Friday, July 31, 2009

Did All the New Testament Authors Think that Jesus Was God?

One of the things that stirs up Christian apologists is the suggestion that some of the New Testament authors did not believe that Jesus was God. The Gospel of John seems to teach Jesus’ divinity most clearly:
"I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[d]; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one." Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?" “We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."
John 10:29-33.

The other gospels are much less clear. The passage most frequently cited by apologists as evidence of Christ’s divinity in the Synoptic Gospels is from Mark:
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death.
Mark 16:61-64. The reason that Mark is always cited for this rather than Luke or Matthew is that the Mark is the only one who has Jesus answer the priests’ question with the straight-forward “I am.” The other two have him replying with something along the more enigmatic lines of “you have said it.”

I was recently discussing these two passages with an evangelical blogger who insisted that Mark’s belief in Jesus’ divinity is just as clear as John’s. This just seems silly to me. John has Jesus claim that he is one with God and he has the Jews accuse him of blasphemy for claiming to be God. Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t have the Jewish authorities say exactly what it is that they find blasphemous, whether it is a claim to personal divinity, a claim to divinely bestowed authority, or some perceived insult to the priests and their religion.

The blogger suggested I read Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65 where Darrell Bock explains the Jewish understanding of blasphemy and why the priests saw Jesus statement as being a God-like claim. I found a couple reviews of the book and my curiosity was sufficiently piqued to request the book through inter-library loan, although I’m not sure from the reviews that Bock is making exactly the point that the blogger thinks he is.

Regardless of what Bock has to say, I still see an important distinction between the passages in John and Mark: I don’t need to read a 285 page book to figure out that John thinks that Jesus is God. If Jesus' divinity had been as clear to Mark as it was to John, I can't see why he wouldn't have made it just as clear to his readers.

Health Care Realities

From Paul Krugman:

Right-wing opponents of reform would have you believe that President Obama is a wild-eyed socialist, attacking the free market. But unregulated markets don’t work for health care — never have, never will. To the extent we have a working health care system at all right now it’s only because the government covers the elderly, while a combination of regulation and tax subsidies makes it possible for many, but not all, nonelderly Americans to get decent private coverage.

Now Mr. Obama basically proposes using additional regulation and subsidies to make decent insurance available to all of us. That’s not radical; it’s as American as, well, Medicare.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More on Rescission

Yesterday, I speculated that as many as 10% of the people who purchase individual health insurance policies are effectively uninsured since their health insurance policies are subject to being rescinded if they come down with a serious illness. In Unconscionable Math, Taunter Media suggests that the odds of being rescinded may be as high as 50% for the most seriously ill.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Don't We Hear More About Rescission?

There is an excellent discussion of the rescission problem at The Baseline Scenario.

It works like this:

When a person purchases an individual health insurance policy, the company does not bother to verify the information on the application because it costs money to do so. Instead, the company just accepts the premium figuring there is a decent chance the person will turn out to be healthy anyway.

However, if the individual comes down with a major illness, the cost-benefit equation for the insurance company changes. Now it's worth going over the application with a fine tooth comb because the insurance company can save itself a lot of money if it can find some error on the application no matter how inadvertent. For example, a woman who failed to disclose that she was once treated for acne found her policy rescinded when she came down with breast cancer. People have found their policy canceled based on a notation in a chart that they had never seen.

According to health insurance executives, the rescission rate is less than .5% of policies, or 1 in 200, but that number is irrelevant because most people never get their applications examined because they don't have a major illness. If, for example, only 5% of the policies file a major illness claim each year, then the odds of having your insurance policy canceled when you actually need it is 10%. That would mean that 10% of the people who have individual insurance policies should really be considered uninsured because their coverage is an illusion.

I frequently hear conservatives advocate "market based" health care reform plans that involve consumers purchasing the insurance that "is right for them." None of them discuss the rescission problem, however, which flows naturally and inevitably from the profit motive that is the foundation of free market ideology.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Trying to Get What You Pay For.

A friend of mine on Facebook was complaining that he paid $1400 per month to Humana for rationed health care and still had to spend four hours on the phone last month trying to obtain the benefits he paid for.

I told him "Hey, the CEO of Humana only took home $5.2 million in 2008 after making $10.8 million in 2007. It's not like he's not hurtin' too! How's he going to get back to eight figures if guys like you keep wasting his employees' time?"

Socialist? Obama's Not Even a Liberal

From Bill Maher,

Friday, July 24, 2009

Melisa Francis: CNBC Twit of the Day 7/24/09

Melissa Francis is my twit of the day for writing off the "high frequency trading" story, as some sort of liberal conspiracy. "High frequency trading" or HFT refers to computerized trading strategies that are automatically executed in order to make pennies or fractions of pennies. It is also known as "program trading." By some estimates, three quarters of stock trading volume on any given day are HFT strategies With the demise of its rivals, Goldman Sachs is the dominant player in the field. Bloggers like Zero Hedge have been focusing on the issue for months. I am not yet convinced that this is quite as big a problem a Zero Hedge thinks it is, but I think he is asking a lot of good questions that don't seem to be getting much in the way of answers. He does get a lot of name calling from CNBC including "idiot" from Charlie Gasparino and "dickweed" from Dennis Kneale.

Today, Francis tried to dismiss the story with "Whenever I see these 'high frequency trade" articles come out, all I think is that someone is calling these reporters and making sure that everyone is on this story because they are looking for more regulation of these markets." (3:30) In fact, the reporters are playing catch up with the bloggers who have been on this story for awhile. Francis and her fellow twits at CNBC have been trying to ignore it as it undercuts their ceaseless cheer leading for Wall Street. Other highlights from the segment include Larry Kudlow nodding at Francis' inanity while saying "Right, right," and lickspittle Rick Santelli calling Kudlow "a top economist.

Larry Kudlow almost got my nod for CNBC's biggest jerk for his blathering in the previous segment (2:05) about Microsoft’s “operating system losing market share big time.” When CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman tried to correct him, Kudlow shouted “That is factually true, I’m sorry, that is factually true. First of all, how about Mozilla Firefox? . . . When the Justice Depart tried to break them up fifteen years ago, they had a 90% plus market share. That market share is down to 60%. That is a big swing factually.” In fact, Microsoft still controls 91% of the operating system market. It also controls 72% the browser market. It is not just that Kudlow doesn't know the difference between a browser and an operating system that bothers me. It's the fact that CNBC gives him free reign to shout whatever comes into his head regardless of the expertise of the person he is shouting over.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wall Street Screws Over Small Businesses

Many business pundits have been lauding the fact that the private sector came up with $3 billion to bail out CIT so the government did not have to. As I understand it, the Wall Street bond firms that came up with the money got CIT to pledge all the assets it had left which consisted mostly of accounts receivable that were sold (or factored) to CIT by small businesses. That means that when CIT goes into bankruptcy, which still seems likely, those Wall Street bond firms will be ahead of the small businesses that are trying to get their accounts receivable back. If this is right (which is certainly debatable), the private sector bailout was just a scam to gain priority in bankruptcy and the small businesses who thought they were borrowing money from CIT will find that they were actually lending money to CIT.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care and Car Repairs

I have lived in the same Chicago suburb for going on twenty-five years. For the first twenty of those years, I never had a car mechanic that I really trusted. I would ask friends who they used but when I had to have a car fixed, I was never sure whether I was getting taken. I could compare prices, but the problem was that I had no way to be sure whether the mechanic was finding extra things wrong just to run up the bill. It's not that I am particularly ignorant about cars either. Back in the 1970's I used to help my brother with the various $200 clunkers he liked to buy. Engines were much less complicated in those days.

A few years back, however, I got lucky. One of my son's friend's father is a mechanic and he recommended a mechanic I had never heard of before. I have been thrilled ever since. He does the work I ask him to do without coming up with a list of things that need to be fixed every time I bring a car in. As both my wife and I have cars that are over ten years old, I am sure that he has saved me a lot of money. The couple times he has advised me to have something fixed other than the problem for which I brought the car in, I have been reasonably confident that it was something that truly needed to be done.

I was thinking about this today when I was considering the absurdity of the notion that health care costs could be brought down by free market forces if people shopped more wisely. It took me twenty years to find a mechanic I trust because I lack the expertise to challenge a mechanic's judgment. How could I ever decide whether a doctor was ordering unnecessary tests to line his own pockets?

Blue Dog Democrats Can't Afford to Offend the Healthcare Industry

Interesting article by David Sirota over at Smirking Chimp explaining that the opposition to health care reform coming from Blue Dog Democrats has more to do with their need for money than their constituents opinions about health care.
The Villagers in the D.C. media (ie. the power-worshiping pundits and journalists who preen around the nation's capital telling the Rest of Us what to think) continue to claim that "Blue Dogs" and "conservative Democrats" come from "moderate districts," and this is supposed to clearly explain their opposition to health care reform and progressive taxation to pay for said health care reform. These Democrats are just representing their culturally conservative constituents who not only like guns and hate abortion, but allegedly love the health-insurance companies so much they are threatening an electoral backlash against legislators who refuse to act like health-industry harlots!
The Blue Dogs come from comparatively poor areas where rising health care costs hurt the most. Unfortunately the poverty makes it harder the Blue Dogs to raise the campaign donations they need in order to get reelected so they whore themselves out to the health care industry.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Market Works Its Healthcare Magic

From today’s Chicago Tribune front page: “They authorized back surgery but denied his $148,000 claim.
Michael Napientek of Clarendon Hills was in excruciating pain and needed back surgery. His wife has worked in the health-care field for 30 years and thought she knew how to navigate the insurance bureaucracy.
Before Napientek was wheeled into an operating room Oct. 27, his doctor obtained a preauthorization number. The surgery went well, and within weeks Napientek was feeling much better.
Until April. That's when the couple began receiving a series of letters from the insurance administrator with chilling news: Claims for the surgery had been denied, leaving them on the hook for the heart-stopping total of $148,000.
Happily for Napientek, the columnist who writes The Tribune’s “Problem Solver” column was able to get the matter reviewed by UnitedHealth, the parent company of the firm that administered Napientek’s claim. Of course, when UMR decided to pay the claim it insisted that it had nothing to do with the possibility of appearing on the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper. It was mere coincidence that it happened to complete its review within a couple days of being contacted by The Tribune.

Conservative love to invoke the boogey men of government bureaucrats making decisions that should be made by doctors and patients as if insurance company bureaucrats are benevolently devoted to the well-being of patients. BTW, the CEO of UnitedHealth made $8.2 million dollars over the last two years. Let’s hope his bonus isn’t hurt too much this year.

Rightwing Healthcare Crap

Citing an article in the Daily Mail, blogger Meredith Jessup declares “Foreshadowing Report: UK Health System Failing Patients”:
A new study by Britain's National Audit Office reports that patients suffering from agonizingly painful rheumatoid arthritis are having to wait an average of nine months to receive treatment. Apparently the fact that UK health guidelines specifically state that no patient should wait for treatment longer than three months following initial symptoms is not enough to speed up the process. "On average it takes four visits before a patient is referred to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment."
That sounds pretty bad, however, if you read the Daily Mail article, you find that a big part of the problem is that people don’t seek treatment quickly enough. “[P]atients do not know enough about the condition, and therefore delay going to see their GP. Between half and three-quarters of people with symptoms wait more than three months before seeking medical help, and about a fifth delay for a year or more.” Contrary to the Townhall blog, no one is having to wait. Most of the patients don't get treatment within the recommended time because they don't seek it.

The part about it taking four visits sounds bad though. Surely things are better in the United States than in Britain. Not according to the Arthritis Foundation in the United States: "Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis is a process. There isn’t a sure-fire test that can tell you positively that you have RA. Instead your doctor relies on a number of tools to help him determine the best treatment for your symptoms." Apparently, even doctors in the United States often have to consider the patient’s symptoms at more than one visit.

One conservative blogger I follow found evidence that doctors are poorly trained in the statement that "GPs lack the specialist knowledge required to diagnose the condition quickly." Isn't that what makes the general practitioners rather than specialist? GP's have general knowledge and specialists have specialist knowledge.

What you have here is right wingers assuming that the only possible explanation for people having health problems in Britain is the failure of socialized medicine without actually reading and understanding the article they cite.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buchanan's Error on Affirmative Action

I just watched Pat Buchanan on Rachel Maddow’s show railing against discrimination against white males. In Pat’s mind, there is no difference whatsoever between the discrimination that Black’s and Hispanic’s suffered in the past and the discrimination that a white man suffers when a promotion that he feels he deserved goes to a minority. Pat’s sees them as equally unjust.

There is another concept of justice that doesn’t seem to figure in Buchanan’s analysis, i.e., corrective justice. Corrective justice is the concept that when a wrong has been done, there must be a remedy that puts the wronged party in the position he would have been in had the wrong not been done. It is the basic concept underlying the computation of damages in tort and contract law. The idea is simple. It is not enough to simply cease doing the wrong. If I have been stealing eggs from my neighbor’s henhouse for the last year, I don’t do justice simply by stopping. I must compensate him for the eggs that I stole.

As nice as it would be if we could simply decide that all decisions in the future will be made on a color blind basis, that does not constitute justice because it does not put the wronged parties in the position that they would have been had the wrong not been done. It is unfortunately the case that any remedy for past racial discrimination must necessarily take race into account. So while I am sure we all appreciate Pat’s generosity in allowing Blacks and Hispanics to be considered on an equal basis in the future, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

None of this is intended to suggest that affirmative action is in fact the proper way or even a reasonable way to address the injustices that have been done in the past. The people who benefit are not necessarily the ones who suffered as a result of the injustice and the people who are penalized are not necessarily the ones who are responsible for the injustice and may not even have benefited from it. Nevertheless, Buchanan’s notion that we just wipe the slate clean doesn’t work either.

Let’s Tax the Hell Out of These Guys

Matt Taibbi details some of the various ways in which Goldman Sachs’ record profits and very existence are the result of government largess:
The AIG bailout. Goldman might have gone out of business last year if AIG had been allowed to proceed to an ordinary bankruptcy, as AIG owed Goldman about $20 billion at the time it went into a death spiral.
The Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. So Goldman last year converts from an investment bank to bank holding company status, which now makes it eligible for a new program that gives commercial banks FDIC backing for unsecured debt. This is not a direct subsidy in the sense of us actually handing over a bunch of money to Goldman, but it’s almost better, in a way. This basically hands over a free AAA rating to the big banks and allows them access to mountains of cheap money, with all of us on the hook if something went wrong. . . .
The Fed Programs. By converting to a bank holding company, Goldman also became eligible for a whole galaxy of new bailout programs administered through the federal reserve like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF); it also became eligible to borrow cheap money from the Fed’s discount window. . . .
TARP Repayment Bonanza. . . . As part and parcel of the TARP program, the banks that received money had strict guidelines imposed on them by the state in the area of how they could raise the money to repay. TARP recipients had to issue new equity according to certain parameters, and guess who one of the only major equity underwriters left on Wall Street is? That’s right, Goldman, Sachs.
Year to date, Goldman Sachs has paid out $11.36 billion in compensation. Even The Wall Street Journal is pissed off about how much money these guys are making.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kicking Around Palin

I have been reading Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein and I was struck by how completely the political pundits wrote Nixon off after he lost the California’s gubernatorial race in 1962 and announced “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Is the current certitude that Sarah Palin has ruined her chances for higher office similar wishful thinking? Pat Buchanan seems to think so, and he should know. He helped Nixon exploit the same working class white resentment that Palin feeds off.

The most important difference between Nixon and Palin is that Nixon was a genius—an evil and paranoid genius but a genius all the same—while Palin is a nitwit. Nixon understood the populist appeal of railing against elitism, but he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He understood economics and foreign policy and how to make himself palatable to whatever constituency’s support he was seeking. It is difficult for me to believe that Palin will ever be able to broaden her appeal simply because she would rather have narrow adulation than broad respect.

Peggy Noonan wrote a devastating critique of Palin in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend.
“In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. She was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions, and sometimes in knowing them. She couldn't say what she read because she didn't read anything. She was utterly unconcerned by all this and seemed in fact rather proud of it: It was evidence of her authenticity. She experienced criticism as both partisan and cruel because she could see no truth in any of it. She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough. Her presentation up to the end has been scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence. "I'm not wired that way," "I'm not a quitter," "I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm.
In another age it might not have been terrible, but here and now it was actually rather horrifying.
Noonan is of course being vilified by the Palinists, but as a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, her conservative credentials seem pretty solid.

Reagan of course was also a master at exploiting white working class resentment. I have always thought it pretty “horrifying” that he launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech supporting “state’s rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, but I guess that didn’t bother Noonan. Reagan was never particularly well known for his command of the facts either, but he was capable of speaking in complete sentences. He also surrounded himself with advisors who knew things about the areas in which he was ignorant.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Explaining Away the Failure of Markets

Yesterday, I ran across a research paper published by The Federal Reserve Bank of New York that struck me as rather bizarre:
This article argues that the current housing crisis stemmed in large measure from a change in economic fundamentals and was only exacerbated by credit market conditions. Indeed, what appear in retrospect to be relatively lax credit conditions in the early part of this decade may have emerged in part because of then-justifiable, although ultimately misplaced, optimism about income growth. The subsequent credit crunch can be traced at least in part to a productivity slowdown that began in 2004 but was likely not recognized until 2007. With the slowdown in productivity came slowdown in the growth and expected future growth of income, which helped to stifle the housing boom and jeopardize mortgages and other investments predicated on ongoing growth. Thus, the U.S. housing sector served as the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft,” providing the earliest indication of a deterioration in underlying economic conditions.
Productivity Swings and Housing Prices, by Professor James A. Kahn of Yeshiva University, in Current Issues in Economics and Finance, Vol. 15, No. 3.

Here is what Professor Kahn seems to be saying: the mortgage brokers that sold zero down payment liar ARM’s weren’t relying on their ability to resell the loans to some investment bank, and the bank wasn’t relying on its ability to repackage the loans and sell them as mortgage backed securities to fixed income investors who were desperate for yield in the low rate environment being artificially maintained by Alan Greenspan, and the investors weren’t relying on the na├»ve belief that housing prices never go down to compensate for complete ignorance about the content of those securities, and the original borrowers were not counting on both permanent low rates and rising prices to allow them to refinance when the teaser rate ran out. IN FACT, according to Kahn, they were all relying on continued productivity gains leading to income gains that would justify the prices being paid for the houses. Unfortunately, they were relying on faulty productivity data.

I may have misunderstood Professor Kahn's point (since I did not think his paper made any sense), but this strikes me as little more than an attempt at misdirection. Rather than recognizing the current crisis as a massive systemic failure occasioned by three decades of a laissez-faire regulatory philosophy predicated on blind faith in the magic of the markets, Professor Kahn would have us believe that this was simply the normal functioning of the economic cycles exacerbated by a glitch in the economic data. Hey, shit happens!

The thing that makes me particularly skeptical about Kahn’s thesis is the fact that he takes for granted the connection between productivity growth and income growth. I don’t claim to be up on all the literature in the field, but I am pretty sure that this is a controversial issue among economists. Take a look for example at Where Did the Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income which argued that only the top 10% of the income distribution that actually enjoyed the benefits of increased productivity. It seems like a bit of a stretch to suggest that the housing bubble was actually a rational market response to a econometric relationship that might not even have existed in the first place.

As regulatory reform is debated, I have a feeling that we will see more papers mining the data in the hopes of finding some way to shift the blame for the economic crisis away from Wall Street and the regulators who went along for the ride.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Larry Kudlow: CNBC Jerk of the Day 7/7/09

For the biggest jerk on CNBC today, I have to go with Larry Kudlow for his mindless response to the possibility that the Obama administration might consider enforcing our nation's antitrust laws for the first time in thirty years. Kudlow went on a rant in a conversation with CNBC political analyst John Harwood. "I've got to ask you: front page, Wall Street Journal, a new antitrust jihad against businesses. Look its businesses that create jobs. I assume all the smart people in the White House know that. Phone companies, drug companies, Google, airlines, multinational firms, plus a hike in the minimum wage. John, without business, you can't have a new job. Why are they waging jihads against business?"

Not surprisingly, Kudlow was speechless when Harwood calmly explained the logic behind antitrust enforcement. "I think their argument Larry is that moving on antitrust issues creates competition which in the long run will reduce costs even if its uncomfortable for those existing businesses." Co-host Melissa Francis also seemed to be amazed by Harwood's response. "John, I loved your answer on the fly there."

Later in the day, Michelle Cabruso-Cabrera was similarly taken aback when Harold Feld pointed out that fostering competition by enforcing antitrust laws might help the economy. "Christine Varney [of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division] said it best: 'antitrust is the best stimulus. If you want to see venture capitalists putting money in the market. If you want to create jobs. You've got to give new entrants a chance. For that, you need strong antitrust.'" "Wow!" responded Cabruso-Cabrera, "I'm very impressed Harold. We're going to have to have you back."

What frustrates me most about so many of the idiots on CNBC is that they don't think they need to have any command of the issues. All they figure they have to do is repeat their mantra "Government bad, business good. Government bad, business good. Government bad, business good." Given all the problems that have been created by businesses that are "too big to fail," you would think that the notion of enforcing antitrust laws would not be so astounding to the on-air personalities at the leading business network.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Reagan's Evolution

The man who saw big business as an unalloyed evil and government as the savior of the people could believe the complete opposite a few years later without ever entertaining the possibility that the truth might lie somewhere in the middle.
The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America by Michael Kleinknecht

Friday, July 3, 2009

Palin Thinking in Tongues

When I was in college, I had a physics professor from Korea whose language skills left something to be desired. Periodically he would stop speaking in the middle of a sentence and the class would be left hanging. I always assumed that he was thinking in Korean and translating it into English as he went along, but would stop when he had finished a thought in Korean even if it didn't make a complete sentence in English.

I got a similar feeling listening to Sarah Palin explain her reasons for resigning today. It seems like she isn't thinking in the same language that she's speaking in.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Not a Great First Step

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Sanford said a woman he visited last month in Argentina is his soul mate, but he is trying to fall back in love with his wife.

I'm no marriage counselor, but I can't help but think that your chances of salvaging your marriage are a lot better if you describe your mistress as a "foolish mistake" or a "mid-life crisis" rather than a "soul mate."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Whining Losers at the Wall Street Journal

Among the outrages perpetrated by newly certified Minnesota Senator Al Franken according to an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal:
The Franken legal team swarmed the recount, aggressively demanding that votes that had been disqualified be added to his count, while others be denied for Mr. Coleman.
I cannot help but wonder what the Journal thinks Coleman’s legal team was doing for the last eight months.