Thursday, December 31, 2009
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
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
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.
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:
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."
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
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
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:
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:
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?
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: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.
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.
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)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:
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.
(starting at 6:45 of the video)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.
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.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
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.
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.
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
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.