Monday, September 12, 2011

Our Imprudent President

One might question the prudence of a President who uses a joint session of Congress before a primed national television audience to deliver a red-meat partisan speech.  Did he think he was addressing Jimmy Hoffa at a labor day rally rather than the people's representatives in the solemn chambers of American government?  One would have thought that given all the time he had to prepare in Martha's Vineyard, President Obama could have come up with a better speech, plan for legislating economic relief, and strategy for positioning himself into 2012.  Instead, he made ad hominem arguments, disfigured his opponents' beliefs in order to rebuff them, provoked legislators he must deal with to do the people's business despite differences, and pressed for immediate action on something he won't deliver for two weeks.  That his handlers orchestrated the smoke-and-mirrors release of a terror threat to immediately divert viewers attention from the stink bomb that had just been laid indicates that they knew the speech would be weak going into it.  The address didn't just disappoint.  It was a disgrace.

In the future, the President might want to answer arguments he disagrees with rather than caricatures of them.  Take the following example, though several can easily be found in the speech:
I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.
Noman wasn't aware of anyone suggesting such a thing, and might join the President to protest if he were.  He does recall Republican Governors of several states, most notably Wisconsin, moving to eliminate collective bargaining in the public employee context because the conditions that make collective bargaining a right in the private sector context don't afflict the proliferating number of government workers.

You need antagonists on both sides of the table arguing from different premises with different interests, and a presumption that the shareholder-board-management axis is plenipotent, in order to consider the practice a right--something that law must sanction.

In the public sector context, Democrats and unions are one and the same entity faux negotiating over how to spend taxpayer's money.  It's like big-time wrestling.  Taxpayers, unlike shareholders, are not owed fiduciary duties of loyalty and care by their agents.  They are not protected by law and the plaintiff's bar--another Democratic stronghold.  Citizens only redress is to vote the blackguards out, which is where re-funneled union contributions, union organizing and union pressure come in handy. The reader gets the picture.

The result is runaway deficits as in California and Illinois--two Democratic strongholds--that threaten financial ruin.  Now, Noman and Barack and everybody in the wide-awake club knows what the plan is: for the federal government to fund these deficits (by borrowing trillions of dollars) via a stimulus bill, jobs act or whatever expedient the President cares to sell it as.  The push for a federal VAT awaits us whenever the incipient spending-induced crisis strikes.  And, strike it will.  Capital markets work like that; lenders are not easily fooled by inversions of words like spend-and-tax.

Federal tax dollars from fiscally sound red states are used to fund the Democrat's blue state strongholds.  Blue states are entitled; Red states are bound.  Public union members live the life of Reilly; Democratic politicians live high on the hog; everybody is happy except the taxpayers.  And, they're the only ones without a seat at the table.  Neither can they adopt the "Wall Street rule," i.e., protest by selling their stock.  But, it's fair.

Noman thinks that's what President Obama referred to, but didn't address, by his statement.

He might have alluded to opponents' concerns without addressing them, or simply not delivered the line.  Yet, he chose to stick a gratuitous finger in the eye of fictitious combatants in order to score cheap points.  Sad.  Serious discussions about serious matters, the kind one might have expected the other night, require a different tack.  Noman would like to suggest the following template for future policy engagements.
Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas
Question 47. Prudence, considered in itself
Article 1. Whether prudence is in the cognitive or in the appetitive faculty?
Objection 1. It would seem that prudence is not in the cognitive but in the appetitive faculty. For Augustine says (De Morib. Eccl. xv): "Prudence is love choosing wisely between the things that help and those that hinder." Now love is not in the cognitive, but in the appetitive faculty. Therefore prudence is in the appetitive faculty.
Objection 2. Further, as appears from the foregoing definition it belongs to prudence "to choose wisely." But choice is an act of the appetitive faculty, as stated above (I-II, 13, 1). Therefore prudence is not in the cognitive but in theappetitive faculty. 
Objection 3. Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. vi, 5) that "in art it is better to err voluntarily than involuntarily, whereas in the case of prudence, as of the virtues, it is worse." Now the moral virtues, of which he is treating there, are in the appetitive faculty, whereas art is in the reason. Therefore prudence is in the appetitive rather than in the rational faculty.
On the contrary, Augustine says (QQ. lxxxiii, qu. 61): "Prudence is the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid."
I answer that, As Isidore says (Etym. x): "A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties." Now sight belongs not to the appetitive but to the cognitive faculty. Wherefore it is manifest that prudence belongs directly to the cognitive, and not to the sensitive faculty, because by the latter we know nothing but what is within reach and offers itself to the senses: while to obtain knowledge of the future from knowledge of the present or past, which pertains to prudence, belongs properly to the reason, because this is done by a process of comparison. It follows therefore that prudence, properly speaking, is in the reason.
Reply to Objection 1. As stated above (I, 82, 4) the will moves all the faculties to their acts. Now the first act of theappetitive faculty is love, as stated above (I-II, 25, 1 and 2). Accordingly prudence is said to be love, not indeedessentially, but in so far as love moves to the act of prudence. Wherefore Augustine goes on to say that "prudence islove discerning aright that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God." Now love is said to discernbecause it moves the reason to discern.
Reply to Objection 2. The prudent man considers things afar off, in so far as they tend to be a help or a hindrance to that which has to be done at the present time. Hence it is clear that those things which prudence considers stand in relation to this other, as in relation to the end. Now of those things that are directed to the end there is counsel in thereason, and choice in the appetite, of which two, counsel belongs more properly to prudence, since the Philosopherstates (Ethic. vi, 5,7,9) that a prudent man "takes good counsel." But as choice presupposes counsel, since it is "the desire for what has been already counselled" (Ethic. iii, 2), it follows that choice can also be ascribed to prudenceindirectly, in so far, to wit, as prudence directs the choice by means of counsel.
Reply to Objection 3. The worth of prudence consists not in thought merely, but in its application to action, which is the end of the practical reason. Wherefore if any defect occur in this, it is most contrary to prudence, since, the end being of most import in everything, it follows that a defect which touches the end is the worst of all. Hence thePhilosopher goes on to say (Ethic. vi, 5) that prudence is "something more than a merely rational habit," such as art is, since, as stated above (I-II, 57, 4) it includes application to action, which application is an act of the will.

Note first of all how respectfully St. Thomas treats objections, and how succinctly he articulates them to demonstrate his understanding of their gravamen.  Many say that St. Thomas was more fair to arguments he rebuffed than were the arguments' original proponents.  Note also how seriously he takes those who came before him, especially authority on the other side of his argument.  Only then was he prepared to deliver a rejoinder and propose the correct answer according to his lights.  There was also the small matter of weaving this answer into thousands of others to form a seamless, consistent body of knowledge.  Then the point was laid to rest by addressing the objections directly and explaining why despite evident persuasiveness, they are not decisive.

Politicians generally aren't deep thinkers, though even Vice-President Biden has pretensions.  They're prone to falling for simplistic hermeneutics such as dividing American society into three economic groups as Saul Alinsky did: the Haves, the Have-Nots and the Have-a-Little, Want-Mores.  That makes everything much simpler to deal with though impossible to understand.  Nevertheless, since President Obama likes to pose as Solomon when he's not thundering like Zeus, adopting St. Thomas's methodology of crediting one's opponents with real arguments that for a variety of reasons he cannot accept might suit him.  It would make for duller politics, but for much better governance.

Even if President Obama doesn't have sufficient game to pull it off, St. Thomas's article on Prudence contains a modest tip of value to him.  In order to act wisely, he should forget about the will to power and acquire a little knowledge.

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