Monday, November 30, 2009

Is It Moral to Walk Away From a Mortgage?

Although more than 32% of American homeowners have negative equity, only about one in ten chooses to walk away from their mortgage before being forced to do so by circumstances like job loss. As long as they are able to pay, they continue to do so despite the fact that the economically rational decision would be to turn the keys over to the bank that holds the mortgage and move out.

Felix Salmon of Reuters calls this "The world's largest guilt trip." Last March, Bush's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen insisted that underwater homeowners "who can afford their mortgage should honor their obligations." As Salmon points out though, "he would have fired anyone at Goldman who behaved similarly."

Monday, November 23, 2009

The MSM Myth

If the mainstream media is so damn liberal, why did it spend so much time last week on Sarah Palin's book and Barack Obama's bow to the Emperor of Japan?

For more see Palin's book and Obama's bow: a media week to forget at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (3)

Another argument I have heard is that Paul's writings presuppose a historical Jesus. After all you cannot have a death and a resurrection without a prior life. I think there is some logic to this (although mythers maintain it need not have been an earthly life and death), but I don't see how it helps the case for a historical Jesus.

Paul had an experience on the road to Damascus that he believed to be an encounter with a resurrected Messiah. While this may presuppose that this Messiah had lived and been put to death, it does not presuppose that Paul had any historically reliable evidence for that life and death other than his experience. We could just as well say that Joseph Smith's vision of the Angel Moroni presupposes that a race of native Americans with Caucasian skin tones had lived hundreds of years before his time. So what?

Paul's first source of information about this resurrected Messiah would have been the people he was persecuting prior to his conversion. However, I think experience shows that religious zealots tend not to have reliable information about their victims' beliefs. Jews were believed by their persecutors to be sacrificing Christian babies for their rituals. The Romans thought that early Christians engaged in incest because they called each other "brother" and "sister." The Puritans thought their victims in Salem were witches.

I have often wondered how much of Paul's early information might have come from informants or torture victims who would have been happy to tell Paul any crazy story he wanted to hear. "No. No. I'm not a Christian, but my next door neighbor is and he told me that Jesus appeared to 500 of them at one time!" Would Paul have needed any evidence beyond his vision of the resurrected Jesus to convince him that all the stories he had heard were true?

Christian apologists claim that Paul could have obtained historical information about Jesus when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. Gal. 1:18-24. However, right before he describes that visit, he says "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11-12. Given Paul's superior education and his history of dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him, I cannot help but suspect that it was Paul who did most of the talking at that meeting. Paul was already enjoying success as an evangelist and Peter and James may have been more eager to get on his bandwagon than point out any errors in his historical understanding.

The apologists also point to Paul's later trip to Jerusalem as proof that he got information from the original apostles. "I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain." Gal. 2:2. However, nothing in what Paul writes suggests that he was at all concerned that he had gotten anything wrong. Rather, he was concerned that the guys in Jerusalem were behind the false teachings that were screwing up his work. "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you." Gal. 2:4-5. If the apostles in Jerusalem had disagreed with Paul, it would not have changed his message. "As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews." Gal. 2:6-7. Paul then goes on to describe a later meeting in Antioch where he accuses Peter of hypocrisy. Gal 2:11-21.

Everything that Paul writes indicates that he considers his knowledge and understanding of the gospel to be equal or superior to anyone's based on the revelation that he had received. Had he thought that those with whom he disagreed had been personally taught by Jesus for three years, it is hard to believe that he would not have grappled with the fact that others had sources of knowledge that were not available to him.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (2)

One reason that conservative Christians offer for Paul eschewing discussion of what Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry is that Paul was writing epistles rather than gospels, which I think boils down to the idea that Paul didn't need to reference any of those teachings or activities in order to make his points.

One of the reasons I find this unpersuasive is that even if Paul did not feel the need to quote Jesus, he would have needed to deal with opponents who did. In Galatians, Paul describes his disagreement debate with Peter and James over whether pagan converts needed to be circumcised and observe the Jewish laws. Surely, Paul's opponents would have cited Jesus own words in support of their position:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20. If Jesus' words were known and considered authoritative during Paul's time, it is difficult to see how he could address these issues without touching upon what Jesus had to say on the subject.

I can accept that Paul thought that Jesus was an actual person who had walked the earth, but it is hard for me to see how he could have thought that anyone he knew had personally interacted with Jesus while he had.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (1)

Few scholars of early Christianity seem to have much patience for the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was an entirely mythological invention. More liberal scholars will often acknowledge that the gospel stories may contain so much legendary material that little about the historical Jesus may be known with any certainty, but most of them still seem confident that such a person existed. Conservative Christian scholars, on the other hand, tend to view the idea that Jesus did not exist as a crackpot conspiracy theory.

Conservative Christian bloggers seem to be even more hostile to the Jesus “mythers” (as proponents of the mythological Jesus theory are known in the blogosphere). Even Bible believing bloggers who are generally willing to engage in cordial debate with atheists and agnostics will draw the line at the mythers. In a way, I don’t blame. Some of the mythers roaming the blogosphere can be fairly obnoxious. The worst of them will just repeat their own arguments ad nauseum without addressing the points their opponents make and they will treat any argument that even plausibly seems to favor their side as ironclad proof of their entire position. Of course there are many conservative Christians who act like that as well, and I suspect that such behavior can be found on both sides of every issue that gets debated on the internet.

I don’t consider myself a myther, but I find it hard to discount the possibility that the historical Jesus may be virtually beyond recovery. The main problem I see with the theory of a completely mythological Jesus is that the mythers’ position would have to be the right one on each and every disputed issue while the historical Jesus prevails if the mythers are only wrong once. Still, I find some of the myther arguments really interesting and I like to try to get conservative Christians to respond to them. I have to be careful in how I raise the issue though, lest I be perceived as a lunatic myther rather than a respectful agnostic.

For me, the most interesting point on the myther side of the ledger is that our earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles, don’t demonstrate any knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry prior to the night before he was crucified. Consider all the questions that Paul leaves unanswered:
  • Where was Jesus from? Was it Nazareth, or could he have been from Egypt or Rome, or Schenectady?
  • Where was Jesus crucified? Was it in Jerusalem, or could he have been put to death in Samaria or Damascus, or Poughkeepsie?
  • When did Jesus live and die? Was it a few years before Paul’s time, a few decades before, or more than a century before?
  • How long did Jesus preach and teach before he was arrested?
  • Did any one Paul knew have personal contact with Jesus prior to his resurrection? Did Jesus teach his followers about ethics and morality?
  • Did Jesus say anything about having a divine nature?
For all we know from Paul’s letters, Jesus could have materialized on the earth on the night of the last supper. No events prior to that night seem to matter to Paul. It is only Jesus’ death and resurrection that are significant to Paul but he doesn’t say when those events took place.

The hardcore myther explanation for this lack of detail is that Paul didn’t believe that Jesus was a historical individual at all. According to this theory, Paul’s Jesus was an entirely spiritual being and his death and resurrection played out in some heavenly dimension rather than on earth in first century Palestine. These mythers think that it was the writer of Mark’s gospel who invented an allegorical story about a Jesus who actually walked the earth. While I haven't studied the issues that closely, I cannot help but be struck by the fact that the teachings in Paul’s letters don’t seem to depend on an actual historical person doing or saying any of the things that the gospels say Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry.

So I guess I come down at about the same place on the existence of the historical Jesus as I come down on the existence of God. I’m agnostic. I don’t find the evidence sufficiently compelling in either direction.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Goldman Sachs Doing God's Work?

THE LLOYD’s Prayer

Our Chairman,
Who Art At Goldman,
Blankfein Be Thy Name.
The Rally’s Come. God’s Work Be Done
On Earth As There’s No Fear Of Correction.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Gains,
And Bankrupt Our Competitors
As You Taught Lehman and Bear Their Lessons.
And Bring Us Not Under Indictment.
For Thine Is The Treasury,
The House And The Senate
Forever and Ever.

Found at Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Free Markets v. Competitive Markets

From the Economist's View:

Free markets - where free simply means minimal government involvement - are not necessarily the same as competitive markets. There is nothing that says what many interpret as freeing markets - lifting all government restrictions - will give us competitive markets, not at all. Government regulation (as well as laws, social norms, etc.) is often necessary to help markets approach competitive ideals. Environmental restrictions that force producers to internalize all costs of production make markets work better, not worse. Rules that require full disclosure, or that impose accounting standards help to prevent asymmetric information improve market outcomes. Breaking up firms that are too large prevents exploitation of monopoly power (or prevents them from becoming "too large to fail") which can distort resource flows and distort the distribution of income. Making sure that labor negotiations between workers and firms are on an equal footing doesn't move markets away from an optimal outcome, just the opposite, it helps to move us toward the efficient, competitive ideal, and it helps to ensure that labor is rewarded according to its productivity (unlike in recent years where real wages have lagged behind). There is example after example where government involvement of some sort helps to ensure markets work better by making sure they are as competitive as possible.

The Health Care Crisis in the Suburbs

My wife just donated to a fundraiser for the mother of a boy that my son played basketball and soccer with in grade school. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer but she has no health insurance. She is divorced and she is unemployed because she has spent the last year taking care of her mother who suffers from dementia. At least she has the comfort of living in a country that doesn't infringe on its citizens' freedom by providing government sponsored health care.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 3)

Perhaps the most disingenuous claim that Charlie makes in his WSJ piece is that the United States government was a “co-conspirator” with “the greed merchants.” As I listened to him on his CNBC spots, it seemed clear to me that he viewed the government as bearing primary responsibility as if Wall Street had been duped into generating all those toxic loans and securities. This of course plays perfectly into the conservative thesis that the solution to the problem is to have the government do less to regulate activities on Wall Street. Like the rest of Charlie’s theory, any relationship to reality is coincidental at best.

The government was not a co-conspirator with the greed merchants. The government was the hireling of the greed merchants. It wasn’t some member of Congress who came up with the idea that the country would be better off if Glass-Steagall Act were repealed and then went out to persuade banks to engage in securities underwriting. It was the banks who lobbied the government. It wasn’t the SEC that talked the investment banks into adopting irrationally risky capital ratios. It was the investment banks led by Hank Paulson of Goldman Sachs who lobbied Christopher Cox for the rule change that allowed them to take on more risk.

The government failed not because it induced Wall Street to do things it did not want it to do. It failed because it did whatever Wall Street wanted it to do. The government was the flunky in this conspiracy, not the mastermind. The government was the night watchman who gets a few bucks to leave the door unlocked while the thieves rifle the vault. Like all good flunkies, Charlie figures it should take the fall while the masterminds waltz away with the loot.

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 2)

Charlie’s argument about the government encouraging home ownership is trickier and it requires some consideration of American political history.

It may well be that of all the rights the Founding Fathers sought to protect from government interference, property rights were foremost in their minds. It may also well be that nowhere else in the world could you have found popular support for a revolution based on property rights. In Europe, there were unpopular governments, but in there were also vast segments of the populace who owned no property and had no reasonable prospects of ever obtaining any property. As a result, you couldn’t build an army motivated primarily by the vindication of the right to property.

In America, however, things were different. Thanks to the Indians’ susceptibility to European diseases, there were vast tracts of land there for the taking. Everyone could aspire to own a piece of the land from which he could provide for himself. From this comes Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the ideal citizen as the yeoman farmer. The common man would fight for a government that protected property rights in America because the common man could carve out his own piece of property from the wilderness.

As vast as America might have seemed to the Founding Fathers, it wasn’t unlimited. As immigrants flocked here from Europe, all the good land was eventually taken. As the frontier closed and the poor man no longer had the option of packing up and making a new start out west, it became more difficult to maintain popular support for a government whose sole goal seemed to be the property interests of the wealthy.

Things came to a head in the Great Depression as the last parcels of land that had been available to homesteaders in Oklahoma turned to dust and the citizen farmers that were expected to form the backbone of the republic found themselves on the road. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the government actively intervened in an effort to provide the equality of economic opportunity that had once been available simply by virtue of unoccupied space.

The pendulum always swings though and in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected on a promise to return America to a simpler time when government protected an individual’s property rights and otherwise stayed out of the way. Unfortunately, land was no longer just there for the taking and another method was needed to convince the common man that he shared the wealthy man’s interest in the protection of property. It is no coincidence that the massive expansion of consumer debt started in the Reagan years.

Charlie bemoans the transformation of home ownership from “something that must be earned into something close to a civil right,” an event that he seems to locate during the Clinton administration. What he misses is that the roots of the notion go right back to our founding. You cannot elevate property rights above all else in a democracy if everyone does not have some opportunity to acquire property. The only way to maintain the illusion of the conservatives’ beloved “ownership society” is easy money that makes both the easy credit with which to buy things and the asset bubbles that create the illusion of wealth.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 1)

Consider the following game:

From a standard deck of fifty-two playing cards along with two jokers, I let you pick a card. If the card is a spade, heart, diamond, or club, you receive $20,000. If the card is one of the jokers, you lose $1,000,000. Would you play the game?

Unless you are a fool, you wouldn't. After drawing the entire deck, you would be out $960,000.

Now let's change the game:

You draw cards from the same deck. You still get $20,000 every time you draw a spade, heart, diamond, or club. Now, however, when you draw a joker, you lose half of what you have made up until that point and some unknown innocent party loses $1,000,000. Would you play that game?

If you had some sense of ethics, you might not, however, if you were a Wall Street trader or executive, you would play all day long.

In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed today and frequent spots on CNBC, Charlie Gasparino claimed to have identified the cause of the financial crisis. Anyone who is familiar with those two fonts of wisdom won't be surprised to learn that it wasn't the over-compensated traders and executives on Wall Street who took irrational risks. It was...brace yourself...the government! Specifically, it was the government leading those risks takers to believe that they would get bailed out if their bets went sour and that same government encouraging undeserving peons to believe that home ownership was a right. I will only try to address Charlie's first reason for blaming the government in this post.

The problem with Gasparino's "moral hazard" thesis is that the traders and executives who worked for companies that got bailed out didn't do any better than the ones who worked for companies that didn't get bailed out. Think about it. Bear Stearns got bailed out and Lehman Brothers didn't. However, both Jimmy Cayne and Dick Fuld took a bath on their holdings in company stock as did all the traders and executives in those companies. Moreover, traders and executives in both companies lost their jobs. If the potential for a government bailout played a role in the risks they took on behalf of their companies, why didn't the bailed out executives come out way ahead?

The reason is that the risk that Wall Street traders take is driven by the nature of their compensation packages, not by the possibility of bailouts. Like players in the second game I described, Wall Street executives get paid generously if their bets work out and they have to give up part of what they made if things blow up in their faces. However, it doesn't matter to the executives and traders who takes the loss when they draw the joker. If their company is bailed out, it is the taxpayer. If it is allowed to fail, it is their company's lenders, customers, and counter-parties that take the hit. The executives and traders are indifferent between the two. They will take the risks they do as long as the losses fall somewhere else and that is a function of the manner in which they are compensated, not the extent to which the government backstops the market.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Glenn Beck's Rejection of Rational Thought

On Beck's delusional rantings:
These are postulates that it is only possible to believe after you have utterly closed yourself off to conventional ways of knowing, after you have decided that the reporting and analysis and scholarship on these subjects are not worth reading, and that you will choose ideological fairy tales over reality until the day a magical phone call comes from on high.
Glenn Beck's Hotline to Nowhere by Thomas Frank in today's Wall Street Jounal:

Yesterday's Elections Results

It was very gratifying to see Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin cause the Republicans to lose a congressional seat that they have controlled for over a century. I wonder if they will work their magic in Illinois next year and help elect a Democrat to Obama's former seat. It appears that moderate Republican Mark Kirk is seeking Sarah Palin's endorsement in the hopes of avoiding the fate that befell Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd District.