Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

I had some fun on Monday with some one-hit wonders from the 1980's. Why not a hair-band rock song? So, here's Kip Winger's outfit from the late 1980's doing the song "Madalaine".

I hope this doesn't hurt anyone too bad.

Once Again, for Marshall

Marshall Art complains a lot. He says I say bad things about an online magazine called American Thinker, without actually supporting my contention. So, in order to show him that I am at least fair enough to demonstrate - as if it were necessary - why I find that particular periodical is so awful, I am going to do so. This once. I will even provide a link to the article I am reading. It is entitled, "Markets and Marxists Don't Mix", and was written by James Long, described at the end of the article as a professional engineer and manager.

The first paragraph doesn't set a good tone.
The three biggest changes in United States history since WWII, all three promising to have major impact on the future of the Republic, recently occurred within a period of a few weeks.

OK, since he mentions, in the next paragraph, the election of our first African-American President, I'll grant him that one. But, I wonder. What about, say, the Civil Rights movement and its legislative triumphs in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act? The construction of the Interstate Highway System? The Vietnam War? Watergate? How about, oh, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991? They were kind of important, don't you think? Shoot, I'd put Woodstock - the original festival, not the awful imitations later on - above most of the rest of whatever he could mention.

He does mention Barack Obama's place in history in the second paragraph, but then the third paragraph is a wonderful example of combining a couple things that drive me nuts about American Thinker.
Politically, the USA has elected a far-left president, fulfilling an equally long struggle and threatening to fundamentally change the nature of the United States of America and its Constitution. Racial conflict preceding the War Between the States was contemporaneous with the early struggles of the socialists in Europe and in America.

First, Barack Obama is not "far left". I'm further to the left, politically, than Barack Obama, and I would not consider myself a socialist. This is simply a false statement, either a deliberate mischaracterization of the politics of our current President, or simple ignorance based on the idea that anyone to the left of Susan Collins or Joe Lieberman is, by definition, a hard-core Marxist. Since Barack Obama pledged to protect and defend the Constitution, as does every President (even Richard Nixon and George W. Bush made these pledges, even though they broke them), I'm not sure how his election threatens our Constitution.

It is the second sentence that has me puzzled. The socialist revolutions across Europe occurred in 1848, when the United States was engaged in an imperialist war with Mexico (we annexed roughly half their territory). The Civil War began in 1861. Thirteen years passed between the two events. Also, what, exactly is the relationship between the socialist uprisings in Europe, linked to early industrialization, and the Civil War, which began as a conflict over the spread of slavery in to the territories?

This political development is not promising; no socialist system of government has ever had the record of employment, productivity, innovation, and growth that the USA has enjoyed under a system of free-market, rule-of-law economics. On the contrary, socialist states are universally noted for functional inefficiency and institutional corruption, including the European Union (the most benign of the lot), which has suffered economic stagnation and demographic contraction since its founding in the early 1990s.

The mixed economies of Europe have out-performed the United States for years. To call the European Union "socialist" is on a part with calling Barack Obama "far left". It's just inaccurate. So, here we have a paragraph that is just wrong. Period. If you begin your argument stipulating as fact things that are not, you know, facts, you aren't off to a running start. In fact, you tripped at the starting line and are having a difficult time getting to your feet.

Financially, the USA has taken the greatest economic hit since at least the Great Depression. This has destroyed major chunks of our retirement and pension funds, and has essentially ended the prospect of Social Security ever being viable.

While the first sentence is correct, the whole business about Social Security is, once again, wrong. It demonstrates a lack of understanding about the way Social Security works, and it also begs the question, again, of relevance.

There has been remarkably little comment or connection drawn between these political and financial changes.

That's right. Not a single person in the press has talked about Obama's accession to the Presidency at a time of economic turmoil.
Investors have taken massive amounts of money out of the markets in a very short period, resulting in a worldwide markets crash in the range of $30 trillion and counting. Given the extremely poor performance of all socialist governments, no investor is willing to leave his assets exposed to leftist incompetence, corruption, or confiscation.

First, "investors" have not "taken massive amounts of money out of the markets". "Massive amounts of money" in the form of net worth disappeared; that is to say, it wasn't investors who took out that money by removing capital. The net worth, and capitalization disappeared as the market contracted. Right now, no one is investing anywhere, but the European markets are outperforming Wall Street precisely because, unlike here, it is understood the regulatory regimes in place provide safe-guards against the kinds of abuses that led to our current mess. That is to say, it is in the United States as a free-market that no on is willing to invest.
Markets express a level of confidence in the future of the economy, and as Obama's election prospects improved, confidence in the economic future plunged.

Most major market crashes are preceded by frenzied trading activity and very high price/earnings (P/E) ratios. A long-term average for stock P/E values is about 13, and a P/E ratio over 26 is generally regarded as excessive. The DOW P/E ratio was over 40 and the NASDAQ P/E ratio was over 60 when those values started down during Clinton's last year in the presidency, so that, by historical standards, a recession was virtually assured, and it came right on schedule. The recent DOW P/E ratio has been benign after hitting a high of slightly over 20 in late 2007 at the peak of the DOW. Consequently, in 2007/2008 there was little of the turbulent extravagance that historically marks major market peaks that precede market crashes; something else was at work in the markets and that something was the prospect of a leftist as president.

Actually, the markets were pretty up-beat about the possibility of Obama's election, especially after he displayed his remarkable restraint in September during the melt-down of the finance industry. As prospects of economic stimulus and support, rather than blank checks, continued to do well, the markets, while not robust, were certainly less volatile. It has only been as political conflict called in to question the viability of the stimulus plan and other measures Pres. Obama has offered that created confusion in the markets.

Also, it should be noted that many of the drops in the market had little to do with who was in office, but were related to events in economies and companies - earnings reports, the reported health (mostly lack thereof) of various economic sectors (especially the auto industry) - and other specific events. Whoever was in office, stock markets would have tumbled under the pressure of these events.
The Fed and the Treasury have been desperately taking corrective actions in today's markets, pumping mega dollars into banks and financial institutions and lowering interest rates in order to provide liquidity, because lack of liquidity and bank failures were major factors in the Great Depression. But it is now obvious that these actions are not working, and these actions have stopped. No one wants liquidity; everyone is searching for security. Investors that took their funds out of the markets were looking for a safe place to park their money, and were not looking for new investment opportunities. Banks seem to be stabilized at this point, but beyond that, corrective actions so far are having no effect in reviving the economy and businesses, and what we learned in the Great Depression has no application when confronting a socialist-led government in the USA now.

Unemployment is soaring, and will continue to soar as investment capital dries up. Investment pays for new construction, plants, office buildings, and equipment, and the massive withdrawal of cash from the markets means that investment, and jobs, will falter and fall. Borrowing money for an infrastructure-building stimulus package, as Obama proposes, is a dubious proposition at best.

Again, investors have not removed money. That money disappeared because a whole lot of people made bets on debt-backed securities and when it became apparent that those pieces of paper were worthless, their net worth contracted accordingly. It's really that simple. As for banks stabilizing, every week there are reports of FDIC taking over a few more, two just yesterday.

That investment has disappeared is true; it has done so because everyone is assuming the economy is going to get worse, and no one will make money. That's why Pres. Obama is proposing to invest in public projects; to create jobs, etc., etc. I will not remark on the silly "socialist-led government" business.
[T]he markets do not make major world-class moves in the absence of any stimulus or provocation, and this is by far the biggest markets reaction in history, with all indications that this is just the start. The election of Obama to the presidency of the United States is a radical, radical change in direction. The election of a leftist was an assault on both our financial institutions and our defining values.

Obviously it was the prospect of that commie Obama becoming President, and not the disappearance, at the beginning of 2007, of massive amounts of value from the housing market, and the debt structure underlying it, that brought about our current troubles. You see, the housing market understood before Barack Obama even declared he would run for the Presidency that he would win, so is collapsed well in advance, and the resulting recession, beginning a year ago, is all his fault.

RFLMAO. That's all I can say. This is just factually inaccurate, displaying a heroic lack of understanding of what's actually been happening for the past two years.
There is a broad range of projections for the future of the United States economy. Obama himself has stated that it will get worse before it gets better. We do know that investment capital has massively fled the markets, and this is a very bad sign for employment, growth, and productivity. Elimination of wasteful governmental socialist actions such as the War on Poverty (cost $6 trillion) and the Fannie and Freddie Mortgage Follies (cost unknown) would be a necessary first step to recovery, but from all indications, Obama intends to double down on activist government intervention.

The United States of America has had a remarkable run for over two centuries, and that run has been the product of our Constitution and a free citizenry. A citizen of the United States of America is in a privileged position in relationship to all the subjects, serfs, and slaves throughout most of the world. If you want your citizenship and your country you will have to fight for it, because socialists think they have a better idea, even though they invariably get worse results.

In conclusion . . . I can't take this anymore. This entire article is crap. It misunderstands, or misrepresents, everything from recent economic performance to the politics of our current President. It displays a remarkable lack of any grasp of what is necessary to actually deal with the events through which we are living. The constant, stupid, use of the word "socialist" obscures more than it reveals, and makes murky what should be clear.

This has been a difficult thing for me to do. I've had to stop several times because I just wanted to give up. Having to read something this bad, analytically speaking, from a periodical with the word "Thinker" in the title, is really almost physically painful for me. Furthermore, having to explain what should be self-evident, is tiresome work. That's why I don't usually do it.

Thus endeth the lesson

Friday, January 30, 2009

Really Stupid Democratic Senators

Specifically, Kent Conrad from North Dakota:
CONRAD: [T]here are other areas of the package that are really very questionable in terms of whether they’d stimulate the economy. Some of the programs that are given money only have ten percent spend-out in the next two years. … There’s very little done in this package to help housing. Very little done to help the financial sector.

As Duncan asks:
How many trillion do we have to give them?

I don't suppose anyone in the national media will ask Sen. Conrad that question, though, huh.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some Examples For Marshall Art

Here we have a major complaint from Marshall Art.
OK, don't give a link to support, but you don't (Geoffrey) even give a good counter argument. If you have a list of links on your blog, how hard is it to go create a link to it and put it in with the comment if you think it supports your argument?

I will start with a favorite topic of yours - taxes as theft, or at least near-theft - as an example.

First, when you present this topic, you use standard-fare boiler-plate, "It's my money not the government's, I know how to spend it better, etc., etc." which you apparently believe is both deep and meaningful. You also assume, quite wrongly, that I for one have never encountered such an argument before.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have made the point on this topic before - as a matter of practical understanding, no state has ever existed without some form of taxation, and its obligatory status is actually quite easy to defend. Your notion that the money is "yours" is only defensible if one assumes that, on your own outside of any legal framework, defended with a monopoly of police power, could have managed not only to find work, but to maintain that work and the income without a threat from various others. This is why there are laws about all sorts of things on the books, including regulations dealing with banking and accounting practices, employment rights for workers and obligations for employers, etc., etc. To make sure the playing field is relatively even, that you get the full amount entitled to you, without fear and with full confidence, etc., etc. There is nothing in either history or political thought to defend the position you have taken on multiple occasions that taxation in the United States constitutes a "taking", is unduly burdensome, or what have you. One can have many quibbles on the question of taxation - including whether regressive or progressive taxation is preferable - but even here there is enough data and studies available to make the case for progressive taxes as far more conducive both to economic growth as well as personal savings.

This is an old argument; I first took Macro- and Micro-Economics in high school back in 1982-1983. I also took a class in political philosophy in college in the spring semester of 1986. The Republican position on taxation has been hashed and rehashed for years, and my own position is clear and has been for a long time. For example, whenever I read someone claiming that lowered tax rates increase revenues, since that is a demonstrably false assertion, that calls in to question the credibility of the entire argument that person is making. It is easy enough to figure out if this is true, and since it is almost immediately discovered to be false, then a person who makes that assertion is either intellectually lazy or deliberately lying; although "both" is a possible conclusion as well, it seems to me we are usually faced with these two choices.

As for what my sources on the relationship between the individual, the state, the specific issue of taxation, and the more general issue of the intersecting rights and obligations of state and citizen, consult, in no particular order, Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, the Federalist Papers, and more contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls.

Climate Change
You wanted a source on global warming? Here you go. Once again, I do not "argue" or "discuss" the issue of human-induced (anthropogenic is the correct term of art) climate change, any more than I debate Holocaust deniers, or those who deny evolution by natural selection. Once does not argue about facts.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”; and that the accumulations of greenhouse gases are behind the marked global warming trend of the past 20 years. Its case was based on two pillars: the known physical heat-capturing properties of the greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere, and the detailed patterns of average temperature change in the atmosphere, which mirrored that predicted by global climate models.

Emission rates for the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, CO2, have risen 120-fold in the past 150 years2. Whereas in the 19th century emissions were overwhelmingly from deforestation and other landuse changes, they are now predominantly from burning fossil fuels. A direct product of industrialization, emissions now amount to 6 billion tons of carbon a year, or around 1 ton of carbon per head of the world’s population. But emissions are very uneven. Per-capita North American emissions are 18 times those of Africa, nine times those of Asia and 2.3 times those of Europe3. Low gasoline prices and the pervasive automobile culture in the United States ensure that its CO2 output, already the highest in the world, is continuing to rise, while levels in much of Europe are stable or falling.

Total emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2 from deforestation and agricultural emissions of methane, are more evenly distributed. For instance, Germany emits three times more CO2 than Brazil from burning fossil fuels. But Brazil’s total emissions of greenhouse gases now probably exceed Germany’s, thanks largely to emissions from deforestation4.

Unless the world curbs growing CO2 output, concentrations in the air are likely to double from pre-industrial levels by 2080, and may warm the world by 3oC. Climate models predict that land areas will warm twice as much as the oceans; high latitudes will warm more quickly in winter; and there will be substantial changes in precipitation, especially in the tropics5.

There is nothing political here; this is nothing more than a listing of facts, the presentation of the bare-bones of an outline of a scientific theory.

As to how a scientific theory is used, I shall just cite the following example, with the abstract below.
As the Earth warms, many species are likely to disappear, often because of changing disease dynamics. Here we show that a recent mass extinction associated with pathogen outbreaks is tied to global warming. Seventeen years ago, in the mountains of Costa Rica, the Monteverde harlequin frog (Atelopus sp.) vanished along with the golden toad (Bufo periglenes). An estimated 67% of the 110 or so species of Atelopus, which are endemic to the American tropics, have met the same fate, and a pathogenic chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) is implicated. Analysing the timing of losses in relation to changes in sea surface and air temperatures, we conclude with 'very high confidence' (> 99%, following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) that large-scale warming is a key factor in the disappearances. We propose that temperatures at many highland localities are shifting towards the growth optimum of Batrachochytrium, thus encouraging outbreaks. With climate change promoting infectious disease and eroding biodiversity, the urgency of reducing greenhouse-gas concentrations is now undeniable.

Now, this is science.

This, however, is not.
[I]f you wish an example of how the scientific process works - as opposed to how dishonest and fraudulent global warming science has become -- you need look no further than CERN and how scientists are responding to questions about their data.

They are not standing up and calling the skeptics "nazis." They are not saying that their detractors are paid mouthpieces for opposing interests. They are not trying to shut scientific opponents out of debate.

They are acting like real scientists and reworking their hypotheses, double checking their data, answering their critics, and challenging their own beliefs. This has been the way of true science for 500 years in the western world. And it stands in stark contrast to those who follow the global warming belief system who seek to silence any opposition to their dogmatic pronouncements by claiming "the debate is over" or making other equally unscientific observations.

The biggest problem with this particular passage in the linked article, for me, is this - it is simply factually untrue to say that anthropogenic climate change is not challenges, since even a high school science student understands that every time a scientific theory is used as a model for an experiment, there is an implicit test of the viability of that theory. Furthermore, to argue as the author here does, that global warming skeptics are dismissed as "nazis" is not only untrue, it is irrelevant. They are dismissed because they are not using science; they routinely falsify data and use poor research methods, and their conclusions are at odds with the conclusions of other researchers using the same methods and data (for an example of all these egregious errors, and the criticisms of them, and the resultant whining, just click here)

Look, Marshall, it makes no nevermind to me whether or not you believe that confiscatory taxation is immoral, or that anthropogenic climate change is a farce. I don't even care if you deny that human beings landed on the Moon. What irks me no end is the following. I am under no obligation to provide you with every source for every thing I say. This is a blog, not an academic journal. Also, you are mistaken when you claim that our arguments have no evidentiary support. Indeed, Dan, Alan, ER, I and others quite frequently complain that, after having typed rather detailed posts, you either misunderstand them or dismiss them out of hand, ascribing to us things we neither believe, nor have ever said, including most assuredly motives and insinuations that bear no resemblance to anything we have said.

In other words, when you say our arguments are not supported by evidence, you have yet to provide any real evidence that is the case, while those of whom you make this claim have abundant evidence. All anyone needs to do is check out the long comment threads on your posts at your blog and form their own conclusions.

Again, I am under no obligation to provide you with links to anything. I am under no obligation to say "by what authority" I take whatever positions I take. My own authority is quite good enough for me, thank you very much.

Buh Bye

Rod Blagojevich is no longer my governor. Thank the Lord and the Illinois Senate.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Next Step

TPMDC has it - the House passed the stimulus plan, even after Pres. Obama gave Boehner's boys and girls some of what they wanted. As far as I'm concerned, Senate Democrats should put back all that stuff the House "leadership" yanked out, from Medicaid support to money for improving the Mall, and then, after they pass it (even with 59 seats, Olympia Snowe of ME has signalled she will support the stimulus, so any Republican efforts to filibuster via refusing to cut off debate will fail), send it back to the House for reconsideration on the merits.

The Republicans never intended to vote for this thing anyway, so Pres. Obama should have given up trying. You don't reward a child who is throwing a tantrum; you don't reward Republicans in the same way.

Mark 6:21-29

21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's [13] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

What would you offer someone you loved?

What would you give to that special someone? Valentine's Day is just around the corner, you know.

I recently had a discussion with someone about being in love. I asked if this person had ever had a relationship that had an almost addictive quality; there is something almost chemical about one's response to this other person, we find ourselves incapable of dealing rationally with this other. It is beyond simple physical passion, our whole being becomes wrapped up in this other person. We do not think, we cannot think through what it is we feel, because thought just doesn't come in to play. Like a physical addiction, even years after separation, we can find ourselves musing on these individuals, where they are, what they are doing, and know, in our heart of hearts, that if this other person suddenly walked in to a room, we would be incapable of acting in any way other than foolishly. We might even toss all caution to the wind, all our commitments, the demands of our real life, for that one chance. Like an addiction, these kinds of relentless irrational responses to other persons feel so good yet are, in the end, bad for us. Indeed, as Herod's example shows, we might just find ourselves selling our very souls for an opportunity to express our desire.

We Americans are more confused about romantic love than just about any topic which I can name. We are Goethe's Faust, quite willing to sell our souls to the devil in the hope that the mystery of love - for which there is no solution other than to live - will be revealed to us. In song and (usually really bad) story, in the depth of passion and the quiet of reflection, we contemplate the ways we create spaces in our lives for others without ever thinking that we risk far more than simple heartbreak.

Herod is smitten with his sister-in-law. He is entranced by his niece. He offers anything to her. When the demand for the head of John the Baptizer is made, he complies even against his own disposition to believe John is not only a Holy man, but perhaps even a Prophet of God. He does so to honor his own pledge; he does so, also, because he loves Herodias. Woe betide the person who offers his or her whole being to another human being; very often this is accepted, to our regret.

Luke's Gospel quotes Jesus as saying that unless we hate pretty much every thing in our lives - our families and even our own lives - we are not worthy to be called his disciples. Someone recently claimed that he did not believe Jesus meant this literally. I, on the other hand, believe this is a genuine saying of Jesus, and I not only accept it, but think it is the heart of Christian discipleship. Unless we are willing to say "No" to everything we hold dear, one of those things may just place a demand upon us that leads us to giving away all that is most precious and important in our lives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Not A Good Response To Stimulus

TPMCDC is reporting that the House has removed a provision from the economic stimulus package to support state public health spending. It has been characterized by John Boehner and other Republicans as a provision to help "contraception", when in fact it is a benefit for states, most of which have constitutional requirements not to run deficits. In other words, it was simply a way to prevent states from having to increase taxes or slash services to those most in need of public health outreach services.

While I won't go as far as Brad at Sadly, No! and insist that it is time to stop reaching out to Republicans (I still believe there is a deeper game involved here), and even the piece at TPMDC indicates that Obama may return to increasing Medicaid support in another legislative context, I think the time to give to Republicans ended over the weekend when it became quite clear that they had no interest in dealing in anything like good faith.

Leave the bill alone now, let the committees and Houses of Congress do their jobs, and let's move on.

More On The Politics Of Stimulus

I was going to leave this as a comment, but I thought I'd let it stand as a post on its own. A Republican complaint about the Obama stimulus plan is that there is the very good possibility that if it succeeds, it offers the threat of Democratic Party electoral dominance for the foreseeable future. Also, there are many projects already in the bill before Congress weighted toward Democratic districts and states.


This is a familiar complaint. Republicans whined the same way about many of FDR's proposals, LBJ's proposals, all sorts of political spending proposals. I really don't understand the thinking behind it. The American people seem to understand that it would be obvious a Democratic politicians would favor his or her own party; Republicans do it all the time. If Democrats do it, however, they are being hypocritical, or small, or just mean. Of course, part of the problem is that the bill is offered as a solution to a national problem, but there is at least the appearance of hypocrisy since there is much that benefits just one party. Apparently Republican politicians are unable to grasp the concept that two things can be accomplished at once, or at least believe the American people are too dumb to understand this.

In other words, don't whine about something that should be obvious. Sure, it benefits Democrats. This is surprising? Grow up. It also benefits the whole country. This is the difference between Republicans and Democrats, on a policy level. The Republicans help their special interest constituencies - corporate America, banks, big oil - but hurt most of the rest of the country. The Democrats help their constituencies - labor, working class families - and benefit the whole country.

Deal with it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Stimulate This (UPDATE)

There has been much wringing of hands and pursing of lips over the politics surrounding the stimulus proposal. Left-wingers are upset over the removal of a whole lot of transportation infrastructure spending because of Republican demands for tax cuts, while right-wingers make up stuff about birth control and lie about non-existent CBO reports.

The simple fact is this. There will be a stimulus bill passed. It will not have everything everyone wants, and contain quite a few things that, in a sane world, would never see the light of day. My guess it will be the first step in a larger recovery program Pres. Obama will enact; Health Care Reform will certainly have a stimulative effect, and my guess is there will be attempts to revive certain alphabet soup programs as a way to direct federal funds more directly and precisely (that would be my hope anyway). Reigning in certain aspects of our cowboy financial system will also have a stimulative effect, as will, in all likelihood, simply writing off billions of dollars of bad debt that has no hope of recovery. This would have the benefit of allowing everyone - debtors and creditors alike - to start with a clean slate.

We are getting an object lesson in a difference in styles as we watch the stimulus debate unfold. On the one hand is the calm, confident, knowledgeable approach of Obama; on the other hand is the chorus of screeching, lying, and simple-mindedness the Republicans are engaging in. While the outcome of this particular object lesson is certainly not locked down, my guess is that, in the end, not only the President, but Democrats in Congress as well, may just end up with an even stronger hand as a result of all this.

UPDATE: From Politico's pages to our bleeding eyes:
It may seem like a nothing, but Nancy Pelosi is facing one of her biggest political threats of the 111th thus far over this birth-control-in-the-stimulus thing.

Drudge, along with CNN and others, are trumpeting a House GOP talking point -- ridiculing Pelosi's support of a Medicaid waiver in the stimulus package to reimburse states for contraceptives. And they they think they have a winner, a classic gays-in-the-military, Honeymoon-killing wedge issue.

It all started with a borderline blue comment by John Boehner last week linking "contraceptives" to "stimulus." It's a position that is popular with the Democratic base -- and could arguably save the government money in the long run by preventing unwanted pregnancies and even abortions.

But it's seriously dangerous to Democrats on a few levels:

First, it reinforces the notion that Dems are ramming all sorts of parochial goodies (remember Mayor Goodman's mob museum?) into the stimulus.

Second, it helps fuse the GOP's fractured base -- uniting evangelicals and budget hawks.

Third -- and most dangerous to Pelosi personally -- it undercuts her carefully crafted image as a measured centrist, playing into the right wing caricature of Pelosi as a Bay Area liberal who will abuse her power to push her far left agenda.

On Sunday, Pelosi said she had "no apologies" for supporting the waiver.

OK. But how will she counterattack?

Reducing health care costs, unwanted pregnancies, supporting responsible life choices is, apparently, the same thing as ramming through a bill to save the life of Terri Schiavo. Except, of course, in this case, we have a Speaker of the House doing something most Americans support, and will have direct benefits; the latter was the divisive act of a radical fringe of the Republican Party that most Americans were horrified by, and who derived absolutely no benefit from such an act.

Music For Your Monday

I recently had a discussion with someone about "One Hit Wonders" from the 80's, the decade when music really wasn't much of anything, except for a few bright spots like U2, Peter Gabriel, R.E.M., and Husker Du. I have to admit though, in fits of nostalgia for my wasted youth, especially my college years, there are a few that leap out at me, even now, if for no other reason than, for a moment, they had everyone listening.

First up was a band that everyone thought was going to be the Next Big Thing, and disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Kajagoogoo (I just love that name!) released "Too Shy", and then, well . . . who knows what happened to them.

A-HA had a huge hit with "Take On Me". This is the original version of the song and video, vastly different from the one overplayed on MTV at the time.

I'm really not sure where they came from, am glad they left, but for a few moments in the summer of 1985, "Obsession" was everywhere.

Of all the things for which we should give abundant thanks, the disappearance of that hair is among the biggest (pun definitely intended).

Something Eternal

The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship has a little publication called A Guide To Prayer For All God's People. It follows the daily Revised Common Lectionary through its three year cycle, and includes a section called "Readings for Reflection". Below are two of these readings from the Fourth Sunday in Advent. I encountered them three years ago, and they have stuck with me, their meaning deepening and growing stronger over time.
Prayer is a daring venture into speech that juxtaposes our words with the sharply alive words that pierce and divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow, pitilessly exposing every thought and intetntion of the heart (Heb. 4:12-13; Rev 1:16). If we had kept our mouths shut we would not have involved ourselves in such a relentlessly fearsome exposure. If we had been content to speak to the women and men and children in the neighborhood we could have gotten by with using words in ways that would have them thinking well of us while concealing what we preferred to keep to ourselves. But when we venture into prayer every word may, at any moment, come to mean just what is means and involve us with a holy God who wills our holiness. All we have counted on was some religious small talk, a little numinous gossip, and we are suddenly involved, without intending it and without having calculated the consequences, in something eternal. From Working the Angles by Eugene H. Peterson

Where there is love, there is pain. but whatever our walk in life, this kind of pain is God's way of teaching us how to pray. Everything that happens to us spiritually, everything that causes us to grow, will bring us closer to God if we say yes. This is what spiritual growth mean. It doesn't come from what we do, necessarily, from all our actions and good works. Sometimes it comes from simply sitting and seeing the shambles of what we tried to accomplish, from watching what was seemingly God's work go to pot. You can't do anything about it, but watch. This happened to me. I knew dimly then what I see more clearly today, that this was the moment when God really picked me up and said, "Now I am offering you the union you seek. The other side of my cross is empty. Come, be nailed upon it. This is our marriage bed."

All we can answer in response to that invitation is, "Help me, God! I don't have the courage to climb on this cross." From Soul of My Soul by Catherine de Heuck Doherty

"Spirituality", "prayer" - words we casually toss around without thinking that they link our lives in the most intimate way possible to the God who created the Universe, who calls us to serve and love. Rather than some refuge from the suffering of living and loving, they involve us most intimately with those things that lie at the heart of being truly human. If we enter with our eyes open, we might just realize that we are suddenly surrounded by an abyss, with the only possible means of escape being that call from the cross.

At that moment of realization, as we are faced with the reality that God means business, not some warm fuzzy or the shallow success of the world, we are entering the presence of the living God with the fear and trembling that comes from understanding that love and pain, community and solitude, life and death, are linked in this God. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot be alive in and for God without dying. We cannot love without knowing that love will be answered by rejection and sorrow. We cannot be with except for also being without. All the platitudes concerning Divine Presence, extraordinary grace, and salvation itself become hollow unless we are willing to face the extraordinary danger we encounter in prayer. Unless we are willing to risk loss, and failure, and death with the same equanimity and even acceptance that we do love and success and life, we are not worthy to be called His disciples.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Venal, Shallow, Small Men"

It seems inevitable, I suppose.
Upon announcing his plan to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Barack Obama also began a process that would review the case files for every detainee. The problem for the new administration, however, is that there are no files.

It should surprise no one, really. Considering recent reports that one or two released previously from Gitmo are actively involved in terrorism should have been a clue, not that everyone held at the Cuban concentration camp is evil, but that the Bush Administration was clearly incompetent at doing something as simple as keeping the United States safe from terrorists. Steven Benen highlights from a report in The Washington Post:
President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials -- barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees -- discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

The title comes from John Cole, who also said, in the same piece:
Why is this repeatedly framed as a problem for Obama, when what this really is is evidence that the Bush administration accomplished NOTHING with Guantanamo. This is not a problem for Obama. This is proof that the last administration was a group of incompetent hacks. Bush decided that he had the right to detain people forever, do whatever he wanted to them, and they had no rights whatsoever, he ruined our international reputation and most likely violated dozens of laws, yet he let these allegedly dangerous people go. Why? What was the purpose of Gitmo, anyway? Why do all this stuff and STILL let the dangerous guys go free?

Because they had no idea what they were doing. They were so intent on DWTFTW, to hell with domestic and international law, that they paid no attention to the fact that torture and abuse doesn’t lead to good evidence and means that you can not prosecute.


The moral of this story is not the danger for Obama going forward with his Gitmo decommissioning, the moral is that when venal, shallow, small men are given unfettered power and authority, they do incompetent, stupid, and evil things.(emphasis added)

We've been saying it for years; I've been saying it for a couple years and every time I do some right-wing nutjob tells me I don't know what I'm talking about, there's no evidence, yadda-yadda. Well, I've got your evidence right here, folks, and it's just more proof that the Bush folks were just awful.

The Genius Of Matt Taibbi

Over at Alternet, the Rolling Stone writer does a masterful job taking down Thomas Friedman's latest hack-attack, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. I think I'm in a minority - I read The Lexus and the Olive Tree and thought it among the dumbest, most pointless books ever written. The World is Flat was an insult to the intelligence of beavers, let alone thinking persons. I was disgusted with Friedman's cheerleading of Bush's War in Iraq, and his lack of any sense of culpability when it all went down the crapper. I say "in the minority" because I know there are some who read this blog who like his writing, and have enjoyed his work.

Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, hits the moustache on the nose, as it were, with this one. He not only doesn't like what Friedman has to say. He doesn't like the way he says the things he says. He doesn't like his odd "research" habits. The following passage from Taibbi's article is a masterful destruction of the lack of logic, thought, and any real sense in Friedman. It's also funny as all get out.
In Hot, Flat and Crowded, the money shot comes when Friedman starts doodling on a napkin over lunch with Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. The pre-lunching Friedman starts drawing, and the wisdom just comes pouring out:
I laid out my napkin and drew a graph showing how there seemed to be a rough correlation between the price of oil, between 1975 and 2005, and the pace of freedom in oil-producing states during those same years.

Friedman then draws his napkin-graph, and much to the pundit's surprise, it turns out that there is almost an exact correlation between high oil prices and "unfreedom"! The graph contains two lines, one showing a rising-and-then-descending slope of "freedom," and one showing a descending-and-then-rising course of oil prices.

Friedman plots exactly four points on the graph over the course of those 30 years. In 1989, as oil prices are falling, Friedman writes, "Berlin Wall Torn Down." In 1993, again as oil prices are low, he writes, "Nigeria Privatizes First Oil Field." 1997, oil prices still low, "Iran Calls for Dialogue of Civilizations." Then, finally, 2005, a year of high oil prices: "Iran Calls for Israel's destruction."
I looked at [the graph] and thought: "Gosh, what a neat trick!" Then I sat down and drew up my own graph, called "Size of Valerie Bertinelli's Ass, 1985-2008 Versus Happiness." It turns out that there is an almost exact correlation!
That was so much fun, I drew another one! This one is called "American Pork Belly Prices Versus What Midgets Think About Australia 1972-2002."
Or how about this one, called "Number of One-Eyed Retarded Flies in the State of North Carolina Versus Likelihood of Nuclear Combat on Indian Subcontinent."
Obviously this sounds like a flippant analysis, but that's more or less exactly what Friedman is up to here. If you're going to draw a line that measures the level of "freedom" across the entire world and on that line plot just four randomly selected points in time over the course of 30 years -- and one of your top four "freedom points" in a 30-year period of human history is the privatization of a Nigerian oil field -- well, what the fuck? What can't you argue, if that's how you're going to make your point?

I am so grateful for this wonderful, funny, iconoclastic takedown of one of the principle purveyors of so much that passes for wisdom and insight and even, so help us all, journalistic excellence that I would frame it. I do recommend everyone read it. Click the link. C'mon.

Some Thoughts On Hebrews 10:31

31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

One verse, coming at the end of both remonstrance and reassurance. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is here summing up his approach to Holy living. Like Jesus, like Paul, this author assures that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus is sufficient; he also warns that spurning this wonderful gift, even after full knowledge of it is offered, entails full judgment. We are faced, of course, with the question of grace. Where is the Divine grace, that outpouring, prodigal love of God for all of humanity, if it is turned away so easily, by mere human rejection? Because the author, like Jesus and Paul, is steeped in the Jewish Scriptures of the time, and sees little excuse in a claim either of ignorance or apathy. The clarity of the offer of God's love and care has always been there. We stand before not just a God of love, but a God of justice as well.

It is, indeed, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. I sometimes think we forget that in our myriad attempts to shrink God down to fit whatever agenda we may have. That line from Bonhoeffer still echoes in my mind, and it resonates now - "When God calls a man, He bid him come and die" - as I think on this single verse from Hebrews. God is, indeed, love. God is, indeed, the God who comforts the mourners, lifts up the weak, stands with those who stand for others oppressed and trodden down by the powers and principalities that rule this world, spiritual and temporal. Yet, this is also the God who did not keep his own Son from dying, rejected and alone, outside the city gates, the Divine Fatherly face turned away. God is wonderful, loving and tender to be sure, but also terrible. The path upon which we trod is watered with the tears and blood of so many who have gone before us, stricken by a world that not only does not know this God who created it, but does not want the loving care this God offers, and will go out of its way to destroy all those emissaries from God who offer restoration in love.

The call of the world to ease and comfort, to reject the nonsense of death and resurrection, of crosses and spears and sponges of vinegar; even the call to reject love as it really is, in all its pain and wonder and mystery, for the simplicity of childhood revelries and romantic nonsense and sexual passion, reminds us that the love of God is the love that leads to life, it is true. But it is also the love that calls us to our deaths, to ourselves, to our own desires (including our physical and simplistic emotional desires), and that always feels like death, doesn't it?

It is, indeed, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, because this is neither the good guy/bad guy God of childhood, nor is it the God of romantic reassurance, or bourgeois comfort, or American patriotism (I suppose one could insert most countries names in there, if you wish). This is the living God who created the Universe, who sent his Son to die, and calls us in love, but also to understand the implications of this call. We are called to serve in a world where service is held in contempt, and the love of God - real love which is always about living outside oneself - is rejected. We are called, in other words, to die, in many little ways, and sometimes in the only way that matters. The promise of Divine Presence brings us hope that this death is not in vain; the assurance in faith of the nearness of God in our mourning does not make it any less mourning.

We are dealing here with the mystery that is the path of the Christian - a path of peace, of love, of gentleness, patience, self-control, in a world where all those things are demeaned, belittled, subject to scorn and ridicule. The way is straight, and the gate is narrow, and when we enter that door, we are entering in to a new reality - one of love, where simple Presence can be enough, to be sure - where we are no longer the subject of our own lives. Indeed, we are called to hate our own lives. In the name of the Love of the living God.

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