Thursday, April 30, 2009

The AEI Wants Me to Be Happy

In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray explained how the social safety net in Europe robs people of the chance to lead a meaningful life:
The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality--it drains some of the life from them. It's inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won't get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it's so much fun to respond to our neighbors' needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won't get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met--family and community really do have the action--then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

All I can say is that I sure am glad that I have Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute around to make sure that I have enough trouble in my life to keep it meaningful. Heaven forbid that I not have the deep sense of purpose that comes with worrying about losing my health insurance or watching my retirement go down the drain or struggling to figure out how I am going to get my kids through college. How empty my life would be without those concerns.

Just to make everyone's life even more full, maybe we could bring back some troubles that we were foolish enough to eradicate. Maybe we could bring back polio, small pox, and whooping cough so we could all enjoy the satisfaction of nursing a sick child back to health. Of course, losing a couple of children to disease makes a parent just appreciate the ones that are left that much more.

Human history has been a series of obstacles overcome starting with the first caveman who made a tool or started a fire. With each and every innovation, the next guy down the line had one less obstacle that he had to overcome and his life was a little easier. Although I tend to think that the supply of obstacles is inexhaustable, I suppose there may come a point at which the lack of obstacles makes it difficult for the next guy to live a meaningful life. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of pompous blowhards from conservative thinktanks who have the unmitigated call to tell others what troubles they need to overcome in order for their lives to have meaning.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Origin of Financial Crisis

I just finished reading The Origin of Financial Crisis by George Cooper and I highly recommend it. He explains very clearly how the basic laws of supply and demand are distorted by the use of leverage.

Let's start out by considering the case of a simple product like a loaf of bread. If the price of bread rises, the baker bakes more loaves thereby increasing the supply while buyers substitute other goods causing the price to return to its equilibrium level.

However, when you consider leveraged investments, the laws of supply and demand don't work in the same way. If the price of a piece of mortgaged real estate rises, the owner's equity in the asset rises. This makes him a better credit risk which induces the bank to offer him more credit at better rates. This in turn increases demand for real estate which lifts the price thereby starting the same cycle over again.

By the same token, when the price falls, the owner becomes under-collateralized. This makes him a worse credit risk causing the bank to demand more collateral and a higher rate of interest. This forces the sale of real estate thereby lowering the price and reinforcing the cycle.

As a result, the laws of supply and demand don't have the same effect on a leveraged investment that they have on a simple good like a loaf of bread. In the latter case, the market finds an equilibrium. In the former case, prices changes reinforce themselves.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mark Haines: CNBC Dumbass of the Day 4/24/09

Mark Haines distinguished himself today with a level of partisan stupidity that was impressive even by CNBC standards. The subject was whether allowing banks to repay TARP money might leave them with insufficient capital to withstand continued deterioration in the economy. Bloviated Haines "I can’t help but be cynical about this, sounds to me like the government just wants to keep their hooks in them." When Steve Liesman pointed out that the administration has a lot of things it would rather be pursuing than babysitting banks, Haines answered "It certainly appears to me that the government is relishing the power it has right now."

What a dumbass! No one who voted for Obama wanted him to have to devote this much effort to keeping the banking system afloat just as no one wanted to see him having to spend this much time keeping the auto manufacturers from collapsing. No one is happy about this.

Haines demonstrated his ability to throw the last two years down the memory hole with his insistence that the banks should be able to pay back TARP funds even if it left them undercapitalized. "If Jamie Dimon or Blankfine or whomever wants to give the government its damn money back, I don't see how that's a problem. . . . It's there bank. Do you think they want to drive themselves off a cliff?"

They don't want to drive themselves off the cliff, but Wall Street bankers have demonstrated that they are perfectly willing to risk it in order to line their own pockets. In House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, William D. Cohan details how the executives at Bear Stearns let things spin out of control rather than raise necessary capital that might dilute their control and decrease their bonuses. Wall Street bankers will be happy to put the financial system at risk by operating with insufficient capital if it means that they can go back to looting their companies.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Did the Apostle's Die for a Lie?

Would the apostles willingly die for their belief in the resurrection if they knew it to be a lie?

Maybe not. However, they might willingly die for their belief in the teachings of Jesus about the coming Kingdom of God regardless of whether the resurrection happened in the way the gospels tell the story.

The apostles had personally experienced a truly extraordinary person and believed his teachings. They sincerely believed in the coming Kingdom of God and the crucifixion did not change the significance of those teachings for them. However, the crucifixion did change the significance of those teachings for every everyone else. For those who had not encountered this amazing individual personally, the crucifixion demonstrated that he was nobody.

The apostles had to convince people that Jesus’ teachings transcended his death as they truly believed they had. So they started telling people that Jesus himself had transcended his death. At first, they may have simply spoken in a fuzzy way about how they continued to feel the presence of his spirit which probably would have been completely true. However, they quickly found that when they added content and details to Jesus’ continued presence, people were much more receptive to listening to Jesus’ ethical teachings. So they continued to expand those details because they believed the ends justified the means. They believed that the most important thing was that people understand Jesus' teachings They may even have convinced themselves of the reality of the appearances.

This is what mythology is all about; people embracing stories for their ability to communicate deeper truths rather than their ability to communicate accurate factual information. The men who spread the story that Pat Tillman died at the hands of the enemy rather than in a friendly fire incident probably did not see themselves as disseminating untruths. They no doubt believed that their version of events more accurately captured Tillman’s heroism as well as the courage of the men he fought with. They also probably knew that his character was in no way diminished by the fact that he died in an unfortunate accident. Nevertheless they told the story in the way that best communicated the truths that they believed to be most important.

The apostles’ willingness to die for their faith may have had nothing to do with the resurrection and everything to do with the message they had heard first hand from Jesus.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Do the Women Disprove the Empty Tomb?

One of the most common arguments in apologetics is that early Christians never would have invented the detail of women being the first to discover the empty tomb. The theory is that in first century Palestine, women were considered unreliable witnesses so anyone inventing the story of the empty tomb would have had men finding it in order to give it more credibility. They only would have had women finding it if it really happened that way.

Consider this hypothesis though:

Mark invents the story of the empty tomb in 65 A.D. Prior to that time, no one had ever worried about what happened to Jesus' body between the crucifixion and the time he started appearing to his disciples.

Mark's audience says "How come we never heard this before? Peter never mentioned it."

Mark thinks about it for awhile and a little light bulb (or candle) appears above his head. "Peter didn't know about it. These silly unreliable women were the ones who found the empty tomb and they ran off without telling anyone.1 We just found out about it."

Mark's audience replies, "Sure. That could happen."

Couldn't the fact that women were considered unreliable witnesses be the very reason that Mark included them in the story rather than an indication that the story is true?

As Luke, Matthew, and John added details to the story, they brought men into the picture in order to make it more credible. Nevertheless, they didn't feel quite comfortable getting rid of the women getting there first. Maybe people liked that part of the story so much that they figured they should just stick with it.

1 Most textual scholars believe that Mark's gospel originally ended with "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Mark 16:8. The earliest and best manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Silly Argument for the Empty Tomb

If the Jews or Romans had produced the body of Jesus, Christianity would have been immediately disproved.

This has always struck me as a very weak argument.

I don’t think that the Roman practice was to prove to troublemakers that their beliefs were incorrect. Rather, the Roman practice was to prove that their beliefs were ill advised. They did this by hanging a bunch of them on crosses, sacking a town or two, and shipping a couple of boatloads off into slavery. If Paul is any example, the Jewish authorities weren’t much into persuasion either.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Larry Kudlow: CNBC Jackass of the Day 4/9/09

In response to Jim Kramer's debacle on the Daily Show, CNBC has been running a new series of ads touting its infotainers tough street cred, but it has not done a thing about the mindless cheerleading of Larry Kudlow. Watch him shout over Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets (at the 2:20 mark) for remaining skeptical about whether the mortgage banking has turned a corner "You're missing the key point! Markets work!"

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On the Reporting of Miracles

I once met a man who said that God had fixed his vacuum cleaner. He told this story at a men’s retreat I attended at a Catholic church. He didn’t explain what was wrong with the vacuum and he did not suggest any purpose God might have had for performing this miracle. He insisted, however, that given the nature of the malfunction, there was no possible explanation other than divine intervention for the fact that the vacuum began working again.

The thing is that other than believing that God did not share nature’s antipathy towards vacuums, the guy seemed like a perfectly sane and sober person. He was just one of those people who had the propensity to see God’s supernatural hand in every quirk and coincidence in his life. One reason I am skeptical about the miracle stories in the gospels is that I cannot help but think that the first people who told the stories as well as the people who passed them along may not have looked very hard for a natural explanation for whatever it was they had observed.

I am always fascinated by the reasons Christians give for believing in the accuracy of the gospels. One fellow suggested that Luke “comes across as delivering a very careful second hand account of the events in question.” Another said that the New Testament writers “state the miracle of Jesus' Resurrection as an actual historical event and talk about it with the same candidness they do about other events they record.” In The Case for Christ, Craig Blomberg asserted that the gospels are written in a “sober and responsible fashion.”

I cannot help but wonder how the historical or literary criteria were established that enable apologists to distinguish between an account of a first century miracle that is based on careful investigation and eyewitness testimony and an account of a first century miracle that is based on a story that has been told and retold multiple times before reaching the person who writes it down. Wouldn’t you need a sample of verified miracle accounts whose characteristics could be compared with a sample of unverified accounts? On what other basis could you assert that any particular miracle story sounded true?

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Bible Only Gives One Side of the Story

One thing I rarely see addressed by Christian apologists is the problem created by the fact that only one side of the story survives.

Suppose that the only extant accounts of the lead up to the Iraq War were written by Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Doug Feith. For than matter, suppose the only ones that survived were written by Michael Moore, Keith Olberman, and Dennis Kucinich. Each side would have vastly different ideas about which facts people needed to know in order to understand how the United States came to invade Iraq. The liberals’ set of facts would overlap with the conservative’s set in places and each side would probably include a few facts detrimental to its position in order to appear objective, but there would be a large group of important facts that would be ignored by one side and an equally large group ignored by the other.

I was thinking about this in connection with the willingness of the disciples to die for their beliefs which is so often touted by Christians as evidence of their sincere belief in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus. Without getting into the question of how that willingness can be proved as to any specific belief in the first place, I wonder how many of Jesus’ followers weren’t willing to die for their beliefs. There might have been dozens or hundreds of followers we never heard about who went back to their fishing boats and farms after the crucifixion.

I can just imagine a bunch of guys in the upper room shouting “I see him! I see Jesus!” and an equally large bunch saying to themselves “These guys are nuts! I don’t see anything.” These guys would never have bothered to write their stories. They would have slipped out and returned to their homes without telling anyone they had ever been there. Even if they had told their stories, the believers wouldn’t have bothered to preserve them.