February 2, 2023

Pull Out All the Stops

 The phrase “pull out all the stops” is a common phrase meaning to do everything in one’s power, using all resources at one’s disposal, to achieve an objective. If, for example, a large asteroid was headed for a collision with the earth, humans would do well to pull out all the stops to prevent disaster.

Stops are selected using the knobs to the left and
right of the manuals (keyboards).
As a musician, I have always assumed that this phrase derives from the world of organs. In organ parlance, a stop is a collection of pipes intended to produce notes of different pitches but having similar sound quality. A stop may be a single rank of pipes or may involve more than one rank. (A rank is a group of pipes of identical construction differing only in length, and therefore pitch.) An organist controls which pipes sound when a key is pressed by choosing one or more stops. This is most often done by pulling (drawing) a knob labeled with the stop name (see photo). That knob is called a draw knob or stop knob or simply a stop. To pull out all the stops of an organ means to pull all the draw knows, which causes all the organ pipes to sound at once.

Merriam-Webster attests that the meaning of “pull out all the stops” indeed derives from the world of organs. I was therefore surprised when I read a different explanation of the origin of the phrase. I was reading the chapter titled “Generator” in John R. Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. The chapter deals with electrical generating stations, both their architecture and their mechanics. Stilgoe writes

The colloquialism “pull out all the stops” derives from the safety governor that spun atop most stationary engines; removing one or more of the weighted metal stops caused the engine to work faster and faster—removing all meant running the risk of a runaway engine, broken belts, and catastrophe.

Merriam-Webster notes that a stop can be a device for arresting or limiting motion, so Stilgoe’s explanation certainly makes sense. I suspect that the phrase applied to organs is more venerable, though I cannot prove that.

Tracking down the origin of words and phrases can be a tricky business.

January 19, 2023

Let’s Slay the Debt-Ceiling Dragon

Today, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced that the United States has reached its statutory debt limit. The government apparently cannot issue additional securities to finance its operation. As a result, the Treasury Department has begun to engage in financial legerdemain, euphemistically called “extraordinary measures,” by which it makes essential payments and defers inessential ones. Absent an increase to the debt ceiling, treasury will exhaust its ability to avoid default on government obligations sometime early this summer. In its entire history, the United States has never defaulted on paying its debts. It is universally agreed that, should the U.S. do so, very bad things will happen.

The debt ceiling is an odd construct. It was invented during World War I. Congress was being asked repeatedly for more money to pursue the war. Rather than having to make these requests over and over, Congress set a limit on how big the country’s debt could be. This eliminated a certain amount of congressional irritation, but as long as there was a formal limit to the nation’s debt, that limit had to be periodically revised. In practice, this meant raising the debt limit.

It might seem logical to revise the debt ceiling in conjunction with Congress’s spending authorizations. Instead, Congress causes money to be spent and increases the debt ceiling as necessary after the fact. In other words, increases do not accommodate future spending; they authorize the treasury to pay bills already incurred. Failure to raise the debt ceiling is akin to buying goods and services on one’s credit card and refusing to pay when the credit card bill shows up.

This Alice-in-Wonderland method of managing the country’s finances makes raising the debt ceiling essential while at the same time allowing a small number of members of Congress to hold the country hostage by making their votes on increasing the debt ceiling contingent on their achieving some unrelated legislative victory. In the current instance, it appears likely that Republican House members will demand budget cuts, possibly in popular programs like Social Security.

Republicans would no doubt argue that the debt ceiling mechanism operates to keep the government accountable. I believe, and I think most Democrats believe. that it is simply an invitation to mischief.

When Donald Trump was president, Republicans offered virtually no objections to raising the debt ceiling. In fact, during the Trump presidency, the national debt was greatly expanded, in part as a result of GOP-sponsored tax cuts. Republican legislators claim they are now interested in fiscal responsibility, but the reality is that, for many of their number, the real interest is in neutering the federal government’s ability to do much of anything beyond providing for the national defense.

As of this moment, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has promised a small number of House members that the House will not approve a debt ceiling measure without demanding major spending cuts. President Biden has made it clear that he expects to sign a debt ceiling increase bill unencumbered with other provisions. Ironically, if Republicans force a federal government default, it will raise the government’s cost of borrowing, thereby increasing, not decreasing the national debt. The effects, not only on the cost of borrowing but also on the perceived trustworthiness of the U.S. and the stability of the world’s financial system will likely be catastrophic.

The whole debt ceiling mechanism is irrational and counterproductive. What seemed a useful and enlightened idea during World War I has become a monkey wrench in the gears of government. It makes sense for Congress to set an upper bound on the government’s ability to borrow, but it is morally unacceptable to prevent the government from paying for spending that Congress has already authorized.

Given the radical GOP ideologues now in the House of Representatives, the country seems headed for a showdown unlikely to end well. The Biden administration, should, I think, take drastic action that could put an end to legislative blackmail.

Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment says, in part:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

 Failure to allow the government to pay “public debt of the United States, authorized by law” surely constitutes “questioning” such debt. The Biden administration should declare that failure to pay existing obligations is unconstitutional and should direct the treasury to issue debt obligations as needed to continue to pay the government’s bills. If the Congress is unhappy with the level of debt, it can try to cut spending in the usual legislative process, but not through debt-ceiling blackmail.

This would be a gutsy move by President Biden, and I suspect that Republicans would try to block it through the courts. The relevant provision of the Fourteenth Amendment has never really been litigated, and a particular judicial outcome is not guaranteed. The whole debt-ceiling thing is a hypocritical mess, however, and it may be time to kill its malignant effects once and for all.

January 18, 2023

When Is a Fetus a Human Being?

 Last month, The New York Times published a piece by Elizabeth Dias titled “When Does Life Begin?” My reaction to the essay was that it asked the wrong question. A fertilized egg is undoubtedly alive and it is most certainly human. In no way, however, is it a human or, if you prefer, a person.

Two weeks after “When Does Life Begin?” appeared, the newspaper offered a sampling of reader reactions to it. The most helpful reader comment, I thought, came from Richard Ambron, professor emeritus of cell biology at Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.  He wrote:

When during gestation does an embryo become a human? This question has baffled philosophers and theologians largely because they do not understand the workings of the nervous system and the brain.

Two attributes are widely accepted as criteria to be considered human. First is an awareness through our senses that we exist and that we exist within a world of objects. Second is the ability of the brain to use the information from our senses to create ideas and make predictions about how to best survive in that world.

When during embryonic development do these activities emerge? The heartbeat becomes audible on a Doppler fetal monitor at about the 10th week of gestation, movements begin sometime after the 15th week, but the brain and most of the sensory systems develop later.

Each sensation requires the formation of millions of interconnecting neuronal circuits in the cerebral hemispheres that reach critical points of development between the 24th and the 28th week of gestation. Around that time, rhythmic brain waves resembling those of a newborn can be detected, indicating that neuronal circuits in the brain are highly integrated.

What this tells us is that a fetus cannot perceive most sensations, the first attribute of being human, until at least six months after fertilization. The ability to formulate ideas, the second attribute of humans, probably does not occur until after birth when the newborn’s brain begins to correlate all of the sensations into a coherent experience of its surroundings.

Thus, claiming that we become human at the moment of conception is merely a belief that argues against data from decades of research in embryology, neurology and developmental neuroscience.

Ambron implies that it is not a heart that makes us human—animals less complex than humans have beating hearts, but they are not human because of it. It is not unreasonable to assert that it is our working brains that make us human. Significantly, brain death is generally taken to mark the end of one’s life, with the ability to harvest organs for transplant being the only reason for being kept “alive.” Does it not make sense, therefore, to consider a developing fetus less than a human being prior to substantial brain development?

If one has to pick a point in fetal development beyond which abortion should be prohibited, Ambron offers facts that should be considered.

January 7, 2023

Grievances vs. Resentments

I read and hear repeatedly how grass-roots Republicans act (and vote) out of “white grievance,” though the supposed sources of their aggrievement are seldom clear. Suggested candidate sources of grievance often seem exaggerated, trivial, and petty—emigrants seeking asylum, minorities demanding equal treatment, advocates promoting assault-weapon bans, people wishing them “Happy Holidays,” and so forth.

A couple of days ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in an essay titled “Making America the Opposite of Great,” offered useful insight into the whole grievance thing. He wrote:

For another, I don’t think there are many on the U.S. left (such as it is) who define themselves the way so many on the right do: by their resentments.

And yes, I mean “resentments” rather than “grievances.” Grievances are about things you believe you deserve, and might be diminished if you get some of what you want. Resentment is about feeling that you’re being looked down on, and can only be assuaged by hurting the people you, at some level, envy.

It is worth re-reading that excerpt. It explains a lot. Krugman continued:

Consider the phrase (and associated sentiment), popular on the right, “owning the libs.” In context, “owning” doesn’t mean defeating progressive policies, say, by repealing the Affordable Care Act. It means, instead, humiliating liberals personally—making them look weak and foolish.

In fact, right-wing partisans exult in dismissing their political opponents with terms like “libs,” “woke,”  “feminazis,” and “socialists.” They can’t seem even to correctly name the political party they denigrate; their opponents belong to the “Democrat Party,” a party that does not actually exist, at least not by that name.

It is ironic that all this rhetorical nastiness is practiced by a party that wants us to think of its adherents as Christian. Actually, I don’t think Jesus would approve. But then again, Jesus’s preaching of charity, tolerance, service, and forgiveness is not actually part of their version of Christianity.

We are ourselves being charitable (and imprecise) when we call right-wing zealots “conservative.” They are instead reactionaries who would gleefully bring back the days of Calvin Coolidge or perhaps those of George III.