24 December 2008

The Trinity

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 21, 2008

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is interesting. It holds that God exists as three persons: father, son (Jesus Christ), and spirit (Holy Ghost). Many Christians believe in it, including members of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Reformation branches. This last branch includes Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism. The Bible also provides some support for it. This includes Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and 2 Corinthians 13:14, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." An interesting question is whether a theist should believe in it. I should disclose that my Fredonia State colleague, Dale Tuggy, who writes here as The Theist, is an internationally recognized expert on the topic and the ideas here are influenced by his writings.

In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea held that the doctrine should be understood to involve the notion of one substance and three persons. On this account, according to The Sheed & Ward anthology of Catholic philosophy, the answer to the question: What is God? indicates the one-ness of God and the answer the question: Who is God? indicates the three-ness of the Trinity. The problem is that distinction is hard to understand.

The Trinity might mean that there are three different persons. This is analogous to three different roommates living together in an apartment (for example, Three’s Company). The concern is that if there are three distinct persons, then Christianity would be a polytheistic religion (believing in multiple gods) rather than a monotheistic one. The Christian might respond by claiming that one or more of these people is not divine (for example, Jesus is not divine), but then it is hard to square with Jesus Christ’s central role in Christianity. It is also hard to square with other parts of the Bible. Consider, for example, John 10:30, where Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."

In addition, the Council of Nicaea formulation can’t be squared with this account for if there are three different persons and if persons are distinguished because they are made out of different substances (that is, different objects), then it is hard to see how there could be just one divine substance. The notion that persons are differentiated by being made out of different substances (objects) makes sense once we recognize the logical incoherence of saying that one and the same object could constitute different persons. This is true regardless of whether the object is physical or spiritual.

Fans of the Trinity might assert that the three are different parts of the same whole. This is analogous to the way in which an elephant has different parts (for example, a trunk and two floppy ears). The problem is that a person cannot have another person as part of her. For example, a mother does not have an adult daughter as part of her even if the daughter were somehow to live inside her. If each member of the trinity were to have distinct thoughts, then it does appear that they are different persons and not merely part of one person. The notion that Jesus has thoughts that differ from those of God can be seen in that Jesus at times prays to God and this does not appear to be similar to a person conversing with himself. Also, Jesus is anguished at the thought of his future and this is not something that could be true of an all-powerful being like God.

Trinity proponents might instead assert that the three are different properties of a single person. For example, a person such as Winston Churchill was wise, courageous, and intelligent. If this is all that proponents of the Trinity are asserting then it seems obviously true. To say a perfect being like God has different properties such as vast knowledge, power, and goodness is uncontroversial. This would be unable to explain that vast amounts of ink, hard feelings, and church divisions that this doctrine has caused. In addition, this account would not explain the way in which God can be three persons.

One objection here is that all this shows is that the Trinity does not make sense when subjected to logic, but because God created logic and thus exists outside of it, this is not a problem. Exempting God from logic, however, runs the risk of reducing Christian beliefs to a contradictory morass. For example, when someone asserts that God is eternal, she means to rule out God’s having been created in 1984. However, if God is outside of logic, then the former does not rule out the latter. Similarly, when one asserts that God is all-good, she means to rule out the notion that God tortures puppies just for the fun of it. Again, this follows only if God is subject to logic. In addition, if God gave human beings reason to understand the world and then made the most important parts of it inaccessible to reason, this seems vaguely misleading, if not mean-spirited.

Some Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne of Oxford University and Stephen Davis of McKenna-Claremont College argue that there is good reason to believe that God has companions. They argue that God is perfect and that a perfect being will ensure that his life goes well. Because someone’s life goes well only if they have family or friends with whom to share their love, God would ensure that he has family or friends. This explains why there are the other members of the Trinity. This strikes me as a convincing argument, although it raises the issue of whether God created Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit or whether they exist independently of him. This argument strikes me as plausible, although it entails there are three divine beings and hence that Christians should be polytheists, that is, they should worship at least three gods and perhaps more.

The Trinity raises interesting issues. It is difficult to fit the traditional doctrine with the notion that there is only one divine being and ideas about what makes one person distinct from another. Christmas strikes me as a fun time to think about these issues.

10 December 2008

Skyrocketing College Costs

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 8, 2008

The cost of higher education is skyrocketing. This is troubling, not just because it involves massive waste, but also because it threatens to make college less affordable. This will lead to not only economic loss, but also personal loss if a college education generally makes people’s lives go better.

According to The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, college tuition is climbing at an alarming rate. From 1982 to 2007, college tuition and fees rose 439%. This rise is even more impressive when one considers that medical-care costs rose 251% over that period and inflation (consumer price index) increased 106%. This alarming climb makes college less affordable. This is particularly true because the increased cost of college is running far head of the increase in family income during this period (median family income rose by 147%).

In concrete terms, college is expensive. The cost of an average public four-year college (including tuition, room, and board) is $13,842. For middle-income families, this is 25% of their income and this is true only when we reduce this amount by taking financial aid into account. For many, financial aid has helped to reduce these cost increases. In 2003-2004, roughly 63% of students received aid and this reduced the average out-of-pocket costs to $6,600 per student. This percentage is even higher (69%) at public four-year institutions.

As usual with public education, taxpayers are carrying a good deal of the load. One 2003 study by Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, pointed out that more than half of public universities’ revenue came directly from federal, state, and local taxpayers. In comparison only about 19% came from student fees and tuition. On a per pupil basis, the taxpayers at all levels currently pay about $9,500 for each full-time student. This includes grants, loans, and tax credits. Even the rich line up at the trough. For example, in 2002, 8% of college students from families with parental income of $100,000 or more received state aid, with the average award being $2,400.

These patterns also hold true for New York. The state paid around $7,800 per student (6.9% of state and local tax revenue). This might explain why even spendthrift New York charges only slightly more for tuition, room, and board than the national average, $13,589. When prices are so reasonable, you know New York taxpayers are being fleeced.

As usual, when the government starts blindly shoveling money into something, performance suffers. According to The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, when it comes to Americans ages 25-34, the U.S. has slipped to 10th place in the percentage of persons with an Associate’s Degree or better. We lag behind not merely Asian competitors such as Japan and Korea, but also our Canadian neighbors and European competitors like Ireland, France, and Belgium. Worse yet, when it comes to percent of college students who get a degree, the U.S. performance is mediocre. The U.S. ranks 15th in worldwide graduation rates. This is made worse because the percentage of U.S. students who finish college in four years is surprisingly low. For example, at Fredonia less than half of the entering freshmen graduate from Fredonia in four years (in 2000-2003, the percentage was about 47%) and less than two thirds graduate in six years (around 64% from 1999 to 2001).

Shoveling taxpayer dollars toward higher education also likely fueled the cost increase. After all, when competing for students, administrators felt little pressure to engage in disciplined spending. My guess is the subsidies have helped to pay for an expansion of student services. The modern university is stocked with workers who provide psychological counseling, career counseling, child care, and special services for minority students. Other staff members handle public relations, promote diversity and affirmative action, and provide a sizable on-campus police force. This is in addition to employees who serve the food and oversee dormitory life. Even at small colleges, these programs cost tens of millions of dollars and drive up tuitions and fees. It is interesting to consider whether higher education would be better served without the bells and whistles.

This pattern can be seen at Fredonia State. There around 36% of full-time employees are faculty and they likely account for less than half of the 33% (inflation-adjusted) increase in spending that occurred at the school between 1998-1999 and 2007-2008 academic years.

Another interesting issue is whether taxpayers should subsidize college students in such large amounts. On average, college graduates make more than those without a college degree. As a result, it seems a little unfair to force blue-collar workers to subsidize their soon-to-be wealthier peers. It is often argued that education has positive effects for third parties (that is, it benefits people other than students and the people who provide educational services) and this explains why we should subsidize it. For example, higher education makes people more productive, thereby leading to more scientific and commercial discoveries, new businesses, more tax revenue, etc. However, subsidies also have negative effects. They encourage young adults to purchase more education than they want or, in some cases, can handle. Consider the low graduation rates. Subsidies also lower academic standards as colleges try to educate students who are not ready for college. On one estimate, 29% of state university freshmen needed a remedial course. And, as noted above, subsidies probably also ratchet up the cost of a college degree, thereby making college less affordable and saddling many students with weighty loans.

The balance of positive and negative effects that flow from massive subsidies to higher education is unclear. What is clearer is that politicians who promote higher education subsidies and then criticize skyrocketing costs are working at cross purposes. In addition, we should have little tolerance for those demagogues who bemoan the lack of taxpayer support for higher education.