Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bookmark purge, continued

I still want to get these bookmarks clear before the year draws to an end, so right to business.

First, a few thoughts on money. I support the movement encouraging people to bank with smaller and more local banks and credit unions. In closing the Hommes' accounts with a "too big to fail" bank, and moving to a much smaller (1 branch!) bank, I now have the pleasure of walking into a bank and being greeted by my first name, not to mention that the rates and services far surpass anything the big banks could offer. I have to admit that I have yet to give up my big bank credit cards because of their reward programs, but I am shopping around.

That said, The Hommes' meager assets are nothing compared to, say, drug lords. If the Guardian article is true, I am actually glad to see the cozy relationship between banksters and gangsters. It is only fitting, after all, and will hopefully lead to a realization of how corrupted huge portions of the financial services industry have become.

Segueing from banking to hypocrisy isn't all that difficult, as Science Daily covers a study on the important role of power in fostering hypocritical behavior. But make no mistake, as Robin Hanson points out, all humans are hypocritical to varying degrees, and if anything, there should be pity for those with "Smart Sincere Syndrome."

Counter-Intuitive? Yes, and Bottlenecked has a list of other counter-intuitive ideas, including how crowds often do a better job than experts, how hard work may be more important than intelligence for success, and how gay marriage may be good for conservatism.

No segue here, but in a holiday season often filled with mixed feelings of hope and sadness, it is worth noting that Vic Chestnutt died on Christmas Day. Chestnutt wrote a great song, Flirted With You All My Life about his relationship with death and suicide, and while he wasn't "ready" when he wrote the song, I hope he found peace before Christmas. It is both sad and fortunate that art is often born out of tragedy, as it was in the life of Vic Chestnutt.

Also, on music, if you love Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (#3), as I do, then a visit to An Eroica Project is a must. I 'm very fond of my copy of the mid-90's Gardiner recording, performed on period instruments, as well as the 60's Bernstein recording. I guess that puts me squarely in the fast to super-fast tempo group.

That is all until 2010. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year in reivew and bookmark unload

After a year of blogging, I have really enjoyed looking into several topics, and I have greatly appreciated the thoughts, comments, and even the ridicule of those that have participated. I've logged almost 190 posts, and we've tussled in hundreds of comments.

Such a large part of the reason I post on a subject is to see what kind of reaction I get. I rarely post on topics that I have my mind made up on, and throwing things out there has made me refine, change, and even abandon previously help views. That is why I hate that I had a definite trail-off in production at the end of the year. So while close to 200 posts in a year is decent, I will try to be a bit more disciplined moving forward.

So two things:

First, thank you to all of you who have read and contributed. I really am indebted to all of you. I hope you will continue to stick around and contribute.

Second, I am going to unload as many bookmarks as possible. I may throw in a comment here or there, but I just need to purge the demons of unwritten blog posts, and I think there are several items here that are interesting in case you haven't come across them already. They are mostly unrelated, and each topic deserves more attention, but so goes life.

First on health care. F.A. Hayek is as anti-socialist as they come, and his book The Road to Serfdom was his most popular work, its whole purpose being to oppose socialist public policies. So read with interet/surprise/dismay Hayek's own views on health care as outlined in Chapter 9 of Serfdom, as discussed here, and then throw in the views of Milton Friedman in the follow-up. If the past centuries most staunch defenders of open market and free competition solution could see nuance in such a difficult and important issue, shouldn't conservatives today be willing to do the same?

Next, government interventionism that I can get behind? Maybe. Isn't this a matter of national and financial security?

Next up, this bookmark was for personal reasons, but hey why not throw it up here. I love food, and I keep an eye out for food items to try in an obsessive quest to find the "best." I have ordered "real" Dr. Pepper from Old Doc's, taken an extra cooler on road trips to load up on Cason's Sausage, searched tireless for the squishiest (fresh just doesn't work) Haribo Fizzy Cola Bottles, and next on my list is to get some bacon (bacon!) from Benton's, the bacon king.

With all the talk of foreign policy and war recently, John Quincy Adams' address on the matter in 1821 has me wondering if America can ever reclaim the principles of its founders.

A New York Times article on conservative hero Ted Olson, who may also become the hero for equal treatment of same-sex relationships under the law.

There has been a great series of posts on The Just Third Way concerning Aristotle's assertion that "man is by nature a political animal" and how that is understood. The series is ongoing (parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) but I find them well written, if a little slow and cat and mouse-y, and worth the time. I particularly like how he explained Aquinas' revision to Aristotilian thought in posts 7 & 8 based on Christian understanding of God's Law, and will keep reading the series in the coming weeks.

Lest you think the philosophical talk above is of no real consequence, the US Courts have decided that the Bush and Obama administrations have correctly argued that government officials are immune from prosecution in their treatment of suspected terrorists since terrorists don't count as persons.

Back to the economy and the benefits of "financial innovation" ex-Fed chief Paul Volcker has been brutally honest in recent speeches.

I thought for sure I had posted on this WSJ article, but if not it is only because I was equal parts angry at such irresponsible individuals and laughing at irresponsible banks. Vox Day scoffs at bank talk of morality here, which I don't fully agree with, but found interesting.

A great NYT article (hat tip to Dr. RosenRosen) that really deserves a full read. Tiger Woods' fall from grace is the perfect symbol of a decade filled with swindles and bamboozles from those society wanted to idolize (Bernie Madoff, Enron, and countless political leaders from both parties, religious leaders, and yes, sports figures). Will people and the press start asking better questions and become more vigilant in its search for truth in the coming decade? Highly unlikely, but admitting there is a problem is a good first step.

Perhaps a fitting choice of a title for this Time article would be to substitute the word "Because" instead of their choice of "Despite."

I can't believe it, Christopher Hitchens has written something that not only did not make me throw up in my mouth a little, but that I mostly agreed with!

As of now, if I could sit down and talk to any living persons, John Mackey and Alasdair MacIntyre would be at the top the list. Also, Mark Richt would make for a fun wild-card, but only if he cut out the coach-speak and got real.

Man, I have more bookmarks than I thought. I'll stop here for now, but will try to do another unload in the near future.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Meyer is Human = Meyer is Irrational

Since every post seems to end with comments about college football, it is only fitting to quote the venerable Orson Swindle, he of of the great EDSBS:

Our favorite part of all of this is watching those who assume human behavior falls into some kind of pattern or justified path sort through the various scattered threads of Meyer’s logic. “Why is this a matter of life or death 24 hours ago, and now it’s not?” “Why did he say something, and then say something else?” “WHY DO HUMANS CONFUSE ME SO?” Because they make no sense whatsoever, are indecisive, and often conflate the little Enlightenment ideal of humanity in your head by acting like a pack of macaques playing with a box full of lit fireworks?
Just because you can rationalize a decision, doesn't mean it is a fully reasoned, rational decision free of all emotion. Even the ridiculously successful, driven, talented, and calculating technician of football strategy and violent carnage that is Corch Urban is a deeply flawed and irrational human.

Revolution, Like Flowing Water...

Iran is learning that the repression or oppression of a people can only be held by force temporarily. Even the mantles of religious dogma and nationalism fail when a state refuses to listen to the will of its people. CNN reports:

CNN's Reza Sayah, an Iran native who covers the region, called it an unprecedented uprising, presenting "the most significant challenge" the Islamic republic has faced since its government came to power through a revolution 30 years ago.

"Its strength, its power over these past 30 years has been repression, has been intimidation of anyone who's dissented," but the government hasn't managed to quell this rebellion, Sayah said. "And you look at this opposition movement, and you have to ask yourself how. They don't have a strong leader. They don't have a structure. They don't have an organization. But somehow they manage to mobilize and move out."


Robin Wright, author of the book "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," told CNN on Monday that while Iran's opposition is fragmented, the various groups have come together. "This is a very important moment in Iranian history, and it is probably time to start asking whether Iran's uprising could become a Berlin Wall moment," Wright said in an interview with CNN's "American Morning."

While not quite in the same ballpark of President Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!," The Obama administration, although not Obama himself, is finally speaking up in an encouraging manner:

We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights. Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States. Governing through fear and violence is never just, and, as President Obama said in Oslo, it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.
This is a defining moment, not only for this country, but perhaps also for the Middle East region and the concept Islamic government.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Inequality in America

It is surprising to see the title "Don't Blame the Billionaires" in the left-leaning The American Spectator. Written by NYU professor Dalton Conley, the article is a honest look at the issue of inequality in America from a left of center point of view.

As a segue from my last post, I'll begin by excerpting Conley's primary example of how inequality affects the political process:

Nowhere is the linkage between inequality and political power starker than in the realm of finance -- now one-fifth of the nation's gross domestic product. The so-called regulators have been totally captured by the regulated, and the notion of the free market has become risible in the very geographic center of global capitalism. Hence the unusual alliance between the far left and the far right in opposing last year's bank bailout. Even if very few voters actually comprehend the messy details of the greatest political swindle in history, at least the public smells something fishy on Wall Street.

As the much more conservative P.J. O'Rourke put it: "When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators." Of course, the highest bidders are almost always the financial elites.

Conley summarizes the issue of social, economic, and political inequality by saying:

The answer, then, is to not decry inequality in and of itself. That's a losing proposition in the United States. Anyway, it distracts from the real issue: opportunity.... In essence, I am arguing for exactly the opposite of what Christopher Jencks advocated in Inequality 37 years ago. Whereas he and his co-authors ultimately resigned themselves to unequal pathways and thus focused on relative shares of the pie, instead, I maintain that inequality is epiphenomenal as long as we focus on maximizing opportunity for all. Let's worry about making sure the circuitry of the American dream isn't shorted, rather than whether some folks draw more current from the grid.

I believe the ideal of a level playing field, or equal opportunity, is worthy of government. There will be winners and losers, rich and poor, responsible and irresponsible, but as Conley suggested, if there exists a basic "floor" of opportunity, the socioeconomic disparities become less important. I suspect I may disagree strongly with many if not all of Conley's prescriptions, but I found this article a mostly accurate diagnosis.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Large and In charge: Banksters and Goverment Planners

The Room For Debate blog at the New York Times website had five contributors provide their views on bank reform. I thought almost writers made worthwhile points.

The exception among them was ex-investor banker and government shill Doug Elliot. According to Elliot, "It’s true that the financial industry is winning some of the fights, but we will still see a substantially safer financial system at the end of the day." According to Elliot, we should all move along and concern ourselves with more important matters like the NFL playoffs or MTV's Jersey Shore, because the honest politicians and brave bankers will wrestle out the weighty issues far beyond the grasp of mere mortal citizens, and will develop winning, if slightly compromised, reform. For some strange reason, the image of of a steaming pile of bovine fecal matter comes to mind.

Yves Smith, author of the popular economics blog Naked Capitalism, quickly reveals Elliot's spin for what it is, flat out wrong. The bankers and politicians, in fact, are not on opposite sides at all, but working hand in hand:

As for Congress, follow the money. Here’s an example: Representative Melissa Bean, a Democrat from Illinois, received more than 92 percent of her campaign contributions from January 2005 through December 2007 from outside her district. She has also received more money from the financial services, real estate and insurance industry than any other member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Ms. Bean last week proposed an amendment that nearly derailed the reform bill, to reduce the ability of states to impose regulations on financial services firms that were tougher than federal rules, which would shift more to bank-friendly regulators like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Illinois’ own Attorney General Lisa Madigan has criticized Ms. Bean’s amendment, pointing out that the Federal government has frequently blocked state reform efforts. Is Representative Bean really serving the interests of her constituents, or those of her donors?
The reform we will see, if left to politicians and bankers, will be simple and easily bypassed window dressing to the house of cards known as our financial system, and Megan McArdle calls attention to the obvious reason why:

Bankers have too much power in the Treasury department and at the Fed. They’ve convinced the government to cut them the sort of “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” deals usually associated with third world oligarchies.

William K. Black, a former federal financial regulator, and author of the book "The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One," provides the historical context:

Finance C.E.O.s extortion gutted accounting rules to avoid recognizing loan losses so that they could continue to receive tens of billions of dollars in bonuses based on fictional numbers. Frederic Bastiat (“The Law,” 1850) got this aspect right:

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.

The last six administrations (from Carter on) pushed the financial deregulation that caused recurrent, intensifying crises. The financial sector is a parasite, growing from 2 percent of corporate profits to 40 percent. This massive profit growth exported jobs, maximized income inequality, and caused the Great Recession.

Five bank holding companies control 50 percent of all bank assets. The finance industry is the leading political contributor. When the Supreme Court strikes down limits on corporate campaign contributions, the industry’s power will increase.

Professor James Galbraith’s and Thomas Frank’s books, “The Predator State” and “The Wrecking Crew,” show what happens when “fat cat bankers” and their sycophants run the state. To end the plunder we must break the systemically dangerous institutions’ power and the culture of fraud and impunity that supports it. This is sound economics, criminology, law, political science and ethics — and Americans support this policy.
The financial services industry is riddled with corruption - widespread, institutionalized, blatant, even celebrated corruption. While at one time even the most hardcore free-marketers framed the concept of self-interest in terms of ethical and social behavior, what we see today is better termed unenlightened self interest. Black's use of the term "parasite" to describe the financial industry is wholly appropriate.

Edward Harrison of Global Macro Advisors and Credit Writedowns, however, is the only contributor in the series that gets to the heart of the matter. As parasitic as the financial sector is, it owes its existence to its hosts, the Federal Reserve and government, both of whom have continued to feed and support its growth:

In truth, the events that led up to systemic failure were not unforeseen. Moreover, the financial meltdown was not merely a liquidity crisis. Rather, we have experienced a solvency crisis that should be seen as both predictable and ongoing.

Since this crisis was predicted by so many as a result of reckless lending because of abnormally low interest rates and a lack of regulatory oversight, any reforms must address these two problems. The Federal Reserve’s failings are central here. Had the Federal Reserve exercised its regulatory function, it could have prevented predatory, risky loans made at the height of the housing bubble in both residential and corporate real estate. Moreover, the Federal Reserve held the Fed Funds interest rate at 1 percent for too long and raised rates much too slowly, sowing the seeds of excessive speculation.

The sins of the Federal Reserve are numerous, which is why I support Ron Paul's effort to Audit the Fed, but its greatest harm to the economy has been to create a system-wide dependence on cheap and easy credit. All the bubbles that busted - personal credit, home mortgages, commercial real-estate development, derivatives investments, corporate leveraged buyouts, and so forth - were the result of market forces responding to artificially cheap and expanding money, propping up an illusion of prosperity.

Alan Greenspan, chief architect of cheep money during his time at the helm of the Federal Reserve,admitted on The Daily Show (score one for fake news) that a free market is incompatible with a central authority that arbitrarily sets interest rates:

(starting at 2:23 of the video)

Jon Stewart: Many people are free-market capitalists, and they always talk about free-market capitalism, and that is our economic theory. So why do we have a Fed? Is the free market – wouldn’t the market take care of interest rates and all that? Why do we have someone adjusting the rates if we are a free-market society?

Alan Greenspan: You’re raising a very fundamental question. … You didn’t need central bank when we were on the gold standard, which was back in the nineteenth century. And all of the automatic things occurred because people would buy and sell gold, and the market would do what the Fed does now. But: most everybody in the world by the 1930s decided that the gold standard was strangling the economy. And universally this gold standard was abandoned. But: you need somebody to determine –or some mechanism – how much money is out there, because remember, the amount of money relates to the amount of inflation in the economy. … In any event the more money you have, relative to the amount of goods, the more inflation you have, and that’s not good. So:

Stewart: So we’re not a free market then.

Greenspan: No. No.

Stewart: There’s a visible – there’s a benevolent hand that touches us.

Greenspan: Absolutely. You’re quite correct. To the extent that there is a central bank governing the amount of money in the system, that is not a free market. Most people call it regulation.

Stewart goes on to eviscerate the illusion of a free market, and while Greenspan somewhat defends the Federal Reserve's role of lessening financial uncertainty, even he comes to the inevitable admission of every central planner or centrally planned economy:

(starting at 6:45 of the video)

If I could figure out a way to determine whether or not people are more fearful or changing to more euphoric, and have a third way of figuring out which of the two things are working, I don’t need any of this other stuff. I could forecast the economy better than any way I know... The trouble is that we can’t figure that out. I’ve been in the forecasting business for 50 years. … I’m no better than I ever was, and nobody else is. Forecasting 50 years ago was as good or as bad as it is today. And the reason is that human nature hasn’t changed. We can’t improve ourselves.
So returning to the subject of reform, the point is that it is important to reform the role of the fed and government while also looking at ways to reduce the parasitic grip of the financial sector. It is a matter of national security to ensure that no bank is deemed "too big to fail," but a greater imperative is to reform the Fed and the Government's ability to artificially expand credit, and as a result, the illusion of prosperity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From Albanians to Virgin Births

I recently broached the race issue when discussing equality vs. affirmative actions programs, but an article in Secular Right, Heather Mac Donald uses a NYT article to illustrate a journalistic trend which (I think) has less to do with race than a very serious cultural issue. In full:

Seven and a half months into Ta-Shai Pendleton’s first pregnancy, her child was stillborn. Then in early 2008, she bore a daughter prematurely. Soon after, Ms. Pendleton moved from a community in Racine that was thick with poverty to a better neighborhood in Madison. Here, for the first time, she had a full-term pregnancy.
As she cradled her 2-month-old daughter recently, she described the fear and isolation she had experienced during her first two pregnancies, and the more embracing help she found 100 miles away with her third.

It is an iron-clad rule, presumably taught in journalism schools, that when discussing black single mothers and their children, one must never, ever ask: Who and where is the father, and how many fathers are there? Tens of thousands of articles have been written about the struggles of black single mothers, and the appearance of their children is always treated as a virgin birth. Not only are there no fathers in sight in such articles, there is no curiosity about where the fathers are and why they’re not stepping up to the plate. Instead, the reader will learn in great detail either about the callous lack of taxpayer-funded social services or, as in the present article on black infant mortality, about the provisions that a wise and benevolent government has made available to the mothers and their miraculously-conceived children, who seem to appear with the same inevitability as the tides.

When [Brandice Hatcher] learned last June that she was pregnant, Ms. Hatcher said, “I didn’t know how to be a parent and I didn’t know what services could help me.”
Over the summer she started receiving monthly visits from Laura Berger, a county nurse, who put her in touch with a dentist . . . . Ms. Hatcher had been living in a rooming house, but she was able to get help from a program that provided a security deposit for her apartment. . . . Under a state program, a social worker visits weekly and helps her look for jobs. And she receives her prenatal care from the community center’s nurse-midwives.

Very nice. But no amount of government programs can possibly compensate for the wholesale exemption of males from the responsibility of caring for their children. The fiction of the inner city virgin birth makes for a booming social service sector, but it otherwise spells disaster for a culture.

I pretty much agree with Mac Donald. Making a broader statement is difficult because as Dr. Rosen Rosen has pointed out in a previous comment, politically correct and liberal are not synonymous, but in practice, especially in the field of journalism, I think it is safe to assume the NYT journalist's political correctness is an outgrowth of her overall liberal outlook. That is why I am reluctant to use the term "socially liberal" to describe myself. From a political standpoint, sure, I want government to leave people alone, but from a societal standpoint, there are several structures, institutions, and traditions that are incredibly value and that I believe must be maintained in order for a strong society. The multi-parent family is chief among them.

Theoretically, a socially liberal government would have plenty of room for socially conservative institutions and groups. One could argue this was exactly the vision of our founders, as they sought to combine a weak and limited secular government with a citizenry with an eye for virtue. Still, with so many people rejecting any authority outside of government, if even that, it is difficult to see how that combination would play out today.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Yoder on Christian Nonconformity

The famous saying is that power corrupts, and it would certainly be easy to list examples of this truth. But perhaps a more useful saying is that power conforms. Everyone must choose which powers they will conform themselves to. There are the powers of popular culture, of money, of success, of politics, of addiction, of an idealized self, and of spiritual forces. Christians are called to conform themselves to Christ. Through his perfect model and sacrifice of life, and His ability to overcome death, God provided Christ as the only perfect power to which we should conform. All the Biblical references to acceptance, submission, obedience, conformity, and even enslavement to Christ reinforce this most basic of Christian tenets. As temporal humans, many powers can be worthy of our time, respect and submission, but Christians are instructed to never forget that while they are "in" this world, they are not "of" this world.

Along these lines, a John Howard Yoder article from 1955 (yet timely nevertheless) explores the Christian response to the conforming power of government. The author begins with a clear warning:

The conscientious submission to government as God’s instrument and the honor we owe to "kings" should not change our refusal to identify Christianity with the nation's religion.

This identification becomes far more serious when the attempt is made to claim that American nationalism is sanctioned, not only by religion in general, but by evangelical Protestantism. Such attitudes exist, creating a strange mixture of Biblical and nationalistic ideas, as shown for instance in a ceremony dedicating the United States to the defense of "Seven Freedoms" defined in the Twenty-third Psalm. It would be hard to imagine anything more dangerous for faith than this confusion of motives, which in reality is the same thing we saw in I Kings 22; instead of seeing God's judgment on one's own nation... the sins of the enemy are magnified, and God is called on to bless one nation at the expense of the others. Even Israel, God's own people, was wrong in expecting so one-sided a blessing.

Yoder then lists out his six principles for living a life that he argues would properly prioritize a Christian's conformity to Christ as opposed to the state:

(1) In so far as a government respects its God-given function of "punishing evil and encouraging good" the Christian will commend its faithfulness and submit to its regulation and its taxation for conscience' sake. In this sense it is legitimate to honor the statesmen who have done this in the past, and to prefer America to some other countries which have or have had less conscientious governments.

(2) In so far as a government oversteps the conditions of this divine authorization, by punishing good and encouraging evil, the Christian will, as spokesman for his God, condemn this injustice and refuse to support it. This judgment applies to war in any sense except a strictly limited police action. That a Christian should support war even to the point of paying taxes and accomplishing alternative service is not as clearly stated in the New Testament as some think, for the Roman forces in Palestine, which Jesus accepted as part of the situation, were not used for international war, but for a policing function. It is regrettable that this "prophetic" witness to government has come in the past mostly from Christians without a fully Biblical orientation.

(3) This prophetic function should express the Christian conscience' criticism of specific injustices in the state's behavior or elsewhere in social life. This is the true form of the church's responsibility for the social order; the call to repentance and "works worthy of repentance." Its Biblical expression is, "Know ye not that we shall judge the angels" (I Cor. 6:3 "angels" here, as in Rom. 8:38; I Pet. 3:22, and elsewhere, refers not vaguely to heavenly beings in general, but to those spiritual forces standing behind worldly authorities, as the parallel in v. 2 indicates)? The church's mission in the world is not only the saving of souls, but also the proclamation to the' powers that be (Eph. 3:10) of God's just and merciful will. Expressing this kind of judgment would not be "getting involved in politics"; it would not require office holding and would in fact sometimes forbid it; it is the path of Christian discipleship.

(4) In so far as an unjust state attacks the Christian himself unfairly, the Christian, though condemning the injustice, should submit to it out of love, as Christ submitted to His unjust condemnation and execution at the hands of the Roman authorities. Injustice toward others should be denounced and resisted by any means consistent with love for the agents of government.

(5) In so far as the state undertakes activities unrelated to the police function and aimed at the common good, the Christian whose vocation calls him to such public service may serve the state just as be. might serve under any local agency, and with the sane limits of faithfulness where conscience draws the line. Education, roads, and public health are examples of such fields of service.

(6) If the state thinks that by its planning and direction of society and economy it can achieve an ideal social order, the Christian's witness is a reminder of how man's sinfulness corrupts even the best of plans. He will therefore oppose the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and will prefer that form of government and social order which, without guaranteeing perfect justice, provides the most effective checks and balances against individual ambitions. He will be dubious about the values of either "free enterprise" or the "planned economy" as a matter of economic doctrine; for both are subject to the same flaw-man's sinfulness-and he will be most interested in workable ways of keeping the planner or the free entrepreneur from taking advantage of his power.

Yoder then ends by quoting John 17:14 and drawing an interesting conclusion:

"I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." There is no difference between nonconformity to the world and conformity to Christ; both mean a positive obedience to God's higher love which makes the Christian out of place, stranger, and a source of irritation because he isn't "at home" in the world, and because he bears a message of judgment and mercy from Him whom the world flees.

These are challenging words, but perhaps Yoder is really on to something. It has caused me to examine more closely not only my political views, but on a more personal level it raises an awareness of how I conform to the power of our culture, the lure of money and recognition, and how that may conflict with or displace what should be the ultimate power to which I am to steadfastly conform.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why does everyone hate Albanians?

Mark Perry's blog Carpe Diem linked to an interesting post by Steven Landsburg, author of Armchair Economist and his newest book The Big Questions:

Bryan (paraphrasing me!) starts with the rather strong intuition that it’s okay for tenants and workers to discriminate. If you don’t want to live in an Albanian-owned building or an work for an Albanian employer, that’s your right (no matter how strongly we might strongly disapprove of your attitude). By analogy, then, it might seem that landlords and employers should have the same right to discriminate.

Now clearly the situtation is not that simple; landlords and employers are not the same as tenants and employees. But the question is: Are they not the same in any way that is morally relevant? The most frequently cited difference (in my experience) is that landlords and employers tend to have more market power than tenants and workers. Putting aside the question of whether that’s true, it can’t possibly be a full justification for treating landords and employers differently, and here’s why: There are plenty of instances where we don’t think that market power takes away your right to discriminate. Extremely attractive people have a lot of power in the dating market, but I think it’s safe to say that almost nobody thinks the most beautiful among us should be forced to date Albanians, or to prove that they choose their partners according to some objective criterion other than national origin.

So if you think it’s okay for tenants to discriminate but not landlords, you’ve got to face the question: What is the ethically relevant distinction here? It’s clearly not market power, so what, if anything, is it?

I do not deny that there might be a good answer to that question, but I must admit I can’t imagine what it would be.

I assume Steven used Albanians to avoid a black vs. white debate, as Mark Perry alluded to his mistake in doing so. But I don't think we can talk about Albanians without talking about African-Americans, because the two can not be interchangeably substituted. On the whole, I am against any policy or system that would factor in the color of a person's skin, BUT an exception should be made, for a period of time, for any group that was systematically marginalized through government and government-sponsored policies. That is what makes Albanians and blacks different, at least in America.

Civil rights "reparations" policies are important and have been monumental in changing American society in the last 50 years with respect to its treatment of blacks. However, I do feel like a time limit on government affirmative action policies is important, as I believe there is a tipping point past which (in almost every case) continued government action begins to do more harm than good. There is a fine line between help and pity, as there is a fine line between support and condescension, and the last thing we should be doing is institutionalizing any group as perpetually in need of assistance. I am not smart enough to know exactly when, but we should be at least trying to understand how close we may be to reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Now, as far as Albanians and all others are concerned, Landsburg has a point, in that we can not legislate discrimination out of human nature, and attempts to do so are usually one-sided and without moral/philosophical consistency.

We discriminate every day in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the friends we keep, and the places we live/work/congregate. Discrimination is the primary function by which we form an identity and form communities with others who share in our discrimination. Racial discrimination is particularly crude and offensive, I agree, but in an open society with a blind government, those that discriminate poorly will usually suffer their just rewards.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reformed Jihadists and the way forward

Johann Hari has written a must-read article for UK's The Independent. The piece is a series of anecdotes recounting the paths of former jihadists, and I consider it extremely insightful. It also has credibility, as it eerily echoes the U.S. Department of Defense's analysis from 2004 (see pp. 48-49 here) in showing how America's aggressive and violent approach to the very real threats of Islamism is horribly misguided and counterproductive. It also sheds light on the type of actions that actually did produce change in the hearts of some of Britain's most notorious former terrorists.

First, there is the conversion story of Usama Hassan, the Imam (religious leader) who recruited hundreds of others impressionable youths, including the man convicted for Daniel Pearl's beheading, to extreme Islamic fundamentalism. His conversion centered around the rejection of violent force:

He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind: "How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia."

Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. "Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad." He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. "There were martyrs on 9/11," he says. "They were the firefighters – not the hijackers."

Next is Maajid Nawaz, once a leader and recruiter for the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir:

He started to recruit other students, as he had done so many times before. But it was harder. "Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it," he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."

What was the catalyst for his conversion? Was it threat of war or torture? Quite the opposite, actually:

HT abandoned Maajid as a "fallen soldier" and barely spoke of him or his case. But when his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case.

"I was just amazed," Maajid says. "We'd always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren't always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously ... it was the beginning of my serious doubts."

For Maajid, Islamism will fail only when its fundamentalist ideals are discredited:

"You know, back when I was an Islamist, I thought our ideology was like communism – and I still do. That makes me optimistic. Because what happened to communism? It was discredited as an idea. It lost. Who joins the Communist Party today?"

Continuing the theme of a battle of ideas, the writer then recounts the stories of a group of former Islamists:

But once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community – they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?"

But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" asks Hadiya.

Just as their journeys into the jihad were strikingly similar, so were their journeys out. All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn't shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis.

Johann Hari humbly closes his article with a series of statements and questions:

They have burned in this fire of certainty. They have felt it consume all doubt and incinerate all self-analysis. And they dared, at last, to let it go. Are they freakish exceptions – or the beginning of a great unclenching of the jihadi fist?

Andrew Sullivan adds the following thoughts after reading the piece:

It is also a very old story - the chastened revolutionary. The totalist identities that fundamentalists attach to are always fragile, because they are based on lies. And lies collapse suddenly. If we truly believe what we say we believe in the West - that these fundamentalist claims are lies and will be dispelled on day - then we need to remain confident that the West is right, and will prevail.

The more I witness this global struggle for freedom and meaning in the face of fundamentalism and denial, the more it seems to me that containment is the best strategy. Alongside this, we need a robust commitment to our own values, and a refusal to give in to the cant that treats evil as culture and fundamentalism as faith.

Of course this is hard. But there is no other way. And in this struggle the fate of our civilization lies.


Guantanamo Bay was the biggest victory for Jihadism since 9/11. In fact, Cheney's war crimes have endangered our civilization more profoundly than 9/11. That disgraced and disgraceful vice-president gave Jihadism the symbol of Western evil it desperately needed to recruit and grow. Abu Ghraib and the vast web of the torture regime both destroyed our ability to prosecute Jihadists, destroyed the possibility for truly accurate intelligence and gave al Qaeda the critical oxygen it needed to flourish.

And the corollary is true. The more the West lives up to its values the more lethal an enemy we are.

This does not mean giving Islamism the slightest quarter; it does not mean avoiding an aggressive and persistent attempt to identify and monitor Jihadist groups and individuals; it does not mean softening a global campaign to find and target and if necessary kill Islamist enemies bent on our destruction. And it does not mean denying the real murderous intent of these people, or their vile anti-Semitism or their religious inspiration. It does mean using our strengths as a Western civilization to defang a corruption of true religious faith.

A tip of the hat to Glenn Greenwald's Salon piece on this article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Age of Empire

It is my personal and humble belief that, from religious, political, and economic standpoints, there are few things that threaten our society as much as our culture of war and empire. Now, the irony here, is that I owe my literal existence to America's military empire, the product of an American soldier and a waitress he took a liking to while stationed in Europe.

From a religious standpoint, I think John Howard Yoder argues for pacifism (see here, here, here to start) better than anyone. At least I am convinced. I am also convinced that pacifism is not politically viable, which is why I am glad to live (at least theoretically) in a society the separates church and state. I would not be quite as hard-lined and vocally upset about Constantinianism as some, but it is a serious problem.

Politically, I am for the closest feasible position to pacifism, non-interventionism. Strong borders and a strong defense (as opposed to preemptive offense) are necessary. Filling the role of Europe's army and the world's police, not so much. Americans give themselves too much credit if they think the world would be much worse off without our worldwide military and political presence. I'll take actual strength concentrated at home than the appearance of strength at the risk of over extension. If we did a better job of protecting liberties at home, perhaps then we could lead by example and speak out with greater moral authority while other countries determine their own destinies.

I would suspect that most would disagree with either one or both of my positions above, but the economics of empire don't look good, either. (Hat tip to Washington's Blog for the rest of this post.) Global Insight, perhaps the most respected economic forecasting company in the world, recently studied the economic toll of defense spending and war:

The impact of higher spending will not be directly proportionate in these economic models. In fact, it should be somewhat more than proportionate, but if we just multiple the Global Insight projections by 3, we would see that the long-term impact of our increased defense spending will be a reduction in GDP of 1.8 percentage points. This would correspond to roughly $250 billion in the current economy, or about $800 in lost output for every person in the country.

The projected job loss from this increase in defense spending would be close to 2 million. In other words, the standard economic models that project job loss from efforts to stem global warming also project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to 2 million jobs in the long run.

For all the economic and political costs, and for the loss of innocent life on all sides, where are the trade offs of value? For any argument that could be made in favor of our recent foreign policy, an equally valid argument could be made that the Iraq war has increased the threat of terrorism. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.) Eight years after 9/11, and we still can't prevent an act of guerrilla warfare from happening on a military base in our own country.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Gold, Math, and Investments

After reading several different pages (because if its on the internet it must be true), the general consensus is that a total of about 160,000 tonnes of gold has been mined from the Earth throughout history, which if melted together would make a single cube with sides about 20.15 meters long, or 8,187 cubic meters total volume. Motivated by Dr. RosenRosen's comment in the previous post, I found an Olympic-sized swimming pool has a volume of about 2,500 cubic meters, so we are looking at 3.275 Olympic swimming pools full of gold in the world. That said, the gold held by the world's central banks is only about 30,000 tonnes (just over half of one swimming pool). To put India's purchase of 200 tonnes in context, they bought 0.666% of global bank gold reserves, or 0.125% of all gold ever mined. But the irony is in where that gold may be located. New York City:

... five stories down into the solid bedrock underneath the New York Fed, 30 feet below the level of the New York subway system and 50 feet below sea level.

There the New York Fed has a vault containing about $300 billion in gold bars.

It's the largest single gold hoard in the world. It holds more than Fort Knox. Almost all of it is held in custody for foreign governments -- very little of it is owned by the U.S. government, and none of it by individuals.

More math, but if my numbers are right, this vault holds over 12,400 tonnes of Gold, or over 40% of global bank gold reserves. Here is the rub, if the US Dollar did fall off a cliff, wouldn't the Fed be a little hesitant to ship off this gold it is holding for everyone? Hmmm... Why does all of this matter?

The longer the Fed keeps interest rates at zero, the more worthless paper money becomes. That creates the impression that gold is more valuable -- in fact, this week it hit all-time highs at almost $1,100 per ounce as the Fed announced the indefinite continuation of its zero-rate policy. But that's not gold becoming more valuable. That's the paper money in which the price of gold is denominated becoming less valuable.

In other words, gold is the constant. Its value doesn't change. Its dollar price changes, but not its value. So when investors come to me and ask me how they can hedge against the falling value of the dollar, I always tell them to buy gold.

I am not the world's biggest gold bug, but as a half-libertarian, I can be considered a half-gold bug. Yes, it sounds crazy, after all it is just a shiny metal, but it is a shiny metal that has remained valuable throughout history, regardless of the rise and fall of empires.

I don't know if the Luskin's predictions are correct. As far as predictions from the crazy libertarians/contrarians, I have read everything from another stock market slump with DOW @ - 6,400 on one end to Gold @ + $2,300. We could theoretically see both (although probably not at the same time) if the economy experiences a series of crises. Even then, the problem comes in predicting the timing and sequence of events.

All to say that gold can be part of a fully diversified and conservative investment approach. Such a portfolio will never have the highest rate of return possible, but it doesn't rely on "sure bets", and can limit downside risk.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


While American policy makers are in full PR mode announcing the end of the recession, and the government friendly press is on board, other countries, especially India, remain unconvinced:

Gold prices continued to rise on Wednesday extending the all-time highs which followed India’s central bank bought 200 tonnes of the precious metal, swapping dollars for bullion as the country’s finance minister warned the economies of the US and Europe had “collapsed”.

India’s decision to exchange $6.7bn for gold equivalent to 8 per cent of world annual mine production sent the strongest signal yet that Asian countries were moving away from the US currency.

The purchase by New Delhi’s Reserve Bank from the International Monetary Fund pushed gold prices to a record $1,090.90 per troy ounce, up 2.6 per cent on the day, as traders bet that other central banks would also become buyers.

Granted, $6.7 billion dollars is not a lot of money for the US government anymore, so you will probably hear officials shrug this off, but it is hard to spin this one as a positive for the US. International doubts about our economy, deeper doubts about the value of our currency, and financially more stable countries moving away from the US Dollar as a monetary reserve.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Country not of Laws, But Secrets

Per the New York Times:

David D. Cole, a Georgetown law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been representing Mr. Arar, said the decision “effectively places executive officials above the law, even when accused of a conscious conspiracy to torture.”

This is in reference to yesterday's ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Arar v. Ashcroft (.pdf), or as Glenn Greenwald of Salon put it, A court decision that reflects what type of country the U.S. is. First the basic details:

Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent. A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal's McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he's 17 years old. In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was "rendered" -- despite his pleas that he would be tortured -- to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured. He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured. Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.

Mrs. Hommes would not want to me to detail the things done to Mr. Arar both in the US and Syria in the name of security and intelligence, but I encourage you to read Greenwald's article and links to see what can be done to someone when the government gets a tip or hunch, but back to the legal case:

Yesterday, the Second Circuit -- by a vote of 7-4 -- agreed with the government and dismissed Arar's case in its entirety. It held that even if the government violated Arar's Constitutional rights as well as statutes banning participation in torture, he still has no right to sue for what was done to him. Why? Because "providing a damages remedy against senior officials who implement an extraordinary rendition policy would enmesh the courts ineluctably in an assessment of the validity of the rationale of that policy and its implementation in this particular case, matters that directly affect significant diplomatic and national security concerns" (p. 39). In other words, government officials are free to do anything they want in the national security context -- even violate the law and purposely cause someone to be tortured -- and courts should honor and defer to their actions by refusing to scrutinize them.
I want to add one principal point to all of this. This is precisely how the character of a country becomes fundamentally degraded when it becomes a state in permanent war. So continuous are the inhumane and brutal acts of government leaders that the citizens completely lose the capacity for moral outrage and horror. The permanent claims of existential threats from an endless array of enemies means that secrecy is paramount, accountability is deemed a luxury, and National Security trumps every other consideration -- even including basic liberties and the rule of law. Worst of all, the President takes on the attributes of a protector-deity who can and must never be questioned lest we prevent him from keeping us safe.

This sounds like a major story, but I could find no mention of it on the front pages of any of the major (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, etc.) news sites. In an ironic twist, CNN has streaming video from the war crimes trial of Radovan Karadžić. I guess they don't want to rock the boat by covering the war crimes committing under our own former President and whose policies are being covered up if not continued under the current President.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Government Incentives 101

Incentives work. Unfortunately, how well they work, and if they acheive the desired effect, is an entirely different matter.

Exhibit A:

A total of 690,000 new vehicles were sold under the Cash for Clunkers program last summer, but only 125,000 of those were vehicles that would not have been sold anyway, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the automotive Web site

The average rebate was $4,000. But the overwhelming majority of sales would have taken place anyway at some time in the last half of 2009, according to That means the government ended up spending about $24,000 each for those 125,000 additional vehicle sales.

put another way:

The government could have done almost as well by just giving away cars for free, instead of creating an elaborate incentive program

Exhibit B:

Ted Gayer, a scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution, argued in a recent paper that the credit costs the government about $43,000 for each additional home sale it produces. That is because most [~85%] of the two million or so home buyers expected to claim the credit would have bought a house anyway. Only about 350,000 were additional buyers. Expanding the credit to make all home buyers potentially eligible would swell the government's cost per additional home sale to more than $250,000, said Mr. Gayer, co-director of economic studies at Brookings.

Economists at the National Association of Realtors said they don't disagree with Mr. Gayer's analysis of the existing credit's cost to the government. But they said he plays down the impact the program is having in supporting home prices and related expenditures.

What? Seriously, what? OK, two things. First, extending or expanding the program to the point where the government is paying any where close to $250,000 per additional home sale could never happen, could it? Oh, #@(&!$. But at least there is no additional fraud, right? #@(*&!$-ity #@(*&!$. Second, the economists for the NAR want to play up how the program is propping up house values that could not exist without government chicanery. Just as during the run up to this mess, everyone wants to prolong the inevitable as long as possible, but eventually prices will have to adjust to where supply meets demand.

Exhibit C:

Thanks to the federal tax credit to buy high-mileage cars that was part of President Obama's stimulus plan, Uncle Sam is now paying Americans to buy that great necessity of modern life, the golf cart.

The federal credit provides from $4,200 to $5,500 for the purchase of an electric vehicle, and when it is combined with similar incentive plans in many states the tax credits can pay for nearly the entire cost of a golf cart... "The purchase of some models could be absolutely free," Roger Gaddis of Ada Electric Cars in Oklahoma said earlier this year. "Is that about the coolest thing you've ever heard?"

In South Carolina, sales of these carts have been soaring as dealerships alert customers to Uncle Sam's giveaway. "The Golf Cart Man" in the Villages of Lady Lake, Florida is running a banner online ad that declares: "GET A FREE GOLF CART. Or make $2,000 doing absolutely nothing!"

Golf Cart Man is referring to his offer in which you can buy the cart for $8,000, get a $5,300 tax credit off your 2009 income tax, lease it back for $100 a month for 27 months, at which point Golf Cart Man will buy back the cart for $2,000. "This means you own a free Golf Cart or made $2,000 cash doing absolutely nothing!!!" You can't blame a guy for exploiting loopholes that Congress offers.

This is so sad it is actually cool. I mean, forget for a moment the fact that millions of people go to work and have a significant portion of their income go to taxes so that brilliant politicians can spend money on these wonderful government incentives. Forget that Americans will have to pay for all this stimulus either through taxes, inflation, or a burdened economy. We are talking about free golf carts!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

Hugo Chávez, Christian Socialist:

Cada día soy más revolucionario, cada día soy más socialista…Voy a llevar a Venezuela hacia el socialismo, con el pueblo y los trabajadores…Ni se negocia la revolución, ni se negocia el socialismo, porque cada día estoy más convencido de que el socialismo es el reino de Dios aquí en la tierra. Eso fue lo que vino a anunciar Cristo

Or in English:

Every day I’m more of a revolutionary, every day I’m more socialist… I’m going to take Venezuela toward socialism, with the people and the workers…The revolution is not negotiable, socialism is not negotiable, because every day I’m more convinced that socialism is the kingdom of God on earth. That is what Christ came to announce.

Really no surprise here, as those in power both on the political right and left have repeatedly convinced themselves they are responsible for bringing about "God's will" through government force. Where or how exactly these same leaders convince themselves that Christ allows for murdering, punishing, fining, coercing, or marginalizing those who would oppose him still escapes me, but I am sure it is because I am simply missing those pages in my copy of the Bible, or perhaps I am just using a wrong translation.

Who is Gary Johnson?

You may want to read up on the former governor of New Mexico, as there are rumors of a 2012 run. Think of him as Ron Paul minus the crazy and about 20 years. Of course, that means he will be rejected by the partisan elites, but politics can be so much more fun when there is a fly in the ointment. A few excerpts from a 2001 Reason interview:

Politics is a herd mentality. Politicians don’t really lead. Politicians reflect what they think is consensus opinion.


Any movement at all [on drug policy] that reduces disease, that reduces overdoses, that reduces property crime, that reduces violent crime is good.

I’m a cost-benefit analysis person: What are we spending and what are we getting? My premise is the war in drugs is a miserable failure. I don’t know of a bigger problem in every single state, or a bigger expense that might actually have alternative solutions. Drugs account for half of law enforcement spending, half of prison spending, half of court spending. What are we getting for it? We are arresting 1.6 million people a year in this country on drug-related charges, and it’s a failure.

Go down the list of the main criticisms [against school choice vouchers]: Vouchers only favor the rich. Baloney! People with money live in good neighborhoods that have good schools. Give me a break. Vouchers are for the poor. Vouchers are for those that don’t have money, who live in the worst neighborhoods, go to the worst schools, and can’t get away from them.

Keep going down the list: Vouchers are unconstitutional because you’re giving money to private schools. No. If you want to start calling vouchers unconstitutional, then every single state has got a lot of unconstitutional programs. We give low-income parents money so they can go take their child to child care. We don’t tell them where to take their child. The examples go on and on.

Since I have been governor, K–12 educational spending has gone from $1.1 billion a year to $1.6 billion a year. By all measurements, students are doing just a little bit worse from year to year. For all that money, shouldn’t we be doing just a little bit better? All I suggest is to make K–12 like higher education. Higher education in the United States is the best in the world because these institutions compete with each other for your tuition dollar. Let’s just bring competition to public education. This is not about getting rid of public education; it is about providing alternatives that public schools very, very quickly will react to. Public schools will get better if they are subject to competition.


Economic growth occurs only if you are connected with a four-lane highway. A lot of New Mexico is rural, and building 500 miles of four-lane highway is going to make a huge economic difference to all those communities.

To save money, we looked at private alternatives in building the roads. The highway project on Highway 44, which is Albuquerque to Farmington, is designed, financed, built, and guaranteed by a private company. This is completely unique. We are actually the first state in the United States to adopt an innovative financing program for Highway 44, by bonding federal revenues. As a result, other states are copying it, and Wall Street is embracing it.

He has also voiced anti-war positions on foreign policy, and hinted at equal recognition of gay and heterosexual relationships. I have learned not to put too much hope in politicians, but here's hoping he can make 2012 a little more interesting. A lot can happen with respect to voter opinion of Obama's first term, but the awful list of re-treads and hopefuls the Republican are putting forth may create some opportunity, at least in the primaries. That is (SARCASM ALERT), of course, only if Biblical prophecy is wrong and Colin Powell doesn't run and become President.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poker and the Meaning of Life

Does the game of poker reveal fundamental aspects of human nature? James McManus in The Chronicle of Higher Education searches for deeper meaning:

Humanities professors should recognize that the ways we've done battle and business, made art and literature have echoed, and been echoed by, poker's definitive tactics, as well as its rich lore and history. The long list of questions that students might ponder include: Why would poque, an 18th-century parlor game played by French and Persian aristocrats, take hold and flourish in kingless, democratic America? Why did poque evolve into our national card game, some say our national pastime, instead of piquet or cribbage or whist? How did poker inspire game theory, which in turn has helped our leaders think through every nuclear standoff? How is it useful in research into artificial intelligence? In what ways do its ethos and lingo underscore Stanley's brutality in A Streetcar Named Desire, or does its honor-among-thieves morality play out in American Buffalo? How much does our love for this game have to do with bluffing and cheating, or with the fact that money is its language, its leverage, its means of keeping score?

American DNA is a notoriously complex recipe for creating a body politic, but two strands in particular have always stood out in high contrast: the risk-averse Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneur's urge to seize the main chance. Proponents of neither m.o. like to credit the other with anything positive; huggers of the shore tend not to praise explorers, while gamblers remain unimpressed by those who husband savings accounts. Yet blended in much the same way that parents' genes are in their children, the two ways of operating have made us who we are as a country.

The second paragraph above is particularly fascinating. As in so many other areas, here poker and the "American" identity, we see an interplay, or tension, between contrasting extremes. The existence of this type tension in just about every sphere of human existence, would suggest that instead of "moderating" the extremes into some (undefined and lukewarm) middle, one would do better to seek to embrace the essence of both extremes (hot and cold, conservative and risky, routine and flexibility, tradition and change, individuality and community, humility and sovereignty) at the same time, just as the best do with poker:

The national card game still combines Puritan values—self-control, diligence, the slow accumulation of savings—with what might be called the open-market cowboy's desire to get very rich very quickly. The latter is the mind-set of the gold rush, the hedge fund, the lottery ticket of everyday wage-earners. Yet whenever the big-bet cowboy folds a weak hand, he submits to his Puritan side. As Walter Matthau drily put it, poker "exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Picture Time

OK, lame excuse for a post, I know, but I took this picture of an insect hanging outside my 17th floor office window, and check it out - you can see through the bug and make out the lines of the building across the street.

Is this some type of visual illusion, or did the flash on the camera/phone make the insect translucent? Bonus points if someone can identify the bug.

Friday, October 9, 2009

CATO on the Nobel Peace Prize

Jason Kuznicki of Cato does such a good job expressing my same basic response to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize that I am reproducing his post in full:

Worse choices have been made than Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There was Woodrow Wilson in 1919, an award that rates as one of history’s more grotesque international jokes. Wilson promised to keep us out of war and promptly got us into it, meanwhile laying the ideological and geopolitical foundations for 90 years of war-nationalism, war-liberalism, and war-socialism. To say nothing of saddling us with the terrible idea of world government. Among those who weren’t Nazis or communists, Wilson may have done more than any other individual to promote human suffering in the last hundred years.

So yes, there have been worse choices. (Next to Wilson, I’d have to give Al Gore and Yasser Arafat both honorable mentions. We could go on, of course.) But still, Barack Obama? Seriously? I doubt the committee has any idea how badly their choice will be mocked in the United States.

Over here, the prize will be a disappointment to the anti-war left, the anti-war right, and, of course, the pro-war right. The only contingent I can see taking pride in it over here is the establishment left, which hasn’t had much time lately for substantive work on peace, but which is always happy to make speeches and receive awards. Sometimes, the American image abroad is just that important.

Rather than piling on in what is sure to be a bipartisan laugh-fest, let’s think about what Barack Obama actually could have done for world peace. And weep.

Like Wilson, Obama ran a campaign promising peace and the international rule of law. Politically, peace is a winning message, and the advocates of peace would do well to remember this. Decade after decade, American voters are willing to give peace a chance.

Obama promised to withdraw from Iraq and to close the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison camp. He promised to end the Bush-era detention and rendition policies that have tarnished America’s reputation abroad and weakened trust among nations.

Americans embraced those promises, which are fully consistent with the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize, recall, is awarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Ending wars, treating prisoners of war humanely, and ensuring international criminal suspects’ due process of law are exactly the sorts of things that the peace prize was designed for. They’re just what you’d expect a laureate to do.

But once in office, Obama didn’t deliver. The promises disappeared, replaced by vigorous defenses of virtually every presidential power that the Bush administration invented for itself, including not only those that subvert domestic civil liberties, but also those that threaten the international rule of law.

And the withdrawal from Iraq? Delayed and partial. The latest word — received just as the peace prize was announced — is that it’s “complicated.” Sort of like a bad Facebook relationship.

Our other war, in Afghanistan, continues to escalate, even as its strategic goals seem further and further removed. As Cato author Glenn Greenwald notes, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan continue to kill and maim the innocent, with very little to show in the way of stabilizing the country or defeating international terrorism. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is both possible and desirable, as my colleagues Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter argue. Yet our latest Nobel laureate doesn’t see peace as an option here either.

How sad. Not to sound bitter or anything, but when does the Cato Institute get a peace prize?

With Obama, one is captivated by his words and potential, but at some point he should be judged, and awarded, based on his accomplishments.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

On Fire

The title pretty much says it all. Latin jazz virtuoso Michel Camilo with an earlier (and perhaps best) incarnation of his trio - the animated 6-string bass pioneer Anthony Jackson and the seemingly three armed, three legged drummer (high hat, bass kick, and cowbell? No problem)Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez:

As a recovering musician, this is how I get my fix.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Various and Sundry

No time for a full post, but here are a quick items mish-mashed together that would each normally deserve their own post:

First, I scored a 52 on the Libertarian Purity Test, barely cracking into the category described as "You are a medium-core libertarian, probably self-consciously so. Your friends probably encourage you to quit talking about your views so much." Yeah, pretty much.

Next, Andrew Sullivan can get fingernails on the chalkboard annoying, but I read his blog because he remains open-minded, and every once in a while a really cool post pops up, such as this one where a reader responds to the problem of evil:

The advantage of the Christian account, so far as I can tell, is that it actually calls evil what it is, and seeks to put it in a larger framework that redeems it. What is evil for the Darwinist? Simply an externality of the struggle of the fittest?

Please follow the link to read the whole post, it is worth it.

Third, on to where ethics and politics meet - what does it mean to be a person? If you live in America, that definition includes corporations, thanks to the perversion of the constitution. I have a couple of friends that can't understand my combination of pro-private sector views and anti-corporation views. A good answer, from a decidedly Catholic perspective (but which I share), is found in this post on I also recommend a full read, but here are a couple highlights:

In theological language, we might say that just as in Christian theology human persons are brought into being by a personal creator God in whose image we are made, within the consumer-capitalist society the objects/products that we treat as persons are brought into being by an entity that is also regarded, falsely, as personal.

We are known as a community for being outspoken and passionate when it comes to resisting sins against the dignity of the human person (regrettably, our attention to some human persons is not as strong as it is for others). “Re-personing” human beings who continue to be “de-personed” in this culture of violent death will always be a central vocation of Catholic Christians. A related but equally important task is that Catholics think, speak, and act out of our rich tradition of reflection on personhood by participating in efforts to “de-person” abstract entities that are clearly not persons. Such definitions are blasphemous distortions of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of the three-personed God.

Finally, Another seeming contradiction that some try to pinpoint me on is my semi-libertarian stance (see above) with my pro-tax position. No one explains how Republicans went off track with respect to fiscal conservatism better than Bruce Bartlett, as in this piece for Forbes, also worthy of a read:

At some point, taxes have to be back on the table as the price that must be paid for profligate spending. Only then will the American people realize that they can't have their cake and eat it too, as Republicans have preached for the last decade. Only when the American people go back to believing that spending must be paid for will they stop demanding something for nothing and put the country back on the path to fiscal sanity.

Alright, so these are some of the topics that have been marinating in the back of my mind lately. I hope to check in again soon.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Heart of a Cheerful Giver

As much as science, religion, and human nature are pitted against each other, it is always a delight to see when they reinforce each other, as in a recent study at Northeastern University:

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that grateful people act virtuously by giving financially—and not just to the people who caused them to feel grateful in the first place.

A long-standing view has held that individuals tend to act out of self-interest and a drive for personal profit. Under this thinking, a financial decision that favors the greater good requires individuals to “tame” their emotions.

DeSteno argues, conversely, that emotions actually equip individuals to make decisions that foster long-term communal financial gain, even over immediate self-interest.

The Bible and the Christian faith have quite a few things to say about being contented and grateful. Seldom a week goes by that we don't sing "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." I include myself when I say that for most Christians, it is easy to regard this rote ritual as mere spiritual platitude. Christians nod in acknowledgment that the instruction of the Bible serves a deep spiritual purpose, but we often stumble over the practical applications. What are we to make of the following passage, then?

15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In my personal faith, the second half of John 10:10 is a keystone: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. " Christ's teaching, if this verse is taken seriously, is then an instructive guide to a better, more abundant, life. We are called to love, follow, and act in faith not only because of some future spiritual reward after death, but for their power to transform and make more full our lives on Earth. Gratefulness, then, becomes a powerful, if irrational, emotion that can counter-intuitively lead us to act in our long term best interests.

I have been harping on the necessary virtues of responsibility, accountability, and community in our society, and I now add gratitude to that list.