Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcome to 1600 Pennsylvania, Mr. President

It all looked so effortless in November.

In February, it looks different.

President Obama's latest Gallup approval numbers still look OK, as long as one doesn't take the historical view and compare them to others' numbers. The LA Times's Andrew Malcolm notes that his initial 68% approval has slipped to 63%, which is average after one month. Worse, his disapproval has risen from 12% to 24%. Not only has it doubled, but it's half again higher than the 16% average for one month.

For what it's worth, Malcolm notes that the lowest approval after one month belonged to Reagan (55%) and the highest to Carter (71%). [Readers may insert their own wry observations on the obvious.]

And for what it's worth, Obama's approval percentage is about the same as Dubya's, but his differential between approval and disapproval is worse.

We don't blame Obama for all this. These are tough times. Obviously, his bad poll numbers are the consequence of Bush's ineptitude. It may take decades for Presidents to recover from Bush's awfulness and get the all-important poll numbers back where they belong.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blankley on Obama's Detachment

Tony Blankley of the Washington Times (motto: Companies owned by religious cults don't need federal bailouts) offers the most trenchant and disturbing analysis of President Obama's nascent leadership style that we've seen to date.

In sum, since taking office, the President has dealt with four items he describes as high priority: Cabinet selection, incarceration of terrorists, economic stimulus and bipartisanship. In each he has shown lack of attention to detail and extreme delegation to the point of disengagement. None has gone well. All leave observers wondering whether the President, who has no record as an executive, can lead something big.

For us, Blankley's most disturbing observation is that the Obama White House has 130 senior staffers, a number double the usual in recent history. When everything is important or a priority or a crisis, nothing is. When every special interest is placated with its own person at the top, no one is at the top.

The Carter Administration was rightly pilloried for Mr. Carter's paralyzing micromanagement. Reagan was a notorious big-picture leader who could state his priorities succinctly on an index card. His effectiveness was the consequence of his ability to focus laser-like intensity on those priorities and ask every staff member what relationship any project had to them. His notorious failure, Iran-Contra, was a consequence of growing disengatement in details. His great victories came as a result of his effective guidance of priorities like tax cuts, reduced domestic spending and increased military spending, through a Democrat-Party controlled Congress, through selective, effective personal engagement in his highest priorities.

The executive's optimal involvement in detail is never exactly clear, as these poles show. Obama obviously tends to the Reaganesque in terms of personal engagement. But what he clearly doesn't have is Reagan's powerful sense of what is important and tireless will to see those priorities through. That deficiency may leave the Republic with a President who is the worst of both tendencies, a Democrat Grant or Harding.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

492 Years in the Making: Indulgences Resurge

Today's Cincinnati Enquirer headlines the resurgence of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church.

An indulgence, for the uninitiated, is release from "temporal punishment," i.e., time in purgatory. In traditional Roman Catholic theology, one is released from eternal punishment, i.e. hell, through confession. Temporal punishment, meaning punishment of a limited duration, is still meted out in purgatory, unless one receives indulgence.

We invite our Roman Catholic readers to correct our Protestant misunderstanding of their dogmas, but that's how we understand the issue at present. And we are not pleased.

Many readers will know that the sale of indulgences was what prompted Martin Luther's "95 Theses" and sparked the Protestant Reformation in Germany. But Luther objected not just to the sale of indulgences but to the very idea that forgiveness in any form is meted out on any terms other than faith in Christ.

Per the Enquirer, the revival of indulgences is part of a campaign by Pope Benedict XVI to invigorate some nearly forgotten traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. We had hoped that such practices were in the process of slow, unnoticed death.

This, to us, is about as disturbing a development in the Roman Catholic Church as we can imagine. How the notion of "temporal punishment" in purgatory can be squared with the gospel is beyond us, as is the notion that a prescribed program of post-conversion works are strictly necessary to secure forgiveness. Among the great insights of the Christian Bible is that humans need rescue from the outside, and that their transformation in character and behavior comes not to secure that rescue but in response to it. To see it otherwise is nothing less than to marginalize the cross.

We sincerely hope that Pope Benedict and his peeps will rethink this awful move, made more awful as it is part of the celebration of the Year of St. Paul, commemorating the 2000th anniversary of his birth as estimated by the Vatican. No occasion could be less fitting.

Blossom Dearie: Minimalist of Hip

We note with sadness the passing of singer-pianist Blossom Dearie, who passed away a week ago at the age of 82.

With an exceptionally high, light, small voice, exceptional wit and exceptional swing, Blossom Dearie presented a distinctive sound among jazz vocalists. She sang standards, of course, and her own compositions, but is also well known for her renditions of songs by fellow minimalists Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg. And she had a knack for recovering obscure gems like Sheldon Harnick's "The Ballad of the Shape of Things":

Completely round is the perfect pearl
The oyster manufactures;
Completely round is the steering wheel
That leads to compound fractures.
Completely round is the golden fruit
That hangs from the orange tree.
Yes, the circle shape is quite renowned,
And sad to say, it can be found
In the low down, dirty runaround
My true love gave to me, yes,
My true love gave to me.

Completely square is the velvet box
He said my ring would be in.
Completely square is the envelope
He said farewell to me in.
Completely square is the handkerchief
I flourish constantly,
As I dry my eyes of the tears I shed,
And blow my nose that turned bright red;
Completely square is my true love's head:
He will not marry me, no, he will not marry me.

Rectangular is the hotel door
My true love tried to sneak through.
Rectangular is the transom
Over which I had to peek through.
Rectangular is the hotel room I entered angrily.
And rectangular is the wooden box,
Where lies my love neath the golden phlox.
They say he died from the chicken pox,
In part I must agree: one chick too many had he!

Triangular is the piece of pie
I eat to ease my sorrow.
Triangular is the hatchet blade
I plan to hide tomorrow.
Triangular the relationship
That now has ceased to be.
And triangular is the garment thin
That fastens on with a safety pin
To a prize I had no wish to win;
It's a lasting memory that my true love gave to me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Radio Update Perpetuated

We thank a registered SWNID Follower, gentle and intrepid reader Bobby W, for the recording and internet posting of the broadcast of the SWNIDish parental units' romantic saga. Now it belongs to the ages.

We regret that the family's inevitably sardonic but loving commentary on their remarks must remain entirely a private matter of warm amusement.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Radio Alert

Our favorite married couple, the SWNIDish parental units, will be featured in a story on Friday, February 13 on the Moody Broadcasting affiliate in Anderson, Indiana. The segment, we are told, will air at 6:35 a.m., 7:35 a.m., and 8:35 a.m., all EST. Streaming audio is available here.

The fine folks at the station apparently thought that a couple married 68 years who first met on Valentine's Day are pretty cool.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stimulus: It Could Have Been Worse, But That's Different from Being Right

We blog as the announcement of the conference committee's agreement on the stimulus bill is first making its way through the media, swiftly offering SWNIDish analysis of that which we have barely seen.

To wit: it could have been worse.

Reports are that the bill has reduced spending, increased tax cuts and eliminated sweet sounding but superfluous stuff like school construction, all at a slightly more modest price tag. OK: it definitely could have been worse.

But we'll insist that it could have been a lot better with minimal spending and permanent cuts in tax rates for corporations and individuals. Reagan veteran Peter Ferrara had it right in today's WSJ: history shows that tax cuts are the surest way to restore growth in a recessionary economy. By increasing the rewards of productivity, tax cuts channel investment and risk taking in productive areas of the economy. To be genuine incentives, they can't be temporary tax rebates, which folks tend to hoard because they are by definition followed by the restoration of old rates.

Less good but still better than what we've got would have been Larry Summers's targeted, timely and temporary initiatives. These are broad, slowly implemented, and long lasting.

The present stimulus remains a laundry list of Democratic Party pet projects, with spending for everyone who belongs to the diffuse coalition of special interests that controls our federal government and most states. That's what people voted for; that's what they've got.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Darwin's Anniversary: Time to Call a Truce?

At the Times, one Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, otherwise unknown to us, offers a decent statement of the compatibility of Christian faith with the essence of Darwin's notions.

We think this is a respectable enough statement to deserve a read, about as respectable as one is likely to find in the mainstream press these days.

We would insist that the very existence of humans, with their self-awareness and deep need for meaning, is a problem for bare evolution. And there's the problem of the origin of life as well. Or the existence of anything at all.

But Mr. C. M-O'C doesn't dwell on any of that in so brief an article. But it's still worth a read.

Better News than Most

A large proportion of SWNID's favorite humans are Bible translators. Here's a little video about people who do that kind of thing:

And here's another, with more pictures and less talking:

And a third, with an "oldies" feel:

Obama Press Conference Creates or Saves 4 Million Jobs

There was no doubt tonight why Americans had to forgo House. We needed to create or save 4 million jobs.

Or our President did. Over and over again.

There's little difference in Presidential press conferences, regardless of the President. They consist of questions asked (politely of Democrats, abrasively of Republicans, but who cares how those guys act?), then largely ignored by the President, who articulates his predetermined speaking points.

In this case, all 4 million of them.

We think we know how to calculate that 4 million jobs have been "created" (a word rather too much like Genesis 1 for our liking in this context): simply note when the economy registers 4 million more jobs than it had previously, or at least from its low when it is shedding jobs as it is currently.

We're not at all sure how to determine that jobs have been "saved" (and need we discuss the theological tone of that term?). After all, deciding what jobs would have been "lost" (still more God-talk) had the action not been taken is entirely conjectural.

We SWNIDishly suggest the following cynical ploy. Take the largest number of jobs lost in any month of the recession (say 600,000, which a little above last month's loss and could be this month's loss). Project that number out indefinitely, month by month, as a monthly loss. Then compare the actual number of jobs to that ever-declining monthly number. In the month in which the total number of jobs in the US exceeds that monthly, declining number by 4 million, declare the stimulus bill a success for having created or saved 4 million jobs.

That, of course, could be like declaring victory after total nuclear war, but it offers a measure of success that the acolytes of the media can surely celebrate.

If any of them still have jobs.

Side note: Elkhart, Indiana is suffering not just from the financial crisis but from the oil bubble. Who would buy an RV when gas was $4 a gallon? And does our "green" President really want to revive the manufacture of all those gas-guzzlers, even after his stimulus bill paves every green bit of the continent?

On the other hand, Elkhart is also the band instrument capital of the world. So we call for an additional $400 billion to buy band instruments for every citizen and resident of our Republic, to revive Elkhart's economy. Those who don't play instruments can give (not sell) their instrument vouchers to those who do.

SWIND will take a Selmer saxophone, or more than one if we can score extra vouchers. One alto, one tenor, one baritone and one soprano, please! Oh, and a bass clarinet, maybe a clarinet in A, and an E-flat piccolo clarinet too. We like our present Selmer B-flat clarinet, but could someone at the factory maybe recondition it for us?

Actually, our junky old flute could use replacing. We promise to practice if the President buys us a new one!

Will someone please post this idea at www.suggestions4obama.com?

Baah-Binney Family in the News

Here's a nice story about Joseph and Victoria Baah-Binney, students at CCU, and their family. Theirs are typical of the largely unnoticed lives that make big differences in the world.

And here's another nice story on the same subject.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Updike Redux

John Wilson of the essential Books and Culture has linked a 1996 review of Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies by esteemed novelist Larry Woiwode. For those with an interest in Updike, Christian faith and this book, the review is most excellent.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Signs of Recovery

After Friday's market close, investment guru Jim Cramer offered ten reasons for optimism about stocks. There's no point in re-enumerating them, but they make a point nevertheless.

We don't offer Cramer's word as a tip for investing, as we are committed to the dollar-cost averaging model for ourselves and others who don't have the time or inclination to become investment experts. We offer it instead as an example of what is probably the second-best investment advice that we've encountered:

When the cover of every magazine is about the boom in stocks, sell. When the cover of every magazine is about the doomed economy, buy.

Cramer, not on the cover of any magazine, sees crocuses in the snow. There will always be a spring, and some will notice it before others.

Steyn Stimulates Contempt for Comtemptible Stimulus

Of all the pieces decrying the miserable porkfest of a stimulus bill that with the President's blessing is now in a conference committee, we like Mark Steyn's best.

From the article, here's a taste of Steyn's characterization of Obama:

Jesus took a handful of loaves and two fish and fed 5,000 people. Barack wants to take a trillion pieces of pork and feed it to a handful of Democratic Party interest groups. Jesus picked twelve disciples. Barack seems to have gone more for one of those "Dirty Dozen" caper-movie lineups, where the mission is so perilous and so audacious that only the scuzziest lowlifes recruited from every waterfront dive have any chance of pulling it off. The ends justify the mean SOBs: "Indispensable Tim" Geithner, wanted in 12 jurisdictions for claiming his kid's summer camp as a business expense, is the only guy with the savvy to crack the code of the U.S. economy. Tom "Home, James!" Daschle is the ruthless backseat driver who can figure out how to steer the rusting gurney of U.S. health care through the corridors of power

And on the stimulus bill:

Appearing on "The Rush Limbaugh Show" last week, I got a little muddled over two adjoining newspaper clippings - one on the stimulus, the other on those octuplets in California - and for a brief moment the two stories converged. Everyone's hammering that mom - she's divorced, unemployed, living in a small house with parents who have a million bucks' worth of debt, and she's already got six kids. So she has in vitro fertilization to have eight more. But isn't that exactly what the Feds have done? Last fall, they gave birth to $850 billion of bailout they couldn't afford and didn't have enough time to keep an eye on, and now, four months later, they're going to do it all over again, but this time they want trillionuplets. Barney and Nancy represent the in vitro fertilization of the federal budget. And it's the taxpayers who'll get stuck with the diapers.

Where Was This Guy Three Months Ago?

Politico reports that the truce is over between McCain and Obama. Concerning the bloated stimulus, the erstwhile GOP POTUS nominee said:

The whole point, Mr. President, is to enact tax cuts and spending measures that truly stimulate the economy. There are billions and tens of billions of dollars in this bill which will have no effect within three, four, five or more years, or ever. Or ever.

The guy who spoke that clearly might have been elected last November, if he'd made an appearance. Oh, well . . .

We think we know how to recognize a Democrat who's desperate: she concedes the facts cited by her Republican opponent and insists that the facts don't matter. That's what's happening now with the "stimulus." The party line, from Obama to Reid to Pelosi to E. J. Dionne to the cyborgs who write letters to local papers is, "Sure it's wasteful. But all we need is lots of spending, even if it's on useless stuff, and everything will be just fine."

Friday, February 06, 2009

Unemployment for the Math Impaired

Yes, the recession is bad. Today's unemployment figures for January certainly demonstrate as much. Unemployment at 7.6% is not good.

But we caution again about the media's "worst since" rhetoric. This time it's the worst since 1974. But that worst is in raw numbers--the number of jobs eliminated--not percentage of the workforce.

Here's a glimpse of where unemployment rates went in that dismal period:

1974-05-01 5.1
1974-06-01 5.4
1974-07-01 5.5
1974-08-01 5.5
1974-09-01 5.9
1974-10-01 6.0
1974-11-01 6.6
1974-12-01 7.2
1975-01-01 8.1
1975-02-01 8.1
1975-03-01 8.6
1975-04-01 8.8
1975-05-01 9.0

Note that the end of 1974 saw monthly increases in the rate of unemployment of 0.6% and 0.9%, as compared to the monthly increase of 0.4% in January.

And here's where unemployment rates peaked more recently:

1982-08-01 9.8
1982-09-01 10.1
1982-10-01 10.4
1982-11-01 10.8
1982-12-01 10.8
1983-01-01 10.4
1983-02-01 10.4
1983-03-01 10.3
1983-04-01 10.2
1983-05-01 10.1
1983-06-01 10.1
1983-07-01 9.4

All of which is to say that yes it's bad, and it could get worse, but it's not yet as bad as "worst since" might suggest.

Stuff in the Process of Being Forgotten

Al Qaida
Drill Here, Drill Now
Genetically Modified Crops
Global Warming
Hydrogen Economy
Jeremiah Wright
John Kerry
Kyoto Accord
New Orleans
Osama Bin Laden
Windfall Profit Taxes on Big Oil

And who can say that any shouldn't be forgotten?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Obama Update: Two Weeks of the 208

What can we say about President Hope/Change's debut? It is probably just enough to say that it has confirmed the warning that his supporters had set their expectations rather high.

On appointments, we wonder whether all the folks with tax issues were deliberately chosen to distract the public from the appointment as CIA director of a career politician with no intelligence experience. Last we checked, Leon Panetta was a hack for the Clintons. Is he there as a payback for something that Obama owes Hillary?

At any rate, Dashele and company have certainly demonstrated that the Party of Jackson is not the Party of the People as it and its progenitor style it. The People don't generally have to worry about whether they've declared their free limousine as income or paid unemployment tax on their two nannies.

But policies, not personalities are the most pressing problem. First to the miserable "stimulus" bill. Nowhere are its gargantuan excess, absence of focus, and multiple layers of political paybacks better enumerated than at National Review. We note that America decided it wanted as President a Senator with no record of writing legislation. That's obviously what it got. Now it will get a bill for the services that he has contracted out to Ms. Pelosi's zoo animals.

Meanwhile, lefty pundits are almost silly in their uncritical boosting of Obama's stimulus and hysterical objections to GOP insistence on some focus. One actually reads these days that it doesn't matter what the money is spent on as long as it's spent. For such insights one needs a PhD in economics, apparently, especially to say such things right after having blamed profligate Wall Street executives for ruining the economy with their undisciplined investing.

Aside from the dreadful fiscal non-policy, Obama's opening fortnight has been filled mostly with moralistic (viewed from a left-of-center morality) executive orders. In this respect, he reminds us most of another idealistic Democrat, Mr. Carter, not least in his penchant for scolding Americans when they resist his high-minded exhortations.

These policy observations bring us back to personalities. Washington watchers have tended to see Larry Summers as the most formidable individual in Obama's inner circle. Summers is no fool and doesn't seem to countenance them either. Before the inauguration, he made a special point of stressing that economic relief must be timely, targeted and temporary. It is, of course, none of those. We wonder when we can expect to hear anonymous reports of Summers at war with others in the White House, or of Summers left out in the cold as Obama continues to lean on his Congressional buddies to write policy.

None of this cheers us. But having lived through Mr. Carter's era, we remain hopeful, not necessarily because we expect better of Obama but because Americans have proved they can recover from the worst.

Updike: Christian Chronicler

We belatedly offer a SWNIDish tribute to the man we had grown accustomed to calling our favorite living novelist, John Updike, who passed away about a week ago.

For those unfamiliar with Updike's typical (and prolific) work, we offer a few points of orientation. However the larger merits of his books will be judged in time, he is certainly among the most virtuosic writers of his era. Others may have attempted loftier themes, but few could match the sharpness of his narrative prose.

In many ways Updike seemed a self-conscious chronicler of his times. Certainly his novels focus on characters much like himself: male, American, aging, Eastern, conflicted. They pass through the events and trends of what seemed every year that passes in the second half of the last century and the first decade of this.

Updike is infamous for his explicit writing about sex. Some readers should probably take a pass on Updike for that very reason. And this little matter makes the next all the more surprising.

Updike was a serious-minded Christian, well informed on theology and biblical criticism, devoted to Christ and enthusiastically regular in church. Many of his novels and stories carry significant theological freight.

So how does all that come together? We'll offer our own view of it, unburdened by much reading of criticism of his work on this point. Updike's faith, we believe, led him to see significance in the ordinary, to be at once skeptical and optimistic about human nature and utterly devoted to describing it endlessly. Like the narrators of Israel's history, he gave us humanity in all its wonder and awfulness. That includes the sex.

So, where to start on Updike? The Rabbit novels are justly famous, but we'd recommend first the short story collection Pigeon Feathers, including especially the title story, an intensely moving and provocative meditation on childhood, death and God. In the Beauty of the Lilies is a later work that spans most of the twentieth century, spinning an intergenerational tale that illustrates Chesterton's maxim that the problem with atheism is not that people believe nothing but that they'll believe anything. For anyone who has been to seminary, that book's opening description of the Presbyterian minister's study at the turn of the century is so vivid that you can smell the books.

Silence Still Moving to Celluloid; Other Endo All Must Read

Martin Scorsese's ambition to render Shusako Endo's masterpiece Silence on film is back in the news. The great director is reportedly wooing the great actor Daniel Day Lewis for the film. We like that just fine.

Meanwhile, we urge gentle readers to dip into yet another of Endo's works, The Samurai, the latest addition to the SWNID Fiction Club. The story of a low-level Japanese nobleman of the early seventeenth century who journeys across two oceans and back again amongst Europeans, it presents yet another haunting, compelling image of Christ and discipleship.

If it's a choice between reading Endo and reading The Shack, we firmly recommend Endo.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Stackhouse: The Theology of "Eleven"

Theologian John Stackhouse also plays in worship bands. So he's worth listening to when he insists that the typical worship band needs to turn down the volume, as he does at the Christianity Today web site.

It's a clever, insightful piece, as judged from our point of view as something of a theologian and something of a worship band member.