Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Obama Needs to Be Coolidge, Not FDR

The redoubtable revisionist of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes, in today's WaPo details the failures of FDR to follow a consistent approach to economic revitalization. For those who haven't listened before, she again nicely explains why the Depression didn't end until FDR's mind was on killing fascists.

But the article serves more as a warning: that this isn't the time for the federales to "experiment." Of course, we like what she suggests as a way forward to recovery:

Luckily, we are entering the optimal time for reducing uncertainty: a new president's first hundred days, with a majority to back him on the Hill. Obama might start by rebuilding key institutions: creating a super-Securities and Exchange Commission, a tough regulator with clear plans for overseeing stocks as well as those instruments that had been monitored unpredictably because of vague status. He should also halve corporate tax rates, currently some of the world's highest, and reduce the capital gains rate to 5 percent. Rewriting the Fed law to clarify it will make avoiding an Alan Greenspan bubble easier. Defining his infrastructure program clearly would have the effect of putting up a sign: Open for Business.

Here's to a clear, consistent New Year.

A 2008 Holiday Musical Retrospective

Until the SWNID Superlatives of 2008, here's a way to look back on what's happened this year:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Atheist: Africa Needs Christian Faith

Today's Times (not NY) includes a genuinely exceptional opinion piece by Matthew Parris, whose life experience is in Africa and whose belief is atheism, arguing comprehensively that Africans are better off as Christians and that missionaries effect the effective improvement of the continent.

Too many good passages to quote, too many expectations overturned to note, too many reasons to encourage reading the article to mention.

Friday, December 26, 2008

More on Warren: Politicos Don't Understand Pastors

E. J. Dionne offers a reasonable interpretation of Obama's scandalous invitation to Rick Warren: that Obama wants to reach out to evangelicals and Warren wants to lead them to engagement with a wider set of social issues.

We say that this is certainly true of Obama and probably partly true of Warren. But it almost certainly isn't primary with Warren.

Political animals like Dionne assume that every move made by a public figure is political. But pastors, regardless of their public profile, tend to think like pastors. Or more particularly, like evangelists.

Evangelists take the gospel anywhere they can. Their formative stories include those of people who found themselves in unlikely places, where they got to tell the story that comprises the good news to people in otherwise inaccessible places, whether those places are socially or geographically inaccessible.

So a pastor will go just about anywhere he can, for the chance to tell the story. Even to a Presidential Inauguration. So goes Rick Warren, who isn't nearly as cagey as Dionne imagines.

We assume that Warren is in trouble with those who don't want him associating with pro-abortion types. Such is to be expected: evangelists who go places to tell the story generally get criticized for the company they keep. So good evangelists learn to ignore that criticism.

Bush Myths Dying Slowly

Myth 1: Dubya is an uncurious Philistine. (Source: leftist commentators, reporters, bloggers and conversationalists)

Fact: Dubya devours books. (Source: Karl Rove, with whom Bush has had a friendly competition to see who can read the most books since 2005)*

Myth 2: The last eight years have been an unrelenting series of terrible events made worse by the wicked and incompetent governance of Dubya. (Source: as with Myth 1)

Fact: By most objective measures, the last eight years have been pretty good, and the administration can take credit for at least some of it. (Source: Ed Gillespie, a Republican political operative who gives a list of accomplishments that isn't entirely spun out of imagination or crediting stuff that happens naturally.)

Myth: If Gore had won in 2000 as he really did, we never would have entered the Iraq War.** (Source: as with Myth 1)

Fact: Everything about Gore's record and the circumstances of 2001-03 suggest that he would have faced the same pressures in a similar way. (Source: Frank Harvey of Dalhousie University as reported by Kelly McParland of the National Post)

What matters: Folks should brace themselves for the fact that Obama's election doesn't make things better all at once, and for the likely rhetoric--as much as eight years' worth--that the problems created by the evil Bushies are just too hard even for the slender, erudite Wunderkind to solve.

*Leftist response: Rove is the Evil Genius, and this is a lie. Rejoinder: why should the Evil Genius create such a pointless lie for a Lame Duck?

**Note that this thesis is akin the Oliver Stone's contention that in late 1963 JFK was about to end American involvement in Vietnam, so he was assassinated by everyone in the government, industry and the mafia who wanted Vietnam to happen .

Douthat for Christmas, against Hitchens

Ross Douthat, token evangelical at the Atlantic, yesterday offered a nice summation of the significance of the Incarnation, in contrast to yet another silly remark from that other Seldom Wrong individual, Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens had awhile back offered the usual, "what if historians discovered that Jesus was a fraud" objection, arguing that the problems of human existence would be unchanged regardless. For Hitchens, such is a demonstration that the Christian gospel, or any religious story, is impotent.

Douthat offers this rejoinder:

The Christian story is not, for instance, a theological or philosophical treatise. It's not a set of commands or insights about our moral duties. Nor is it a road map to the good life. It has implications for all of those questions, obviously; certainly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't exactly silent on "the concept of justice" during his lifetime, and Christians have been deriving theologies, philosophies and codes of conduct from his example ever since. But fundamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives.

Douthat nicely notes that the no-gospel hypothesis makes atheism a lot harder as well:

Consider, for instance, the way in which the dominance of the Christian story has actually sharpened one of the best arrows in the anti-theist's quiver. In Western society, especially, the oft-heard claim that the world is too cruel a place for a good omnipotence to have created derives a great deal of its power, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the person of Christ himself. The God of the New Testament seems more immediate, more personal, and more invested in his creation than He had heretofore revealed Himself to be. But this arguably makes Him seem more culpable for the world's suffering as well. Paradoxically, the God who addresses Job out of the whirlwind is far less vulnerable to complaints about the world's injustice than the God who suffers on the Cross - or the human God who cries in the manger. For many Christians, Christ's suffering provides a partial answer to the problem of theodicy. But for many atheists and agnostics, it only sharpens the question: How can a God who loves mankind enough to die for us allow us to suffer as much as we do?

In another vein, we'll note that Hitchens's hypothetical discovery is fatuous. There's no way that at a 2000-year distance anyone could discover definitive evidence discrediting the Christian gospel. This is not to beg the question of its historical authenticity but to not the impossibility of disproving any well established narrative at a distance of such magnitude. The "what ifs"--what if we discovered that Jesus lied, that the miracle stories were fabrications, or (the one with the biggest consequences) that his body still remains in this or that place--are all imaginings that can't by nature occur in the real world.

Take the big one, the resurrection. If human remains were discovered that by some accompanying inscription were identified as those of Jesus of Nazareth, we could determine with high certainty whether they came from the appropriate time and were interred at the appropriate time and with less certainty whether they had been disturbed since internment. We could not determine whether they were genuine or a hoax. For a real-life example of this issue, note the circulation of all kinds of biblical relics among Christian believers of a certain medieval perspective, none of which can be honestly taken as positive evidence for anything historical.

Same goes for any other angle. In the end, we have the persistent belief, demonstrated in exceptional behavior, of people at the time of the event, versus our justifiable skepticism that such a thing could happen. Good alternative explanations aren't forthcoming for the persistent belief and exceptional behavior, so we find that the rational thing to do is to surrender the skepticism and accept the story.

To be fair, Hitchens's point isn't really about the possible discovery of something discrediting. He's not arguing that the story unhistorical. He assumes that. He argues that the story is inconsequential. We way it's both likely historically and massively consequential existentially.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

SWNIDish Christmas Wish: Let Little Choices Add Up

A rough picture of the New Year with the New President ushering in a New Era is now emerging. Call it a split-screen picture.

On the right side of the picture are foreign policy appointments that suggest a decent measure of realism about the world's fallenness, plus economic policy appointments suggesting a commitment to free markets, free trade and fiscal restraint. Embellish those with rhetoric about post-partisanship.

On the left side are appointments in agriculture, labor, health and human services, energy, environment that follow so-called "progressive" tropes that restrain commerce, redistribute wealth, and misidentify threats to human well being. But those are merely the embellishments on the left. The real business is the pledge to spend $1,000,000,000,000, or over $3000 per American citizen, on "stimulus" that is not so incidentally aimed at remaking the American economy.

SWNID agrees that the American economy needs remaking. It always does. Once agrarian, it became industrial, then technological. No one today works the way she worked in 1998 or 1988, even if she is in the same job (no one today uses pronouns the way she did back then either, but that's for another post). Keep jumping backwards a decade, assessing social and economic changes, and one will discover how unchanging the change is.

But the change didn't come because of a transformative administration led by a transformative individual. It came through the accumulation of small, individual choices, some of them profoundly stupid, that eventually led people through the darkness that is their immediate future to a better situation than they had in the past. One can occasionally point to decisions made by Great Individuals, governmental or otherwise, that proved crucial to the outcome, but it's utterly impossible for anyone to guess which of those decisions were crucial before their effects came to be.

So we contemplate the split screen of 2009 and beyond, what can grandly be called the Age of Obama at least until it actually occurs, and divine two possible outcomes. One is that accumulated wisdom will combine with the inherent inertia of the political process to allow only inconsequential, token efforts to transform grandly. The other is that ambition will breed hubris, colored green this time, prolonging and deepening the present distress, in the end merely to prove the bromide that people aren't as smart as they think.

Most implausible at this point is the Obamanoid pledge not to allow its legislative agenda to be decorated with special interest earmarks. Whence cometh this Strange Power to overcome the human will to power?

SWNID affirms that we need a Coolidge. SWNID fears that we elected an FDR. Or an LBJ.

Friday, December 19, 2008

You'd Think It Had Been Scripted by the Gideons

We thank gentle reader Justin for directing us to a monologue from famous atheist Penn Jillette.

We wonder what the world would be like if the only encounters people had with Christians were positive, honest encounters. Our theory is that most folk who express disdain for Christianity (as opposed to indifference or evasiveness) are overcome by experiences with bad manifestations of it. Our reading of the Parable of the Sower tells us not to expect universal conversion, but our experience tells us that dysfunctional, goofed-up versions of the faith tend to block one's view of authentic Christ-following.

The Left: Drunk On Hater-ade

Obama's pick of Rick Warren to lead the inaugural invocation typifies the intellectual bankruptcy of America's left. They're not about ideas anymore. The left is defined by those they hate.

Lefty rhetoric since Obama's election has been all about resentment and retribution. Organs like The Nation have complained that Obama . . .
  • isn't planning punitive taxes on "Big Oil"
  • isn't going forward with higher marginal rates on "the rich"
  • has appointed people like Hillary who didn't initially oppose the Iraq War
  • is holding onto Robert Gates at defense, with a diluted commitment to leaving Iraq
  • has appointed too many Clinton-era veterans, who are tainted by that President's so-called moderation
And now there's Warren, the gentlest of souls relative to the culture of national politics, whose sin is speaking out against same-sex marriage in the debate over California's Proposition 8. Prop 8 was the one blemish on November 4 for the left, the one significant instance where the inevitable movement of history toward the leftist utopia actually moved backward, prompting moralistic scolding and angry protests, some ironically enough tinged with racism.

Yes, we know that there are ideas behind all of this: pacifism, socialism and moral relativism. But the energy of the left is now aimed not at the policies, let alone the outcomes to which they lead. It's at the personalities, the ideological "purity" of those with whom the anointed agents of the left associate and the moral turpitude of those whom they are called to punish. The left knows as much as the rest of us what Obama will do after the inauguration. They know that he's the farthest left candidate they could have hoped to have elected. They know that giving the invocation isn't a policy-making position. But they hate Warren and don't want his cooties on the platform.

Never mind that Warren is the most widely read minister in the United States at present. Never mind that he hosted one of the most widely viewed presidential election forums. Never mind that he represents a new, less politically partisan style of leadership in what is imprecisely labeled the Religious Right. Never mind that he's a nice guy who seems pretty unassuming given his success and influence. He supported Prop 8. So let's get him.

Also never mind that Obama has cut himself off from the left wing of American Protestantism by throwing Jeremiah Wright overboard and doesn't dare re-associate himself with that bunch if he wants a clear path in 2012.

So Rick Warren will pray on Inauguration Day, putting forth the controversial supplication that God bless America. If he invokes the Christian God, he'll spark controversy before returning to Saddleback and his Hawaiian shirts. Hours later, Obama will sign an executive order overturning "don't ask, don't tell." Four years and probably eight years later, there will be no constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual and monogamous. States will still be duking it out on this matter.

But will the left ever forgive Obama for his impurity?

We doubt it. They're addicted to indignation. If you aren't angry, you aren't paying attention, right?

Side note: For another example, note the downfall of Bob Kerry as prez of New School University in NYC. Faculty and students are virulently and even violently calling for his resignation, largely because he fails to enforce strict leftist litmus tests of guilt-by-association. No matters of university life and learning are on the table, anywhere that we can see.

Bush Auto Move Is Classic Political Poker

Dubya's announcement that he's authorizing loans from TARP funds for the Penniless Two of the Big Three will be variously analyzed today and hereafter. We instantly dub it "classic Dubya."

The move is typical of what "compassionate conservatism" came to mean in the Bush administration: put a conservative twist on an actions that the Democrats would otherwise take, per their ideology and special-interest commitments, in an unproductive direction, thereby stealing their political thunder and moderating actions that they would otherwise take..

No Child Left Behind was a previous example. Rather than insist that primary and secondary education be administered locally, the doctrinaire conservative position, Bush conceded a federal role in oversight but infused it with conservative values of accountability and kept the federal price tag lower than his Democratic partners wanted. Hence, the weeping and wailing of "unfunded mandates" in NCLB, pledges from the left to overturn the hated legislation, and the likely reality that the law will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Bush got enforceable standards for public education, which is what he aimed for.

Now we have a scenario in which congressional negotiators were unable to get the UAW to agree to a date certain when they would concede new terms making their workers' wages competitive with the nonunion factories in the US serving so-called foreign manufacturers. UAW prez Ron Gettlefinger doubtless believed that his Obamanoid buds would give him more favorable terms come January.

Enter Bush, who has essentially pre-empted Obama, keeping the price of the bailout reasonable, forcing the unions to come to terms and framing the issue over financial viability (i.e. making cars people will buy at a price that provides a profit to the company), not "building green cars of the future" or some other line that sounds like an "Ask Dr. Science" farce. The bluffs have been called.

Yes, we know that there are lots of ways this might not work. Gettlefinger and the UAW doubtless hope they can somehow get the Big Three to return to Obama in January and get better terms for the union. They may well try that. But Obama faces the formidable task of justifying such a move in the wake of Bush's pre-emption. We don't see how he could sell the notion of bigger loans with lesser concessions. And we doubt he'd be willing to spend his political capital on such a scheme when he has ambitious plans for other "stimulus" legislation.

Politically this approach hasn't won much for Bush. Conservatives are disgruntled with him and the left hates him apocalyptically. In policy terms, he's managed to steer things in a more moderate and productive direction than would otherwise have been possible. In this case, Bush got a plan that forces the issue toward reasonable resolution, or in his words, "an orderly bankruptcy."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Never Underestimate the Potential of a College Freshman

The Times today publishes pictures of Barack Obama taken by a student photographer at Occidental College when the President-elect was a freshman. Obama's technique with a cigarette is not to be missed.

We'll make the observation that Obama, like our current POTUS, clearly had issues to overcome in his earlier life. His present level of near obsession about his fitness (the Times notes this but misses the obvious parallel to Dubya), minus his ongoing nicotine addiction, strike us as characteristic of a person who believes he has a mission to accomplish and must not waste his opportunities to accomplish it.

There's more to say about Obama, Blagojevich, politics, economics, education, Christmas, life, the universe and everything. But it'll wait until after grades are done.

Injury at Crossroads Christmas Program

We just learned that a performer in the Christmas program at Cincinnati's Crossroads Community Church was injured in a fall from a harness from which she was suspended.

Here's a description we received via email:

30 minutes into the show, as the band was playing their version of "We Three Kings," the three actor/dancers who play the Three Wisemen climbed up these trapeze-like ribbons. In dramatic fashion, as the music pounded, these three were swung around (above the crowd) by spotters on the ground as the bright star off in the sky approached them in the auditorium. As the song came to an end, and the spotters stabilized the three acrobats, my mind almost burst into tears at the wonder of it all and how impactful this visual could be for any visitors in attendance.

At that very moment, five seats to my immediate left, I heard a whoosh come flying down ... followed by a loud crack ... as the closest acrobat had somehow come unhooked from the security latch. I believe the actor was a she, and I never heard her make another sound after her head hit the ground so hard. It was at least a 20' drop.
WCPO reports that the woman was conscious when taken to University Hospital. WLWT reports that she is a 23-year-old grad student at Xavier.

We are sure that our gentle readers know what to do in situations like these.

Update: We have learned that the young woman in the accident has passed away. The church's statement on the accident is available here. Tragedy has touched a faith community in Cincinnati in a dramatic way yet again. But we still know what to do.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bailout Plus Stimulus Equals Single-Payer Economy

True to our reactionary roots, we lament that yesterday's news included announcement that (a) the present White House came to an agreement with Congress to give/loan/burn $15-17 billion on the Big Three; (b) the future White House is promising the biggest public-works funding ever.

So . . .
  • Despite the fact that innovative, profitable automobile manufacturers operate in the South and Midwest, Uncle Sugar will subsidize static, unprofitable ones, insisting that they become what they are not by getting federal dough.
  • At the same time that the Big Three are being told to make fuel-efficient cars, fuel prices are falling to historic lows at inflation-adjusted levels, and Uncle Sugar is planning more roads to make it even easier to drive long distances quickly, even though the automobile is allegedly killing all of us.
  • A domestic labor force that needs illegal immigrants to do much of its construction work will get billions of newly-printed dollars to do more construction work as a stimulus to the domestic economy.
  • The Obamanoids will somehow manage, per their promises, both to spend the infrastructure money quickly and to spend it smartly.
  • As always, the one segment of the economy that grows during a recession and doesn't shrinks during an expansion is government work.

The Other Side of Chess Records

As Cadillac Records opens, billed as a "fact-based" account of now-defunct Chess Records, we draw attention to the fact that Chess Records was responsible for more than just fine blues and R&B recordings. The label also produced some classic jazz recordings that ought to be listened to yet today.

Not that they're easy to listen to. The sides are not for sale in stores. But thanks to the closet-indexing function of the internet, one can still purchase (for less than the cost of a ticket at the multiplex, if one is willing to buy the truly used item) the out-of-print compilation Best of Chess Jazz. The CD includes the magnificently ethereal "Poinciana" from Ahmad Jamal, worth any price to own, not to mention Eddie Jefferson's immortal vocalese "Moody's Mood for Love." And there are great cuts from Gene Ammons, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Ramsay Lewis, and even Benny Goodman.

We have listened to this recording ever since our nephew exercised his good taste (a family trait) by gifting it to us for a bygone Christmas. We recommend it this Christmas, and 364 other days in most years.

Friday, December 05, 2008

How Bad Is the Recession?

Today's labor statistics for October show the biggest monthly loss of jobs in the US since 1974.

That sounds terrifying until one realizes that the current labor force is around 155 million. In 1974 it was around 92 million.

In other words, the loss of half a million jobs in 1974 meant that a little more than 0.57% of the total workforce became unemployed. Today comparable losses represent less than 0.35%.

Note as well that every time an increase in unemployment is announced, reporters will note that the statistics would have been worse had some folks not left the job market. Such truisms hardly bear repeating, as many such decisions represent people who are nearing retirement or seeking supplemental family income. Of course not all are, but the "discouraged worker" is a trope trotted out by journalists and politicians to inject fear into otherwise ordinary statistical reports.

These are tough times for lots of folks in certain industries and parts of the country. Right now we wouldn't want to be in finance, real estate, construction, automobile manufacturing or any region dependent on those and related industries. But the comparisons to the 70s, let alone the 30s, are still very pale.

Reports of percentage of the workforce unemployed will lag other indicators but still give the best "misery index" available. A scan of this table will show that times right now still aren't as tough as they've been in some people's lifetimes.

Definitely the Wrong Appointment

Though the campaign, some observers assumed that Obama was probably earnest about some of his positions and opportunistic about others.

Of course, that was right. But the outlook is still cloudy.

On the one hand, his foreign policy appointments, with Gates at Defense and Her Majesty at State suggest what we now clearly can expect: a drawdown and redeployment of troops in Iraq at the same pace as McCain (a.k.a. Bush's third term) would have pursued the same.

On the other hand, many of Obama's economic appointments have been sensible as well, sticking with veterans of the Clinton and Carter eras who were fiscally sensible.

So far, it's as good as a thoughtful person could expect.

On the third hand, we now have what is clearly the worst appointment so far to what could otherwise have been a key post: White House Trade Representative. Obama's announcement that he is appointing Xavier Becerra, described by the leftist rag The Nation as "a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who frequently scores 100 percent ratings from the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and other groups that have been at odds with the trade policies of the past several administrations."

Great! As the LA Times observes,

Free trade irks many liberals because it can shift American jobs to other countries, but it almost invariably does more good than harm, lowering prices for goods and creating new jobs to make up for those it displaces. What's more, history shows that the last thing the country should do during an economic downturn is become more protectionist. A year after the market crash of 1929, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, raising U.S. tariffs dramatically in an attempt to protect jobs. It fueled a global meltdown that greatly worsened the Depression.

We'll watch now for the appointment to Agriculture. Unless Obama makes a bold move toward someone with the will to cut subsidies, we'll assume that he was dead (pun intended) serious about protectionism. And in that case, we think that the present recession may be just the beginning of this new FDR's legacy.

Monday, December 01, 2008

State of the Art on Whence and Whither Conservatism

Of all the "what's wrong with conservatism" articles we've read lately, the best is the one brought to our attention by the exceedingly gentle reader JB in CA, a reflection by Creighton University theology professor R. R. Reno posted at First Things, of which Reno is also features editor.

Reno tags conservatism as a movement that embraces change and the present move to liberalism as retrenchment on the part of those for whom recent change has been mostly positive. Call it selling to consolidate gains. We find his analysis trenchant.

And we still prefer the flux to the siren song of faux stability.