Saturday, June 04, 2011

A Review Of The Reviews Of Love Wins

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."


And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang from it a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings�


So that's life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.


A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.


Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,

Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand

Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.

You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.


Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,

Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand

Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.

You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.

"The Man With The Blue Guitar" (Excerpts)
Wallace Stevens
I think the reviewers of Rob Bell's Love Wins are a bit like the folks complaining to Wallace Stevens' blue-guitar player.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
This might be over-determining Rob Bell's little book a bit. While it certainly contains some theological ideas, it is hardly "theological". While its subtitle seems grandiose - A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived - it doesn't really address matters relating to these weighty subjects in a manner befitting them. While it wrestles with pastoral issues, the books would be a difficult one through which to search for help in addressing pastoral issues in a local church setting. Finally, the book offers nothing final, certainly nothing definitive, but offers only an introduction to a conversation on all sorts of matters.

Except, of course, the conversation Bell wants to have isn't with the kind of people who write nasty book reviews. Which makes them even more angry, so they write things like the following:
I am not against conversation. What I am against is false teaching. I did not go to the trouble of writing a review because I worry that God can’t handle our questions. The question is never whether God can handle our honest reappraisals of traditional Christianity, but whether he likes them.

Before he wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote a detailed account of what he called in the title The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. On pages 225-226, he discusses the hostility to Galileo's use of the telescope as a defense of Copernican cosmology.
Galileo's obversations met initially even greater opposition [than Kepler's or Tycho Brahe's], though from a different group. With the advent of the telescope Copernicanism ceased to be esoteric. It was no longer primarily the concern of highly trained mathematical astronomers. Therefore it became more disquieting and, to some, more dangerous. . . . The telescopic discoveries . . . provided a natural and appropriate focus for much of the continuing opposition to Copernicus' proposal. They showed the real cosmological issues at stake more quickly and more clearly than pages of mathematics.

The opposition took varied forms. A few of Galileo's more fanatical opponents refused even to look through the new instrument, asserting that if God had meant man to use such a contrivance in acquiring knowledge, He would have endowed men with telescopic eyes. Others looked willingly or even eagerly, acknowledged the new phenomena, but claimed that the new objects were not in the sky at all; they were apparitions caused by the telescope itself. . . .
Maybe I'm overdetermining Rob Bell's little book. Neither earth shaking, nor even all that revelatory, it does offer a glimpse of a new way of seeing, of hearing, of living - all tied to a new way of believing - that, it seems, makes many people uncomfortable. Which is why we get reviews that end like this:
I am praying that God uses this review, among others, to strengthen God’s church in sound doctrine and to protect the church from deceptive teaching. May God’s name be glorified.
What all these reviews share is, I believe, the assumption that "orthodoxy", however defined, is a body of received Truths, unalterable because they are rooted in specific statements of Scripture which root any proper hermeneutic. Bell cuts across all sorts of sacred cows, reading Scripture as both a newcomer with fresh eyes as well as someone acquainted with the original language, searching for a grounding in some sense of what the first readers might have heard. In that sense, he isn't that much different from a very long line of primitivist approaches to Christian faith; by cutting through the detritus of two millennia of accumulated interpretations, arguments, disputations, anathemas, and mutual misunderstandings, the hope has always been to arrive at something like an original understanding as a first step toward real appropriation. That is what lies at the heart of N. T. Wright's massive scholarly triptych. That is what lies at the heart of the Historical Jesus movement. It lies at the heart, really, of any earnest search for the meaning of Scripture.

Imagine for a moment you are with a group of people, sitting around having a conversation. All of you are speaking English with that kind of flat, slightly nasal intonation that is a generic American accent. Someone enters the room and joins the conversation, only this person is speaking Urdu. All of you sit around, staring at one another, then the newcomer. One of the group says, "Dude, if you want to join this conversation, you need to speak English." The newcomer seems to understand the statement, but responds, continuing in Urdu. All of you shake your head and leave the room for someplace this foreign-speaking interloper can't intrude.

To me, that is what is happening with the reviewers' responses to Bell's book. They are speaking one language, Bell another. They are insisting that there is only one language allowed if they want to join the conversation, and they bar the newcomer from joining in.

After a short conversation with Joel Watts on Facebook as I was attempting to write this post, I have come to the conclusion that the reviewers, for all their vitriol and denunciations, have done Bell a service. If for no other reason than creating controversy where none exists, Bell has received the greatest reward any writer can dream of - free publicity.

Beyond that, they need to pick up their blue guitars and start playing.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Clearing The Controversial Air: What Bell Actually Says

I hate coming late to a party. Usually, the best food is eaten, the best conversation has happened, the best music played. If I am too late, it's usually not too late for the stupid drunk to be stupid, or the mean drunk to pick a fight, which is always a treat. All the same, despite all the buzz, only now are Lisa and I getting around to reading Rob Bell's Love Wins. Before the book was even released there was quite a bit of talk about it, if only because (a) in an internet age, it's really hard to keep a secret; and (b) what Bell says is far too important to leave until a publisher puts it out there.

First of all, I find it more than little funny that people have said that Bell claims there is no "hell". As I said to my wife last night, after I had read about half way through the first chapter, he doesn't seem all the fussed about heaven, either! In fact, what Bell says is clear enough that most educated folk should understand what he is doing. Rather than get bogged down in "Do you still beat your wife?" kinds of discussions - which, really, is what the kinds of attacks Bell has received, at least from some quarters, amount to - it might be nice to read his words.

Ahem. From pages 70-71:
I remember arriving in Kigali, Rwanda, in December 2002 and driving from the airport to our hotel. Soon after leaving the airport I saw a kid, probably ten or eleven, with a missing hand standing by the side of the road. Then I saw another kid, just down the street, missing a leg. Then another in a wheelchair. Hands, arms, legs - I must have seen fifty or more teenagers with missing limbs in just those first several miles. My guide explained that during the genocide one of the ways to most degrade and humiliate your enemy was to remove an arm or a leg of his young child with a machete, so that years later he would have to live with the reminder of what you did to him.

Do I believe in a literal hell?
Of course.
Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs.
Are we clear? He says, right here, emphatically, that he believes in hell.

What he doesn't believe in, for reasons he is at pains to make clear, is Dante's Inferno, or the Classic Comics version in, say, a Jack Chick tract. He is at pains to make clear that the Biblical witness is clear, at the very least, on this - there is no "Satan", as Bell says, wearing red tights and listening to Pink Floyd albums in reverse. Denying radical evil, though, or even the hell in which far too many human beings find themselves, would be an outrage not only against God, but the suffering these human beings are experiencing. Whatever else Rob Bell says, it is quite clear that Rob Bell believes in hell, because he's been there. He's seen it. We all have.

So, when Jennifer Riley, writing in The Christian Post, says the following:
Although Bell contends that God’s love wins in the end, he has remained vague and elusive about his position on whether hell exists despite being questioned about this many times during interviews.
she may or may not be correct about being asked this question. Yet vague and equivocal Bell most certainly is not. From Christian Today comes an excerpt from an interview Bell did with The Washington Post's Sally Quinn.
In a videotaped interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, which was posted online this week, Bell responded to a question posed through Twitter and asked by Quinn: 'If there is no hell, then why did Jesus die for our sins?'

“I believe in hell now, I believe in hell when you die,” stated Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I am assuming that Ms. Quinn asking a question and Rev. Bell answering it are what most people consider "interviews". I also assume that when Bell says, "I believe in hell now, I believe in hell when you die," that's not code for, "Actually, I'm lying to you, because I really don't believe these things."

Let me be up front. I'm barely half way through this relatively thin, breezy book. I have no idea what I think of what Bell has said so far, other than it isn't sending off alarm bells. So, I reserve ay judgments for that eventuality. Right now, I just want to be clear that all those folks out there screaming, "Rob Bell says there's no hell!" are wrong. That isn't my opinion. That's just a fact, straight from the horse's mouth.

Uncomfortable Facts In A World Where Opinions Dominate

Let's begin with two very different views of the same event. First, we'll start with a view seen by a couple million people on a television "news" program on a network most people with a passing acquaintance with our current public discourse think of as "liberal".
MATTHEWS (6/1/11): Good evening. And what a news day! I’m Chris Matthews in Washington.

Leading off tonight: Bus stop! She makes more excitement riding a bus than the others do actually declaring for president of the United States. The Iowa caucuses are seven months away, and who’s dominating Republican presidential politics? Sarah Palin.

The splash—the splash she continues to make in cities across the Northeast is trumpeting not just her electrifying stagecraft but the dowdiness of the Republican field. Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, no one can match her, and yet she doesn’t really seem serious about running.

And that’s why Republicans are still pining for a new star. Christie, Giuliani, Perry. Can any Republican eclipse Sarah Palin? That’s our top story tonight.


MATTHEWS: This is a strange time. The heat in Washington is already becoming what it often does, and it’s only June 1st. The summer doldrums are in, but Sarah Palin could not be hotter as a candidate.


MATTHEWS: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. She goes to Times Square. She’s hitting all the beauty spots in American patriotism. And I agree with all those spots. She’s even found New York and she’s making Times Square look exciting. And Melania, most beautiful person in the world probably, there, right next to Donald Trump.


MATTHEWS: What’s she doing? Is she—is this a book tour? Is this a Hollywood star? Is this a political person?


MATTHEWS: Look, Mitt Romney—I’m going to talk about him later in the show—is actually running for president. He actually was governor of a state and he finished his term and he’s a real public servant who may well be the strongest opponent against President Obama next year, and we’re not—we’re going to cover him tomorrow, but we’re not getting— These pictures are [incredible? impressive?]


MATTHEWS: By the way, there’s something about her. It’s primordial. When she walks and moves, there’s something electric about it that she doesn’t do on television with Roger Ailes sitting in that booth in Wasilla. Look at, there’s something—other candidates don’t do this. She’s constantly in motion. She looks obviously very attractive. She’s doing something that works. If Mitt Romney were doing the same exact thing, Michael, nothing would happen. This is what’s going on here.
As Somerby notes, the reason for Chris Matthews' overheated expostulations is simple enough - the woman has breasts, just out there for all the world to see!

The second view is a bit more focused, taking a gander at an interview Gov. Palin gave. While Glenn Kessler may be aware that Sarah Palin has breasts, he ignores them for other parts of her anatomy, specifically her mouth, and what comes out of it:
“We don’t have the $2 billion [to give to Egypt]. Where are we going to get it? From China? We are going to borrow from foreign countries to give to foreign countries. … We want to know to know where those dollars are going because we don’t have the money to be providing foreign countries, not in this day and age when we are going broke.”
Palin managed to get almost everything wrong in this comment. She clearly was not listening too closely to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East, because otherwise she would have realized that he was not talking about spending more taxpayer dollars.

Obama proposed to forgive up to $1 billion of Egypt’s $3.6 billion debt (money that was spent buying American farm products). The forgiveness, which would take several years, would take the form of a “debt swap,” in which the money saved will be invested in designated programs in Egypt.

The other $1 billion would consist of loan guarantees by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which are structured at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer. So none of this would involve new debt issued by the Treasury.

Palin appears to assume that the United States simply hands out dollars with little idea about what happens to the money. This is a common misnomer. Actually, there are often strings attached.
A couple million people tune in each and every night to watch Chris Matthews. The other day they got served a great big huge helping of his libido operating his mouth. Lucky for him there is a desk.

Even with the internet providing opportunities to read him, how many will read Glenn Kessler's fact-checking column on the interview Sarah Palin gave to FOXNews' Greta Van Susteren? A few thousand, may a few tens of thousands? Which story is more important? That Sarah Palin is, by most measures, an attractive woman who makes some men act like fools? Or that Sarah Palin is obviously ignorant of American policy, and therefore trusting her with conducting American policy might just create all sorts of hazards and dangers for our country?

I chose this example to illustrate a far larger point. Facts matter. Certainly, it is beyond a doubt that Gov. Palin's popularity among a certain part of the American public extends far beyond her physical appeal. She gives voice to the concerns many people have, and I wouldn't deny that for a minute. Yet, as the fact-check article is at great pains to make clear, she has no idea what she's talking about. Rather than give voice to fears and troubles and worries that have no basis in fact, isn't it important that we have public figures who are conversant, on some level, with the reality of various aspects of how we as a country do business? Furthermore, isn't it important for public figures to inform people that while their fears may be real, they aren't based in factual information? It is one thing to give voice to the fears of people in the midst of social upheaval. As another former governor running for President, Tim Pawlenty said the other day, any idiot can do that. It takes a leader to say all that, give voice and coherence and some kind of fundamental reality to those fears that are out there, and then say the next sentence that should begin by insisting those fears and anxieties are misplaced. Which is not to say that we don't have problems with which to deal, or that our legislative and executive branch politicians just don't seem to be dealing with our problems. Rather, we need to direct people's attention to the very real issues that really matter.

Rather than calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, as Gov. Palin did in her interview, why not talk about ways to insure the programs solvency after 2085 or so, when general revenues, combined with FICA taxes, will support 75%-benefits? There are modest proposals that most people understand will fix the problem of the trust fund thinning so that, in 2036, it will require general revenue funds to cover obligations; some of those include raising the income limit on taxable income under FICA. This might well be the simplest way to fix the problem. Calling it a Ponzi scheme that is going broke is not only not helpful. It isn't factually accurate.

One of the guiding principles of what I do is simple enough: I try, as little as possible, to confuse facts and opinions. One of my pet peeves is the assertion of factually inaccurate statements and opinions as facts, and claims that are opinions asserted as fact. Now, facts for me are simple things. They are things in this world. Nouns. They are events, people, places, or things, that, boiled down, can be plotted on a graph. No secret information, nothing esoteric or too difficult to discover on one's own. If I make a reference to a person, place, thing, or event, it should be easy enough to discover if I am getting my facts right.

Opinions, on the other hand - for the purposes of this blog, at any rate, what is usually called an "operating definition" because the word itself is so fuzzy - are views about people, places, things, or events. In the above example, it is a fact that Sarah Palin made many factual errors in statements to a FOXNews interviewer. It is the opinion of Chris Matthews that she is exciting, electrifying, yadda-yadda-yadda. It is also my opinion that Sarah Palin is a poor candidate for office not only because we have differing views on certain policy preferences, but also because she has demonstrated ignorance of some basic facts about American policy, which should disqualify her. That is my opinion, and I stand by it; others have different opinions, and that's OK, too.

What I have a problem with is simple enough - confusing the two.

This extends far beyond matters of the moment. I have a standing policy regarding Holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, people who insist that biological evolution is false, people who insist that Barack Obama is some odd communist-Muslim bent on destroying America: I refuse to engage them. Now, people believe these things, and many more besides, that are factually inaccurate. The first on the list is one most people not only consider a matter of factual inaccuracy, but revealing of a moral flaw as well. Others on my list many, including some law-makers and powerful lobbying groups, hold as factually accurate but are as erroneous as Holocaust deniers. Pretending they are possible alternatives does no one any good. Basing public policy, whether in local school districts when discussing biology curricula or in Congress when discussing energy policy, is a bit like attempting to create gold through alchemy. Simply because a segment of the population holds views that are easily shown to be contrary to fact does not mean anyone is required to indulge their error. While it may be true they can hold these views, express them, and be a part of our larger national conversation, any time they show up, it seems to me (OK, see, here comes an opinion!) the first order of business is making the point that the assertions they are making are false. Then, go on to discuss matters in a factual manner.

Clarity on this point - one I make often - is important as I am about to write a post on Rob Bell. He had a book published earlier this year, Love Wins, that has stirred quite a bit of controversy. Not least have been the various denunciations of Bell as a heretic, as unbiblical, as a universalist wolf in sheep's clothing. Now, I don't know about this last one, but the first two are, quite simply put, factually wrong. Bell may be in error, I don't know for sure because I am only 82 pages in to his book. What is not is heretical. Heresies are historical errors of the Christian faith, technical in detail, easily defined. So far, Bell fits in to no category of heresy that I can identify.

Calling Bell unbiblical is almost laughably ignorant. There is nothing but the Bible in Bell's presentation. While there are some doctrinal suppositions behind his reading, he rarely ventures far from the Biblical texts, asking searching, important questions about these texts, seeking a radical hermeneutic to move from a grounded understanding of the texts in their original context, and what those meanings may offer us today.

One can disagree with Bell. One can not like his message for a host of reasons, many of them that I can imagine being differences of doctrinal preference. I can see, easily enough, how a Reformed theologian might well take umbrage at some of what Bell has said, at least what I've read so far. What Bell most definitely is not, at least so far as I've read, is either heretical or unbiblical. This is not a matter of my opinion over and against the opinions of others. This is a matter of fact, discovered easily enough should anyone be interested in doing so.

As long as we're clear moving forward here on what I consider facts and what I consider opinions. . .

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Voice New To Me

Benjamin Myers is a professor of systematic theology in Australia, and my presumption is Reformed, since his profile photo for Blogger is a button that says "Read More Barth You Bastards". His blog, Faith and Theology, is a marvelous find, full of serious and playful - sometimes simultaneously - posts on all sorts of matters. His most recent post concerns the winner of the annual Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, an Orthodox theologian who also happens to be British, David Bentley Hart. I have not heard of him - not exactly a surprise, since I adhere to T. H. Huxley's dictum that "The known is finite, the unknown infinite", which is why I'm constantly interested to learn all sorts of new things - but there is a "David B. Hart Appreciation Blog" that deserves more attention.

Choosing not at all randomly from an index of articles available through the blog, I read two. The first is a review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. A quick scan made me sit and read through it a couple times, and I believe, based on this one review, the prize is deserved. For example:
[I]n Breaking the Spell, Dennett sets out to offer an evolutionary account of human religion, to propose further scientific investigations of religion to be undertaken by competent researchers, and to suggest what forms of public policy we might wish, as a society, to adopt in regard to religion, once we have begun to acquire a proper understanding of its nature. It is, in short, David Hume’s old project of a natural history of religion, embellished with haphazard lashings of modern evolutionary theory and embittered with draughts of dreary authoritarianism.


In the end, nothing of any significance is decided by talking about religion in the abstract. It is a somewhat inane topic, really, relevant neither to belief nor to disbelief. It does not touch on the rationales or the experiences that determine anyone’s ultimate convictions, and certainly nothing important is to be learned from Daniel Dennett’s rancorous exchanges with nonexistent persons regarding the prospects for an impossible science devoted to an intrinsically indeterminate object. If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly-purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor-begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.


I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book’s argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.
The review is lengthy, detailed, and quite devastating. Precisely because he takes Dennett seriously enough to realize the work is vacuous, it is all the more harsh, because Hart treats Dennett one scholar to another, and finds him wanting. The language is formal, the style by turns witty without ever being ham-handed, and the critical points clear without a lot of fuss and bother. Using "The Hunting of the Snark" as a template is sheer genius, a bonus for Lewis Carroll lovers everywhere.

The other post concerns a series of letters and Hart's reply on a review he did of a work of Thomas Oden on the humor of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The letters, including one from Oden himself, are indignant that Hart would not only make several points in regard to the work itself - i.e., a work on the humor of a philosopher should be, well, humorous and contain quotes that were meant to be, and continue to be, funny, neither of which Oden seems to have done - as well as making certain observations on other philosophers that are both common knowledge and bare no relation to how Hart - or anyone else - fells about the gentlemen in question. For example, one letter writer takes umbrage that Bart says of Konigsberg's resident fastidious virgin, Immanuel Kant: “the most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway.” Quite apart from itself being an amusing observation, it is obviously true, regardless of how one feels about Kant, his work, or his legacy, subjects to which Hart makes reference in his reply:
To remark that Kant was a very boring man is to say nothing that even his admirers would not generally acknowledge, and to confess my low opinion of the developed form of his transcendental idealism is hardly to deny his epochal significance or his genius.
Hart is also chastised for criticizing Hegel, upon whom he makes this encomium:
I did not mean to give Hegel short shrift. I observed that his prose was turgid and his character pompous, which is correct on both counts. He also, however, possessed a savage and sometimes surgically exact wit. Moreover, he possessed one of the most majestic philosophical minds the world has ever seen, and no one else’s thought excites in me so intoxicating a combination of rapt admiration and sincere dread.
This post ends with a marvelous line that makes clear Hart is a deserving recipient of any prize:
[I]rreverence is not the same thing as contempt. Occasionally it is a sign of long familiarity and perhaps an absence of misplaced piety.
I shall have to hunt and find some longer works by David B. Hart, if for no other reason than I feel my appetite whetted by this brief introduction.

"A disruptive series of events is not the same as a catastrophe,"

This story on Morning Edition contains the above quote, part of a series from noted economist, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA.
Failure to raise the debt limit does not equate to a default on our debt at all[.]
The story continues directly, supposing Toomey's semi-doomsday scenario plays out:
Toomey suggests that even if the government couldn't pay all of its bills this summer, it could avoid a default by making sure what limited money is available goes to pay bondholders first. It's sort of like skimping on groceries in order to cover the mortgage. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Toomey acknowledged that would create some hardships for those who don't get paid — think Social Security recipients or members of the armed forces. But, Toomey said, it wouldn't be a financial disaster.
Yes, we are in the middle of a foreign war, a huge occupation, so by all means let us reach the point where even creative accounting no longer hides the fact that, with no legal authority to borrow more money, the US simply stops paying everyone military personnel, but pays bond holders.

And these people claim to care about the military?

How, pray tell, will the US pay these bond holders - largely foreign countries, particularly China, who hold US paper in copious amounts - if it doesn't have the cash to do so? Toomey doesn't say.

As an aside, may I just say that one of the biggest frustrations I have, listening to House Republicans talking about this matter, is they seem to insist that the Executive has the power of the public purse, when in fact, not a single dime of public money leaves the Treasury without it first being appropriated by . . . the House of Representatives, where all such bills, by Constitutional mandate, originate.

If the Republicans really cared about the deficit, rather than put their mugs before cameras, carrying on about Presidential irresponsibility, they would have crafted, months ago, an alternate budget that dealt with high unemployment, low demand, and the skittishness banks have in loaning out money. All this could have a huge impact on the operational deficit, by, over a relatively short period of time, increasing employment and thus increasing revenue.

Since the deficit is not about taxing or spending, but a nearly three-year-old economic slump, one would think the obvious answer is to deal with that slump. By playing chicken with the debt ceiling, the Republicans are proving almost institutionally incapable of holding any office of public responsibility and trust. One would have thought that the 12 years from 1994-2006 in which Republicans squandered what little trust the public had for public officials in general would have given their leadership (at any rate) some sense of responsibility.

Should the US renege on its sovereign debt over the summer, the Republicans would have proven to the country, and the world, they are not to be trusted with any office of public trust, at least until they show they no longer believe that destroying everything is a live option.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Why Obama Frustrates Liberals

I know the President still has a lot of support. There are things he and his administration have done that are commendable, to be sure. All the same, this single story from Talking Points Memo sums up, for me at any rate, why there are quite a few folks on the left side of America who pound their heads against various objects.
House Republicans huddled with President Obama Wednesday morning and afterward cited little if any progress in reaching an agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling or reduce spiraling deficits.
Were I an adviser to Pres. Obama, I would offer a completely different strategy.

Don't meet with them at all. Don't talk to them. Spend every waking hour, and a few while most folks are asleep, getting the message out that the Republicans in the House of Representatives are using the debt ceiling vote as a tool to gut programs people like and the country needs. I would make the case like this: Either the Republicans are bluffing because they know the United States cannot default on its sovereign debt, or they are irresponsible enough to believe that default is a live option. If the former is the case, they are not to be taken seriously because they will raise the debt ceiling. If the latter is the case, they are not to be taken seriously because they threaten not only the United States' economy, but a large patch of the world's economy. In either case, they are not to be taken seriously.

If this strategy were used, the Republicans, of course, would howl and scream. Let them. The US needs to pay its creditors (bond holders), and deficits are not "spiraling"; indeed, had Congress acted in a responsible manner, and unemployment were down rather than hover at or near 9% for a couple years, the deficit would be relatively mild.

While White House spokesman Jay Carney played down yesterday's vote and insisted the Republicans would "do the right thing", that goes against recent history of what Republicans do when given power in Congress, so don't consider me hopeful. The fact that Pres. Obama is "meeting" and "talking" with House Republicans, rather than ignoring them, at least on this matter at this point, is a prelude to one disaster or another.

Hate Is A Horrible Word

The 30 Day Song Challenge on Facebook was, I think, created by a teenage girl. How else can one understand the category, "Song You Hate". I mean, everyone has lists of songs they dislike, right? By and large, I try to shy away from using the word "hate" to describe pretty much anything. All the same, there are some obvious choices for a whole host of songs I could be said to dislike with a certain amount of passionate intensity.

I chose something different, though. The last stragglers of the hair band craze of the late 1980's were a pack of awfulness, cookie-cutter versions either of Bon Jovi (cute, cuddly party boys) or Guns N Roses (bad boys who had an aura of danger about them). My pick was of the former genus, the band that took the hard out of hard rock, Warrant. Ugh, tell me when it's over . . .

Feel free to name names in comments on your own pet musical hates . . .

Now, for some stuff I like. . .
Gebt Mir Meinen Jesum Wieder (St. Matthew's Passion)- Johann Sebastian Bach
Amelia - Joni Mitchell
Salvaging - Steven Wilson
Here Comes The Supernatural Anesthetist - Genesis
Big Boss Man - Grateful Dead, England 1972
Pacific Haze - Steve Howe's Remedy
3 Libras - A Perfect Circle
Deafinitely - David Gilmour
Dolores - Miles Davis Quintet
Babylon Sisters - Steely Dan

That's a nice musical palette cleanser, I would say . . .

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Humphrey-Hawkins, Jimmy Carter, & The Historical Record - A Defense Of Rick Perlstein

This history shows that you cannot make elite policymakers do what they do not wish to do, simply by ordering them to do it. You can write the law. You can specify the tools that should be used. You cannot make policymakers use them if they don’t want to.
James K. Galbraith

Government is the problem.
Ronald Reagan

The era of big government is over
Bill Clinton

I'm going to make some assumptions moving forward. First, I'm going to assume that Bob Somerby is implying a bit of intellectual dishonesty (see how this theme is expanding?) on the part of historian Rick Perlstein:
Did Carter really say that: We were intrigued by the highlighted part of Rick Perlstein’s op-ed column in praise of Hubert Humphrey
Here is the paragraph from Perlstein's Times piece:
''Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy,'' President Carter said in his 1978 State of the Union address, a generation before Bill Clinton said almost the same thing, cementing the Democrats' ambivalent retreat from New Deal-based government activism.
Somerby is kind enough to provide a link to a draft copy of Pres. Carter's 1978 State of the Union address:
We need patience and good will, but we really need to realize that there is a limit to the role and the function of government. Government cannot solve our problems, it can't set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. And government cannot mandate goodness. Only a true partnership between government and the people can ever hope to reach these goals.

Those of us who govern can sometimes inspire, and we can identify needs and marshal resources, but we simply cannot be the managers of everything and everybody.
So, yes, Carter said it. Mystery number one solved, easily enough.

What began as a post defending historian Rick Perlstein from any potential implication of intellectual dishonesty has turned, after just a few hours perusing the historical record available on the internet, into an examination of the record of the Carter Administration's approach to economic policy - in broad terms - in light of the legislative commands of Humphrey-Hawkins. What I found, quite simply, was that Carter not only kept the law at arms length; his late-term attempts to deal with the phenomenon of "stagflation", via Paul Volker's chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, was diametrically opposed both to the spirit and letter of that law. Furthermore, Carter was far more within a historical continuum that includes Ronald Reagan's insistence that "government is the problem" and Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of Big Government is over," than the more activist, traditionally liberal approach offered by the legacy of the late Hubert Humphrey in general, and this last piece of legislation to bear his name in particular.

What follows is a quick glance through to the past in order to make clear (a) that Perlstein's use of the quote from Pres. Carter, is faithful to its intent in the speech in which it was given; (b) far from reframing and restructuring legislative and executive approaches to fiscal, monetary, and employment policy, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act is, by and large, a dead letter; and (c) despite a signing ceremony in which Carter joined with Humphrey's widow, Muriel (who had been appointed to the seat upon her husband's death) and Rep. Augustus Hawkins, as well as Coretta Scott King, Carter's approach to these policy matters continued in a far more conventional mold, including supporting the decision by Fed Chair Paul Volcker to end the economic stagnation of the end of his term through tight money policies that, in the end, raised unemployment above ten percent by 1982, violating both the letter and spirit of Humphrey Hawkins. In all this, Carter led where Reagan and Clinton would follow.

What is known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act is officially the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. This link includes the full text of remarks made by Pres. Carter and the sponsors of the bill in a signing ceremony at the White House on October 27, 1978. The bill had a long and difficult road through Congress.
Full employment is already a statutory objective of the U.S. government. I know—I helped to write the law.

In 1976, as a young staffer for the House Banking Committee, I was tasked to a working group led by Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins; Leon Keyserling, the second Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; and other liberal stalwarts. Together, we drafted what in 1978 became the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act.


. . . The Senate cut the planning heart from the bill. The press was hostile. Enactment changed nothing at the Carter White House.
In the March/April, 1978 edition of Working Papers For A New Society, Galbraith wrote a scathing article (.pdf) entitled, "Why We Have No Full Employment Policy". After an initial glance at events in the first year of Carter's Presidency, including vocal criticisms from industry and business, Galbraith writes:
Whatever Carter's critics did, they should have been pleased. Instead of accelerated public service employment, youth employment, and public works, we were offered a $25 billion tax cut, tilted toward business. Tax reform is mostly "deferred," and the special treatment is capital gains is secure. Welfare reform is apparently a Congressional dead letter, and along with it funds to double the present 700,000 public service jobs. . . .

These events, inevitably, will strengthen the view that Carter has shifted rightward since the election. In truth, ideologies don't change so quickly. Perceived conditions have changed, but the government's underlying approach to short-run economic policy dates at least from the Tax Reduction Act of 1975. It is "steady recovery at all costs". On the numerical short-run objectives - and on their paramount importance - Carter's Administration hardly differs from Ford's.


The Humphrey-Hawkins Full-Employment Bill of 1976 [it was still dated from its date of introduction, not having passed when this was published in spring, 1978], as a news event, typified the misrepresentations characteristics of this issue [full employment]. By itself, the bill would neither end unemployment nor bankrupt the Republic; . . . What it did contain were directives, guidelines for the formation of employment programs and economic policies in the future, that could have led to dramatic program and policy changes. But not necessarily.


What the 1976 bill did not leave to executive discretion was the principle that full employment take an absolute priority in the formation of economic policy. The Employment Act of 1946 prescribes "maximum employment, production, and purchasing power" as coequal policy goals; Humphrey-Hawkins would have replaced this with a flat commitment to 3 percent adult unemployment within four years. Other objectives, notably price stability, would have to be sought within the confines imposed by this commitment. The Nixon-Burns use of restrictive monetary and fiscal policies (1969 and 1973) to generate unemployment in the interest of containing inflation would have been forbidden.(emphasis added)


The overriding weakness of Humphrey-Hawkins (strangely, given the extravagant claims of both supporters and opponents) was that it did not go far enough in reordering economic policy. . . . In a compromise in early 1976, when Senator Humphrey became a principle co-sponsor of what had been the Hawkins-Reuss Bill in the House, a provision guaranteeing jobs as a matter of enforceable right was replaced by the "interim objective" of 3 percent adult unemployment within four years, thus permitting coverage of teenagers and disproportionately unemployed minorities to remain vague. . . .

In the 1977 version, which Carter supports, a largely symbolic statement becomes exclusively so. The "right" to employment becomes merely a "goal," the "Full Employment and Balanced Growth Plan" is subsumed in to the President's annual economic report, the explicit injunction that price stability "shall not ne sought through any weakening of the goals and timetables related to reduction of unemployment" has disappeared.
In October, the bill became law, yet there isn't a word of the event - surely if as historic and important as both supporters and detractors claimed - in Carter's published memoirs of his Presidency, Keeping the Faith.

As Galbraith makes clear in his article, printed before the passage of Humphrey-Hawkins, the bill Carter supported, the bill that became law, was a toothless expression of "goals" and reports, without any specific policy prescriptions, except, as his 2011 article makes clear, what has become known as the "dual mandate" of the Fed both to keep unemployment low as well as inflation, and report biennially on progress toward these goals.

Paul Volcker, Carter's 1979 choice to head the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC), saw "killing inflation was his number one priority."
Volcker realized he risked putting the economy into recession.

Interest rates soared. While the 3-month Treasury Bill was climbing from 8% in September of '79 to 12.5% by year end, the Fed wasn't counting on long-term rates rising as well, from the 9.2% level in September to 10.1% by December 31st. [In most normal environments, as the Fed is increasing short interest rates (the only thing they can influence directly), the longer end of the yield curve responds positively. Since the longer end represents "inflation expectations," by raising short rates you would expect
to eventually slow the economy and dampen inflation fears. Thus, the premium that investors demand for buying longer-term instruments should narrow, not widen.]

Into early 1980 interest rates across the board continued to rise and the economy tipped into recession (a mild one but an important one as far as the presidential election of 1980 was concerned). By the end of the first quarter, the long bond was yielding 12.3%. Treasury Bills were to peak that year in the second quarter, 15.6%. The inflation rate for the first quarter of 1980, as measured by the CPI was 14.6%.


Reagan won the election that November [1980] and, as soon as the votes were tabulated, Volcker began to tighten interest rates more. The federal funds rate, which had averaged 11.2% in 1979, peaked at 20% in June 1981. The prime rate rose to 21.5% in '81 as well.
Treasury Bills hit 17.3% and the long-term bond was on its way to 15.3%.


By July 1981 the nation was in recession, and it would be a long, ugly one. [Economists choose November 1982 as the month the recession ended.] The manufacturing sector was decimated plus the combination of high interest rates and an expensive dollar sharply reduced American exports, particularly hurting farmers.
Had Volcker in any way operated against Reagan's policy preferences, he would never have been renominated for Fed Chair in 1983. This alone shows that, despite the complaints that Carter was some odd creature called "tax-and-spend" liberal, in fact his fiscal and monetary policies were fundamentally indistinct from Reagan's. Furthermore, while signed and heralded with much pomp and circumstance, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, while making full employment a specific goal of our government's economic policy, it has been honored in the breach more than by following any of its proposals or mandates.

All in all, I believe both the spirit and letter of Rick Perlstein's quote from Pres. Carter's 1978 State of the Union speech as representative of an emerging consensus regarding the role of the federal government in fiscal, monetary, and employment policy in contrast to a far more activist position represented by the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey is sound. So, I eagerly await Bob Somerby's upcoming column to see if he claims otherwise.

Virtual Tin Cup

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