Monday, October 18, 2010

Instant karma

Jonathan Haidt claims that the tea parties are really all about Karma:

Now jump ahead to today's ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers' money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?

As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma's Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

Listen, for example, to Rick Santelli's "rant heard 'round the world" on CNBC last year and its most famous lines: "The government is promoting bad behavior," and "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors' mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" It's a rant about karma, not liberty.

There's a real crumb of truth to this. I think most people want to see the bad guys lose and the good guys win, and the notion of bailing out people with bad mortgages is not palatable to quite a few people in this country. Clearly, a lot of banks made a lot of bad bets, and some of the blame rests with them, but the tea party argument about mortgages is fair enough and hard to rebut. The sensible option is to start rolling back the numerous government programs that encourage home ownership (and, by extension, reckless betting by banks), starting by phasing out Fannie and Freddie. I have no problem with this, though it should probably wait until the housing market recovers.

But I simply cannot believe that the tea parties are motivated solely by karma. It is telling that Haidt brings up only two examples of his karmic betrayal: progressive taxation, which is so abominably anti-free market capitalism that it's only been championed by Adam Smith, who created the whole idea in the first place, and affirmative action, which has become such a nonentity in American life that few liberals are even willing to defend it anymore, and outside of some public universities and other organizations (such as the military), it's just gone. He obviously couldn't have said Medicare or Social Security since the tea parties like those programs, and it seems like quite a few tea types take advantage of them. Haidt's article includes this quote: "Or look at the political issue that most enraged the early tea partiers. Messrs. Armey and Kibbe state categorically that it was not Mr. Obama's stimulus bill that turned millions into activists; it was Mr. Bush's bank bailout." This is important because if the tea parties were motivated by some sense of karmic justice, they should have been absolutely infuriated with the arrogant banksters who nearly broke America. I have noticed very little of that sentiment with the movement, though I suppose their relative silence on financial reform is something, but I suspect they really believe the Fox-approved narrative that the Community Reinvestment Act of 1979 caused the crisis or whatever and see the bankers as free-market warriors. Say what you like about this view, but it is hardly karmic. The tea partiers were infuriated by the response to the crisis and not necessarily the crisis itself, or its architects. And then there was the BP oil spill, in which Republican sentiment in favor of a company whose recklessness caused an unforced environmental disaster was so intensely sympathetic to the disgraced BP leaders that some Republicans just couldn't keep their mouths shut.

I personally find this entire argument preposterous, but let's talk for a moment about the Protestant work ethic (a/k/a Karma's Christian cousin). Haidt makes this statement without any supporting argument, and I think it needs some. Karma is a pretty easy concept to understand on a fundamental level--you get rewarded for what you do right, you get punished for what you do wrong, and ultimately you get what you deserve. In Christianity, the big idea is that you get something you do not deserve. You are justified by your faith and not by your works, and it is pointed out many times that good deeds, while pleasing to God, have no real reward in God's eyes (cf. the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler, which I'm sure everyone is familiar with). There are many points of overlap between Christianity and Buddhism (and possibly Hinduism, though I know a lot less about that), but there are plenty of points of divergence as well. Karma is pretty clearly antithetical to the basis of Christianity in my reckoning. I'm not going to say that any version of Christianity requires a full-fledged belief in a left-liberal agenda, because I do not believe that, but for a believing Christian to say "We get what we deserve" should not be a comforting notion but a terrifying one, and even if one were to accept that, I think it's pretty hard to make the argument that the 43.6 million people in poverty have each done something to deserve that state, which is the inevitable conclusion of the idea of the inherently just free market that Ayn Rand preached, and that conservatives like Rand Paul vociferously agree with.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.