Even Isis can’t stop spread of secularism

The rise of Isis and fanatical Islam might lead you to think that far from fading, religion is making a comeback. But the reverse is true: it’s humanists who are on the march. “The fastest-growing belief system in the world is non-belief.” In Saudi Arabia, 5% of those polled in 2012 described themselves as atheist and 19% as non-believers – a higher proportion than in Italy. In Lebanon, the figure was 37%. True, Arab governments are now cracking down on atheism – Saudi Arabia has made it a terrorist offence – but this is “evidence not of confidence but of alarm”, just as the fanaticism of gun-toting jihadis is evidence of their fury at the spread of secularism. But the efforts of the militants to shore up belief will be in vain: the pull of materialism, rationalism and scepticism is too strong. Whether you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there’s “just something about living in a society with restaurants and mobile phones, universities and social media, that makes it hard to go on thinking” that morality derives from some divine law. Jihadism is a grave threat today, but be assured, “secularism and milder forms of religion will win in the long run”. (Matt Ridley,The Times)

Epicureans do not believe in priests and Popes, Pearly Gates, or a angry gods. They believe in the bringing out the very best instincts of human beings: generosity, care, good humour, cooperation, to name a few, all without priests. But I myself am not sure Mr. Ridley is correct. Suddenly, we find ourselves in uncharted seas, surrounded with angry, vulgar and often violent people. This sudden reversal from the relative calm and quiet, the social and economic progress, of the last half century is quite likely to drive rational people back into irrationality and false hopes of a better after-life. This will only make matters worse – religions tend to have that effect.

America’s infrastructure crisis

From the crumbling bridges of California to the overflowing sewage drains of Houston and the rusting railroad tracks in the Northeast Corridor, decaying infrastructure is all around us, and the consequences are so familiar that we barely notice them—like urban traffic congestion, slow-moving trains, and flights that are often disrupted, thanks to an outdated air-traffic-control system. The costs are significant, once you reckon wasted time, lost productivity, poor public-health outcomes, and increased carbon emissions.

The economist Larry Summers has pointed out that, once you adjust for depreciation, the U.S. makes no annual net investment in public infrastructure at all. Yet polls show that infrastructure spending is popular with a majority of voters across the income spectrum. Historically, it enjoyed bipartisan support from politicians, too. If it’s so popular, why doesn’t it happen?

One clear reason is politics. While both parties remain rhetorically committed to infrastructure spending, in practice Republicans have been less willing to support it, especially when it goes toward things like public transit. This is partly because of the nature of the Republican base: public transit is hardly a priority for suburban and rural voters in the South and in much of the West. But ideology has played a key role as well. “The rise of modern conservatism, with its sense that government is the problem and its aversion to government spending, has created a Republican Party that’s much more skeptical of big infrastructure projects than it was.  Then the process of getting infrastructure projects approved has become riddled with what political scientists call “veto points.” There are more environmental regulations and more requirements for community input. There are often multiple governing bodies for new projects, each of which has to give its approval. Many of these veto points were put in place for good reason. But they make it harder to undertake big projects.  Mind you, this applies to most other countries as well, which doesn’t stop them getting things done.

Worse than the lack of new investment is our failure to maintain existing infrastructure. You have to spend more on maintenance as infrastructure ages, but we’ve been spending slightly less than we once did. The results are easy to see. In 2013, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that there’s an eighty-six-billion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance on the nation’s rail and bus lines. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives America’s over-all infrastructure a grade of D-plus, has said that we would need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring it up to snuff.

Maintenance is handled mainly by state and local communities, which, because many of them can’t run fiscal deficits, operate under budgetary pressures. Term limits mean that a politician who cuts maintenance spending may not be around when things go wrong. What politician doesn’t like opening something new and having a nice press op at the ribbon-cutting? But no one ever writes articles saying, “Region’s highways are still about as good as they were last year.”

The U.S. needs  a long-term strategy, fund it adequately, and hold the government accountable for making that strategy work. Infrastructure is the ultimate public good. Trump is right to make it a priority, but I reckon any attempt to put an infrastructure plan into action will go the way of the healthcare bill that failed yesterday.

Cicero on Epicureanism

Cicero’s “On Ends”, his narrative on key aspects of Epicurean philosophy:

– Pleasurable living is the goal of life. Epicurus held that this is established by observation that all young animals pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and that these matters are so clear to us that no logical argument is needed to prove them.

– The error of praising pain and condemning pleasure arises because people do not pursue pleasure intelligently.

– The wise man chooses all his actions so as to produce the greatest and most lasting pleasure.

– This principle of action justifies and explains why we sometimes choose even the most dangerous of physical dangers.

– By pleasure we mean both physical and mental pleasure.

– The Stoics were wrong to condemn pleasure on the grounds that it is only active and physical, because they ignored the fact that pleasure also comes from mental contemplation.

– Compare the nature and life of the happiest man of pleasure with the most miserable man, and you will see that pleasurable living is the object of life.

– The error of believing that the goal of life is to live virtuously.

– Only the wise man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that wisdom is valued.

– Only the courageous, patient, diligent, watchful, and industrious man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that these virtues are valued.

– Only the just man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that justice is valued.

– In short, all virtues are praise-able and desirable only because they secure pleasurable living.

– The pleasures of the mind may be more intense than the pleasures of the body, but the body and mind are inseparable and thus all pleasures are connected with the body.

– It is a pleasure to remove pain, but the removal of a pleasure does not necessarily lead to pain, because our minds have a ready store of past pleasures to reflect on.

– The Stoics are foolish in their characterization of virtue as the only good, and their divorce of virtue from pleasure.

– Fortune has but little power over the wise man.

– The philosophers of Logic and Dialectic, who ignore pleasure and the study of nature are of no help in living happily.

– Friendship is essential for living happily.

– The philosophy of Epicurus is more clear and plain than the sun itself in establishing that pleasurable living is the goal of life, and how to achieve it.

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You can see why some people objected to Epicureanismas as being self-indulgent, if you read the above superficially. What Cicero left out is what gives a human being pleasure. It is giving of oneself to friends and loved ones; consciously trying to get on with everyone, however difficult and obnoxious; being polite, courteous and thoughful; avoiding stressful relationships; enjoying nature and the simple things of life; eschewing politics, avoiding the rudeness and vulgarity of modern life, and setting an example of tolerance and civility; thinking for yourself; and simply getting along with your fellow human beings