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5 Questions on Border Security and Immigration Reform
We Were Close To a Bipartisan Bill to Double the Size of the Border Patrol, Fully Fund Border Barriers, and Overhaul Immigration Laws... But Congress Failed Us.
Specifically, the Members of Congress who failed us were those who put their party loyalty in front of their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, passed the Senate by a roll-call vote of 68-32. The bill authorized a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol, directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to prepare a comprehensive strategy on border security, and funded the barriers (walls, fences, and whatever was required in the strategy) necessary for the implementation of that strategy. The bill also provided a much-needed overhaul of immigration laws. And on top of all that, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office "scored" the bill as reducing the federal debt by more than $100 million.
Why would any Member of Congress vote against that bill? In fact, as shown in the attached copy of the Senate's roll-call vote, 32 Republican senators voted against S.744, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. But the traitor who really sold us all out was former House Speaker John Boehner. Facing a split among Republican Members of the House that could have passed the legislation and sent it to President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner used the power of his office to prevent the bill from ever coming up for a vote in the House. He told journalists that, not only would the House not vote on the bill, but they would not even meet with the Senate to try for a compromise.
Contrary to what President Trump likes to claim, it was the Republicans who stopped the last, best proposal to significantly enhance border security. And they did it with a procedural maneuver that, arguably, blocked a bill representing the will of a majority of Americans that would otherwise have become a law.
If you think that one party is always right and the other is always wrong, you should reconsider the facts. Blindly supporting one political party is certainly not the best thing for our country. None of us should follow that policy. And we most certainly should not tolerate Members of Congress who cannot put their loyalty to our country ahead of their loyalty to party. It's time to get people like Mitch McConnell and Mike Lee out of Congress.
In Part 1, we pointed out where Plato describes the wisdom of Socrates as knowing that he knew nothing at all. We also described how Rene Descartes' got around this skepticism about knowledge by noting that, even if all of our experience is a deceptive illusion, that illusion has to be presented to something. I remember how confused I was when I first read about Descartes, so I will present his reasoning--where we left off in the last blog--once more here, using a slightly different approach. Descartes said, "I am thinking, therefore I exist." In other words, even if all experience is an illusion, that illusion is like a movie, and there has to be something onto which the illusion is projected. We--each of us--are experiencing thought, and so we can be certain of one thing: our own existence as the thinker.
So we know we exist. Beyond that we start making choices. We are confronted with experiences that we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. We can all agree that our individual perceptions of experience are imperfect. Those perceptions are sufficiently warped by emotion and bias in many cases to prevent agreement on the content and meaning of any given experience. We need a standard for truth that we can apply together to help us make decisions. How can we leverage what we know to determine what is truth and what is illusion, to differentiate between facts and fake news? I want to answer that question. To do so, I will return to Plato and Aristotle briefly, first to highlight the twin traditions of idealism and empiricism they handed down to western civilization, and then to explore how their common roots in the Pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras give us our modern foundation for truth.
The history of philosophy emphasizes the difference between the idealism of Plato's Theory of Forms and the empiricism of Aristotle. Plato believed the only real things were Forms that existed in a realm that we could not perceive with our senses but that we could access through reason. According to Plato, the objects we experience with our senses were not real in themselves, but only to the extent that they were reflections or copies of the ideal, unchanging Forms. After Plato's death, Aristotle left Athens and became the tutor of Alexander the Great. He abandoned Plato's Theory of Forms, adopting the philosophy that things we experience are real in themselves--a fusion of form and matter. Aristotelian forms were more like our common notion of DNA--internal blueprints that drive our growth. An oak tree is a good oak tree to the extent that it manifests the characteristics of oak trees--growing from an acorn, reaching a characteristic size with a certain kind of bark and leaves. A human is a good human to the extent that she manifests the characteristics of the human form--that of a social, rational animal. There are indeed significant differences in the philosophies of the master and his student. But, from the perspective of a theory of knowledge and a standard for truth, the important focus is not on how the two men differed, but how they agreed.
The views expressed by Plato and Aristotle agree in an interesting way. Both men believed that knowledge is not only possible, but that it is important to living a proper human life. This tells us something about what Plato and Aristotle believed regarding the nature of knowledge and truth--it implies they believed knowledge and truth correspond with or are coherent with the world in some way. If this was not true, there would be no way that knowledge and truth could be important to living a good human life. If things we can know to be true do not correspond with the world of experience, or if they are not coherent with the world of experience, then attempting to use knowledge and truth to live a better life would be like trying to use a street map of Pittsburgh to get from point A to point B in Salt Lake City. Things we can know to be true help us to live better lives only if knowledge and truth have the attributes of correspondence to the world we experience or coherence with the world we experience or both. And with correspondence and coherence comes the power to predict--we can use things we know to be true to calculate the effects and consequences of our actions.
Plato and Aristotle did not arrive at the relationship between truth and world of experience on their own. They inherited their concepts of knowledge and truth from a tradition that went back at least 300 years to Pythagoras of Samos--a tradition deeply rooted in mathematics as the purest form of knowledge and the language underlying the observed universe. Pythagoras had taken the ancient set square, used to true up the perpendiculars in the construction of temples and palaces for thousands of years, and had proven a universal relationship existed in the proportions of the lengths of the sides associated with the right angle. He had proven that the sum of the areas of squares constructed with the two shorter sides always equalled the area of the square constructed using the hypotenuse. The Pythagorean Theorem was the archetype of knowledge and truth. Here was a product of reason deeply tied to the world of experience and nature that we all share. Here was a fact consistent with every observation, from the crystalline structures of naturally occurring elements to the tools used to construct the pyramids. Here was a theorem revealing--through correspondence or coherence or both--eternal relationships in the structure of the universe that could be used to predict and build. By the time of Plato, Euclid had expanded on Pythagoras' work and published his system of geometry and geometric proofs. 
A common modern definition of knowledge is "justified, true belief." There are three elements to this definition. To qualify as knowledge, a proposition has to be something in which we believe. Mere belief is a pretty low bar. We all have beliefs. We disagree with each other about whose beliefs are better or more true. Knowledge must rely on something more. Another element in our definition of knowledge is that it must be justified belief. That is somewhat better than belief alone--by adding the requirement for justification, we have to be able to offer reasonable grounds for our belief. But even this is not enough, as we can all offer reasons to believe things that are different from and inconsistent with what others have reason to believe. There must be a stricter requirement to differentiate knowledge from belief, and that leads us to the requirement for truth. When we say that something qualifies as knowledge because it is justified true belief, the assertion of truth is a claim about the relationship between the proposition we are considering and the world of experience that we all share. We are asserting that the proposition corresponds with the world of experience or is coherent with the world of experience, or both, in the same way as the Pythagorean Theorem.
Things are not true because we want them to be true, or because someone we like tells us they are true, or even because we all agree that they are (or should be) true. Things are true if and only if they stand in a certain relationship to the world of experience we all share. True things correspond to the world of experience, or are coherent with the world of experience, or both. Since the world of experience, as I am using that term, is a world we all share, then true things are also independently verifiable through their effects, or predicted effects.
 The description of Pythagoras' work is taken from Jacob Bronowski's book The Ascent of Man, and from the BBC television series based on that book.
Benjamin Franklin's excellent statement on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, which we considered in the last blog, reflects a healthy humility and respect for the views of others. In Apology, Plato describes Socrates as holding that the greatest wisdom was to know that you know nothing. With all due respect to Socrates, I think he takes things a bit too far. We can know things. We do know things. How do we differentiate between what we know and what we merely think we know? How do we apply the lesson of humility without taking it to the Socratic extreme?
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, soldier, mathematician, and scientist who lived in the first half of the 17th century (1596-1650). In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes offers a powerful, simple argument to start us back on the path to establishing what we can know. Descartes set about a thought experiment, examining everything he thought he "knew", and imagining whether it was possible that some powerful wizard was simply deceiving him about this knowledge. He determined that there was one fact about which the wizard could not deceive him--the fact of his existence. Descartes reasoned that, even if everything in his experience was simply an illusion, he himself--the entity that was experiencing the illusion--had to exist. Stated another way, the powerful wizard had to be deceiving something with his illusions, and that something had to exist. Descartes summarized his conclusion with the famous statement, "I am thinking, therefore I exist." 
There is more we can do with Descarte's first step, but it is a powerful first step, so I will leave our reflection there for today.
 Rattle, Allison, and Alex Woolf, 501 Things You Should Have Learned About Philosophy, Metro Books, New York, 2013, p. 54.
I get that we are worried about foreign governments planting misinformation in American social media as a way to influence elections and undermine the processes of our society. Ultimately, however, I am more concerned by the fact that there are large numbers of people unable or unwilling to protect themselves from thinly veiled misinformation. The first step to the truth is to have a proper humility about the things you believe to be true.
Benjamin Franklin's statement on the last day of the Constitutional Convention is one of the best expressions I have encountered of this humility of thought:
"I confess there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve....But I am not sure I will never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.... In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such."
Franklin famously believed America could preserve our republic only if the people could live with civic and personal virtue. Adopting an appropriate humility toward one's personal beliefs, along with an appropriate respect for the beliefs of others, is the first step toward this ideal of virtue.
"The business being closed," he wrote, "the members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other; after which I returned to my lodgings, did some business with, and received the papers from the Secretary of the Convention, and retired to meditate on the momentous work which had been executed, after not less than five, and for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, [except] Sundays and the ten days adjournment for more than four months."
Miracle at Philadelphia; Bowen, Catherine Drinker; Hachette Book Group, New York, NY, 1966; p. 264
One of the most fascinating aspects of the men who founded our nation is the fact that so many of them were Deists, including George Washington. James Thomas Flexner, in his essential biography of our first President, writes, "Washington subscribed to the religious faith of the Enlightenment: like Franklin and Jefferson, he was a deist." (Flexner, p. 216). Catherine Drinker Bowen, author of Miracle at Philadelphia--The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787, writes that "Deism was in the air.... Dr. Franklin could have defined this creedless religion; with Jefferson and John Adams, the Doctor shared the Deistical outlook." (Bowen, p. 216) Washington's religious belief was but one example of his amazing ability to bring reason to bear on the social conventions of his day.
The fascinating thing about the broad popularity of Deism among the luminaries of eightteenth-century America is that it is so rational. Deism, or natural religion, acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Being but, at the same time, acknowledges that we cannot know anything specific about this being. It is the perfect reconciliation of the religious intuition many of us share, with the limits of what we can confirm as fact. While insisting on the existence of a Creator, Deism denies that there is any rational basis for the overly specific dogmas associated with the anthropomorphic mythologies we call--collectively--organized religion. Because there is no rational basis for the differences between the world's organized religions, if you are a Deist, tolerance is central to your philosophy.
Neither can scientists who insist on fact alone disqualify the religious intuition that so many of us share. That widely shared religious intuition is itself a fact. And there is so much about creation that we simply do not understand. Most of the matter and energy in the universe is "dark"--it does not appear to react with the matter and energy we see. Given all we do not know about the universe, there is nothing irrational about Deism.
Among the many exceptional things about our first President was his ability to rise above the constraints and conventions of his world through the application of practical reason. After the death of his father when he was only eleven, George Washington's education was limited to about the eighth-grade level. Yet this man, with no formal military training, became the Commanding General of an army that defeated the most powerful army in the world at the time. This man served as president of the convention that produced our Constitution. By the end of his life, he understood that the institution of slavery was inconsistent with the principles of that Constitution, and provided in his will for the emancipation of the slaves at Mount Vernon. This man understood that reason was consistent with his faith in a Supreme Being, but was not consistent with the many dogmas and prejudices associated with the common practice of organized religion.
Happy birthday, Mr. President!
Faith can be a beautiful thing. An online dictionary defines faith as "complete trust or confidence in someone or something." In the context of religion, the same dictionary describes faith as "strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof."  My personal faith is a great source of joy and comfort to me, but it is not fact, and I fear too many people do not understand the difference.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That is a fact. The First Amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. The text of the First Amendment states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." [https://bit.ly/1zFG4Hh]. There is no debate about the text of the Amendment. These words were ratified by the several states and made part of the Constitution. The history of these words and the history of the ratification process, the product of a cooperative effort by many people in different state legislatures over a roughly contemporaneous period culminating in 1791, is irrefutable. There is no need for any leap beyond historical facts that everyone accepts.
On the contrary, the many different varieties of religious faith have sparked controversy, conflict and disagreement throughout history. The history of persecution of some religious groups by others was a principal motivation for the European migration to America, and subsequently, for the guarantee of freedom of religion in the United States Constitution. There is no framework of fact sufficient to establish the truth of any specific variety of religious belief. For that reason, a person who believes in any religion must go beyond what the facts can prove--they take a leap of faith.
Under our Constitution, each person has the right to decide for themselves whether or not to take a "leap of faith." The choice a person makes--whether to believe or not believe something beyond what the facts can support--has no impact on their status as a citizen. We are all guaranteed equal protection of the laws.
But the constitutional protection of religious belief is not a blank check. We do not, for instance, allow the practice of human sacrifice, even though that practice has been part of some religions in the past. The reasoning is obvious--the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the law to all, and that is inconsistent with allowing religious practice that harms non-believers.
For their part, non-believers sometimes act as if their reliance on facts--and by facts, I mean those statements whose truth can be verified independently using tests such as correspondence, coherence, repeatability and predictive power--makes them more worthy than believers. Facts definitely have more utility than faith in the realms of science, engineering, criminal justice and similar professions. However, the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws applies equally to people acting on the basis of religious faith as well as to those acting on the basis of fact.
There is a bit of natural tension between religious faith and fact, but the two are not mutually exclusive because there are significant limits to what we know. Most of the matter and energy in the universe are "dark", and do not interact with light or other matter the same as ordinary matter and energy--we don't know what this stuff is!  Keeping what we can know to be true in perspective leaves room for reasonable people to choose faith, or not, and to tolerate those whose faith choice is different from their own. Indeed, even scientists can (and do) choose to take the leap of faith in realms they know are not governed by fact.
And the limits of factual knowledge leave plenty of room for faith, but not the overly specific faith that most religions espouse. There is a clear factual record that supports the current theory for the evolution of the life on earth from the Big Bang to homo sapiens. But in the words of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, "What happened before the beginning? [We] have no idea..... religious people assert... that something must have started it all.... In the mind of such a person, that something is, of course, God."  The factual record leaves room for belief in God. It doesn't support the culturally-driven, anthropomorphic mythologies we generally associate with organized religion. And it definitely doesn't support persecuting one another over the differences between our various mythologies. In other words, the factual record demands toleration of differences in religious faith--because of all we don't know--it supports the First Amendment.
 www.google.com, dictionary; https://bit.ly/2Vb2q0v
 Tyson, Neil DeGrasse, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2017, pp. 59-60, 108-14.
 ibid., p. 32.
It's hard to avoid thinking about time on New Year's Day. Arguably, it's the most valuable commodity. We cannot buy more time. We all have 24 hours in a day. When we lack control over what we do during those 24 hours, we say we lack freedom.
We can lack control because we are constrained by external forces--we can be enslaved or imprisoned or coerced by a despotic government. The Constitution of the United States is a framework for enabling freedom. At the outset, the Constitution did not perfectly provide formal freedom--the freedom enabled by government institutions--to all segments of our population. Freedoms were unjustly restricted based on race, color, gender. The history of our country has been marked by a history of extending formal freedom to ever-increasing segments of our population.
Formal freedom has never translated to actual freedom immediately. Even after the Constitution was amended to eliminate slavery and extend basic civil rights to people of color and, later, to women, those rights were denied and restricted by informal social mechanisms, domestic terrorism, and procedures specifically designed to obstruct the actual practice of basic freedoms by targeted groups. For these groups, the basic freedoms only became real in practice when sufficient numbers of individuals in society accepted and stood up for the rights of the targeted groups. In other words, the structures of our government enabled freedoms, but only individual behaviors made them real.
And it is also true that, while we cannot buy time, we can buy more control over the time we have. We can buy the services of other people to do tasks we would rather not do, giving us more choice in how we spend our time. In other words, we can buy more freedom. To a certain extent, if your ability to buy more freedom is strictly a function of your positive individual choices and behaviors, I say good for you.
But none of us are strictly a product of our individual choices and behaviors--we all inherit resources or liabilities from our parents. And to the extent that your ability to enjoy more freedom than others is a function of systemic inequality, I say the government has a role in lessening the disparity between the freedom enjoyed by the wealthiest and the freedom allowed to the poorest. That is what the beginning of the Constitution means: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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 cannot say that our government is living up to its constitutional mandates to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty if it enables too great a disparity between rich and poor. Such a disparity is no less than a disparity between the freedom of the wealthiest and the freedom of the poorest. That disparity violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution, at least to the extent that it is a function of systemic inequality rather than individual merit.
This is not an argument for communism or for any naive utopian concept of economic equality--those philosophies remove the incentive for individual choices and behaviors that are the engine of a productive human society. It is, however, an argument for reasonable constraints on capitalism. Such constraints clearly include a progressive income tax. The purpose of such a tax is to narrow the inequalities in the initial conditions between children born to the rich and children born to the poor.
In his classic book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls offers the most elegant defense of this idea. He states it as follows: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged to that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." (Rawls, p. 83) Progressive income taxes support Rawls' vision as well as the purposed enumerated at the beginning of the Constitution. Progressive taxes do not take away from the freedom of rich children, who do not choose or earn the circumstances of their birth families. They can, however, enhance the freedom of poor children by giving those born to the poorest parents a reasonably level playing field from which to exercise the power of individual choice.
Even though we live in a society that maintains a facade of progressive income taxes, we do not actually enforce those taxes. That is why Senator Romney pays 15 percent of his income in taxes [disclosed in the 2016 campaign and reported in the Salt Lake Tribune] when his actual tax bracket requires something more along the lines of a 34 percent tax payment. For at least the past forty years or so, we have followed a path of empowering an aristocracy of hereditary wealth that is inconsistent with the principles of our Constitution. Ironically, the increasing disparity between rich and poor is reducing the incentives for constructive individual choices and behaviors at both ends of the spectrum.
Constructive individual behavior is key to the freedom of others in society, but it is also the key to our own personal freedom. Destructive behaviors can trap us in the slavery of addiction, debt or hate. These forms of slavery affect all of us without regard for color, race, gender or economic status. We can only liberate ourselves from these forms of self-imposed slavery by making wise choices, and a lot of those choices have to do with how we spend our time.
There are, of course, other factors in our imperfect society. I have argued in this essay for the government's role in mitigating matters of health and circumstance that overwhelm the power of individual choice. I wish you all freedom from such circumstance. I wish you all the opportunity to leverage the power of your choices in the coming year to give yourselves the greatest possible freedom. I wish you all the satisfaction of knowing, on the next New Year's Day, that you have spent your time as wisely as possible in 2019.
My front yard this morning--a chilly scene. It brought to mind another chilly Christmas. On the night of December 25th, 1776, General George Washington led an outnumbered force across the Delaware River to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Crossing the river proved dangerous, and a sizable portion of Washingtons force were not able to join the fight. Washington pressed on anyway, caught the Hessians by surprise on the morning of December 26th, and won a small but critical battle. After a series of defeats that put the Continental Army on the ropes in the winter of 1776, here was a victory. Here was some hope. Here was something Washington could use to recruit and retain soldiers, and critical support from the Continental Congress. Reading a bit about the life of George Washington, one can't help but notice how he was prepared for this moment throughout his life. One of many gifts to posterity by this amazing man--Christmas, 1776.