Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A New Senator for Illinois?

As far as I can tell, Roland Burris is an honorable man and Rod Blagojevich is still the governor of Illinois. I don't see what basis Harry Reid has for refusing to seat Burris.

Doubling Down with the RNC

I can see no reason why the benefit Obama might have derived from white guilt shouldn’t be a legitimate target of political satire. However, “Barack the Magic Negro” has that sledge hammer subtlety that has always caused me to find Rush Limbaugh so profoundly unfunny. As everyone probably knows, the song was part of a CD distributed by Chip Saltsman to boost his candidacy for Chairman of the Republican National Committee. The title of the CD is “We Hate the USA.” Apparently, Saltsman wants to bet the Republican Party’s future on the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans who think that the only “real” Americans are people who share their vision of the world. Perhaps it was Saltsman’s service as manager of Mike Huckabee’s unsuccessful campaign that convinced him that pandering to the prejudices of the far right is much more promising than trying to take the high road.

I was particularly fascinated by Larry Elder’s attempts to turn the table on Democrats. Appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, the conservative Black talk show host noted that it was the Democratic “party that was opposed to the 13th, the 14th, the 15th amendment. The party that founded the Klan.” According to Elder, “If you want to go over the history of the party, the Democratic Party is a party, historically, that has been antithetical to black history.” What Elder failed to mention was how Ronald Reagan stole that mantle for the Republican Party during his 1980 presidential campaign by announcing his support for “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi; the scene of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm Still a Sucker for Christmas

I will be going to the earliest mass tomorrow as I do every Christmas. Although I consider myself an agnostic, I am still deeply moved by the story of the divine spark manifested in such humble circumstances.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Last Minute Gift Ideas or What I Have Been Reading Lately

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, Matt Taibbi. Very entertaining book about nuts on both ends of the political spectrum who have abandoned belief in objective reality. The author goes undercover at John Hagee's Cornerstone Church and in the 911 Truth Movement. Highlights include vomiting demons into paper bags and the 911 group whose big accomplishment was scheduling a movie night.

Robert Kennedy: His Life / by Evan Thomas. A fascinating character who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, enthusiaticly supported Joe McCarthy, and wound up as a crusader for the poor and downtrodden.

The Conscience of a Liberal , Paul Krugman. A very well written explanation of why everything is the conservatives' fault.

The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, James K. Galbraith. Another very well written explanation of why everything is the conservatives' fault.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen. Excellent.

Chain of Blame: How Wall Street Caused the Mortgage and Credit Crisis, Paul Muolo, Mathew Padilla. There is truly plenty of blame to go around although Bill Clinton's support of the Community Redevelopment Act had nothing to do with it.

The Coldest Winter : America and the Korean War, David Halberstam. Fascinating book on a little known war. Truman stands up to MacArthur, the arrogant general who never spent a night in Korea during the entire time that he commanded the American forces there.

The Great Upheaval : America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, Jay Winik. The French Revolution, Catherine the Great and George Washington's administration all packed together.

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, Alan Greenspan. Although he is much more candid and clear than he was in his days as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Greenspan has a gift for making the most tumultuous financial events utterly tedious. I had a feeling that this was going to be a snorer when the library called me to tell me it was available. There had been seven people ahead of me when I reserved it and I got it three weeks later.

The End of Prosperity: How Higher Taxes Will Doom the Economy--If We Let It Happen, Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, Peter J. Tanous. A defense of supply side economics. Although I am only half way through, I notice that the authors only seem to make comparisons to the 1970's. They conveniently ignore the 1950's and 1960's when the United States was the dominant economic power in the world and the top marginal tax rate was as high as 90%.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Jane Mayer. I saw Philadelphia radio talk show host Mike Smerkonish telling Chris Matthews the other day that he had no problem with using any means necessary to extract information from Al Queda suspects. He figured that the CIA's best interrogation specialists must have figured that waterboarding was the best way to get the information. The only problem is that the CIA did not have any interrogation specialists; the FBI did but they were cut out of the loop because they did not believe in using torture.

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The facts were there but Bush and Cheney weren't interested in them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wishful Thinking

I have been stunned by the number of right wing bloggers I have read in the last couple days who are convinced that the Blagojevich scandal is somehow going to expose Barack Obama as the Marxist-terrorist-socialist-Muslim-babykilling non-citizen that they know him to be. I am not particularly surprised that they have such a low opinion of Obama's character. Rather, it is hard to believe that they are so stupid as to think that Obama is so stupid. Haven't they been paying attention to what has been going on over the last few months?

Here are two simple facts for the right wingnuts to consider:

(1) Rod Blagojevich is a first class douchebag. He is such a douchebag that he wishes he had George Bush's approval ratings. If George Bush and Sarah Palin had a child together, that child might be as arrogant, stupid, and incurious as Rod Blagojevich--but only if Bush and Palin were first cousins.

(2) Barack Obama, on the other hand, is really really smart. If he really is as complete a fraud as the wingnuts think he is, then he is an evil genius on a par with the love child of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

Conclusion? Obama is not going to be brought down by Blagojevich.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why Obama is So Confident

At a press conference today, Barack Obama was "absolutely certain" that no one on his team was involved with making any deals with Rod Blagojevich although he was still investigating to see what other contacts his staff might have had. I think I know why he is so confident.

I think the Obama campaign recognized long ago that Blagojevich was a ticking time bomb and they made the decision that the risk of dealing with him on any level outweighed anything that could possibly be gained. I suspect that a concious decision was made long ago that no deals would be made regarding Obama's vacant senate seat. My guess is that everyone on the Obama team was instructed to tell Blagojevich that he should use his best judgment in filling the senate seat. They could tell Blagojevich who Obama liked, but they never had any intention of offering the governor anything in exchange for any pick.

I think that Obama campaign manager David Axelrod's comments to FOX News Chicago on November 23rd make sense in this context. "I know he's talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them." If it had been planned for months that Obama would tell Blagojevich who he liked for the seat and nothing more, Axelrod may simply have assumed that the conversation had taken place at some time.

I think that Blagojevich's behavior makes sense in this light, too. The complaint describes the governor becoming irate with consultants who told him to “suck it up” and give Obama the senate candidate he wanted for nothing. I suspect that the consultants had put out feelers on behalf of Blagojevich and been told Obama wasn’t interested in any deals. The consultants would not have been as blatant as Blagojevich and Axelrod or Rahm Emmanuel would have been smart enough to cut them off long before they reached the point of suggesting a quid pro quo.

What is more interesting to me is what the Obama guys knew about Blagojevich eighteen months ago that made them decide to freeze out Blagojevich from the start. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama gets away without ever answering that question as the right wingnuts are going to make themselves look silly trying to trump up some improper contact between Blagojevich and the transition team.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama's Role in Blagojevich's Downfall

On September 17, 2009, Chicago Tribune columnist Dennis Byrne accused Barack Obama of “abetting” the Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones’ efforts to block meaningful ethics reform in Illinois. Byrne wanted Obama to urge Jones to call the Illinois Senate back into session in order to override Blagojevich’s veto of a bill that would have banned companies from making campaign donations to certain state officials if they were doing more than $50,000 in business with the state. Obama had declined to get involved in the matter other than to express his generalized support for reform. Byrne ranted “Agent of change, my foot.”

While I did not think it fair to blame Obama for what Blagojevich and Jones were doing, I realized that it was not unreasonable to expect him to express his support for the bill. Obama’s ability to stay clean in the cesspool of Illinois and Chicago politics was one of the things that most impressed me; however, his endorsement of Democratic hacks like County Board President Todd Stroger had disappointed me. On the other hand, I thought that getting involved was a no-win proposition for Obama. If he was successful, it would carry little weight outside Illinois—a state that he already had locked up. If he failed, he would look ineffectual across the entire country and give Republicans tons of ammo.

To my surprise, Obama decided to call Jones and Jones agreed to call the Illinois Senate back into session to pass the ethics bill. Blagojevich whined that Obama was falling into a GOP trap. “Let me be clear: I don’t think he (Obama) should be asked to be involved in any of this. He’s busy running for president,” the governor said. “It’s the Republicans who dragged him into this issue. They’re the ones who called on him to call on Senate President Jones to act on the ethics bill.” Nevertheless, the bill passed and will take effect in January.

It is apparent that Obama’s phone call indirectly sparked Blagojevich mad cash scramble. According to the criminal complaint filed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, after passage of the bill, Blagojevich “accelerat[ed] his corrupt fund raising activities to accumulate as much money as possible before the implementation of ethics legislation on January 1, 2009.” This led Fitzgerald to seek court approval to tap Blagojevich’s office and bug his phone. Like the contestants on Supermarket Sweep, Blagojevich was desperately filling his shopping cart with cash in the allotted time.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Things We Only Think They Said

On April 6, 1862, a Confederate army under General Albert Johnston attacked a Union force camped on the banks of the Tennessee river in northern Mississippi. In what came to be known as the Battle of Shiloh, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was completely taken by surprise. By the end of the first day's fighting, the Union army had almost been forced into the river. Almost everyone except Grant believed that he would have to retreat. However, Grant knew that the Confederates were just as exhausted by the day's fighting as the Union troops. Using reinforcements that came up during the night, Grant counterattacked the next day and drove the rebel forces from the field.

Appalled by the casualties and lack of preparation, newspapers and politicians throughout the North called for Grant to be sacked, but Abraham Lincoln declined to do so. Speaking to one Pennsylvania congressman, President Lincoln said "I can't spare this man. He fights!" This is not the most famous thing Lincoln ever said, but it is pretty well known. It is recounted by James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, by biographer Jean Edward Smith in Grant, and by many others.

The only problem is that Lincoln may never have said it. According to William Marvel in Lincoln's Darkest Year: The War in 1862 and Brooks D. Simpson in Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, the Pennsylvania politician, Alexander McClure, did not tell anyone about Lincoln's comment until several years after the war. The record shows that Lincoln relied on Grant's superior, General Henry W. Halleck, to determine whether Grant had acted properly at Shiloh, and that Halleck gave Grant a hard time over the next several months.

There are also questions about Confederate General Robert E. Lee's statements on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg after the Union forces had repulsed Pickett's Charge. According to Shelby Foote in The Civil War: A Narrative, Lee rode among his troops saying "It's all my fault" and "The blame is mine."
To [General Cadmus] Wilcox, who was about as unstrung as [General George]
Pickett in reporting that he was not sure that his troops would stand if the
Federals attacked, Lee was particularly solicitous and tender. "Never
mind, General," he told him taking his hand as he spoke. "All
this has been my fault—it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me
out of it the best way you can."
It is considered to be one of Lee's finest moments.

In this case, the problem is not so much with what Lee said as to who he said it. According to Michael Fellmen in The Making of Robert E Lee, Lee had taken responsibility in order to rally his discouraged brigade commander Wilcox, but
"[t]here is no evidence to corroborate the legend that Lee rode among the common
soldiers and confessed his failings . . . . It would not have been
in his aristocratic character, nor would it have made good sense in terms of
discipline to have made such a confession to all and sundry, an act that Lee
would have found unacceptably humiliating."
He encouraged his foot soldiers, but Fellmen considers the generalized mea culpa unlikely.

Any Civil War buff worth his salt is probably aware of dozens of cases where the evidence is pretty thin that a famous quote is actually the product of the person to whom it is attributed. Stories about Lincoln and Lee were as likely to be told and retold over the years because they reflected popular understanding of these men as because they accurately reported what really happened.

Evangelical Christians like to tell themselves that unbelievers are unreasonably skeptical about the historicity of the gospels, but no responsible historian takes any written report at face value. They look for corroboration and always recognize the possibility that a story got passed on because it was a good story rather than because it was true. One needs to look no further than the story of the woman caught in adultery to know that this happened in the Bible.

Monday, November 24, 2008

An Over-the-Top Analogy

In my last post, I opined that that skeptics' reservations about the authorship and transmission of the New Testament texts are no greater than any thinking person's reservations about any other ancient writings. I began thinking about this after reading Jeremy Pierce's post entitled Bart Ehrman's Master Argument on his Parableman blog and I made similar comments there. When I argued that any classical scholar would readily acknowledge the possibility that someone other than Plato could have written Plato, Mr. Pierce suggests an analogy that that is impressive in its audacity:

I was saying that Ehrman's skeptical standard would undermine ordinary knowledge
if you applied it to ordinary cases. Ehrman thinks that you can't know anything
if there's any possibility that your belief is wrong. The mere possibility that
any textual reading we've got was changed with no manuscript evidence of the
original reading is enough for him to say that we have no knowledge of the
original text, even though we've almost certainly got the overwhelming majority
of the original text. I don't think it's very likely that I'm in the Matrix, but
there is that possibility. I can't rule it out for sure. If I applied Ehrman's
standard to that, then I'd have to say that I don't know my wife exists or that
what I remember doing yesterday even happened.

Wow! A skeptic's doubts about the integrity of first century copying is comparable to believing that people live in pods providing nutrition for machines. That seems like quite a stretch, even for apologetics.

What I think Mr. Pierce misses here is that certainty and skepticism are functions of the available evidence. When a classicist speaks of being "confident" that something was written by Plato, we don’t interpret him as meaning the same thing as a Civil War historian who is "confident" that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. With Plato, we cannot fix the day and time that any particular work was first made public. We cannot trace Plato’s movements in the preceding days. We have no reports from contemporaries who saw him working on it or who discussed it with him. A scholar’s confidence that Plato wrote some particular work is not confidence in any absolute sense, but confidence relative to the surety we can have about anything that happened that long ago.

To be skeptical about whether or not Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address may start to implicate some Matrix-like doubts about our ability to know anything about the past. However, to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge of who wrote Plato or the New Testament, or how the manuscripts might have been altered during transmission is nothing more than mere rationality. The evidence that Mr. Pierce's wife exists is (I suspect) substantially greater than the evidence that the New Testaments writings were not corrupted during copying in the first couple centuries after they were written.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Agnostics and atheists are frequently criticized for applying a level of skepticism to the writings of the New Testament that they would never apply to any other historical document. Christian apologists argue that unbelievers hold reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the texts that are out of all proportion to the reservations they have about other ancient historical events and writings. I believe that this criticism is for the most part utter malarkey. The problem is not that skeptics have greater reservations about the origins of Christianity than they have about other ancient events and writings. The fact is that these reservations are so completely unremarkable as applied to any other subject that no one ever bothers to mention them. It is only conservative Christians who work themselves into a tizzy over them.

Would a classicist utterly and completely dismiss the possibility that the works of Plato were not really written by a man named Plato? If it could be demonstrated that the works were actually written by a brilliant but unknown philosopher living twenty-five years after Plato died who used a more famous person’s name simply to get his works read, would it in any way make anyone feel hopeless about the security of ordinary knowledge? I doubt it. Given the scarcity of ancient documents, most thinking people would acknowledge the possibility that this could have happened. However, no one is concerned about this possibility because the cultural and historical significance of The Republic does not depend on whether it was actually written by the man we think of as the historical Plato. It is the power of its ideas that has influenced philosophers throughout the ages.

The books of the New Testament, on the other hand, present an entirely different situation for the conservative Christian because their theological significance is wholly dependent on who actually wrote them. We are told that one of the key criteria for the early church in deciding which books belonged in the New Testament canon was apostolicity. A specific group of historical people, the Apostles, had a special relationship with a specific historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, which causes conservative Christians to believe that they wrote under the special inspiration of God in a way that no other human being has ever written since. While the impact of The Merchant of Venice and Othello does not depend on whether they were written by Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare, the theological authority of the Gospel of Mark depends crucially on whether it was a factual account written by a companion of the Apostle Peter or simply a work of fiction by an unknown writer. No one in the world is bothered by the possibility that the words attributed to Socrates weren’t really spoken by the historical Socrates, but the beliefs of millions of Christians are completely false if the words attributed to Jesus weren’t really spoken by the historical Jesus.

I don’t think that my reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the early texts are any greater than those that most scholars have about the transmission of other ancient texts. In fact, I doubt that they are any greater than the reservations that conservative Christians have about ancient documents other than the Bible. However, the reservations that are utterly trivial with respect to any other ancient text become extremely important to conservative Christians because their beliefs and practices are contingent on the authority of their scriptures and that authority depends on that extent to which the words of scripture can be attributed to specific historical persons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seeing Russia From Alaska

I have been fascinated by the various details that have been coming out of the McCain campaign about Sarah Palin's body of knowledge about the world outside of Alaska. Some people seem to think they can cover their own ass by attacking Palin while others think that self preservation dictates that they defend her. At this point, it is hard to find any of the stories particularly credible.

As much as I enjoy watching the Republicans tear each other apart, the story I am most eager to hear is how Palin came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to sell Alaska's proximity to Russia as foreign policy experience. From what I can tell, the first person to float this idea publicly was Fox News' Steve Doocy on August 29th. The first I heard of it was when Cindy McCain brought it up in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on August 31st. At the time, I thought it was just silly and I could not imagine that anyone would take it seriously.

I was stunned when Palin trotted out this argument with Charles Gibson a week later:
GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of
weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?
PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
Was that really the best she could do? Wouldn't it have been better simply to say that as a governor, her attention had been focused on running her state, but that mastering new areas of knowledge and new challenges was part of her skill set?

A couple days after the Gibson interview, on September 13th, Tina Fey unleashed her Palin impression on Saturday Night Live with a wonderfully ditsy delivery of "I can see Russia from my house."

Despite a week and a half to come up with a better answer to the foreign policy question Palin went to the same well in her interview with Katie Couric:
It’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia.
As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of
America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is
from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on
this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right
next to our state.
This led to the following line on the September 27th episode of Saturday Night Live:
COURIC(Amy Poehler): How do you do that exactly?
PALIN(Tina Fey): Every morning when Alaskans wake up, one of the
first things they do, is look outside to see if there are any Russians
hanging around. If there are, you have to go up to them and ask "What are
you doin' here?" And if they can give you a good reason, if they can't,
it's our responsibility to say, you know, "Shoo. Get back over

Not surprisingly, it was this interview that caused even conservatives to start questioning Palin's competence.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Palin stuck with this. Unlike her dubious claim about saying "No thanks" to the bridge to nowhere, claiming that proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience wasn't going to fire up the base. On the other hand, it made her look foolish to independents, moderates, and even some previously reliable culture warriors like Kathleen Parker. Moreover, Palin knew what the reaction to this claim was going to be before she ever uttered it because it had already been run up the flag pole by both Steve Doocy and Cindy McCain.

I couldn't begin to guess what Palin really knows about Africa or NAFTA, but I find it hard to believe that a reasonably bright person couldn't have answered a question about foreign policy experience with something better than Alaska's proximity to Russia. I also wonder what was going on with her advisers within the McCain that they decided to let her go ahead with that answer. Did they try to get her to give some other answer or was she simply so stubborn and unteachable that they figured that was as good as anything they could hope for?

I would love to hear the story behind this.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Media Bias?

If you could infer bias solely from the quantity of criticism, you would have to conclude that historians are biased against James Buchanan and biased in favor of Abraham Lincoln because there are more negative evaluations of the former’s presidency than the latter’s. To take it to an even greater level of absurdity, you would have to conclude that historians "are in the bag" for Churchill and Roosevelt as opposed to Stalin and Hitler.

I certainly would not argue for the complete absence of bias in the media, but the American people decided to go with the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 after many years of preferring the Republicans. One must at least consider the possibility that there might be some objective basis for being more critical of the Republicans.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Scum v. Dumb

Could Sarah Palin really be so poorly informed that she does not know that North America is made up of Canada, the United States, and Mexico? Based on the Katie Couric interview, I could believe it. On the other hand, when I did some googling, I found sources that include Greenland, the islands of the Caribbean, and parts of Central America within North America so maybe the answer is not really so obvious.

I am frankly disgusted by the weasels in the McCain campaign. They deserve scorn if they are just trying to cover up for the failures of their candidate and themselves. They deserve even greater scorn if they really knew that Palin was that stupid and they did nothing to stop her from coming within a heartbeat of the Presidency.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Clear Thinking Evangelicals

The rage and despair that many conservative Christians have expressed over the election of Barack Obama has put a damper on my excitement, however, I have been heartened to find that there are many evangelicals who also think that some of their fellow believers are overreacting. I found the following thoughts from Scott Grace very encouraging:

America elects a pro-choice candidate and suddenly my fellow Christian brothers
and sisters head for the hills screaming the world has come to an end. Are not
abortion rates much higher in several other countries? Why aren't we just as
concerned about "life" in those countries?

America elects an economically progressive candidate and people are screaming
"socialism" preparing for a Rapture. (An mid-1800's invention of conservative
Christian theology). Doesn't America know that Democracy is one of the youngest
political philosophies to be employed? Why do we think the fate of the world
depends on the success of our economical and political philosophies
America is struggling economically, and Jesus is now coming back to rescue his
2000 year old church from this difficult tribulation. Doesn't America remember
that its only 232 years old? Why does God's blessing equate with monetary
Why do American Christians constantly tie the end of the world to the "demise"
of America? Isn't America only 5% of the world's population?
I've said it before, I will say it again. Christians in America are more
American than they are Christian. God forgive us for being so earthly minded.

I doubt that Scott and I would agree on many issues, but I think maybe we can agree that we are all Americans.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Condi Seems Positively Giddy

Nicely Done America!

Congratulations to John McCain on a classy concession speech. I wish we had seen more of that guy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama DID NOT Rip the Supreme Court or the Constitution

The latest distortion of Barack Obama’s positions can be found on World Net Daily. The headline says it all: “Obama rips U.S. Constitution, Faults Supreme Court for not mandating 'redistribution of wealth.'” Also jumping on board is The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg:
A just-unearthed 2001 interview with Obama on Chicago public radio reveals as much. Then a law school instructor and state legislator, Obama offered an eloquent indictment of the Warren Court for not being radical enough. While the court rightly gave blacks traditional rights, argued Obama, "the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth." Unfortunately, according to Obama, "it didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution."
The only problem is it JUST AIN’T SO!

Obama criticized neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court in the aforementioned interview. If anything, he criticized the civil rights movement for focusing on litigation to the exclusion of political action that might have achieved more of the movement’s goals. Here are Obama’s comments as quoted on World Net Daily:
If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be OK.
But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can't do to you. Says what the federal government can't do to you, but doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.
And that hasn't shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court-focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.
At this point the YouTube video of the interview carries this dishonest caption: “Yes he just said it’s a tragedy the Constitution wasn’t radically interpreted to force redistribution of wealth for African Americans.” NO HE DID NOT! There is no criticism of the Supreme Court or the Constitution there. The tragedy, according to Obama, was the failure of the civil rights movement to pursue change through the political process. He is acknowledging that the courts were not the answer to all the problems.

Obama made this point again when asked whether legislation or litigation was the appropriate way to bring about change:
The court's not very good at it. I'm not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. You know, the institution just isn’t structured that way. You start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues, the court … engaging in a process that essentially is administrative.
Once again, no call for changing the courts or the Constitution.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can't We Cut the "Redistributionist" Crap?

The United States of America has had a progressive income tax for almost a century. Social Security is almost three quarters of a century old.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reasons to Hope and Reasons to Despair

Riding up to Janesville, Wisconsin on Saturday, one of the women related a story about a canvasser in western Pennsylvania who was told by a woman who came to the door that she would have to ask her husband who she was voting for. When she called to her husband, the answer came back, “We’re voting for the n****r.” The woman turned to the canvasser and said without any embarrassment, “We’re voting for the n****r.” (The story is all over the blogosphere, but I have no idea whether it is apochryphal.)

The three women in the car thought that the story was shocking, but I found it very encouraging. I have no illusions about the existence of racism, but it is nice to think that people can overcome it sufficiently to see where their economic interests lie. My father was fond of saying that Ronald Reagan’s genius was in convincing a lot of members of the middle class that they could afford to be Republicans.

Speaking of the crazy things that people believe, I just started reading Matt Taibbi's The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire. His take on Pastor John Hagee's support for Christian Zionism is brilliant:

[I]t was unmistakably an ingenious solution to the problem of how to rally
southern conservative Christians a few generations removed from their
cross-burning Klan days to the cause of Israel. If it turns out that it was
dreamed up by the same guy who figured out how to get laid-off Midwestern
factory workers to whoop for free-trade Republicanism by plastering the airwaves
with French-kissing men, I have to say, that guy deserves some kind of special
medal—a Triple Order of Satan, or something like that.
Part of Taibbi's research involved joining Hagee's Cornerstone Church and learning how to vomit demons into a paper bag at a weekend retreat.

I could not help but think of Sarah Palin as I read Taibbi's assessment of the possibility of rational political discourse with such people:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that
Christians of this type should learn to “be rational” or “set aside your
religion” about such things as the Iraq war or other policy matters. Once
you’ve made a journey like this—once you’ve gone this far—you are beyond
suggestible. It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the
constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc.,
that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place you have left
behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent
opinion about such things.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Canvassing for Obama

2008 will mark the ninth presidential election that I have voted in. Prior to this year, I had never contributed to a presidential campaign, worked on a presidential campaign, displayed a political sign in my yard, worn a button for a candidate, or put a bumper sticker on my car. This year, I have done all these things on behalf of Barack Obama. Yesterday, I went canvassing in Janesville, Wisconsin on behalf of Obama. Two weeks ago, I canvassed in Hales Corners, Wisconsin.

The McCain supporters I encountered were much friendlier this week than they were two weeks ago. In Hales Corners, the Republicans seemed angrier. One elderly lady asked "How can you vote for him?" A middle aged man said "We're not fans of that guy." This week, one guy came to the door swearing at his dogs, but smiled warmly when he saw my Obama button and said, "We're voting for McCain, but good luck with that socialism." His neighbor two doors down said he was voting Republican, but he thanked me for my "enthusiasm."

I can't help but think that the warmer attitude I encountered this week reflected a sense of resignation. Over the last two weeks, the bad economic news had not slacked, the McCain campaign has careened from issue to issue in the hopes of finding a message, and high profile Republicans have been abandoning their party's nominee with unprecedented frequency. With the McCain campaign giving up on a state that the Democrats barely carried in 2004, the Republicans I encountered in Janesville may just be demonstrating the good sportsmanship of people who know they have been beaten fair and square.

Next weekend I am heading down to Indiana to see whether the Hoosiers will vote Democratic for the first time since 1964.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Greenspan Was Wrong About Deregulation

If you don't watch CNBC, you may only know Vince Farrell as the financial analyst who got Whammied out of the decabox on the Daily Show.

However, today Farrell absolutely nailed the hole in Alan Greenspan's deregulatory philosophy:
The problem with the models is that it does assume rational behavior. As
far as an institution protecting its equity, which is what [Greenspan] said,
institutions don’t protect equity, people protect equity. The people in
those institutions saw huge bonuses by pumping this stuff out. So if you
want to call that irrational behavior, it’s irrational as far as the economy
wound up going, but it is very rational for their self-interest. There is
no institutional self-interest. . . . [Greenspan] still just doesn’t get

As I noted in my recent post on Corporations and the Free Market, corporations are imaginary people. They are creatures of law. They do not have instincts like fear and self-preservation. If the regulatory scheme is not designed to tie the compensation of the executives to the long term health of the company and the risk of loss, there is nothing in the nature of the corporation to deter those executives from risking catastrophic losses that will fall on society as a whole in order to earn returns that they will enjoy.

Is Sarah a Socialist?

Who is the governor of the state that practices the purest form of wealth redistribution?

Here is a hint: Which state taxes the oil companies in order to write checks directly to each one of its citizens?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Republicans' Dirty Little Secret

No matter how high the rate is in the highest tax bracket, that is the tax bracket that every Republican (and Democrat for that matter) wants to be in.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Granfaloons

[T]he doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself. Robert Pirsig

That quote struck me deeply when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thirty years ago and I have been pondering it again recently. The McCain campaign is stirring up its base by identifying them as “real Americans” from “the real America” or “the real Virginia.” Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman wants a new McCarthy style witch hunt to smoke out members of Congress who might harbor “anti-American” sentiments. While part of the GOP playbook since 1968, the “us-vs-them” strategy seems to be the entire GOP game plan this time around.
In a parallel vein, I had an amusing experience with some deleted comments on the blog of evangelical Christian Roger Bearse. Roger had written a post arguing that it was reasonable for conservative Christians to view liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman and members of the Jesus Seminar as “attacking Christianity.” What particularly struck me was the following question: “Can anyone really believe that Christians are not entitled to self-definition, of who is or is not a believer, which beliefs do and do not form part of the apostolic teaching?” I could not help but think that he was might be less concerned about defining himself than he was about defining others.

So last night I posed what seemed to me to be an obvious and civil question:
How do you sufficiently define “Christian” in order to decide who gets to
participate in the self-definition?

This morning I found an e-mail notice of the following response from Roger:

I don't think that there is any genuine doubt as to who the Christians are!

When I went to Roger’s blog to post a comment, however, I found that Roger had deleted both my comment and his own. I was a little surprised because, but I still left a response:

If there were no “genuine doubt as to who the Christians are,” there would
be no need for self-definition.

My response was deleted within an hour.

I am usually not surprised when my comments are deleted because I know when I have intentionally been a smart ass or when I have raised issues that the blogger does not want to deal with. However, this time I was a little taken aback. If you are going to assert the necessity of separating the wheat from the chaff, I don’t think you should be surprised if someone asks you about your criteria.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Those Sneaky Bastards in the Liberal Elite Media

Talk about devious! For 160 years, the Chicago Tribune hid its lefty America-hating tendencies in order to deceive its readers into believing that it is a conservative newspaper. Obviously it was just waiting for the chance to endorse a Democrat who would completely destroy the very fiber of our nation.

Many Americans say they're uneasy about Obama. He's pretty new to them.We
can provide some assurance. We have known Obama since he entered politics a
dozen years ago. We have watched him, worked with him, argued with him as he
rose from an effective state senator to an inspiring U.S. senator to the
Democratic Party's nominee for president.

Talk about your commie pinko claptrap!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Speaking of Unrepentant Radicals

In 1995, Illinois State Senator Alice Palmer announced to a group of her supporters that she was stepping down to run for the United States Congress. She gathered these supporters at the home of Bill Ayers, an unrepentant radical from the Vietnam War era. One of the invitees was Barack Obama, the man that Palmer was endorsing for the seat she was vacating. This gathering has given rise to the assertion that Obama launched his career in Ayers living room.

In November 2007 John McCain appeared on the radio show of unrepentant Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. McCain has appeared on that show many times before and since. While Obama has repudiated Ayers radical activities, McCain says of Liddy, "I'm proud of you, I'm proud of your family. It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."

As Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune asked:
Which principles would those be? The ones that told Liddy it was fine to break
into the office of the Democratic National Committee to plant bugs and
photograph documents? The ones that made him propose to kidnap anti-war
activists so they couldn't disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention? The
ones that inspired him to plan the murder (never carried out) of an unfriendly
newspaper columnist?
Talk about palling around with terrorists.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Guy in the Neighborhood

Listening to Sarah Palin, you might think that William Ayers walked around wearing an "I Hate America" tee shirt. However, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn provides some perspective on Ayers standing in Chicago during the years that Barack Obama encountered him:
He was publishing books on education, helping lead a charge to get grant money for school reform and being honored as Chicago's Citizen of the Year in 1997.
Today, some say this was an outrage. Ayers should have been shunned and marginalized, loudly criticized, not embraced, by the city's political and academic establishment.
But the record shows he just wasn't a very controversial figure. Aside from Royko's "I still think he's a jerk" column in 1990, I found only two objections to Ayers' civic rehabilitation in the decade's news archives: a 1993 letter to the Tribune and a 1999 guest commentary.
If there were protests or organized efforts opposing Ayers, the papers didn't cover them.
If any of Mayor Richard M. Daley's feckless opponents tried to use his approval of Ayers as an issue in the 1990s, I can find no evidence of it.
And if any of the pillars of society who helped oversee the Chicago Annenberg Challenge education grants ever resigned or otherwise tried to distance themselves from Ayers, who played a key role in securing those grants, the available historical record is silent on the matter.
It appears that during the period that Obama encountered him, Ayers literally was "just a guy in the neighborhood."

On the other hand, during the years that Todd Palin was a member of the Alaska Independence Party when Sarah Palin attended one convention and addressed another, the AIP openly advocated giving Alaskans the opportunity to vote themselves out of the United States. I suspect that the Palins encountered a lot more open hostility to America than Obama ever encountered with William Ayers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Krauthammer Opposes Free Speech

He doesn't share Rev. Wright's poisonous views of race nor Ayers' views, past and present, about the evil that is American society. But Obama clearly did not consider these views beyond the pale. . . . [F]or the years in which he sat in Wright's pews and shared common purpose on boards with Ayers, Obama considered them a legitimate, indeed unremarkable, part of social discourse.
Charles Krauthammer, October 10, 2008

58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. More than 150,000 were wounded. The South Vietnamese army may have lost more than 250,000 soldiers while 1,100,000 died fighting for North Vietnam. Civilian deaths might have been as high as 2,000,000.

Surely a discussion of whether the United States’ actions in Vietnam were justified is a legitimate part of social discourse. Certainly this discourse can include consideration of the immorality of different methods of opposing that war, but consideration of the morality of the war itself cannot be “beyond the pale” in a country that claims to embrace freedom of speech.

In 1953, the CIA overthrew the legitimate government of Iran and installed the Shah in its place. This led to the 1979 Islamic revolution and the taking of American hostages. During the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration provided support to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war depending on its perception of the United States' interests at the moment. After the first Gulf War, the Bush 41 administration urged the Kurds and Shia to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein and then turned a blind eye as Saddam viciously suppressed them. Over the years, the United States has supplied the arms that kept the Saudi monarchy in power while that same monarchy funded the Wahabbist sect from which Osama bin Laden sprang.

Is it really beyond the pale to consider the connection between the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East and the 9/11 attacks? Is the very suggestion that “America’s chickens came home to roost” on 9/11 so outrageous that anyone who dares to articulate that possibility must be shunned from all polite society?

Why is Krauthammer so eager to paint these issues as illegitimate subjects of discussion. Could it be because he was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the War in Iraq? Could it be that he simply wants to quash all discussions of the consequences of America’s military adventures in order to avoid discussing the morality of his own positions?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the Need to Threaten Violence

According to Bill Dyers:
[T]he defining moment of the debate was when a young governor from a remote, sparsely populated state strode confidently across the national stage, stuck out her hand for a firm handshake, looked a silver-haired senator of 36 years' tenure squarely in the eye, and said: "Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?"

At that moment, the champagne bubble of the elites popped. For millions of viewers (but almost no national pundits), the juxtaposition telegraphed a clear message: "She's not one of them, she's one of us. But she isn't awed by him. She's not afraid."
I cannot help but think that this goes a long way towards explaining the threats of violence directed towards Kathleen Parker after she suggested that Sarah Palin should step down as John McCain’s running mate. After all, if the defining moment for you has nothing to do with experience, intelligence, knowledge of the issues, ability, or qualifications, what possible response can you have to someone who points out Palin's shortcomings in those areas other than vitriol and threats.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Kathleen Parker Never Saw It Coming

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker was surprised by the vicious and threatening e-mail she got after suggesting that Sarah Palin should do John McCain a favor by quitting the ticket.

First Draft offers some terrific insights into Parker's predicament:

Honestly, what did you think?
These are the people who called 9/11 widows grief pimps . . .

These are the people who laughed at the idea of Timothy McVeigh making a detour to the New York Times Building. . . .

These are the people who said Pat Tillman's family should shut up and go away. That Cindy Sheehan was a whore. That Valerie Plame was a criminal. That Richard Clarke was a monster.

Did you think it would be different because you've written favorably of their pet causes in the past? The past doesn't exist to these people. There is no yesterday. There is no last week. There is no last year. There's only today, and you're with them or you're not. . . .

Friday, September 26, 2008

How I Benefited from the Housing Bubble

In 2000, I was paying over 8% on a 30yr adjustable rate mortgage. By 2006, I had refinanced six times into a 15yr fixed rate mortgage at 5.25% with lower payments than I had six years earlier. So while I don't like the idea of bailing out irresponsible borrowers and lenders, I can acknowledge that I derived significant benefits from the same forces that created the credit crisis that we have today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Simplified Explanation of the AIG Bailout

I was asked by Mr. Dawn Treader why the failure of AIG would have lead to a market meltdown. He seemed to find the following explanation helpful.

Suppose you start a bank by selling $10 worth of stock and taking $100 of deposits. It invests $100 in a bond issued by XYZ corporation. Your bank's balance sheet would look like this:



$ 10
Liability to depositors
$ 100
XYZ Corp. bond
$ 100

Shareholder Equity
$ 10

The capital ratio for the bank is 9.1% (Shareholder’s equity divided by total assets). All banks are required to maintain a certain capital ratio.

Now suppose that the bond declines in value to $95 due to financial difficulties at XYZ Corp. Now the balance sheet looks like this.



$ 10
Liability to depositors
$ 100
XYZ Corp. bond
$ 95

Shareholder Equity
$ 5

Now the capital ratio is 4.8%. If the relevant capital requirement for your bank is 5%, you must either sell some assets or raise more equity by selling more stock.

Financial institutions all over the world hold bonds that are insured by AIG. If AIG fails, the bonds are no longer be insured and the banks must mark down the value of the bonds on their balance sheets. When this happens, the banks no longer have satisfactory capital ratios and they must either sell assets or raise more capital by selling stock. Eighteen months ago, this would not have been a problem, but the market for bonds and for new stock has dried up completely.

I suspect that everyone remembers the run on the bank in It’s a Wonderful Life. Uncle Billy told George that he had turned over all their cash to the bank because the bank had called their loan. Companies all over the world depend on short term financing from banks to meet fluctuating cash needs. Even more importantly, banks depend on such financing from other banks.

If AIG had failed, there would have been a mad scramble for cash by banks all over the world. Being unable to sell the bonds they own, they would reduce the amount of loans they have outstanding. Businesses would see credit lines pulled and individuals would see the rates on their credit cards jump.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Corporations and the Free Market

It is undoubtedly true that the explosion in sub-prime mortgages occurred after the 1999 deregulation of the banking system spearheaded by Phil Gramm. Nevertheless, many libertarians still seek ways to blame government interference with the free market for the economy’s present woes. It seems to me that the economic system that the libertarians think of as the free market is in fact a product of government interference.

In a market free of government interference, I would think that a man would only be free to make promises that bind himself and others who expressly authorize the man to make promises on their behalf.1 This would limit the acceptable forms of conducting business to the sole proprietorship and the partnership. However, in our society a man is permitted to make promises that bind an entity known as a corporation. The corporation is a fictional person authorized by government regulation so that investors can share in the profits of business ventures without risking the liability of being a partner. Absent the corporation, the only option available to people who wanted a return from a business without the obligation of overseeing its activities would be to loan the business money.

The corporation is a useful tool because it can lead to the more efficient use of capital. Suppose for example, that a man had an idea for a new restaurant. Restaurants are notoriously risky ventures with a high failure rate. On the other hand, a successful concept can be extremely profitable. The man might find it very hard to borrow the money to open the restaurant because the lender would consider his chances of getting paid back pretty poor and might charge a prohibitive rate of interest. On the other hand, an investor might be willing to buy stock in the restaurant because the profits upon success will be great enough to justify the risk of failure. The existence of the corporation can allow beneficial economic activity.

The problem with the corporation is a product of the very quality that is its reason for existence. The shareholder who stands to benefit from the success of the business is not on the hook for more than his investment if things go wrong. That provides an incentive for the corporation to ignore catastrophic risks if their probability is very small. Suppose that a business executive is presented with an opportunity that has a nineteen out of twenty chance (.95) of producing a 25% profit and a one in twenty chance (.05) of producing a loss of 2000%. If the executive is running a partnership, the expected return for his investors is the sum of the return on success times its probability plus the return on failure times its probability ([25% x .95] + [-2000% x .05]), or negative 76%. On the other hand, if the man is running a corporation, a shareholder’s loss is limited to the amount he invested so the expected return for a shareholder on the same venture ([25% x .95] + [-100% x .05]), or positive 19%. When an investor’s loss is limited, an otherwise foolhardy investment can suddenly look quite reasonable. The excess losses will fall upon third parties such as customers who do not get the orders they paid for, employees who do not get their salary, suppliers who go unpaid, or people who get injured by the corporation. If the third parties are unable to bear the loss, it may wind up being borne by society as a whole.

This is more or less what happened with AIG this week. The insurance giant entered into contracts to insure the debt of other businesses. The odds may have been good that these contracts would produce a generous return for AIG’s shareholders, however, there was a small chance that AIG would not be able to make good on its contracts in which case the losses would be astronomical. Unfortunately the worst case occurred and the federal government was forced to bail out the company this week.

Fifty years ago, most of the major investment banks on Wall Street like Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs were organized as partnerships. In those days, their income came primarily from fees and commissions earned through transactions. They would help issuers bring securities to market by placing the securities with investors. However, they were limited in the extent to which they could buy the securities for themselves because they depended on the personal wealth of their partners and the willingness of those partners to take risks. It is said that they were in the transportation business rather than the storage business.

Over time, however, the investment banks started incorporating and going public. By floating stock, they got access to investors whose risk tolerance was different than the partners whose personal assets were on the line. As this happened, they started taking more risk. Trading for themselves became a bigger portion of their business. Like AIG, they wound up with positions that had a good chance of producing generous returns and a small chance of producing catastrophic losses. (Interestingly, the healthiest surviving investment bank is Goldman Sachs, which I believe was the last one to go public. Perhaps it best remembers how to manage risk like a partnership.)

Corporations have been around so long that it is easy to think of them as the essence of free market capitalism, but, in fact, they are legal constructs created by the government in order to separate the enjoyment of profits from the risk of losses. Corporations are incredibly useful tools for allocating capital efficiently and promoting general prosperity. Unfortunately, when the government abdicates responsibility for regulating the entities that it created in the first place, the risks end up being dumped on society as a whole and fewer and fewer people enjoy the rewards.

1 The Barefoot Bum informs me that promises as we know them would not exist in a market that was truly free of government interference because a promise can only be binding by virtue of government enforcement. "In a truly free market, promises cannot actually bind: you are rationally justified in trusting a "promise" only insofar as keeping the promise is in the long-term self-interest of the person making it." I confess that I am not equipped to argue the issue at that level of libertarian purity.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Playing the "Class Warfare" Card

In order to avoid discussing legitimate challenges to their positions, Blacks will sometimes charge their opponents with “racism.”

In order to avoid discussing legitimate challenges to their positions, Jews will sometimes charge their opponents with “anti-Semitism.”

In order to avoid discussing legitimate challenges to their positions, women will sometimes charge their opponents with “sexism.”

In order to avoid discussing legitimate challenges to their positions, many different groups will charge their opponents with “intolerance.”

In order to avoid discussing legitimate challenges to their positions, wealthy Americans like to charge their opponents with engaging in “class warfare.”

What makes dealing with these charges tricky is that many of these phenomena are real: Blacks have suffered as a result of being Blacks; Jews have suffered as a result of being Jews; women have suffered as a result of being women; and many people have been victimized simply for being different from their neighbors. As a result, I think we should be reluctant to reject charges of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and intolerance without due consideration.

The wealthy, on the other hand, hardly ever suffer as a result of being wealthy. As a result, when the wealthy start complaining about class warfare, I tend to think that it is just a smokescreen to avoid discussing the merits of which economic policies produce the most benefits for the greatest number of Americans,

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Palin's Bridge to Nowhere Admission

PALIN: And now obviously, Charlie, with the federal government saying, no, the rest of the nation does not want to fund that project. You have a choice. You either read the writing on the wall and understand okay, yes, that, that project’s going nowhere. And the state isn’t willing to fund that project. So what good does it do to continue to support something that circumstances have so drastically changed? You call an audible, and you deal in reality, and you move on. And, Charlie, we killed the bridge to nowhere and that’s the bottom line.

Let's consider what Sarah Palin is saying here:

  • The federal government said no.
  • The rest of the nation did not want to fund the project.
  • The state wasn't willing to fund the project.
  • Palin understood that the project was going nowhere.
  • Palin realized that continuing to support the project would not do any good.
  • Palin takes credit for killing the project.

The bottom line is that Palin has been lying about telling Congress "thanks but no thanks" on the bridge to nowhere and she knows perfectly well that she has been lying. She did not kill the project. She supported it until it became obvious that it wasn't going to fly. After it was dead, she started kicking it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin on Being Ready

Charles Gibson: "And you didn’t say to yourself, am I experienced enough? Am I ready?"

Sarah Palin: "I didn’t hesitate, no. "

Charles Gibson: "Doesn’t that take some hubris?"

Sarah Palin: "I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness. And knowing that you can’t blink. You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country, and victory in the war. You can’t blink. So, I didn’t blink then even, when asked to run as his running mate."

While I am not really sure what “wired in a way of being so committed to the mission” actually means, I am sure that Sarah Palin should have expected a question like this. I find it sad that this is the best answer she could come up with.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Animal Analogies

In order to avoid further offense, perhaps the McCain campaign could run the following analogies past Sarah Palin to see if any of them hurt her feelings:

  • You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. (This one might make McCain sad.)
  • A leopard can’t change its spots.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • Every dog has its day.
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • Don’t count your chickens before they're hatched.
  • You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
  • A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
  • A bull in a china shop.
  • That dog won’t hunt.
  • Proud as a peacock.
  • Stubborn as a mule.
  • Busy as a bee.
  • Like shit through a goose.
  • If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
  • Sly as a fox.
  • Tiger by the tail.
  • Useless as tits on a bull.

Palin on the Chautauqua Circuit

William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic convention is one of the most famous political speeches ever given in the United States. Economists have never thought too highly of Bryan's call for tying the value of the dollar to gold and silver (bimetallism) rather than gold alone, but people still loved the speech. They loved the speech so much that Bryan kept repeating it for the next twenty-five years on the Chautauqua circuit, long after its relevance to any real political issue had faded.

Every time I hear Sarah Palin repeat her line about saying "thanks but no thanks" to the "bridge to nowhere," I think of all the mileage that Bryan got out of his famous convention speech. Her early support for the bridge and her belated opposition to it were public knowledge by the day after her convention speech, but every time she speaks, she still delivers the line exactly as she did in the Twin Cities. Apparently people just like the way she says it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


From the Chicago Tribune's Voice of the People:

Let us not forget: Jesus was a community organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a governor. Tom Mitchell, Wheaton

Letter from a Wasilla Democrat

After John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate, Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny sent an e-mail to some friends and relatives who wanted to know her opinion of Palin. Not surprisingly, the e-mail gained much wider distribution than Kilkenny had intended and it was republished with her permission in the in the Anchorage Daily News. After reading it, I can see why the McCain campaign doesn't want Palin to face questions from reporters.

Many things in Kilkenny's letter disturbed me, but none more than this:
Sarah complained about the "old boy's club" when she first ran for Mayor, so
what did she bring Wasilla? A new set of "old boys". Palin fired most of the
experienced staff she inherited. At the City and as Governor she hired or
elevated new, inexperienced, obscure people, creating a staff totally dependent
on her for their jobs and eternally grateful and fiercely loyal--loyal to the
point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda, as she has
acknowledged happened in the case of pressuring the State's top cop.
Do the names Goodling and Brownie ring a bell?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Palin's Hockey Rink

Today's Wall Street Journal tells the story of the $14.7 million sports complex that Sarah Palin built while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska that ended up costing an extra $1.3 million due to the failure to secure a signed contract prior to building the complex. The city had won a trial against another buyer who claimed that the property had been sold to him and started to build despite the fact that the competing buyer had filed an appeal. When the trial judge reversed the decision, Wasilla was forced to obtain a smaller slice of the property by eminent domain for $710,000 more than the original price and pay the other buyer $336,000 in interest. The city's legal bill has been approximately $250,000.

Not surprisingly, Palin is not taking any questions.
The McCain-Palin campaign referred questions about the sports complex to Mr.
Leonard, the former city finance chief. He blamed the Nature Conservancy [the
seller] for dealing with two different potential buyers at one time. "That's
what caused the confusion," he said.

"At the time, with the information she had, [Ms. Palin] made the right
decision," Mr. Leonard said. "But you know what? Litigation happens."

If Palin ever does answer any questions about her record in Alaska, here are two I would like to ask about this situation:
  • Have you ever heard of title insurance?
  • Are you really confused by the idea of a seller dealing with more than one potential buyer?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Republican Hypocrisy Regarding Sarah Palin

Jon Stewart doing what he does so well, skewering politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouths.

Among the highlights:

Karl Rove explaining how Virginia governor Tim Kaine would be a bad VP choice for Obama because he had only been governor for three years and he had only been mayor of a city of 200,000 people.

Bill O'Reilly pontificating on how teen pregnancy was a private matter when it comes to the Palin family and blaming the parents of "pinhead" Jamie Lynn Spears for her pregnancy.

Dick Morris and McCain policy advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer slamming Hillary Clinton for playing the gender card and crying over the sexist treatment of Palin. However Stewart correctly noted, "In Dick Morris' defense, he is a lying sack of shit."

Palin herself criticizing Hillary for complaining about the way women are treated.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tell Me Another Story Daddy

If Sarah Palin is such a fearsome fighter of corruption even in her own party, why don't any Republican bigwigs seem nervous?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Palin's Pregnant Daughter

On the one hand, I agree that candidates’ children should be off limits. On the other hand, I am a parent who supports a high school English curriculum that includes some books that deal frankly with issues of human sexuality. In my community, that has earned the ire of certain evangelical Christians who have tried to get those books removed. Local Christian talk show host Sandy Rios has stated on her radio show that parents like me must not care about the welfare of our children because we would allow our children to be exposed to works like Slaughterhouse Five, Freakanomics, Beloved, The Things They Carried, and The Laramie Project.

So while I do not wish to cause any pain to Bristol Palin, I am curious to know her mother’s thoughts about how public schools should deal with issues of sexuality because in my community, the evangelical Christians of Sarah Palin’s ilk like to blame permissive parents for inciting young peoples’ sexual desires with racy books. I am not bothered by the fact that Sarah Palin’s daughter is pregnant any more than I was bothered by the fact that Dick Cheney’s daughter was a lesbian. I am bothered by the extent to which the conservative Christian wing of the Republican party thinks that other people’s sexuality is their business.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Let's Talk About Fighting Corruption

I hear that Sarah Palin is a tough cookie who is ready to stand up to big oil and take on corruption in her own party. Given her support for more drilling, I doubt that the big oil companies are exactly quaking in their boots. As far as her street cred as a corruption fighter, let's see what she has to say about the no bid contracts in Iraq and the billions of dollars that have gone missing there. Let's see what she has to say about the politicization of the Justice Department.

I guess that I am just a little bit skeptical about the tremendous popularity that Palin enjoys in Alaska. True corruption fighters tend to piss off more people than she has. I am reserving judgment, but I want to hear what she would do specifically about the corruption in Washington.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is Abortion Biblical?

Whenever an evangelical Christian dismisses a skeptic's argument on the grounds that the skeptic is misinterpreting some passage of scripture with which I am unfamiliar, I like to go read that passage. It amazes me how frequently the passage seems to means exactly what the skeptic said it means. Today it happened with a passage from Numbers that describes the procedure that a husband should follow when he suspects his wife of infidelity. Christians assert that the passage can't be used to support abortion because it doesn't say that the unfaithful wife was pregnant, but that seems pretty thin to me.
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure- then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder offering to draw attention to guilt.
"'The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, "If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband"--here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath--"may the LORD cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away."
"'Then the woman is to say, "Amen. So be it."
""'The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall have the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, and she will become accursed among her people. If, however, the woman has not defiled herself and is free from impurity, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
"'This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and defiles herself while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the LORD and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.' "
Numbers 5:11-31.

While it is true that the passage doesn't mention pregnancy, it is equally true that pregnancy is one of the natural consequences of sexual intercourse. If this is the procedure to be followed when a man suspects his wife of infidelity, it is necessarily going to be applied to some women who are pregnant. And if a pregnant woman is cursed so that she cannot have children, that would seem to necessitate the termination of the pregnancy.

What makes it even more interesting is a possible alternative translation of the phrase "her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away." According to the New International Version, this might be better translated as "she will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb." If the passage did not contemplate that some of the suspect women would be pregnant, the "miscarrying womb" would be superfluous. If this translation is correct, it seems even more clear that this passage instructs the cuckold to terminate a pregnancy that was got from another man.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Little Light on the Credit Crisis

"[W]e did not consider the dangers of financial deregulation. We failed to recognise that if risks can be taken and transferred freely, most of them will end up being taken by the most foolish investors, not the most suitable."

Edward Hadas, BreakingViews.com

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some Anecdotal Evidence

My daughter graduated from college in June with a degree in liberal arts. She just got her first job in the Chicago area, a clerical position in the medical field paying $11/hr. She has more than $20,000 in student loan debt.

In 1982, my wife graduated with a degree in liberal arts. Her first job in the Chicago area was also a clerical position in the medical field. She was paid $7/hr and had a couple thousand dollars in debt. Based on the Consumer Price Index, that would be worth $15.80/hr today.

Republicans have been in the White House for eighteen of those twenty-six years.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (9): More on "Minimal Facts"

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not a fan of Lee Strobel’s “investigative journalism” and the way that he somehow always seems to find the conservative Christian position overwhelmingly supported by the conservative Christian scholars that he interviews. I often find myself wanting to ask his experts a pointed follow-up question at the very moment Strobel is exclaiming “Wow! I’m completely convinced.” Sometimes I am fortunate enough to run across the answer to the question I wanted to ask somewhere else though.

This recently occurred with a question I had about Strobel’s interview with Mike Licona in The Case for the Real Jesus:
Although the fifth fact—that the tomb of Jesus was empty—is part of the minimal case for the resurrection, it doesn’t enjoy the nearly universal consensus among scholars that the first four do,” Licona began. “Still there’s strong evidence in its favor.”
“How strong?” I asked.
[Gary] Habermas determined that about 75 percent of scholars on the subject regard it as a historical fact. That’s quite a large majority.
The Case for the Real Jesus p. 123

I’ve always wondered about the sample of scholars that Habermas surveyed as part of his “minimal facts” approach. I couldn’t help but suspect that most of the “scholars on the subject” might be theologians whose qualifications as historians might be questionable. I thought that even a liberal theologian might be more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the historicity of the New Testament accounts than say a historian of ancient Rome or an archeologist. I have occasionally considered tracking down some of Habermas’ books through intra-library loan, but I’ve never gotten around to doing it. A few weeks back though, a blogger (who I would thank personally if I could remember who it was--turns out that it was Jon over at Evangelical Agnosticism) directed me to an article on Habermas’ website that had some of the information I was looking for.

Habermas’ Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? confirmed that “[m]ost of the critical scholars are theologians or New Testament scholars, while a number of philosophers and historians, among other fields, are also included.” Well call me a nitpicker, but I would like to see a lot more historians, archeologists, and cultural anthropologists in that sample. Essentially, the “minimal facts” approach boils down to this: Historians are required to explain those things that theologians consider to be facts. If they cannot do so to the satisfaction of Christian apologists, the apologists deem themselves entitled to claim the theological facts as historical facts on a par with any other fact that the historians accept. This doesn’t seem quite right to me. Maybe if Christian apologists showed some respect for the things that other groups of scholars (e.g., scientists) consider to be facts (e.g., evolution) I might feel differently.

Another thing I always wondered about was where Habermas’ sample fell on the liberal/conservative spectrum. I could not help but think that schools like Bob Jones University might have more scholars working on questions of the historicity of the New Testament than more liberal institutions. Happily, the Habermas article answered that question as well:
A rough estimate of the publications in my study of Jesus’ resurrection among British, French, and German authors (as well as a number of authors from several other countries), published during the last 25 or so years, indicates that there is approximately a 3:1 ratio of works that fall into the category that we have dubbed the moderate conservative position, as compared to more skeptical treatments....
By far, the majority of publications on the subject of Jesus’ death and resurrection have been written by North American authors. Interestingly, my study of these works also indicates an approximate ratio of 3:1 of moderate conservative to skeptical publications, as with the European publications.

Isn’t that interesting? 75% of the sample is composed of moderate Christian conservative publications and 75% of the scholars accept the empty tomb as a fact. That’s a hell of a coincidence! Funny that Licona and Strobel didn’t mention that. Kinda makes Mikey’s majority seem not quite so large.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On Abortion

I generally steer clear of abortion debates, but a discussion on another blog inspired me to share a few thoughts.

About fifteen years ago, my wife had a miscarriage. At the time, we had two small children and my wife had recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness which promised to make her third pregnancy much tougher than the first two. Piled on top of that, I was not going to be able to help out as much as I had with the first two kids because some recent career reversals had me working a lot of hours at a crappy job just to make ends meet. My wife and I never considered an abortion and I have no doubt that I would have loved that child as much as the other two, but I have to confess that my primary reaction to that miscarriage was relief. In light of our situation at the time, I felt like we had finally caught a break.

I suppose there are some who might consider me a monster for feeling the way I did, but I would like to think that most people would view the miscarriage and my feelings about it a private matter between my wife and me. I have known people whose reactions to a miscarriage varied from relief to detached resignation to mourning. I don’t feel that anyone had any right to tell any of them what their reaction should be.

According to some medical experts, 15% of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage and this does not count the women who miscarry without ever realizing they were pregnant. If that many infants suffered crib death, we would consider it tragic and medical science would be striving to find a solution to the problem, but miscarriages draw little attention. In fact, it would be foolish to devote too much effort to eliminating miscarriages because they are often nature’s way of dealing with severe genetic abnormalities.

The point of this is that I think that our natural moral sense (whatever that may be) does not recognize a first trimester fetus as a unique person having the same claim on society’s attention and protection as a baby born alive. I think that this is an innate sense of the thing that has built up over millions of years of evolution. Even many people that would not choose abortion for themselves are never going to feel that this stage of the pregnancy is anything but a private matter.

The anti-abortion crowd asserts that every abortion is the murder of an innocent baby and that the failure to be shocked by this is proof of moral depravity. However, I see no evidence of their dismay at the millions of babies that die through miscarriages or the millions more whose lives are ended when a fertilized egg naturally fails to attach to the uterine wall. Nor do I expect to see such evidence because I think they recognize that these are not yet person who have a claim on society's attention. That does not mean that the pro-life side might not make some powerful arguments when it comes to late term abortions, but 75% of abortions occur at ten weeks or less. The claim that every one of these is the murder of an innocent baby isn’t going to ring true for most people. I personally find it very difficult to attribute the malevolence of a murderer to someone who chooses the result that I was so relieved to obtain by chance.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On Qualifications

Does anyone else appreciate the irony in Republicans whining about the length of Obama's resume? For eight years, the Bush administration has corrupted the government with Brownies and Goodlings who had no qualifications for their jobs other than their willingness to worship at the George W. Bush Cult of Personality. One of my biggest fears about McCain is that he would do nothing to clean out the incompetent ideologues that Bush packed into every department of the government.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Putting Paris Hilton in Perspective

This is one of my favorite clips from the Colbert Report. I love the way Steven Colbert finds himself unable to maintain his persona in the face of Tommy Chong's keen analysis of Paris Hilton's drunk driving arrest. My thanks to the McCain campaign for an excuse to post it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

McCain Will Handle the Swift-Boating Himself

The Washington Post reports that the McCain Charge Against Obama Lacks Evidence. In fact, Obama never intended to turn a visit to wounded troops in Germany into a photo-op. In Iraq, Obama visited wounded troops with no media coverage whatsoever. The media found out about that visit from the military, not from Obama's campaign.

"I know that, according to reports, that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers," McCain said. According to the Washington Post, the McCain campaign has been unable to produce any such reports. "McCain's advisers said they do not intend to back down from the charge, believing it an effective way to create a 'narrative" about what they say is Obama's indifference toward the military."

Sadly, lies often are effective. Unlike Bush, McCain isn't even trying to hide the fact that he is the source of the smears. So much for the "Straight Talk Express."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Was Obama Wrong to Oppose the Surge?

If not for Democratic opposition to the War in Iraq and the American people voting Democrats into office, there would be no surge. Had the Republicans maintained control of Congress, Bush would have stuck with Rumsfeld. Bush did not dump Rumsfeld and switch strategies because he thought he had done anything wrong or because he trusted McCain's leadership and judgement. He did so because the American people demanded a change by electing Democrats who would oppose the failed policies Bush had pursued in Iraq.

So while the surge has turned out better than many (including me) predicted, opposition to the Administration's conduct of the war is the only reason the surge ever came about in the first place and no one need regret that opposition.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Further Thoughts on Textual Reliability

"A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been 'radically altered'.” A Response to Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Thomas Howe, Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Maybe not Dr. Howe, but does 92% average stability support the idea that the New Testament can be relied upon as the inherent and infallible Word of God? 8% instability is about one in twelve, or the odds of rolling a four with a pair of dice in a game Monopoly. Imagine you are the battleship and you are sitting on Atlantic Avenue, but instead of landing on Go to Jail if you roll a four, you land on Go to Hell. You go to hell because there was a one in twelve chance that a verse necessary to properly understand the doctrine of water baptism had been miscopied by an early scribe and you were sprinkled when God wanted you dunked.

When an airline mechanic is checking out an airplane, I want him to be working from schematics and diagrams produced by the plane's manufacturer. I don't want him working from some lecture notes that were recopied several times before he got hold of them. 92% stability isn't going to cut it. The original autographs of the books of the Bible are purported to contain the rule of God for man's faith and life. Properly understanding and applying its teachings determines whether a person spends an eternity in bliss or torment. I wouldn't expect any Christian to get on an airplane with those odds, and I don't see why any Christian would expect me to chance my eternal fate on them.

Apologists tout the notion that no essential Christian doctrines are put in jeopardy by any of the known variants. What about the unknown variants? The 92% stability rate that Dr. Howe cites was based on comparing a sample of second and third century manuscripts to later manuscripts. What about books for which early manuscript evidence is lacking, like Galatians. Even if we accept that 92% stability between the autographs and our present texts, we have no idea where the unknown variants occur.

Of course the apologists respond that the truly essential teachings do not depend on any single verse, but are supported consistently throughout the scriptures. Is this true though? Don't extremely important theological points often depend on a single passage or even a single word? If that passage can only be assigned 92% confidence, what happens to inerrancy and infallibility?

For example, belief in the inspiration of the New Testament relies heavily, if not exclusively, on 2 Peter 3:15-16:
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother
Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same
way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain
some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people
distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Had Peter not referred to Paul's letters as "scripture," Christians would have little if any basis for claiming that the New Testament holds itself to be on a par with the Old Testament as inspired scripture.

As far as I know, there may well be no significant known variants in the early manuscripts of 2 Peter, however, some might consider the book itself to be one big variant. Most modern scholars doubt that Peter wrote either of the epistles attributed to him, but 2 Peter has been in doubt since the first known reference. This occurs in Eusebius' Eccleiastical History written at the end of the third century where he lists it among the "disputed" writings rather than the "recognized" ones. Athanatius included in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D., but the Syrian Christians never accepted it as part of their canon. Somehow, I think the confidence level for the entire book would have to be considerably less than 92% before even considering the possibility of scribal errors.

There is nothing unusual about important doctrines resting on a single ambiguous passage. As I noted in a post last week, the evangelical Christians argument that the New Testament supports capital punishment seems to rest entirely on Romans 13. While their reading of that passage strikes me as more than a little strained, I suppose the odds that the scribes altered the meaning of this passage isn't going to bother anyone who isn't already bothered by the rate of mistakes made by prosecutors and jurors in death penalty cases.

Sometimes a key theological point can rest on a single word. In a post several months ago, I noted the significance that Gary Habermas attaches to Paul's use of the Greek word "historeo" in Galatians 1:18 which describes his meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. According to Habermas, it is this word choice that ties what Paul believed and taught to the the original eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and ministry. I personally don't find his argument terribly persuasive, but even if I did, roll a four and this may be one of those verses that was corrupted by one of the early scribes. The earliest surviving manuscript of Galatians dates from 150 years after Paul wrote it--a lot of trips around the Monopoly board.

The Bible may well be the best attested text in antiquity, but that really isn't saying that much when it purports to be the source of absolute truth on every topic it touches.