, show good judgment in evaluating advice, and be as educated as possible about the various duties of the Executive Branch. They're candidates for the Presidency, not an endowed chair in Economics.

That's why I get a sense, when watching these debates, that both candidates are simply slapping a Band-Aid on a wound neither one can really mend. They're competing to see who's the better speaker, whose plan is more palatable, which one can make their idea seem to have the right moral foundation (as though that increases an economic plan's chance of success). They're not actually trying to give us the right answer; they don't know it, and we wouldn't know it if we heard it.

That's why I wanted to hear more, this campaign, about abortion rights, and gay marriage, and perhaps about the ethics of war. The economic crisis is our greatest concern, but it will be solved by men whose training exceeds our own by an order of magnitude; when it's finally fixed, we won't even know what's been done (or done right). But when that day comes we will still need a leader with the right priorities, the right set of values, the right amount of dedication to our freedoms. We will still need the right to vote, and the right to freely associate, and the right to freely print whatever views we have. We will still need the right to privacy, and to a fair trial in the event that wrongdoing has occurred.

We can recognize the right man for that job. The other one is more or less a crap shoot.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Question of the Day Corollary: Guilt By Association?

While we're on the subject, what do you suppose would happen if Barack Obama was revealed to have ties with a group seeking independence from America?

Question of the Day: Consequences of Corruption?

Would anyone be surprised if the results of this investigation had no impact whatsoever on the Presidential campaign?

Friday, October 10, 2008

More Than A Legal Institution

For those of you who haven't heard the good news: Connecticut's Supreme Court overturned a legislative ban on same-sex marriage, becoming the third state in the union to rule the legal distinction unconstitutional.

As in California, Connecticut's legislature had previously enacted a law establishing civil unions that were, in theory, legally identical to heterosexual marriages. The majority decision reminded legislators that marriage is not simply a legal institution - it is a social and cultural institution, and "carries with it a status and significance that the newly created classification of civil unions does not embody."

This is a strong argument, a perceptive criticism of why "separate but equal" does not work. It's so perceptive, in fact, that it's a shame it misses the point.

Marriage is, indeed, a social and cultural institution as much as a legal one - more, in fact. It does indeed carry with it a status and significance not embodied by civil unions - and without which civil unions will never have true social legitimacy. The problem, however, is that nobody agrees on what that significance is.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Zarella is illustrative of this point. He agreed with the state's attorney, who argued (to quote the New York Times) that "the plaintiffs had no case because they were free to marry, just not someone of the same sex." He further asserted that the purpose of state marriage laws was to cement a procreative union, which gay marriages (unarguably) are not. "The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis as biology, not bigotry," he concludes.

Contrast this with the language used to describe marriage by New York Governor David Paterson, who praised the court's decision: "Marriage equality is not about challenging anyone’s personal values. It is about giving committed couples the basic rights that heterosexual couples have enjoyed for centuries, and official recognition of their commitment."

So what is marriage, then? Is it a procreative union, a social unit, or an 'official recognition of commitment'? Conservatives tend to take one or both of the first two interpretations; liberals tend to take the latter. Who's right?

Is it even possible to be right about something like this?

If the question is, who can make the argument from history and precedents, the conservatives have it locked up. The concept of marriage as a formal recognition of commitment is pretty much brand new; love matches were considered dangerous and irresponsible for most of recorded history. Certainly you should love your partner, although whether that love would precede or follow after the wedding was open for debate; you would never get married because of love, however. To do so risked destabilizing the social order.

The most telling point here, in fact, comes from the historical societies most accepting of homosexual intercourse: Ancient Greece and Rome. Both cultures saw recreational sex with more or less anything as a-ok; neither Greek nor Latin, to my knowledge, has an actual word describing a specifically homosexual individual. They both have words translating to something like "dominant" and "passive," which describe whether you preferred to be the top or the bottom; who was in the other position, however, was considered largely irrelevant. Heterosexual and homosexual intercourse were considered two flavors of the same food, so to speak.

Marriage, however, was unquestionably a social institution, designed to signify a woman's departure from one family and her membership in another. This distinction was important, of course, because the patriarchal family was the basic legal unit; in Rome, for example, your paterfamilias was considered to have total control over your life and possessions. Roman law recognized two types of marriages, but they had nothing to do with sexuality: one meant a woman remained under her father's control, and the other meant a woman passed under her husband's control. In the former arrangement, her children would stand to inherit nothing from their father; the disposition of family property was the main concern in a Roman marriage.

The point, you ask? Well, the point is that when Justice Zarella talks about "the ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman," he's got it right. That really is the ancient definition, sad to say. Not only that, but many modern families handle marriage almost exactly the same way the Romans did: in traditional Italian households, for example, a father must not intervene if his daughter is beaten by her husband. She's joined a new family, and is no longer any of his concern.

To liberals, of course, society has changed to the point where the patriarchal family is no longer the basic social unit. We see nothing wrong with an unmarried individual; we see nothing wrong with a childless couple; we deny that Woman plus Man is the only formula for a stable childhood home. Times have changed; children can happen out of wedlock; individuals can marry late, or not at all. The world is different; society is different. Welcome to progress.

The question, I suppose, is this: can we really pass useful legislation about such a culturally loaded concept? Can our laws really define marriage when we can't define it ourselves?

The solution is obvious, if unorthodox: eliminate marriage as a civil institution. It is too controversial, too cumbersome, too hotly contested for the government to handle. We have to do away with it.

A civil union essentially provides (or should provide) family benefits to individuals with whom one has chosen to form a family. It is not the place of a democratic government to decide how one should choose those individuals; it is not the place of a democratic government to decide how society should be ordered.

Leave marriage out of it. Leave the past behind. Leave the choice to us.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Election season...

...always makes me wish I was Dutch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Question of the Day: Right-Wing or Wrong-Wing?

McCain keeps saying that "now is the time for bipartisanship." Coming from a Republican, might that not simply mean it's time for a Democrat?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What Does YOUR Copy Say?

Today I want to point out a fundamental error in the conservative view of the government's role: their willingness to ignore the Constitution. As I've pointed out here before, the Constitution stands as a sacred document for Republicans - except when it doesn't, which is more or less whenever it's most convenient. Whether it's true or not, however, they have made themselves the party of the Constitution, which they consider the ultimate incarnation of the Founding Fathers' Will. The Founding Fathers' Will Be Done is so axiomatic a part of the Republican worldview that they take umbrage at the mere notion that some dead guys might not have the deciding vote. (Let's ignore the fact that the Founding Fathers ranged from staunchly deistic to aggressively anti-religious, and would have considered modern Christian Fundamentalism a plague. Hey - it turns out they are as smart as the Republicans claim!)

In this particular case, the Republicans tend to criticize Democrats for their hands-on view of the government; the government's role, they say, is not to step in and help people out whenever it can. The government's role is to get out of everyone's way, and see to it that people make their own prosperity. They often cite these immortal words as a statement of what America should do:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

America exists in order to defend these rights, they say. Wonderful.

There are two problems with falling back on the Declaration of Independence, however. The first is that, sadly, it's not a legal document. It's actually more or less a declaration of war - it states the reasons we mustn't hang out with George anymore, and proposes neither to define nor to institute a government.

Now that you mention it, however, it turns out there's more to the Declaration of Independence than that immortal sentence. It turns out that that's just the beginning of a rather substantial list of self-evident truths! Let's continue:

"— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. The People must institute new government in such form, as shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It seems that the Founding Fathers - particularly Thomas Jefferson, sometimes erroneously revered as the father of the Republican Party - had fairly concrete ideas about the role of government. So concrete, in fact, that they eventually drafted a real legal document to make sure we understood them:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

We establish this Constitution for the United States of America in order to do these things.

Like it or not, Republicans, your all-hallowed Fathers have weighed in on this particular issue. We can't ask if domestic tranquility is the government's responsibility; we can only ask how best the government can achieve it. We can't ask whether the general welfare is our goal; we can only ask how best to get there. We can't ask whether government exists to make the nation more perfect; we can only ask how best to reach for perfection.

The government has a job, and that job is not to do as little as possible.

Small government can be understood as a means to an end, but it cannot be the end itself. The Constitution has told you what the end must be - and if you revere the Constitution, you have a responsibility to go there.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

There Is No Why

Today, for the first time in a while, I'd like to discuss religion.

Those of you who follow my blog might find this hard to believe, but I actually try to avoid discussing religion whenever possible. There is always a concern that people will think I'm harping needlessly on just one issue, that I've acquired a certain tunnel vision through which I now view the world. The truth is, however, that like Bill Maher - whose film "Religulous" I saw on Friday - I am truly worried by religion, and by the religious debate itself. I find religion, among those who adhere to it, a constant source of frustration and fear at the rising tide of anti-intellectualism.

Today's transgressor: David Wolpe, author of an essay at The Washington Post entitled "Without God, There Is No Why" - available at - and of a recent book entitled Why Faith Matters. Those of you who have discussed this with me in person should have no trouble discerning what my problem might be with these publications; for the rest of you, here we go again.

The review of Wolpe's book seems to imply that he is among the first to argue that despite its flaws, religion is primarily kind and compassionate - the others, this reviewer implies, are content defend faith "by hiding the darkest moments of Western traditions." In fact, any non-believer who has actually had this debate with another human being will recognize this as the standard response to any aspersions cast against religion - yes, there are some dark moments in religion's past, but it has always been primarily a force for good. This is not a groundbreaking approach; this is more or less par for the course.

It's Wolpe's essay, however, that I'd primarily like to address (having actually read it). In "Without God, There Is No Why", he discusses the way his family's experience with cancer brought them closer to God - by providing them with certainty that even this had a purpose. He recalls a story told by Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, wherein a spiteful guard informed him that "Here, there is no why." It is this greatest of fears, he argues, that God permits us to live without - faith in the divine reassures us that existence, even suffering, has a purpose. "The greatest terror," he writes, "is if the universe presents us with a blank face. Without God, there is no why."

Of my two giant-sized problems with this argument, the first should be more obvious - although it frustratingly never seems to be. Arguing for the need for God and arguing for the existence of God are not the same thing - not by a long shot. Perhaps atheists like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are partially responsible for fostering this notion, with their lengthy tomes on the evils of religion - the important point, however, is not really the degree of religion's goodness. It is the degree of factual proof behind religious beliefs. A true agnostic objects first and foremost not to acts of evil, but the level of certainty that permits those acts to leave behind a clear conscience, no matter how despicable they may be. Religious violence is dreadful, but it would not be possible were both sides not absolutely convinced their way was right - and it is to that conviction, absent all proof, that a reasonable person must object.*

To put it another way: in what other area of human thought is "well, it would be a lot better if this were true" admissable as a serious argument for truth? Belief is a choice between what is true and what is not - the relative merit of each position is simply not a viable factor.

Which leads me, paradoxically, to objection number two: why is a universe with a purpose necessarily better than a universe without?

This is a question rarely asked by anybody but Chris Hitchens, whose abrasiveness has unfortunately caused him to be dismissed as a serious participant in this debate. If the most common argument for the existence of God is "boy, your life must be pretty grim without the man upstairs," the most common response by far is "well, sure, having a God would be great - but there's no proof!" This is the right notion, but there's something very wrong with our approach - why must we cede this high ground? Why must we always "admit" that for God to impose purpose and meaning on the universe is a good and valuable thing?

Why do we not want the freedom to choose our own purpose?

The idea of a "divine plan," after all, raises as many questions as it does answers. You've heard these all before - why the Holocaust, why Hiroshima, why Darfur. Why would a loving God include such atrocities in his Great Divine Plan? Now, I've had this argument before (especially with Christians, who I'm pretty sure are chiefly responsible for this concept), and a fair amount of eye-rolling usually accompanies these examples - they're considered pat, obvious, the same old atheistic nonsense. God's unknowable, they say; his ways are not our ways. His purpose for us is not always clear, but he always has a purpose.

I find it frankly astonishing that this truly comforts people.

First of all, the Divine Plan and its inclusion of plague and genocide seem to seriously undermine the argument that "God provides morality" (for which there are simply not enough hours in the day - another time, folks). If God demands that you not kill and then kills you by the hundreds of millions, are not the morals he provided totally arbitrary? If God is the ultimate good, why has he laid down rules for moral behavior that are so wildly at odds with his own? Would emulating the greatest good not be the greatest good?

Second of all, which is the more comforting idea: that God has no purpose for you, or that he has a dreadful one? Don't get me wrong - I understand why a dying person might be struggling to find meaning in their life. If I died young, or before doing all the things I want to do, I might question what it all had been for. But if I were in a hospital bed dying of lymphoma, why would I take comfort in the fact that my divine purpose had been to die of lymphoma? If I were Primo Levi, why would I take comfort in the fact the God did not protect me - that he fed me to the Nazis, and that my despair would serve his ends? If I were raped, why would I feel better knowing God held the knife?

I wouldn't. I'd think I got divinely screwed.

I want the freedom to choose my own purpose - to make my own plans, and to live my own life. I want to know that fate is not decided - that vigilance and wisdom can still protect me. I want to know that by fighting human evil, I can keep it from overwhelming me - and that if it ever does, it was not because the fight was always hopeless. I want to ask the question Why, and to hear the answer in a clear voice - my own.

Human beings give purpose to their own lives. This is not a curse - it is the greatest privilege we have. Don't squander it.

*"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

- C.S. Lewis. Spot the irony.