Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dislikeable Virtues and Admirable Vices

Dislikeable Virtues and Admirable Vices

Winston Churchill once said of political opponent, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

How can you not like Churchill?  I was reminded of this choice bon mot when reading Thomas Donlan’s two editorials, “Taken for a Ride,” and “Energy Begins at Home” in this week’s Barron’s.  In “Taken for a Ride” Donlan reviews the history of gambling in Atlantic City, notes its boom and bust (mostly bust) over the last 36 years, and its abject failure to revitalize most of community outside of the casinos. “Energy Begins at Home” is a slap at California’s environmental regulations, particular when it comes to drilling and fracking.

I admire Donlan’s writing.  He is usually precise in reporting the facts, acute in his observations and applies a real intellectual rigor to his analysis.  This time, I found myself oddly estranged, agreeing with his some of his conclusions while being alienated by the way he reached them. 

Let’s start with Atlantic City. He says, “The only reasonable argument for legal casinos is the argument for legal drinking, legal smoking, legal prostitution, and legal drug-taking: Personal liberty is more important than the consequences to those who can’t handle it.  We find that freedom-loving philosophy appealing, but we remain free to judge the people in the casino business and the politicians who enable it. They are morally defective. It’s one thing to tolerate your neighbor’s unattractive habits; it’s a nastier thing to run a business that provides the satisfaction of his cravings.”  When the last gambler leaves Atlantic City, we will cheer, even if all the lights do go out.

I am not a fan of gambling, but you don’t have to be a morally defective politician to understand why even a non-corrupt one might support the development of casinos.  All you need to have is an understanding of the yearning of families in an economically stricken area for any type of revitalization.  As morally dicey as gambling is, would we even be having these discussions if the economic model succeeded?  Outside of a few fringe groups (on both sides of the political spectrum) I don't think so.

The fact is that, savory business or not, we have casinos, like we have a lot of disruptive or morally iffy businesses, for one primary reason—money.   In an ideal world, they would do as their promoters promised—provide profitable business activity, short and long term employment, and tax revenues.  Might not be the prettiest way to economic growth, but there are many industries I can think of you wouldn’t want to have next door. We live in a capitalist society that not only tolerates craps tables, but also distilling, cigarette manufacturing, rendering plants, large-scale hog farming, strip-mining, clear-cutting, and an entertainment industry that thrives on sex and violence, just to name a few.  Every one of those industries contributes heavily to political campaigns, and I don’t see anyone, left or right, rushing to return that nasty, messy, sordidly obtained money. 

Perhaps we should care more and refuse to enable them, but, as Donlan would surely agree, too much regulation is a bad thing.  Shouldn’t markets be the primary determiners of allocation of capital?  Yes, within certain limits, and in the gambling market, historically, capital rushed in. It isn’t a bad business to be in: The combined market capitalization of Wynn Resorts, MGM, and Las Vegas Sands is close to $50 Billion, which I think we would all admit, is more than a pretty fair grubstake. Done in the right location, there’s gold in them thar hills. 

Still, Donlan roots for its demise, because an industry that caters to someone’s “unattractive habits” is an immoral one.  But, even if we agree, even if we have some sort of duty to shield the souls of our population from the morally defective casino operators, don’t we also have a duty to shield their bodies from other types of activity that could cause them harm?

Not, certainly, in California. In “Energy Begins at Home,” when it comes to extracting energy at whatever cost to the land or the people, apparently the moral model disappears.

California has oil in several places, many of which have been off-limits because of environmental concerns, and some because they weren’t economically viable.  Donlan wants the oil, apparently because Californians drive a lot and should eat, or drink, what they grow.  He isn’t sure how much oil there is, or where it is, or whether it can be extracted safely and economically.  But he wants it.  Donlan might be absolutely correct on the numbers—more energy development would allow in-state refiners to operate more profitably and drivers to commute more economically.  And, to his credit, he at least acknowledges the occurrence of the great Santa Barbara Spill of 1969.  He also allows that fracking uses lots of water and might encourage earthquakes, perhaps somewhat important to a drought-stricken state that is in an earthquake zone.  But those concerns he gives no real weight.  More and cheaper energy, and greater profits for the extractors and refiners are apparently far more important than issues like potable water for growing things (and presumably bathing and drinking.)

I don’t mean to be too harsh, because what Donlan is doing is traditionally what the political process does—it weighs competing interests, and allocates burdens and benefits.  But, politics being politics, it doesn’t do that in a particularly rational or consistent way.  Instead, it is driven by the passion and profits of the people we put in charge. Of course, humans being humans, they just can’t admit that to themselves, so they, as Donlan does, cloak their preferences in the language of morality. 

There is real danger in that, because finding someone or something conveniently immoral is often the gateway to excusing one’s own indifference to the needs and sacrifices of others.  When Donlan says, “When the last gambler leaves Atlantic City, we will cheer, even if all the lights do go out.” you, and the 39,000 plus people who live there, should take him at his word, all of it, and be prepared with a stockpile of candles.

Why is all this important? We are going to have elections in less than three weeks.  Tens of millions of people are going to elect other people to decide for them which virtues to dislike and which vices to admire.

Then, those newly elected people are going to put those “moral” choices into action.  

That isn’t the most comforting thought.

As Churchill added about Stafford Cripps, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

October 16, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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