Friday, December 30, 2011

Krauthammer's Existential Dilemma, And an Ancient Alternative Hypothesis

Charles Krauthammer ends his 2011 WaPo contribs with a departure from his usual: a meditation on whether humanity is alone in the universe, and what it might mean if we are.

We insist that gentle readers follow the link and read Dr. K's thoughtful article, and we recommend that they do so before reading our remarks further. But we have no way to monitor that, so here goes.

Krauthammer notes that astronomers are busy finding "exoplanets," which has become the aspect of astronomy in which the public seems most interested since manned space flight became mundane after the lunar-landing program. And finding planets around other starts they are, in impressive quantities.

But finding signs of intelligent life in the universe, they aren't, even though that search has been going on longer than the search for exoplanets.

Krauthammer's explanation is the so-called Fermi Paradox, which asks, Why do we seem to be alone? and after calculating some astronomical odds that intelligent life would arise on other spheres, reasoning that there ought to be such intelligent life in such quantities that some signs of its presence would be available to us, then concludes that the problem is with intelligent life itself: that it inevitably destroys itself.

Dr. K's conclusion is to highlight that the oft-benighted endeavor politics is therefore of utmost importance, as it is by politics that humans manage their propensity to destroy one another.

Reading Krauthammer's essay is like reading a classic presentation of the Christian gospel, minus God. It begins with the assumption that intelligence like humans' is quite special. It is driven to the conclusion that intelligence like humans' is quite dangerous. It seeks for a solution to the danger, a way of salvation. But it lacks everything it really needs to explain the origin of the intelligent creatures, the root of the paradox of their self-destructive tendencies, and a solution that gets to the heart of the problem. All that has to come from the outside.

Politics is not as bad an answer as it sounds, really. We Christians who tend to emphasize the limits of political solutions to human problems should also recognize that the gospel we believe transforms all aspects of human life for the one who believes it, including the way that the converted person relates to others and both exercises power and responds to the exercise of power. That means that the gospel transforms the politics of the people who believe it.

For Krauthammer a key unanswerable question is why I, as an individual, should care at all whether my form of intelligent life endures or not. One can answer that the despair of our fragile, temporal existence with the insistence that our rare (but apparently oft-repeated elsewhere) existence as sentient beings needs to be preserved at all costs. That's Krauthammer's implication, and it's thin gruel, to say the least. Certainly for Fermi, whose contribution to the invention of nuclear weapons was so crucial, it seems to have been the only straw to grasp as he saw his own exceptional intelligence as the genesis of our race's self-destruction.

But what if there's more--someone who transcends the universe, who created it, who did so for human habitation (and others? well, it remains an interesting question but is now less important, for now we are certainly not alone), who understands our paradoxical existence and who acted at the greatest personal cost to address it, and so who in all ways demonstrated that he loves us with a measure that surpasses what we observe in any of our fellows?

What if the answer to our paradox is not politics but love, and not love as some kind of cosmic abstraction that can somehow exist apart from a subject and an object, but specifically the love of the triune God, who gives and receives love eternally within the triunity of his being but who decisively chose to create us, to love us unconditionally, and by that love to rescue us by becoming one of us and taking on himself everything that we experience and, by our stubborn, self-destructive rebellion, even deserve?

Sounds more promising than politics alone.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mitt Leads Barack by More Than Margin of Error

Don't measure the curtains for the Lincoln Bedroom yet, but Our Man Mitt is beating BHO in the latest Rasmussen, 45% to 39%.

Given Mitt's steady hand on the tiller so far, we doubt very much that the incumbent will be able to reverse this early trend, though we do expect ups and downs from here.

Yes, Mitt is eerily like Thomas Dewey, so 1948 does come to mind. But Obama is about as far from Harry Truman as one can get.

Meanwhile, Mitt is demonstrating that no one will hold support in the GOP primaries other than Mitt. That includes especially Ron Paul, about whom WSJ's Daniel Henninger says the obvious today (as someone else will tomorrow): that Paul is a kook with no chance of responsible public office (being a Congressman who votes alone is not a responsible position, of course).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brooks on Historical Analogies, SWNID on Echo Chambers

David Brooks holds his ground today at the Gray Lady, nicely detailing reasons to insist that our era is like neither the Great Depression nor the Progressive Era, the two historical models used by the Obama White House as metanarratives for their anemic political agenda.

We find Brooks' analysis trenchant. Hence we note it here.

But we also find the comments from Times readers to be, well, depressing. Post after post repeats the hackneyed talking-points of leftist lemmings: the Rs wrecked government, "smaller government" means returning to social anarchy, Reagan did it, Bush did it, it's the 1% . . . all that. Some insist that Brooks is a toady of the right-wing propaganda machine.

Well, that's kinda funny, actually, as Brooks points to issues that aren't exactly being addressed thoughtfully by most Republican pols either. Right now the fight seems to be over who knows what Reagan's ghost would do. Conservatives' historical analogies are also suspect when employed simplistically, without attention to differences as well as similarities in different eras.

But the Times' readers, probably hailed by the paper's salesmen to prospective advertisers as the best educated newspaper readers in the world, can't engage such thoughts. For them, Brooks simply violates self-evident orthodoxies and so must be stupid, evil, credulous or all three.

It's been widely observed that as developed countries become more mobile, people's experiences of social difference become less frequent. Most people these days live, work and play with people of very similar backgrounds, economic conditions and opinions. That leads to the kind of bald ignorance of other points of view that one sees in most comments sections on most opinion pieces in most internet publications these days.

So why do we pick on the Times? Because the Times postures as the elite organ of news and analysis, the newspaper of the moral and intellectual 1%. As if thoughtful conservatives were unicorns.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch 3:16

Like his hero, Orwell, Christopher prized bravery above all other qualities--and in particular the bravery required for unflinching honesty. And as was true of the work of Orwell, the former colonial policeman, this devotion paradoxically lent a certain military coloring to Christopher's intellectual, literary, and political pursuits. This most intellectual of men valued intelligence, but valued courage far more--or rather, he believed that true intellect was inseparable from courage.

So writes Atlantic editor Benjamin Schwartz in his obituary for the celebrated essayist Christopher Hitchens.

We want to comment on what Schwartz observes in the quotation above, from the standpoint of Hitchens' celebrated-and-scorned atheism, and his "last word" on the subject of death in Vanity Fair, in which he stood down from much of the bravado about death that he had expressed in word and deed in former days.

We think that this contrast--between holding courage sacred and experiencing mortality as dissolution of oneself--contains the essence Hitchens' inability to find faith. It is this: weakness, not courage, is the basis on which one turns to God.

Hitchens sought, lived and revered courage. In the end he could not escape weakness. No one does.

But to act on weakness, one must abandon courage: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Another Voice Joins SWNID in the Interdisciplinary Wilderness

SWNID famously champions the notion that good education is deliberately interdisciplinary.

And so does everyone else, until the subject of science education comes up. Then suddenly, the conversation takes a dark turn: the science classroom should teach nothing other than science.

Of course, that never happens. It's a means of excluding the larger metaphysical questions about origins, questions leading to discussion of God, from the conversation. So you can't follow the discussion of evolution with any of the three questions that evolution appears incapable of answering: (a) why is there something instead of nothing? (b) why is there life and not just non-life? (c) why are there self-conscious humans capable of pondering such questions?

Enter Ari Eisen of Emory University's Center for Ethics, on CNN's Belief Blog. His gravid voice asks whether there's ever been a significant conversation about science that didn't touch on issues that belong to other areas of inquiry, like ethics and religion. He wonders whether students are less attracted to science as a way of knowing precisely because it's presented as a body of facts independent of significance. He points to data suggesting that students learn science better when they are challenged to see its relationship to other considerations. He notes well that the neglect of larger questions does not make those questions go away in the minds of students and the public--that people persist in their belief that scientific data and religious ideas are somehow compatible.

We are pretty sure that Eisen would be given a very unscientific cold shoulder were he to present his views at any major conference of natural scientists. Too bad for everyone.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The 2012 Election in a Sentence

The polls announce grim news for BHO and Democrats. Significant majorities reject the President's handling of the economy, saying that he doesn't deserve a second term. Included in the latter is one in five self-identified Democrats.

Therefore, listen well to this longish sequence from MSNBC's Morning Joe, ostensibly a daily pep-rally for the left. The mood is somber, not least when GOP solon Peggy Noonan agrees with remarks from her Democrat counter parts that many Democrats have vowed to vote for the Republican, regardless of who the Republican is.

So, the election in a sentence:

Republicans win unless they blow it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Fact Checking SWNIDishly

SWNID is famous, among the dozens who read SWNID, for questioning the accuracy of the now-commonplace assertions that the gap between rich and poor is getting horribly, horribly wide.

SWNID is also famous, among the same dozens, for objecting to the bowdlerization of Jesus as a figure of politics.

Now we will use one column to do both.

In what may be the most important opinion column of the year, Cato Institute's Alan Reynolds lays out the problems in citing individual income levels from federal tax returns as a means of tracking the prosperity of the 1% against the penury of the 99%. Specifically, Reynolds notes how changes in tax rates and tax law have over a generation removed the incentives that the rich have to shelter their incomes--via corporations and tax-favored investments--from federal taxation. Hence, what was once corporate income is now personal income, what was once sheltered in tax-free bonds is now is dividend-earning stocks, and so forth.

In other words, all those scary graphs about how much the rich have now versus then have mostly to do with the way the rich report their incomes. When rates are high, they shelter them. When rates are low, they unshelter them. When incomes are unsheltered, they seem to go up. "Seem" is rather important in this matter.

Why should you or we care about this, inasmuch as you and we don't have the kind of income that would ever be sheltered? Well, when the rich shelter their incomes, the shelters tend to be favored for tax purposes but not in and of themselves beneficial for economic purposes. That is, the tax accountants decide where to put the money to avoid taxes rather than the venture capitalists deciding where to put the money to make a lot more money. When more money is made, value has been added to the economy, making most people more prosperous in the long run.

So high tax rates may seem to rob from the rich and give to the poor, but they really just make the rich hide their money where it won't do anyone much good.

Now to Jesus. The estimable Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, former prez of Chi Theo and now a fellow of the hard-left Center for American Progress, insists that Jesus Was an Occupier. Why? Because he raided the abusive temple and declared them robbers. And because from her seminary teachers she learned other interpretations of Jesus' parables that involve commerce, like the Parable of the Talents cited by some right-winger to say that Jesus is for the free market.

Honestly, people, do we still have to do this nonsense? "A plague on both your houses."

Dr. Thistlewaite, could you please acknowledge that Jesus' "robbers" statement is an obvious quotation of Jeremiah 7:11, that the word translated "robbers" means "rebels," that the combination of word and quotation shows that Jesus' indictment is about rejecting Israel's God, not about money as such (though abuse of money is always a consequence of rejecting Israel's God), that he goes on to elaborate in the Parable of the Tenants, which also has commerce in it but isn't at all about commerce, and that if Jesus was speaking about socialism versus capitalism here there or anywhere, he spoke with singular obscurity on the matter? Sheesh.

Theological conservatives, whether conservative or liberal politically, will you please stop abusing the Bible to prover your point about politics in the present? When you do, it only encourages the liberals to abuse the Bible too, something they're happy to do since they don't think much of it to begin with.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Still No to Gingrich

It's down to two: Mitt and Newt. Were there ever two candidates with worse first names?

Since Mitt is a flip-flopper with a "Christian" religious heritage that is neither Protestant, Catholic, nor Orthodox (a polite way to say either Mormon, Christian Science or Jehovah's Witness, and in some cases Seventh-Day Adventist), most Republicans are looking for an alternative.

As the little car full of clowns empties itself in the center ring of the GOP circus, Newt is one of the few besides Romney who doesn't look clownish right now, at least, not in the ways that Romney looks clownish. So he's ahead in polls, and he'll add to his lead when Herman Cain bows out of the campaign to resume his full-time womanizing. Newt is about to go from red hot to white hot.

But the people who know Newt best loath him most.

So writes WaPo's Jonathan Bernstein, who insists that veterans of the Washington scene see Gingrich as fundamentally unsuited for an executive role. He may be smart, but he's utterly undisciplined. If there were ever a description that seemed to encompass all the available information about anyone, that's the prize-taker.

We'll therefore take flip-floppy Mitt, sacred garments and all (an irrelevancy to SWNID as far as politics is concerned), confident that his big-government, smart-solution conservatism is short of the dour fiscal sanity that we really need but is miles better than what we'll get from Obama or any emergency Dem substitute (i.e. Hillary). Mitt at least knows how to put together an organization and run things with a steady hand.

For those who say that the opinion of Washington insiders should be rejected precisely because those guys ran the car into the ditch in the first place, we say get real. Character matters, or at least it does until your candidate has a character deficit, in which case you condemn the people who indict your candidate's character.

Learn the lesson of recent history: our current system for selecting candidates, i.e. a four-year election cycle with endless fundraising and primaries and caucuses, may be flawed. But it does provide a proxy for the presidency: can this person organize a campaign and stay steady under pressure? If Newt is what his closest professional associates say he is, then we'll know soon enough that we need to hold our noses and vote for the chameleon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Access to Sex as a Human Right

Our culture readily accepts the outsourcing of all kinds of domestic services. We happily have our dogs walked, our lawns mowed, or shirts laundered all by people we don’t have breakfast with nor buy a card for on Valentine’s Day; our busy lives are readily propped up by the physical labour of others.

Sex has to be thought of in this way. No, maybe it’s not a romantic assertion, and perhaps not a politically correct one either, but pretending that sex is always about lovemaking and declarations of devotion is a naïve and discriminatory contention.

So "argues" Lauren Rosewarne, lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Melbourne. The quoted paragraphs close her ephemeral article asserting that sex ought to be viewed as a fundamental human right.

We comment briefly, as the times demand.

First, we aren't citing this to suggest that we're on a rapid slide down a slippery slope. Note well, gentle readers, the positive signs, small as they are, about chastity. To wit, teenage sexual activity is down per latest surveys. Sex has always been problematic, but the problems don't always go from bad to worse.

Second, Rosewarne's position obviously seeks legalization of prostitution. That's not a new position either, and it's often been argued from the notion that society should decouple sex and relationship, let alone sex and marriage. Nothing new there.

Most importantly, note well how closely allied Rosewarne's position is to the reasoning of same-sex marriage advocacy. "Sex is a fundamental human right" =  "marrying the person one loves is a fundamental human right." Why? Can a free society not prefer some human relationships to others?

Note well the foundational problem in asserting positive rights (the right to food, shelter, medical care, sex) to negative ones (the right to practice religion freely, to speak freely, not to be searched without warrant), these latter essentially the right to be left alone with one's thoughts, words and property. Extending the notion of rights to the positive category has been a problem for a long time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What to Preach on Black Friday

Today, as the remains of the national Feast of Thanksgiving course through the alimentary canals of our Republic's ignoble citizens, said dyspeptic citizens have lined up in the darkness to buy stuff.

Indeed, in the greatest assault to our national traditions since the Beatles' musical celebration of hand-holding, some retailers opened during the Feast of Thanksgiving itself. The horror! The horror!

Our Republic's clergypersons, both conservative and progressive, are united in their homiletical scorn for this activity. It is materialism, pure and simple. While the Manichean progressives insist that the fault lies with the dark forces that propel "corporations," "corporate greed" on its way to becoming a compound noun in their vocabulary, Calvinist conservatives insist it's a matter of the depravity that infests every human heart. Progs say that the problem is on the supply side, so corporations ought to be forced to close their rapacious, big-box retail outlets for the holiday. Conservatives say that the problem is on the demand side, so people ought simply to stay home.

In this regard, the conservatives, despite our labeling them as we did, happen to be more right than the progs. As if that needed to be said. Progs live on the notion that they're more noble than their deprived fellows, victims all, and so aim to restrain the narrowly limited population of evil folk (the 1%) to protect the hapless mass of ignorant but good folk. Conservatives hold to the hoary notion that there's such a thing as human nature and the human experience, and the thing is universal.

But we delight to refine the discussion, with some insights from behavioral sciences and biblical theology.

What we witness on Black Friday is not materialism but what many behavioral scientists label "seeking," that is, the behavior of animals, including human ones, to investigate their environment to find new and better things to eat, places to sleep, and opportunities to procreate. Neuroscience shows that seeking is the main source of pleasure in the brain, that the anticipation of reward provides more pleasure than the reward itself.

What Black Friday shoppers are doing is activating their "seeking" mechanism to overcome challenges in the investigation of their environment, deriving pleasure from the anticipation of finding something that they register as a reward. It's the thrill of the chase that they seek, and the purchase is more a trophy to memorialize the thrill than a source of pleasure on its intrinsic merits.

Now, let's get theological in a biblical way.

What's wrong with "materialism" is not the materiality of the stuff people possess. It takes a profoundly unbiblical notion of spirit/matter dualism--spirit is inherently good, while matter is inherently evil--to get to that. The God of Israel makes material stuff and calls it "very good."

No, what's wrong with "materialism" is the seeking of something other than God as a source of security and satisfaction. Jesus' famous story about the man with a great harvest who plans his security via bigger barns points out the futility of such confidence. The man's planned economic expansion can't add to his life a single cubit, as his life is required of him the very night he forms his plans.

The problem with stuff is that we hope it will make our lives right, and stuff can't do that. But we love to seek things--that's how we're wired to work. So we go seeking stuff.

And what we need to seek is God.

We submit that God designed creatures to be seekers so that humans would seek Him.

This gets us closer to the real notion of materialism as idolatry, a common and legitimate connection, though one usually made imprecisely. It's not that people "worship" their possessions in a sense that any of them might recognize as religious fervor. It's that they pursue possessions as a source of security, buying into the ancient, false notion that possessions provide self-sufficiency (eat it and you'll become gods). Thereby, they fail to seek God, to listen to God, to rest in God, to reckon with the failure of their possessions and ultimately of the failure of their mortal bodies. And so they fail to trust in God in any sense beyond verbal assent to a religious dogma.

We could provide biblical references, but we prefer that readers seek them for themselves. Make that an alternative activity of seeking on Black Friday.

Gingrich is Right, But SWNID Still Won't Support Him

Newt Gingrich is right about immigration. Namely, policies that would repatriate undocumented (or "illegal," if you must) immigrants who work, pay taxes, raise families and obey the law are unspeakably stupid.

SWNID has long insisted that economic law is more important than civil law regarding immigration, and the latter ought to cede to the former. Economic law says that available supply will somehow reach to meet demand. Hence, if one country has a demand for labor and its neighbor country has a supply, the supply will aim to meet the demand. If the United States has jobs that go unfilled and Mexico has laborers who want opportunity, the enterprising laborers will find a way to get to the jobs.

Meanwhile, Republican activists who dominate the early nominating process are utterly dominated by anti-immigration fervor that borders on the absurd--this despite their most recent political heroes' (Reagan's, Dubya's--also their most recent political goat's [McCain's]) championing of pro-immigration policies and their insistence on free-market principles economic salvation.

Gingrich has the audacity to state as much publicly, though he's clever enough to do so only after gaining some traction in the polls. We heartily affirm his bold move, one that Romney will also make, but not until September 2012.

But we will not support Mr. Gingrich, despite our warm feelings for his policy position on this and many other matters.

We will not support Mr. Gingrich because a President's fundamental role is not as a policy advocate but as an executive. And Mr. Gingrich is proved to be an inept leader who alienates associates, burns bridges, and overreaches in his supreme confidence in his own judgment.

Policy positions are easily changed relative to temperament. Gingrich lacks the foundational temperament of an effective political leader.

Mr. Romney demonstrates as much. He can change policy positions more easily than he can change his sacred underwear. And while he too has obvious flaws of temperament (i.e. too much confidence not in himself but in collective leadership of experts: witness RomneyCare), they are least among those currently running.

Hence, we metaphorically hold our nose, as we do every four years, not so much to throw him our support but gently to allow our support to creep in Romney's general direction.

Americans Prefer Class Warfare to Math

As we slog through middle age, we become convinced that most mortals can't do math and like it that way.

Dr. Krauthammer is an exception, as his column this week demonstrates.

In it he lays bare several myths that the Party of Jackson is presently employing to get its hapless President re-elected. They are:
  • That Republicans refused to raise taxes in the failed supercommittee negotiations.
  • That Republicans act as they do because they are in the mystical thrall of Evil Geniuses, the latest being Grover Norquist.
  • That the Republic's salvation lies is robbing from the rich and giving to the middle class through higher tax rates on the rich, particularly through repealing the "Bush Tax Cuts" that have caused every evil thing in the last decade.
Dr. K ably points out that the significant Rs in negotiations proffered various plans to increase tax revenues, all rejected by the Ds (with the excuse, not mentioned by Dr. K, that they were "too small"), while the Ds have a consistent record of never even introducing a budget in the Senate, except for BHO's February 2011 offer that was rejected 97-0.

The problem, ably noted by Dr. K, is that Ds are obsessed with raising tax rates on the "wealthy." This, of course, is the outcome of their decade-long anti-rich, faux populist rhetoric. Like Roman Catholic dogma, the Democrats' policy platform must somehow remain consistent with everything they've ever said before.

Ds desperately hope that Americans are as bad at math as they appear to be. To wit: they hope that Americans confuse tax rates with tax revenues, just as they seem to confuse wealth distribution with wealth creation.

[We were going to explain these distinctions in a few sentences, but then we decided not to. Anyone who doesn't understand should either search this blog for earlier posts that provide such explanations, refer to any responsible textbook on economics, merely contemplate the difference between numbers that express percentages and numbers that express quantities, or stop reading this blog as one unworthy.]

As a check on this matter, and as a check on all nonsensical statements made by Democrats about what "the vast majority of economists" say, we refer to the remarkable IGM Forum, which now routinely asks leading academic economists their views of key public-policy issues. Recent polling shows that such solons agree that (a) while a small increase in the highest income tax rate would put negligible drag on the economy; (b) such an increase would also have negligible impact on the federal deficit; and (c) the more promising opportunity both to address the deficit and economic growth would be to reduce tax rates while also eliminating deductions that prefer one kind of economic activity over another.

In other words, what Rs on the supercommittee were proposing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reality Check for Movement Conservatives--Again

McCain lost because he's a RINO.

If the Republican Establishment forces us to accept another nominee who isn't a true conservative, Obama will win a second term.*

Reagan showed how to do it: never give an inch on true-blue conservatism, and you'll win every time.

Well, except the facts prove otherwise.

Michael Medved, a true conservative who has long excoriated the conservative passion for rigidity that rejects coalitions and compromise, lays out the electoral facts in today's WSJ. When Reagan won, which he didn't in 1968 or 1976, he won by capturing middle-of-the-road votes. McCain lost because he didn't do as well as Dubya with moderates, though he actually did better than GOP House candidates, indubitably a predominantly right-wing bunch. Goldwater was as true blue as they come, and as articulate about principles as they come, and the election went to the guy whose operatives made stick the parody of Goldwater's slogan, "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

Here's the summation:

In short, the electoral experience of the last 50 years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections, more than 44% of voters described themselves as "moderate," and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to winning half of them (as George W. Bush did in his re-election).

We offer this for all those whose frustration leaves them grasping for straws like Ron Paul (Islamists hate us because we have a base in Saudi Arabia? Really? In Pakistan they hate us for that? And you'd rather wait to be attacked than prevent an attack? Really? And this is not appeasement that you're advocating? Really?). There's a reason that only one voter out of twenty supports this charming little nutcase (we extrapolate his 10% in GOP polls at approximately half of the electorate, an estimate that generously overstates the Congressman's support). It's that he's just as nutty as Dennis Kucinich.

*How exactly does the Republican establishment get its way when the nomination is decided with primaries and caucuses? By sending Stepford voters to the polls? By stealing elections? By ordering its brain-dead sheep to do as they're told? Is the length of memory of a conservative really less than four years?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Quinlivan's Computer!

Combine the pointless performance art of OWS with the Democrats' sweep of the Cincinnati City Council election (Winburn as the lone non-Democrat is like have ten Democratic votes on the nine-member City Council), and what do you get?

A member of the Council majority suing the city because the restriction of her use of a city computer on a city internet connection for campaign purposes is, in the view of her lawyers, a violation of her free speech rights.

We are not making this up. The councilwoman in question is Laurie Quinlivan, ardent supporter of Mayor Mallory, shrill shill for the streetcar, and former TV reporter distinguished for a certain entitled pushiness in conducting investigative reporting (that last remark is based on a troubling encounter that we once had with her as she sought to attribute to us information that we thought we were giving on background, using the incentive, "My pastor told me that you could help me").

The story is here.

Attention, Councilwoman Quinlivan and OWS denizens: the right to free speech includes reasonable restrictions on time, place and manner. Citizens have the inalienable right to say anything they think, especially anything political. They don't have the right to do it any time, anywhere, by any means. This is so settled a matter of constitutional law that one wonders that anyone in government or with an eighth-grade education operates without the assumption.

Yet we are told that a city-owned, taxpayer funded computer should be free for use in a partisan political campaign, and that a public park with reasonable restrictions on access and use should be available for constant use without restriction for aggrieved citizens to express symbolically their grievances.

But individuals shouldn't be allowed to give a lot of money to a political campaign, and groups of individuals organized to do business (i.e. corporations) shouldn't be allowed to give any.

What's Next After SB5 and ObamaCare

There's really not much reason to blog these days. All the interested person really needs to do is assemble a list of key words from current events, search this blog, and read prior posts. Plus ça change . . .

But we will deign to repeat ourself now and then.

One such occasion is today. WSJ's opinion page--the best proof of American exceptionalism--today notes the whirlwind sown by the defeat of Ohio Issue 2 and Ohio Senate Bill 5 that it represented. To wit: communities lacking the flexibility to pass on health insurance and pension costs to public employees will by necessity end up with fewer public employees.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has looked past the pretty pictures of firefighters and teachers (why no police officers? because market research shows that a lot of voters don't trust police officers like they trust firefighters and teachers) and who has contemplated the lessons of Alegbra I. Specifically, if health insurance and pension costs are rising faster than tax revenues, then either the per-employee costs of health insurance and pensions must be reduced or the number of employees must be reduced.

SWNID, as is well know, is on the side of history regarding the place of organized labor in the postindustrial economy. With every passing year, a smaller number of workers are organized, except in the public sector. The politics are complex but the economics are simple: unionized labor works against its own long-term interest by stifling improvements in productivity.

Among our current federal executive's failings, one of his three greatest is his fealty to organized labor, especially organized public employees. Economic stimulus was all about keeping state and local employees on the payroll. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was all about mandating that health insurance come from an employer or from the government--to assure that such benefits could be a prize won by unions desperate to appear to create value for their members.

That point has been lost in all the hullabaloo about the federal mandate. Had BHO wanted an efficient means of getting healthy people to buy health insurance, he would've done what John McCain (gasp!) had proposed and what Wyden-Bennett proposed: tax individuals at a rate roughly equal to the cost of a moderate health insurance policy and provide a tax credit up to that amount for premiums paid for health insurance. Et voila! Individuals and families can then shop for insurance that fits their situation, and if they don't, Uncle Sugar has money in the coffers to cover their indigent care. And there's no power-grabbing invocation of the Commerce Clause to justify an erosion of liberty.

But why not? Just about the first thing out of Obama's mouth when he began the quixotic quest for Eleanor Roosevelt's mantle of liberal sainthood was that Americans like their system of employer-provided health insurance. This, of course, is a conventional political lie. Americans don't like getting insurance from their boss, because the boss has to buy insurance for everyone, and one size doesn't fit all. And they don't like being tied to a job that they dislike out of fear of losing health insurance. But they'd rather get insurance from a bad boss than from any government agency, no matter how nice the President of that government is.

But unions depend on the employer-provided "system" (an accident of price controls in WWII, as alert readers with decent memories will recall: note how one economic sin begets several more). They need to negotiate for benefits to preserve the illusion that without their intervention, workers would be paid in gruel and rags.

And so we have ObamaCare, and a Supreme Court case, and a system which, if implemented, will lead employers to drop plans and individuals with decent health to go without insurance, paying an annual fine that is much lower than the cost of insurance, until they get sick, when guaranteed coverage at average rates, they'll jump into a system that can't possibly stay afloat economically. Such are the exigencies of life in a Republic in which 12.5% of workers are unionized but unions dictate public policy to the Executive.

Incidentally, the primary list of Obama's political failings are as follows, in order by which he applies them: (1) support for government investment in favored, private industries (Solyndra!); (2) support for pointless "green" initiatives and "green" objections to economically productive initiatives (Keystone Pipeline!): (3) support for unions, especially public-employee unions (see above!). We could go on to praise him for adhering to a Bush-like foreign policy or to excoriate him for punting on issues where he has the influence to do something positive, like immigration reform or tax refom. But you get the picture.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Harvard Fundamentalism

One of SWNID's all-time favorite jokes goes as follows.

Two men are in a restroom. One is washing his hands as the other makes a move to leave without washing. The man at the wash basin says, "At Harvard University, we learned to wash our hands after relieving ourselves.
The other man replied, "At the City College of New York, we learned not to pee on our hands."

The Boston Globe recounts some Harvard students' hijinks at another of the endless "Occupy" events, including the following:

Harvard University Police briefly detained one demonstrator, Jeff Bridges, who yelled, ‘‘I’m a student!’’ Bridges, a third-year divinity student, said he had pushed his way in, waving his ID. ‘‘I think what they’re doing is wrong and immoral, and as a divinity student I should know,’’ he said.

What do we call people who are assured that their religious views are unimpeachably right because they come from an unimpeachable authority? The answer is either "fundamentalists" or "students at Harvard Divinity School."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Quick 'n' Dirty SWNIDish Voter Guide

In response to the myriads of gentle readers asking for guidance on tomorrow's off-off year election choices, we break our blogging fast to supply the handy, dandy SWNIDish Voter Guide for 2011.

First up, Cincinnati City Council

Committed to the notion that free markets are the way to general prosperity, SWNID leans Republican. But in City Council elections, we are a decidedly choosey Republican. So from the GOP slate we endorse the following:

  • Amy Murray: super smart, super sensible
  • Wayne Lippert: from the impressive Portman stable, a financial advisor with the sense to help the city sort out public-employee pension messes
  • Catherine Smith Mills: also a veteran of the Portman staff, representing the best of GOP sensibility

And we reject the following who besmirch the legacy of Lincoln:

  • Leslie Ghiz: loud, inconsistent, a publicity hog, clearly trying to establish a public persona to run for mayor but without a political philosophy from which to govern
  • Charlie Winburn: on his second set of term-limited terms, Winburn still has no achievements on his record save the ability to sustain his own voice for long stretches without pausing to inhale

We fill out our slate with the following, still not voting the maximum nine so that our votes have a smidgeon more impact:

  • Kevin Flynn: attorney, dad, board chair of Drake Center, courageous overcomer of devastating injuries, sensible guy who knows how to make the city better, resident of Mt. Airy, our city's most pleasant neighborhood
  • Wendel Young: a work horse, not a show horse--shows up and supports good decisions and consensus
  • Cecil Thomas: retired cop who loves the city and views things sensibly, though apparently he needs to clean up some of the rental property that he owns
  • Chris Bortz: development-minded, pro-business, the kind who might actually bring jobs to the city, maybe a decent mayor in a couple of years

Meanwhile, we urge any and all not to vote for any or all of the following:
  • Mike Allen: publicity-hungry former county prosecutor who lost his old job through extramarital activity on a county-owned desk. We don't need to enable this guy's ego that is already enormous even by the standards of politics.
  • Chris Smitherman: the only person with more ego than Mike Allen in this race. Smitherman will use anything for self-promotion, and we don't say that lightly.
  • Roxanne Qualls: a nice lady who's been around for a long time with a lot of weak ideas that never get stronger. If you like the last twenty years of council governance, keep voting for Qualls. Props, Rox, for telling the Prez that the only way to pay for an Infrastructre-Bank-financed rebuild of the Brent Spence was with tolls, but we need to hear two sensible ideas before you'll get the SWNIDish vote.
  • Chris Seelbach: a protege of David Crowley, representing all the elements of the Democratic Party coalition that make it hard to vote for Democrats these days--organized labor, sexual orientation as protected class, etc. We can only be grateful that the Irish question has settled down to the point that he doesn't advocate his mentor's despicable position on that too, at least not publicly.
Then there's Cincinnati Public School Board. In a tremendous show of the political indifference that comes from frustration and contentment (yes, those exist together: many are frustrated with public education to the point of indifference; others see the district as well enough managed by its administration that the board is of no importance), four candidates are running for three seats. That makes this race a question of whom to vote against. And the answer is incumbent Eve Bolton, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. If you can read, thank someone other than Eve Bolton.

Votes go to Chris Nelms, civic-minded man of faith; Mary Welsh Schlueter, highly informed mom with a powerful educational philosophy; and Alexander Poccia Kuhns, associate of Nelms who isn't Eve Bolton.

Now to the referenda:
  • Vote YES on Issue 1, to modernize the Ohio constitution regarding the state supreme court.
  • It's an emphatic, if pointless, YES on Issue 2. Public-employee unions are wrong for their members, not just wrong for taxpayers. Time to trim their power to a proportion where they'd have to deliver value to their members to stay in business. This will fail, but don't let it fail by much, or nothing will change for a long time.
  • We're voting NO on Issue 3. No, we haven't been away for a month learning to like ObamaCare. We just think it's kinda pointless to vote for a law that will have no constitutionality if it's passed. Well, you can make an argument that the law's success would make a strong political point that might offset labor's win on Issue 2 a little. So vote your conscience on this one. A YES on Issue 3 is OK.
  • We urge a YES on Issue 32, Cincinnati Public Schools levy. While we excoriate the district for explaining the case for the levy so vaguely, the district has exercised exceptional stewardship in the last five years, attaining an exceptional record for a large-city district with less expenditure than the current norm. While we think that public-school education is still too expensive, CPS will not waste much, and their current path is leading to good outcomes for several thousand kids who need to learn. It's expensive but worth it.
  • YES on Issue 37 will continue to fund indigent care in University Hospital and Cincinnati Children's Hospital, both valuable in light of Uncle Sugar's failure to liberate the healthcare system.
  • Issue 38 is for renewal of the children's services levy, and who wants less of that? It's a YES for all but the most reptilian of small-government conservatives, and even SWNID has warmer blood than that.
  • Issue 44 is a NO. This referendum empowers the City of Cincinnati to negotiate reduced electricity rates for its citizens. What's wrong with lower rates? Well, you can do this yourself, dear citizen. And you might get a better deal by choosing your own plan. And this bill requires citizens to opt out of the deal rather than to opt in. How'd we all do with that cable television deal in the 1980s? Happy with TimeWarner's monopoly? Glad for Dish and Direct for a little competition at long last? Don't make the same mistake twice!
  • Issue 45 is also NO. It's about gas aggregation. Same as above, especially as gas prices are falling through the floor thanks to humankind's latest technological advance, fracking. Trust the city to make a deal that misses the next price drop.
  • Issue 46 straightens out some filing deadlines for elections. Vote YES so we won't have to keep voting this.
  • Issue 48 forbids spendthrift politicians from investing in fabulously expensive streetcars to transport bar-hopping UC students to The Banks and back safely. If you think that inefficient, expensive, inflexible, limited public transportation is economically stimulating, you don't read this blog. VOTE NO!
See you next November, if not before!

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Episcopal Church's Ecclesial Scorched-Earth Policy

Most gentle readers are probably churchy enough to be familiar with the sorry state of the Anglican Communion's fellowship in the United States. While the American Episcopal Church's hierarchy has gone all-in for same-sex sex since the ordination of an openly practicing homosexual in 2002, individuals and congregations belonging to the denomination have been leaving in wholesale numbers, with no sign that the trend will abate.

Today's WSJ offers a snapshot of the internal workings. Episcopalians live in a system where property is deeded to the denomination, not the congregation. So if the congregation decides to leave the denomination (it is, after all, still a free country), the property remains with the denomination, who can try to start another congregation or sell the property to whomever.

So what might you do if you are a dissenting congregation leaving the denomination? Offer to buy the building from the denomination, of course!

Which is exactly what the Episcopalian hierarchy refuses to do.

Author Mollie Ziegler Hemingway quotes:

"We can't sell to an organization that wants to put us out of business," said Bishop Jefferts Schori, who added that her job is to ensure that "no competing branch of the Anglican Communion impose on the mission strategy" of the Episcopal Church.
 So no sales to anyone will use the name "Episcopal" or "Anglican" in any way, shape or form. "Baptist," "Muslim" and "Urban Outfitters" are copacetic. Thoughts of a dog in a manger come to mind.

So congregations are either leaving their facilities while the denomination takes a haircut on the real estate, or they're agreeing to a five-year gag order on anything that lays claim to the Anglican tradition. In the battle of wills, the dissenters are agreeing to the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face strategy of their former spiritual superiors. But the policy continues.

SWNID, an admirer of the Anglican liturgical tradition who would start a believers-baptism-only, non-bishop-appointing wing of Anglicanism were we of an organizing ilk, finds this battle instructive. When churches lose their grip on the gospel, they lose their grip on any sense of mission or even identity. As a result, they become more sectarian, not less.

We are connected to a wise fellow who is a member of the national governing board of a well-known mainline Protestant denomination, despite the fact that he does not hold membership in the denomination and is deeply antithetical to the current beliefs (or non-beliefs) and aims of the denomination. That is in itself indicative of the sorry state of mainline Protestantism. But he reports to us that within the board itself, if not among the denomination's adherents, the explicit goal is for the denomination no longer to exist in twenty to thirty years.

Certainly the Episcopal Church is on a trajectory to realize a similar goal.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

C. Peter Wagner: Embarrassment, But Should We Care?

SWNID fondly remembers reading provocative, thoughtful articles on church growth by Fuller Theological Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner.

That was then.

Through circumstances that to us are opaque and probably uninteresting, the once erudite Wagner turned a corner awhile back. He became demon-obsessed.

And Terry Gross can prove it.

Wagner appeared on Gross's celebrated Fresh Air yesterday (full interview and text highlights here). We gather that Gross got interested because Wagner is a leader among those who allegedly advocate the Christian "dominion" that creeps out the secular left.

Really, the dominion thing is probably not much for anyone to be concerned about. Wagner and company want Christians in positions to influence cultural influencers--media, government and the like. This is a well-known, widely pursued strategy that lies at the heart of many recent Christian organizations' foci. We figure that if the secular left is confident enough in the strength of its ideas, it won't mind people trying to compete with inferior ideas.

But what most Christian folk will find embarrassing and disturbing about Wagner and the interview is his fabulously, extravagantly extra-biblical theology of demons. Wagner really does believe that demons infest places, that they're connected to world events as people have demonized nations, and that he and other "apostles and prophets" know the spiritual technology to overcome them. N.B. that Wagner's wife has actually written a "how to" book on casting out demons.

We expect that gentle readers will resist the urge to label SWNID a closet antisupernaturalist who discounts the influence of the demonic. Far from it. We believe that our world is plenty, plenty influenced by Satan and his infernal minions. Evil is not an abstraction alone: it is the issue of a spiritual person.

But we think it nonsense to construe that as does Wagner: nonsense from the perspective of the Bible, historical Christian theology, and actual human experience. While we allow for the possibility of demon possession as such, we nevertheless insist that the demonic thrives in (im)moral decision-making and behavior.

That's why the New Testament is so straightforward in its anti-demon "technique," really no technique at all. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Is there a book in that? If so, we doubt that it's Mrs. Wagner's book.

Accompanying Wagner's demon obsession is a heartily unhealthy obsession with personal authority. His group labels its leaders "apostles and prophets." That's gravely serious stuff, and their qualifications are thin, to put it mildly. But how else can one speak with authority about matters that have no grounding in the church's authoritative witness in Scripture? For more on the authority jag, we recommend Timothy Darlymple's meditation Christian celebrity.

Of course, we're embarrassed because we don't want folk thinking that all Christians are nutjobs like Wagner has become. And we imagine that Wagner and such are the main reason that normal Christians like you and us have such limited success in persuading other folk to join us on the Jesus journey. Well, it's no help for sure, but we'll venture a guess that it's also of only minor importance in the hindrance category. For every self-importantly nutjobbish Christian in America, there have to be a least ten somnolently nominal Christians. We'll trace most of the static to them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anti-Apocalyptic Apocalyptism

The Gray Lady gives space to one Matthew Avery Sutton, associate professor of history at Washington State University and author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America to suggest that Christian apocalyptic expectation may fuel the rise of a seriously libertarian candidate who could receive the GOP nomination for POTUS and actually win the election.

SWNID responds, "Hmm!"

Sutton offers a history of American apocalyptism that's in the SWNIDish view just fair enough to be noted and just imprecise enough to leave the impression that super-strong end-time speculation is a serious part of many evangelicals' daily lives and decision-making. As an example, Sutton offers:

Conservative preachers, evangelists and media personalities of the 20th century, like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, shared these beliefs.

Graham? Really? Yes, Graham believes in the return of Christ and has often stated that it could be imminent. But we defy Sutton to offer any repeated example of Graham indulging in speculation that this or that move might presage the end. More specifically, we defy him to show that Graham held to the notion that the return of Christ is connected to the rise of one-world government. One must observe the differences before drawing conclusions on the similarities.

We emphasize that point because it appears to us that Sutton routinely assumes that all expectation of Christ's return among evangelicals is somehow subject to the concomitant belief that one-world government will arise and that all moves toward the same must be opposed. This is, of course, nonsense.

It's especially nonsense because even those who profess to believe as much don't believe it enough to act on the belief in a serious, panicky kind of way. SWNID asserts that most evangelical Christians who take seriously the idea that a one-world government will arise near the end, and who even wonder whether this or that political development is the prelude to such, nevertheless are unwilling to stake a significant decision on that outcome. To wit: few liquidate their assets and households to acquire gold, rural land and firearms. To wit: few act differently about financial and career planning than do others in their social group. To wit: few in the end decide to back a political candidate because that political candidate seems least likely to cooperate with a one-world government.

An example: Years ago, we were at one of those academic meetings that we are blessed to attend, this one populated entirely by leaders of Christian IHEs. A person leading a session was talking about changes in federal regulations for IHEs, mostly stuff about steps of compliance for continued good standing to receive Title IV student-aid funds, the lifeblood of American higher ed. In the Q&A, someone asked this gentleman where he thought everything was headed. He replied, "Well my answer is determined by my eschatology. I believe that we're headed toward a one-world government." So he said, things will get more stringent, and eventually all of us Christian IHEs will be made illegal. The remark garnered the kinds of grunts that signify grudging assent to an inconvenient truth.

SWNID guarantees that not a single officer of a single IHE at that meeting went home to develop a contingency plan for keeping some kind of leadership training operation going through the tribulation, and that includes those who don't believe in a pre-tribulational rapture. And these folks are about as hard-core as they come.

Granted some folks do have their decisions dictated by specifics of apocalyptic speculation, and maybe a few more will in 2012, thanks to the miserable state of the economy. But last we checked, Mitt Romney still had a lot of political support, more than Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul put together. And Rick Perry's sudden rise (and fall?) can hardly be explained as the apocalyptic libertarian vote finally having found a voice.

In other words, this stuff plays virtually no role in political decision-making.

The end of Professor Sutton's essay is, we believe, the best explanation for the anxiety that it presents:

Barring the rapture, Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could well ride the apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians into the Oval Office. Indeed, the tribulation may be upon us. 

There it is! The rise of a libertarian-minded conservative would be The End of the World as We Know It. There's the secular, liberal version of Armaggedon: a world in which Bible-thumpers are in charge and the welfare state is systematically dismantled. The main prop of their smaller-government message is a bunch of hooey about a one-world government and the rise of the antichrist. How quaint, but how pernicious and ignorant! Pray to the God who isn't there that this doesn't happen!

OK, here we go on the SWNIDish big picture.

First, why do so many Christians listen to and seem to take seriously the warnings that this or that political thingie means that the end is near? Well, largely because such announcements are presented by people who seem knowledgeable, who appeal to deeply held respect for God and fear of his judgment, and who prey on the average American Christian's ignorance of the Bible and unease about her or his relative comfort. Folks want to believe these talented preachers, don't want to be unprepared for judgment, don't really know much about the Bible, and don't feel that they are entitled to the prosperity that they enjoy, though they can't really contemplate life without it.

Second, why do so few Christian act on these warnings? First, because they're at least unconsciously hedging their bets to preserve their prosperity in the present. Second, because acting on the hard things that belief demands is, well, hard. But thirdly, and here we're going out on a limb, in their heart of hearts they know there's something fishy about what they're being told. They realize that per the typical dispensational-premillennial description of the "rapture" and the "tribulation," the God who is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to do weird, inexplicable stuff before he brings his world to his intended goal. So they're holding out some unconscious skepticism about the conclusion.

Which brings us to another conclusion: most Christians, whatever they claim, functionally are "pan-millennialists," including our apocalyptically minded colleagues at the aforementioned academic conference. That is, they trust God to take care of the future and don't worry much about the details (except their personal details, about which they worry as most people worry, as in "will I keep my health and wealth?"). Apocalyptic hucksters may sell books and gain a following in the media, but they don't influence the substantial decisions of more than a handful of tragically misled people.

Which is why the Republicans, evangelicals and all, will nominate a relatively mainstream conservative, who will be able to govern only as conservatively as Congress and the judiciary and the body politic allow him to govern. And why people like Dr. Sutton should be ignored by their prospective audience of lefty seculars, who shouldn't be taken in by his prophecy that somehow the weirdos are taking over.

Without realizing it, though, Sutton has indirectly raised a point of theology that does impinge on political decision-making for thoughtful Christians. The Bible's apocalyptic imagery portrays the fall of the autocratic human empire to the reign of God. Along the way and especially in the end, God, not overweening humans who build kingdoms and empires and towers to make a name for themselves and become like God, will rule all. Humans, when they try to rule all, always fail in the end. Utopian claims are inherently and fatally flawed.

That observation cautions Christians against the hope that their government can do bunches of stuff for them. They look for incremental progress in human affairs that's grounded in the transformation of the human character. They don't look for geniuses to take over and make things better.

That means that they don't expect a utopia to emerge by means of smaller government, either. They just don't want a government that makes things worse by trying to do what government inherently can't do because of the inherent weakness of all people who govern and who are governed.

So chill, Dr. Sutton. Wild-eyed masses of people who read Left Behind for instructions on voting--they're just not out there. And the world won't collapse if the Bismarkian experiment with welfare statism happens to gently be reversed to a more appropriate point of deployment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mishap at the Brent Spence Bridge

The President visited Cincinnati yesterday, as we expect he and everyone else running for POTUS will do a lot for the next thirteen months or so.

His visit was to tell John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to fund the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, a famously sturdy but obsolete span that carries I-75 and I-71 from the Queen City to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The double-decker bridge is famous for being narrow and without breakdown lanes, though it is perhaps most famous for this slightly lame joke:

Q: Why is the northbound lane of the Brent Spence Bridge below the southbound lane?

A: So that Kentuckians returning home can drop their shoes to Kentuckians leaving home.

But really, why show up at this spot to call for more infrastructure spending to replace crumbling stuff and get the unemployed to work? As a local-government web site innocuously points out, planning for the bridge's replacement has been going on since 2002, and no one in Cincinnati thinks that anything will be done before 2015. There's not even a consensus on a plan for replacement, let alone a plan for what to do during construction. And since much of the regions critical infrastructure and many of its most expensive buildings are close to the span, there are good reasons to plan carefully and well.

So even the left is admitting that this is far from a "shovel-ready" project, "shovel-ready" having joined such political phrases as "Middle-East peace plan" in the lexicon of the politically oxymoronic.

Of course the bridge will be replaced. Certainly it won't be replaced absent a workable plan for replacement. The only significant question is whether it will be replaced with dollars borrowed, collected in still higher taxes, or collected at present or lower rates of taxation with concomitant reductions in other, lower-priority spending.

So why did the President make the trip? For the very reason that he sarcastically denied: to stir up his base in the home turf of two leading Capitol Hill Republicans. It's all part of his pitch for what James Taranto dubs "Stimulus, Jr.," the half a trillion (or roughly $1500 per American) that BHO proposes to subsidize unionized public employees and unionized highway workers at the expense of nonunionized taxpayers and all Americans' children.

Postscript: We note the Bushism in the President's speech: claiming that America built the "Intercontinental Railroad." Now that's a bridge!

How to Make Money in a Recession

One way is to appeal to people's anxious sense of paranoia, and call it patriotism.

Like the guy running this money-spinner, a super-secret survival kit for the coming apocalypse.

You may not have enough health or life or house or car insurance. You may not have a retirement account. You may not be prepared for things that often or always happen. But you need to be prepared for the imminent return of the Stone Age.

When this guy's ads come up on Facebook, click them. It'll cost him money.

A Voice in the Wilderness on Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are what's wrong with American public schools, right?

Well, maybe not so much.

We give a SWNIDish salute to the high school English teacher Ama Nyamenkye, who offers a thoughtful, positive assessment of the power of the standardized test, originally in Education Week and more widely disseminated by the potent National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NIOLA, a.k.a. SWNID's favorite higher-ed organization). Here's a little quote that epitomizes her take on taking standardized tests:

The 2010 Scholastic-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey of 40,000 educators nationwide found that only 27 percent felt state standardized tests were essential or very important in measuring student performance. I'm now convinced that these sentiments are the product of a testing movement that has become more about fear and politics than pedagogy. Teachers, I believe, are pumping their fists for the wrong reasons. . . .

Sadly, the actual merits and shortcomings of standardized testing often get lost in this stalemated debate that positions the test as either a scourge on teachers or a panacea for reform. In truth, the test is nothing more than a tool. It will not singlehandedly turn around swaths of failing classrooms or be the death of public education.

Only policies, leaders, and, most importantly, teachers wield that kind of power over school performance. Like any assessment tool—including the ones teachers regularly generate and assign—standardized testing has strengths and limitations.

When I "depoliticized" the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

You betcha, says SWNID. The truth is that even the most personally invested of teachers at any level is naturally reticent to allow someone else to measure her or his students' learning, precisely, in fact, because the teacher is so personally invested. "These are my children," we all think, "and no one will say they're ugly except for me. Sure, standardized tests can be stupid. Sure it's hard to measure everything that students know or ought to know.

But isn't it better to measure something rather than nothing? And isn't it better that there be some level of objectivity in the measurements?

Nyamenkye's essay represents the work of someone who is less afraid of being evaluated than of neglecting something that her students need to learn from her. She's admirably externally focused, student-centered, outcomes-oriented.

May her noble tribe increase.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Not a Good Sign for BHO or the Republic

It appears that the Obama 2012 campaign is down to about one tactic: scaring people from voting for Evil Republicans.

Witness, an Obama campaign site devoted to "fact checking" and "debunking" Republicans' lying attacks on the Greatest President of Our Lifetimes. Sporting severe black-and-red graphics, distorting already unflattering pictures of conservative pundits and candidates, employing panicky language, AttackWatch contrasts rather sharply with such successful presidential re-election themes as "Morning in America":

though perhaps it is inspired by this successful classic:

At any rate, we don't have a lot of SWNIDish optimism about where all of this is going, not least because the Rs don't seem to have a candidate of sufficient stature to command Presidential respect.

Killing Us Softly

The SWNIDish political philosophy is negatively epitomized in the twin aphorisms, "Pacifism kills," and "Socialism impoverishes."

Today we approve of an exposition, only slightly longer, of the first aphorism.

At the indispensable First Things, Michael Cantarino offers "The Painful Naivete of Pacifism."

Indeed! Call it "deadly naivete" if you care to be direct.

Cantarino briefly and provocatively lays out the best reasons not to regard pacifist cant as a thoughtful application of Christian principles.

We wish things were different in this regard, but they aren't.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Curmudgeonly Look at Higher Ed

Prolific author James Schall offers what would be merely a typical rant against the current state of higher ed, were not the rant so eloquent. We will refrain from quoting, and nearly every sentence is quotable.

Reading Schall, we believe that much of our present confusion in higher ed stems precisely from what Schall rants about mostly in the beginning of his rantification: that we expect everyone to go to college, not just those with the abilities and preparation. Don Peck in Atlantic Monthly has what seems to be the proper answer: according greater emphasis, dignity and encouragement to educational ventures that put people in skilled trades.

Want to waste a human being's time? Send a marginally literate high school grad with no specific ambition to a community college for remedial coursework. Want to redeem a human being's time? Provide dignity, encouragement and support to adolescents and young adults who show potential as plumbers, HVAC technicians, machine-tool operators, and tool-and-die makers.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Celebrity Christian Food-Fight, Round 2

It's Mohler versus McLaren again, in a Battle Royale!

Now the subject is Adam. Mohler insists that anyone who denies a single, identifiable Adam in history as the beginning of the gospel "metanarrative" (point loss for using that banal neologism) has destroyed the gospel. McLaren says that's goofy, and Mohler should be ashamed of himself for being so narrowly sectarian.

Details here, at Associated Baptist Press.

Now the SWNIDish view.

First, let's note that Mohler's assertion that the gospel depends on a singular, historical Adam is a consequence of his commitment to the Reformed notion that universal human guilt flows from a singular, historical Adam's first sin. That is, all us humans are sinners because we inherited guilt from Adam, plus a tendency to sin to boot.

But if you don't think that Romans 5:12 means what Mohler says, you've got much less at stake theologically in a historical Adam.

So, say our skeptical but still gentle readers, is SWNID indifferent to the theology of Genesis? Hardly! However, note well how the narrative of the first parents works in context. Both "Adam" and "Eve" are names that strongly suggest more than just individuals but archetypes (of course, something can be both at the same time). Their place is at a junction of four rivers of which only two are identifiable, suggesting a lost, greater place than that which is home to a Great Empire. They encounter a creature reminiscent of the pagan, theriomorphic gods of chaos, a snake who speaks, enticing them to an experience that by its very name, eating fruit of knowledge of good and evil, suggests loss of innocence, with an enticement that is nothing short of self-centered rebellion against the Creator. The consequence of their action is that they are responsible for their alienation and suffering in a world which ought to be "very good" for their habitation.

And thereafter in the sacred canon, their story is referred to as the archetype of all such rebellion. So Hosea says that Israel is like Adam in its disobedience to covenant. And, as we noted above, Paul says that death spread to all people because all sinned--as Adam sinned. The point is not that there must be a single human whose sin explains all of our lostness, but that all of us have done what Adam did and so share Adam's guilt and sentence. We don't need guilt plus depravity to be passed along through Adam's line of descent to explain universal human sinfulness. We just need to look around to say, death spread to all people because all sinned--like Adam.

Dare we say it, then? Loath to declare ourselves in a battle between two theological publicity hounds, we grudgingly say that in this round, McLaren is right this time.

But . . .

Presently the whole "historical Adam" controversy largely hangs on a single observation of genetics and paleoanthropology: that the present state of human genetic diversity had to arise from an original population of "modern humans" of about 10,000. Hence, no singular Adam.

However, where did the 10k community come from? Well, they came from earlier homonids of the quasi-human variety, of course.

Take the Neanderthal, so maligned in the human imagination. Seems likely that "modern humans," obviously slumming, mated and procreated with Neanderthals. And the issue of such unions were themselves fertile, not like mules and other animal hybrids.

Meanwhile, our paleoanthropological friends tell us that there's still singular human ancestry in the background. It's just prior to "modern humans."

See the problem, gentle readers? It's the boundary of the category "human." Is that handsome person with his high foreheard, inconspicuous eyebrow ridge, slender chest and lithe limbs someone like me? Of course! What about that brute with the sloping forehead, prominent eyebrow ridge, barrel chest and awkwardly powerful limbs? Ugh. Clearly not a part of my family.

As long as we understand the problem of taxonomy, there's every possibility that behind a larger community of modern humans who comprise our common ancestors, there's an earlier homonid pair, self-conscious in the same way that you and we are, who are our first ancestors.

Which, then, is the SWNIDish view? Either.

What's important is that we see ourselves and our situation--for all of us--as described in the Adam story, whether it is both a story of one person and an archetype or is an archetype alone. It is a true and factual story, describing the factuality and truth of human rebellion against God and its consequences, either way.

Anticipated response plus rejoinder: If Adam is not historical, what about the second Adam? And if the second is historical, isn't the first also? Answer: Maybe, maybe not. The narrative of Christ is different in its nature of historical position and witness. Further, the singular, historical incarnation is vital to everything about the gospel in ways that a singular Adam is not, as we've noted above. There's no reason why the one who comes in space and time to reverse human sinfulness cannot be compared to one who might be an archetype but not a singular, historical individual. Unless he was.

Additional anticipated response plus rejoinder: Adam: historical or not? Direct answer please! Answer: Yes, either historical or not. We refuse to take sides on issues for which we have insufficient warrant to take sides. One ought to know what one doesn't know.

Yet another anticipated response plus a rejoinder: You and your Adam-denying ilk are just pandering to modern, secular views, watering down the biblical message to make it acceptable to people who are sinners and need their minds and hearts changed. Answer: We disagree only with a couple of words. Change "just pandering" to "deliberately addressing," and "watering down" to "trying to focus on" and "acceptable" to "clear and without unnecessary obstacles of our own making" and we're good with all of that. Just a little revision, that's all.

Final anticipated response plus rejoinder: If we don't know, why bother discussing it? Shut up, please! Answer: Making sure that we don't insist on certain beliefs as part of the faith if they aren't really part of the faith is a means of being sure we do believe what is part of the faith--and concentrate on it.

On Food and Our Future

WSJ's "Weekend Interview" is always a must read. Today's is especially so.

Nestle's chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe holds forth on global macroeconomics regarding food, agriculture, fuel, and the food industry. Too, too many insights abound in his discourse to summarize here, but we'll summarize a few:

  • Food and fuel are linked by the calorie. Because we always use many more calories for fuel than for food, we can never replace our use of fossil fuels with biofuels.
  • Using biofuels always drives food prices upward. That has little impact on the West, but lots on the South.
  • Certainly we can feed the number of people projected to live in the world in 2050, but not without the ongoing "Green Revolution" propelled by advances in agricultural production. Those are now propelled by genetically engineered crops, for which the powerful Europeans have such an irrational hatred that they are stifling the growth of agriculture in the developing world.
  • Organic farming is unproductive and so a burden on the world's poor imposed by the world's rich who imagine falsely that organic means healthy.
  • Putting a cost on water may be the best way to ensure that it's used efficiently, so as to boost global food production over time.
  • Without a food industry, we'd all either starve or become subsistence farmers, meaning we'd mostly starve.
Compassionate folk, including those of Christian faith but not only such folk, often imagine that the world is hungry because of a shortage of compassion. Indeed, if we all shared more, people would be better off.

But perhaps the most potent solution is to make use of the agricultural and marcoeconomic forces that lie ready to hand, that don't depend on ideally selfless donors, that allow more people to pursue their aspirations for physical health and economic self-sufficiency, including having some healthy meat proteins in their diets now and then.

Give for sure, gentle readers. But back policies that really boost the production of food globally and so deliver more people from hunger and toward dignity.

A Little Perspective on the Present Versus the Past

Recently as SWNIDish friend became engaged in an unfortunate social-media argument about the merits of the present versus the past. Baited by the whining rants of self-absorbed twentysomethings, he vainly attempted to persuade the young and clueless that multiple, significant facts refute their narcissistic fixation that they live in the Worst Situation Ever.

Readers can imagine our friend's inability to persuade in such a situation. Facts are useless among those who make their own facts.

Into the same breach now enters National Journal's Ronald Brownstein. Obviously, he says, the decades containing the Civil War and the Great Depression were worse, and so were those framed by Kennedy's assassination and Watergate and by Kent State and the failed rescue of hostages in Iran.

And why not mention such decades as those containing World War II or World War I plus the Spanish Influenza? Fun times erecting public monuments with the names of your friends and relatives in wholesale lots!

Brownstein doesn't gloss over the travails of the decade since 9/11/01, of course. Things have been rough of late, though not as rough as we once imagined they'd be (we have water stored in the SWNIDish basement as a hedge against terrorist-induced disaster, now a decade in its plastic containers and doubtless unsafe to drink, but a potent reminder of what we haven't experienced).

But by just about any significant measure of human misery, for Americans and much of the rest of the world, it's still been better of late than at many times in recent history.

Of course, Brownstein offers that if things don't improve, the next decade will be as bad as or worse than the one just concluded. We hold these truths to be self evident: that if things don't get better, they'll be worse, or at least about the same.

So herein and hereby we offer the SWNIDish Declaration that the decade of 9/11/11 to 9/11/21 will be a No Whining Zone for all of our Republic's citizens. Quiet down and boost productivity, pampered Americans!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You Saw It Here First

As a question, that is.

Has anyone in the world of televangelism connected the devastation of Hurricane Irene in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont to same-sex marriage? How long will it take for that to happen?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

SWNIDish Answers to Keller's Questions

NY Times staffer (and retired point guard for the ABA Indiana Pacers?) Bill Keller has made a splash recently for his list of questions about religion to be posed to (Republican) presidential candidates.

As a service to the candidates, we here supply answers of the SWNIDish variety. So the questions are Keller's, the answers are ours.

Q: Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith?

A: You betcha! It's a free country, we're running for office, the content of faith shapes the consciousness of the individual, always influencing and often determining choices. It's silly even to ask that question, isn't it, since it is itself a question about the details of one's faith?

Q: Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?

A: Again, yes it is. People have a right to know whether I agree with this or that thing said by someone who has influenced me. But please believe me when I say that something hasn't had influence. Everyone knows that one can be influenced without arriving at rote agreement.

Q: (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in  practice?

I agree if by that they mean that the nation was founded on and continues to be influenced by principles that have their origin in Christian thought or are consistent with it. I agree if by that they mean that the predominant religion in the nation has always been Christianity. Unlike some Christians, I expect that to be the reality for some time to come.

I disagree if by that one means that our nation's founders were all orthodox, practicing Christians, or that Christian theology ought to have an explicit, deliberate, protected role in shaping public policy. While I will always be influenced by my faith in my thinking, I won't say that any policy is right because it is Christian. I'll make my case to the public on the basis of values on which people widely agree.

In practice, that means that I will be honest about being influenced by my faith but never appeal to it as the reason the public should support my policy decisions. I will explain policies on their public merits.

Q: If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

A: In such a case, I will work to change the law or the Constitution, whatever is in conflict. But I will do so on the merits of the position, not simply asserting authority for a faith-based decision.

Of course, this has happened in the experience of most Christians, who find abortion to be immoral. While I believe that the Supreme Court erred in Roe v. Wade in finding a constitutional right to privacy that demands abortion's legality, I will continue to work within our constitutional system to change that outcome, as have countless Christian citizens and elected officials in the past.

Q: (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

A: I will appoint anyone with outstanding qualifications and a judicial philosophy congruent with my own view of the Constitution and the judiciary's role. That is, I have no hesitation appointing a Muslim or atheist who understands that the law and the Constitution must be interpreted according to the sense of the text as it was written at the time it was written. I would regard judges like Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas to fit this criterion very well, and I would not hesitate to appoint Muslims or atheists with their views. The fact that they are all Roman Catholics has nothing to do with it.

Q: Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

A: Mormons are Christians in the sense that their faith derives from Christian roots and continues to employ language and characters from Christianity. Most Christians, however, do not regard Mormonism as a legitimate form of Christian belief because Mormonism denies the eternal deity of Christ and the tri-unity of God. Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman are honorable men with outstanding records of public service, and they should be respected and taken seriously by all other candidates and all voters. If America does not elect me, the country would be well served by either of them.

Q: What do you think of  the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

A: Dude, this question is either part of a flaky conspiracy theory or is a dumb joke. I've been in high-end Christian circles all my adult life, and I have never once heard anyone talk about "Dominionism" until someone accused Michelle Bachman of being an adherent. If there are people out there who say what you say they say, they have no influence over anyone that I know of. There's no "movement" out there.

But maybe there are some web sites and self-published books and the like. OK, so evangelicals have to answer for every kook in their neighborhood. We're used to that.

So here goes: "Dominionism" is not good Christianity and it's not good governance. I reject it categorically. I condemn it. I pass gas in its general direction.

Q: (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

A: As a Christian, I find no essential conflict between what we know about evolution from science and what the Bible teaches about creation. I know that many Christians do, and while I disagree with them strongly, I respect the convictions that lead them to their disagreement.

I believe that evolution should be taught in schools, and I do not believe that it needs to be taught alongside other "theories." However, I believe it should be taught in a context that considers the larger questions of existence raised by questions of origins. That can include both that a god like the Christian God may have deliberately caused the very process that we observe for the very outcome that we see, and that evolution by itself is powerless to explain why something exists instead of nothing, why life exists and not just non-life, and why self-conscious, purpose-seeking humans exist, not just creatures that reproduce without the disadvantage for survival of self-consciousness.

Q: Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

A: I do not. As a Christian, I will find almost all such prayers to be inadequate to the point of embarrassment. I also object as a Christian to people who aren't Christians being coerced into religious observance. While I do not think that the first amendment is necessarily violated by teacher-led prayer in schools, such a thing is unnecessarily divisive and offensive to far too many people to be embraced. That having been said, I encourage schools to permit and encourage student-led faith activities, to welcome faith groups to rent their facilities and provide services to their students like after-school tutoring, and to study issues of faith as they arise in the study of history, literature, behavioral science, and, as I discussed above, natural science.

Why Paul Isn't SWNIDish

Ron Paul is often right. Like when he says that the country is out of money and the federal government should do less, not more.

As he reportedly said today on Fox News.

Why, then, can't SWNID imagine supporting the elderly Congressperson from Texas?

Three huge reasons.

One is Paul's common insistence that the things he opposes are unconsititutional. He'd be rather wiser to insist that they appear to him to be unconsititutional, or that they are questionable constitutionally. His rhetoric doesn't acknowledge the differences of opinion that have always existed about the boundaries of constitutionality.

Take Jefferson's war with the Barbary pirates, for instance. Paul says that United States involvement in the Libyan civil war has been unconstitutional, much as Jefferson's opponents said the same about his little conflict in North Africa.

Paul's tendentious appeals to the constitution tend to appeal most to people who are understandably upset about the status quo but are inclined to accept the simplistic solution that says, Just follow the dang Constitution!

Which brings us to our second objection. On foreign policy, Mr. Paul is an isolationist. Always asserting unconstitutionality, he doesn't want any military action unless the American homeland is attacked, and maybe not much then.

Like it or not, the United States has most of the military power in the world, and China notwithstanding, the US will continue to have it for at least a generation. Whether that potential gets used to promote human well being, when and where such can be done ("the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference"), will have a lot to do with whether more or fewer people get to live in relative peace and prosperity. Paul is indifferent to such considerations.

That indifference appeals too, to those who see the awful cost of war, and its common mismanagement. Paul invites them to imagine a world in which that's someone else's problem, as they live in peaceful apathy about other people's suffering. SWNID just can't do that. And neither can most people.

Which brings us to our third objection. Paul has only one of the political abilities that a President must have. His lonely skill is maintaining the loyalty and interest of his political base. His followers are as rabid as Lyndon LaRouche's once were, and markedly more sane and stable for all that.

But he has no record of having formed a coalition, sponsored a successful bill, championed a cause that won the day, or anything else that suggests he could maintain the kind of consensus necessary for any political action, especially the negative kind--cutting back on nearly everything--that he seeks and that is arguably needed. The fact that he often votes alone or with Dennis Kucinich is proof of what we assert.

Ironically enough, a Paul presidency would leave the Republic further from its fiscal salvation, not closer. How could he expect to unite those whom he has ignored throughout his political life?

So if it's Paul v. Obama, our vote is with the current President, and all our potent political activity will be for a Republican Senate and House to force the more moderate of the two to moderate our excessive government before it's too late.

It's a symptom of how little BHO understands of the present distress that he polls so closely to Paul presently. Likewise, it's a symptom of how unknown Paul is to an electorate that will take anyone who will cut government spending over the current spendthrift. But there's extreme doubt that Paul could do what he wants, much more than there is that Obama could triangulate to a moderate position of austerity in his second term.