Friday, July 30, 2010

Vampire Writer Becomes Catholic Becomes Ex-Catholic

AP reports that Anne Rice, famed writer of disturbing vampire stories, has left the Roman Catholic Christian faith that she famously took up a few years ago.

Reportedly her reasons are that she was disturbed by the church's sex scandals and in disagreement about its views on (wait for it . . .) abortion, birth control and homosexuality.

Rice's statement announces this move as forsaking Christianity and Christian faith for the sake of Christ. We figure that like many Catholics and non-Christians, for Rice Christian faith and Roman Catholic faith are identical. At any rate, she "continues to read theology and post Biblical passages on her Facebook page," per the news item.

Of course, we expect that denizens of liberal Protestantism might seek to recruit Rice, though many might be put off by her ongoing preoccupation with the Bible. Some might prefer that she remain solitary as an individualistic post-Christian spirituality-seeker, thereby further enabling the long, slow decline of liberal Protestant Christianity seemingly so dearly sought by its remaining adherents.

Be that as it may, we are dismayed by this event on two fronts. On the wide front, we are dismayed again that too-intimate acquaintance with a deeply flawed expression of Christianity seems to have alienated yet another individual. What might have happened with Rice had the Bishop of Rome offered that birth control was fine for responsible married folk, that priests could marry, and that pedophiles would never be tolerated? In other words, what might have happened in a world in which a major voice in Christianity was not beset with medieval neo-Platonist dualism? Might the other issues giving her offense had the opportunity to give her pause instead?

On the narrow front, we are dismayed that Rice, clearly an accomplished person of letters if not of refined tastes, could not understand and embrace what drives the broader, historic (as opposed to modern liberal) Christian moral agenda on life and sex. If she reads good theology--especially some of the best contemporary Roman Catholic theology of the body--we hope she does so with an open mind.

Mamet: Only Artsy Guy at the Libertarian Soiree

Insightful and erudite Terry Teachout offers a piquant report on David Mamet's having come out of the closet as a libertarian/conservative. Noting that the famous playwright's work has been widely understood as conservative in the Hobbesian vein, Teachout reports that Mamet has publicly repudiated the optimistic view of human nature espoused by his liberal associates in the theater, declared good theater to be a product of the free market, and disavowed liberalism as the faddish nonsense that infects the contemporary fine-arts community.

This, says Teachout, makes Mamet the only nonliberal notable playwright alive. That makes Mamet all the more notable.

Mr. Mamet, if this leaves you without a social life, the SWNIDs would like to invite you over some evening for burgers, potato salad, and homemade ice cream.

Anti-Christian Discrimination in the Academy

Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College's formidable Professor of Christian Thought, today writes a formidable article on the experience of anti-Christian discrimination in the academy for the formidable e-publication Inside Higher Ed.

Always interesting with such articles are the comments that follow, insofar as internet comments are ever more than a banal exchange of rambling diatribes laced with ad hominem invective. One can surmise that for many established academicians, the historic Christian faith is so demonstrably without merit as to demand immediate, all-fronts repudiation, even when the Christian who articulates the faith isn't himself being obtusely dogmatic.

We mention this because what Larsen does in this piece is so innocuous, yet it sparks the usual rants. His proposal is simply that someone should study the subject of anti-Christian discrimination in the academy, by whatever quantitative or qualitative means that an intrepid scholar might devise. We find that an excellent proposal, inasmuch as all sides would benefit from the findings.

One can hardly imagine a more blandly neutral suggestion, yet many of Larsen's respondents cannot restrain their penchant to deride Christians as antirationalists who need to be corrected or excluded, as if the classic early-modern attacks on Christian faith were somehow not already addressed thoughtfully.

We (for purposes of interaction on Larsen's article, an "evangelical, low-church Christian teaching biblical studies at an evangelical Bible college," of all things) yesterday lunched with a new friend, an "Eastern Orthodox Christian teaching engineering at a large public research university." SWNID and friend see the issue of anti-Christian bias in the academy very similarly. We note this anecdotally for those who insist that the only ones perceiving discrimination are evangelicals. Of course (in response to one comment) liberal Protestant Christians don't complain of discrimination: their faith demands accommodation of the inculturated certainties of academe. The same goes for other people of faith who don't dissent from the universities' orthodoxies. But Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant who does dissent will experience the scorn that such dissent inevitably engenders--not by all, but with exceptional consistency.

Note well that we stand with those faithful dissenters who remind our fellow faithful that we are blessed when persecuted for righteousness, not when persecuted for rudeness. But dissent itself is not rude, or ought not be for people living in a free republic and speaking in what purports to be an open forum.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Celebration of Obscure Athleticism

Our experience as a spectator of Ultimate (motto: a game so fine, its name is merely an adjective) prompts us to direct Gentle Viewers to this video highlight:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bradley R. E. Wright to Christians: Sky Not Falling

tothesource provides a timely precis of a new book from church-going sociologist Bradley R. E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . And Other Lies You've Been Told.

In sum, Wright finds that many of the common horror stories about contemporary American Christianity don't hold up to rigorous analysis. This conclusion applies not just to the horror stories told by those who oppose the faith but also--maybe especially--to the scare tactics in some of the most widely referenced statistical surveys offered as a service to churches.

That's the Barna Group, if our reference is opaque.

Yes, the folks whose aim is to inform church leaders about present reality so that they can respond to it have, in Wright's view, done the Chicken Little thing in declaring that American Christianity presently trends in a way that suggests it is realistically a generation away from extinction.

To Wright's clear-eyed corrective SWNID offers a hearty "hear, hear!" We have had enough of pandering to the fears of Christians as a means of motivating them, especially when what they fear is not the wrath of God but the loss of their comfortable lifestyle in the next generation.

Why would anyone wanting to serve the cause of the church offer flawed statistical analysis? We think that the Barna Group understands that its product is not accurate statistics so much as useful ones, and "useful" here means rhetorically useful for shaking complacent Christians out of their doldrums and into action. Studies showing that Christianity in America is largely static, changing at the margins in light of very broad, slow cultural moves--such would be impossible to sell (except as a corrective, as Wright offers, and with a juicy title to boot).

To be sure, Christians still have plenty to get busy with. Wright's analysis doesn't invite Christian complacency. But America's church leaders will need to stir up the flock to love and good works on some basis other than the fear that America is on the brink of Total Secularization.

Maybe we could try the vision of God's kingdom, a.k.a. "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Chris Christie Versus Prevailing Smug

Savor this "Morning Joe" video clip of the irascible, irrepressible, inimitable, sensible Chris Christie, the loquacious channeler of Silent Cal, and enjoy the counterpoint of the hostess's smug reference to the "narrative."

It's reality versus class warfare, Gentle Readers.

Tax Cuts for "Rich" Not "Wasted"

This post's headline is not what you've heard.

What you've heard is that when rich people get tax cuts, they're least likely to spend the money. So that money doesn't get "multiplied" through the economy as other people re-spend it, and so it doesn't do all the job-creating and recession-ending stuff we want it to. Giving money to others, especially the mighty middle class, is more effective. So if taxes go down, they should only go down for the middle and below. Of course, they can't go down for the bottom, so that means giving them more benefits, like longer unemployment benefits.

Well, that's all fine. But false.

Bob McTeer, former Fed regional prez, notes at Forbes that the flaw in the thought is that savings is not the same as hoarding. The rich don't put their tax cuts under the mattress but in banks or investments, from which point it becomes invested in competitive areas of the economy as capital that drives productivity and ultimately more jobs and wealth. In fact, it is more likely that money will be invested if it starts in the hands of the better off than if it starts in the hands of the worse off.

We figure this applies outside a deflationary environment, and we don't seem to have that presently.

So what time is it? Time to stop listening to all the not-so-subtle, self-serving, class-warfare rhetoric that is shaping up to be the big political issue of the season.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shlaes Lays Out Humble Federal Policy

Humility is a terrific concept. It's very central to the Christian gospel. SWNID is thinking about trying it sometime.

We think the government should too.

So what would a humble government economic policy look like? The ever-relevant historian of economics Amity Shlaes provides an answer. It means lower taxes for all, less regulation, no more "stimulus," and reduced entitlements.

What's "humble" about all this? Government admits it isn't smart enough to decide in advance who wins and who loses, what will be more or less effective economically. Voters stop trying to squeeze just a little more into their own pockets from Uncle Sugar. Everybody decides that punishing the rich is stupid.

The result? In Shlaes's words:

Humble policy then goes on to concentrate on trying to let our economy become that broad space that future businesses and industries still unknown, might find inviting.

Shlaes tags Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan as two guys who are getting this. We agree, as consistent Gentle Readers with keen memories will note. Those guys remind us of Calvin Coolidge. We'd be happy to vote for either or both for national office in a couple of years.

Oh, and Shlaes is writing a biography of Coolidge.

Fisher in Trouble in Ohio, So Rs Need to Get Serious

Weak fundraising, campaign micromanagement from the candidate, and lack of campaign organization and strategy--these are the characteristics of Lee Fisher's Ohio Senate run per RealClear Politics.

Polls are few and far between but show a close race. But unless Fisher can get his labor supporters to work their turnout magic, Portman's better ground ops will probably carry the day, not to mention the GOP's chances at taking the Senate.

So we advise this: Rs, since the Ds seem destined to hand you the legislative branch, please articulate a clear message on which you can attempt to govern. Soon.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Haggard Commits Stereotype

Ted Haggard is back. In the pulpit. In Colorado Springs.

Plan A was for Haggard to continue therapy, relocate, and take an honest job. Forever. Plan B abandons all of Plan A.

Now, Haggard says, it was all a misunderstanding. Per WSJ:

He portrays his encounter with the prostitute as a massage that went awry and said he doesn't have same-sex attractions. He dismisses as a "witch hunt" the findings of his former church that he engaged in a pattern of misconduct, including sordid talk and inappropriate relationships. (He said his only fault was cracking a few crude jokes.) But his assurances have raised some eyebrows.

We're glad at least that some eyebrows are raised.

At the very least, Haggard is going back on a promise not to do what ministers who are disciplined out of their pulpits classically do: start another church nearby. At most, he's resorted to his old way of dealing with his life, which is denying that he has issues while medicating himself with the accolades of those who would crawl across broken glass to be co-dependently pastored by him.

Now for the SWNIDish sermon:

Ministry attracts people with narcissistic personality disorders. Which is not to say that all ministers have them, only to warn that some do. Church leaders will do well to be mindful of such and to tell people who aspire to or serve in ministry that the difference between spiritual giftedness and a deep need to get people's attention and approval is the difference between night and day, which is to say darkness and light.

As an aging practitioner of ministry and educator of ministers, we think we have not just the right but the duty to say this clearly. The gospel's power doesn't depend on spellbinding Elmer Gantrys. Quite the opposite.

If you don't want to be treated as a stereotype, don't act like the stereotype.

False Certainties Preferred Over True Uncertainties

With what seems to be the requisite substitution of what should be a verb ("prophesies") for the noun ("prophecies"), Kansas City Star religion writer Helen T. Gray notes for weekend readers that not all Christian biblical scholars understand "the end of days" identically. The article is unremarkable though decently balanced, so we don't recommend reading it unless there remains a Gentle Reader or two who hasn't thought about this issue.

Instead, we want to discourse from this to a wider topic. In discussing the highly specific apocalyptic scenarios that are widely correlated with contemporary events, Gray's article reflects the lust many Christians have for certainties. Some folks would rather have their biblical and theological teaching be clear (and wrong) than fuzzy (and true).

So they are attracted variously to specific certainties on which the Bible ought to be judged less than certain. Hence and variously: young-earth creationism, dispensational premillennial eschatology, Reformed anthropology and soteriology, finding capitalism/socialism/pacifism/the Second Amendment in the Bible, and probably adherence to the Roman Catholic magesterium too. Call this dogmatism about all things that aren't historic dogma.

SWNID favors Christian confidence about matters that are addressed directly in Holy Writ. We ask for patience and suspended judgment about other matters. We insist on a sanctified ignorance about such things that are explicitly closed to us--like knowing the time, even approximately, when God brings final justice.

We figure that makes us a Campbellite Christian who thinks unity in essentials and liberty in opinions is worth insisting on.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Thought That If You Like It, You Can Keep Your Current Plan!

No worries, America! ObamaCare is all about preserving your quality, choice and control of your health care! If you like your present plan, you can keep it.

Well, today they changed it.

Beneficiaries of Health Savings Accounts have been previously allowed to use those funds for all kinds of medical expenses not covered by insurance, including over-the-counter medications.

Starting in January 2011, such will not be the case, unless one produces a note from one's doctor saying that the product is medically necessary.

This is a small change in the rules that will amount to small change in the pockets, of course. But it's worth noting for all its likely reasons and effects.

As to likely reasons, Obamanoids hate HSAs because they're (a) a Republican idea; (b) provide cost incentives to drive down the curve that are controlled by the patient instead of the government. So many observers have expected them to get trimmed as the ObamaCare rulemaking goes forward.

Of course, the public rationale for this would be that people are using their HSAs to buy over-the-counter drugs that they don't need. That, of course, ignores the fact that the HSA money would belong to the patient if not spent, so the patient has a very fine reason not to spend on unneeded Ibuprofen or whatever.

So instead, one must consult one's physician to obtain a note indicating a need for analgesics or Pepto-Bismol and so to enjoy the benefits of paying for such with untaxed dollars. Since such drugs are cheap, who will bother, especially when the consult will probably cost a fee to the doc?

Meanwhile, some patients, seeking a doctor's advice so as to obtain the needed note, may well find themselves taking prescription drugs when cheaper nonprescription drugs would be at least adequate. And so the cost curve rises all the more.

All these are minor enough concerns to deserve the label "petty." We note them SWINDishly, however, because they are indicative of the constant changing of rules and procedures that we can expect in the future, none really to the benefit of the patient, the federal fisc, or the body politic.

We told you.

On Reverse Discrimination and All That

Ross Douthat, the token evangelical at the Gray Lady, writes recently on the perception of reverse discrimination that results from preferential treatment for minorities that is affirmative action. Despite our extreme apathy toward the inequities of so-called reverse discrimination, we nevertheless are interested in Douthat's remarks because they touch on an area of professional interest: college admissions.

Douthat notes that a recent study reveals that at elite universities, a minority student is relatively more likely to be admitted, all other factors being equal, if the student is less well off economically. By the same token, white students are relatively less likely to be admitted if not well off economically. In other words, for minorities, limited economic resources are seen by admissions committees as an obstacle overcome, a plus in admissions. The same doesn't apply to whites, who are more likely admitted if they pay their own way.

Of course, elite universities claim that their admissions are "needs-blind," meaning that they don't pay attention to a student's ability to pay as a criterion of admission and so sequester the family's financial information, reported to the university's financial aid office, from the admissions process and personnel. But we with many others believe this standard is readily violated simply by looking up the student's address, noting whether the student attended public or private schools, and following up on other indicators that allow admissions officers to "shape a class" not only in terms of talents, interests, experiences and ethnicity but also in terms of economics. Private colleges' preference for "legacies," or students with family ties to the institution, and their reliance on early decision/action applications to fill a significant number of admission slots probably also skews admissions of dominant-culture applicants up the economic scale, where the people with the familial ties and know-how to play the admissions games mostly reside.

More telling, however, is Douthat's citation of further research revealing that if a student in an aplication reveals certain activities associated with rural life, that student is less likely to gain admission to an elite. Future Farmers of America, 4-H, and JROTC are not helpful for getting a nod from the ivies, it seems. Old money is apparently not comfortable with the subculture of the Republic's rural white folk. Or maybe their dominant politics.

We see several opportunities for elite colleges wanting to set themselves apart to move on this issue.

One would be to acknowledge that the college does have quotas for various economic groups, that they do shape the class to have a certain percentage who will pay full freight and so take such matters into consideration. This risks a PR backlash as the college finally acknowledges the hypocrisy of the needs-blind charade, but inasmuch as students and parents are themselves trying to game the system in various ways, honesty might actually pay off in PR.

Another would be to identify set-asides for working-class kids from the country, maybe accompanied by a few trips by admissions officers to rural locales to encourage talented kids to apply. Let's see if Princeton, on its way to admitting students from all fifty states, can admit someone from Montana whose dad is not a physician and mom is not a lawyer and whose tribe is Celtic, not Sioux. Maybe if an elite college can boast that it has a student-organized country music club or monster-truck appreciation society that isn't self-consciously ironic, we'll know they've taken a step.

But why, Gentle Readers ask, is SWNID so indifferent to the ravages of reverse discrimination? Because SWNID thinks that such experiences, unjust as they may be, are more than offset by the advantages of being part of the dominant culture or at least given access without question to the dominant culture. If a white kid has to go to the best state university in his state instead of an elite private college in New England, his future his hardly ruined. It may even be enhanced. He or she still faces fewer obstacles to making a way through the world than someone who is by reason of physical appearance stigmatized by an ever-declining but still significant number of folk. For persons of pallor there's no net harm, no foul--so no outrage over the person of color given preference in entry to the hallowed halls.

Personal Chronicle on Faith and Evolution

McNewspaper reports on a new book on the creation/evolution controversy, Evolving in Monkey Town. This one is a bit out of the ordinary, the personal memoir of Rachel Held Evans, raised in Dayton, Tennessee (site of the famous Scopes trial) to understand that questioning young-earth creationism indicated failed Christian faith. Finding what she saw as an irreconcilable conflict, she opted for the science. Later, however, she discovered that the reconciliation is highly possible if one considers alternatives besides the young-earth view.

We appreciate the article, as it handles the questions with less inaccuracy and polarization than is common at the shallow end of the media pool.

Notable is the citation, now common among mainstream journalists, of Southern Seminary's Al Mohler. Predicatably, Mohler frames the issue as an either/or question of true commitment:

No one is going to read the Bible and be able to accommodate a natural reading of the biblical text with naturalistic evolution.

Perhaps the key word here is "naturalistic," which would exclude any involvement of God in any way. But Mohler as quoted seems content to imply that there are only two choices, the naturalistic one or "creationism," with all the freight that pertains thereto.

But to Ms. Evans' experience: people like her are the ones that provide SWNIDish motivation to address this issue. There's simply no reason a person should lose faith in the triune God of the Bible because of conflict with science. There is no conflict if one lets the Bible say what it actually says and science say what it does and can.

We don't enjoy scorning creationism. We do want to avoid the utterly unnecessary crises of faith that occur when believers are first grounded in the notion that all evolutionary thinking is antithetical to the Bible and then encounter the considerable evidence for an old earth and the development of life through its pre-history.

So it's very fine with us to hear the story of someone who has been there and back again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ayala: Always Worth Listening To

Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala is featured on a recent video, briefly discussing the relationship between science and "religion." It's more than worth the less than ten minutes it takes to view.

And it's more than worth it for us, after expressing our debt to minds like Ayala's, to note a significant disagreement. We think it's utterly silly to avoid discussion of "intelligent design" or "creationism" in the science classroom, as if doing so would protect students from time lost learning science or somehow degrade both science and religion.

Of course, this is really all about the public high school classroom in the United States, a point to be kept in mind as it constrains what can be done on any front, thanks to the developmental readiness of teenagers to think critically.

But here, in bullet-point nutshells, is why we think Ayala is wrong on this:
  • Students are thinking about these issues whether we talk about them or not, if "thinking" is the right term to use for mid-adolescents.
  • Integration across disciplines ought to be the aim of all learning at all levels and is expected, it seems, except on this one matter (we're sure politics gets discussed whenever ecological matters are in the syllabus).
  • It's unhelpful to compare discussion of intelligent design in the science classroom to discussion of alchemy in the chemistry classroom, inasmuch as there's a serious question at the heart of intelligent design thinking that ought to be addressed. But hey, a chemistry student ought to know something about approaches akin to chemistry that aren't scientific, right? Every science class we know that's worthy of the designation discusses the history of the discipline and so discusses the pre- and para-scientific approaches that are at least tangential to the science.
  • Ultimately, the issues of science and religion are not pre- or para-scientific but, to use Plantinga's helpful term, meta-scientific. That is, they are the questions of meaning that a thoughtful human asks after doing the science, like Who am I? Where did I come from? and What does it all mean anyway? No one is helped by avoiding such discussions simply because they are by definition unscientific.
We insist that such a classroom approach would require serious training for teachers, the kind of training many would be loath to undergo because they prefer avoiding the questions themselves. But pish-posh to that: we're striving for something better.

Tamny: Macroeconomics v. Income Equality

We were wondering if we ought to provide Gentle Readers with yet more explanation as to why taxing the rich because they're just too rich is an unhelpful idea for the rest of us.

But this morning, we have an actual economist to do so.

John Tamny of RealClearMarkets does it pretty well and very clearly. Any and all who find economic questions puzzling ought to imbibe all of Tamny's potion and so realize that the only alternative to having a few fabulously wealthy people is for everyone to be a lot poorer than they would be otherwise.

We will add but one observation. Stipulating everything Tamny says, one may well argue that high-end wealth damages society in certain noneconomic ways and so must be curbed. These effects of wealth concentration have to do with the moral and ethical failings of the wealthy and the way that their wealth amplifies those moral failings.

The question then comes, Who are the philosopher-kings, angelic in their motives, who will appropriately seize the wealth and decide what fine things to do with it, things unsullied by the evils of the evil rich? If they work for the government, we think we don't need to finish our sentence. Our Niebuhrian view of human nature forbids us to entertain the notion that the world's problems are solved when the Right People are put in charge.

And we will add a warning. We are grimly sure that this message, one that the wealthy presumably have a vested interest in promulgating, isn't going to take hold soon. The reality is that a majority of politicians in power presently have a vested interest in aggravating resentment against the rich and will do so for the foreseeable future. Cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face populism is not going to disappear, even when a noseless Republic looks in the mirror.

PS: Goldman Sachs' quarterly profits are down 83% from a year ago. We feel more equal already. But not more prosperous or confident. Thin gruel, that.

PPS: Niall Ferguson at the Financial Times (motto: Printed on Pink Paper for a Reason) is saying the same thing, albeit less clearly and from different historical data (the failure of deficit spending in peacetime to do anything but spark inflation in countries like Argentina and Venezuela). So the Ferguson solution to stimulus is not to tax-and-redistribute but

the kind of policy regime-change Prof Sargent identified 30 years ago, and which the Thatcher and Reagan governments successfully implemented. Then, as today, the choice was not between stimulus and austerity. It was between policies that boost private-sector confidence and those that kill it.

Fish on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez: This Is a Free-Speech Violation

As a literary critic, Stanley Fish seemed to speak for the radical edge of postmodernism.

Now a law-school professor, he seems to have been Borked.

Writing on the recent Supremes' decision allowing a California Law School to remove the Christian Legal Society from its sanctioned list of student organizations because it demanded Christian sexual behavior of its officers, Fish opines that the decison treats Christian behavior as if it were entirely unrelated to Christian belief. Hence, the policy is inherently discriminatory toward religious groups that don't separate the two.

So Fish sides with Alito and the conservatives on this, and does so with considerable analysis of the arguments.

We await the longer-term reaction to Stanley Fish's transformation from the literary elites who once esteemed him. Sooner or later, the Fish who writes stuff like this will be deemed most foul.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Getting More Popular and Stupider Every Day

WaPo's Ezra Klein has been beating the polling drum to note that ObamaCare is gaining marginally more popularity as the summer drags on toward election season. Inasmuch as little has become operative in the massive bill, that gain can only be attributed to the lowering of volume in the discussion, coupled with the obvious fact that the sky has not yet fallen.

So it's time to raise the volume again, because there are facts to be discussed, specifically the facts of RomneyCare, the microcosm of ObamaCare.

The essential Robert Samuelson notes as much today. RomneyCare is bankrupting the People's Republic of Taxachusetts while exerting absolutely no downward pressure on costs. Samuelson, scion of a celebrated economics clan, notes why and whither:

The system's fundamental incentives won't change. The lesson from Massachusetts is that genuine cost control is avoided because it's so politically difficult. It means curbing the incomes of doctors, hospitals and other providers. They object. To encourage "accountable care organizations" would limit consumer choice of doctors and hospitals. That's unpopular. Spending restrictions, whether imposed by regulation or "global payments," raise the specter of essential care denied. Also unpopular.

Obama dodged the tough issues in favor of grandstanding. Imitating Patrick, he's already denouncing insurers' rates, as if that would solve the spending problem. What's occurring in Massachusetts is the plausible future: Unchecked health spending determines government priorities and inflates budget deficits and taxes, with small health gains. And they call this "reform"?

It's high time to remember these fundamentals, and to explain them to the complacent masses who will decide the next election.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's Happening Now, What Was Happening Then

The predominant theme of our occasional outbursts of reason is clear to those Gentle Readers who persist in imbibing SWNIDish wisdom in these trying days: the people whom we elected to protect our liberties are spending money on crap and demanding that we pay for it while they chase the actual and prospective creators of wealth from pillar to post, alternately demonizing and regulating them until they abandon any attempt at commerce.

So it's good once again to consult with historian of the Great Depression Amity Shlaes, who notes in this week's WSJ the disturbing antecedents to the present statism in the administration of the talented but emotionally handicapped FDR.

We love Shlaes for many reasons. For one, as we read her chronicles of the Depression she connects federal policies of the era to anecdotes from the SWNIDish extended family (e.g., our maternal grandparents refused to participate in the federal program that paid farmers to slaughter and bury their hogs, stubbornly affirming the gross stupidity of the idea, while their neighbors dutifully complied with the mandate except for the burying part, collected the subsidy, and then feasted on the pork).

For another she notes how the economic ideas that allegedly undergirded FDR's casting about for solutions to the Depression were so so misunderstood by the Great Man and his sycophants that the exalted and derided Keynes himself tried to intervene personally. All influential figures, it seems, need to be saved from their followers.

But most importantly, Shlaes has demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone except those with a political or pecuniary interest in re-inaugurating Rooseveltism that FDR's manipulations of the economy clearly extended the Great Depression into something Greater. And it wasn't the blessing of Pearl Harbor that restarted prosperity, but FDR's realization that to prepare for war, he needed first to make peace with business. As long as he was acting capriciously with monetary policy, tax policy, regulatory policy, and every other policy in a massive, self-glorifying improvisation, no one with a dime to his name would invest in the future. When he stopped, capital flowed once again.

On the caprice, Gentle Readers should note well Shlaes' remarks about FDR's arbitrary and personal manipulations of the gold price and then ask themselves what is to be gained by blaming CEOs for bad decisions only to put decisions in the hands of politicians.

This last point is what we're certain about now: the collective uncertainty about what today's Great Man and his minions will do next, not to mention the uncertainty about the implementation and effects of what he has already done, has frozen risk taking and so is keeping the world poorer than it needs to be.

BHO and FDR have in common the wholesale, Manichean demonization of business to demagogue the self-pitying into voting them into office. That rhetoric has yielded the same policy mistake for each. And when the policy mistakes yield the predictably bad outcomes, each turns back to the blame (e.g., presently it's CEOs' fault for sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash: they're petulant and vindictive toward BHO, not worried about the compounded uncertainties of the future as potentially redirected by the present administration).

So the right response is clear enough. "America's Working Families" need to quit feeling sorry for themselves, stop looking to pin blame, demand the liberty to exchange goods and services without bureaucratic interference or confiscatory taxation, and get back to what the business of America is.

Did we mention that Amity Shlaes is writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge? Mister, we could use a man like Silent Cal again.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

SWNID Recommends: "I Write Like"

We point the SWNIDish thumbs upward for the clever web site "I Write Like." Purporting to compare a submitted sample of writing to a database on the styles of various famous writers, it offers considerable amusement, perhaps a disturbing revelation or two, and even an introduction to a significant stylist unfamiliar to the user.

We submitted three personal samples. From this blog, one sample was tagged as similar to the style of H. P. Lovecraft. Heretofore unknown to SWNID, our quick read of an excerpt from Lovecraft's ouvre does seem to suggest that he indulged a taste for verbosity no less than our own. We feel less than comfortable with a kinship to the avatar of "weird fiction," however.

A second blog sample yielded comparison to David Foster Wallace, roughly a contemporary of SWNID whose Infinite Jest has been suggested to us as a read suitable for our taste. Maybe it's the long sentences again, or maybe there were footnotes in that sample. At least Wallace is notable for irony, or so we're told.

So we resorted to something written for serious publication. And, dare we say it, the Delphic "I Write Like" compared our humble essay to the bard himself. We guess that we accidentally wrote the entire essay in iambic pentameter, or maybe accidentally threw together a sonnet somewhere in the middle.

At any rate, we should've quit while we were ahead. We submitted another serious, for-publication essay and got the nasty Lovecraft again. Greedy actions always seem to come to such ignominious ends.

Worst Except for All the Alternatives

Noticed all the stories the last two years about the failures of capitalism, corporations and their despised CEOs to plan and execute wisely in the allocation of funds to develop a robust economy? Heard the text or subtext that calls instead for government regulation, government-directed investment, and government economic planning?

Well, here's a story to chew on. BHO has since his inauguration continually beaten the drum for the development of American manufacturing of batteries for the soon-to-explode electric automobile market and related "green" technologies.

The CEO of America is at it again today, flying to idyllic Holland, Michigan (where of late other significant, noneconomic activity has been afoot) to promote the federally subsidized factory presently under construction to manufacture new generation batteries.

But as WaPo dutifully reports, Uncle Sugar's $2.4 billion invested in boosting American manufacturing capacity of this favored item is likely to go underutilized. The capacity presently under construction will equal 40% of global demand, per BHO's pronouncements. Menawhile, Menahem Anderman, founder and chief executive of Total Battery Consulting, estimates that by 2015 US production will equal less than 10% of global demand, thanks to the fact that five Japanese and two Korean companies have a five-year head start on the technology.

Remember when the Soviet Union turned out heavy machinery in quantum quantities, only to see it waste while consumers lined up for a shot at procuring the miserable consumer goods that existed in such short supply? Remember when subsidies of the American dairy industry produced mass giveaways of 16-ounce blocks of processed cheese food?

So coming soon to a location near you: lithium-ion battery giveaways, followed by battery junkyards where unwanted cells weather away across the millennia.

Accusing capitalists of making mistakes is like accusing living things of breathing. That's what they do. But the key difference between free-market mistakes and centralized-planning mistakes is that in the former case, the mistakes can self correct, while in the latter case they endure forever. For every move on the free market, someone is likely making an opposite move. For every excess of the conventional wisdom, some contrarian is going the opposite way to soften the blow. Bad ideas die much more quickly when they aren't subsidized.

As is so often the case, Adam Smith got it right the first time. But each generation seems destined to attempt to prove that it is the exception, thereby proving the rule.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Even with Population Density, Trains Are Losers

By now all Gentle Readers should know SWNID's personal affection for all modes of public transportation. Were it possible, we'd ride a mule-pulled canal boat through New York, just for the experience of it.

Especially attractive are trains, thanks to their high level of comfort, ease of riding, access to views of the countryside, and relative swiftness. We'd love to ride a train from anywhere to anywhere else.

But reality is what reality is. Passenger rail is expensive to create and maintain. Fixed rails pick up and deliver people only approximately to their destinations, leaving them depending on still other modes of transportation to start and finish the job. In developed countries where people have choices, no passenger-rail system exists without two conditions: (a) high-end population density; (b) government subsidies. In those countries where such do exist, passenger rail displaces freight rail, leaving what is arguably a tradeoff of efficiencies.

So that's why our beneficent federal government is throwing money at passenger rail development. It just makes sense.

Well, it makes most sense where population densest. California qualifies almost as well as the east coast, so we'd expect California's rail initiatives to be healthy, right?


Writing for the libertarian organ Reason, Californian Tim Cavanaugh notes the massive waste and graft associated with the Golden State's 14-year-old, as-yet-unoperative high-speed rail system. And with still more subsidies, it shows no signs of progress or improvement.

Worse, people who ought to know better continue to endorse the initiative, imagining that the simple existence of a train will change economics forever.

We particularly relish Cavanaugh's remark that in a discussion of the CA rail initiative with influential journalists, he was the only naysayer in the room and also the only public-transportation rider in the room.

We look forward to meeting Cavanaugh sometime, probably on a bus.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ignorant Politics of Envy, Still More

Respected Gentle Reader JB in CA posts significant questions about our assertions in our recent post "Ignorant Politics of Envy on a Rampage." In response, we offer this rambling answer, too long to post as a comment on his comment and too likely to provide massive insight to all Gentle Readers to be consigned to a series of comments only:

First, we find the so-called "better for democracy" argument for redistributive taxes on the wealthy to be at best of marginal importance and at worst (and closer to the reality) an example of the kind of idea that, if acted upon, creates a worse situation in its solution that in the so-called problem.

That's maybe the worst sentence we've ever written, so we'll try to clarify. Sure the money of the rich is influential in politics, but it tends to cancel itself out inasmuch as the rich don't have a singular political point of view. Soros is an example deliberately chosen, as he bankrolls the far left presently. His kind is always around. Why do Democrats spend so much time raising money in Henry Waxman's congressional district?

But stipulating that the problem is real, the solution is worse, because it then invests power in gatekeepers who decide who does and doesn't get to spend money on political speech or who decide how little money people get to keep to curtail their power. The answer to the latter, of course, falls broadly at levels that no one seriously contemplates putting into practice, as they require confiscation that would utterly destroy economic activity. Lesser practical tax rates simply don't reduces the wealthy to anything resembling parity. They'll still shell out, probably to get their taxes reduced!

Third, we don't think that voters are so stupid that they can be utterly manipulated all the time. See the famous quotation widely attributed to Lincoln, about fooling some or all people some or all of the time. Yes, money influences politics, but the very fact that the body politic, pummeled with political speech underwritten by the rich, moves first to the left and then to the right demonstrates that no one is managing to manipulate consistently. So if rich people want to spend their fortunes arguing with each other about politics, let them. We'll all listen and then vote more or less as we probably would've otherwise.

We even doubt that money makes the debate toxic. It makes it loud and ubiquitous, maybe. But as to toxicity, we think that has nothing to do with money. Before politicians raised huge sums, they still talked nasty.

Now to the specifics of tax cuts, we take issue with an assertion or two. First, we doubt that businesses are sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash right now (correlative fact to lack of hiring, of course) merely because they fear a double-dip but because they fear the need for massive liquidity. That's a consequence of three things, two of which could be addressed by our government. The one that's fixed is the recent liquidity crisis, which makes cash king for all who lived through it. The second is the constant chatter about higher taxes for corporations or for carbon emissions or other presently stylish villains. The third is the awful financial bill presently before Congress, which would stupidly require the same capital margins for real-economy businesses buying derivatives to hedge their losses as for banks that buy them as speculative investments.

So if tomorrow the governing party said, no we won't raise taxes on anything presently, and we won't legislate capital requirements for derivatives used as a hedge against losses in direct investments, we'd see a positive move on the capital markets. That it turn would lead to higher employment, as all that money would begin to move into something that would spur activity (it always does, and global money looking for a home doubtless fueled the just-ended housing boom, at least in part).

Now, please don't assume that by talking about higher or lower taxes on the rich we are speaking about tax policies in their entirety. We speak only in response to the present administration's and others' call for higher taxes on the so-called rich, as if doing so somehow benefited the not-rich. Inasmuch as economic theory and history show otherwise, it's simply a bad idea that we think indicates bad faith on the part of politicians who have to know that they're simply appealing to people's envy.

If we were to pick a tax to lower, it'd be corporate income, inasmuch as our Republic's rate is higher than everyone's in the world except Japan's. We've got some generous deductions to soften the blow, like accelerated depreciation schedules and the like, but the rate is just astronomical. People live with the comforting illusion that by taxing corporations, they're putting money in The People's hands, when in fact they're making prices higher, exports less competitive, businesses harder to keep afloat, capital harder to raise, and dividends (which get paid out to lots of people who aren't rich, like retirees with mutual funds in their IRAs and 401[k]s) lower.

So lower the corporate rate, maybe reduce or eliminate some corporate deductions to offset a part, and watch what happens.

If we're talking about a tax cut for individuals, sure, make it across the board. Of course, that's effectively a tax cut for the rich in the jargon of Jackson's party, even if it benefits just one rich person. We pointed out to some folks in the early part of the previous decade that the awful Bush tax cuts for the rich temporarily reduced the SWNIDish federal income tax to zero, apparently affirming that SWNID was temporarily rich. So yes, across the board tax cuts.

But note well that with the present structure of taxes, cuts to federal personal income taxes will benefit only the little more than half of households who actually pay federal income tax. So if such are proposed, expect Jackson's party yet again to say that if a tax cut is to benefit everyone, it has to mean a redistributive tax refund to people who don't even pay income taxes. The rhetoric on this subject has been so out of kilter as to defy the boundaries of good will and common sense.

So to be effective for the present economic purposes, the tax cut will have to benefit the wealthiest tax payers disproportionately, primarily because that's where most of the tax dollars are coming from to begin with.

Put more simply, our progressive tax system is presently too progressive. We aren't impressed by arguments that at times in the postwar era taxes rates on the wealthy were much higher. Those were different times--when the postwar lack of capital abroad left American manufacturing without competition, but also when wealthy people simply redirected what could have been productive capital to tax-avoidance maneuvers. The deleterious effect of the latter was ameliorated by the former. Today it would not be so.

Anticipating a question or rejoinder, we also aren't impressed by those who insist that more citizens should pay federal income taxes. All wage earners pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, so they're all taxed by the feds. That's enough to answer the argument that representation without taxation is tyranny.

As to deficit worries, Friedman was utterly right in the 1970s when he said that the problem is not government deficits but government spending. Whether the government takes a dollar out of a taxpayer's pocket by taxing it our takes a dollar out of the capital markets by borrowing it, the government has moved the dollar from what is on balance a more productive economic activity ("No one takes better care of your stuff than you") to a less productive one. Now's the time for BHO and company to renounce their use of so-called emergency stimulus spending to establish a new baseline for future federal budgets, returning spending to levels commensurate with pre-recession times. Reducing federal spending as a percentage of GDP is way more important than reducing federal borrowing as a percentage of GDP, though doing the former will inevitably do the latter, even with tax cuts, because tax cuts spur growth that boosts tax revenues.

Really, simply extending the Bush tax cuts for another decade would be nice, and maybe sufficient to the moment. The Dems painted themselves in a corner on this one, demagogueing the Bush cuts for a decade. Now they really can't afford economically to let them expire, but they'll be exposed as hypocrites if they extend them. THAT's where the politics of envy have got us.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Rand Paul's Chickens: Update

Rand Paul and the Nameless Democrat against whom he is running are even in the most recent poll, no less credible for being from a Democratic polling company.

Paul has great name recognition, rabid supporters, and is held in negative esteem by over 40% of Kentuckians. That last outcome was mostly predictable.

Lesson: don't nominate fringe screwballs, even if they say stuff that makes you go, "Darn right!"

Yes, College Is Overrated! But So Is . . .

McNewspaper today asks the nonmusical question, Is College Overrated? The answer comes from an honest high school teacher, one Patrick Welsh, whose answer is yes.

Welsh notes the obvious, which rightly ought to be noted. Many students who go to college these days are ill prepared, having failed to attain the skills needed for higher learning in high school. And many of the jobs that college students will one day hold require preparation different from what they'll receive in college, including technical training in such things as plumbing, electricity, HVAC, and the like.

Working in the middle of this noncontroversy, SWNID affirms these self-evident truths. The push to provide wider access to higher education is utterly laudable but rife with pitfalls. Yes, students from families that have never attended college deserve the opportunity to do so. Yes, nearly everyone can potentially benefit from higher education. But those students who aren't prepared or motivated for college ought not be induced to attempt it prematurely. The twenty-first century career path has many forks, allowing anyone--from late adolescent to senior adult--to get new education for any worthwhile purpose. Letting people in on that secret and then letting them decide how to act on it is surely a better plan than indoctrinating adolescents with the college-or-failure false choice.

But we'll also push back on a response to observations like Welsh's. SWNID is personally tired of the hackneyed refrain that college doesn't prepare people for the ominous Real World. We hear this from a loud minority of folks in the Christian religious sphere, who complain that their own or someone else's ministerial education was bad training for actual ministry. And we think it's bunk.

Here's why. College education means listening, reading, writing, problem solving, thinking, evaluating, planning. Those are the very things that folks do in responsible, real-life occupations.

The stuff folks read, think about and write about in college are real-life situations, whether in the present (social and behavioral sciences), the past (history), imagined but realistic worlds (fiction). the natural world (sciences), or what can be generalized about all of them (philosophy, theology). Oddly enough, the only major academic discipline that we can name that doesn't connect to the Real World directly is mathematics, and who is complaining that math's very important indirect connection to the real world is irrelevant?

Significantly enough, our own little academic discipline, biblical studies, tidily combines just about all the kinds of thinking noted above, making it truly the queen of the sciences and the Ultimate Study of the Real World. Argue with that proposition at your peril, gentle readers!

So since when is learning about and practicing thinking about real life a bad preparation for real life? Yes, some courses taught by some profs are disconnected, but those are failures and largely, we insist, the exceptions. We can say that because over time people who consume the educational product stop choosing disconnected stuff, which in turn becomes extinct. Darwin was right about that.

But, says the naysayer, everything important that I (the standard by which all things are judged) learned was stuff that I learned outside of college. We challenge that on a couple of fronts. One is "everything." That's an exaggeration of the kind that one who paid attention in college would know not to make. The other is whether the naysayer would have been as able to learn outside of college if the naysayer had not learned at least a little bit in college. Granted that learning the lessons of higher ed isn't confined to higher ed, we ask whether anyone who wants to learn those lessons will be better off for having done it my way exclusively.

So, we gently ask that folks who reflect on the higher-ed landscape kindly limit their use of the following tropes:
  • IHEs are run by people who don't know the real world. Yes, many academics live in the ivory tower. But take a close look and you'll note that the rule of the game is survival of the fittest, and fitness means saying something that lots of people care about over time. A few in higher ed get rewarded for being obtuse; most who get rewarded did something real to get their rewards.
  • IHEs are mired in theory, not practice. Yes, practice is not well learned in the classroom. But practice is not well learned apart from theory. The best IHEs force a blend, and the trends are all toward extramural experiences--service learning, internships, co-ops, field research--that deliberately engage the actual stuff in practice.
  • IHEs are mired in the past. Yes, if you're recalling what you studied when you were in college versus what you're experiencing now. But check your IHE: we bet they've moved on as well. Good IHEs don't go in much for fads: that's the manifestation of their critical-thinking mandate. But they do go in for research, which keeps taking them to new places. For every prof who paddles around in shallow trends, there are several curmudgeons who stay in the timelessly deep end of the pool, which remains perpetually current.
  • IHEs are too expensive for what they produce. Now, we think you might have an argument there. Just be careful in how it's applied. It's not the producers who have demanded ever more comfortable learning environments, living arrangements, and recreational opportunities. It's not the producers who have demanded access at all places and times imaginable. It's not the producers who have demanded services for every imaginable deficiency that students bring with them. And it's not the producers who have subsidized the arrangements with grants and loans that have driven up demand so that prices inevitably go up (see "economics, behavioral science of"). They've simply cooperated for their own self-interest. The key in this case is for the student to be thoughtful about what she actually needs--admittedly a hard task when the student needs the education to develop the critical and reflective skills necessary to answer that question well.
  • The most successful people didn't get college degrees. See Gates, William, et al. Sure, that works fine if you're a genius. For the less exceptional, we have colleges.
Higher ed is rather like Mark Twain's father: underappreciated at one stage of life, granted grudging appreciation later. It's about as overrated as the storied School of Hard Knocks. Compare, reflect and learn, class.

Inside the Acute Mind of Mitch

Nerdy Mitch Daniels increasingly looks like a major player on the national political stage. His interview at the self-consciously nerdy Five Books shows why.

On a national political stage where politicians of all stripes seem to be taking their lines one by one from a (tele)prompter, Daniels articulates a coherent political philosophy. Better still, he demonstrates how the philosophy gets translated into action, as in reducing the number of state employees in Indiana to the same level as in 1979.

For those who wonder and lack the initiative to click on the link, Daniels's five books include Hayek and Friedman, the wizards who devised the elixir that will restore vigor to our moribund Republic.

We urge Daniels to ditch his comb-over for a cool crewcut and get visible for 2012. In the SWNIDish view, any combination of Daniels, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan has the potential to bring another blessed Morning in America.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Ignorant Politics of Envy on a Rampage

Attention to the chattering classes these days leads to one and only one conclusion: the left is speaking with one voice to raise taxes and government spending even more than they have been raised already.

We are hearing once again in wholesale quantities about income inequality, i.e. the alleged problem that the incomes of the wealthiest have been growing faster than the incomes of the less wealthy. The proffered solution to such is, of course, to tax the wealthiest and spend the receipts to benefit the less wealthy, thereby addressing the inequity and all its injuriousness.

Noisiest in this direction is, predictably, The Nation, whose unapologetic socialism always invites such assertions. Their publication on the brink of insolvency itself, the reddish editors presently offer a symposium on the subject of redressing income inequality with higher taxes. That is, it's a symposium with but one point of view.

These days, however, such stuff isn't passing muster with many of its natural adherents. WaPo's Ruth Marcus, whose liberal credentials are utterly intact, today loudly objects to such cries for soaking the rich. Her notion is true: that tax receipts from rich folk, even if rates are raised to the stratosphere, won't touch the present fiscal crisis of profligate spending. The arithmetic is simple enough.

But Marcus doesn't depart from her lefty moorings, because she misses the real points. These are three, largely related to each other:
  • It is a matter of indifference to the welfare of the less well off if the more well off are doing lots better, if at the same time the lot of the less well off is also improving. Marcus notes that the prosperity of our Republic's lower earners has improved in the last few decades at roughly the same rate it did in the "golden era" of the 1940s through 1960s. What's different is that more recently, the income of the tippy-tops has exploded. How Bill Gates or George Soros' billions are a drag on the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the plumber or school teacher is unfathomable, unless we indulge the human penchant for envy.
  • The wealth of the wealthy doesn't sit idle in their bank accounts. It becomes the capital that finances new enterprises and fuels existing ones, the stuff by which ideas become realities, creating jobs and wealth. For the middle and bottom to do better, money has to be invested. That's what happens to the money made by the top earners, whether they invest directly, consume, or simply bank the dough. Taxing Richie Rich doesn't put his money in the hands of the Lumpenproletariat better than leaving him alone. Taxes simply put the decisions in the hands of politicians rather than industrialists, bankers and others whose eye is on productivity instead of the next election. If you want the middle and bottom to do well, then, it's best to let the top keep more of its money, not less.
  • Time and again, tax revenues increase when marginal tax rates drop. When folks with dough are freed from concentrating on avoiding taxes, they invest in ways that earn them more money, which even at lower tax rates yields bigger tax revenues.
In sum, taxing the rich to solve our fiscal crisis is utterly counter-productive in every way. It doesn't benefit the less well off. In fact, it makes it more likely that they'll stay less well off, as taxes stifle economic growth. And it makes it more likely that their government will be less solvent than it is presently, a most sobering prospect.

Note well that all this is merely the details of the second SWNIDish aphorism: Socialism impoverishes.

Note also that when thoughtful pundits decry "static" estimates of the effects of tax increases or tax cuts, they decry the way such estimates ignore the effects of taxes on economic behavior, as we've been noting them. Yelling that the Bush tax cuts "cost" the gummit eleventy trillions normally involves just such antimathematical reasoning, which should've died around the time of Newton.

So what explains the outcry of the left to raise taxes on the rich? It could be ignorance of macroeconomics. But these days, such ignorance must be willful. If you claim to care about the poor and fail to learn the most fundamental notions of the economics that explain poverty, your failure is culpable.

We think this nonsense has to do with what really motivates some on the left. It's not the welfare of the less well off. It's resentment against the prosperity that leftists see as morally and intellectually inferior to themselves. They'd rather have a world that punishes the rich than one that lifts the poor.

Note well that simply reducing tax rates is not the solution to all the ills of poverty. Deliberately pursuing ways to enhance the productivity of the bottom 20% of earners is laudable goal over the long term. That's why SWNID affirms informed efforts to break the so-called cycle of poverty, and "informed" means with a understanding of the issues unclouded by ideological a prioris and a grim grasp of the limitations of all such efforts.

But if you want to keep the poor unproductive and so make them poorer, tax the rich. Which is exactly what the self-styled advocates of the poor are insisting we do.

First Ever: SWNID Agrees with Sherrod Brown Vote

SWNID finds Senator Sherrod Brown (D-SEIU) among the most vapid and cynical of his vapid and cynical political tribe.

We therefore note with some surprise that he is casting a vote for which we heartily agree: Joey Votto for National League All-Star.

We do, however, wonder why Sen. Brown finds it necessary to appear personally at Great American Ball Park to do so. Surely as a politician he knows that absentee votes and multiple votes are more potent than in-person votes, the very thing that MLB's online-voting provision enables. Does the cynical Senator believe the local electorate so shallow as to support him for his spectacle of support for the highly deserving Reds' first baseman?

Still, what can one expect from a man who orders his suits rumpled at the dry cleaner?

Friday, July 02, 2010

It's So Hard to Get Good Domestic Help These Days

George Washington University, often our Republic's most expensive, in the upcoming academic year is dropping maid service for first-year* students. New students will now have to vacuum their own rooms and clean their own private bathrooms, if such things matter to them.

GW insists that the move isn't economic. Rather, it's based on the conclusion that their housekeeping staff can't fulfill their duties if this duty is included. Still, GW pledges to hold the line on housing costs for the coming academic year to reflect the loss of service.

With all the economic and social insight of an undergraduate, one student is quoted with the complaint that a place charging $54k a year ought to be able to provide a decent housekeeper. We'd love to compare this student's political and social idealism as expressed in the student's application essays to this highly enlightened, sensitive comment.

All this causes us to celebrate the enormous diversity of American higher ed. We have IHEs that do basic housekeeping for the dear children. We have IHEs that require students to work every day on a ranch. We have IHEs that charge several arms and legs. We have IHEs that charge a mere bag of shells. We have IHEs that overtly indoctrinate in one or the other of every imaginable ideological direction, and IHEs that purport to remain objective.

Hail the American Educational Experiment! George Washington himself would be proud.

Excuse us--Jeeves, please warm up the Bentley and bring it around. We'll be leaving for the club in twenty minutes.

*For those with better things to do than follow trends in higher ed, we note that "first-year" has replaced the gender-specific "freshmen" as the preferred moniker for the unwashed hordes who arrive on our nation's campuses as new students at the end of each summer.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Prothero on Religions, Or When the Interviewer Doesn't Listen

Huffington Post religion writer Nicole Neroulias offers a pretty good interview with Stephen Prothero, Boston University professor and author of the significant book, God Is Not One, which aims to expose the public to the huge differences among world religions.

We commend the article for emphasizing what those of us who study one religion know very well: "religion" is not a unitary concept, let alone "god."

Prothero points such things out very, very nicely. Some religions don't have gods. Some have one, some many. They're not all about ethics or even mostly about ethics. Most endorse compassion, but for reasons so varied and with outcomes so varied as to marginalize the significance of the similarity as presently construed. Thus, reducing all religions to a common denominator--as does the stylish, modern discipline of religious studies--is wildly misleading.

We also like Prothero's indictment of the intellectual dishonesty of atheism and his functional description of most atheists as simply rejecting the (usually Christian or Jewish) religion of their parents. Spot on.

Note as well Ms. Neroulias's ridiculous prologue to her interview, which offers only the blandest of categorical denials of Prothero's thesis, offering no evidence to the contrary. Of course, she writes for a left-wing web site, so proving her views has never been important to her professional advancement.

Props to Prothero for offering balance to the discussion. With all the world discussing similarities, someone needs to discuss differences. Long live the difference!

Trivia Quiz: Identify "Ixtoc I"

Give up?

Ixtoc I was an oil rig off the coast of Mexico in the eponymous Gulf Thereof. In 1979-80, it blew and spewed what has been until this point the largest amount of oil ever released into the Gulf in a single event.

And it may still be the biggest ever. No one knows for sure how much goo the BP spill is spilling, but the high-end estimates would only in the next few days put the total above the Ixtoc I spill.

So, why have you and we never heard of Ixtoc I, while we've heard of Exxon Valdiz and Santa Barbara and such? Well, silly, Ixtoc I affected Mexico, so it doesn't matter.

This phenomenon is utterly common and predictable, of course. Influential people, meaning rich people, object to environmental impact that is nearby. They're oblivious to the same when it is far away.

So it's fine to drill in the Middle East but not in the USA. The biggest spill ever was in the Persian Gulf, by the way, where our former friend Saddam deliberately dumped a half billion gallons during the 1991 war.

Closer to home this NIMBY phenomenon works as well. It's fine to drill off the coast of benighted Southern states, but not off the prestigious Atlantic or Pacific coastlines, where the movers and shakers move and shake.

We'll opine that the worst of this is that there's been no public discussion of the effect of these previous spills on the ecosystems of their regions or significant citation of lessons learned from such episodes (see only the forward-looking remark of a Coast Guard Commander cited at the end of the article linked above). There's only hand-wringing and favor-begging and political posing by political poseurs. We'd rather blame and profit than learn and solve.